Pre-Election Council Shifts

City of Spokane government in transition

A week ago Governor Jay Inslee appointed current City of Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs to fill the Spokane County Superior Court Judge position that comes open this July 1st with the retirement of Judge Michael Price. Mr. Beggs will run to keep his new seat on the Superior Court in the fall of 2024. It remains to be seen if he’ll have a challenger.

Beggs, skilled legal mind and one of the smartest and most even-tempered people I’ve ever met, announced earlier this year that he would not seek re-election as City of Spokane City Council President this fall after ably serving seven years in city government. 

Beggs’ departure from the City Council Presidency will leave a gap in city government with six months to go before the beginning of 2024 when those elected this November will take their seats. As with any organization, in times like these one needs to consult the bylaws by which the organization was established. In this case those bylaws are the City of Spokane City Charter,written and adopted when we switched to a “strong mayor” form of government in January 2001. 

Article II, Sections 8(B&C): Vacancies specify that in the event of a city council president or mayoral vacancy the city council members, by majority vote, “may elect one of their number to the vacant office” to fill the position. (Alternatively, the council members may, by majority vote, select “a qualified person” from outside the council as long as that person is a resident in the district represented [see P.S.].)

Since serving effectively as City Council President requires more than a passing knowledge of the institution—and, since there is only a half year to go before those elected this November take office, it seems entirely logical for the council to elect one of the current council members (CMs) to serve as President for the next six months. CM Lori Kinnear is the very logical choice. Ms. Kinnear served in Spokane City government before she was first elected CM from District 2 (South Hill plus) in 2015. She has served as council president pro tem when Mr. Beggs was absent. She knows the job. CM Kinnear as council president has not yet been voted by the council, but that is likely in the next few weeks. (See the Spokesman article for more detail.)

The Spokane City Council is composed of seven voting members, two from each of three districts and the council president. Making CM Kinnear Council President will leave an open seat on the council from District 2. As Nate Sanford put it in the Inlander:

If you’re looking for work,there may be a job opening at Spokane City Hall this summer. 

The position: interim City Council member.

If CM Kinnear’s position on the City Council remains unfilled until 2024 (when the winners of the November election take office), it will somewhat change the dynamic of the Council. With only six voting Council members the more liberal members of the Council would still have a majority over the two (Jonathan Bingle and Michael Cathcart) who are more conservative, but the liberal members would no longer have the votes to override a veto by the mayor. Section 16: Ordinances – Signing and Attesting specifies that a veto override requires “a minimum five affirmative votes”.

Now might be a good time for some orientation. 

The mayor and the city council president are both elected city-wide. The members of the council (CMs) are elected two each from three districts: District 1 (NE), District 2 (South Hill plus), District 3 (NW). (Click here for a map.) Every two years (in odd numbered years like this year), one seat from each council district comes up for election for a four year term. Thanks to writers of the City Charter we adopted in 2001 there is a two term limit on elected officials in the City of Spokane (except for the three municipal court judges). 

Here’s the current composition of the Council:

District 1 (NE):

Michael Cathcart (Term: 2020-2023) up for re-election this fall

Jonathan Bingle (Term: 2022-2025)

District 2 (South Hill)

Lori Kinnear (Term: 2020-2023) term limited out—open seat this fall

Betsy Wilkerson (Term: 2022-2025) Running for Council President this fall. If elected, this seat will be filled (thru 2025) by a replacement based on majority vote of the remaining members of the Council. 

District 3 (NW)

Karen Stratton (Term: 2020-2023) term limited out—open seat this fall

Zack Zappone (Term: 2022-2025)

Just how attractive is an “interim City Council member” position that will open up on July 1 and run only to December 31st? It will require civically-minded person willing to “stand in” for six months with little to no possibility of using the appointed incumbency as a springboard to election to the same seat for a following four year term. There are already four people running for CM Kinnear’s current seat this fall. Candidate registration for the fall election is already closed. So if it were feasible to learn the job and organize and run a campaign simultaneously, that option isn’t really open. The pay, at about $4000/month, for a job that, if done well, is all-consuming, is not likely to attract a professional (e.g. an accountant) away from current employment. It will be interesting to see if anyone steps forward and applies.

Campaigns being what they are these days (even for municipal elections) it would probably be unwise for one of the four current candidates for CM Kinnear’s empty seat to step forward—and there is no guarantee the Council would think it wise to appoint one. In any case the only one of the candidates whose resume includes time spent working in City of Spokane government is Paul Dillon. 

It should be an interesting final six months in Spokane municipal government. Thanks to term limits the following year we will lose the long-standing expertise of CMs Kinnear and Stratton. Watch carefully for candidates with some administrative experience. In an upcoming blog post I’ll have a look at the candidates.

Keep to the high ground,


P.S. Interestingly, the way the two term limit is worded in Section 6(A): Qualifications anyone who had previously served out 8 years as Council President or as a Council Member, although likely well qualified, would be ineligible to come back for six months and serve in a position from which they had termed out—a possibly unintended consequence of the Charter writer’s zeal for term limits.

Haskell Backs Off

The role of systemic racism

On Monday, May 22nd, Kip Hill’s article in the Spokesman reported “Spokane County Prosecutor’s Office won’t retry Black man whose convictions prompted charge of racism by appellate judge.” This development needs extended context. Darnai Vaile, the “Black man” of the headline, was convicted of two counts of resisting arrest in a Spokane County Superior Court jury trial and sentenced to six months probation. Vaile’s arrest, charging by the prosecutor, and jury-conviction (on only the least of the charges the prosecutor filed) stemmed from an incident that occurred at Peking Palace in Spokane Valley in May of 2019. 

