- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The Dallas Morning News. Feb. 28, 2014.

Cutting back the Army you have

In evaluating Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s proposed downsizing of the U.S. military, particularly the active-duty Army, it’s worth remembering the words of a predecessor.

“As you know, you go to war with the Army you have,” Donald Rumsfeld said in 2004. “They’re not the Army you might want or wish to have at a later time.”

This was even as the Iraq war, after a dominant race to Baghdad, was blowing up in Rumsfeld’s face, in part because his goal of a smaller-footprint, agile and nimble fighting force left out some crucial and unanticipated details, like what to do about ground and enemy troops conquered en route to what appeared to be the ultimate goal.

Today, Hagel, once a sharp Bush administration critic, also wants a more nimble fighting force that relies less on materiel and manpower, each of which comes at a cost to the federal budget.

Hagel would be wise to make sure his team’s cuts do not go so deep as to hinder future presidents in confronting the world’s dangers.

The reality, as Hagel puts it, would leave the U.S. with its smallest active-duty Army since before World War II. Going away would be the entire fleet of A-10 “warthog” anti-tank planes, other weapons systems and some benefits that supplement service members’ pay. Also gone would be the thought of a U.S. military capable of fighting two major conflicts simultaneously.

Adm. Michael Mullen, former chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called America’s debt “the most significant threat to our national security,” and the need to include the military in each round of budget cuts is one reason. But even as we acknowledge that inevitability, we’d love to see Hagel’s boss show some of the same enthusiasm for tightening other line items in his budget, too.

It’s simple, even logical, to think that with Iraq behind us and Afghanistan done soon that the time is right for deep cuts. Yet Iraq and Afghanistan were protracted conflicts, far longer and more costly than anyone could have predicted. The world’s challenges are similarly difficult to forecast, yet the U.S. will remain, for decades to come, atop a very short list of superpowers to call in a crisis. That burden has and will fall disproportionately on an all-volunteer military, the world’s finest - and most expensive - fighting force.

With known trouble spots like Syria, Iran and North Korea and any number of stable-today-crisis-tomorrow regions, Hagel and Obama would be wise to expect the unexpected and have a place to turn when the world needs it.

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Austin American-Statesman. March 1, 2014.

Gay marriage and the right side of history

The U.S. Supreme Court will have to settle the issue of same-sex marriage. That’s been clear for years. Over the past few months, however, the legal journey toward that inevitable, decisive high court moment has begun moving at increasing speed.

Last week, U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia in San Antonio gave same-sex marriage another significant push toward the Supreme Court when he declared Texas’ ban on gay marriage unconstitutional. Garcia’s ruling followed recent decisions by federal judges in Virginia, Oklahoma, Utah, Kentucky and Ohio declaring all or parts of state bans on same-sex marriage in violation of the constitutional principle that all people are entitled to equal protection under the law.

In a 5-4 ruling last year, the Supreme Court said the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage as the union of one man and one woman, violated the 14th Amendment’s equal protection guarantee. At the same time, the court put off the larger question of whether same-sex couples enjoy a constitutional right to marry.

If the justices were trying to buy themselves several years’ time before being forced to revisit the issue, they failed. The day of constitutional reckoning for same-sex marriage could come as soon as next year, or the year after. We can’t predict how the current court will rule, but we’re confident it’s only a matter of time before all Americans enjoy equal marriage rights.

Though he found Texas’ gay marriage ban unconstitutional, Garcia opted to leave it in place while Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott appeals the decision to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, which oversees federal courts in Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi. The challenge to Texas’ same-sex marriage ban is one of about 50 in two dozen states.

The Texas Legislature banned same-sex marriages in 2003. Two years later, Texas voters overwhelmingly approved - 76 percent to 24 percent - an amendment to the state constitution that defined marriage as the union between a man and a woman.

“It is not the role of the federal government to overturn the will of our citizens,” Gov. Rick Perry declared after Garcia’s ruling on Wednesday. Maybe so, but the majority’s will cannot violate the Constitution, and it is the role of federal courts to clarify and uphold constitutional rights.

Those who argue against gay marriage say states should be allowed to determine who can and cannot marry. However, marriage is a legal arrangement sanctioned by the states, and the state grants couples benefits and rights regarding control of property, child custody and so on, which means that the states should treat equally all couples who desire to marry, opposite sex or same sex. To have any uniform, practical effect, marriage rights should be constitutionally and nationally applied.

