Tuesday, January 31, 2006

As If The News Weren't Bad Enough

This has been one hell of a week, and it's still only Tuesday. The current crop of spineless Democrats in the Senate failed to stop the cloture vote on the nomination of Sam Alito (75 to 25), and the vote to confirm him was 58 to 42, which means that 15 Democrats voted for cloture then proceeded to vote against the nomination . How cynical is that? Mr. Alito was sworn in as a Supreme Court Justice this afternoon so that he could sit with his new best buddies at tonight's State of the Union Address.

Then, this afternoon I finally got around to reading the online edition of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and I found this editorial.

As one of its final acts in 2005, Congress approved an odious budget bill that would trim $38.8 billion from projected federal spending over the next five years, pushing loan costs higher for millions of college students, subverting pensions for disabled Americans, crippling farm conservation programs and depriving more than 20 million poor children of routine checkups and preventive medical care.

Lawmakers approved the package with much handwringing, but while they were home for the winter recess they learned that the bill -- a 774-page behemoth introduced on the House floor at 1 a.m. and passed at 5 a.m. -- is even worse than they thought. The Congressional Budget Office discovered that it contains a secret $22 billion giveaway to HMOs. The Association of Minnesota Counties found that it cuts preventive "case management" funding so that thousands of elderly and mentally ill clients will lose services that keep them in their own homes rather than in costly institutions. The Center for Law and Social Policy estimates that billions of dollars in court-ordered child-support payments will go uncollected because of cuts to state enforcement programs.

Because of a procedural quirk on Capitol Hill, this same budget bill has to come back to the House for a final vote on Wednesday, and conscientious members of the House should take this opportunity to reverse their votes.

...In short, the House bill represents the chamber's recent arrogance at its worst -- radical changes in social policy written without hearings or testimony, special favors delivered to the insurance industry and other moneyed interests, bills the size of telephone books introduced and passed literally in the dark of night. Many members of the House, Democrats and Republicans, are offended by this form of sloppy, high-handed lawmaking, and this is the perfect chance to say so.
[Emphasis added]

The entire House of Representatives comes up for election this year. Many of us liberals believe that given the far reaching corruption scandals that Republicans face and the dramatically low poll numbers for the Emperor in Chief that we have a good shot at gaining dramatically in Congress, perhaps even taking one of the houses, but if the Democrats are just Republicans in blue suits, then why should we bother?

I think it's time to get back to the phones, faxes, and snail mile. We need to write each and everyone of our Representatives in the House, and if they are Democrats, we need to remind them that it will be hard to support financially anyone who voted in favor of this budget. And then, after the roll call vote, we need to find out who voted how and then carry through on our threats.

Damn, but I'm angry!

Canada Shows What Works

Over seventy miners trapped in a Canadian potash mine managed to survive for 30 hours until rescue workers finally reached them. The most probable reason they survived was that the mine had several "safe rooms" they could escape to and caches of extra oxygen located throughout the mine. The story shows what happens when mining companies are forced by regulations to consider miners' lives as important as corporate bottom lines.

During the month of January, fourteen American miners weren't so lucky. In the first of the two American mine disasters, the company involved (Sago Coal) had been cited multiple times for failure to abide by regulations, but the company had not been shut down, nor had their been any real attempt by the Mining and Safety Agency (MSHA)to collect the fines for the transgressions. The governor of West Virginia, the location of both American mining accidents (Sago and Alma)has made it a point to publicize the tragedy and to initiate his own investigation. Congress has set hearings. Today we learn from the Washington Post that MSHA is considering "new" mining regulations.

After one of the deadliest months for coal mining in years, federal mine regulators last week began formally considering safety improvements to help miners survive underground fires and explosions. Among the proposals: mandatory caches of oxygen tanks and breathing masks inside every coal mine.

The idea may have struck some miners as familiar, because it was. A similar proposal was put forward by the same regulators six years ago, only to be scrapped by the Bush administration shortly after it took office.. And the oxygen caches were not the only proposed safety improvement to be withdrawn.

In all, the Bush administration abandoned or delayed implementation of 18 proposed safety rules that were in the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration's regulatory pipeline in early 2001, a review of agency records shows. At least two of the dropped proposals have now been resurrected in the aftermath of deadly accidents at the Sago and Alma mines in West Virginia.

...The committee's Democratic staff, in a report set for release today, cites the scrapping of proposed safety rules as a hallmark of an agency that has openly advocated a more cooperative approach to enforcement under President Bush. The report documents substantial cuts in the agency's workforce -- including a 9 percent reduction in the number of coal-mining enforcement personnel -- and sharp reductions in the number of criminal prosecutions and major fines. The report also notes the influx of former mining industry executives to MSHA's management and advisory boards during the Bush administration. Of the four members of the agency's Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission -- a panel that settles disputes involving the federal Mine Act -- three are former top executives of mining companies or trade associations.
[Emphasis added]

BushCo is now famous, even infamous, for its political appointments. Hurrican Katrina showed us cronyism at its worst with the appointment of Michael Brown to head FEMA, a job he had absolutely no experience in and no competence for. In this case, however, we see more than cronyism: we see outright pandering. The result? Fourteen deaths added to the Emperor's horrific legacy.

Way to go, George.

Monday, January 30, 2006

How Headlines Work

I've always thought that the people who write headlines have one of the greatest jobs imaginable. This is one place in a newspaper where creativity is acceptable. The purpose of the headline is to grab the reader so that the affixed article is read, so with a little discipline and a lot of imagination, the headline writer gets to let loose with his or her creative genius. A prime example of a good headline writer who scored is from an editorial in today's Washington Post. I mean, who could resist a headline that boldly asks The Next Policy Bungle?. I know I sure couldn't.

