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POLS ARTICLESTable of Contents

The Art of the Closing Argument

Democrats Search for a Party Path

10 Partisan Myths

Bigger is Better Versus Small is Beautiful: Issues in the Debate Over District, School and Class Size

Ten Myths about Texas Public Schools

Supreme Court Will Revisit Issue of Free Exercise of Religion

A House Divided

 

 

 

 

Democrats Search for a Party Path

LINDA FELDMANN

(from The Christian Science Monitor, April 19, 2005)

Life in the political wilderness can be tough. Some Republicans here still know what that's like -- though at this point, 10-plus years after Newt Gingrich and Co. swept the Democrats out of power on Capitol Hill, a majority of House GOP members have no firsthand experience of being in the minority.

Democrats, in fact, are counting on those dwindling numbers to help them as they look for that right combination of message, candidates, infrastructure, and opposition stumbles -- with a dash of opposition hubris -- to win back their mojo in 2006, if not 2008. So far, the party in power has obliged on that last score: House GOP leader Tom DeLay is under siege over ethics. President Bush faces an uphill climb with his No. 1 domestic priority, remaking Social Security. A majority of Americans objected to Congress and Bush turning the Terri Schiavo tragedy into a federal case.

But Democrats aren't gaining from the other side's losses. Polls show the GOP congressional leadership is less popular than the president - but the Democratic leadership fares still worse. And even among rank-and-file Democrats, only 56 percent approve of their own congressional leadership, according to the Pew Research Center. Among Republicans, the analogous number is 76 percent.

Bottom line: It's hard to project power when you're out of power. Among Democrats, "there's a feeling that somehow our leaders are not fighting back hard enough, though I don't think that's true," says Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, a centrist Democratic think tank. Mr. Marshall adds that he's never seen the party so determined in its opposition to the right. "But even though we may be winning policy arguments on Social Security and things like the Schiavo case, there's no way to take those gains to the bank immediately, in the sense of winning elections," he says.

Polls also show the public doesn't get a clear message from the Democrats -- beyond "just say no" to Republicans. Around town, pollsters and Democratic policy groups are hunkering down and formulating ideas they hope will propel their party back into power. One new group, called Third Way, is a stepchild of the Democratic Leadership Council, the centrist group that was Bill Clinton's ideological home base. Third Way is working with centrist Democratic senators to draft ideas, and ultimately legislation, on national security, the economy, and cultural issues. Another group, the Center for American Progress, launched in 2003 by former Clinton chief of staff John Podesta, calls itself nonpartisan, but has emerged as a premier purveyor of progressive Democratic analysis - some say spin.

A couple of other Clinton alumni -- pollster Stanley Greenberg and campaign guru James Carville -- have also been on a quest, via their group Democracy Corps, for what they call a dominant "narrative" that Democrats can take from battlefield to battlefield, from Social Security to the budget to tax reform. Of the six Democratic vision statements they tested in a February survey, one scored highest for its potential to sway likely voters to their party's side: "The Democrats say America is only strong when we are strong at home, as well as in the world. We must invest in our own people to expand opportunity and build our own economy. Promoting American jobs, industry and technology is our starting point and mission in building a strong America."

Other analysts believe that just saying "no" to the GOP is precisely the way to go for now, at least in the run-up to the 2006 midterm elections. Just as out-of-power Republicans in 1994 succeeded in wounding the Democrats by rejecting Clinton's healthcare plan, and not putting forth an alternative, the Democrats are following the same game plan with Social Security.

"It really is important for Democrats over this longer period, certainly for the presidential campaign of 2008, to know what they're about in a way that's easily communicated," says Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution. But "the object now, from [Democrats'] perspective, is to keep the Republicans from doing more harm." Indeed, Democrats complain that while they have plenty of ideas and proposals, when you're out of power, the press doesn't care.

"You are inevitably going to focus on the official agenda," said Rep. Barney Frank (D) of Massachusetts at a recent Monitor breakfast, "and therefore it makes sense for us to define what we are doing in terms of our opposition to their official agenda."

Many analysts are looking back to the Republicans' 1994 electoral sweep that gave them control of both houses of Congress for the first time in 40 years. Some parallels to today are there: an unpopular presidential initiative, ethics problems of a key leader. But the Democrats face a steeper climb -- in part, because congressional redistricting has made the vast majority of seats safe for their incumbent parties.

