Maps, urban planning, and open space: the saga of Long Wharf

When I was working, I would often take a walk from the office down to Long Wharf and look out at the harbor.  There is a small open shelter and some benches at the end.  Walking with co-workers, we talked about the plan to build a restaurant and wondered how it would change the peaceful quiet that one found there.  Years passed and nothing happened which was fine with us.

A bit of background.  According the National Park Service,

Construction of Long Wharf began in 1710, though the idea of building a new wharf over the remains of the Barricado—a 2,200 foot long defensive wall/wharf of stone and wood piles that encircled the harbor—had been discussed as early as 1707. The wharf extended from the base of King Street (now State Street) and provided direct access to the commercial center of colonial Boston. By 1711 a number of warehouses had been built atop the wharf, and by 1715 the last 600 feet of wharf were completed.

In its heyday, Long Wharf was 1,586 feet in length and 54 feet wide, providing docking facilities for up to 50 vessels. In the 18th century, Boston was the leading colonial port (it would be surpassed by both New York and Philadelphia by the end of the century). Long Wharf was the nucleus of Boston’s maritime trade—by the end of the 18th century it reigned pre-eminent among Boston’s 80 wharves, handling both international and coastal trade. Its extraordinary length allowed large ships to dock and unload directly into warehouses without the use of   small boats. Because the wharf served   private merchants and the public, who could buy directly from the warehouses and stores on the wharf, it was a marketplace long before the construction of Faneuil Hall (Quincy Market) in the 1820s.

In addition to the economic importance of the wharf, it was also associated with the military history of Boston. Among the events that occurred here were the landing of British troops in 1770 to enforce the King’s laws and the evacuation of the same troops in March 1776; the landing of a vessel from Philadelphia bringing news of the signing of the Declaration of Independence; and during the Revolution, privateers and blockade runners sailed from Long Wharf and military stores were kept in its warehouses.

And today, the NPS describes Long Wharf this way

The Long Wharf and Custom House Block, a National Historic Landmark, is located at the end of State St. and east of Atlantic Ave. in Boston Harbor. The wharf buildings have been converted to residential, commercial and office spaces. On the northwest side of the wharf, a wood planked walkway is lined with benches, and at the end of Long Wharf, there is a large plaza, a covered shelter and a pink stone compass rose, which is  set into the ground. Various tour boat operators are located on the wharf and dock their vessels here.

The plans of the BRA to build a restaurant on the historic wharf may have been ended by the discovery of a National Park Service map.  The story of how the map was found is a fascinating one.

The Boston Redevelopment Authority was so close to realizing its vision of a restaurant on the tip of Long Wharf that you could almost smell the fried clams.

For nearly five years, BRA officials had fought a group of determined North End residents who had raised objections in administrative hearings and state courts.

The BRA spent close to a quarter of a million dollars on legal bills. Last year it finally won a Supreme Judicial Court decision almost certainly clearing the way for a private company to build Doc’s Long Wharf restaurant on the dramatic public space jutting into Boston Harbor.

But it seems that BRA officials, in their zeal to promote waterfront dining, failed to take into account an old map outlining the edge of Long Wharf as protected space. According to a 1980s agreement, the BRA had promised to forever preserve it for outdoor recreation.

Map of Long Wharf with the proposed restaurant marked.

Map of Long Wharf with the proposed restaurant marked.

It took a retired National Park Service employee to read an earlier Globe story, get a map from archives and bring things to a halt.

A retired National Park Service manager, reading about the controversy in the Globe, remembered the map and made a call. Sure enough, the Park Service found the 1980s map in a federal archive in Philadelphia, prompting a state judge to put the restaurant plans on hold in late December and leaving the BRA with ketchup on its face.

“The strange manner in which the [newly discovered map] came to light requires this court” to allow the map into evidence “in the interests of justice,” Suffolk Superior Court Judge Elizabeth Fahey wrote in voiding the restaurant’s state environmental permit and calling for the BRA to reapply, this time using the correct map.

But the  BRA being so convinced that no one else can ever be right seems to be pushing on.

Opponents of the proposed restaurant, many of them neighbors untrained in the law who spent countless hours preparing legal briefs to counter the BRA, said Fahey’s ruling probably settles a debate that should never have begun in the first place. “To us, discovery of the right map means we definitely should win,” said Sanjoy Mahajan, an MIT electrical engineering professor, a former neighbor of the site, and a restaurant opponent. “We think this undercuts the entire BRA case. We only wish it had come to light earlier.”

But the BRA appears determined to plow on. It requested court permission to conduct its own investigation into the map, describing it in court filings as a mere “sketch” and as a “roughly drawn rendering” made by “an unknown individual . . . allegedly found” in archives.

