Race Relations

Race Relations

Rodriguez Sees Dialogue on Race Relations as Essential to Progress

Race relations remains the single most divisive issue in contemporary American political life in spite of decades-long struggles to advance the cause of civil rights and provide equitable opportunity for all. As a nation born with the imprimatur that “all men are created equal” we have long lived a contested history to advance that notion more fully, and although advances have certainly been achieved there remains unfinished work that lies before us.

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History has taught us that legislative action can solve many of the most egregious violations of state-sanctioned discrimination (for example, poll taxes, and Jim Crow era segregation laws), but the harder question that persists is how do we address the societal problem of bias and find the solutions that legislation alone cannot remedy?

As difficult as it may seem, we need to have a genuine and meaningful discussion about the issue of race relations in the United States. Having studied and taught African American history for nearly three decades now, I have experienced this quandary when encouraging my own students to speak openly about racial matters and begin a dialogue that might move us toward greater understanding and finding answers. The initial silences are generally quite palpable as individuals clam up when the topic is broached, but once the discussion begins a healthy conversation usually results. Key to this process is the realization that for true dialogue to take place individuals who are participating must listen as well as hear what others are saying—and this rule applies both ways. Matters of public discourse should not be measured by the volume or tone, but rather by the quality of the deliberative thought and discussion that is presented.

A national dialogue on race is really best understood as thousands of conversations on the topic that occur across the nation and engage as many as possible in the discussion as we seek better understanding and search to find common ground. These conversations can occur in our schools, our places of worship, our neighborhood-based community organizations, and our places of employment or association—in short, we can find the means to discuss the topic, but we must also summon the courage to act upon the findings that result. The discovery of points of common ground provide us with a starting point from which policy can be crafted. Most importantly, the beginning of such an open, frank, and honest dialogue presents us with the opportunity to continue to keep the lines of communication open so that this becomes an ordinary practice. This is how we can begin to reach the hearts and minds of those who are willing to engage and help fashion a more just and equitable society. The noted African American scholar Cornel West explains this more clearly when he says “Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.”

You may note that this policy proposal does not entail a specific legislative fix to alleviate the conditions that must be remedied. That is because the specifics of a policy cannot be understood until a true conversation about race relations occurs. Keep in mind that we have seen intractable sides torn asunder by generations of racial apartheid in South Africa who have found the means to move forward together through the atoning power of reconciliation. Fratricidal conflicts in war-torn nations have led to individuals of good faith finding common bond with their former sworn enemies through the power of dialogue and shared understanding. We know that one of the most common themes found among many religious traditions is the challenge to “love thy neighbor,” so the beginnings of this initiative are already deep-seated core beliefs of many. This is possible.

It is only through listening and hearing that each of us can come to understand that the world that we know and experience is dissimilar to the worldview of others. If we can come to recognize and understand the points of fracture that are responsible for this divisiveness, then we can come to find practical workable solutions to make our society more whole. There is no miraculous legislative fix that can achieve this end, but it is the collective will of the People that can make it succeed. We have always been strongest as a nation when we find common purpose and work toward a goal that is consequential. It would seem that moving our nation forward toward that “more perfect Union” that our Founders prophesied should be a cause that is worthy of our greatest endeavors.

Biofuels

Biofuels

Next-Generation Biofuels Can Benefit Central Illinois Communities According to Rodriguez The rise of the biofuels industry has been advantageous to economic development within the rural and agricultural communities of Central Illinois, and prudent policy considerations can ensure that this partnership remains mutually beneficial for the next generation and beyond. Special consideration must be made for the independent and smaller farms that engage within the biofuels sector since the ability to read changing market signals is one of the most challenging aspects of an industry that still remains fraught with uncertainty.

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The difficulty of making the right choices when determining how many acres to plant in corn and how many to plant in beans can become a make-or-break decision for those farmers who are operating close to the margins. Basing such assumptions upon anticipated commodities prices and wildly-erratic oil futures is challenging enough, but this becomes all the more difficult when governmental targets shift as a result of Renewable Fuel Standard and smaller producers often find themselves operating in the dark when making intended acreage decisions. By and large the biofuels industry has aided development in the agricultural sector while not hindering the capacity of Illinois farmers to produce feed and foodstuffs. The nation’s 2015 corn harvest, the third-largest ever, produced a total of 13.6 billion bushels and demonstrated that the U.S. has the capacity to produce sufficient amounts of fuel, feed, and food from this bounty. Significant in this consideration is the marketing of residual co-products for feed and other purposes once ethanol and biodiesel have been extracted from the initial biomass. Accordingly, we have not faced the food vs. fuel dilemma that many had predicted in the early years of the biofuels sector. It is important that we begin to plan for and invest in the changes that will be necessary for the next generation of biofuel development, and doing so now can position Central Illinois farms and rural communities to prosper from the continued growth of this economic sector. The advent of celluloid ethanol from biomass is one of the most promising aspects to consider. The use of corn stover, straw, or other harvest residue can provide additional material that can be converted into biofuel. Additionally, farmers might be encouraged to plant switchgrass in marginal lands that also can be used for this purpose while not diminishing acreage going into corn production. This approach has been used effectively in Brazil and other nations that have encouraged innovation in their expanding next-generation biofuels sectors. In addition, there are small communities around the U.S. that have obtained federal grant money to develop local initiatives in which yard waste is converted into biofuel. We may find innovative communities in Central Illinois that would be willing to pilot such an initiative to foster further local economic development. Planning ahead for the next generation of biofuels production must also include consideration of expanding U.S. exports within this sector, and much of this could be targeted to hemispheric markets where the potential for development is great. This would require the reduction of trade barriers that are in place. We must also consider the gradual reduction of subsidies within the biofuels sector, but this must be pegged to greater expansion of real opportunities for both suppliers and producers within this industry. Expanding markets can provide great benefits for all parties concerned. Although the expansion of the biofuels sector would ideally work best if left to market forces alone, the strained relationship that exists between the biofuels industry and the petroleum industry makes continued regulation necessary for the time being. In addition, some federal oversight is needed to guarantee national security and food security concerns as well as environmental quality issues related to the production and distribution of biofuels products. The U.S. Congress must support pro-growth policies that can aid the development of next-generation biofuels while at the same time guaranteeing that sustainability is one of the guiding principles that directs this development.