And it would be a mistake, says Mr. Mann, to assume that a Democratic version of the GOP's 1994 "Contract With America" -- a 10-point plan that gave candidates and party activists a campaign blueprint -- is essential in 2006. The contract wasn't released until six weeks before the 1994 midterms, and polls show most of the public wasn't aware of it. Mann calls it "a minor ingredient" in the Gingrich revolution. Far more important was a sense that a form of dry rot had set in at the core of the Democratic leadership, allowing the Republicans to nationalize the race.

For now, then, while the Republicans reap the benefits and risks of total control, some Democrats are focusing on infrastructure. In a New York Times commentary last month, former Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey called on his Democratic brethren to build a Republican-style "pyramid" of power - a base of donors and foundations, a second layer of think tanks, a third layer of political strategists, a fourth level of partisan media, and, if all goes according to plan, a Democratic president at the top.

Last weekend, in Scottsdale, Ariz., Democratic strategist Rob Stein was to hold a confab of party fundraisers to begin such an enterprise. Newly minted Democratic chair Howard Dean is also working on structure, building up state Democratic parties. But he has also grabbed headlines of late, suggesting, for example, that Democrats should "use Terri Schiavo" to attack Republicans. Whether Dr. Dean's outspokenness takes away from his mundane but crucial goal of party-building remains to be seen.

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10 Partisan Myths

PETER G. PETERSON

(from Newsweek, July 12, 2004, p. 44)

Our two parties have organized themselves around two sided and mutually exclusive world views: Democrats believe every American is “entitled” to government largesse, while Republicans see only the ball and chain of punitive taxation. Each of these views has a set of self-justifying ”myths.” But their consequences go well beyond making our political process seem foolish. While federal deficit projections soar to dangerous heights, threatening our kids with unconscionable tax hikes, these myths have polarized the two parties and ruled out the sort of bipartisan consensus Americans need to avert fiscal catastrophe.

Five Democratic Myths About Entitlements

1.  Because federal benefits go to the poor, reform will amount to a shedding of our social safety net. We should never forget the critical role that federal benefits have played and continue to play in protecting Americans against the hardships of poverty. “I see one third of a nation ill-housed, ill clad, ill-nourished,” announced President Roosevelt in 1937. Most of the benefits originally paid out through his New Deal programs were directly targeted at alleviating this misery. However, this is no longer the purpose toward which most benefits are directed. In 2002, out of $1.2 trillion in federal, state and local benefits, the poor received roughly $140 billion, according to the Census Bureau. That’s about 12 cents of every full benefit dollar.  

2.  Even if they don’t go to the poor, federal benefits foster equality by going mostly to lower-income households. In Truth, Social Welfare Programs no longer redistribute wealth in favor of low-income households. Total welfare benefits to the affluent are at least as substantial as those to the needy. Among Social Security beneficiaries, for instance, households with incomes of $150,000 or more receive, on average, checks that are twice as large as those of households with less than $15,000. If our purpose were simply to straighten out the national income distribution, we’d do a better job by mailing our benefit checks to random addresses. Even when we add back in other federal resources, including welfare and food stamps, benefits are distributed evenly across households of all incomes.

3.  Federal benefits go to the elderly, who everyone knows are much less well off than younger Americans. Federal Benefits do go mostly to the elderly. And 40 years ago it was true that the elderly were less well off than other demographic groups. But today, thanks in part to all the benefit programs that were expanded in their behalf, the elderly now have a lower poverty rate(10.4%) than any other age group.

4.  Social Security and Medicare are earned rights by contract: beneficiaries are only getting back what they paid in. It seems natural to assume a certain justice about the arrangement. Until one considers timing and demographics, that is. When you start a new pension system, full contributions from covered workers start arriving right away but benefit payouts remain small for many years until enough workers with enough “credits” begin retiring. During the early years of both Social Security and Medicare, Congress kept tax rates unrealistically low and awarded ever-higher benefits to new retirees who had contributed only for a year or two. That meant that the children of the World War II generation (including the boomers) would have to contribute at much higher tax rates over their entire working lives just to keep benefits flowing to their parents. It’s even worse news for today’s young Americans, whose payroll tax rate will have to double to fund the demographic tsunami of retiring boomers unless the system is reformed.