BRA spokeswoman Susan Elsbree said: “We are following the process in good faith, and we will get to the bottom of this. Our mission is to get people to enjoy the waterfront, and not let a few neighbors trump the public interest.”

But people do enjoy the park.  On a nice day to sit and watch the boats and the gulls while the breeze blows and it is quiet is a wonderful thing.  I understand the goal of the BRA is development, but one does not have to build everywhere.  When I was working for the City of Somerville, there was a fire and a house was destroyed.  Someone asked Mike Capuano, the Mayor at the time, what he thought should be built there.  His response, “Probably nothing.”  Somerville was, at the time, the most densely populated city in Massachusetts, if not the United States.  It needed some green space and the lot became open space.  Once does not need to build on every square inch of land.

“I don’t know what map they were using before, but I provided them with the one we have on record for that project,” Jack W. Howard, a National Park Service manager, said in an interview.

The new map, pulled from National Park Service files, shows that the proposed restaurant lies squarely within the bounds of a park financed under the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund Act. Federal law prohibits such restaurants in these federally funded parks with few exceptions. Apparently no one had previously asked the Park Service for a copy of the map.

Edward Rizzotto was a young National Park Service manager in the 1980s when a deal was struck for the federal government to provide almost $1 million to clean up the tip of the wharf. He says — and documents later uncovered by restaurant opponents bear this out — that the BRA agreed to record an easement guaranteeing it to be open space for 99 years.

“This was always intended as public open space in perpetuity,” Rizzotto, 70, said during an interview on the park site.

The park reaches into wind-swept Boston Harbor, a 35,000-square-foot plaza paved with granite flagstones, with a bronze plaque proclaiming Long Wharf Park and bearing the BRA’s  name. On one side of the site is an open air brick pavilion that provides shade for summertime picnickers.

More than 25 years passed before the BRA decided in 2006 that more people would enjoy one of the city’s premier outdoor spots if the pavilion were converted into a restaurant and tavern. Agency officials envisioned indoor and outdoor tables, live entertainment, takeout service, and food and alcohol until 1 a.m.

After years of hearings and a pile of legal briefs, a story on the restaurant battle published on the front page of the Globe on Oct. 10, 2012, caught the eye of Rizzotto, he said. He wondered why the restaurant plan had gotten so far when he recalled that the entire area was protected. Rizzotto eventually contacted Howard, the National Park Service manager, with whom he once worked. A search of the archives dredged up the one-page map now central to the case.

By then, the case had been argued before the Supreme Judicial Court but had not been decided. The map circulated among the Park Service, the Environmental Protection Department, the BRA, and restaurant opponents, but no one informed the court of its discovery. Fahey, who ruled on remaining state issues in the restaurant fight nine months after the SJC decision, noted that the BRA did not alert the SJC “that the material it was then considering may be incorrect.”

The Long Wharf area already has the Aquarium and hotels.  I hope that the end of the wharf remains the equivalent of open space.  As I learned 18 years ago, there is no need to build on every square inch of land.

Mayor Marty Walsh has called for a financial and programmatic audit of the BRA.  I hope the auditors look at this incident and ask why so much tax payer money was spent of legal fees.  Maybe it could have been spent on some new benches instead.

Map is from court filing and published in the Boston Globe.

The government shutdown: a letter from Congressman Capuano

I am posting the entire weekly email newsletter I just got from my Congressman, Mike Capuano.    I am proud to say that he was my boss for several years when he was the Mayor of Somerville.

Dear Friends,

The government shutdown is in its fourth day. Speaker Boehner still refuses to bring up a clean Continuing Resolution (CR), even though it would pass Congress and be signed by the President, reopening the government.

The House has spent most of this week considering bills to partially fund the government. This process is more about appearances than responsible legislating. That’s why you’ve seen attempts to fund the National Park Service so tourist attractions can reopen but not the Transportation Department. The Senate and President have both rejected this path. I’m not sure where or when this all ends. It’s certainly true that this battle is about the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and the obsession many Republicans have with sabotaging it. I think there’s more to it though.

This is also about one of the fundamental principles of our government, the idea of majority rule. The importance of that principle is vividly on display here and it’s one worth protecting.

The ACA was signed into law in 2010 after months and months of substantive and at times contentious debate. Since Republicans regained control of the House in 2010, there have been 42 attempts to repeal, defund or gut the law. Each time the effort has accomplished essentially nothing. As I noted earlier this week, Mitt Romney ran on a promise to repeal “Obamacare”. He lost the election. House Democrats got more votes than House Republicans and Democrats retained control of the Senate. The ACA was even declared constitutional by the Supreme Court.