PRESIDENT BUSH'S State of the Union speech tomorrow night looks set to address health care. Mr. Bush is choosing a ripe topic: The United States spends almost twice as large a share of its economy on health as other rich countries do, yet it still has lower life expectancy and 46 million uninsured people. Some of his team's thinking is good but not entirely new. For example, both Medicare and private insurers are beginning to reward doctors and hospitals that score well on measures of quality and cost-effectiveness. Other administration ideas are good if done the right way, such as caps on doctors' liability. But the president's team is also enthusiastic about the trend toward out-of-pocket payments, which it sees as a way of driving down health costs. Its enthusiasm is misguided.

The theory behind out-of-pocket payments is that patients who pay their bills themselves will shop carefully. This is likely to hold true some of the time but not most of it. Most consumers aren't equipped to distinguish between good medical service and bad; the results of poor service show up only after they've paid for it. A minority of motivated consumers may do the research necessary to judge whether a doctor's advice is sound, but even this minority can't be expected to start poring over medical journals when they are hit by a medical emergency -- and emergencies account for a large chunk of health spending.
[Emphasis added]

"Out-of-Pocket Payments" is an other term for "deductibles" as used in auto insurance claims. The insured pays for the front end costs up to a certain limit, at which time the insurer steps in, at least for a certain percentage of the claim. Some insurance companies set up a system of co-payments instead, with the insured paying a set figure for each office visit, each diagnostic test, each hospitalization. The co-payment system is what Congress is going to set into place within the Medicaid program.

The problem with both is that sometimes there is neither the time nor the money to intelligently deal with the self-financing (even at a partial level)of one's health care, even if the insured sincerely wants to. For most Americans, cash is tight these days, so that non-emergency conditions (hypertension, diabetes) are often disasterously ignored until they reach the emergency stage, even if they are employed and if their employers provide health insurance. Such a plan doesn't come close to dealing with those 45 million who are not insured at all and who do not qualify for Medicaid (where they would still have to come up cash under the new Congressional plan).

The regime's approach reminds me of the MediCare Prescription Plan.

The headline writer for this editorial certainly nailed it.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Doing Science the Emperor's Way...

...or else.

The Emperor in Chief and his minions have since the beginning of the regime made it a point to keep a short leash on federal scientists and on federal scientific funding. A lot of ink has been spilled over his clamping down on stem cell research because it is based on what the Imperial thought-police consider immoral considerations. The latest evidence of this anti-scientificalism was reported in today's NY Times.

The top climate scientist at NASA says the Bush administration has tried to stop him from speaking out since he gave a lecture last month calling for prompt reductions in emissions of greenhouse gases linked to global warming.

The scientist, James E. Hansen, longtime director of the agency's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, said in an interview that officials at NASA headquarters had ordered the public affairs staff to review his coming lectures, papers, postings on the Goddard Web site and requests for interviews from journalists.

Dean Acosta, deputy assistant administrator for public affairs at the space agency, said there was no effort to silence Dr. Hansen. "That's not the way we operate here at NASA," Mr. Acosta said. "We promote openness and we speak with the facts."

...Mr. Acosta said other reasons for requiring press officers to review interview requests were to have an orderly flow of information out of a sprawling agency and to avoid surprises. "This is not about any individual or any issue like global warming," he said. "It's about coordination."

Dr. Hansen strongly disagreed with this characterization, saying such procedures had already prevented the public from fully grasping recent findings about climate change that point to risks ahead.

"Communicating with the public seems to be essential," he said, "because public concern is probably the only thing capable of overcoming the special interests that have obfuscated the topic."

...The fresh efforts to quiet him, Dr. Hansen said, began in a series of calls after a lecture he gave on Dec. 6 at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco. In the talk, he said that significant emission cuts could be achieved with existing technologies, particularly in the case of motor vehicles, and that without leadership by the United States, climate change would eventually leave the earth "a different planet."

...After that speech and the release of data by Dr. Hansen on Dec. 15 showing that 2005 was probably the warmest year in at least a century, officials at the headquarters of the space agency repeatedly phoned public affairs officers, who relayed the warning to Dr. Hansen that there would be "dire consequences" if such statements continued, those officers and Dr. Hansen said in interviews.
[Emphasis added]

Science is supposed to be about facts, rigorously and honestly pursued without regard to political or religious or economic considerations. This is not to say that scientists don't work within the framework of ethical considerations, however. Peer review has always worked to keep scientists from going off the deep end. Evidence of successful review came most recently as the 'astounding breakthrough' in stem cell research by a South Korean scientist was shot down as a clear fraud.

That is not what is going on in this case. The government is assiduously trying to muffle and mute a scientist who is coming out with facts and hypotheses that will shape and shake the planet for years and who is deeply respected by his peers. Dr. Hansen's findings indicate that unless we back off from carbon dioxide polluting energy sources, the climate changes we are seeing will increase. That is bad news for the current energy producers: the petroleum, natural gas, and coal companies, and because those companies are 'friends' of George and of Dick, Dr. Hanson has been told to shut the hell up or there would be "dire consequences."

Swell, the whole world can be irrevocably changed for the worse so that those economic powerhouses can have a pretty bottom line.

Someone needs to tell His Imperial Highness that while he is entitled to his own opinions, he is not entitled to his own facts.

A Case of Katrina Fatigue?

As I mentioned yesterday (scroll down to "While the World Watches"), Americans have a notoriously short attention span. Sometimes this is a good thing: how long can one huff, puff, and harumph over a missing white woman in Aruba, as tragic as that case may be to her family? Sometimes, however, it is a terrible thing, and the case of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina points out just how terrible it can be.

Visitors to New Orleans who venture out of the 'sliver' of the unflooded areas (the Garden District and the French Quarter) confirm what residents have been saying: little if anything has been done since the flood waters have receded. Debris has not been cleared away, appliances still line the impassable streets, basic infrastructure still doesn't exist in a way that makes habitation possible or safe. Five months later, and New Orleans is still devastated, contrary to the Emperor in Chief's claims during his recent visit to, yup, the Garden District. The reason for this shameful state? Washington DC has moved on to "more pressing issues."