The incident began with a 911 call by a white woman alleging that Mr. Vaile gave her an unwanted kiss. A number of Spokane County Sheriff’s deputies responded. Mr. Vaile was soon pinned on the ground, hand-cuffed, arrested, and charged with multiple crimes, not one of which concerned the original complaint. In fact, the original 911 caller’s short cell phone video of the arrest was a major piece of evidence offered in Mr. Vaile’s defense at trial. Furthermore, the caller’s sister was also arrested and charged that evening (and later convicted) of an assault on a law enforcement office due to a scuffle over the treatment of the defendant.

Key to my understanding of this case is that the criminal charges that Prosecutor Larry Haskell’s office (as “the state”) brought against Mr. Vaile had everything to do with the police handling of the call and the accused—and little or nothing to do with the allegations made in the call itself. What was actually on trial in Superior Court was the interaction between Mr. Vaile and the sheriff’s deputies. 

First, take note that Mr. Vaile, unlike nine out of ten defendants facing a laundry list of charges, did not knuckle under and accept a plea deal in order to avoid the uncertainty, expense, and time-consumption of a jury trial. Instead, four years of his life have been spent fighting the charges and the conviction. It would, arguably, have been easier to enter a guilty plea to a lesser charge and some reduced level of punishment. Of course, had he done as many feel forced to do, Mr. Vaile would have lived for some time with the considerable disadvantage in society of a criminal conviction on his record. 

Mr. Vaile and his legal defense took his resisting arrest conviction and sentence of six months probation to the Washington State Court of Appeals, Division III, primarily on technical-sounding grounds. During the trial Spokane County Superior Court Judge Tony Hazel ruled that the cell phone audio—but not the video—recorded by the 911 caller during the police takedown of Mr. Vaile could not be presented to the jury because it constituted “hearsay” based on “the rules of evidence”. 

All three judges of the three judge panel of the Court of Appeals concurred that the audio was, in fact, not hearsay and was, therefore, admissible at trial. On that basis, the “majority opinion” [that is, the joint opinion of two of the three judges] states, “We reverse Vaile’s conviction for resisting arrest and remand for a new trial.” As a practical matter “remand for a new trial” offers the possibility that the Prosecutor will ask the Appeals Court to approve dropping the charges and avoiding everyone enduring a second trial—essentially giving up on tying up Mr. Vaile any further. “Remand for a new trial” allows the Prosecutor’s office to save face by bowing out. And that is exactly what they’ve just done:

“Given that Mr. Vaile was acquitted on the felony charges and only the simple misdemeanor charges of resisting arrest remain, the State [the Prosecutor’s Office under Mr. Haskell] has determined that retrial would neither be a prudent use of judicial and administrative resources, nor further any deterrent or protective purpose,” [Deputy Prosecutor] McCollum wrote. The office is also not seeking further review of the case by the Washington Supreme Court.

The two of the three judges who wrote the Appeals Court “majority decision”, Judges Tracy Staab and Robert Lawrence-Berrey, seemed anxious to limit their ruling to only those issues specifically put to them by the written appeal, even as they acknowledge that “…this is an emotionally and racially charged case.” The third, Judge George Fearing, concurred that the trial court erred in excluding the audio evidence, but went much further [Bold is mine]: 

Like the majority, I would reverse Vaile’s conviction for resisting arrest, but, unlike the majority, I would direct dismissal of the charge based on race-based government misconduct. Reversal and remand for a new trial does not suffice to correct the prejudice debasing African-American Vaile’s prosecution.

As I understand this legal jargon, “dismissal of the charge” (had it been the majority opinion) would have ruled out a second trial. More importantly, a majority opinion from the Appeals Court of “race-based government misconduct” would have spotlighted the race-based prejudice of our region even more than the local media has so far reported. 

Judge Fearing pulls no punches. He opens his “(concurring/dissenting in part)” opinion with “This appeal presents a primer on racial prejudice inside America’s criminal justice system.” On page 36 of Fearing’s “(concurring/dissenting in part)” opinion he summarizes the reason for favoring dismissal:

This court [i.e. the majority decision by the other two judges] reverses and remands for a new trial the conviction for resisting arrest on evidentiary grounds rather than for improper racist comments. Since the undisputed facts, including the trial transcript, demonstrate racial prejudice blighting the prosecution of Darnai Vaile, I would also reverse the conviction on the basis of the State inserting racial stereotypes into the trial. But I would go further. I would ask the parties to submit briefing on whether the case should be dismissed for government misconduct. I would direct counsel to include, in a discussion of government misconduct, the conduct of law enforcement at the Peking Palace, the charging of Vaile with resisting arrest under the circumstances when he was not charged with any other crime such that law enforcement lacked cause to arrest, the overcharging of counts of resisting arrest, the uneven advocacy of evidentiary rules by the State, the racial innuendoes employed by the prosecutor at trial, and the cumulative effect of the numerous instances of State misconduct.

Judge Fearing’s “(concurring/dissenting in part)” opinion chronicles the inherent racism of our region, much of it so ingrained as to be barely noticeable from within. In my view, Fearing’s opinion is given rather short shrift in the local news before giving air to several breathless rebuttals. (See below for a link and a short reader’s guide to the Fearing’s opinion.)

Spokane County Prosecutor Larry Haskell and current Spokane County Sheriff John Nowels both submitted extended statements assailing Judge Fearing’s opinion. (Click on the names for the full texts.) Don’t expect contrition or self-awareness. Tellingly, both first fly to the defense of the woman who made the inciting 911 call—even as both ignore the fact that no charges ever arose from the act of “unwanted kissing” alleged in that call and the fact that the caller herself and her sister were sympathetic to the plight of the defendant in the course of the arrest and at trial. Nowels goes on to assert that the majority opinion “made it clear” that no one “was guilty of intentional racism or apathy” [italics are mine]. Well, not exactly. The majority opinion stated that this was a “racially charged” case. Judge Fearing never suggested that the racism he discerned in the conduct of jury trial was intentional, only that it was ingrained.