Despite all of that, a small percentage of the House Republican Caucus refuses to accept the will of the majority, democratically expressed. They shut the government down because they can’t accept it. The ACA is the law of the land, affirmed by the results of a national election and a Supreme Court ruling. More and more moderate Republicans are speaking out on the need for a clean CR. Unfortunately there aren’t enough of those moderate voices and the extremists in the House continue to drown them out.

Imagine what our government would look like if more Members refused to respect the principle of majority rule and insisted on getting their way without regard for the consequences. It wouldn’t be 17 years between government shutdowns, that’s for sure.

I believe that this battle is also about the role that government should play in our lives. Do we want to provide some help to those less fortunate in the form of nutrition assistance or home heating aid? Do we want to help our states build world class roads, bridges and subway systems? Do we want to attract cutting edge research that results in medical advances? All of that takes an investment of federal dollars.

What has been happening over the past couple years is a steady and steep reduction in federal spending. That often gets lost in the din but numbers don’t lie. In two years, a total deficit reduction of almost $2.4 trillion has been achieved. In 2011, the Budget Control Act placed a cap on discretionary spending at $1.066 trillion for fiscal year 2014. That cap has been ignored by the House, with much deeper cuts going into effect as a result of sequestration.

Here are just a couple examples of how those cuts have impacted some important programs. In the past year, funding for the National Institutes of Health has been cut by $1.6 billion. Funding for Head Start has been cut by $400 million.

Earlier this year, the Senate passed a budget that proposed spending $1.058 trillion for fiscal year 2014. Under the clean CR proposed in the Senate in order to reopen the government, that spending is cut to $986 billion. This is much closer to the Republican proposal than the Senate’s.

In terms of cutting spending, Republicans don’t seem to recognize that they are gaining significant ground. The CR that many of them say they won’t support includes deep cuts to discretionary programming.

More votes are expected in the House tomorrow and the schedule for next week is unclear. Thanks for your calls and emails of support. I appreciate all of them.

Best,

Mike

English: Official Congressional portrait for C...

English: Official Congressional portrait for Congressman Mike Capuano. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Trying to made sense of it all

I think I may be ready to retreat to my cocoon to read trashy books and watch baseball and reruns of NCIS before my head explodes from trying to make sense of what is going on out there.

Yesterday, Boston Globe columnist Adrian Walker had a little anecdote from my Congressperson, Mike Capuano.

…Capuano said he was in an airport last weekend flying home from Washington when a TSA screener stopped him and said, “You really need to cut our taxes!” Capuano was incredulous to hear that from a federal employee, though he probably shouldn’t have been.

“I asked him, ‘Do you know taxes pay your salary?’ ” Capuano said with a laugh.

I wish I knew what the silly TSA screener said then.  It is an example of how divorced from reality so many people are.  Maybe we should expand the shut down to include furloughs for half of the screeners.  This would cut flights so many of the members of Congress would have trouble getting home.  I don’t think this would be a bad thing.  Maybe if they stayed in Washington more, they would figure out how to talk to each other informally over a beer.  That could only help.  Maybe some of them would get a grip on reality.

As I was getting ready to write this, I Googled  both “Republican Alternate Reality” and “Republican Alternate Universe”.  Turns out people have been writing about the topic for a number of years now.  It is one thing to talk sans facts, but another to act.  And what is happening now is the action that they have all wanted:  a government shutdown.  I think they are hoping that a few weeks without government will show people they can live without it.  Maybe a good plan except that there are already Republicans complaining that monuments in Washington are closed so veterans can’t visit them.  Duh!

Back in August 2012 (2012 not 2013), Michael Cohen wrote a piece in the Guardian about the Presidential campaign.  If you recall, they had a slogan “You didn’t build that”.

On 17 July, President Barack Obama spoke at a campaign rally in Roanoke, Virginia. It was a typical event for an incumbent president who is seeking a second term. In his remarks, he offered his vision of government’s role in spurring entrepreneurship and creating jobs in the United States:

“If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business – you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. The internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the internet so that all the companies could make money off the internet.”

This is all fairly boilerplate rhetoric – a basic recitation of how Democrats view the role of government and its interplay with the private sector. But in this statement, there was one phrase that Republicans have grabbed on to like a famished dog with a new bone:

“You didn’t build that.”

That single phrase, taken out of context by Republicans, has become the GOP’s symbol of Obama’s supposed contempt for the free market and entrepreneurship, and for his socialist assault on America.

The Affordable Care Act is a prime example of government overreach and socialism even though it is built on private insurance companies.