In his ruling, Garcia made reference to Loving v. Virginia, the 1967 U.S. Supreme Court decision that declared state laws banning interracial marriage unconstitutional. Those state laws were supported by large majorities of voters, and to violate those laws, their supporters argued, was to violate tradition and a perceived natural or divine order that governed marriage.

Procreation is seen by opponents of same-sex marriage as part of the natural order governing marriage, but state marriage law contains no fertility requirement and couples beyond child-bearing age are allowed to marry. Clearly, then, marriage, as defined by the state, is about an exclusive, legal partnership, not about producing children. State-sanctioning of same-sex marriage also does not diminish or impinge on personal, religious freedom.

Traditions are not constitutional rights. They change. They expand. They are replaced by new traditions all the time.

In 2004 - a presidential election year - President George W. Bush, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn of Texas and Republican politicians nationwide irresponsibly called for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution banning gay marriage, while initiatives opposing same-sex marriage appeared on 11 state ballots that November. The initiatives were used, partly, to help boost the turnout for Bush of conservative Christian voters who told pollsters they cared more for “moral values” than any other issue. Each initiative passed.

A majority of Americans now regularly tell pollsters they favor making same-sex marriage legal. Perhaps the shift in attitudes has occurred so dramatically because most Americans have come to see how the fight for same-sex marriage fits so obviously well within the ongoing American fight to eliminate legal discrimination.

Or perhaps attitudes have shifted because with each new gay marriage in the 17 states that now allow same-sex marriages, most opposite-sex couples see no ill effect on their own marriages or lives. A fierce reaction from a reactionary minority awaits any Supreme Court decision declaring same-sex marriage legal, but most Americans might react to such a decision with a shrug.

The pursuit of equality has historical force in the United States. Once it gains speed, as appears to be happening with same-sex marriage, then mercy to those who stand on the wrong side of the argument. History will not judge them kindly.

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Houston Chronicle. Feb. 26, 2014.

Hot air about the EPA: Efforts to keep the EPA from curbing greenhouse gases is ideological grandstanding

“Federal overreach.” That’s the catchword, the call to arms of our state’s highest officials, as they wage war against federal regulations. Nowhere does that rallying cry ring louder than in the long-standing battle being fought by Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Attorney General Greg Abbott and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality against the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

Perry has called the federal agency a prime example of “the regulatory world that’s killing America,” and Abbott, who brags that he has sued President Barack Obama 28 times, has brought at least 17 of those suits against the EPA, whose regulatory authority is repeatedly challenged by the state’s environmental authority.

The latest skirmish took place last Monday, when the U.S. Supreme Court heard from Texas, leading 11 other states, plus industry groups, in arguing that the EPA has overreached, yet again, by requiring permits for the release of greenhouse gases from refineries, factories and power plants. Fifteen states, satisfied that the EPA process is working well, along with other groups, are supporting the agency.

The challengers claim that regulating emissions from “stationary sources,” such as power plants, opens the door to “preposterous consequences,” by regulating millions of sources nationwide. (The EPA already regulates vehicle emissions.) To which the agency responded Monday that it planned to limit those standards to the largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions, about 15,000 of them, such as coal-fired plants.

That strikes us as a reasonable goal, one that should be allowed to stand. The EPA is doing what it needs to do, and what the Supreme Court has already approved, deciding in 2007 that the agency could use “broad discretion” in choosing how it discharges its duties.

The stakes are particularly high for Houston, with its dense concentration of smog-producing vehicles and industrial facilities. Earlier this month, the agency released a study - one that tallies with other scientific findings - showing that smog or ozone “can cause asthma attacks and heart disease and contribute to early deaths at levels lower than the current national standard,” which is currently 75 parts per billion. (The lowest Houston has achieved is 84 parts per billion.) It also indicated that for the Houston area’s 6 million residents to see real health benefits, it might have to achieve a level as low as 60 parts per billion.

Predictably, the TECQ complained mightily that figure would be an impossible standard for Houston to meet, that it would be too expensive and questioned whether it was even necessary, taking issue with the EPA’s formula for measuring smog levels.

Texas, and particularly Houston, with its vibrant, innovative business climate, has done a terrific job of attracting a wide spectrum of companies and individuals to settle here, as Gov. Perry enthusiastically points out. It would serve us all well, long-time residents and newcomers alike, if some of that enthusiasm and resources were directed at giving us cleaner, healthier air to breathe, instead of trying to stifle any federal attempts to do so.