Environmental Protection

Environmental Protection

Rodriguez Believes Data-Driven Decisions Are Key to Wise Environmental Policy Recently, while attending a county fair, I had a conversation with a gentleman who tried to convince me that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) needed to be abolished. I listened politely to his argument but then countered with an explanation of why such a position was unsound. For those who are ideological conservatives, it is patently absurd to believe that they would be opposed to the idea of conservation—it is the very root of the modern environmental movement...

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Two Republican presidents, Theodore Roosevelt and Richard Nixon, were the greatest champions of the conservation movement, and each signed into law signature legislation that advanced the cause of environmental protection in the U.S. This topic is not one that should have a partisan divide between the left and the right; if anything, it should be one of the points of common sense agreement between people of different political stripes.

Regardless of political affiliation, we all appreciate the benefits of clean air and clean water, both on a personal and a societal level. Although a cost may be involved to achieve this, it is clear that the benefits far outweigh the shared burden to attain these goals. Although some might claim that the free market, if left to its own devices, would make wise choices and thereby protect the environment, we know from experience that markets do not have a reputation for making moral choices. It is through deliberate decisions, like removing lead from paint and from gasoline, that we see legislative solutions to societal problems that can be addressed. Were we to ignore such remedies that serve the public good simply to satisfy ideological purity, we would find ourselves in a dangerous world. For instance, would you freely choose to work in an asbestos-laden workplace, or to put it more bluntly, how much mercury do you like with your fish?

Common sense regulation that is rooted in the public interest is beneficial to society, but we must be careful to avoid the excesses of over-regulation that an increasingly bureaucratic state can create. Federal courts have recently blocked the Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule that the EPA was hoping to enact as part of an expansion of the Clean Water Act. Under this proposed rule, the EPA would have redefined what constitutes “navigable waterways” and thereby extended federal control onto private property. I believe that the courts acted properly in this regard.

The key to enacting common sense policy with regard to environmental protection is that decisions must be data-driven and not rooted in ideological talking points of either party. Failure to make data-driven decisions will only lead to more man-made disasters like the water crisis in Flint, MI. We can, and must, do better than this as a society, because today’s policy failures will have serious ramifications for generations to come. We cannot be science deniers. We need effective leadership and good stewardship to be our guiding principles as we move forward on matters of environmental policy.

My opponent has recently joined with other political ideologues to try to prevent several attorneys general in various states from moving forward with an investigation of ExxonMobil to see if the company misled its own shareholders and the general public from knowledge linking emission of greenhouse gases and environmental degradation. Key to this matter is the place of data-driven decisions that are based upon scientific assessments. The political class should not give shelter to special interests like multi-national corporations that withhold evidence because they wish to protect the company’s bottom line. Clean politics may be difficult to attain, but if clean air and clean water measures are any indication, it is possible to reduce the toxic irritants that we currently face.

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Veteran's Affairs Each year when we celebrate the Fourth of July and commemorate our nation’s values we also honor and thank the many men and women who over the years have defended the nation through their service in the armed forces. Today’s policy proposal is intended to keep faith with this tradition by recognizing the service of those who have done so much to ensure the freedom and the liberty that we all hold so dear.

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Responsibility and commitment must be the benchmarks by which the effectiveness of any system of government is evaluated. In short, does a nation always stand true to its ideals and honor the promises that it makes? Sadly, the recent scandalous revelations regarding the Department of Veterans Affairs would suggest that the nation has fallen woefully short in living up to its time-honored commitment to care for those who gave their all in service to the nation. Regardless of our party affiliation, we can all agree that this situation is intolerable and that it must be remedied.

Last year the U.S. Congress agreed to a stopgap measure that would begin to address the backlog of cases that are pending in the VA hospital system. Under this system a veteran is entitled to receive emergency healthcare at a non-VA facility at VA expense provided that the hospital has an agreement with the Department of Veterans Affairs. Yet, in an apparent bureaucratic snafu, the non-VA hospitals that agree to provide these important services were denied the ability to advertise this to the public. It is unclear as to whether this policy represents a fear of free market competition or whether it is intended to maintain a monopolistic hold on healthcare on the part of the VA, but either of these justifications is unsound. The prohibition on advertising these vital services must be lifted.

Junius Rodriguez believes that in addition to lifting this advertising ban so that more veterans have access to vital medical services, the stopgap measure should be expanded so that additional healthcare facilities that wish to participate in providing care to veterans are allowed to do so under the umbrella of VA benefits. The measure of true reform in this regard must be whether we are providing the promised health services to our nation’s veterans, not to whether or not the bureaucrats in Washington, D.C. are given an opportunity to save face. This is the least that we can do to keep the faith with those who have served their nation through the years with honor and selfless dedication.

Independent Maps

Independent Maps

Independent Maps Are Absolutely Necessary According to Rodriguez Reconfiguring the maps of legislative and congressional districts is a constitutional requirement that occurs each decade after the results of the census have been announced. Thus, like clockwork, the process of redistricting begins as state legislators initiate a frantic effort to preserve their domain and, in effect, make it bulletproof so as to head off any potential challengers.