“You didn’t build that” became “We built that”

And so, the Republicans made “We built that” the theme of Tuesday’s convention proceedings. Speaker after speaker hammered on this theme, accusing Obama of disrespecting small business. But they did so with almost a wilful sense of hypocrisy. For example, Delaware lieutenant governor candidate Sher Valenzuela attacked Obama for the line despite the fact that, just a few months ago, she gave a detailed speech to a business group about how they could do a better job getting government contracts.

Cohen goes on to detail a number of instances where the speakers at the Republican Convention ignored facts and concludes

But all of this is at pace with a conservative worldview that considers government to be nothing more than malevolent interference with the smooth operation of the private sector – except when it’s not. “Jobs don’t come from government,” said Texas Senate candidate Ted Cruz last night, a view that basically sums up GOP economic thinking. But if you listened to Republican governors on Tuesday, you might have found yourself surprised to discover that, in their states, the government has played an oddly integral role in spurring job creation. If you listened to Mary Fallin, governor of Oklahoma, extol the virtues of the energy industry in her state and bemoan “more government, bigger spending and more regulation”, you might never know that the oil and gas industry is deeply reliant on – and spends millions lobbying for – tax breaks from the federal government.

One can believe that government should play a less direct role in the workings of the private economy – clearly, this is a defensible notion. But to listen to Republicans harping on Obama’s “you didn’t build that” line is to hear a party that views “government” in the most simplistic imaginable terms. This isn’t a governing philosophy; it’s a caricature of how the economy actually works.

To be sure, it’s hardly unusual for political rhetoric to take liberties with the truth, or to stretch an argument to breaking-point, but with Republicans today, the issues runs much deeper. Very simply, the way they talk about what the federal government does or should do, and about the role of spending, taxation and regulation, is more than just a compendium of lies: it describes an alternate reality.

In the GOP’s defense: at least they can argue they built that.

So now they have shutdown the federal government which was a goal all along.  They built it.  And in their alternate universe, President Obama and the Democratic congressional leadership should negotiate with them.  Nancy Pelosi has tried to explain what she calls “regular order”:  The Senate passes a bill.  Then the House passes one.  Then there is a conference committee.  Budget bills were passed back in March, but the House declined to appoint members to a conference committee.  Contrary to what some members of Congress seem to believe there are rules and conventions as to how to proceed.

Gail Collins has a response in the New York Times.

On Wednesday, House Republicans pushed to refund bits and pieces of the government that the members particularly like, such as veterans and the National Guard. Also anything that lends itself to a dramatic press conference, such as national parks and cancer treatment for children. Since the House proposals are never going anywhere in the Senate, there’s a limit to what you want to know about what went on during the debate. Let’s summarize:

Democrats: “Meaningless political theater!”

Republicans: “Come to the table!”

Coming to the table has now replaced strangling Obamacare as the most popular G.O.P. war cry. There is a longstanding political rule that when all else fails, you demand more talking. If you’re running for office against a guy who’s got 70 percent in the polls, it’s time to call for a debate. If you’re already having four debates, it’s time to call for six.

“Why don’t we sit down and have a conference committee about how we’re going to fund the federal government?” demanded Representative Ander Crenshaw of Florida. Republicans have posed this question a lot, and it would be an excellent one if they were not the same folks who have spent the last half-year refusing to sit down and have a conference committee about the federal budget.

Representative John A. Boehner, the House speaker, arrived at the Capitol on Thursday with his security personnel on the third day of the government shutdown.

Representative John A. Boehner, the House speaker, arrived at the Capitol on Thursday with his security personnel on the third day of the government shutdown.

I’ll give the final word on reality to Elizabeth Kolbert in her New Yorker posted this morning.

…Shuttering the government is a dumb idea under pretty much any circumstances. Still, the objections that Republicans in Congress raise to the health-care law might be worth considering if they bore any relationship to the law in question. Rarely do they.

Some lawmakers’ comments have been so off the wall that they defy parody. A few months ago, for example, Representative Michele Bachmann announced on the House floor that Obamacare needed to be repealed “before it literally kills women, kills children, kills senior citizens.”

“Let’s not do that,” she added helpfully. “Let’s love people.”

“All of this would be funny,” President Obama noted the other day, after bringing up the Bachmann line, “if it weren’t so crazy.”

The crazy list goes on and on. As the economist Paul Krugman has repeatedly pointed out in his Times column, congressional Republicans these days seem to think that they can override not just the laws of physics but also the rules of arithmetic. They insist that the federal budget is so bloated it could easily be cut by hundreds of billions of dollars. But when a transportation bill was drafted this summer that would have actually reduced spending, they refused to vote for it. (The bill had to be pulled from the floor.) It’s hard to cut the federal budget if you’re not willing to reduce the amount of money the government spends. “What Republicans really want to do,” Krugman wrote recently, is “repeal reality.”