Nowels’ statement is especially egregious. He writes, “…the dissenting opinion appears to be based on wokeism, judicial activism, and the dissenter’s personal view run amuck and is not based on established law.” If Fearing’s opinion is “wokeism”, then I’m happy to be considered “woke”. (Isn’t the alternative to “woke” asleep? Asleep to the reality around us?) As for “judicial activism” I suggest that Sheriff Knowles carefully read the opinion in which Fearing explains his justification. 

I lay this entire mess at the feet of the overzealous County Prosecutor Larry Haskell. No doubt he self-justifies by imagining himself as a crusader for justice, when, in fact, there was nothing in this case that justifies the original laundry list of charges—particularly in the absence of a harmed victim. 

Keep to the high ground,


P.S. Click here for a readable and searchable pdf of the Appeals Court decision in State v. Vaile. The majority opinion is presented first. It concluded on page number 21. Judge Fearing’s “(concurring/dissenting in part)” opinion commences on the next pdf page with a new page 1. I recommend skimming (at most) the many pages in both opinions covering the arcana of rules of evidence and hearsay. The meat of Fearing’s argument starts on his page 36 and runs to 59. Don’t miss the section starting on page 50 that opens with “When considering explicit race discrimination in America and its impacts on Darnai Vaile’s prosecution in nonexplicit, or implicit, unstated, ways, I also consider the venue for Darnai Vaile’s arrest and prosecution.” What follows is a recitation of the racially poisonous milieu in which the Spokane court system operates. It is eye-opening.

Prosecutorial Discretion and Racial Prejudice

A closer examination of the Vaile case

In criminal legal cases (as opposed to civil cases) it is the County Prosecutor’s decision to “bring charges” on behalf of the state against a potential criminal defendant—or not. Once a person is charged they face a criminal justice system which, if they fight the charge rather than accept a plea deal, will consume their time, money, and resources for a period of many months or even years—all for an uncertain outcome. If, on the other hand, a plea deal is accepted, it will, in most instances, disadvantage the accused for years to come. Either way, a County Prosecutor’s decision to level charges sets a course for the accused that is a punishment in itself. Prosecutorial decisions have the potential to ruin lives.

On May 18th an article by Kip Hill appeared in the Spokesman entitled “Black man’s resisting arrest conviction overturned by Court of Appeals; judge says case is indicative of racism in Spokane County”. Examination of the details of the case that led to this Court of Appeals opinion—and that headline—is enlightening—and is poorly covered in the article.

The current flap covered in the news article arises from a recent decision by a three-judge panel of the Washington State Court of Appeals, Division III. (For orientation, Division III is the state appellate court that hears appealed cases from all the County Superior Courts east of the Cascade crest. The Division III Appeals Court “sits” in Spokane at 500 N. Cedar St. Five judges and two commissioners serve in Division III.) 

The ruling of the three judge panel that heard the appealed case of State of Washington v. Darnai Leon Vaile (appellant) hinged primarily on a rather fine point of law concerning admissible evidence in a jury trial in Spokane County Superior Court presided over by Superior Court Judge Tony Hazel. Specifically, the question was whether or not the audio portion of a short video of the event was, or was not, “hearsay”. At the original Superior Court trial the audio was considered inadmissible. The Appeals Court tribunal disagreed. Even without the jury being allowed to hear the audio at the trial, Mr. Vaile, the defendant, was acquitted of the prosecutor’s charge of third degree assault (a class C felony). Nonetheless, the jury convicted Mr. Vaile, a Black man, of resisting arrest (a misdemeanor). Mr. Vaile was sentenced to six months probation. It is this conviction that was appealed. 

The three judge panel’s overall decision (click here to read the opinion) was fairly straightforward: Mr. Vaile’s conviction was overturned and the case “remanded” (i.e. returned) to the Spokane County Superior Court for reconsideration. In a very important sense this “remand” isn’t really to the Superior Court, but rather to the discretion of the County Prosecutor’s Office under Mr. Haskell. The Court of Appeals decision resets everything at square one prior to filing charges. It is an open question whether the Prosecutor will issue new charges or not. Either way, the decision isn’t likely to be covered in the news.

The three judge panel consisted of Presiding Chief Judge George Fearing, Acting Chief Judge Robert Lawrence-Berrey, and Judge Tracy Staab. Judge Staab wrote the opinion with which Lawrence-Berrey concurred. Judge Fearing, the most senior of the three, wrote a separate partial concurrence and partial dissent (starting on page 22 of the opinion) which he begins with “This appeal presents a primer on racial prejudice inside America’s criminal justice system.” It is Judge Fearing’s opinion which reporter Kip Hill finds newsworthy. In reaction, Mr. Hill solicited comments from Spokane County Prosecutor Larry Haskell, current Spokane County Sheriff John Lowell’s, and even retired Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich—a panoply of protest over the accusation of racial prejudice. 

I want to stand back from the criticisms of Judge Fearing’s opinion and start the case from the beginning. The event that is the subject of the state’s caseagainst Mr. Vaile occurred on May 16th, 2019, at about 11:30 in the evening—a full four years ago. Julia E. Napier, 53, and her sister, Patricia Murray (age not stated) were “socializing, playing pool, and singing karaoke” at the Peking Palace on Sprague Avenue in Spokane Valley. During the evening they met Darnai Vaile, a then 23 year old, 6 foot 10 inch, more than 300 pound Black man, who studied at Lewis and Clark High School (judging by a mostly abandoned [since 2018] facebook page under his name). At one point, Vaile kissed Murray without her consent, and she called the police.

Two deputies appeared. While the deputies were talking with Ms. Murray and a gathered crowd outside the restaurant Mr. Vaile approached them saying he “wanted to tell them his side of the story”. Accounts of Mr. Vaile’s demeanor and exactly how the next few minutes went forward differ, but, regardless, Mr. Vaile wound up on the ground on his stomach with three or four officers (more had arrived) piled on top of him, one with his knee on Mr. Vaile’s head. In the process Mr. Vaile was struck with batons and handcuffed. Mr. Vaile had announced he had a knife and intentionally dropped it on the ground (one wonders if had he been given “the talk” as a young man). From the appellate court opinion:

Deputy Vicini acknowledged that Vaile was not making threats to the officers, and was not threatening the officers with the knife. Other than resisting his arrest, Vaile was not fighting with the officers. Deputy Hilton acknowledged that Vaile was not making verbal threats toward the officers or attempting to physically assault them.