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This is certainly not a situation where less is more. How is it that we have allowed our citizen democracy to sink to this level?
Writing in Federalist # 51, James Madison cautioned that “a power independent of the society may as well espouse the unjust views of the major, as the rightful interests, of the minor party,” and he saw this as one of the potential weaknesses of the checks and balances built into the American constitutional system. It is unfortunate that Madison’s great concern has come to fruition in the process of redistricting. We have permitted a system to take effect in which the politicians have the constitutional right to select their voters. This has, in effect, created the conveyor belt of incumbency that produces the most absurd of notions—the career politician. In effect, our current system gives voters much less of a choice in selecting their representatives.
I support the idea of having legislative and congressional district maps developed by an independent commission that is absolutely free of partisan influence. The principle of rationality must be employed in the creation of these maps to determine most accurately where the lines must ultimately be drawn. This kind of Solomon-like wisdom does not come naturally to the political class—of either party—so we must rely upon the judicious temperament of independent-minded individuals to sort through the demographic data and make the best choices.
The notion of having legislative and congressional district boundaries determined by an independent commission should not be construed as anything that will undermine the power and the influence of the voting public. Certain safeguards can be put in place to protect the rights that racial and ethnic minorities are guaranteed under the Voting Rights Act. In addition, the districts drawn should reflect the common interests of the residents included and should honor geographic boundaries rather than simply dividing a neighborhood down the middle of a street.
The gerrymandered districts that exist currently have been tremendously effective in preserving the status quo, and where has that gotten us? Voters are periodically roused with the “throw the bums out” mentality, but this does not always lead to effective change because collectively we seem to have a short attention span in such matters. Maybe 2016 will be different—time will tell.
The independent maps approach is a true good government reform that can hopefully produce government that is more effective than our current system. In a true citizen democracy we should not consider a legislative district to be a personal fiefdom to be maintained by the political class. The People are sovereign within our system, and the People are relatively independent-minded when it comes to understanding what is right from what is just plain wrong. We deserve the right to a system that can help make our government better. Our goal for the past 229 years has been “to form a more perfect Union,” and the independent maps proposal can help us to achieve that end.

Strategic Planning for Infrastructure

Strategic Planning for Infrastructure

Strategic Planning for Infrastructure Development Will Fuel Economic Growth Whether Republican or Democratic, most politicians find safety and comfort in the familiar promise that they support investments in infrastructure to support job creation in their districts. I too stand among that number; guilty as charged. The difference, however, is found when you look into the specifics—the details—that follow the well-worn promise. All too often we see that the promise of infrastructure improvements is just an election year pledge that stands alone, absent any real connection to remedying current problems or addressing strategic concerns...

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The U.S. is in need of a long-range strategic plan for infrastructure development that can address current problems and anticipate the needs of the next generation in commerce and transit. Estimates of the current U.S. population hover at about 320 million and that number is expected to reach 400 million within the next thirty-five years. When we consider the typical project life span of taking a transportation project forward from its innovative germ stage to environmental scans to its ultimate completion, the time is now to begin the work of designing and developing the highway infrastructure that will be needed by the middle of the twenty-first century. Although a significant part of this effort will require additional construction, much of the work will involve redesigning and reconfiguring existing roadways and bridges to handle the increase in capacity that will be anticipated by mid-century. I would propose that we initiate an immediate study across the country of all locations on our existing interstate highway system that are traffic nodes—that is, areas where three interstate highways come together within a ten mile radius. These are the potential bottlenecks that must be addressed first if we are to create an infrastructure network that can support commerce and transit needs that we anticipate by mid-century. We should begin to collect data at each of these nodes to address the functionality of the existing system with its present capacity requirements, and this will allow us to make projections about the long-range functionality of the existing design. Where it is deemed necessary, new construction projects must be anticipated and funded so that the engine of the American economy does not falter. In addition to considering the merits of highway construction projects, we must also look into other aspects of infrastructure development that can accommodate anticipated need in the coming generation. I believe that it is worth considering the merits of commuter rail systems that might connect mid-sized cities like several that exist here in the IL-18th district. In addition to the efficiency and long-range energy savings that such a system might provide, it also includes an improved quality-of-life metric for those who currently experience a long commute each day just getting to and from work. In addition, it is imperative that we invest in river lock and dam improvements as part of a comprehensive infrastructure program that focuses upon the anticipated carrying capacity of our current antiquated river control structures. Few politicians ever think beyond the timespan of election cycles, so it is sometimes difficult to get members of the U.S. Congress to agree to serious long-term strategic planning that is needed to prepare for mid-century commerce and transit needs. The approach that we take must be multifaceted, and we must not let it be degraded to the piecemeal approach of old-fashioned pork-barrel politics. We must make wise, data-driven choices in where we choose to invest our infrastructure resources, and we must strive to get the greatest efficiency out of our efforts. Rather than measuring the success or failure of such projects only in relation to short-term job creation, we must look more strategically of how the decisions that we make today can well influence the carrying capacity of the American economy well into mid-century and beyond. This requires visionary leadership on the part of our elected officials and the willingness to prioritize national needs ahead of any regional or partisan agenda.

I-72 Corridor

I-72 Corridor

Interstate 72 Corridor Job creation must be the highest priority of the next congressman to represent the IL-18th, and the urgency for immediate employment opportunities is greatest in the district’s western counties. Although support for improvements and innovations in the transportation sector constitutes one of the best means to stimulate job creation as we upgrade the nation’s infrastructure of roads and bridges, one project in particular stands out as having the ability to be singularly transformational to the economic health and vitality of the residents of the IL-18th district and that is the completion of the Interstate 72 corridor across northern Missouri.