5.  The future growth in the cost of senior benefits, what ever they may be, can easily be borne by younger generations. Every year, the social security trustees release an estimate of the system’s  “actuarial deficit,” which many assume represents what we would need in hand today to cover Social Security’s cash shortfall over the next 75 years. In 2003, the actuarial deficit officially amounted to $3.5 trillion. But to arrive at a true estimate, we need to include Medicare as well as Social Security, unless we believe that health care costs will miraculously turn around and head south on their own. This adds $15.6 trillion. (All these dollar figures are “present values.”) Next, we have to add back in the value of the mythical “trust funds,” which aren’t going to save the American people one nickel in future tax liabilities. Add another $1.6 trillion. And if we use an unlimited time horizon, which we must do unless we want our kids to pass this problem along to their own kids, that adds an extra $24 trillion to the actuarial deficit, for a grand total of roughly $45 trillion in 2003, according to research commissioned by the Treasury Department. That exceeds our nation's entire net worth ($42 trillion).

Five Republican Myths About Tax Cuts

1.  Because the American people are over taxed, they want and deserve our tax cuts. Are we really overtaxed?  Certainly not compared to other developed countries. Of all 27 developed countries (defined by the OECD), the United States is roughly tied with Japan as the least taxed as a share of GDP. Are we over taxed relative to our past? We’d have to go back to 1968 to find a year when total government revenues were lower as a share of GDP. Tax cutters often imply that Americans are becoming much more hostile to taxes over time. But this isn’t true either. According to two Gallup polls taken in 2003, for example, the share of Americans who say that the federal income tax is “too high” is lower than in any year since 1962.

2.  OK, forget the long-term tax burden. Our tax cuts are still a sensible near-term means of stimulating a weak economy back to health. This argument certainly has much truth to it. The vast majority of economists agree in principle that a tax cut could be a legitimate means to substitute for diminished consumer and investor demand. I say in principle, because the critical issue here is timing. To be effective, the stimulus must be applied during the early part of a recession. That is, it must put money now in the pockets of the people who will spend it now. Over the entire last century, unfortunately, Congress has never been able to time this stimulus very well. The tax cuts typically don’t kick in all the way until late in the recession and then continue long after the recession is over. That’s certainly true for most of the resent Bush tax cuts. It’s why many economists have grown to dislike countercyclical tax cuts in practice.

3.  Even when they don’t deliver near-term stimulus, tax cuts make the tax code more efficient. Over the years, many tax reformers have defended their proposals-creating fewer tax brackets, establishing a national value-added or “flat” income tax, or phasing out the taxation of estates or dividends-by citing efficiency advantages. In theory, we’d be better off with a tax code that raises the same revenue with fewer distortions in economic behavior.  But a pure efficiency reform must leave revenue unchanged. Current proposals do not.  Reducing the taxation on corporate earnings, for example, may marginally raise private-sector savings-cited by some as an efficiency improvement. Even if it does, the extra savings will be overwhelmed by the loss in federal revenue, which adds directly to the federal debt and, over time, subtracts nearly dollar for dollar from national savings.

4.  The critics just don’t get it. What out tax cuts are really about is improving “supply side” incentives to work, save and invest. The marginal tax rate is the rate that applies to the last or highest or “marginal” dollar that you earn in a year. A core proposition of the “supply side” argument for tax reform is that reductions, in high marginal tax rates can sometimes have a dramatic and positive impact on economic activity and (even) on revenue. The reality is that supply-side claims have become a theology, ruling out any reasonable discussion of the evidence that when marginal tax rates are not high. The efficiencies you gain by cutting them maybe modest and the impact on economic activity may be ambiguous.

5.  Let’s be honest. This is all about politics. In the long run, our tax cuts will force Congress to cut back government. I know several brilliant Republicans who admit to me, in private, that much of the supply-side hype about the economics of tax cuts is not really true. But, they say, it’s the only way to reduce government spending in a world in which powerful interest groups, allied with the opposition party, stand ready to punish any attempt to cut off the flow of government largesse. This is a clever apologia, but it is unfair because nothing excuses holding the next generation hostage on the dubious bet that another party will have the good will to relent. It is cynical because it assumes that Americans no longer share any common values on which open agreement can be reached. I for one refuse to accept this dismal view. And it is hypocritical. One could take the ostensible goal of the tax cutters- smaller government- more seriously if we saw that they were also at least trying to reduce government spending. But we see nothing of the sort. Instead, spending has exploded on their watch.