An editorial in the Washington Post suggests that, once again, the White House does not have its act together.

IN FRONT OF the cameras last September, President Bush promised to rebuild New Orleans. In private, White House officials told Louisiana's notoriously argumentative politicians -- Democrats and Republicans, state and local -- to get their act together and come up with a reasonable plan, one that would neither cost too much nor result in people rebuilding in flood-prone districts. To many people's immense surprise, they did. In consultation with the Urban Land Institute, New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin (D) proposed a logical reconstruction of his city, with buildings on higher ground to be rebuilt first. Rep. Richard H. Baker (R-La.) proposed legislation to set up a Louisiana Development Corp., with sufficient capital to buy back damaged property, allow owners to move to higher, drier ground as the mayor's plan dictated and let the state redevelop lower, wetter property as appropriate.

Until last week, the administration was assuring Louisianans, behind the scenes, that they were on the right track.

...Now -- suddenly -- the administration has switched directions. Early last week White House officials told Mr. Baker and other Louisiana politicians not only that they refused to support the development corporation he proposed but that they'd asked congressional leaders to cancel planned hearings on the Baker bill. At his news conference last week, Mr. Bush claimed, strangely, that "the plan for Louisiana hasn't come forward yet." Was he misinformed or deliberately misleading?

Donald E. Powell, the administration's point man on the Gulf Coast, has announced that all reconstruction money will instead be funneled to the Gulf through the traditional method of block grants, $11.5 billion of which Congress allocated last month.

...But it can't be a solution for New Orleans. Given the larger number of flood victims and the more extensive damage, Louisiana's $6.3 billion will not go far enough. Nor will money alone solve the problem of the hundreds of acres of flooded neighborhoods or encourage people to rebuild in safer locations.
[Emphasis added]

The Imperial Palace's response (given its five year history) is certainly not surprising. Nevertheless, it is both shocking and shameful. Rebuilding New Orleans would not be an easy task even with the promised federal cooperation and support. Without adequate levees, building homes below sea level so close to the coast and Lake Ponchatraine just isn't sensible. No plan is going to satisfy all the residents of the city. Still, without federal assistance, rebuilding the city is just not possible, and the government seems hell bent to ignore the problem in the vain hopes all those contentious and noisy people just give up.

New Orleans and Louisiana have done all that has been asked of them. Now it's time for Congress to shake off its lethargy and do the work it was hired to do and which it promised to do. Yes, there certainly are other important issues swamping them, but the rest of us have learned how to multitask. It's time for Congress to do so as well.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

While the World Watches

We Americans might have a short attention span, but we certainly do obsess over things until a new set of shiny keys distracts us. Right now we're fussing over the Alito nomination to the US Supreme Court (as well we should) with a little angst over the illegal spying on Americans by the NSA thrown in. I suspect the high-speed news turnover is a major reason for this condition. For whatever reason, however, we tend to forget that because we are the major player on the world stage, the rest of the world keeps a sharp eye on us. That's why I try to see what the rest of the world has to say about the US on weekends. Watching America is a useful resource for that.

Among the articles I read this morning was an editorial from the Tunisian newspaper Tunis Hebdo. The thrust of the piece has to do with that outrageous wall the House wants built as part of a bill passed just before the holiday recess in December. You remember that, don't you? The one that will secure our southern border from the hordes of illegal brown immigrants from Mexico, Central and South America. That bill (which hasn't reached the Senate floor yet) inflamed our neighbors to the south, which is certainly no surprise. However, that this bill is still resonating all over the world, including Tunisia did surprise me. What the article has to say, however, extends far beyond the concept of a steel wall being built to the tune of more than $1.3 million per mile.

The fear of terrorist attacks - which by the way, we denounce severely, no matter what the motivation behind it may be – has become so haunting, that the White House chief has been forced to take action on two levels: externally, by building insurmountable barriers; and internally, by subjecting the American people to all kinds of inspections and surveillance (phone-tapping, e-mail reading, automated cameras …).

The strangest thing is that Mr. George Bush still says he "doesn't understand" why his country is so "hated" and "detested" around the world. On this subject, everyone remembers his famous question: "Why do they hate us. We are such a kind-hearted people?" In reality, the American chief executive simply cannot be unaware of the answer.

The badly stained image of the country of Abraham Lincoln and Jimmy Carter is the result of radical warmongering international policies, now being applied [by Bush] without thought for the six years that he and his cartel of neoconservatives have been in the White House.

Even during the Vietnam War, America never scorned its own values as much as it does today, the same values it wishes to instill in others! Given this situation, it is no wonder that George Walker Bush is erecting towers and barbed wire, rather than bridges and bonds of friendship with the outside world.
[Emphasis added]

I think that's a pretty astute assessment of what is going on in this country. I just wish more Americans were as astute. Perhaps then they would put the scandal du jour in its context and do something about it. If that doesn't happen, the rest of the world will just assume that we are complicit in the Bush atrocities and will treat us accordingly.

It's amazing what one learns from other countries' media.

More on the Super Secrets of the Imperial Palace

Occasionally the media complains about not getting straight answers from the White House. Occasionally even Congress (both sides of the aisle) complain about not getting fully briefed by the White House. Most of the time, however, both the press and Congress go along with this regime, primarily just to get along. The result? One of the most secretive administrations in American history.

This week both Congress and the press has been pressing the White House for information at the same time, a clear signal that this is an election year and polls suddenly have some relevance. An editorial in today's Washington Post takes a fairly mild jab at the White House for its non-cooperation.

