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Keep Calm, but Stay Alert!

This week, we saw our first real glimpse into the Trump Administration’s budgetary priorities and I think it’s critical to know and understand that this is the very first, preliminary step in what will undoubtedly be a very long process.

Depending on your personal priorities, it’s easy to understand how someone could be alarmed or elated by the news of this release; however, it’s important to monitor this process, understand it, and know where, when and how to insert yourself into the conversation.  And even though it might feel like there is no way to do that, there is – just keep calm, and stay alert!

The Trump Administration’s release of the blueprint was simply an overview – without much detail – on his “America First” budget.  The blueprint does suggest an intent to reduce the size of government by implementing major cuts, but more importantly, because it was simply a blueprint, the plan released this week is devoid of detail.  The plan only addresses discretionary spending (about 1/3 of the budget).  It did not address any mandatory or entitlement spending – a category that contains major programs like Medicare, Medicaid, student loans, and farm price supports. Nor did the proposal include anything on the revenue side of the books.

The budget blueprint proposed very significant cuts to numerous non-defense discretionary programs, with the Environmental Protection Agency, the State Department and related international programs, the Department of Agriculture, and the Department of Labor facing the largest proposed reductions.

It is important to know that legislative branch of government is the only branch that can spend money – no matter what the president suggests in his budget submission.  As such – getting to know your congressional representatives and obtaining the facts on the budget as it makes its way through Congress will be critical.

Your elected officials need to hear from you, because the release of the president’s budget proposal is not the end, it’s only the beginning of this process.

Frankly, it is hard to believe that any staunch conservative is happy with this proposal.  Sure, they might be happy with an increase in defense and security spending, but it is derelict not to address the deficit, entitlement reform, or mandatory spending.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, cutting major resources from health and human services programs, foreign assistance, and health initiatives while only re-directing those resources to defense spending cannot possibly sit well with liberals in Congress.

For any of these initiatives to be implemented, a budget must be passed, and members of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees, the committee of jurisdiction over drafting the legislation that allocates specific sums for discretionary programs each year, must make their initial moves.  Please note that although Congress has this authority, and is unlikely to accept the president’s suggestions as submitted, historically, the president’s budget proposal can influence the spending levels Congress ultimately adopts.

But safeguards do exist –

  • First, do not underestimate your voice – know the part(s) of the budget you are interested in, develop clear talking points and start calling your representatives;
  • Democrats retain the ability to filibuster appropriations bills in the Senate, and in 2015, they were very successful at maintaining a unified position that they would not consider any appropriations measures on the floor of the Senate until there was an agreement to treat defense and non-defense discretionary spending similarly;
  • Caps on discretionary spending put in place by the Budget Control Act in 2011 would prevent the kind of increases to defense spending proposed by Trump unless the caps are relaxed or the funding is channeled through the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account, which does not count against the BCA limits; and
  • Finally, Republicans in the House and Senate, especially members of the Appropriations Committees, are hardly united behind the President’s proposed budget plan and have already raised concerns about the plan.

 

 

 

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America Deserves Better

I recently facilitated a Sunday School class at my church on the faith and politics.  During our two weeks together, the class wrestled with the question “How does our faith call us to engage in politics?”  Preparing for the class was very difficult for me as I struggled to balance my life and career on Capitol Hill with the core principles I have embraced along my faith journey.  At the end of the day, I concluded that it was not so much how our faith calls us to engage in politics, but rather how we engage one another at the place where our faith and politics intersect.

With that as a point of reference, I am terribly saddened that American politics may have hit an all-time low.  Yet, I remain ever hopeful that together, we can shift the dialogue during the final five weeks of the 2016 Election cycle.

In many respects, the tone of the election is an reflection of the electorate.  I am not trying to minimize the nature of concern of the American people, but we are so far off track and it seems as if no one cares. We can and must change the course of the conversation.

I want a Presidential candidate who is humble, visionary, empathetic, possesses leadership characteristics, and has a moral compass.  I want a natiounknownnal dialogue on gun violence, job creation, reducing the national debt, entitlement reform, international conflicts (and how they impact American national security), and racial tensions in America – among many other important topics.  We deserve nothing less.

I reject the argument that Americans are satisfied selecting a Presidential candidate without knowing where he completely stands on important issues of the day.  I refuse to believe that we – the American people – are satisfied with “non-answer” answers to critical issues. And I categorically reject the notion that we are satisfied with candidates who continually re-write history, lie about their answers, make up facts, refuse to be transparent, and inject flippant, erratic, and hateful speech in public presentations to win over the electorate.