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It might seem to be counterintuitive for a congressional candidate in Illinois to advocate on behalf a federal highway construction project in a neighboring state, but this is type of innovative approach that Junius Rodriguez supports to move beyond the narrow parochialism of partisan politics. It is also the kind of project that would require broad bipartisan support in order to be realized.

The original plan for the Interstate 72 corridor when it was first conceptualized in the late-1970s was that it would become a major east-west artery through the Midwest cutting across Illinois and Missouri. The Illinois portion of the highway was constructed, but its western terminus lies today at Hannibal, MO, just two miles within Missouri. Completion of the corridor from that point westward toward the greater Kansas City area would foster job growth not only within the construction industry but also through the aggregate building materials industry in the tri-state region. While such job creation in the short-run is significant, it pales in comparison to the long-term prospects for job growth as an influx of motorists and travelers would cross much of the heartland of the IL-18th on a daily basis. Additionally, the completion of another significant east-west artery would alleviate traffic congestion in places like Des Moines, the Quad Cities, Chicago, and St. Louis while also preparing the nation to meet the infrastructure demands that will be needed for the next generation of transportation in the United States.

Congressman Darin LaHood did support a bipartisan bill to support infrastructure projects in December 2015, but that legislation did not include the completion of the Interstate 72 corridor even though that project was labeled a “high priority” by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO). Moreover, while Congressman LaHood has voiced the standard platitudes regarding the general importance of infrastructure improvements, he has steadfastly refused to support the proposal backed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to raise the gas tax to fund necessary improvements to the nation’s road and bridge system. (The gas tax, which has not been raised since 1991, is currently unable to cover necessary maintenance costs on the nation’s transportation infrastructure despite dire warnings that significant portions of our current system are “structurally deficient.”)

Junius Rodriguez believes that wise investments must be made today in funding the needed improvements to roads and bridges that can not only create jobs in the short-run but also alleviate many of the long-term transportation bottlenecks for the coming generation. Rodriguez stated that “Prudent use of scarce resources in the Highway Trust Fund can have tremendous economic benefit to rural isolated counties that have been left out of the recovery that is currently underway. The Interstate 72 project, in particular, has the potential of generating thousands of new jobs and bringing opportunity to the places that have been forgotten for all too long.”

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Military and Diplomatic Efforts are Necessary to Combat Terrorism

In the fifteen years that have passed since the U.S. initiated its Global War on Terror, we have participated in two wars--Afghanistan and Iraq, we have initiated special operations in a host of other nations, and we are currently engaged in supporting those who are attempting to defeat ISIS...

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We have learned through these efforts that a war designed to defeat an idea is a challenging task that is terribly expensive both in human treasure and in resources expended. The face of American involvement in this venture has primarily been through military action in which we have positioned combat assets and special operations forces into theatres of operation far afield where we hope to achieve our mission of eradicating terror. Associated with these operations are the diplomatic ventures—often occurring behind the scenes—to encourage allies to support U.S. efforts and to promote regional peace and security in areas scourged by conflict.

Much of the current discussion of how best to defeat ISIS centers upon the proper role of U.S. military assets—that is, whether to use air power alone or to commit “boots on the ground” to the operation—but fails to incorporate the central role that international diplomacy must play in finding a just solution. Much of what we are witnessing in the Middle East in 2016 stems from the diplomatic decisions that were made nearly a century ago at the conclusion of the First World War. International boundaries drawn by colonial powers, indifference to regional sectarian interests, and the potent politics of petroleum reserves all contributed to the scenario that has played itself out over the past century. Poor diplomacy helped to create this crisis, but more effective diplomacy can lead to a potential solution. The effective engagement of regional players is key to finding a solution—whether military or diplomatic in nature—since national self-interest of those whose global neighborhood is disturbed stand to lose the most through the continuation of hostilities and the humanitarian crisis that follows. We must recognize that nations like Egypt and Iran, because of the sheer size of their populations and their regional influence, can have hegemonic power that could be used as a force for good or for ill in the efforts to defeat ISIS. The U.S. has attempted to draw support—largely financial--from Arab neighbors in the Gulf States like Bahrain, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates, but this support has been more symbolic than substantive. Turkey has seemed to be most willing to be engaged in the struggle, but since it is fearful of Kurdish autonomy it has much to lose in this venture and has thus displayed global passive-aggressive tendencies in its level of support. In addition, the U.S. commitment to Turkey as a NATO ally also makes this situation all the more complicated. Force alone cannot destroy the ideology of the terrorist. Nations that live within the region must reject this methodology and work to resist its adherents with all possible vigor, and religious leaders too—from all faith traditions—must reject outright any perversions of dogma that seek to justify the killing of innocents in the name of political justice because this is utter madness. Associated with these ongoing efforts, the global community of nations must be willing to find an effective diplomatic solution for the affected region that includes border adjustments, investments in aid and economic development, and cultural exchange. Those who live within a world that knows hope and opportunity are less likely to be radicalized and attracted by a false ideology that promises success from the misdeeds of the violent. The U.S. can play a key role in this diplomatic venture by reasserting its role as a moral force for good in the world. We have a proud history of liberating peoples from oppression and providing real opportunity for change and transformation, but we often let others control this narrative. Still, an emphasis upon diplomacy does not preclude the right of the U.S. to defend its self-interest and to support its allies whenever they are threatened by the forces of discord. America is capable of employing both the carrot and the stick in this endeavor. No enemy should ever question the resolve of this nation to act when American citizens or their property is threatened by those who wish to do us harm for that would be a tragic error in judgment.

