Sunday, June 28, 2009

Armed Mariners Bill Introduced In U.S. House

In November of 2008 (before the merchant vessel Maersk Alabama was captured by pirates), I suggested that the Federal Government could aid in arming ship crews. I stated that while shipping companies certainly had the right to arm their crews themselves, many foreign ports were hostile to the idea of armed civilians. I suggested that sanctioning of certain armed sailors by the American government might ease the fears of some squeamish governments and provide legal cover for armed seaman.

In a similar vein, U.S. Representative Frank LoBiondo (R-NJ) has recently introduced H.R. 2984, the “United States Mariner and Vessel Protection Act of 2009.” The stated purpose of the bill is "to assist in the defense of United States-flag vessels against piracy and to ensure the traditional right of self-defense of those vessels against piracy."

Rep. LoBiondo, who is on the U.S. House of Representatives Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation subcommittee, said of his bill, “Our merchant marine fleet is increasingly under attack from unlawful individuals and rogue groups that seek to disrupt commerce, seize U.S. and foreign crews, and instill fear on international waters. It is only appropriate that our fleets be legally allowed to defend themselves from these violent encounters. This common-sense legislation is a necessary step in empowering U.S.-flagged vessels to protect their crews and cargo.”

The bill would direct the appropriate U.S. Secretary to "issue regulations establishing standards and circumstances under which an individual is authorized to use force (including lethal force) against an individual in the defense of a vessel against piracy."

It would also limit the liability of ship owners, operators, and individuals for damages arising during the defense of a vessel (except in cases of gross negligence or willful misconduct). To achieve this automatic limited liability when using firearms, a mariner would have to have "completed training certified by the Coast Guard for use of firearms aboard vessels." This would help calm the fears of shipping companies that are reluctant to arm their crews for fear of future lawsuits.

The bill would also allow the U.S. Coast Guard to deploy "maritime safety and security team[s] on a temporary basis, [...] to deter, protect against, and rapidly respond to acts of piracy against vessels [...] in international waters."

Perhaps most importantly, the bill would authorize the appropriate U.S. Secretary to "work through the International Maritime Organization to establish agreements to promote coordinated action among flag and port states to deter, protect against, and rapidly respond to acts of piracy against the vessels of, and in the waters under the jurisdiction of, those nations, and to ensure limitations on liability similar to those established by [...] this Act." [Emphasis added.] In other words, the U.S. government would try to win legal protections for armed crews even from foreign governments.

I believe this law would be authorized by the U.S. Constitution under Article 1, Section 8, which gives Congress power "To define and punish Piracies and Felonies committed on the high Seas," and "To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the Militia," and "To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations[.]"

So long as it doesn't become the ONLY way that ship owners are allowed to arm their crews, I think this bill is a good bill that would help reduce piracy against U.S. merchant vessels.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Cap & Tax Won't Save The Earth

Today the U.S. House of Representatives passed the "American Clean Energy and Security Act," known as a "cap and trade" system. It now goes to the Senate where it's fate is unclear. Opponents charge that the bill is too costly and will hurt the faltering economy, while doing little to improve the environment. Here is a quick video from the Heritage Foundation dealing with subject.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

This Land Is Your Land, But Now It's OUR Land

Eminent domain abuse in Iowa?

The fact that Iowa passed a law affording property owners additional protections, in response to the landmark Kelo decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, may be of little comfort to about two-dozen Iowa families who may soon be forced off their own land.

The high court's ruling in Kelo v. City of New London was handed down June 23, 2005. In it's decision the court ruled that local governments could take land from one private property owner, just to give it to another, who may generate more tax revenue with the property. The court ruled that it was permissible under the "takings clause" of the Fifth Amendment.

That clause reads, "nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation." Before the Kelo decision, "public use" was generally understood to mean something open for the use of the general public, such as roads or schools. After Kelo, local governments could take private land from one owner (a farmer for instance) and give it to another (a real estate developer perhaps). The decision caused considerable public backlash across the country.

Here in Iowa, the Legislature responded by passing an anti-Kelo law in 2006 which tightened the state's laws protecting landowners. Then-governor Tom Vilsack vetoed the bill, but the Legislature overrode his veto by wide margins. (After sticking his thumb in the eye of Iowa's farmers and property owners on his way out of office, Vilsack now serves as Obama's Secretary of Agriculture.) Three years later, Iowa's eminent domain law may face it's first real test.

Recently the Clarke County Reservoir Commission voted to condemn farmland in order to build a new 900-acre reservoir north of Osceola. Osceola City Administrator Bill Kelly said that the area's current reservoir has about 7 percent capacity remaining. When that's completely tapped, it may hamper efforts to develop a new hotel and upscale subdivision that the town wants. The reservoir would also have a 300-foot beach, boat ramp and campsites, which supporters hope would help draw tourists to the area.

It sounds like a nice idea, but Clarke County has the same dilemma that Harvey Corman's character did in "Blazing Saddles" when he said, "Unfortunately there is one thing standing between me and that property: the rightful owners." About two-dozen rightful owners actually.