Why is this acceptable?  I cannot answer that question, but I can try in my little part of the world to demand more.  I am owed that from those seeking elected office, and frankly, the stakes are too high. The next president of the United States will inherit a plethora of problems that must be addressed with a steady, educated, well versed, tempered and visionary voice.

Instead of talking about these issues, today’s morning news reported on the early morning twitter rant of a man who hopes to occupy the White House. Obviously Mrs. Clinton hit a nerve at the debate with her apparent trap of bringing up the Alicia Machado matter.  If Hillary Clinton is able to set and execute such an obvious distraction, what will happen on the world stage during a Trump presidency?  What will happen when Congress rejects a Trump proposal?  What will happen when we try to have a real debate on serious issues and something gets under Trump’s skin?

A three o’clock tirade about Alicia M three days after the debate is just the latest example of how the American people have allowed the most important election in our country to be degraded into a junk-yard dog, Jerry Springer type of reality television fight.  And I for one am tired of it.  It must stop.  No matter who you support, plan to support, or are thinking of supporting, I think we can all agree that this is not the type of political engagement that we should settle for.  It is too important.

If we do not change course quickly and demand more from these candidates, when the final episode of this series airs, the American people will be left with the reality they complacently sat by and allowed to unfold.

 

 
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Posted by on September 30, 2016 in Life, Politics

 

It Should be about Accountability….

Once again, I wish we could just get to the heart of the matter and strip away the comments that tend to color our arguments and incite the opposition unnecessarily.

I am certain I do not have all the facts, but what I do know is that there is some honest question and doubt over the way in which a Planned Parenthood is currently operating. The debate around this matter should not be a conversation about health care for women or the funding of abortions in the United States. The debate should strip away that rhetoric and focus on what is right and wrong.

Because of that simple fact, we need to take stock in some facts before acting. Let’s try to do that –

  • Planned Parenthood uses both Federal and non-Federal funds to provide a range of important preventive care and health services, including health screenings, vaccinations, and check-ups to millions of men and women who visit their health centers annually.
  • The reality is that PPFA provides contraceptive services, sexually transmitted disease services, cancer related services, pregnancy/prenatal/midlife services, abortion services, and other services.
  • Planned Parenthood conducts 1 million screenings for cervical cancer, and 830,000 breast exams annually.
  • Planned Parenthood conducts roughly 300,000 abortions annually, among the 5 million people the organization serves (26% of which are teenagers under the age of 19), and due to restrictions, federal resources are not used to fund abortion services.
  • Planned Parenthood is a federation of nearly 85 independent Planned Parenthood affiliates around the U.S.
  • Planned Parenthood is staffed by 27,000 staff members and volunteers.
  • According to the organization, 75% of their clients have incomes at or below 150 percent of the federal poverty level.
  • Planned Parenthood’s net revenue increased 5% to total of $1.21 billion in its organizational fiscal year ending on June 30, 2013, according to the most recent annual report I could find. About 45% of that revenue–$540.6 million–was provided by taxpayer-funded government health services grants.

I do not think that anyone could argue that Planned Parenthood doesn’t serve a sector of our society that desperately needs healthcare services. But there are a few other facts that we need to consider as well:

  • Someone at Planned Parenthood messed up – they were caught on tape implying, saying or admitting to things that may or may not be at the core of the organization’s goals and objectives.
  • Planned Parenthood receives 40-45% of their revenues from federal tax dollars.
  • Women have other options for seeking primary care, contraception, STI testing, and cancer screening besides Planned Parenthood.
  • In addition to the tens of thousands of U.S. doctors and hospitals providing this type of care, there were 1,048 federally qualified health centers in the U.S. which provide women cancer screening, contraception, and STI testing.
  • The tapes that have everyone upset appear to demonstrate illegal activities regarding the selling of fetal tissue by the organization – violating several laws and potentially committing a felony.

Much of the controversy leading up to today’s debate stems from a lack of widespread public knowledge of who buys and sells fetal tissue, what it is used for, and what the law allows regarding its purchase and sale. It includes lack of information on how the tapes were “edited.” I too was disheartened and disgusted after reviewing the tapes. But I began searching the law and tried to discern what is currently allowed under the laws of the United States. Frankly, after reviewing the materials available on line, I am not certain which laws apply or do not apply to the actions alleged on the tapes.

