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Tuesday toon

The following editorial is by the editors of Bloomberg View

There’s a difference between taming the bureaucracy and decimating it. What President Donald Trump and Secretary Rex Tillerson are doing to the State Department is the latter, making it far more difficult for the department to advance U.S. interests around the world.

The secretary of state’s plans to reorganize the department may well make sense. But the details have been kept from the public as well as the rank-and-file, raising unneeded suspicion. Meanwhile, the president has given every indication that he doesn’t believe in a cornerstone of democratic governance: the idea that a career diplomatic corps can be relied on to discharge its duties regardless of who’s in office.

High-ranking Foreign Service officers have been pushed into retirement. Only nine out of 28 undersecretaries or assistant secretaries of state have been nominated or confirmed. Among the dozens of ambassadorships without even a nominee are those for vital partners such as Australia, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, South Korea and Turkey.

Asked about the department’s many empty slots, Trump responded, “I’m the only one that matters, because when it comes to it, that’s what the policy is going to be.”

Tillerson’s plans to “redesign” his department have resulted in a hiring freeze and rescinded job offers, as well as a crude effort to encourage middle-ranking officers out the door by pushing them into clerical work. Yet he seems puzzled by reports of poor morale.

It’s not that Tillerson doesn’t have some good ideas. There are too many special envoys. Foreign aid does need to be more strategic and effective. The department’s legendarily bad computer systems need an overhaul. And, not to put too fine a point on it, the department’s tribal bureaucratic culture needs to be opened up.

But neither Tillerson nor Trump has helped the cause of reform with their morale-sapping words and actions. It will be up to Congress, which has put forward a more robust budget, to check the worst aspects of Tillerson’s plan, much of which would require legislative approval anyway. And it will fall to civic and business leaders (not to mention policy wonks, aka the Blob) to more forcefully articulate, to the president and the public, the value of robust diplomacy.

Don’t let fake news dupe you, too

An editorial from the Forth Worth Star-Telegram

A couple of weeks ago the Washington Post published a story about a popular Facebook page called “Heart of Texas.”

Over the course of 2016 and 2017 the page grew into one of the most highly trafficked Texas secession pages on Facebook. At one point it had more followers than the official Texas Democrat and Republican pages combined.

There was no contact information on the page and no individuals who identified themselves as leading the movement. The page was not real. It was a Russian front and Facebook pulled it down, the post reported.

Bob Schieffer, the former Fort Worth Star-Telegram reporter and Face the Nation anchor, was in Fort Worth recently to talk about his new book “Overload.”

He will tell you to be skeptical of what you see online. Vet your news sources. Don’t take anything for granted.

Those behind Heart of Texas page exploited our gullibility. Russian influence has already hit Texas. It’s likely that some entity, somewhere, will try again.

Once the news gets out – right or wrong – it’s almost impossible to remove. Research your sources, find their “about us” pages. See if you can communicate with them, either by phone or email. Familiarize yourself with reporters.

Schieffer noted that curated news is a thing of the past for many people.

As you now choose your own daily news diet, please do so wisely.

Beware tax plans and used cars

An editorial from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

The average net worth for members of Congress exceeds $1 million. The GOP side of this millionaires’ convention wants the American people to embrace a new tax plan designed specifically to make millionaires happy while offering crumbs to the middle class. Americans should treat their sales pitch like it came from a used car salesman offering a great deal on a low-mileage car recently arrived from a flood zone.

The $1.5 trillion GOP tax plan is clearly weighted to benefit the wealthy, all under the unproven assumption that the windfall will eventually trickle down to everyone else. The widening income disparity between the top 1 percent of Americans versus the rest of us should show that wealth-sharing doesn’t work that way. Consider the outcry whenever there’s a movement to boost the nation’s paltry minimum wage.

For Americans trying to figure out whether the GOP tax plan is something they can support, here are some items worth closer inspection:

— Estate taxes. Currently, dead millionaires may pass up to $5.5 million of their holdings tax-free to their heirs, and twice as much for a spouse. The new tax plan would increase it to $11 million. Inheritances are like lottery winnings. The heir has done nothing to earn this money, only to have been lucky at birth. Inheritances are income and should be taxed as such.