What needs to happen for all the myth-spinning to stop? The heads of the Democratic and Republican parties need to pause and assess the potential damage they’re doing. Voters need to demand that politicians adhere to the truth, even if it’s not what they want to hear. We must learn again to cooperate politically and embrace a positive vision of what our nation can become. Instead of obsessing over the tax hike that outrages us or the benefit cut that shocks us, we need to come to think of our future. Not since the Kennedy administration have presidents asked us what we can do for our country. It’s time to demonstrate to the next generation that this is a virtue Americans have not forgotten.

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Bigger is Better vs. Small is Beautiful: Issues in the Debate Over District, School and Class Size

(Executive Summary)

AMY PRASKACVOICES OF YOUTH ON CIVIC EDUCATION

Two opposing themes run through the literature on size in education, whether size of district, size of school, or size of class is the topic. One theme is "bigger is better." The other theme is "small is beautiful." Proponents of the notion that bigger is better are interested in efficiency. They are also concerned with the variety of educational opportunities. This usually takes the form of more course offerings for high school students. Quantity and variety are the focus. When more courses are offered, it is more likely that students will be offered advanced courses so there is a qualitative aspect as well.

Advocates of small is beautiful view are interested in effectiveness that can be achieved through intimacy and smaller proportions. They are likely to be concerned with student achievement. Quality experiences are the focus. They are also concerned with the learning environment and the totality of the student experience.

Statistics show that there were 14,634 public school districts in the United States enrolling 43,929,467 students in the fall of 1994. Average district size for the United States was 3,002. There were 59,680 public elementary and 19,995 public secondary schools in 1994. Elementary schools averaged 464 students and were much smaller than secondary schools which averaged 689. The average pupil-teacher ratio for the United States was 17.4. These statistics are provided to sketch a picture of the various levels of schooling in order to provide a context for the discussion that follows.

At the district level, the debate over size revolves around issues of efficiency and effectiveness. Administrative, operational, or purchasing efficiencies can be realized with greater size. However, inefficiencies or diseconomies of scale are also possible as the burden of an educational bureaucracy increases with size. Therefore, consolidation is not necessarily a solution, particularly since central administrative costs are a relatively small portion of school districts' budgets. Proponents of large districts set a minimum at 10,000 to 12,000 and a maximum at 40,000 to 50,000. Advocates of small districts argue that 5,000 students are the most that can be served effectively. The savings of potential efficiencies of large districts must be weighed against any added costs. It is possible that the greater effectiveness of smaller school districts may merely reflect greater homogeneity or higher socioeconomic status.

At the school level, the debate regarding efficiency versus effectiveness continues. The efficiency side maintains that larger schools can offer a more comprehensive program at a lower per-student cost. The effectiveness side looks at the opportunity to participate in the life of the school and to be known to one's peers and teachers. While larger schools may have more comprehensive programs, this does not necessarily translate into more course taking by students. Yet, while smaller schools are less likely to offer a comprehensive program, students are more likely to be engaged in extracurricular activities. This engagement decreases the probability of alienation and dropping out. In general, studies that examine curriculum or inputs usually yield a recommendation for larger schools. Studies that focus on achievement or output do not always arrive at a recommendation. Those that do usually recommend a smaller school. Researchers who have considered both sides have concluded that the cost savings and curriculum arguments are less weighty than the gains achieved by small schools.

At the class level the debate over size intensifies and the exchanges grow sharper. A lack of supporting theory, however, reduces the debate to empirical studies and methodological issues. Some of the methodological issues debated are internal and external validity, the range of class sizes studied, and effect size and duration of the effect. Yet a substantive issue beyond methodology exists: It does no good to decrease class size if teachers do not change their instructional methods. Given the expense of reducing class size, researchers have concluded that reducing class size is an inefficient policy for increasing achievement. Instead, attention should be paid to preparing teachers to engage in instructional strategies shown by research to be related to higher student performance.