There are any number of matters of legitimate inquiry and public concern involving Mr. Abramoff and his White House dealings that might not rise to the level of a criminal prosecution. Mr. Abramoff has admitted bribing public officials. He collected at least $100,000 for Mr. Bush's reelection. He took David H. Safavian, then the chief of staff at the General Services Administration and later the administration's top procurement official, on a luxury golfing trip to Scotland; it was, as Mr. Abramoff said in an e-mail, a "total business angle."

The president himself attended a White House meeting with some of Mr. Abramoff's clients. How did that get set up? The White House acknowledges that Mr. Abramoff had some "staff-level meetings" there. With whom, and about what?

Republicans didn't tolerate this kind of behavior from the Clinton White House in the midst of its fundraising scandal...
[Emphasis added]

Interestingly, the WaPo editorialist overlooked the fact that Mr. Abramoff garnered a spot on the 'transition team' following the 2000 election. That aside, I also find it interesting that the Post noted that the GOP pushed hard on the Clinton White House on the "fundraising scandal," something the press also highlighted at great length at the time. It has taken the press five years to start looking hard at the Imperial Palace and demanding answers. Better late than never, I guess.

I hope the press continues its charge against the massive stonewall erected around the palace. Most Americans have decided they need more information about such things as how we got lied into the illegal invasion of Iraq, why a CIA operative was outed, how an entire city was destroyed by a hurricane without even the most minimal attempt to mitigate the disaster, when the illegal spying on Americans by the NSA began, and a host of other issues. That's supposed to be the job of the press.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Unsuccessfully Buying Elections

How embarrassing is this? The US, like it has the last couple of times in Iraq, sent several millions of dollars to the Fatah-run Palestinian Authority just before the elections in order to prime the pump for Prime Minister Abbas. This ploy was as unsuccessful in Palestine as it had been in Iraq: Hamas had a stunning victory in what international monitors certified as a fair election.

Once again the US finds itself in the position of having to deal with a new government whose interests are opposed to those of the US. An editorial in the Minneapolis Star Tribune suggests the diffulty the Emperor in Chief faces.

In four-plus years since the attacks of 9/11, President Bush has built American foreign policy around two principles: promoting democracy and fighting terrorism. The principles are correct and inspiring, but they have left observers with a nagging question: What if the first does not lead to the second?

That troubling possibility became a startling reality on Wednesday, when some 1 million Palestinian voters went to the polls and gave control of their government to Hamas, a fundamentalist Islamic party that embraces violence and rejects Western ideals in the Middle East. Respecting the will of Palestinian voters while advancing the American interest in a peaceful Israeli-Palestinian relationship will require the most delicate diplomacy going forward.

And yet an administration that has strenuously promoted democracy in the Middle East cannot ignore the results of this election. Voter turnout was estimated at 78 percent -- which puts American voting habits to shame -- and former President Jimmy Carter, who led an international monitoring team, described the balloting as "completely honest, completely fair." With the prompt resignation of the incumbent Fatah cabinet Thursday morning, it appeared that there would be a swift and peaceful transfer of power. In short, the Palestinians seem to have set a new standard for fair and orderly elections in the Arab world.
[Emphasis added]

So...the "new and improved" Middle East has an Iraqi government closely allied with Iran (against whom the Emperor and his minions have been rattling US swords) and a Palestinian government which to date has not forsworn the use of violence against its neighbor, Israel. While "the most delicate diplomacy" might very well be effective at this point, the US State Department has such stalwarts as Condaleeza Rice, Karen Hughes, and John Bolton to rely on. I am not optimistic.

Apparently BushCo can't successfully buy elections anywhere outside the US.

Way to go, George.

When Some Metaphors Are Overused

I've always resented the use of the phrase "slippery slope" by politicians. It usually means they are shying away from doing something "controversial", i.e. bold and innovative. The result is that the metaphor, a quite picturesque one, becomes muddied and stale. People just shrug when it is used now, figuring the speaker is just engaging in a little Washington hyperbole.

An editorial in today's Washington Post brings up a matter to which I would love to use the metaphor "slippery slope" and have it resonate the way it should.

THE BUSH administration's distortion, for political purposes, of the Democratic position on warrantless surveillance is loathsome. Despite the best efforts of Karl Rove, the White House deputy chief of staff, and Ken Mehlman, the Republican National Committee chairman, to make it seem otherwise, Democrats are not opposed to vigorous, effective surveillance that could uncover terrorist activity. Nor are the concerns that they are expressing unique to their party. Republican Sens. John McCain (Ariz.), Arlen Specter (Pa.), Chuck Hagel (Neb.), Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.) and Sam Brownback (Kan.) have expressed legal doubts about the surveillance program. Do they, too, have a "pre-9/11 worldview," as Mr. Rove said of the Democrats?

Believing there should be constraints on unchecked executive power is not the same as being weak-kneed about the war against terrorism. Critics are suggesting that President Bush should have gone through normal procedures for conducting such surveillance or asked Congress to provide clear legal authority for the National Security Agency activity. They are not contending that such surveillance shouldn't be conducted at all. No leading Democrat has argued for barring this kind of potentially useful technique.
[Emphasis added]

I wasn't having any trouble with the editorial until it got to the part about asking Congress to provide the legal authority for the regime to engage in warrantless spying.

Excuse me?

I don't think the framers of the Constitution intended to give either the executive branch or the legislative branch the power to spy on Americans without judicial oversight. Those wise men believed that personal liberty was so precious it had to be protected at all costs, even during a time of war.

Even assuming that we are at war (and I don't: no such declaration has issued from Congress), I don't see where we are obligated to give up our right to privacy and our right to be secure in our persons and our homes from unreasonable searches and seizures. That is why a warrant (judicial oversight) is required. The current FISA statute provides for an extremely easy way to get that warrant and does not require fixing. We don't need to make it easier for this or any other regime to spy on us.