You might imagine at this point that Ms. Murray and her sister would be happy with this outcome, having called the police in the first place over the alleged “assault” of an unwanted kiss. You would be wrong. Not only were no charges relating to this “assault” ever filed, but: 

While Vaile was being arrested, Murray took a 10 second video of Vaile on the ground with police on top of him. As she was recording, Murray could be heard saying, “You stop right now you do not need to restrain him like that! He’s okay! He’s a gentle, kind person.”

The primary issue before the Appeals Court tribunal was whether the audio was admissible evidence. At the trial the audio was ruled inadmissible. The tribunal concluded to the contrary, i.e. that it should have been heard by the jury.

Even more telling, Ms. Murray’s sister, Julia Napier, was arrested that night for assaulting one of the deputies in defense of Mr. Vaile and in protest of his treatment by law enforcement. 

The immediate upshot? According to the Spokesman:

Vaile, 23, was charged with two felony counts of assault in the second degree and misdemeanors charges of resisting arrest, obstructing, possession of a dangerous weapon and fourth degree assault. He posted his $3,000 bond on Aug. 21.

Napier was arrested for third-degree assault, resisting arrest and obstructing. Her bond was set for $10,000, which she posted on Aug. 18. [Napier was later convicted of one count of assault of a law enforcement officer, a felony.]

Here’s where we circle back to Prosecutor Haskell. It was Haskell’s office that filed the laundry list of charges listed above, no doubt hoping that Mr. Vaile would accept a plea deal (as many in a similar situation do) in the face of charges that might otherwise send him to prison if convicted in a jury trial.

In Kip Hill’s article covering the Appeals Court opinion, Haskell, Knezovich and Nowels all seem anxious to defend Ms. Murray, the white woman who called police over an unwanted kiss—and yet the issue of the “assault” of Ms. Murray herself (to say nothing of her sister Julia Napier who wound up with a felony conviction for assault of an officer) never came up. 

We ought to pay attention to Judge Fearing’s criticisms of law enforcement and prosecutorial bias in Spokane County, particularly regarding Mr. Haskell. The law enforcement response to the complaint of an unwanted kiss could certainly be seen as needlessly excessive. County Prosecutor Haskell was not required to compound the error by filing a laundry list of charges. What started with a phone call over an unwanted kiss was pursued by Haskell into what has so far been a four year resource-consuming ordeal for the young man accused and a felony conviction for the original complainant’s sister. 

Regardless of the issue of potential racial prejudice highlighted by Judge Fearing’s opinion, this whole case, no matter the color of the defendant, smacks more of harassment than justice—and it all leads back to the “prosecutorial discretion” of Mr Haskell’s office.

Keep to the high ground,

P.S. Close examination of this legal case has been an eye-opener for me. For decades it was my assumption that it was unwise to second-guess a jury verdict. After all, I thought, the jury examined the evidence over a long court process to which I was not party. What I did not understand is that an overzealous prosecutor, by choosing whom to prosecute, and by choosing the charges, can bring the power, complexity, and cost of our system to bear on people and circumstances that do not warrant it. Essentially, involvement with the legal system at the discretion of the prosecutor can become a punishment in itself. The “rule of law” under our legal system may well be the best there is available, but justice depends as much on the decisions made prior to court as it does to what happens in court.

The Republican Debt-Ceiling Hostage Gambit

A Short History

Once again (see United States debt-ceiling crisis 2011) Republicans are holding the national and global economy hostage in an attempt to claim the mantle of fiscal conservatism. The Republicans pushing this default are extortionists, including McMorris Rodgers. Don’t negotiate with extortionists—or they will be back for more. 

The basic issue in the current debt ceiling standoff: Is the United States going to pay the debts it has already incurred or are we going to stiff our creditors and, by so doing, crash our national credit rating and credibility in the global economy? 

We should not be here. Not keeping up with payments on the public debt is constitutionally prohibited. Section 4 of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (adopted in 1868) states, “The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law…shall not be questioned.” 

As the Professor of U.S. History Heather Cox Richardson points out, the history of the adoption of Section 4 of the 14th Amendment suggests it was made to order for our current times. On the origins of Section 4 of the 14th Amendment:

Undermining the value of U.S. bonds [as was being proposed for the Union Civil War debt] was an attack not just on the value of investments, but on the nation itself. When Republican [not the Republican Party of today] lawmakers wrote the Fourteenth Amendment in 1866, they recognized that a refusal to meet the nation’s financial obligations would dismantle the government, and they defended the sanctity of the commitments the government had made. When voters ratified that amendment in 1868, they added to the Constitution, our fundamental law, the principle that the obligations of the country “shall not be questioned.”

Needing to raise the debt ceiling separate from negotiating over and passing a federal budget is usually dated to the Second Liberty Bond Act of 1917, but it’s a bit more complicated than that. Before WWI Congress typically passed specific bond issues to be offered by the U.S. Treasury in order to cover various incurred federal debts, especially war debts. Rather than discuss and vote over each bond issue, with the Second Liberty Bond Act of 1917 Congress set a ceiling for the amount of debt the Treasury could take on by selling bonds and then let the Treasury work out the details. 

The debt ceiling votes that started with the Second Liberty Bond Act of 1917 have been used in Congress at various times as a vehicle to highlight and force discussion around the national debt, but using the debt ceiling to threaten catastrophic debt default to extract political concessions is a relatively new. (The one exception was a close call in 1953 during the Eisenhower administration. If you really want to get into those weeds click here.) In 1979 a parliamentary rule proposed by Rep. Dick Gephardt, a Democrat from Missouri (imagine that!), later dubbed the “Gephardt Rule”, was adopted. It deemed the debt ceiling to have been raised when the budget was passed. That worked as intended to avoid playing chicken with a debt default—the concern that Gephardt saw and wished to avoid.