Recommendations for compensating for size evince a distinct character according to the level of schooling; from the small district one builds out, from the large school one breaks down, and in the classroom one matches up instructional method to the particular needs of students. Small districts and schools may need to pool resources through a purchasing cooperative or shared school facilities. Large schools need to create a smaller environment where teachers and students can come to know one another. The school-within-a-school approach or vertical house plans are examples. Even these solutions have their challenges in the need to use existing buildings and to minimize bureaucratic structures. Difficult cases may need to settle for a partial solution rather than be defeated by an all or nothing approach.

In the end, smaller seems to work better because people seem to flourish better in environments where they have some sense of control or influence. Breaking organizations into more manageable units contributes to greater efficiency and adaptability. Yet it is futile to consider the size question in isolation. Size is Important, but the proper focus is the best fit between organizational mission and size. Schools and school systems need to be structured in the fashion best suited to achieve educational goals.

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Ten Myths about Texas Public Schools

BILL RATLIFF

Texas Senator Bill Ratliff's tenure as chair of the Senate Education Committee opened his eyes to many of the misconceptions about Texas public schools. Following is his list of Texas public education myths and a synopsis of his observations on the myths. The full text of his 10 myths can be found in the June 1994 issue of Texas Lone Star.

Myth 1

The Texas Supreme Court ordered that the same amount of money be spent on each public school student.

Edgewood's funding test was "substantially equal access to similar revenue per student at similar levels of tax effort." The court ordered that the system must be one wherein any two districts choosing to tax at similar rates must be able to spend substantially the same amount per pupil. Edgewood's funding test was "substantially equal access to similar revenue per student at similar levels of tax effort." The court ordered that the system must be one wherein any two districts choosing to tax at similar rates must be able to spend substantially the same amount per pupil.

Myth 2

There am other school finance plans available other than "recapture" (Robin Hood) which would meet the Supreme Court's test for equity.

Writes Ratliff, "If we are to satisfy the court's test for constitutionality ... the only available approach is to transfer some of the wealth from these wealthy districts to the poorer districts. Whatever mechanism we use ... any system that will satisfy this court order must be some form of transfer of tax base or revenues, in other words, recapture, or "Robin Hood."

Myth 3

The revenues from the lottery could be used to bring about equity in school funding.

Shifting all lottery proceeds to the poorest districts would do little to equalize funding to schools.

Myth 4

Funding for education has increased faster than inflation every year for more than a decade. In 1994 we will spend more than twice as much money on education as in 1984.

The inflation-adjusted amount of state money being spent per pupil on public education has remained virtually constant since 1984.

Myth 5

The problems of public education cannot be solved by simply throwing more money at them.

Research indicates that class size and parental involvement are the most important factors in student learning through the eighth grade. The optimum classroom size is 18 students, which would require more teachers and more classrooms and, thus, more money.

Myth 6

Private schools are able to furnish an education superior to that of public schools at less cost.

Private schools can be selective In choosing students and choose to educate only the cream of the crop," (e.g., less expensive). A simple comparison of private and public schooling is not fair, as many variables need to be considered.

Myth 7

The reason a voucher or "choice" system is not adopted is to protect the public schools from competition.

Writes Ratliff, "The Achilles' heel for a voucher or choice system is not resistance by public schools to competition, but the purely practical matter of transportation. To be able to offer a nondiscriminatory voucher system, it would be necessary to offer every child free transportation to any school of that child's choice, a logistical and budgetary nightmare."

Myth 8

TEA is spending a huge percentage of the state's education dollars on their own bureaucracy.

Only 0.25 percent of the state's $14 billion expenditure is spent by TEA to administer the system. The money spent by schools to adhere to TEA rules and policies is the real cost, and here TEA has no choice but to impose the requirement on school districts of legislative mandates.

Myth 9

The Legislature continues to concentrate on school funding but hasn't done anything about the quality of the public education being delivered.

Senate Bill 7, as well as attempting to adopt a constitutional funding mechanism, also set up a comprehensive accountability system for schools and rescinded a long list of state mandates.

Myth 10

Test scores by which we measure scholastic achievement have plummeted, with Texas now ranking 44th in the nation in SAT scores for its public school students.

The average Texas SAT scores have actually risen since 1983. Texas is ranked 41st, which is misleading because in Texas, 48 percent of students take the test as a requirement to get into college. In 20 states, less than 15 percent of high school graduates take the test. When Texas is compared with other states that test at least 40 percent of their students, Texas ranks approximately at the median.