That, folks, is one heckuva slippery slope. Really.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Not Your Father's GOP

The past six to eight months have not been pleasant for the Republicans. The falling poll numbers for the Emperor in Chief, the failure of the the regime to handle the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, the rocky first month of the highly vaunted Medicare Prescription program,the Plame affair, huge federal deficits, the NSA illegal spying issue: all have combined to make Republicans very nervous. The corruption scandal involving Jack Abramoff (which at this point has twenty or so congress critters under investigation)and the indictments of Tom De Lay certainly haven't helped matters, especially with mid term elections coming up in November.

Conservative columnist Debra J. Saunders has looked over this mess and written a column with both a diagnosis and a suggested cure in today's Star Tribune.

House Republicans are scrambling to rub some of the tarnish off their dingy ethics image. They're desperately proposing reforms that would prevent members from taking pricey golf junkets paid for by special interests -- that is, they want to ban trips they never should have accepted. They're even holding a Feb. 2 in-House election to replace the indicted Texan Rep. Tom DeLay as House majority leader.

...If Republicans want to convince voters that they've reformed, here's a suggestion: Pick Rep. Joel Hefley, R-Colo., to replace DeLay.

It would be glorious payback. When Hefley was chairman of the House ethics committee, he stood up to DeLay. In 2004, his committee unanimously admonished DeLay three times -- for offering to trade a candidate endorsement for a vote in favor of the Medicare drug plan, for cozying up to energy lobbyists in a way that "at a minimum, created the appearance that donors were being provided with special access" and for asking a federal agency to track a plane carrying members of the Texas Legislature during a political squabble. GOP biggies were miffed -- not at DeLay, as they should have been, but at Hefley.

In retaliation, the GOP leadership announced it would change committee rules to make it harder to investigate complaints, and thus shielded DeLay. Hefley complained that the changes threatened "the integrity of the House." The GOP leadership kindly dumped Hefley and found a new committee chair.

...Under Hastert and DeLay, the GOP leadership has betrayed Republican principles. Deficit spending has been the leadership's crutch, and fundraising its addiction. It's clear DeLay and his cronies would still be living large and skirting rules if uber-lobbyist Jack Abramoff had not pleaded guilty to defrauding Indian tribal clients, conspiring to bribe members of Congress and evading taxes. If the GOP is calling for reforms, it's not because the party saw the light. It's because the leaders got caught.

That's not why voters elect Republicans. The GOP is built on people who want less government, not record spending. They want their lawmakers to be probusiness, but also expect their representatives to feel more allegiance to their constituents than sleazy lobbyists flashing first-class plane tickets.

...Changing the ethics rules won't help the Republicans if they continue to choose leaders because they are the biggest fundraisers and the best backslappers. If Republicans want to get back to their philosophical roots, they should find a leader who remembers why he went to Washington. They should choose a leader who still believes in "the integrity of the House."
[Emphasis added]

While Ms. Saunders' rant is directed properly at the GOP, much of it could also be sent to the Democrats, especially those who voted for the Bankruptcy bill (or at least voted for cloture)and other bills which screwed all but the wealthiest of Americans.

This is going to be a very interesting election season.

Back To Stem Cell Research

Congress is back in session with a fairly extensive and noisy agenda: the confirmation of Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court (with the potential of a filibuster and subsequent nuclear option); the development of new ethics rules for members of Congress in the face of the Abramoff scandal; hearings on the Hurricane Katrina disaster (complicated by the White House refusal to release documents); hearings on the legality of the NSA spying on Americans; renewal of the Patriot Act in some form; and immigration reform. While there might be some other legislative activity going on, not much else is being reported in the media. Further complicating matters is the fact that this is an election year and congress critters will be busy covering their backsides at home. It's hard to imagine that something like a reasonable stem cell research bill will be considered this year.

What this means, of course, is that the states will have to take up the slack when it comes to this issue, as they have when it comes to minimum/living wage, immigration, and environmental concerns. Evidence that states are willing to confront the issue can be found in an article in the Washington Post.

Yesterday's hearings on stem cell research in Maryland had a familiar ring: Advocates touted the potential for treating Parkinson's disease, juvenile diabetes and other conditions, and opponents raised the same ethical objections they made a year ago when lawmakers proposed spending $25 million a year on the emerging science.

But it was a voice legislators did not hear, neither yesterday nor a year ago, that could alter this year's debate -- that of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

After remaining mostly silent on a bill that was killed last year by a Republican-led filibuster threat, Ehrlich (R) is pushing a plan to spend $20 million next year on stem cell research.

But Ehrlich is not committing himself on the question that has stirred the most controversy: whether the money should be used primarily for work on stem cells derived from human embryos or from less controversial adult stem cells.

"The point here is that the decision should be a function of the science. These are fundamentally science questions, not political questions." [said Gov. Ehrlich]

...Under the governor's approach, grants would be made by the Maryland Technology Development Corporation, overseen by a 15-member board appointed by the governor. Although money could still go to embryonic stem cell projects, Stoltzfus said Republicans are more comfortable with the approach.
[Emphasis added]

Clearly I, like most progressives, would prefer that embryonic stem cell projects be the most heavily funded because the science looks more promising in this area than in the adult cell approach and because the Emperor in Chief has cut off federal funding for embryonic stem cell research (for all practical purposes). Governor Ehrlich's proposed plan, however, does look like a doable compromise, if the board appointed by the governor is not stacked to favor the adult stem cell side of the debate. Because Governor Ehrlich was a strong proponent for stem cell research while in Congress, that doesn't seem likely.

Hopefully the Maryland legislature can work out a plan that takes into consideration the science and not just the politics.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Negative Inferences

Once again the Imperial Presidency is asserting the right to keep the internal workings of the White House secret, especially if uncovering those workings will give ample proof of incompetence and/or wronging. From today's NY Times:

The Bush administration, citing the confidentiality of executive branch communications, said Tuesday that it did not plan to turn over certain documents about Hurricane Katrina or make senior White House officials available for sworn testimony before two Congressional committees investigating the storm response.