But then, under the House Speakership of Newt Gingrich in 1995 during the Clinton administration, Republican majorities in the House and Senate scrapped the Gephardt Rule. That year Speaker Gingrich threatened to refuse to raise the debt limit and thereby cause a debt crisis. Newt was riding high on his Heritage Foundation-inspired “Contract with America” to reduce the size of government, cut taxes, and engage in tort “reform” and welfare “reform”. The ensuing battle over the budget (not, strictly speaking, the debt limit) resulted in two memorable federal government shutdowns. This hostage-taking of the economy, in the end, damaged Republicans more than Democrats.

The exclusively Republican tactic of holding the national (and international) economy hostage by refusing to raise the debt ceiling next arose in 2011 after the Tea Party takeover of Congress. This Republican-manufactured crisis ultimately avoided default but came so close that it resulted in a downgrade of the U.S. credit rating and an ongoing increase in borrowing costs.

In 2013 Republicans once again held the economy hostage, threatening to send the country into debt default unless their demand to defund the Affordable Care Act was met. Once again Republican approval ratings declined.

Now in May of 2023 Republicans are at it again, but with demands in their House-passed Limit, Save, Grow Act of 2023 (with McMorris Rodgers’ Yea vote) to defund every legislative achievement of the Biden administration and impose spending caps in exchange for a short term extension. Doug Muder captures it perfectly:

The American people don’t really understand where government spending goes, so they support spending cuts in the abstract, while rejecting any specific list of significant cuts.

The two parties maneuver around that phenomenon: Republicans support vague spending “caps” that don’t specifically cut anything in particular, while Democrats try to pin them down. Do they want to cut defense? Veterans benefits? Health care? Education? No, of course not. They just want to cut “spending”.

It is time to put a stop to this irresponsible hostage taking, invoke Section 4 of the 14th Amendment, and pay the country’s bills. As Heather Cox Richardson points out, this round Republican hostage taking over the debt limit is already damaging our national security. The Republican Party is rapidly becoming an irresponsible terrorist organization. 

Keep to the high ground,


P.S. There is one more thing that often gets left out of the discussion of this Republican-manufactured debt default crisis. Thanks to the trickle-down economics orthodoxy of the Republican Party since the Reagan administration (1980 onward), not only do Republicans refuse to consider raising taxes on the wealthy and on corporations in order to reduce the national debt, but they actively work to further lower those taxes (see Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017) and swell the national debt even more. After most wars this country has fought, taxes were used to help re-balance the budget and reduce the accumulation of debt. But not under Republican orthodoxy after George W. Bush’s second Iraq War. No. Bush went ahead with additional tax cuts pushing up the debt even further.

Along those same lines, does anyone remember W’s exhortation to “go shopping!” rather than calling for sacrifice to support the economy after 9/11 and in the lead-up to the Second Iraq War? Just another manifestation of warped Republican trickle-down advocacy. 

How Low Will They Go?

We haven’t seen the bottom yet

Yesterday, May 16, Idahoans cast ballots in an off year, nominally non-partisan election for trustee positions on various boards, and, in some jurisdictions, various levies. Traditionally, library trustee positions are filled by dedicated people with a deep interest in libraries, books, and public service. (Library board member is an unpaid position.) This year Republicans nationwide are making positions on library boards a partisan issue by suggesting that public libraries promote sexual deviance among children—implying that libraries are out of control and must be held to account. Total hogwash—but, of course, sex is always a good subject with which to spin up fear, loathing, and suspicion among some people, especially those of a certain self-righteous mindset. 

Imagine for a moment one of the Mom’s For Liberty folk nosing around the local library searching for titles of suspect books on a list provided by the national organization. Is one of those books available on a similarly diligent search by their innocent offspring roaming the public library? Oh my, a busybody’s delight! Never mind, of course, that all manner of sex acts are available to inquiring little minds with a little exploration on a smartphone or after a few keystrokes on a home computer—acts with no particular social or literary value—and totally without contextual placement in the human experience. The nationally inspired paranoia about library books—which do have redeeming social and literary value—is teeming with absurdity—but its thoughtless, emotion-stirring quality is undeniable.

So with that prelude one asks how low local Republicans operatives will go in order to distort reality and fire up their voters? The Spokesman yesterday morning, the day of the election, had the answer in an article entitled “Kootenai GOP ad makes baseless insinuations about library ahead of election”. It should be read as a condemnation of the tactics of those currently in control of the Kootenai County Republican Party Central Committee (KCRCC)—and, by extension, the national Republican Party that lies behind it.

A dramatized video ad paid for by the Kootenai County GOP falsely implies that North Idaho libraries are showing sexually explicit materials to young children.

The video, posted to social media by the Kootenai County Republican Central Committee [KCRCC] over the weekend, is part of a campaign to support candidates Tim Plass and Tom Hanley in the Community Library Network board election Tuesday.

The ad depicts a young elementary school -age girl, perhaps 6 years old, who comes home from school to tell her mother, who is washing dishes, about her day. The girl, whose voice can be heard off screen, says she went to the library where “a funny lady” read to her in a “special room for kids.” The woman reading to her gave her a hug, she said, and her face felt “really scratchy, like Dad’s face.”

The girl then explains that the woman showed her a book with pictures of kids “doing things like kissing each other and some of them didn’t have any clothes on.”

Then the girl asks her mother, “What’s anal sex?”