— Corporate taxes. Two-thirds of the benefits from this plan will go to ease the corporate tax burden. President Donald Trump erroneously says that America is the most heavily taxed country in the world. In truth, we rank 31st. America does have higher corporate taxes, but Congress also offers extensive deductions and exclusions to reduce the effective corporate rate. If U.S. corporations were willing to give up all special tax breaks, a reduction might be warranted. But there’s nothing in this tax plan to suggest those breaks are going away.

— Individual deductions. The plan would eliminate deductions for state and local tax payments and limit mortgage deductions. When the GOP talks about how much you’ll gain with this plan, consider how much more you’ll be losing.

— Debt. Recall all the times during the last decade when Republicans pounded the table and protested the enormous debt being passed to future generations with Obamacare and President Barack Obama’s economic-stabilization program. Well, the GOP plan will cost $1.5 trillion, and the payment plan is dubious. The offsets being mentioned are programs and tax breaks that you probably have benefited from in the past, but will now disappear.

Ask how much you’ll be asked to sacrifice so millionaires can enjoy tax-free inheritances and corporations can pocket more profits. A used-car salesman beckons with a shiny item just arrived from Houston. Beware. Your best interests are not foremost in his mind.

A small-town heart beats within us all

The following editorial appeared in the Dallas Morning News:

The glitzy neon splash of Las Vegas and the just-plain-folks spirit of little Sutherland Springs represent opposite ends of America.

Yet these towns are now forever bound by a heinous reality: Two of the deadliest mass shootings in recent U.S. history have shattered each in the space of five weeks.

Vegas’ nightmare began the first Sunday in October, when a madman with an arsenal of weaponry gunned down 58 people and injured scores more at a country music festival.

The nation had hardly regained its footing when, the first Sunday in November, yet another gunman bent on evil killed more than two dozen church-goers and injured 20 or so in the worst massacre in modern Texas history.

The Sutherland Springs assailant all but took out an entire congregation as he, spraying gunfire, burst into the modest First Baptist Church during morning worship. In just minutes, he turned the one-blinking-light, unincorporated town 30 miles southeast of San Antonio into a horror set.

Whether church worshippers in South Texas or music lovers in Vegas, all the dead and injured were innocent victims simply going about their lives. Not only are they lost to us, their lives cut cruelly short, but they leave families, friends and neighbors to the all-too-familiar dirge of heartbreak and healing.

Sutherland Springs is not the first church shooting in Texas to explode the myth of small-town safety. Some of you will recall the gunman, clad in battle fatigues and yelling “This is war,” who opened fire on a First Baptist congregation in the East Texas town of Daingerfield back in 1980, killing five and wounding 11.

But a massacre the size of Sunday’s church tragedy takes a small town and its residents to their knees. Hearing of victims who range from age 5 to 72, most shot as they sat in their familiar church pews — it’s enough to take us all to our knees.

And for a community with only a couple hundred residents, the victims’ names will be no abstract list. In small towns like Sutherland Springs, these will be relatives and classmates, neighbors and friends. And so often, it’s the churches that knit the community together.

As we hang our heads in this tragedy, we cannot forget that we’ve barely caught our breath from the last. We know in our heads that mass shootings account for only a tiny fraction of the killings in America. But we can see that the frequency of these large-scale homicides is increasing.

And with three of the deadliest having occurred in just the last 18 months — Las Vegas, Sutherland Springs and the killing of 49 people at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla. — a sense of helplessness is growing nationally.

We take pride in our Lone Star grit and resiliency. But the Sutherland Springs massacre hits hard —- so many of us still carry small-town hearts, even if we have learned to wear big-city armor. Thoughts and prayers — even the most sincere — are only a beginning.

Military must help to deny guns to domestic abusers

Bloomberg View

America’s extraordinary gun violence is enabled by a lack of both laws and responsibility. In a small but significant way, bipartisan legislation proposed by Sens. Jeff Flake and Martin Heinrich seeks to address both failings.

A record of domestic violence is a frequent denominator in cases of gun violence. About 50 U.S. women are shot dead each month by an intimate partner. More than 4 million women say they have been threatened with a gun by an intimate partner.