...The White House's stance on storm-related documents, along with slow or incomplete responses by other agencies, threatens to undermine efforts to identify what went wrong, Democrats on the committees said Tuesday.

"There has been a near total lack of cooperation that has made it impossible, in my opinion, for us to do the thorough investigation that we have a responsibility to do," Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, Democrat of Connecticut, said at Tuesday's hearing of the Senate committee investigating the response. His spokeswoman said he would ask for a subpoena for documents and testimony if the White House did not comply.

In response to questions later from a reporter, the deputy White House spokesman, Trent Duffy, said the administration had declined requests to provide testimony by Andrew H. Card Jr., the White House chief of staff; Mr. Card's deputy, Joe Hagin; Frances Fragos Townsend, the domestic security adviser; and her deputy, Ken Rapuano.

Mr. Duffy said the administration had also declined to provide storm-related e-mail correspondence and other communications involving White House staff members. Mr. Rapuano has given briefings to the committees, but the sessions were closed to the public and were not considered formal testimony.

"The White House and the administration are cooperating with both the House and Senate," Mr. Duffy said. "But we have also maintained the president's ability to get advice and have conversations with his top advisers that remain confidential."

Yet even Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, objected when administration officials who were not part of the president's staff said they could not testify about communications with the White House.

"I completely disagree with that practice," Ms. Collins, chairwoman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said in an interview Tuesday.

...Other members of the committees said the executive branch communications were essential because it had become apparent that one of the most significant failures was the apparent lack of complete engagement by the White House and the federal government in the days immediately before and after the storm.

"When you have a natural disaster, the president needs to be hands-on, and if anyone in his staff gets in the way, he needs to push them away," said Representative Christopher Shays, a Connecticut Republican and member of the House investigating committee. "The response was pathetic."
[Emphasis added]

One of the things I found interesting in the article is that Republican Congress Critters were speaking out against the recalcitrance of the White House. Surely they can't be surprised by the White House refusal to provide information. One is reminded of the dust-up that occurred when the White House refused to provide information on the energy meetings held by Vice Emperor Darth Cheney early on in the regime. One is also reminded of the intensive negotiations required to get the Emperor and Cheney to appear (not under oath and in a closed session) before the 9/11 Commission. The White House thrives on such secrecy.

It is ironic that the regime can claim such secrecy is essential at a time when the same White House justifies the illegal wire tapping of Americans by saying that they shouldn't mind the intrusion into their private lives if they have nothing to hide. That would seem to me tell the true story of why the regime won't cooperate in these hearings.

I think we can fairly draw a negative inference from the White House action.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Pincer Diplomacy

In one of his early State of the Union addresses, George Bush referred to Iraq, Iran, and North Korea as members of the "axis of evil" that threatened the United States. Relations with all three sovereign nations went south pretty quickly after that speech, and understandably so. Now Iran finds itself with US military forces on either side of its borders: Afghanistan to the west and Iraq to the east. Pakistan, also in the neighborhood (and with nuclear arms), has been cooperating with the US in the Global War on Terror by assisting in Afghanistan. Iran has every reason to feel threatened by the US. That Iran would respond by developing nuclear weapons is certainly an understandable, albeit dangerous, response to the situation in that part of the Middle East.

Europe has been engaged in diplomacy over the past year to eighteen months in order to cool Iran's insistance on nuclear development. Unfortunately, the European diplomacy has not had the breakthrough which would defuse the issue. As a result, the US is now pushing for UN sanctions. Yesterday afternoon, the Minneapolis Star Tribune posted an article on Secretary of State Rice's promotion of a UN showdown.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Monday "the time has come" to send Iran before the U.N. Security Council over its disputed nuclear program, but she seemed to acknowledge that U.N. action may not be swift.

Iran warned that it would intensify its nuclear development if referred to the Security Council.

...[Rice] would not speculate on what action the Security Council might take, or comment on whether the United States would be satisfied with an outcome less punitive than international economic sanctions.

...Rice said that while President Bush always reserves the right to use force, U.S. military action against Iran "is not on the agenda because we have committed to the diplomatic course."
[Emphasis added]

That last statement by Rice is chilling in light of how the current American regime manipulated the UN to justify the invasion of Iraq. Still, Iran is not Iraq. It has large energy contracts with China (which holds an enormous amount of US debt), and has a strong ally in Russia. Both states are permanent members of the UN Security Council and both have made it clear that they will veto any plan to impose crippling sanctions on Iran.

Iran itself is not exactly helpless and has already indicated how it will respond to any such sanctions. The threatened response was noted in an article printed last week in the Guardian.

Iran stepped up its defiance of international pressure over its nuclear programme yesterday by warning of soaring oil prices if it is subjected to economic sanctions. As diplomats from the US, Europe, Russia, and China prepared to meet today in London to discuss referring Tehran to the UN security council, Iran's economy minister, Davoud Danesh-Jafari, said the country's position as the world's fourth-largest oil producer meant such action would have grave consequences.

"Any possible sanctions from the west could possibly, by disturbing Iran's political and economic situation, raise oil prices beyond levels the west expects," he told Iranian state radio.

...Mr Danesh-Jafari's comments echoed fears voiced by energy market analysts after crude oil prices last week rose above $64 (£36.50) a barrel as hopes faded of a diplomatic solution to the dispute.

Last week, Manouchehr Takin, of the Centre for Global Energy Studies, argued that crude prices could hit $100 a barrel if Iran stopped exporting. "Supply and demand are very tightly balanced," he said.

