The Barbershop has re-located

The proprietor has moved the shop to ChicagoNow, a Chicago Tribune site that showcases some of the best bloggers in the Chicago area. You can logo on to the Barbershop home page here. The ChicagoNow home page is here.

You'll still be able to post comments with the same ease as in this location. The proprietor also will keep this web site alive if you wish to review old posts.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Deafening Racket of Regulatory Boards

By Dennis Byrne
Chicago Daily Observer

Whatever the outcome of the Tony Rezko trail, it has had one salutary effect: The uselessness of another government bureaucracy is on full display

I’m referring to the Illinois Health Facilities Planning Board, which was created in 1974 with the misguided notion that health care costs could be controlled by government clamping down on hospital construction.

Rezko is charged with stocking the board with an acquiescent majority, which he used to try to engineer board decisions for kickbacks. At Rezko’s instructions, according to testimony in the trial, that board approved a new hospital in Crystal Lake, even though state health experts said the Crystal Lake hospital wasn’t needed. Expertise has a way in Chicago and Illinois of collapsing in the face of hurricanes fueled by greed and corruption.

Read more at the Chicago Daily Observer

Monday, March 24, 2008

Something's fishy about pork debate

By Dennis Byrne
Chicago Tribune

You've got to hand it to Sen. Dick Durbin. When everyone is blasting the "earmarking" of federal funds for favored local projects, the Illinois Democrat defends the practice.

At least he's honest about it, unlike so many others who say they oppose earmarks, while soaking them up like bread dabbed in gravy. Take our favorite son and presidential candidate, Sen. Barack Obama, who says he'll get rid of them—partially at least—yet he basks in the warm gratitude of Illinois interests that are the lucky recipients of the federal loot. Obama, on his campaign Web site, touts his promise to "slash earmarks to no greater than year 2001 levels."


Yet Taxpayers for Common Sense shows him sponsoring $3.3 million in earmarks in 2008. Counting earmarks he sponsored with other senators, the total comes to $98.6 million. On a list of 2007 earmarks that he disclosed was a $1 million request for the University of Chicago Medical Center, where his wife, Michelle, is a vice president. Obama told the Tribune editorial board that the university is "a major constituency of ours," so he didn't think he should "recuse" himself. Still, he said, the earmark is "probably something that we should have been passed on to . . . Durbin."

Undoubtedly, Durbin would have grabbed at the opportunity, and that tweaked the interest of Durbin's Republican rival in the November general election, Steve Sauerberg. In a statement, Sauerberg compared the pass-off to Durbin to "laundering" earmarks for Obama's family. (While Sauerberg condemned the "corrupt earmark culture in Washington," he oddly criticized Durbin for not bringing home enough bacon, i.e. earmarks, for Illinois.)

Durbin declares his love of earmarks to be above board, proudly announcing "every" project he wins for Illinois. "The Senate passed substantial reforms relative to earmarks last year," he notes on his Web site, explaining why he's against more restrictions on earmarks. "Those changes made the process more open and transparent, and they hold senators accountable for every dime of spending they push for. Openness, honesty and transparency are what's needed—not an arbitrary end to the process."

Durbin, on his own and with others, last year sponsored more than $380 million in earmarks, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense. If you look at Durbin's and Obama's lists, you'll find no Alaskan bridges to nowhere. No museums honoring Woodstock or Lawrence Welk. What you'll find is aid to women's shelters, intersection improvements, senior centers, as well as job-producing contracts to defense contractors, university research centers and the like.

For every project, there's someone who thinks that it is a good idea. Yet earmarks are bad. They distort priorities, for one thing, by shoving through the legislative process individual projects that might not be as worthy as others that are more thoroughly vetted. Generally, earmarks are a zero-sum game because each one does not necessarily increase the budget, but diverts money from some other project. Some earmarks are snuck into legislation without thorough hearings and debate. They are an invitation to corruption, serving as payback to special interests for campaign contributions.