The landowners (many of whom live on the soon-to-be-submerged land) and their friends don't plan on going down without a fight. Opponents of the lake allege that supporters have exaggerated the area's water needs. Either way, the project puts the needs of future development over the welfare of current tax-paying property owners.

Representative Jodi Tymeson, a Winterset Republican and reservoir opponent, points out that many members of the Clarke County Reservoir Commission are unelected representatives of local developers and a local water association, who stand to gain from the project. "Iowans understand eminent domain for real public uses, but private property ownership is just basic to our individual liberties," said Tymeson.

The project sidesteps Iowa's anti-Kelo law since it does not take land and give it directly to private developers. Instead it takes the land and uses it for the direct benefit of those developers, at the expense of the rightful owners. "This is a deliberate attempt to get around our law,” said Rep. Jeff Kaufmann, R-Wilton, who helped pass the 2006 law.

The county government has deeper pockets than the rural residents that it seeks to dispossess, leaving Kaufmann hoping that an attorney might provide pro bono legal services for the group. If this lake project proceeds, opponents fear that it may encourage the use of eminent domain for other development and recreation projects. “I’m not sure anyone in Iowa is safe,” Representative Tymeson said.

This project may not be as an egregious case of eminent domain abuse as that which is now enshrined by the Kelo decision, but that doesn't mean it's fair.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Clean Sweep!

All 5 of Iowa's U.S. Representatives Co-Sponsor Ron Paul's "Audit the Fed" Bill.

On June 11, U.S. Representative Bruce Braley became the final member of Iowa's U.S. House delegation to co-sponsor HR 1207, the “Federal Reserve Transparency Act of 2009.″ Iowa's three Democrat and two Republican representatives have all now co-sponsored this important legislation.

The bill merely calls for the Comptroller General (America's chief financial inspector and head of the Government Accountability Office [GAO]) to conduct an audit of the Federal Reserve System by the end of 2010 and report the findings to Congress.

The Federal Reserve (or "Fed") is America's central banking system. It is a a quasi-public and quasi-private organization (an unholy union of government and private interests). It was signed in 1913 by President Woodrow Wilson, who supposedly later lamented, "I am a most unhappy man. I have unwittingly ruined my country. [...] The growth of the nation, therefore, and all our activities are in the hands of a few men. [...] No longer a government by free opinion, no longer a government by conviction and the vote of the majority, but a government by the opinion and duress of a small group of dominant men."

According to its website, the Federal Reserve's duties fall into four general areas:
  1. Conducting the nation's monetary policy by influencing the monetary and credit conditions in the economy in pursuit of maximum employment, stable prices, and moderate long-term interest rates.
  2. Supervising and regulating banking institutions to ensure the safety and soundness of the nation's banking and financial system and to protect the credit rights of consumers.
  3. Maintaining the stability of the financial system and containing systemic risk that may arise in financial markets.
  4. Providing financial services to depository institutions, the U.S. government, and foreign official institutions, including playing a major role in operating the nation's payments system.

You would think that an institution with so much responsibility to and power in the U.S. economy would be run openly and transparently. Not so. To understand why the audit of the Fed is necessary, here are the words of the bill's author Congressman Ron Paul, when he arose to introduce the bill to Congress:

"I rise to introduce the Federal Reserve Transparency Act. Throughout its nearly 100-year history, the Federal Reserve has presided over the near-complete destruction of the United States dollar. Since 1913 the dollar has lost over 95% of its purchasing power, aided and abetted by the Federal Reserve’s loose monetary policy. How long will we as a Congress stand idly by while hard-working Americans see their savings eaten away by inflation? Only big-spending politicians and politically favored bankers benefit from inflation. [...]

"Since its inception, the Federal Reserve has always operated in the shadows, without sufficient scrutiny or oversight of its operations. [...] The Federal Reserve has, on the one hand, many of the privileges of government agencies, while retaining benefits of private organizations, such as being insulated from Freedom of Information Act requests.

"The Federal Reserve can enter into agreements with foreign central banks and foreign governments, and the GAO is prohibited from auditing or even seeing these agreements. Why should a government-established agency, whose police force has federal law enforcement powers, and whose notes have legal tender status in this country, be allowed to enter into agreements with foreign powers and foreign banking institutions with no oversight? [...]

"More importantly, the Fed’s funding facilities and its agreements with the Treasury should be reviewed. The Treasury’s supplementary financing accounts that fund Fed facilities allow the Treasury to funnel money to Wall Street without GAO or Congressional oversight. [...]

"The Federal Reserve Transparency Act would eliminate restrictions on GAO audits of the Federal Reserve and open Fed operations to enhanced scrutiny. We hear officials constantly lauding the benefits of transparency and especially bemoaning the opacity of the Fed, its monetary policy, and its funding facilities. By opening all Fed operations to a GAO audit and calling for such an audit to be completed by the end of 2010, the Federal Reserve Transparency Act would achieve much-needed transparency of the Federal Reserve. I urge my colleagues to support this bill."

And support it they have. HR 1207 currently has 223 co-sponsors in the House of Representatives, Republicans and Democrats alike. That is over half of all representatives. With that much support, it would appear likely that House leadership will allow the bill to be debated and voted on.