Wage Gap

Wage Gap

Rodriguez Sees Multifaceted Remedies to Addressing the Wage Gap Labor Day presents the perfect time for focusing upon one of the more persistent problems that plagues the labor market—the gender-based wage gap. On average women earn less than men, but the causes of this problem are multifaceted and extend far beyond the casual assumption that wage inequality for equitable work is the key culprit. In fact, federal law has prohibited employers from gender-based wage discrimination since passage of the Equal Pay Act (1963) and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (1964), and this was reinforced in 2009 with the passage of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.

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That the wage gap has persisted through the years is evidence that systemic and institutional factors are at play that contribute to this problem. Since women constitute nearly two-thirds of workers who are employed at minimum wage jobs, an effort to raise the minimum wage is one of the means that can be used to address the wage gap. The purchasing power of the minimum wage (adjusted for inflation) has been erratic through the years, and the relative value of a minimum wage salary has declined by nearly 20 percent since the last hike in minimum wage occurred back in 2009. I would like to see the federal government implement a three-year tiered plan to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 by 2019. Individual states and cities would retain the right to use a minimum wage that his higher than the federal standard, but this adjustment would significantly raise the threshold so that wage gap differences would be lessened. The federal minimum wage for tipped labor, which stands at $2.13 per hour, has not been raised in the past fifteen years. Since women also constitute the vast majority of American workers who are employed as tipped laborers, an increase in the tipped minimum wage would also have an impact upon efforts to remedy the wage gap. I believe that the federal minimum tipped wage should ultimately be $5.05 (half of the newly proposed minimum wage) to be achieved on a three-year tiered plan of increase. These two initiatives would go a long way in helping to remedy much of the wage differences that account for the wage gap. Other factors that must be considered if we hope to address the wage gap are the levels of support that we find at the state and federal levels to help provide safe and affordable child care for working women as well as substantial investment in early childhood education programs. All too often women who labor among the so-called “working poor” must make the choice of whether or not they can work due to the financial constraints that child care costs provide. Frequently reliance on family to provide such services, or other less than ideal circumstances, is used as a stopgap measure, but interruptions in such arrangements makes it difficult for one to sustain employment for an extended period of time. We often consider the circumstances of the wage gap as a stand-alone story that is secondary to other public policy concerns, but we must use a more holistic approach to recognize the severity of this issue and summon the means to address it. The wage gap has a direct correlation to poverty in the United States, and by curious circumstance women and children are those who fall victim to poverty more often than not. In addition, among many poor and single-parent families women are the primary breadwinners, so wage barriers merely perpetuate the cycle of poverty for many. Although the policy initiatives that are outlined here may not be the ultimate systemic solution that will remedy the wage gap, they certainly will move us closer to a more equitable wage differential in American society.

Higher Education Costs

Higher Education Costs

Rodriguez Says that Rising Costs of Higher Education Must Be Curtailed The rising costs of higher education and the ever-expanding burden of college debt are issues that have gained national attention during the 2016 election season. Several candidates during the presidential primaries advanced plans of how they might alleviate the effects of college debt by permitting individuals to refinance loans while others advocated various measures that might include providing free college education for students at public universities.

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Interestingly enough, no one seems to be speaking to the root of the problem itself and that is what can government (at both the federal and state levels) do to reduce the costs of higher education? As a career educator, this is an issue that is near and dear to my heart, and it is one that has troubled me over the years. Taxpayers at the state and federal level are helping to subsidize the rising costs of higher education, but few might know what exactly they are supporting. We have witnessed a skyrocketing increase in the costs associated with higher education since the early-1980s when federally-backed student loans were made accessible to all who might seek to attain a college or university degree. This infusion of loan money unleashed a torrent of unbridled marketing and expansion as institutions sought to make themselves more appealing to the desires and interests of potential students who were facing a “buyer’s market” of options as to where they might choose to attend. Many institutions lost sight of their primary purpose—providing a quality education—as they began to focus more on special amenities that would make their campuses appealing and suddenly “curb appeal” became more of a quality metric than did graduation rate. All of this came at a cost. Associated with this frenzy of expansion came an expansion of administrative personnel, often earning high salaries, who fancied themselves as business executives who could manage a more efficient academic mission at these public institutions. We now have state universities that boast a 15:1 student-to-faculty ratio, which is admirable, yet try to hide a 9:1 administrator-to-student ratio, which is absurd. To repeat an earlier point, all of this comes at a cost. Several European nations that have found the means to make higher education free have managed to do this by streamlining the educational process to a “bare bones” approach that focuses entirely upon the quality of the education that is being provided and removes the supposedly unnecessary frills from the equation. Any taxpayer in the U.S. should be able to find out what is the percentage costs of administration that is necessary to operate a public university, and they should also be privy to the exact cost of how much it takes for any public university to raise a dollar in development support. These are facts that matter, and we must learn to reward the efficient. Federal support to higher educational institutions, outside of grants and other aid that is made available to students, comes in the form of grants-in-aid that are provided to support research efforts by faculty at public universities. In many respects, such grants are the lifeblood of many esteemed institutions of higher education. In general, these awards are based entirely upon the quality of the research proposals that are under consideration, but what if one other factor was considered in making such decisions? How successful an institution remains focused upon its academic mission should be a point of consideration to guarantee that federal grants are not being used to further the bloat of unnecessary expenditures that expand the costs of higher education at public universities. This would also motivate faculty to become passionate advocates of real reform in keeping down the rising costs of higher education. I believe that there are very real measures that can be taken at the state and federal levels to reduce the costs of higher education, so it would be wise of public institutions to implement such savings of their own volition. If this is done, then it is possible that a combination of state and federal support can be used to fund two-years of a community college education for those citizens who seek to advance their education and training. Just as we have found it necessary in the past to fund K-12 public education to prepare an educated citizenry and workforce, the demands of the twenty-first century economy require a greater skill set, and government must act accordingly.