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Supreme Court will Revisit Issue of Free Exercise of Religion

WARREN RICHEY

(from The Christian Science Monitor, April 19, 2005)

In 1990, the US Supreme Court shook the foundations of religious liberty in America.

Five justices declared in a landmark decision that there is no fundamental right under the First Amendment's free exercise clause to a religious exemption from any law that applies to everyone in society, no matter how oppressive that law might be to a particular religious faith. The only recourse for religions affected by a neutral, generally applicable law is to lobby lawmakers to make an exception, the high court said. But there is no constitutional right to an exception. The ruling alarmed many minority religious sects in the US whose chosen methods of worship are frequently misunderstood and sometimes ridiculed by society. Often they lack the political clout needed to protect their faiths through legislation.

In light of these concerns, Congress responded to the ruling by passing the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993. It orders judges to conduct a rigorous case-by-case examination of any law that clashes with religious freedoms. Now, 15 years after its landmark ruling, the US Supreme Court has agreed to take up a case examining whether religious rights granted by statute under RFRA may trump the nation's drug laws in the same way constitutional protections might have protected religious groups prior to the 1990 ruling. At issue is the sacramental use of a tea-like mixture (which is allegedly hallucinogenic) during worship ceremonies by American adherents of a Brazilian religious sect called O Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao Do Vegetal (UDV).

The case pits the nation's war on drugs against the scope of religious freedom in the US. More specifically, it pits the federal drug law, the Controlled Substances Act, against the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). The Bush administration, which urged the high court to take up the case to reverse a series of lower court rulings siding with the religious group, says the drug laws must be enforced regardless of religious requests for accommodation.

Acting Solicitor General Paul Clement says earlier rulings by a federal judge and the 10th US Circuit Court of Appeals will undermine the government's ability to effectively battle drug abuse and drug trafficking. He says no other court has ever ordered the government to permit a religious exemption to the Controlled Substances Act. Others counter that in passing RFRA, Congress established the preservation of religious liberty as a top priority, saying that the new religious freedom law applies to all laws.

In a friend of the court brief, Gregory Baylor of the Christian Legal Society says efforts to outlaw sacramental tea is "tantamount to banning the wine served at a Roman Catholic mass." Others say RFRA violates the separation of powers by forcing judges to assume the role of lawmakers tasked to amend the nation's drug laws on a case-by-case basis. The tea, called hoasca, is made from two plants that grow in the Amazon rain forest. One of the plants contains a hallucinogen outlawed under the federal Controlled Substances Act. Founded in Brazil in 1961, the UDV has 8,000 followers worldwide, with some 140 in the US. The UDV combines Christian teachings with religious beliefs native to Brazil.

Consumption of hoasca is central to UDV worship services, the group's lawyers say. It is considered sacred and drinking it is viewed as a way for believers to connect with God, they say. Although it has been scientifically classified as a hallucinogen, UDV lawyers say consumption of hoasca during tightly controlled religious services does not result in hallucinations for participants. The US government takes a different view. They say hoasca is an illegal hallucinogen banned in US law and through an international treaty. If Congress intended there to be religious exemptions for banned drugs, it would have said so, government lawyers say. The courts have repeatedly upheld the Controlled Substances Act against various groups claiming a religious right to smoke marijuana.

The case stems from the interception in 1999 by US Customs agents of a shipment of hoasca on its way from Brazil to the US. The shipments were labeled "herbal tea extract," but they tested positive for DMT, a hallucinogen. Federal agents raided the New Mexico home of the leader of the US branch of UDV, Jeffrey Bronfman, and confiscated 30 gallons of hoasca. The group fought back with a lawsuit charging that the government was violating the UDV members' constitutional right to freely practice their religion. They also sued under the 1993 law, RFRA.

Based on the 1990 Supreme Court ruling, their constitutional case was thrown out. But both a federal judge and the 10th Circuit have sided with the religious group in their RFRA case. Although the litigation is only in the preliminary stages, if upheld the earlier rulings strongly suggest the group would win its case for an exemption, legal analysts say. A victory for UDV would not invalidate the nation's drug laws every time a religious group seeks an exemption. But it might in some cases. Under RFRA, unless the government can demonstrate a compelling interest that requires the repression of a particular religious act and can show that it is using the least restrictive means, the government must permit a religious exemption.

