Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Sen. Jamie Raskin's Start of Session Letter

“Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.”

--Susan Sontag

Dear Friends:

The new legislative session has launched, the Governor has been inaugurated, and I am thrilled to be back representing you in Annapolis.

Before I give you my sense of where things stand politically, I want to thank everyone for your incredibly warm letters, emails, notes, prayers, poetry, hand-painted get-well signs from elementary school classes, care packages, New Age cures, customized “cd mixes” from Blair high school students, homemade dinners and chocolate chip cookies. My cup runneth over with your friendship and affection.

The loving support of my community of friends and neighbors has been integral to my recovery. I am feeling great, the tumor is gone, the cancer is on the run, and I am half-way through chemotherapy, which will end in April (knock on wood) along with the legislative session. I will always keep my passport to the land of sickness and will never forget how many people are living there. This experience—and hearing cancer stories from nearly everyone I meet these days-- makes me all that more passionate about keeping carcinogens and other pollutants out of our water and air and providing first-class health care coverage to all Marylanders and Americans. I cannot imagine what it would be like to go through this kind of thing without health insurance.

Progressive Surge and A New Day in Annapolis

I rejoin a State Senate that has been transformed by the 2010 election. Unlike almost every State Senate in America, we actually picked up Democratic seats--one from the Eastern Shore and one in Frederick County. Moreover, we saw progressive Democrats replace more conservative Democrats in contested primaries in Montgomery County, Prince George’s County and Baltimore. Whereas I was the only newcomer to beat an incumbent Senator in the Democratic primaries in 2006, we saw many cases in 2010 in which Democratic primary voters chose between progressive-change Democrats and business-as-usual incumbents and overwhelmingly voted for a clean break from machine-style let’s-make-a-deal politics.

This progressive surge in Maryland significantly bolsters the power of the District 20 delegation to advance the agenda you have sent us to promote. I believe that this Term, and in many cases this Session, we will pass the following bills that I have been championing and that suddenly look like very good bets indeed:

  • The Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Protection Act, which will permit all Marylanders, straight and gay, to marry the person they love and enjoy all the rights and all the responsibilities of marriage.
  • An increase in the alcohol tax--which was last raised during the first Eisenhower administration--to pay for badly underfunded programs for the developmentally disabled and the mentally ill.
  • The Direct Wine Shipment Act, which will give Maryland’s wine-lovers the right that Americans enjoy in 37 states to have wine shipped to their homes and Maryland’s wineries the right to ship wine all over the state and the nation to their growing customer base. This legislation will permit us to recapture between $1-2 million in tax revenues lost every year to neighboring jurisdictions as our citizens have their wine shipped to Virginia or Washington, D.C. and then smuggle it home!

  • Clean the Streams and Beautify the Bay Act of 2011, imposing a nickel tax on plastic bags so we can get the plastic out of our waterways and environment, and the Watershed Protection Act, comprehensive storm water legislation that will require every county to set up a storm water utility with a fee based on commercial and residential acreage. The rain waters today are carrying toxic contaminants, soot and garbage directly into our waterways and this is the fastest growing threat to the recovery of the Bay.

  • A compulsory ignition interlock device for convicted drunk drivers. This is the bill I have been pushing with Mothers Against Drunk Driving for a compulsory built-in breathalyzer that does not allow a car to start until the driver passes a breath test. Similar legislation in Arizona and New Mexico has reduced drunk driving fatalities in those states by more than 35%. We will save dozens of lives when we pass it.

  • Campaign finance reform legislation to compel disclosure by corporations that engage in independent expenditures and to close the myriad loopholes that permit big donors to circumvent all the contribution limits. I was proud again in 2010 to be the only Member of the Senate not to accept corporate and partnership campaign contributions but the continuing flow of special-interest money twists the public agenda and thwarts much of the best legislation introduced in Annapolis.

  • Affordable Health Care Act to make it illegal for insurance companies to drop patients because they have pre-existing conditions or have become ill; to expand health incurance coverage; and to lower the costs of medical care.

The Budget Crisis and Politics on the Spirit Level

The key theme of our legislative session, as in nearly every state in the Union, is fiscal crisis and how to close a budget gap estimated in our state to be more than $1.3 billion. The budget axes and machetes are starting to swing.

As Vice-Chairman of the Montgomery County delegation in the Senate, I will do everything I can to protect and defend level funding of our schools and colleges, essential social services, our health care infrastructure, and public employee pensions.