It’s been so long since reality has made much of a difference on Capitol Hill that it sometimes seems it genuinely has been repealed. But the thing you can always count on with reality is that it has staying power.

I hope I can hold out until reality and fact make a comeback.

Photograph: Doug Mills/The New York Times

Markey v. Gomez: The Massachusetts Senate Race

With a few days left to go, this race is officially a snoozer.  Ed Markey is a fine Representative and will make a fine Senator but somehow I can’t work up any enthusiasm.  You know, if you read this blog with any regularity, that I am a campaigner and it is a measure of something that I haven’t done much of anything for Ed except throw him a few bucks and vote in the primary where he was unopposed.  I think the race would have been a lot more exciting if someone like Mike Capuano were running, but too late for that.  Maybe we should just feel sorry for these guys since after the Elizabeth Warren – Scott Brown tussle almost anything would seem dull.  This is the assessment of the race from the Daily Kos Election update for June 21.

MA-Sen: Gabriel Gomez has gotten some “next Scott Brown” hype, to the extent that he’s a moderate Republican who’s a fresh face and running in a Massachusetts Senate special election (which will be held next Tuesday) against a charisma-challenged Democrat. However, there’s one important element that seems missing: the ability to mount a late surge and actually win the race, at least if the newest public poll is any indication. UMass Lowell, on behalf of the Boston Herald, gives Ed Markey his biggest lead of any pollster who’s looked at the race so far: among likely voters, Markey leads Gomez 56-36 (and 53-32 among all registered voters). This is the pollster’s first look at the race since the primary; they did poll the general way back in early March, and found an almost identical margin (47-28 for Markey).

Most pollsters have shown a closer race, usually in the high single digits, although the last couple public polls (from UNH for the Boston Globe, and from Harper Polling) both had it in the low teens; only one recent poll (a Suffolk poll with a 17-point margin in early May) had anything similar to this one.   And then there’s the GOP internal pollsters, who continue to see the race within low single digits; the most recent of these came out Thursday from McLaughlin, with Markey up 47-44. That follows a McLaughlin poll from two weeks ago with Markey up 45-44 (on behalf of donor John Jordan), in addition to two OnMessage polls directly on behalf of Gomez, one from less than a week ago with Markey up 47-40, and one from early May with Markey up 46-43. It’s not clear what the GOP hopes to gain from constantly leaking those polls, since most observers know that leaked internal polls usually overstate support for their candidate and none of these best-case-scenarios still manage to have Gomez winning.   The 47-44 topline is all that McLaughlin leaked to Politico, but Dave Weigel seems to have gotten his hands on the crosstabs, which show Gomez’s favorables falling from 48/27 to 41/35, while Markey’s are up a little, from 42/42 to 47/40. Again, not a sign of progress for Gomez, though maybe the GOP thinks the toplines are enough to convince donors that it’s not entirely a lost cause. (Although donations at this point would probably arrive too late to do anything other than last-minute GOTV.)

As for the original Scott Brown, the ex-Senator had publicly said that he was willing to campaign for Gomez as his schedule permitted, but so far he hasn’t done anything (apparently impeded by his busy dual careers of lobbying and appearing as a Fox News analyst). Well, he is finally popping up: he’ll be appearing at a rally with Gomez on Monday night, the night before the election. Is it really a case of a busy schedule, or just not wanting to let Gomez’s likely loss appear to be a referendum on Brown himself (especially considering that he may still get in to the Massachusetts gubernatorial race… or the New Hampshire Senate race)?

And if you’ve gotten the impression that Massachusetts voters are responding to the Ed Markey vs. Gabriel Gomez special election with a collective yawn, now we’ve gotten some quantitative proof. Absentee ballot requests are down significantly from the 2010 special election that elected Scott Brown; only 49.7K ballots have been requested, compared with 63.6K at the comparable point in 2010. The absentee ballot application deadline is on Monday, one day before the election.

This photo provided by WGBH shows U.S. Senate candidates, Republican Gabriel Gomez, left, and Democratic U.S. Rep. Edward Markey, right before a debate moderated by R.D. Sahl, center, Tuesday at WGBH studios in Boston. (THE ASSOCIATED PRESS)

This photo provided by WGBH shows U.S. Senate candidates, Republican Gabriel Gomez, left, and Democratic U.S. Rep. Edward Markey, right before a debate moderated by R.D. Sahl, center, Tuesday at WGBH studios in Boston. (THE ASSOCIATED PRESS)

I won’t be home on Tuesday so I’ve already voted absentee – for Markey.