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San Antonio Express-News. Feb. 28, 2014.

A much better way to help Mexico

It’s not always nice to be wanted. Ask Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman Loera, the much-sought-after drug kingpin now in Mexican custody. Various U.S. prosecutors and at least one member of Congress say he should be extradited to this country.

We understand the desire to try Guzman, head of the notorious Sinaloa cartel, in U.S. court. He was in a Guadalajara prison before. He escaped in 2001 and was at large - amassing millions on the miseries of others (notably Americans) - for 13 years before his capture by Mexican marines last week.

But there should be a desire at work here beyond wanting our own personal retribution. We should want Mexico to strengthen its institutions so that the rule of law becomes more robust. Practice makes perfect.

The Mexican ambassador to Mexico has indicated that Guzman will be tried in his own country. If our wish for strong Mexican institutions is genuine, this country should welcome that.

U.S. law enforcement reportedly helped Mexican authorities in tracking Guzman down to his seaside condo in Mazatl├ín. Please note: The United States helped. It didn’t conduct the raid itself.

This respect for sovereignty should extend to Guzman’s prosecution as well. Yes, his cartel, with tentacles throughout the United States, has dealt plenty of suffering here, including in Texas. But, consider: The cartels have threatened the very existence of Mexico’s democracy. This, too, qualifies as crime, serious and deadly.

This prosecution and the ability to keep Guzman imprisoned if convicted will be a test for Mexico, one it is likely to pass. And should Guzman ever leave a Mexican prison other than in a coffin, U.S. prisons still await if statute of limitation laws allow.

There is a better way for the United States to help Mexico. The Guzmans of the world exist because there is such a huge U.S. market for what they sell, though the Sinaloa cartel also has a global reach.

Decades upon decades of a U.S. war on drugs have netted arrests, convictions and seizures aplenty. Our prisons are teeming with drug criminals, ranging from the minor variety to the major ones.

And Guzman and all the rest of the drug capos haven’t been slowed, nor has the flow of dollars to them. Nor is Guzman’s capture expected to appreciably cripple the Sinaloa cartel.

It and others like it exist because U.S. demand does. The United States needs to rethink its drug policies, treating drugs as more of a public health problem than a criminal one.

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Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Feb. 27, 2014.

Texas may be ready for talk about pot

There are few issues in Texas that have the capacity to build coalitions across the political divide, but marijuana legalization might be one.

And a new poll suggests that the debate may be ripe for discussion.

The University of Texas/ Texas Tribune poll found that less than a quarter of Texans believe marijuana should remain illegal in all circumstances.

In contrast, 28 percent of Texans would support marijuana for medical use, and when combining those who favor legalization in small amounts (32 percent) and those who favor legalization in any amount (17 percent), almost half of Texans support marijuana legalization at least to some degree.

The shift in public opinion reflects larger national trends. Gallup reported in October that for the first time, a clear majority (58 percent) of Americans support legalization.

But proponents should hold their pipes, as there is no indication that Texas is on the path to becoming Colorado (where pot became legal this year) any time soon.

The more likely scenario for the Lone Star State is a further effort to decriminalize pot.

In 2007, Austin began easing criminal penalties for marijuana possession, giving police officers the choice of issuing a court summons, essentially a ticket, for those possessing up to four ounces of marijuana, instead of hauling violators off to jail.

In January, Gov. Rick Perry, who does not support legalization, reiterated support for decriminalization in the form of treatment programs and softer penalties for minor offenses.

During a CNN interview last week, Perry said these efforts have reduced prison populations and conserved resources.

More important, they have kept young people from becoming hardened criminals, instead putting them on track to becoming productive citizens.

The move to decriminalization and legalization is not universally welcome. At a recent Dallas forum for lieutenant governor, three of four hopefuls expressed opposition to changing the state’s current policies.

And in 2013, a bill jointly authored by Democrat state Reps. Lon Burnam of Fort Worth and Harold Dutton of Houston that would have made possession of up to one ounce of marijuana a Class C misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of up to $500, languished in the House.

But clearly, Texans of all political stripes are thinking about marijuana penalties.

Two states, Colorado and Washington, have legalized marijuana through referenda. And the nation will certainly be watching to see what lessons may be learned.

Texas may not be ready to make a policy shift, but it seems prepared for the dialogue.

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