Mr Danesh-Jafari's warning added weight to veiled threats by Iran's president on Saturday. Iran had a "cheap means" of achieving its nuclear "rights", Mr Ahmadinejad said, adding: "You [the west] need us more than we need you. All of you today need the Iranian nation."

Recognising the danger, Gernot Erler, Germany's deputy foreign minister, said yesterday: "We are seeing desperate measures by Asian countries, mainly China, India and others, to get hold of energy resources, and for them Iran is a partner they can't do without." He said it was "dangerous" to put restrictions on trade relations "which could hurt one's own side more than the other side".
[Emphasis added]

Because of the US regime's excellent adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq, and its worsening relations with Venezuela (a major oil supplier to us) the US has effectively painted itself into a corner, and the UN is unlikely to provide a safe way out, especially given the behavior of the US Ambassador to the UN, John Bolton.

But wait: there's more. Embedded in the Star Tribune article cited above is the following:

Israel's defense minister implied over the weekend that if diplomacy fails with Iran, Israel could resort to military action to defend itself from a nation whose leader, hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has said the Jewish state should be wiped off the map. [Emphasis added]

Way to go, George.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Clean Cups! Clean Cups!

Those of us who pay attention to the news have learned a new term in the last several months: "unitary executive." It's the excuse du jour trotted out whenever the Emperor in Chief gets caught exceeding his Constitutional authority. The theory is that the President has inherent powers, especially during time of war, that allows him to do just about anything he wants, even break laws duly passed by the legislative branch. The latest manifestation of the theory has to do with the bypassing of the requirements of FISA and the warrantless spying on Americans. Even the Washington Post expressed dismay at the Emperor's attitude toward settled law.

THE MOST detailed legal justification to date for the National Security Agency's warrantless domestic surveillance has emerged from the Bush administration, but the 42-page version isn't any more convincing than its shorter predecessors. In some ways -- particularly in its broad conception of presidential power in wartime -- it is more disturbing.

As it had implied previously but never flatly stated, the administration asserted that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) would be unconstitutional if it were read to prevent the president from engaging in the kind of warrantless surveillance that the administration has been conducting.

This interpretation, with its expansive view of the commander in chief's powers, would call into question Congress's ability to prevent the administration from engaging in torture or cruel and inhuman treatment or to establish rules for detainees and military tribunals -- exactly the areas in which we have been encouraging Congress to step up to the plate.

The administration, appropriately, would prefer to avoid the constitutional argument. Instead, it contends first that FISA's warrant requirements were superseded by the post-Sept. 11 congressional Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), which allows the president to "use all necessary and appropriate force" to prevent "any future acts of international terrorism against the United States."

The administration cites this sweeping language and the Supreme Court's ruling in Hamdi v. Rumsfeld , in which a plurality found that the AUMF allowed the president to detain U.S. citizens captured on the battlefield as enemy combatants. The administration says that reasoning applies equally to "all traditional and accepted incidents of force . . . including warrantless electronic surveillance to intercept enemy communications both at home and abroad."

A critical difference between detention and surveillance, however, is that Congress has already passed a law outlining detailed requirements for domestic surveillance -- even during wartime; FISA specifically provides a 15-day grace period for warrantless surveillance in time of war. The vague wording of the AUMF can't reasonably be read to implicitly trump FISA.

The administration goes on to say that if the AUMF doesn't provide such approval, and if FISA is interpreted to prohibit such wiretapping outside its procedures (the law says it is to be the "exclusive means" for authorizing foreign intelligence surveillance), the statute would be unconstitutional.

President Bush, the paper says, "determined that the speed and agility required to carry out the NSA activities successfully could not have been achieved under FISA." Because those activities "are necessary to the defense of the United States from a subsequent terrorist attack, FISA would impermissibly interfere with the President's most solemn constitutional obligation -- to defend the United States against foreign attack."

Before and since the 1978 passage of FISA, presidents have asserted that they also possess the inherent constitutional authority to authorize warrantless searches. Yet there is a major difference between claiming such inherent presidential power and stretching it -- too far in our view -- to conclude that, when Congress has spoken on an issue, the president is free to ignore that legislative action.

Especially without knowing the parameters of the surveillance, we hesitate to second-guess the president's argument that FISA's limits are unduly constraining. The surveillance may be critical for national security, and a law written in a different technological age may well need to be refurbished. But the proper way to handle that -- which the administration rejected -- would have been to seek changes in the law, not to do a stealthy end run around the legislative process. In such an amorphous, long-running conflict as the war against terrorism, it's critical to ensure that limits are in place to prevent the executive branch from overreaching.
[Emphasis added]

First of all, the Authorization for the Use of Military Force passed by Congress was not a Declaration of War, a declaration which only Congress can make. Regardless of the use of the term "war against terrorism," which now looks to have been a canny choice of metaphors, the United States is not at war because the Congress has not formally declared that we are. It's in the Constitution, you could look it up.

Secondly, the role of the President is that of executive. The President executes the laws duly legislated by Congress, the legislative branch. Once a law is passed, the executive has two choices: he can veto it (which can be overriden by the Congress) or he can sign it (which means he will execute that law). The executive cannot sign the law and then break it. It doesn't work that way in the American scheme of democracy.

Where I come from, we call a lawbreaker a criminal. That is what George Walker Bush, who admitted to the warrantless eavesdropping, is: a criminal. And that is grounds for impeachment.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Warm Beer

American beer, unlike European beer, is brewed to be served chilled. There are very few things worse than drinking warm beer, especially on a hot day. An exception to this statement might be reading a tepid editorial on a hot subject, and an editorial in today's LA Times proves my point.

THE JUSTICE DEPARTMENT TOOK Google to court last week, demanding that the search-engine powerhouse give up a prodigious amount of data about what people look for online.