The man who killed 26 and injured 20 last weekend at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, had been court-martialed in 2012, while he was in the U.S. Air Force, on charges of assault on his wife and stepson. A spokesman for the Texas Department of Public Safety said a “domestic situation” was also at the root of the church massacre.

This conviction should have prevented the killer from purchasing several guns he acquired, including a semi-automatic rifle used in the church massacre, from licensed dealers. Yet the Air Force acknowledged this week that it had failed to enter the man’s name into a federal database used for instant background checks of firearm purchasers.

The problem goes beyond a single instance of incompetence. The military has often failed to report criminal records as required. Many states, whose participation in the background-check system is voluntary, also fail to report key records of drug abuse, mental health or felony convictions that would prohibit a firearm purchase.

Background checks are still the best way to keep guns away from dangerous people, which is why safety advocates must continue to push to close the private gun sale loophole and to improve sloppy reporting to the background-check databases by all levels of government.

The bill from Flake, an Arizona Republican, and Heinrich, a New Mexico Democrat, is a step in the right direction. It would require the military both to identify cases of domestic violence and to promptly submit conviction information to the criminal background database. To make sure the system is working, and supervised, the bill would also require annual reports to Congress.

The Pentagon's failure may be a remnant of an era when domestic violence wasn’t taken seriously. Or it may simply be more evidence that nonchalance about guns makes gun violence more likely. Times, and attitudes, have changed about domestic violence. This Senate bill will help move the law, and the nation, to a more responsible position on gun violence as well.

If Rush Limbaugh can’t defend Trump, he should stop trying

An editorial from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

Rush Limbaugh is all over the map these days. Less than a month ago, he warned of President Donald Trump’s dictatorial tendencies. He had previously shrugged off Trump’s immigration policies as not to be taken seriously. But on his radio program last Monday, he warned that Special Counselor Robert Mueller was attempting a “coup.”

Limbaugh is tripping all over himself with his trademark, spluttering incredulity. Almost as if he doesn’t know what to say anymore about a president who often defies logic.

Limbaugh’s politics are provocative, sophisticated and sharply conservative. He crafts his arguments carefully and logically, which often makes them hard to refute. Trump’s illogic and constant shifts make it increasingly hard for Limbaugh to defend him.

Lots of stalwart Republicans, who would sooner dance barefoot on burning coals than criticize one of their own in the White House, find it harder by the day to square their conservatism with Trump.

When Mueller announced legal action last week against three Trump campaign advisers, Limbaugh struggled mightily for an answer. “This is the coup. If Hillary (Clinton) had been elected, none of this would be happening, other than they still put Trump in jail as a message to the outsider: Don’t dare try this.” Huh?

No one can say how a President Hillary Clinton might have handled allegations of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian intelligence operatives. But it’s fairly certain Twitter would not be her primary form of communication.

Limbaugh’s “coup” comment betrays the radio commentator’s fear that Trump’s presidency could be in real trouble. His former campaign manager stands accused of laundering millions of dollars and defrauding the government. Another adviser, who sat in on Trump’s national security briefings and whom Trump praised as an “excellent guy,” has pleaded guilty to lying about an effort to obtain “dirt” on Clinton from Russian intelligence.

How’s that a coup? Limbaugh’s struggle stems from the misalignment between his staunch conservatism and the new brand being hawked by Trump’s former strategist, Stephen Bannon, and his Breitbart pseudo-news outlet. Bannon’s brand plays to white supremacists and conspiratorial nut cases whose logic is the very antithesis of Limbaugh’s cerebral style.

Before the 2016 election, Limbaugh acknowledged publicly that Trump is no conservative. But now he’s stuck trying to defend a president he doesn’t necessarily want to defend.

Limbaugh drew the line last month when Trump attacked NFL players for kneeling during the national anthem. “I am very uncomfortable with the president of the United States being able to dictate the behavior and power of anybody. … No president should have dictatorial power over individual behavior,” Limbaugh told listeners.

Limbaugh is at his best when he allows logic and fact to guide his reasoning. If Trump defies logic, Limbaugh should follow his heart and refuse to defend the indefensible.


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