For instance, scientists have been using such material in medical research for decades to study (and possibly develop cures for) a number of diseases and medical ailments. Federal law indicates that agencies may sell fetal tissue that has been “donated” for that purpose (through abortion), but they may not profit from it. According to federal law, agencies may only charge for the processing and shipping involved in transferring the material from donor to purchaser, but the law doesn’t regulate how much they may charge.

The bottom line is that there is ambiguity about the law surrounding the set of facts at hand. Additionally, there seems to be some evidence that Planned Parenthood (or some of their representatives) acted inappropriately. Since Planned Parenthood lobbies for and accepts federal resources, any Member of Congress or the President, should be clear on all the facts before allowing them or any grant recipient to continue to use federal resources for potentially illegal purposes.

So, rather than being bogged down in politics, or semantics, it makes sense to hold agencies or organizations accountable for the way in which they utilize those resources in the operation of their organizations. If Planned Parenthood acted inappropriately, or in the worst-case scenario, illegally, they should be held accountable.

The fact that Planned Parenthood does good things for women and men requiring healthcare is irrelevant. Those good deeds do not, nor should they, give the organization a “pass” on the fact that they might have engaged in bad actions, or have a few bad actors on their staff.

Does that mean that we should advocate for a defunding of the organization’s resources for a full year? Perhaps not.

However, any recipient of federal funding is subject to upholding the law and the restrictions that come with accepting those federal dollars. That same standard must be applied to Planned Parenthood.

Our system of government and law dictates that federal funding for Planned Parenthood – and any other organization that allegedly abuses the law – at the very least be frozen until all the facts can be sorted out and any applicable laws are researched to ensure that no laws have been violated.

That is something we should all be able to support.

Note: the United States House of Representatives considered two bills related to this subject today. H.R. 3134, the Defund Planned Parenthood Act of 2015 (which passed by a vote of 241-187) and H.R. 3504, the Born Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act (which passed by a vote of 248-177).

 
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Posted by on September 18, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

College – a new beginning, or has it all ended?

And so without too much ceremony, the “end” that we have been planning for and talking about for the last two years has arrived.

The last of “the last high school (fill in the blank)” for all our children took place this summer. The last BPC IMPACT Back Home Concert, the last high school graduation, the last high school performance, the last high school youth conference – you get the picture! It all really started to hit me last week when Catherine sang in church for the last time before heading off to college.

The parenthood thing has been an amazing journey and in a few days, we officially close the books on the high school years.  The next chapter has yet to be written, but for nearly half my life, I’ve played what I believe has been the single most important role of my entire life – being a father. It is the role that I have so enjoyed and so loved (most of the time). Almost nothing compares to holding the title of dad, father, Johnny, Pops.

I know that doesn’t change this week but we begin to cross the bridge that changes the relationship between a child and the father or parent forever. I liked this role and I loved this time of my life. And don’t misunderstand what I am saying – I may feel this ominous change ahead, but it is indeed balanced by feelings of happiness, pride, excitement, and optimism for the future. But I guess at the same time, I guess I am experiencing a small dose of grieving.

With one foot firmly planted on and comfortably set in the sands of being the parent of a teenager, its time to cross the bridge. I’m just not sure I am ready. Of course, this is not foreign territory. Yet there is something so very unfamiliar, and even a little uncomfortable about it, that it is unsettling. I suspect I am missing the comfort that comes from the fact that even though the other two were older, I always had that other foot firmly planted as the father of a high school student. But, without that, it’s all new again.

I’ve thought about this and tried to plan for it in my mind. But nothing can prepare you for the intense impending change that is about to occur. I take comfort in knowing that we are not alone and many of our friends are right there with us. And countless others have been here before as well. Nevertheless, as we cross another “last____” for the summer, I realize that it is truly the last of the lasts.

Grief can come from any type of separation, ending or change in our lives. And as I walk across the bridge, I know deep down inside, despite my excitement, I should not bury the grief. Sending off the last kid to college means the end of my experience of being the kind of dad I have been for the past 25 years. After today, I have to realize that my children are becoming independent and do not need me in the same way as they had before. I know that is what is supposed to happen.

I never thought that launching the kids would be so difficult. And, despite preparing for all the lasts this summer, putting Catherine’s belongings into the car and driving her to NYC always was “at the end of the summer.” The end of summer is here. And now, as Susan and I launch her, we will drop her off at college, and wave goodbye.