But the more you look into the debate about earmarks, the more it looks like funny business. Obama and Sen. Hillary Clinton were among a very few Democrats who recently voted for a one-year freeze on earmarks, putting themselves on record as good guys. Yet, they and everyone else knew that the proposal didn't have a chance of passage, so their votes were mere showboating.

The funny business is bipartisan: President Bush has promised to veto any appropriation that comes to him larded with earmarks, yet his own budget proposal, Democrats say, is full of earmarks.

Despite all the fighting over earmarks, there seems to be little agreement on their exact definition; each expert group of earmark watchers differs on their numbers and costs. So when Obama says he will reduce the level of earmarks to the 2001 level, it could mean, well, who knows?

We all can agree, however, that earmarks have increased despite promises to dramatically reduce them. The $14.8 billion worth of earmarks in 2007 spending bills is less than the record set in 2005. But in 2008, they're back on the way up, at $18.3 billion. Which leads to the question: Are there really enough politicians willing to seriously take on earmarks to do anything about them?

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Barack Obama’s speech was brilliant

By Dennis Byrne
Chicago Daily Observer

Today’s Philadelphia Speech, as it may become known, is a milepost in American race relations, approaching the significance of the “I have a dream speech” delivered in 1963 by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Just about everything Obama said in the speech was exactly right.

The carefully crafted speech is a landmark because it is was built around the premise that America can change.

“The profound mistake of Reverend [Jeremiah] Wright’s sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society,” Obama said. “It’s that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made; as if this country – a country that has made it possible for one of his own members to run for the highest office in the land and build a coalition of white and black; Latino and Asian, rich and poor, young and old—is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past.

“But what we know—what we have seen – is that America can change. That is true genius of this nation. What we have already achieved gives us hope – the audacity to hope – for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.”

This is no small acknowledgment. Recognition of great progress is something that both “sides” need to hear. It must echo through black churches that are enslaved on a plantation of never-ending recriminations against past wrongs. It needs to be understood and not ridiculed by the gaggle of bug-eyed, conservative talk show hosts.

Read more in the Chicago Daily Observer

Monday, March 17, 2008

Illinois GOP's failures are so stunning that party must be rebuilt

By Dennis Byrne
Chicago Tribune

Jim Oberweis perhaps should quit now as the Republican candidate in the 14th Congressional District -- former House Speaker Dennis Hastert's district -- before he sets some kind of record for most congressional elections lost in a single year.

If Oberweis stays in the race and loses, it will be the fifth time in as many tries that he has failed to get elected to a major office. Oberweis' ego has embarrassed the party enough; another loss in November to Bill Foster, who beat Oberweis in the traditionally Republican district in the the March 8 special election, likely will cement that seat firmly in the Democratic camp for many years.

Then again, perhaps Oberweis shouldn't withdraw, since the likelihood is great that party officials would replace him with someone even worse. Someone such as Alan Keyes, the guy who party leaders brought in from the outside to run for U.S. senator after the primary's winner, Jack Ryan, was forced to withdraw when operatives in his own party outed him for allegedly taking his wife to sex clubs. That's old history, of course.

The more recent history is the surprise that many suburban voters in the Cook County GOP primary got when they looked at their ballots and found a bunch of blank spaces because no Republican was running for county office, except for state's attorney (Tony Peraica). Some voters found no GOP legislative candidate or judge on their ballots. It has become so bad that Republicans couldn't even find the usual sacrificial lambs to maintain the pretense of the party's existence.

Most amazingly, the moldering Republican Party hasn't leveraged to its advantage the fact the Democrats are almost exclusively responsible (exception, see below) for our corrupt, bungling and tax-sucking state and local governments. Todd Stroger, Rod Blagojevich, the Democratic-controlled House and Senate, the entire Cook County government.