As an aside:  I believe this is my 600th post.  When I started posting in July 2008, it was as a lark.  I write mostly for myself about what interests me which sometimes interests others.  I’ve had periods of inactivity and have a small, but faithful  following.    If you read FortLeft, thank you!

Surveillance and President Obama

I look forward to my weekly email from my Congressman, Mike Capuano.  Of course, I once worked for him when he was mayor of the City of Somerville (a near Boston city) so I am used to Mike’s saying what he means and I almost always agree with him.  I am copying the entire first part of his email into this post.

mike_225x315

“U.S. Rep. Michael Capuano (D-Somerville), who voted against the Patriot Act, rallied protesters by calling the law the worst attack on freedom since the 1798 Alien and Sedition Acts.”

                                                                                                                Boston Herald

                                                                                                                September 10, 2003

 

The Patriot Act and Verizon

 

I am sure you are aware that Verizon has reportedly been ordered by the top-secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA court) to turn over, “on an ongoing daily basis”, information about every customer telephone number, including landline, cell and business numbers. That information reportedly includes all numbers dialed and all calls received within the United States as well as between the United States and other countries.

As I write this newsletter, the news is filled with reports that a similar program called PRISM is in place for every major internet and email provider. The government claims they have not accessed the content of phone calls, but it seems they ARE accessing the content of emails such as videos, websites visited and more. According to reports, the PRISM program is not at this time being used on U.S. citizens.

Even if you can accept the government collecting the number and length of every call you make, are you really comfortable with them having the ability to catalogue all the YouTube videos you watch, the Netflix movies you download, or the web pages you visit? It seems that our own government has access to every phone call, email and internet search for all Americans at every minute of every day.

Like most Americans, I am absolutely outraged. But, if you’re a long time subscriber to these newsletters, you probably already knew that. You also probably know that I voted against passage of the so-called “Patriot Act” and every reauthorization since it first passed in 2001.

Before I go any further, I feel compelled to remind you that I was an early and strong supporter of President Obama.  I am still amongst the strongest Obama supporters in the House of Representatives.  Nonetheless, I cannot remain silent out of some sort of misplaced loyalty to President or party when I believe that basic American rights have been intentionally trampled.

I know we live in a dangerous world and there is work to do to prevent terrorists from harming us. But we must find a balance between giving law enforcement the tools they need to track and identify terrorists and protecting the very liberties upon which our great country was founded.

This data collection has reportedly been going on for 7 years. The length of time that this has been going on and the staggering amount of data collected on every Verizon customer amounts to an incredible overreach. Even if you’re not a Verizon customer, there is clearly reason for concern. Who really believes that Verizon is the only telecommunications company required to turn over this data?

I have always believed that we must give law enforcement the tools they need to pursue criminals. However, we can do that and still protect civil liberties.

It is time for those of us who support President Obama to speak up.  I believe he is a good man and has been a good President.  However, I think his Administration has allowed their concern for our safety to lead them down the wrong path.  If we remain silent, those who have always wished him to fail on every point stand a better chance of winning the hearts and minds of America and we will all be worse off for it.  It is possible to support President Obama and yet disagree with him on certain issues – this is one of those times.

The President has said he is glad this is out in the open and he welcomes discussion.  Instead of reacting in horror – or wishing more information would be collected, we need to talk.   I’m not sure I know where the balance is, but one thing that I learned at St. John’s College (Annapolis) is that dialog can lead to greater clarity and understanding.  So let’s talk:  To each other and to the President and your member of Congress.

Photograph from Capuano website.

Taxes, taxes, taxes

Who was it that said, “Nothing is certain but death and taxes”?  They should have added tax loopholes and exemptions to that list.

Here in Massachusetts we have a Senate candidate who took at $281,000 tax credit for agreeing not to made changes to the facade of his home located in a historic district.  I don’t know how this works in other states but here local city and town councils can pass by-laws regulating historic districts.  Cohasset, the town where Gabriel Gomez lives, has a by-law on the books that says owners of homes in the historic district may not change the facades of their homes.  So Mr. Gomez basically took a tax credit for something he was prohibited from doing anyway.  Adrian Walker wrote this in the Globe this morning.

Challenged to explain, a testy Gomez set a new standard for chutzpah. He claimed that his tax break is really the fault of his opponent, Ed Markey — because in 1981, Markey voted for the law that established tax breaks for historical preservation.

OK.  So maybe taking the tax break was not illegal, but there is something about it that makes me – and it appears – other voters wonder if this is the guy we want representing us.  Plus there is the fact that most of us don’t make $281K over many years much less get to take that much off our taxes.