Here’s a link to the video for the full nauseating effect—if you have the stomach to watch it: . It specifically endorses “Tim & Tom” the two Republican-backed challengers for the incumbent trustees of the library board. It is a fair bet that this video was not produced locally. The voice near the end is disturbingly like that of Dinesh D’Souza, the far right Republican film maker responsible for the widespread election misinformation video “2000 Mules”. Before the polls closed on Tuesday the KCRCC video had been shared 22 times just from the KCRCC’s Facebook page (I did not pursue other social media platforms)—and was doubtlessly responsible for driving a certain segment of the Kootenai County voting public to the polls.

This is what the Republican Party has come to: posting what is an obvious and scurrilous misinformation video the weekend prior to a local election with almost no time to counter it before votes are cast. 

Since this ad was fielded (if not produced) by a local Republican Party (and not a corporation) it might have been marginally legal even before the Citizens United v. FEC decision in 2010. That decision invalidated part of the bipartisan Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (aka the McCain-Feingold Act). The details are disturbingly similar to the locally posted Kootenai County video. (Of course, believe it or not, Facebook, the platform on which the current video is posted, was just becoming widely available in 2010.) The Citizens United case was setup for what Republican operatives are doing now. Citizens United, a right wing non-profit corporation, produced a video, Hillary: the Movie, specifically to challenge McCain-Feingold, proposing to air their electioneering video within the restricted 30 day period prior to the 2008 presidential primaries. 

Citizens United prevailed on appeal to the Supreme Court in this infamous 5-4 decision that set the stage for the just-in-time pre-election social media campaigns like the one at issue next door in Kootenai County. 

A certain group of Republicans will stoop ever lower to solidify their grasp on the power and the opportunity to subject everyone to their warped ideology. This ad is emblematic of their true character. It should be noted and broadly condemned.

Keep to the high ground,


The National Debt–A Spending or a Revenue Problem?

We are in need of financial literacy

In the last months we have read a lot about the “debt ceiling”, the national debt, and the Republican threat to crash the national and global economy unless their wish list of spending cuts are granted to them. Never mind that the very Republican “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017” granting substantial (and un-expiring) tax cuts to corporations—thereby reducing revenue—was a significant contributor to the national debt of which they are now complaining. (Remember Rep. McMorris Rodgers’ drumbeat “Money in your pocket” as she promoted pretended that corporate tax cuts weren’t the real purpose of the Act? 

The national debt is an incomprehensibly large number, nearly 32 trillion dollars. The Weekly Sift post by Doug Muder that I have copied below is the best examination of the meaning of the national debt and how it relates to the debt ceiling that I have read. 

NOTE: 1) The first graph in Muder’s article, the “150 year view of the National Debt”, graphs the national debt as a percentage of the United States’ “GDP”, the “gross domestic product”, i.e. the sum total of good and services produced and consumed in a given year. This is better than expressing the national debt as a raw number of dollars in part because the buying power of a dollar changes over time (by about a factor of 10 in the last sixty years) and because the country’s ability to make good on its debt is directly related to the strength and size of its economy. 2) In that same graph the rise at the end that takes the percentage about 100% is a projection, not necessarily reality. (Note where the year 2020 is on the graph.)

Keep in mind that the national debt number is the long term sum of annual budget deficits and surpluses. The national debt represents the sum of money the government has borrowed over time. Just like in your personal finances, in any given year whether the government runs a deficit or a surplus depends both on the level of spending and on revenues. Republicans, having paid off their corporate supporters with over forty years of corporate and estate tax cuts, really, really don’t want to talk increasing revenues—only about cutting spending.

Once again I strongly recommend signing up for the Weekly Sift email (look for the sign-up in the left hand column of this page). I look forward to Muder’s writing every Monday.

After reading Muder’s piece for orientation, check out the quote appended below Muder’s article taken from a recent email from Rep. McMorris Rodgers (R-eastern WA) sent to selected supporters. Savor the inanity, particularly on account of its placement in a section of the email headed “Setting the Record Straight”. 

Keep to the high ground,


Does the US have a spending problem?

Doug Muder, The Weekly Sift, May 8, 2023

Compared to other countries, no. But if you think the US should be “exceptional” and that climate change is a hoax, maybe.

As House Republicans get closer and closer to forcing a debt-ceiling crisis that could result in the United States defaulting on commitments it has already written into law, American citizens need to raise their understanding of how all this works. Previously, I’ve written two posts on this theme: The first explained what the debt ceiling is and why we shouldn’t have one at all. (Only the US and Denmark have debt ceilings, and Denmark doesn’t play chicken with theirs. No other country inflicts these kinds of fiscal crises on itself.) The second looked at the history of the US national debt and how it accumulated.

Now it’s time to address the main argument House Republicans are making to justify playing chicken with an economic catastrophe: Sure, the US defaulting on its commitments would be bad, but it’s worse to do nothing, because our ever-increasing spending and debt is pushing us towards an even greater catastrophe.

In other words, a self-inflicted debt-ceiling crisis is the lesser evil. Steve Moore, the Club for Growth founder that Trump tried to appoint to the Federal Reserve Board, puts it like this:

The nation’s good credit standing in the global capital markets isn’t imperiled by not passing a debt ceiling. The much-bigger danger is that Congress does extend the debt ceiling, but without any reforms in the way Congress grossly overspends.

The first part of that claim is obvious nonsense: Not passing a debt ceiling certainly does imperil the US standing in credit markets. But let’s examine the second claim: Not just that the government spends more money than some people would like, but that doing so is pushing us towards a national catastrophe.

Spending. It’s a matter of simple fact that government spending and debt have gone up considerably — both in absolute terms and as a percentage of our annual GDP — in the late Trump years and since Biden took office. Basically, the Covid pandemic both cut revenue and required enormous government spending to avoid great public suffering while the private sector was largely shut down. The necessity of that deficit spending was a bipartisan conclusion; it happened under both Trump and Biden and was supported in Congress by members of both parties.

(Notice that the extreme right of the graph above is a projection to 2050, not something that has already happened.)

That increase in the debt built on a previous run-up during the Great Recession that started in 2007. Again, the stimulus spending and tax-cutting was bipartisan; it began under Bush and continued under Obama.