How many opportunities do Republicans need to be handed before they cash in on the totality of malfeasances, misfeasances and nonfeasances committed by Democrats? The problem, of course, is that too many "Republicans" have themselves cashed in by signing on to the various Democratic feasances. It's hard for Republicans to define themselves as the party of reform when many of the party's "leaders" are on their backs waiting for their tummies to be scratched by Democrats. No amount of rhetoric will convince reform-hungry voters -- I assume some exist -- that Republicans are serious until the corporate and civic bigwigs passionately and publicly cut their ties with the likes of Mayor Richard Daley.

But wouldn't that be suicide? Isn't that the way we get things done around here? Yeah, sure. Just look and see how well everything is working. Governments mired in corruption that hits every taxpayer in the wallet. Governments confiscating more and more taxes to finance their buddy systems. Governments unable to efficiently provide basic services. Racking up record deficits. Dodging their creditors. Yes, you guys in the corporate and civic corner offices, this is a government that works. It's so wonderful, I'm sure you'd like to mimic it in your own operations.

Obviously, it takes more than being not-Democrat to successfully run for office. Which is why Republicans have to begin finding a way to enunciate what they are for. Republicans have been at each other's throats for too long, for whatever reason. It's a cliche to say that Republicans have to stand for something, but it's true. Republicans here stand for nothing. The only passionate ideas are found in the nooks occupied by the ideologically pure, whose causes individually aren't enough to add up to a successful campaign. Republicans need to pick something they are fierce about. They can start by finding out what they agree on.

But having ideas is no good unless you've got good candidates and an organization. E-mail correspondent Steven put it well: "I arrived recently in Illinois after 17 years in the Boston area. I was active, politically. The Illinois [Republican] Party is impenetrable to the newcomer. ... No reaching out; no organization; no desire. All of the worst that can befall a state party. This is a mess."

It's time for the proven failures who are running the party to, if not step aside, then build a major league farm system. That means support the promising, bright and honest young candidates with money, organization and enthusiasm.

Finally, it's time to recruit Democrats with a conscience into the Republican cause. These would be the Democrats who are fed up with corruption, higher taxes and waste. There are still a few Democrats around like that. Aren't there?

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Why the GOP lost Hastert's seat

By Dennis Byrne

This will come as news to Washington politicians and pundits, but the Republicans lost former House Speaker Dennis Hastert's seat not because it represents a political sea change, as Democrats would have it.

Nor should they buy the Republican explanations that it was some kind of fluke.

Truth is, the loss of the historically Republican district has virtually no national meaning. It is a measure of the moribundity of the Illinois╩╝ Republican Party, whose national consequences seem not to be fully appreciated by the GOP╩╝s national proprietors. The once proud and powerful party of the late senators Everett McKinley Dirksen and Charles Percy, and more recently former Gov. Big Jim Thompson, has sunken to such depths it didn't even bother to field token candidates in the populous Cook County.

Real more at RealClearPolitics

Monday, March 10, 2008

Rumbling you hear is haggling over more freight trains

By Dennis Byrne
Chicago Tribune

If dozens of freight trains were blasting through your neighborhood every day, you'd probably complain too.

And so, folks in a ring of outer suburbs, from Waukegan, down through Barrington, Elgin and Joliet, and over to Gary, are beefing about a proposal to turn an underused railroad bypass around Chicago into something of a freight superhighway. But in the usual game of winners and losers, Chicago and inner suburbs are cheering because they see the plan as deliverance from the same trains that now rumble through their neighborhoods.

The project also has broader implications for the region's economic health and its pre-eminence as the nation's transportation hub. This could turn into a contentious and important regional fight.

Under the bypass proposal, Canadian National Railway would buy the 198-mile Elgin, Joliet and Eastern Railway Co. for about $300 million. It would spend another $100 million on upgrades to allow roughly 20 trains a day -- compared with today's four or so -- to avoid the delays caused by wending through the city's maze of freight yards, switches and crossovers. Chicago's railroad pioneers as far back as the 19th Century knew that they had created problems when they made Chicago the nation's rail hub, with lines from all over the country terminating here but few passing around. So a group of 21 railroads in 1888 built the EJ&E railroad as a bypass.