Walker continues

Andy Hiller of WHDH-TV cornered Gomez and asked a few questions about it, or tried to. What he got back from Gomez was this: “I don’t apologize for any success I’ve had. Absolutely not. I’m proud of everything I’ve done. I’ve worked for everything I’ve done. I’ve earned everything I’ve done.”

Gomez is an accomplished military veteran who has earned many things in his life, but he certainly didn’t earn this. Even the Internal Revenue Service has decried the historical-preservation deduction he took as a farce.

The questions about Gomez’s taxes probably haven’t ended, either.

On a financial disclosure form filed in March, Gomez said that under his separation agreement from the private equity firm Advent International, he received something called “carried interests.”

Carried interests are fees paid to equity firms and hedge funds to manage portfolios. They are taxed as capital gains, at a rate of 20 percent, rather than the top income rate of 39.5 percent.

Carried interests are fees paid to equity firms and hedge funds to manage portfolios. They are taxed as capital gains, at a rate of 20 percent, rather than the top income rate of 39.5 percent.

The carried interest rate — which costs taxpayers an estimated $1.3 billion a year — has long been the subject of dispute, with some critics arguing that this is one of the first tax loopholes lawmakers should close.

How much of Gomez’s income falls under the “carried interest” loophole is unclear from the disclosure form.

Gabriel Gomez is running as a reformer, as an outsider but as Walker points out, he already knows all the tricks.  Maybe we need someone like him to help reform the tax code – not!

Internal Revenue Service Building

Internal Revenue Service Building

Taxes are also at the heart of what the Republicans hope will be the scandal that brings down the Obama Administration if Benghazi doesn’t work out for them.  According to the New York Times this is what we know.

The Internal Revenue Service’s special scrutiny of small-government groups applying for tax-exempt status went beyond keyword hunts for organizations with “Tea Party” or “Patriot” in their names, to a more overtly ideological search for applicants seeking to “make America a better place to live” or “criticize how the country is being run,” according to part of a draft audit by the inspector general that has been given to Capitol Hill.

The head of the division on tax-exempt organizations, Lois Lerner, was briefed on the effort in June 2011, seemingly contradicting her assertion on Friday that she learned of the effort from news reports. But the audit shows that she seemed to work hard to rein in the focus on conservatives and change it to a look at any political advocacy group of any stripe.

Since last year’s elections, Republicans in Congress have struggled for traction on their legislative efforts, torn between conservatives who drove the agenda after their 2010 landslide and new voices counseling a shift in course to reflect President Obama’s re-election and the loss of Republican seats in the House and the Senate.

But the accusations of I.R.S. abuse are sure to fuel an effort that appears to be uniting dispirited Republicans and their conservative political base: investigating Mr. Obama and his administration. Republicans are pushing a portrayal of an administration overreaching its authority and punishing its enemies.

“The bottom line is they used keywords to go after conservatives,” Representative Darrell Issa of California, the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said Sunday on the NBC News program “Meet the Press.” He requested the inspector general’s audit along with another Republican, Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio. As an audit, it will not find blame or refer anyone for criminal prosecution.

This all goes back to the Citizens United decision by the Supreme Count and the flood of organization, most it seems on the right to register as 501(c)4 social welfare groups.  This leaves me puzzled.  How can a group which supports political lobbying be tax exempt?  I give money to Planned Parenthood to support clinics.  I also give money for the political operations.  The first is tax exempt, the second is not.  So maybe the problem is, once again, with the tax code.  Ezra Klein explains.

Let’s try to keep two things in mind simultaneously: The IRS does need some kind of test that helps them weed out political organizations attempting to register as tax-exempt 501(c)4 social welfare groups. But that test has to be studiously, unquestionably neutral.

The story thus far seems both chilling and cheering. Employees at the agency’s Cincinnati branch did employ a test that, in effect, targeted tea party groups. Whether they meant it to be discriminatory or they simply created one that was discriminatory is in contention, but ultimately immaterial. The IRS, more so than almost any other agency, must act in ways above  reproach.

But when the Cincinnati group explained their test to IRS exempt organizations division chief Lois G. Lerner, she objected to it and it was changed. A few months later, the IRS would release new guidance that suggested scrutinizing “political action type organizations involved in limiting/expanding Government, educating on the Constitution and Bill of Rights, social economic reform movement,” and after that, “organizations with indicators of significant amounts of political  campaign intervention (raising questions as to exempt purpose and/or excess private benefit.)”