"In this case the government is taking the position that they shouldn't have to put on any evidence because Congress found in general that anything that is listed on the schedule of controlled substances is dangerous," says John Boyd, one of two Albuquerque lawyers representing UDV. "If the government prevails in their position, then RFRA will have been rendered meaningless in a stroke," Mr. Boyd says.

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A House Divided

Mortimer B. Zuckerman

(from US News and World Report, February 20, 2006, page 72)

Our national conversation has become too shrill, too polarized, too inflamed, too predictable, too divisive, and altogether too inimical to our national interest. On the larger canvas of our political cultural wars, the stinging exchange of letters between John McCain and Barack Obama over ways to root out lobbying corruption on Capitol Hill is no more than a mere skirmish. It was all the more depressing, however, because these two senators represent the best hope for a real revival of centrism, the rational bipartisan consensus that expresses the nations will with force and eloquence and that has served America so well in its worst crises.

It is not just that President Bush is one of the most polarizing presidents in recent history. Conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans both are endangered species today, the ideological gap between the parties is growing, and the once large over lap between centrist Democrats and Republicans has virtually disappeared. And this polarization is not confined to the beltway. It has seeped out into the public at large, which now believes that the differences reflect fundamental views about who we are as Americans.

What is going on? Several currents are driving the tide. Party primaries, with low turnout, have come to be dominated by ideologues supported by special-interest groups that fund negative advertising. Winning elections has turned more on getting out the base vote-Karl Rove’s winning strategy in 2004. Turnout is stimulated by wedge issues, which inflame the activists and often leave moderate voters unhappy at their choices. American opinion is less polarized than the parties’ positions on highly charged social issues like abortion, gay marriage, and school prayer.

Then there are the media. When TV broadcasting first hit its stride, Walter Cronkite on CBS and his counterparts on ABC and NBC created a kind of town hall meeting, a trusted consensus of values for the mediation of issues. Today, only 50 percent of Americans say they are very or fairly confident of the accuracy of the major media. The roots of the big change seem to me to lie in the way cable and radio has developed. In the old days, broadcasters were restrained by the “fairness doctrine,” which more or less confined media to the middle of the ideological spectrum. That doctrine was effectively repealed with the advent of the cable news channels, which built audience by presenting programs with sharp partisan viewpoints, with opinion and invective served up as news. On-air conflict is described as “good TV, “ presumably trumping relevance, accuracy, and fairness. CNN’s perceptive former anchor, Aaron Brown, put it well: “The fact is it’s easier to cover the extremes; they make the most noise.”

Talk radio aggravated the trend. It is listened to by about one sixth of the adult public and is overwhelmingly conservative, somewhat balanced by the liberal rationalism of the National Public Radio. The Internet that has become such an important source of information for college students and graduates is largely polarized, too, coagulating on specific news blogs that thrive on gossip, speculation, and polemics. The cumulative result has been a decline in democracy toward a fragmented populism. People mobilize around smaller special interests and remove themselves from the search for the common good.

With a mass media no longer able to provide the kind of cultural glue it once did, what holds a nation together? What is “public opinion,” really, in an era of populism and fragmentation where a new aristocracy, the opinion makers, has such influence? The determination of what constitutes “public opinion” and “popular sentiment,” selectively defined in polls and focus groups, too often overwhelms individual opinion.

The trends fit into a broader culture of relativism and spin where Oprah Winfrey defended a lying memoir as valuable, short-changing the importance and relevance of truth (before she had her own moment of truth and placed the wretched author under the klieg lights). When the values that prevail are those of the market place, and our political dialogue is timed to the drumbeat of the sports stadium, we are in trouble.

America has always flourished when it listens to the heartbeat of the people, when centrist leaders have sought consensus, as John P. Avlon vividly documents in his new history, Independent Nation. Today, America has unprecedented responsibilities, but it is difficult for a superpower to discharge these duties with its domestic political house in disarray. How different it was during World War II, which we fought as a united nation, against two enemies - Germany and Italy - that had not attacked us. Today, sadly, our divisions encourage our enemies, dishearten our allies, and sap out resolve. We must change gears.

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