After the CN and the EJ&E announced the planned buyout in September, communities along the route began mobilizing in protest of the noise, pollution, traffic backups at grade crossings and other blights. A group called Barrington Communities Against CN Rail Congestion wants the railroad to pay for building viaducts -- at a cost of $1.5 billion -- at 30 of the line's 133 grade crossings. The railroad says it would contribute its "fair share" for three or four bridges, but that state and federal taxpayers should pay most.

DuPage County won't sell an acre of its forest preserve land the CN says it needs for switching improvements. Metra wants to know how the project will affect its long-planned construction of suburb-to-suburb commuter service along the EJ&E route and whether its service on existing lines that cross the EJ&E route will be hurt.

Further, would the plan affect CREATE? That's an ongoing $1.5 billion public-private partnership designed to speed freight and passenger trains through Chicago, instead of around it. The partnership also would build new viaducts to eliminate the unnerving traffic delays at 25 of its 180 grade crossings. The railroads' share of the six-year project is about $212 million; the rest is supposed to be the government's. But Chicago Metropolis 2020, a leading civic group, notes that assured project funding is short by about $1.2 billion, and at its current pace, CREATE won't be done for at least 25 years. Notably, CN's bypass plans are not limited by similar constraints because the railroad will fund the entire project.

So, here come more questions. Will the new bypass threaten prospective funding for CREATE? Will the railroads funding CREATE have full interchange access to the bypass? Will the bypass have unimpeded access to existing and new "intermodal" yards on the South Side where freight containers are swapped between trucks and rail cars? Maybe it's not a sign of things to come, but a CN spokesman said other railroads could not become a part of the bypass deal.

Answers will come from the U.S. Surface Transportation Board, a regulatory agency that reviews proposed mergers and settles railroad disputes, but only after an environmental impact study is completed, which could take three years.

As dry as these issues sound, the stakes -- in terms of employment and the region's economy -- are high. Edward Hamberger, head of the Association of American Railroads, notes that one-third of America's rail and truck cargo moves to, from or through the Chicago area.

"Chicago is by far the busiest rail freight gateway in the United States," he said in a statement, "[handling] more than 37,500 rail freight cars every day. Twenty years from now that's expected to increase to 67,000 cars a day."

As usual, the temptation is to paint the issues as black and white. Instead, it is a classic example of how making public policy is difficult because it requires compromise. Someone's going to hear more train whistles, others fewer. The CN may have to become more attuned to its impact on families; impacted communities may have to moderate their demands. But with the prospect that rail traffic must double here in 25 years, it's suicide for us to view this as the usual zero-sum game.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Saturday with Foster and Oberweis

By Dennis Byrne
Chicago Daily Observer

Republicans might as well bid former House Speaker Dennis Hastert’s seat good-bye, and the nation finally will notice the utter dismal, if not dead, shape of the state GOP.

Even if the Republicans hold on to Hastert’s seat in a close call, it will be a clear sign that the state party is beyond resuscitation.

Hastert’s 14th congressional district, which runs from west suburban Chicago almost to the Iowa state line, long has been a GOP stronghold, but in a Saturday [March 8] special election it could go to the Democrats thanks to a series of dreadful Republican failures:

• An ugly primary battle that split the district’s GOP voters into bitter factions, certain to dampen party turnout.

• A comatose state Republican party...

Read more in the Chicago Daily Observer

Monday, March 03, 2008

Obama's got the details; they're a disaster

Obama rejects the criticism that he's dealing in generalities; he says he does have a detailed plan for ending the war in Iraq. Fair enough. Let's check out the details.

Read it in the Chicago Daily Observer

Governor's surrender

Plan to tear down NIU building is selling out to violence

By Dennis Byrne
Chicago Tribune

You've got to hand it to Gov. Rod Blagojevich. He sure knows how to keep everyone off balance, whether it's proposing to drag the state deeper into the financial pit with unexpected and unaffordable new programs, purchasing Wrigley Field when there's no need, or, now, signing on to raze the lecture hall where five Northern Illinois University students were fatally shot and replace it with a new classroom and memorial building, at a mere cost of $40 million.