Attention now turns to the Senate where the bill's companion bill, S.604 (Federal Reserve Sunshine Act) has already been introduced. The Fed intends to hire a veteran lobbyist to urge Congress to vote against the audit. The people, therefore, need to urge them to vote FOR the bill. Contact information for Iowa's two U.S. Senators is below. Ask them to co-sponsor S.604.

Sen. Charles Grassley (R): Website Contact Page or Mail to 135 Hart Senate Office Building, District of Columbia 20510-1501 D.C. Office Phone: (202) 224-3744 Des Moines Office Phone: (515) 288-1145

Sen. Tom Harkin (D): Website Contact Page or Mail to 731 Hart Senate Office Building,District of Columbia 20510-1502 D.C. Office Phone: (202) 224-3254 Des Moines Office Phone: (515) 284-4574

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Teaching the Constitution

The Public Interest Institute (PII) recently released a new policy study entitled "A Republic If You Can Keep It: Failing To Teach First Principles," which highlights America and Iowa's failure to ground young citizens in "civic education." The Public Interest Institute is an independent, non-profit organization located on the campus of Iowa Wesleyan College in Mt. Pleasant. It is committed to doing research "on principles and methods to promote and encourage human rights, economic freedom, economic growth, and the creation of jobs here in Iowa."

The report essentially says that, when it comes to American history and institutions, many American's are like the people on The Tonight Show's popular "Jay Walking" segments, in which Jay Leno would ask questions to random people on the street whose answers were often woefully ignorant.

Some statistics cited by the report, from various studies:

  • 52.1% of undergraduate seniors could not recognize that the line "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal," is from the Declaration of Independence.

  • 52% of college graduates believe that the phrase "wall of separation" is found in the Constitution.

  • Less than 50% of average Americans can name all three branches of government.

  • Only 27% understand that the Bill of Rights prohibits the establishment of an official state religion for the United States.

Why does civic education matter? Because, the report states, "Americans have a citizenship responsibility that requires an informed patriotism based on our history and institutions." This lack of "informed patriotism" has left the nation "facing a national emergency of losing not only its identity, but also history and values."

The PII report also analyzes the core curriculum of Iowa's institutes of higher learning and finds them lacking on civic education. It points to the curriculum of Hillsdale College (Michigan) and Patrick Henry College (Virginia) as examples of good grounding in civics.

To remedy the situation, the PII study recommends that governors and legislators should push for higher required standards on civics education. It also suggests that citizens should lobby their elected officials and hold education institutions "accountable" (whatever that means).

A warning missing from the PII study is that we need to be wary of how this new civics would be taught and who teaches it. "Civics education" can easily be perverted by a usurping government into political propaganda, or more likely just a sloppy and inaccurate presentation of the subject.

For instance, worrying about the lack of "civics education" caused the U.S. Congress to want to establish "Presidential Academies" to help teach the subject. Ironically, the U.S. Constitution gives Congress ZERO authority dealing with education ( and the 10th Amendment reminds "powers not delegated to the United States [government] by the Constitution, [...] are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people"). Can institutions chartered in violation of the Constitution be reliable teachers of constitutional principles?

Another cautionary tale on civics education comes from "We the People: The Citizen and the Constitution," a widely-used high school civics textbook. An analysis done by Gun Owners of America discovered some interesting points in the textbook.

Firstly, the aforementioned 10th Amendment is not even mentioned in the section dealing with the Bill of Rights. Not even once! When the book discusses federalism it "treats the federal government as the octopus head which can dictate to the tentacles (the states) what they must do," (in GOA's words).

The Second Amendment is discussed in an historical context, but is presented as hopelessly out of date. Students are asked: "Do you think the Second Amendment is as important today as it was in the eighteenth century? Explain your answer." and "What limitations, if any, do you think should be placed on the right to bear arms? How would you justify those limits? " Students are not asked to similarly question the relevance of any part of the U.N.'s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but are asked how it might be expanded in this country.

Although I agree with PII that state governments could push for higher standards in civic education, I believe that the primary responsibility belongs to the people themselves. We must first teach ourselves. (I'm still learning too.) We and our civic groups must teach our children and our fellow citizens on America's history, identity and values. The reason civic education is in such sorry shape is because we have already given so much of the task to the state.

We must read the Declaration and Constitution. When they are old enough, my kids will be receiving handsomely bound copies (after they get their Bibles, of course). We should read our state constitutions as well.

There are many fine books out there dealing with Constitutional principles. On everyone's short list are "The Federalist Papers" and "Democracy In America" by Alexis DeTocqueville. I would also recommend "The Anti-Federalist Papers and the Constitutional Convention Debates" by Ralph Ketcham and "The Bill of Rights Primer" by Akhil Reed Amar. For middle-school age kids and up, I recommend "The U.S.Constitution for Everyone" by Jerome Agel. Also try "Revolution: A Manifesto" by Ron Paul. [Some of these are located in the "Important Documents" section at the right side of this blog.]

At the end of the day, only we the people can instill the "informed patriotism," that the PII study speaks of, in our fellow citizens and future generations. We HAVE to if we want "America" to mean anything more than a mere geographic location on the map.

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