But looking forward, the US faces challenges that the two parties see differently. Democrats want the government to spend money on them, while Republicans don’t.

  • Democrats see climate change as a problem that requires a major restructuring of the economy, moving away from fossil fuels and towards energy from sustainable sources. However, climate change is a classic externality — a real cost that falls neither on the producer nor the consumer of fossil fuels — so the market will not make this shift without government intervention. Republicans deny that climate change is a problem.
  • Democrats want to shift healthcare — nearly 1/7th of the economy — from the private sector to the public sector. Medicare began this shift in the 1960s. ObamaCare continued it, and progressives like Bernie Sanders would like to complete it. Republicans would like to stop this shift, if not roll it back.

Abstract debates about “spending” are really about these two issues, plus the perennial question of how good a safety net the US should provide for its poor: Is it enough to keep people from starving in the streets, or should the government guarantee every American a decent life, whether they can find a job or not?

It’s worth noting that the other big government expenditure — defense — is largely bipartisan. In general, progressive Democrats would like to spend less on defense and MAGA Republicans more, but neither party has a consensus for major changes in our military posture in the world.

The politics of spending. The bill House Republicans recently passed reflected these priorities: It agreed to raise the debt ceiling for about a year (at which point we’d go through the same ordeal again), in exchange for

  • capping “discretionary spending” — basically everything but Social Security and Medicare — at FY 2022 levels and letting them increase by only 1% per year.
  • rolling back provisions in the Inflation Reduction Act to subsidize sustainable energy, while increasing production of fossil fuels

plus a few other things. The discretionary spending cap isn’t across-the-board, but also doesn’t specify the cuts. This allows Republicans to dodge when Democrats say they’ve voted to cut some popular program like veterans’ benefits. And of course, every program that gets exempted from the cuts means that deeper cuts will be needed elsewhere.

The White House has been attacking Republicans for proposing cuts to veterans’ care. Republicans in House leadership have responded that no cuts are intended. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy has promised he will protect the military from reductions, though the bill as written does not exclude them. And Kay Granger, the chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee, has said border security remains a top priority.

This is a feature of our politics that I’ve noted before: The American people don’t really understand where government spending goes, so they support spending cuts in the abstract, while rejecting any specific list of significant cuts.

The two parties maneuver around that phenomenon: Republicans support vague spending “caps” that don’t specifically cut anything in particular, while Democrats try to pin them down. Do they want to cut defense? Veterans benefits? Health care? Education? No, of course not. They just want to cut “spending”.

Is government spending a problem? For Republicans, this is an article of faith, but it’s really not obvious. For example, look at Wikipedia’s list of countries by government spending as a percentage of GDP. (The US total accounts not just for federal spending, but state and local as well.)

As of 2022, the US was not an outlier in either direction, spending about 38% of GDP via government. That’s less that most comparable countries: the UK (45%), Germany (50%), Canada (41%), and France (58%) for example. But it’s also more than Switzerland (34%) and Israel (37%), and almost exactly the same as Australia.

And while government spending has been generally rising over the decades — it was less than 20% of GDP a century ago — the increase doesn’t look precipitous or out of control.

In short, if you argue that the US has a spending problem, what you’re implicitly saying is that we shouldn’t be like other nations. If you regard Germany or France as cautionary tales, then we need to cut spending before we wind up like them. On the other hand, if you envy countries like Denmark (49%), the Netherlands (45%), and Finland (54%) — Finland regularly comes out on top of polls about public happiness — then you can only shake your head at this “out-of-control spending” talk.

The ledger has two sides. So while the “spending problem” is debatable, it is obvious that the national debt is growing. Intuitively this seems bad (though I’ll push discussing how bad it really is off to a later post). But jumping immediately from a debt problem to a spending problem is sleight-of-hand. Spending 38% of GDP (or 50% or even more) through the public sector doesn’t necessarily create debt if we’re willing to pay taxes at that level.

Our debt problem (from the same Wikipedia list) comes from the fact that we’re only paying 33% of GDP in taxes. This is not high by comparison with other countries. South Korea pays 27% and Ireland 23%, but just about every other country we might compare ourselves to pays more: Germany 47%, Canada 41%, the United Kingdom 39%, and so on.

So it’s disingenuous to frame the debt as a national crisis, but take taxes off the table. In particular, the Trump tax cuts went mainly to corporations and the very rich, while adding trillions to the debt over a ten-year period. Most spending cuts are unpopular in themselves, but they’re particularly unpopular when you pair them with tax cuts, as in “We have to kick your cousin off Medicaid so that billionaires can keep the tax cuts Trump gave them.”

The private sector isn’t magic. Much of the debate about government spending is really about whether some necessary expense winds up in the public or private sector. We could, for example, cut government spending overnight just by closing all the public schools. Kids would still need to be educated, and most middle-class-and-above families would find some way to send their own kids to private schools (maybe with help from grandparents). Taxes could go down, but private expenses would go up.

Ditto for Social Security. We could end it an save everybody taxes. But you’d also have to worry about whether your parents or grandparents were starving, and maybe they’d have to move in with you.

All our highways could be toll roads run by private corporations. Taxes could go down, but you’d have to pay tolls.

The point I’m making here is that nothing magic happens when we move an expenditure from the public to the private sector or vice versa. Somebody still has to teach the kids, take care of the sick, and pave the highways. You don’t necessarily save anything just by paying those people out of a different piggy bank.

That observation is going to be important the next time we consider expanding national health care. Conservatives are going to freak out about the massive increase in government spending. “OMG! We can’t afford this!” But if the net effect is that taxes replace health-insurance premiums, we can. That’s the main reason government spending (and taxation) is higher in places like France and Germany: They’re buying stuff through the public sector that we buy through the private sector. People still wind up paying doctors and nurses to take care of them, but the money traverses a different route.