With that simple, unceremonious act, it will end. We will move on to a new chapter. But it will be important to allow us to grief as well. Twenty-five years is a long time to hold the position of mom or dad, and with that final wave, it seems like “Dad, Inc.” is closing up shop.

I know I will eventually be relieved and excited; however, today I can’t help but feel a bit hollow.

 
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Posted by on August 27, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

The Hunger Games – Musical Theatre Edition

A few years back, I applied to five colleges when trying to decide my future.  I wanted a school that would prepare me for what I knew would be my graduate work – law school.  The process was simple.  Find the right schools, do well in high school, and be well rounded. When application time came along, the formula was to apply to a reach school, a safe school, and anything in between.  It all went according to plan.

Fast forward 20 or so years and repeat the process for child number one and child number two.  Once again, everything seemed to go according to the plan. Enter child three. She uttered eight words that turned this tried and true process into some sort of fight till the death amongst potential applicants – “I want to be a musical theatre major.”

I must admit this whole musical theatre major thing was brand new to me.  I had no idea that we would be thrust into some alternate universe where nothing I had experienced as a college student or a father helping his first two children through the college process mattered.  Dance lessons, voice lessons, college coaches, auditions, pre-screens, call backs and BFAs were all new words that became part of my vocabulary.

Just when we started getting comfortable with all of this, we learned something else as audition season began – we had entered one of the most competitive, cutthroat, dog-eat-dog processes I have ever experienced.   It was the Hunger Games, the Musical Theatre version, and Catherine was our Tribute!

Law School is competitive.  Veterinary School is difficult.  Musical theatre is insane!  I learned that some schools consider 1,500 applications for 18-20 spaces.  Instead of applying to 4-6 schools, these kids have to apply to 14 or more school because of the difficult odds associated with being selected.  Part of the process includes the special games to cull the herd, also known as Unifieds. This is an intense extended weekend long process where families bring their Tributes to one of three venues.

We decided to travel to the northern district called New York for the games.  There are also culling competitions in Chicago and Los Angeles.  During this thrilling weekend, Tributes navigate through the city to find one of several studio locations for their interviews.  Their support teams are with them to watch, help carry clothing changes, dance shoes, water bottles, and provide moral support. Frankly, I’ve never seen so much Lycra and spandex in one place in my entire life.

Some of these interviews have parental components where you quickly learn that the students might be more intelligent and composed than their parents. Some interviews have rounds, which require candidates to check the callback list in order to move on. After several of these interviews, the day is over only to begin again the next morning.

Catherine’s drama teacher talked about this process for some time.  It sounds surreal, cruel, daunting, and the stuff that makes a great fictional novel.  But until you live it, breathe it, and experience it for yourself, you can’t explain it or appreciate it.

The truth is, when you are a part of this process up close and intimately, you gain a whole new level of respect for the young people who choose this career path.  Each day, they are tested over and over again, audition after audition.  Sometimes they find their names on the callback list, while in other cases, their hopes and dreams are extinguished with the simple posting of a list.

Yet, they go on.  No matter where this journey takes these kids, they have more poise, determination, and discipline than most others their age.  They have learned important life lessons before ever leaving for college, including important organizational skills, how to conduct oneself in a job interview, and rejection. And that makes them all winners in these Hunger Games.

 
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Posted by on January 24, 2015 in Uncategorized

 
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Remembering one of ABLE’s Biggest Advocates, Steve Beck

Almost nine years ago, a group of people entered my office for the first of what would be countless meetings on the problems and potential solutions faced by families who have children with disabilities.  We talked for hours about the inequity of the situation, the concerns of long term financial security, and I saw the passion and dedication of this group of people.  And while I did not know it at the time, they would all become my friends.

Beck Family

The Beck family during the ABLE Act Debate in the House, December 3, 2014

Chief among this group was a man named Steve Beck.  I got the sense that Steve was new to this lobbying/advocacy role he was about to embark upon.  But he was a natural because he was lobbying on behalf of something he was passionate about, his family and particularly his daughter Natalie.  Steve and I grew close as we pushed for the creation of what would ultimately become the ABLE Act.

I became reliant on Steve’s straightforward and candid input on ABLE.  He would become a trusted and valued liaison to me and Congressman Crenshaw’s office over the course of the last nine years. The two of us would present together at national conferences on ABLE.  And we even began running into one another on a regular basis after we learned we both lived in the same area of northern Virginia.  Most recently, last weekend at our families’ favorite local hangout, Spartan’s Restaurant.