The context for all this is that after Citizens United and some related decisions, the number of groups registering as 501(c)4s doubled. Because the timing of that doubling coincided with a rise in political activism on the right rather than the left, a lot of the politicized groups attempting to register as 501(c)4s were describing their purpose in tea party terms. A popular conceit, for  instance, was that they existed to educate on the Constitution — even if the particular pedagogical method meant participating in Republican Party primaries and pressuring incumbent politicians.

In looking for that kind of language in 2010, the Cincinnati employees were attempting to create a usable shortcut. Like Willie Sutton robbing banks, they were going where the action was. But they needed a clearer test that also identified the language of the left, even if left-leaning  groups weren’t exhibiting the same surge in activism. And, frankly, it shouldn’t have been left to career employees in Cincinnati. The IRS needed clearer rules coming from the top. But the top didn’t know what to do with these 501(c)4s, in part because it feared a situation precisely like this one.

It is worth remembering an important fact here: The IRS is supposed to reject groups that are primarily political from registering as 501(c)4s. If they’re going to do  that, then they need some kind of test that helps them flag problematic applicants. And that test will have to be a bit impressionistic. It will mean taking the political rhetoric of the moment and watching for it in applications. It will require digging into the finances and activities of groups on the left and the right that seem to be political even as they’re promising their activities are primarily non-political.

If we’re not comfortable with that, then we need to either  loosen the definition of 501(c)4s or create a new designation that gives explicitly political groups the benefits of the 501(c)4s (namely, they don’t have to pay taxes and they can keep their donors anonymous). But either way, as I wrote on Friday, the only way to make sure this doesn’t keep happening is for the IRS — or the Congress and White House that control it — to make some tough decisions about 501(c)4s.

To make things look even more suspicious, Ms. Lerner appears to have been confused about the order in which events unfolded.  But, is there a scandal here?   It does not appear that any group, on the right or left has been denied 501(c)4 status.  I believe that to get 501(c)3 status which most community development groups and organizations like the Girl Scouts and the Boys and Girls clubs have one must provide a lot of information including board membership and by-laws.  The problem here is that many these new groups appear to be political organizations regardless of whether or not they claim to be educational.  I question whether any of these groups, right or left, should be tax exempt.

“Tax-exempt social-welfare groups organized under section 501(c)(4) of the Internal Revenue Code are allowed to engage in some political activity, but the primary focus of their efforts must remain promoting social welfare. That social-welfare activity can include lobbying and advocating for issues and legislation, but not outright political-campaign activity. But some of the rules leave room for IRS officials to make judgment calls and probe individual groups for further information. Organizing as such a group is desirable, not just because such entities typically don’t have to pay taxes, but also because they generally don’t have to identify their donors.” John D. McKinnon and Siobhan Hughes in The Wall Street Journal.

The odds are against Mr. Gomez being elected to the Senate and they are likely to be against the Republicans making a credible argument about the IRS, but taxes and tax exemptions are clearly land mines for anyone in politics today.  But if the Republicans are right, that is a place where the Obama Administration and I will part company.  As my Congressman Mike Capuano said today, “There’s no way in the world, I’m going to defend that. [if the accounts are true] Hell, I spent my youth vilifying the Nixon administration for doing the same thing.”

Photograph:  Reuters

The War Powers Act

 

So, who needs permisson for what?  What should a woman have to do to have an abortion?  Should the President live in South Dakota or Kansas and have to follow those rules to declare war.  I think the President should notify Congress (which he hasn’t).  As Congressman Mike Capuano explained

Article I, section 8 of the Constitution, and the War Powers Act of 1973, states that unless a crisis threatening our security requires immediate action, only Congress may authorize the use of force. I firmly believe that the Constitution entrusts Congress – not the President acting alone – to decide when to put U.S. troops in harm’s way. The President has not yet fulfilled his obligation to seek Congress’ approval to continue military operations in Libya.This decision was not easy, but I feel very strongly about this matter and I don’t expect that the Administration will decide to seek Congressional approval at this point. I also want to make it very clear that my concerns go beyond one President and one war. In fact, I am more concerned about future Presidents who may wish to bring this country to war based on insufficient facts. There is no more important matter than war and peace, and the Constitution is very clear on this matter. I appeared on CNN earlier week to talk about the lawsuit; you may watch the interview here: http://inthearena.blogs.cnn.com/2011/06/15/capuano-u-s-action-in-libya-illegal/.

 

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But I’m not sure that  Mike was  envisioning this!  Maybe it is time to rethink the War Powers Act to meet the current day defition of war.  Maybe it should include actions taken as part of a NATO or UN mandate.  Maybe it should include actions with no “boots on the ground.”  War has changed since the 1970’s.  Let’s think about this.