Spending and democracy. Finally, we need to recognize that the current situation results largely from what the American people want: The particular programs the government spends money are popular, while taxes are unpopular. The current spending and taxing levels were passed by the Congress the people elected.

The point of using the debt ceiling as a hostage-taking tactic is to circumvent democracy. Yes, the people did narrowly elect a House Republican majority in 2022, but Republican candidates ran on issues that have largely vanished from the House Republican agenda, like crime. They certainly did not run on a list of spending cuts, and in fact they still have not produced such a list, because they know it would be unpopular.

The American people have also elected a Democratic Senate majority and a Democratic President. (Both of those happened in spite of structural factors that allow Republicans to win without representing a majority of voters, like the small-state bias in the Senate and the Electoral College.) The Republican House should not get to control the agenda simply because they are apparently willing to push the economy’s self-destruct button unless they get their way.

So what should happen? The debt ceiling should play no role, and Congress should work out a budget for next year, adjusting both the taxing and spending sides of the ledger. Republicans should have a bigger say in the next budget than the last one, because they won the House majority. But both parties should publish their budget priorities and see how the American people like them.

So is there a spending problem? Not really. Not by international standards and not compared to what the people want. What the government spends money on may or may not be what you want it to spend money on. But that’s why we have elections.

McMorris Rodgers’ “Weekly Newsletter” email dated May 12:

Contrast Doug Muder’s explanation above to this McMorris Rodgers’ gem of political and economic nonsense.

A number of people have reached out this week concerned about a bill I helped pass last month called the Limit, Save, Grow Act [the Republican list of ransom demands] that would responsibly raise the debt ceiling. Unfortunately, there has been a lot of misinformation flying around about what this bill does, so I think it’s time to set the record straight. [Really???]

Despite what President Biden and the Democrats want you to believe, this legislation does NOT cut veterans benefits, Social Security, or Medicare. All it does is set a topline budget number – it does not outline any cuts to federal programs, and it does not replace the annual federal funding process. [i.e. they want to slash spending but they don’t want to specify what programs they plan to cut.]

I understand the urgency of the situation surrounding the debt limit, which is why I helped pass this legislation to ensure America doesn’t default on our debt and fight inflation to lower costs for the hardworking people of this country. [That is an internally nonsensical statement. Making sure no debt default occurs requires the simple act of raising the debt ceiling, not proposing undefined cuts in spending.] But in order for our divided government to work, Democrats need to come to the table. My hope is that my colleagues across the aisle will work with us sooner rather than later to deliver a solution for the American people. [The actual solution is, of course, to raise the debt limit, not to play chicken with the economy.]

Nadine and Ozzie

Threats have real consequences

Death like that recounted in Julie Garcia’s post below is one sober and very final result of policies, othering attitudes, and the legal and physical threats leveled at people “not like us”. Julie Garcia is the force of nature behind Jewels Helping Hands (JHH). Julie, with a small staff, many of whom came from the camp itself, is the glue and voice of Camp Hope. The camp has unwillingly served as a lightning rod for City of Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward and (now) former Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich’s efforts to sweep the people experiencing homelessness as far out of sight as possible. Julie is the embodiment of the principles of Christianity I was taught as a youth, but which I lacked the strength to fully follow. 

Julie Garcia on the deaths at Camp Hope

“No one ever should die alone, desperate, and hurt in a tent on the side of a freeway. No one ever. I can not accept this as ok.”

Yesterday was one of the hardest days of my life. Thank you to those tender souls who helped us feel supported.

We lost two friends yesterday. One lost his battle with cancer and the other chose to leave this world on his own terms.

Some things in life can not be unseen. Yesterday will forever be etched in my memory until it’s my time to join them.

My friend said his goodbyes to his friends and told them he loved them (we were lead to believe he was visiting family and they were as well). He told us he would be gone for two days so we wouldn’t check on him, he packed his valued items in a bag still laying next to him when he was found, he cleaned his tent, put on his new shoes and then hung himself in his tent, his home.

This man never left the camp. He was safe here. He felt safe. It was his home. He was kind and gentle. He loved the animals here. His smile was contagious. He was loved. His home was ending. His safety net vanishing. His already strained mental health was deteriorating due to his loss.

Today I am sad, devastated and angry. I am sad that I should have hugged him one more time. I am devastated that he isn’t here and I am angry at the policy that created the scenario that ended like this. It sparked a new fire. I can not accept that I live in a world where this is acceptable and accepted. I am even more determined to fix this, or die trying. If you aren’t in alignment with this please get out of my way.

Having a nice home, money, peacefulness that’s a conciliation prize and I am forever grateful for mercy and grace that allows for this. But at the end of the day, serving these folks is my moral obligation, it’s my rent for existence on this planet, my commanded path and responsibility. The other stuff is a bonus.

I know that God never said this was easy. He only said I wouldn’t endure it alone.

I can vouch for the not easy part. It’s brutal, really. I can only lean on him to help me endure and process. It will take time. But I know one thing for sure:

No one ever should die alone, desperate, and hurt in a tent on the side of a freeway. No one ever. I can not accept this as ok.

Show each other grace, you never know what storm someone is facing. What demon they are fighting and what choices they have. If you can’t help them, at least don’t hurt them.

May we all remember lives unnecessarily lost and May they be remembered and honored through our actions.

You both will be missed brothers, say Hi to Jay for me. And save me a place in line, I’ll see you again, someday.


Maurice Smith, the video documentarian of homelessness in our communityand another major force in guiding Camp Hope, filed his own lament. It was re-published (among other places) by RANGE Media last Wednesday, May 10. I urge you to click and read: Remembrances and reckonings at Camp Hope. Maurice’s piece offers more detail on the death of Mark, a former Camp Hope camper and one of the originals. Mark died the same day as Bigs, earlier this week.

Words and threats, othering, unkindnesses, and legal maneuvering all have real world consequences, far removed from sterile offices, board rooms, and court rooms from which they issue. There is a lesson here.

Keep to the high ground,