Tax Reform

Tax Reform

Tax Reform To many individuals the U.S. Tax System is a reflection of the government as a whole, as the tax code is bloated, unnecessarily complex, and seemingly broken. If we were to combine all the statutes, regulations, and related case law that constitute the tax code, the total would include about 70,000 pages consisting of more than ten million words. Such a lengthy and complex system creates a huge burden when it comes to the amount of time and related costs to comply with our broken system to the tune of an estimated 8.9 billion hours and $409 billion in lost productivity per year.

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Much of the complexity in the tax code results from the numerous deductions that have accrued over time due to the toxic influence of special interests. In addition, the U.S. currently maintains the highest marginal corporate tax rate of all developed nations in the world at 39.1 percent as compared to the average rate of 24.1 percent among the other developed nations. This system is untenable since such a tax rate makes the U.S. a less competitive place to do business and encourages multination corporations to find creative ways to shift as much income overseas to countries with lower tax rates. This, in turn, creates an unwieldly situation in which the firms that have the most creative accountants benefit over those that provide the best products and services. Moreover, this causes tremendous disparity in the amount that different companies pay in taxes while also decreasing government revenues and limiting necessary vital services.

With such a high level of complexity and a high compliance cost, it is clear that we need to do better to reform our current tax system. The goals of any tax reform initiative should be to reduce complexity, to create a fairer system, and to reduce compliance costs so that individuals and businesses can reallocate their resources to more productive tasks. In order for us to achieve this end, we must work together in a bipartisan fashion to restructure our tax system rather than simply applying new bandages to a broken system.

Such fixes to the tax code will need to include a simplification in the number of the special deductions and tax credits that are currently available. Since these deductions and credits create unneeded complexity, we can more effectively achieve the goal of generating government revenues without increasing tax rates on average Americans by creating simple individual and family allowances that would be available to all Americans to ensure that equitability and fairness are essential elements of any tax system overhaul.

In addition, it is essential that we create a more competitive corporate tax system that reduces the marginal tax rates on corporate income while simultaneously eliminating tax loopholes for certain business that cost the government billions of dollars in needed revenue. Such a step is important to create an environment where entrepreneurs can focus on running their businesses instead of navigating the tax system. As Americans, we do not have to accept a broken and overly complex tax system. Instead, we should and must demand true reforms that streamline the system and raise sufficient revenues to fund government services adequately. By making a firm commitment to bipartisanship in order to get things done, we can achieve real reforms such as creating more competitive corporate tax rates, an idea for which both Democrats and Republicans have indicated support in the past.

Junius Rodriguez believes that essential fairness must be the benchmark as we reform the U.S. tax code. He noted that “Great nations are those that shoulder the responsibility that is incumbent upon them rather than bequeath to future generations the burden of our folly. True tax reform that is fair and equitable in nature can be our greatest civic undertaking of this century, and if done properly, it can generate much-needed revenue to serve the nation’s interests. This is what the People today are demanding of those who wish to serve and lead.”

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Fiscal Accountability Fiscal responsibility is essential in the U.S. House of Representatives if we ever hope to see a balanced budget and begin the important work of reducing the national debt. Since past Congresses have shown little effort to achieve this end, it is therefore necessary to force a procedural rule that will make it much more problematic for members of Congress to continue to fund so called “pork projects” or legislative earmarks.

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A spirit of total transparency is necessary in the legislative process so that the American people can readily see how much government largesse their Representative is spending on pet projects that are largely deemed nonessential.

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) is a nonpartisan agency that operates within the government to provide data-driven analyses of any pending legislation that has been approved by a committee of the House or Senate. Accordingly, the CBO uses its analytical skills to make cost estimates of most pending legislative bills, but according to congressional custom it does not follow this practice for appropriations bills. As a result, these are the pieces of legislation that often become filled with special earmarks during those late evening sessions when the give-and-take of political deal-making is in full swing. If we want to fix broken government, the fix must begin here.

Junius Rodriguez is proposing a procedural rule that would require an estimate from the CBO on all pending bills that have made their way through committee, including appropriations bills, so that an analysis can be made regarding the necessary cost of the pending legislation and the additional cost that would be added if legislative earmarks were included. Since acronyms can serve a useful purpose here, the CBO should be required to affix a label on all pending legislation—the Fiscal Accountability Tracker (FAT)—to provide the American people with the exact cost of legislation that is pending before the U.S. Congress. Moreover, the procedural rule would require a minimum of a forty-eight hour waiting period for the CBO to conduct its estimate before legislation could be put forward for a final vote. This would put both transparency and rationality as the driving forces in the legislative process and would eliminate the circumstance of late-night votes upon massive bills that no one has read.

In short, this procedural rule is necessary because we cannot allow congressional fat to clog the arteries of the body politic. It is certainly possible that some of the items that are currently funded as congressional pork projects might well have a legitimate purpose, but if so, these projects must stand or fall on their own merits and not as quid pro quo compensation for a rightly-cast vote. Although every legislator would love to return more funding in appropriations to the district than was paid out in tax revenues, this is financially untenable and logically unsound. The U.S. Congress must learn to live within its means.

If this procedural rule is established, the Fiscal Accountability Tracker (FAT) label would be included on all legislation that is up for consideration by the Congress. It would also be available for public review online at the Library of Congress website (Thomas) where voters can review legislation that is pending. This rule would also provide a new metric by which we could measure the effectiveness of legislators in keeping their promises regarding fiscal accountability. Many would agree that Washington, D.C. needs a diet, and perhaps the use of a FAT label is one method that can begin the process of restoring our fiscal health and wellness.