Who knows what foolishness he'll surprise us with next. Maybe he'll dissolve the legislature, much as English monarchs of yore did when displeased with parliament.

An NIU memorial is so obviously wrong that Blagojevich's spokeswoman quickly said the idea wasn't his; he was reflecting campus opinion. Someone needs to tell the campus that, even in grief, it's wrongheaded. For me, it's caving in to the whims of a mad gunman. "Look, Mom and Dad," students could tell their visiting folks, "here's where [crazy man's name deleted by the columnist] shot all those kids. Isn't that interesting?"

For taxpayers, it would be an unconscionable waste of good money, especially when the campus has been waiting years for $20 million to renovate the Stevens Building, which houses the anthropology department and theater program.

Nonetheless, Blagojevich will ask the General Assembly to immediately cough up the $40 million for replacing Cole Hall, the scene of the killings. Apparently, he considers it just a formality; he announced at a news conference that the hall "will" be demolished.

Some legislators seem chary, urging thought before rushing ahead; perhaps they were too afraid of "offending" by saying what really needs to be said about the profligate idea. Naturally, Senate President Emil Jones (D-Chicago) jumped right on board, saying he supports the governor's proposal. The idea also has the support of NIU President John Peters, who said students and others had urged him to push for the building's removal and to "consecrate" the site. "I talked to a lot of people, and very early on I made the decision that we had to raze that ... building and replace it with something fitting ... our needs and as a memorial," Peters said.

I think the whole bunch badly needs a course in leadership. Cole Hall seems to be a functional building. Its replacement would require the construction of at least two 500-seat lecture halls. And we can hardly wait for the artistic competition to decide what best "memorializes" the shootings.

Not that history survives as a pre-eminent course of study at many universities, but perhaps we might recall the University of Texas clock tower. From the tower's observation deck, sitting atop the university's 27-story Main Building, a barricaded student shot and killed more than a dozen people and wounded many others on the campus below. The 307-foot-high tower, one of the tallest buildings in Austin, was the scene of the nation's first mass killing of its type. The gunman fired his rifle for more than 1 1/2 hours before a policeman penetrated the barricades and shot him dead.

That was in 1966. And the tower still stands. And the observation deck remains open. (It was closed in 1974 because nine people committed suicide by throwing themselves from the deck; it reopened in 1999, with safety bars installed.)

Today, believe it or not, tours are conducted. Not so much because of the gruesome spectacle that happened there, but rather because it is the centerpiece of a 1937 campus master plan, an Austin landmark and an important symbol of learning. When the school reopened the observation deck, the university president, Larry Faulkner, said something important. He called the tower the "most important symbol of academic aspiration and achievement in Texas. [It is time to] actively use this icon of higher education in positive ways."

Although Cole Hall is something of a campus centerpiece, few would argue that it has the cachet of the Austin tower. Yet, it symbolizes something as important as the tower, something about the higher aspirations of mankind and something that should stand in the face of the lunacy that occurred there. Tearing it down would be surrender.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Ban anonymous sources in campaign stories

By Dennis Byrne
Political Mavens

Bob Meyer, a friend who is a loyal and long-time reader of the New York Times, left an angry message on my voice mail:

“I’m canceling my subscription. I’ve had it.” He didn’t say why, but I could easily guess: the recent “smear” of Sen. John McCain.

I’ve got nothing to do with the New York Times, but as a longtime journalist, I guess that I qualified as a target for Bob’s anger. Bob’s not an ideologue; he loathed Newt Gingrich and disdains most politicians of whatever party. But the serious journalistic faults of the paper’s front page and weakly attributed report of McCain’s alleged affair with a lobbyist were obvious even to the layman.