But there will, no doubt, be fiscal pain administered in Annapolis, which is why I think we need to take a broader and deeper look at the politics and economics of the moment.

There is no way that we can properly address the breakdown in our physical and social infrastructure until we realign federal budget priorities, which are skewed beyond belief in the direction of what President Dwight Eisenhower called 50 years ago this week the “military-industrial complex.” My District 20 colleague Delegate Sheila Hixson and I have asked every Member of the General Assembly to join us in sending
this letter to our Congressional delegation urging them to fight for a major shift in federal spending away from military expenditure and war towards investment in domestic priorities and human needs. We hope legislatures across America controlled by both major parties will follow our lead in asking Congress to revisit the wisdom of President Eisenhower who said that the “world in arms . . .is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.”

But our stubborn economic crisis compels us to search even more deeply for flaws in our economic thinking. Anyone who paid attention to the multi-trillion dollar sub-prime mortgage meltdown knows that deregulation and regulatory capture by big business are a recipe for economic and social failure. We are still paying the outrageous price of having government run by lobbyists and large corporations during the Bush, Cheney and Abramoff years.

But there is another major culprit in social breakdown that is identified in an excellent book I just finished reading called The Spirit Level by British public health specialists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett.

The culprit is inequality.

The authors examine reams of cross-national data about life expectancy and infant mortality, child wellbeing, mental illness, obesity, educational success and drop-out rates, homicide and suicide, crime, imprisonment, social mobility and levels of social trust.

They arrive at a striking conclusion. While all of these public and social health indicators improve dramatically for poor countries as they increase their GNP and average family incomes, once countries reach a certain level of prosperity, wealth and average income have very little to do with the physical and mental health of the population and its happiness.

What matters once basic needs are met in a society is not how rich the society is but how equal it is. In the healthiest and happiest societies, the income and wealth gap between the rich and the poor is much smaller than what is found in societies that have high infant mortality, high crime and violence, high rate of mental illness and suicide, high drop-out rates and so on. High inequality means lots of social chaos.

When the authors turn their attention to the United States, they document the same pattern. The key indicator of public health and wellbeing is not how rich or poor a state is, but how equal or unequal it is. The states that have the worst public health outcomes and the lowest levels of happiness are the most unequal states like Mississippi, Texas, Louisiana, and Alabama; the healthiest states tend to be not the richest ones, like Connecticut, New Jersey or Maryland, alas, but the ones with the least inequality, like Vermont, New Hampshire, Minnesota, Utah and Wisconsin.

Why would this be so? The authors show that everyone benefits from living in a society with “equality of conditions,” which is what struck Tocqueville about America when he came here in the 1830s. When public policy permits huge economic extremes of the kind we see in America today, the “inequality gets under the skin” and erodes social trust, undermining everyone’s sense of well-being and security. It produces anxiety and shame among the poor, who become overwhelmed by the burdens and indignities of going without in the midst of plenty. It forces an anxious middle class, struggling to make ends meet, to constantly play “catch up” with the demands of corporate consumerism and conspicuous consumption. Meantime, the wealthy respond to high levels of crime and disorder in unequal societies by walling themselves off in gated communities with security guards and expensive alarm systems and privatized services of every kind. The “spirit level” suffers as people lose their sense of common experience and their commitment to public things.

The portrait of society painted by these researchers hit very close to home for me. I am committed to working in this session to promote not just fairness but real equality, which produces better health and well-being for everyone. As Dr. King put it, “All life is interrelated. All humanity is involved in but a single process and to the degree I harm my brother, to that extent I harm myself.”

The “spirit level” is a lived commitment to the equal rights and potential of all of our fellow citizens. So I wish you a happy belated Martin Luther King Day in honor of the greatest champion of equality we ever had. The good people of Silver Spring and Takoma Park are working every day to make his dream live. May we recapture in our days the spirit of nonviolence, the passion for justice and the moral solidarity that Dr. King embodied and advanced in his lifetime.

All best wishes,

Jamie Raskin

p.s. You are always welcome in Annapolis, either to testify on legislation or just to see your representatives in action, so do let me know if we can help you in any way arrange a visit. Meantime, I will be at Impact Silver Spring and Progressive Neighbors' legislative forum this Sunday, January 23, at 2:00 pm at Impact Silver Spring, 825 Wayne Ave., Silver Spring.

p.p.s. I wrote a report for People for the American Way recently on the Tea Party and its constitutional philosophy. If interested, you can read it here. And you can also read my "birthday card" to the Citizens United decision in the Huffington Post here.