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Term Limits
Voters should demand that any political candidate who purports a willingness to challenge the toxicity and work to remedy the dysfunction within the U.S. Congress should state a clear and unequivocal position on the question of term limits. In recent election cycles we have all too readily witnessed the power of the conveyor belt of incumbency, and we can easily grasp the ill effects that this factor has had upon our Democracy.

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During the 2014 election cycle, 96 percent of incumbents in the U.S. House of Representatives who sought reelection were returned to their posts in spite of the abysmally low esteem with which the institution of the U.S. Congress is regarded according to recent national polls.

Although Congressman Darin LaHood, the Republican incumbent, has on occasion voiced his support for term limits, when pressed for more specifics on the issue he has dialed back his endorsement of the idea and issued a very tepid response to this notion. In May 2015, while a candidate in the Special Election to fill the vacancy in the IL-18th seat, LaHood signed a pledge with the advocacy group U.S. Term Limits to support a three-term limit for members of the U.S. House of Representatives. Yet only weeks later, during a radio interview, LaHood was asked about his views on term limits and he stated that “serving somewhere between six terms and eight terms would be something that would be appropriate.” One might also infer that the Congressman’s obvious penchant for a lifetime career in politics might imply that term limits is nothing more than an elaborate game of “musical chairs” in which one finds vacancies to fill while ever-rising within the political echelon. There is something very shallow in this.

Democratic challenger Junius Rodriguez has stated on multiple occasions that he personally supports the notion of term limits. According to Rodriguez, “If given the honor of representing the residents of the IL-18th congressional district, I will view this as what the Founders intended it to be--a temporary assignment that has been granted to me. I have absolutely no intention of serving more than three terms (six years) in the U.S. House of Representatives.” Junius Rodriguez believes that there is an inherent danger in the power of entrenched incumbency in American politics today, and he does not want to go to Washington to join the club, but rather to challenge the business-as-usual mentality that prevails there.

Junius Rodriguez believes that one of the most important measures of a person’s character is how they handle power. He knows that a person’s willingness to relinquish power voluntarily is one of the most consequential tests of leadership. In crafting our constitutional system to be “a machine that could go of its own,” the Founders understood that the willingness of ordinary citizens to step forward in times of national consequence was indeed the essence of how a Citizen Democracy should function. Supporting the notion of term limits is one of the ways that we can restore a level of accountability to a political system that has become terribly jaded in the eyes of the People.

Social Security

Social Security

Social Security Rodriguez Believes Graduated and Multi-Faceted Fixes Can Extend Lifetime of Social Security Social Security has infamously been described by some as “the third rail of American politics,” implying that it is a potentially deadly issue that politicians should broach with extreme caution or not at all. As such, it has been famously ignored during a generation of congressional do-nothingism because the concern of perpetuating careers by many is greater than their willingness to tackle an issue that is laden with controversy.

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Since we know that the Social Security Trust Fund will become insolvent down the line unless we find the courage to act now, it is imperative that the next Congress begins the challenging work of guaranteeing the life of Social Security for future generations. I believe that the U.S. Congress should begin the process in 2017 of raising the retirement age from 67 to 70 within a decade. This can be achieved by incrementally raising the retirement age and the clear expression of the timetable can allow for those who are approaching the age of retirement to plan accordingly and determine the point at which they would choose to retire. Americans experience a longer life-expectancy today than they did when retirement cohorts were originally set, and pushing the retirement age back ever so slightly does contribute to the greater life of the Social Security Trust Fund. Today, regardless of the salary that one might earn, no worker in the U.S. pays FICA taxes (for Social Security and Medicare) on any salary above $122,000. I would propose that the upper limit of this be raised to a $200,000 cap over the next decade. This too will provide additional revenue that will extend the life of Social Security well into the future. Although some will object to this proposal, we must inculcate a sense of inter-generational responsibility here. We are supporting our parents and grandparents generation with the assurance that our own age cohort will be treated equitably in due course. A multi-faceted approach to Social Security reform must include implementation of a means-testing system for the most wealthy among us. Those individuals among the millionaire class who do not need to receive monthly Social Security checks in order to make ends meet should not be receiving them. Any use of means testing must be indexed to inflation on a regular basis so that no one is unfairly penalized by this system; individuals who fell below the means testing threshold would again be eligible for benefits. This reform will also add life to the Social Security Trust Fund. The U.S. Congress must also rise to the occasion and prove itself to be fiscally responsible. It is critical that the Congress makes it a priority to make Social Security a program that is fully funded so that expenditures do not consistently outpace revenues to fund it. Reform cannot simply be a stopgap measure because that is essentially passing the problem on to future generations. Most importantly, we must keep in mind that the most effective means of strengthening Social Security for years to come is the creation of good jobs at good wages in the coming decade. We should set as a target the creation of at least 25 million new jobs in the coming decade and work to ensure that these are jobs that provide living wages and beyond to a new generation of American workers. Individuals who are working at good jobs with good wages will have the ability to save money—something that is all too often an unavailable luxury to many who today work from paycheck-to-paycheck. We must also do as much as we can to incentivize savings in the rising generation of American workers—not as a means of moving toward privatization of Social Security, but as a means of encouraging savings to supplement future Social Security payments.

Uplift in Place

Uplift in Place

Uplift in Place We must strive to make equitable access to education and job training one of the primary goals that the House of Representatives must address when the 115th Congress begins its work in January 2017. This task is imperative if we are to ensure that the impact of the uneven economic recovery that we have experienced does not have debilitating effects upon the often rural, isolated communities that have been left behind.