Steve attended my retirement party when I left Congressman Crenshaw’s office last December and I remember him stating that he rarely “liked coming into DC at this hour, but he couldn’t miss my celebration.”

I high-fived and shared a toast with Steve in the Chairman of the Rules Committee’s private office off the floor of the House Chamber just a few days ago when we both watched with excitement as the ABLE Act passed the House.

Little did I know that that toast together would be the last time I would see this man who became my friend over the last nine years.  Steve was one of the many driving forces behind the ABLE Act and there is a hole tonight in our ABLE family as a result of his death.

His warm smile, friendly handshake, compassion, and love for his family and the ABLE cause will be deeply missed. My prayers go out to Catherine and the entire Beck family for their loss, but I hope they know that Steve touched so many lives in such a positive way.  The hesitant advocate who entered my office nine years ago leaves behind his wonderful family and a legacy in the ABLE Act that will help countless families around the United States.

I hope that in some small way, knowing that provides some comfort to those missing Steve Beck tonight. Thank you Steve for your energy, commitment and most of all your friendship.

 
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Posted by on December 8, 2014 in ABLE Act, Life

 

The ABLE Act – A Rare and Welcome Example of Bipartisanship

Tonight the efforts of countless advocates, legislators, former colleagues and congressional staffers converge as the U.S. House is poised to consider the Achieving a Better Life Experience Act of 2013 on the House Floor.

A little over eight years ago, a group of concerned parents and advocates visited Ander Crenshaw’s office with an idea to create equality in the tax code for disabled individuals in this country. I took that meeting because one of my neighbors and former colleagues was part of the group. We sat and talked for a long time and together we laid out the foundation for the first version of what we know today as the ABLE Act.

Each subsequent Congress we pushed for more cosponsors. We educated more offices. We re-drafted key provisions based on input from families, legislators and stakeholders. We worked as a group of dedicated and committed individuals to draft and introduce the best legislative proposal we could – and today we have a proposal that can actually impact the lives of millions with disabilities in the United States.

When we set out on this journey, I recall telling the advocates that this was not going to be easy. I never knew it would be eight years later before we would see our first Ways and Means Committee mark-up of the bill, or our first Senate Finance hearing on the proposal, or actual consideration of the bill. But here we are, with 380 Members of the House joining Mr. Crenshaw and 74 U.S. Senators joining Mr. Casey in a broad bi-partisan, bi-cameral effort to pass the ABLE Act of 2013.

I saw ABLE as one of those “why doesn’t this already exist” moments in my professional career. As my good friends from NDSS, Steve Beck and Sara Weir said, “By enacting the ABLE Act, we aren’t asking Congress to create a new program or give us a hand out, we are asking Congress to give the disability community the chance to provide and save for themselves through savings tools that all other Americans have access to today.”

When the idea was first presented to Congressman Crenshaw, his response was focused and right to the point – if the federal government encourages Americans to save for their retirements through 401(k) plans and for education through education savings accounts or 529 plans, why not expand that to folks with disabilities? That became his guiding principal. These existing tax-deferred saving plans are now such a fundamental part of how families prepare for the future we barely think of them as public policy. But of course they are.   The ABLE Act applies this successful model to help people with disabilities and their families save for costs they will likely encounter down the road.

Of all the amazing things I had the privilege of doing during my tenure as a Congressional Staffer, leading the charge for Mr. Crenshaw on this bill will always be one of the highlights of my career. It was such a pleasure to work with so many dedicated staffers on the House and Senate side who helped us in guiding this proposal through the process, and it was equally memorable to meet so many constituents of this cause – not just in Florida or Pennsylvania – but from all over the country. Since my departure from Mr. Crenshaw’s office, I have been working on behalf of the National Down Syndrome Society (NDSS) to continue to work with some of the most incredibly dedicated people I have met – from the NDSS, to Autism Speaks, to the ARC (to name just a few) – to get to this point.

Tonight we stand at the precipice of one of those unique moments in history – when a simple idea from a group people becomes a legislative proposal that is actually considered by our lawmakers. The ABLE Act represents what is best about our legislative process.

I will be watching with great anticipation, hope, excitement, and pride as ABLE is brought to the floor and when it passes, I will have one of the biggest smiles on my face and in my heart knowing that some sense of equity will be afforded to some of our nation’s everyday heroes.

 
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Posted by on December 2, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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