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Since the new economy of the twenty-first century cannot function effectively if we accept the persistence of “forgotten places,” the Rodriguez for Congress campaign is proposing a bold new education and training initiative called “Uplift in Place” that can prepare residents of the isolated communities the opportunity to acquire the necessary skills that they need—where they are—so that they can obtain good jobs—where they are.

“Uplift in Place” is intended to be a training program that will be designed at the local level and assisted with grant support and targeted assistance from the state and federal support where necessary. The initiative is one that will maximize the use of existing assets in the communities that need assistance, and it will seek to identify the kinds of synergistic opportunities that can maximize the effectiveness of educational outreach and training utilizing the best practices in the field of distance learning. Partnerships between community colleges, local public libraries, some school districts, and some faith-based organizations will be established and leveraged so that the public libraries that choose to participate can become effective education and training centers in their respective communities. In addition, we will seek to encourage corporate participation in this effort to provide fiber optic broadband access to the isolated communities that are thus served and this can be encouraged through appropriate use of tax credits as incentives.

Since “Uplift in Place” will be designed locally, it is not a monolithic, one-size-fits-all government program, but it is an innovative organic initiative that serves to remedy unmet need in communities across the country. Individuals who need additional educational certificates or training will be able to find access to these necessary resources in their communities, and barriers such as lack of access to computers or distance between their home and the nearest community college will no longer be an impediment to job training. Local community assets that provide nursery school and/or child care programs will be included in and supported by the initiative so that more flexible opportunities for educational engagement can be arranged. In short, this program will allow local communities to determine the best means by which the educational resources of the twenty-first century can be packaged so that a vibrant, locally trained workforce can be maintained.

Junius Rodriguez believes that his thirty-seven years of experience as an educator give him a unique perspective on addressing the important work of education and training programs so that workers in the IL-18th can remain competitive in the new economy of the twenty-first century. According to Rodriguez, “The local design aspect of this program is the most consequential. Particular needs and circumstances that are recognized at the local level can be remedied through the repositioning—or repackaging—of local assets, and government exists primarily to play a limited supporting role in this endeavor.” Like HR 2224 – The Youth Access to American Jobs Act of 2015, which Congressman LaHood opposed, an initiative like “Uplift in Place” is designed to provide local autonomy to respond to local workforce and educational needs that can make a real difference in the lives of workers who are seeking to better their chances of being competitive in the modern economy. Junius Rodriguez believes that it is important to support such initiatives if we want to prepare a well-trained American workforce that can meet the ever-changing demands of the new global economy of the twenty-first century.

Criminal Justice Reform

Criminal Justice Reform

Criminal Justice Reform Must Move Beyond Era of Mass-Incarceration According to Rodriguez Having slightly less than 5 percent of the world’s population, but with approximately 22 percent of the world’s incarcerated, the United States has an urgent need to reform its criminal justice system. The cumulative effects of retributive justice practices, mandatory sentencing guidelines, and sundry practices like “three strikes” provisions over the past generation have overwhelmed our criminal court system and placed an untenable burden on our prison system...

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With the average cost of incarceration per inmate per year hovering just above $30,000, and in some states double that figure, the cost to taxpayers at the local, state, and federal levels has become staggering. Yes, we must do all that we can to ensure public safety, but we must develop a system that is cost-effective and outcomes-based—our current practices fail on both of these points. As a result of the “War on Drugs” that the nation launched in the 1970s, we have witnessed burgeoning numbers among the nation’s incarcerated, many of whom are imprisoned for non-violent drug-related offenses. This movement toward mass incarceration has had a tremendously heavy toll upon African American and Hispanic youth, and the societal impact upon broken families and broken communities has been particularly devastating. Although we might pay lip-service to the notion that the primary purpose of incarceration is rehabilitation, our behavior as a society belies this point when ex-felons find themselves shunned on the job market and void of any real opportunities to start fresh when they are released. It should surprise no one that the rate of recidivism among the ex-felon population in the U.S. is staggeringly high. Along with the rising population of the incarcerated, we have witnessed an expansion in the construction of new prisons across the U.S. during the past generation. In many states this has been one of the largest industrial growth sectors in recent years. Some states, along with the federal government, have sought to outsource this work to for-profit facilities that detractors have termed “the prison-industrial complex,” and many decry what such a system effectively says about our societal values. When we place a priority upon the economic impact that a prison will have while ignoring the societal cost that it entails, we have lost sight of the key issue at stake. As a society we must strive to support the use of corrective measures short of incarceration in those situations when they are applicable and most appropriate. We must increase support to probation and parole officers and social workers who can be an effective force in monitoring and mentoring those who need guidance and direction in their lives. Key in this effort must also be a renewed commitment to supporting efforts in working with youth offenders. An effective juvenile justice initiative can be key to transforming lives of a future generation that might otherwise find themselves pawns in a culture of incarceration that is utterly destructive and crushes any real hope of opportunity. We must also work to erase the stigma that is associated with having been an ex-felon so that we can become a society that truly believes in second chances. Criminal justice reform that is aimed at reducing mass incarceration should not be viewed as an effort to get “soft on crime.” Those who choose to commit violent offenses in our society must always know that the full force and effect of the U.S. legal and criminal justice systems will be used to bring them to justice. We remain a nation of laws. The reforms that are presented here are intended to make sure that the punishment fits the crime in those cases where the courts can show a degree of discretion. We have sufficient evidence to know that our current system is ineffective and that it is burdensome on society at large. Rooting criminal justice reform upon an outcomes-based approach presents us with a real opportunity to address a societal need. If done effectively, future generations might be spared from the debilitating effects that a failed mass incarceration policy has produced.