The department's aim is to defend the controversial Child Online Protection Act, a 1998 law that, if allowed to go into effect, would require websites to shield minors from material that's suitable only for adults by demanding a credit card or other proof of age. Justice Department lawyers say they are trying to show how often Web users encounter X-rated content and to see how much of the material could be blocked by a filtering program on the user's computer.

The Bush administration's goal is to satisfy the Supreme Court, which issued a preliminary ruling against the act in 2004. In a 5-4 decision, the high court held that the government had not shown the act to be more effective and less restrictive than filtering technology.

It is not at all clear why the government needs such a staggering amount of data from Google to make its case — which is essentially that Web filters are not as effective at blocking porn as the threat of prosecution, and that they pose at least as many problems to free speech. Filters have been blasted by technology advocates and civil libertarians, who say the software often fails to catch many sources of unsuitable material while blocking too much that isn't smut. Then again, a frontal assault on filters would be awkward for the Justice Department, which successfully defended another federal law that requires libraries to use them.

The department's research also evokes concerns about what the government might ultimately do with its snapshot of Web-searching habits. The feds originally asked Google to disclose two months' worth of search inquiries, then pared their request to one week. The list wouldn't include any information about the users who did the searches, but prosecutors could certainly demand such details from Google if they came across any searches that were troubling — "how to hide a methamphetamine lab," say, or "cellphone detonate plastic explosive."

...By resisting the feds' subpoena, however, the company has set itself above the search-engine pack — and given users a valuable reminder that searching through the Web leaves a trail.
[Emphasis added]

The editorialist almost got it. That the government demands these kind of web records is outrageous in its assault on both the First and Fourth Amendments. What indeed will this regime do with all of the data this is sure to uncover? Will it combine the results with those of the NSA illegal wire-tapping, thereby subjecting innocent people to a profile within the FBI and DFI that will haunt them the rest of their lives and the lives of their families? Given the track record of the last five years, that is certainly a very real possibility.

But did the editorial castigate the government for this latest example of spying on the private lives of citizens? No, unfortunately, it did not. Instead the editorial issues a weak warning that "searching through the Web leaves a trail." One is reminded of former Press Secretary Ari Fleischer's ominous warning to Americans after 9/11: "People need to watch what they say...watch what they do."

I'd rather drink warm beer.

Children of a Lesser God

I've frequently referred to the current regime as "The Gang Who Can't Shoot Straight." Sometimes, however, they actually do shoot straight, but at the wrong target, and that's what they did in Pakistan last week. In their haste to knock off Ayman al Zawahiri, Osama bin Ladin's 'second in command,' they missed him, but managed to wipe out a whole bunch of innocent civilians. The Pakastani tribespeople directly affected by this butchery took to the streets and protested this atrocity, as well they should have. An editorial in The Nation (Pakistan) also made it clear that such unilateral attacks by the US on Pakistan is not acceptable.

It was the right decision to summon US Ambassador Ryan Crocker to lodge a formal protest over the recent missile attack in the Bajaur Agency by the US-led coalition forces in Afghanistan, which killed 18 and injured more than a dozen tribesmen. ...news reports quoted an official as saying that information about Dr Al-Zawahiri’s presence in the area was an intelligence botch-up.

The so-called protests lodged with the US, the second in the last one week, are unlikely to assuage the angry tribesmen, thousands of whom staged a demonstration in Bajaur on Saturday [January 15, 2006] in protest against the missile attack, ransacking shops and offices of two foreign-funded NGOs. They cannot trust any official assurance when innocent people, including woman and children, are constantly being killed by air strikes from across the border. The repeated incursions into our territory indicate that the US-led coalition forces have no regard for our sovereignty.

Those in authority should not ignore the fact that despite our active cooperation in the so-called War on Terror we do not enjoy the confidence of our western allies. The US and its European allies are least bothered about the angry backlash, the latest being the countrywide protests on Sunday, which the Pakistan government is facing for acting as a frontline state. Yet our government is still reluctant to review its use of the military option both in Balochistan and the troubled tribal areas when the world at large is not ready to acknowledge our effort to purge the region of extremism. In whose cause are Pakistanis being killed? Mr Shaukat Aziz should use his forthcoming visit to the White House to voice these concerns at the highest level.
[Emphasis added]

Without the cooperation of Pakistan, the war in Afghanistan would not have been possible. To get that cooperation, the US did everything it could to prop up the current government which itself has been struggling to maintain power in the face of serious challenges from conservative religious leaders. What the US regime does not feel compelled to do is treat this ally with the respect it surely is entitled to by virtue of it being a sovereign state. After all, we are not at war with Pakistan.

That doesn't seem to matter to the Emperor in Chief and his minions, nor does the killing of innocent civilians. I don't recall seeing any apologies from our government to the Pakistanis for this war crime, nor do I anticipate seeing any. After all, these are Pakistanis. They are a different color and they worship a different god. As a result, it is becoming more likely that President Musharraf, our good buddy, will be deposed, probably violently, by a force who will have nothing to do with the US.

Way to go, George.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Going to the Same Well

Yesterday, Karl Rove, Chief Imperial Advisor, spoke at a meeting of the Republican National Committee, as did Ken Mehlman. Both men made it clear that the main theme for the 2006 elections will be a reprise from the 2004 elections: national security. Given that the GOP is reeling from a major corruption scandal that may very well reach deep into the White House, it is fairly obvious that "cleaning up the government" wasn't going to wash. Mr. Rove himself is the target of an investigation (Plame Affair) and may be indicted shortly. The Washington Post provided some of the details.

White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove offered a biting preview of the 2006 midterm elections yesterday, drawing sharp distinctions with the Democrats over the campaign against terrorism, tax cuts and judicial philosophy, and describing the opposition party as backward-looking and bereft of ideas.

"At the core, we are dealing with two parties that have fundamentally different views on national security," Rove said. "Republicans have a post-9/11 worldview and many Democrats have a pre-9/11 worldview. That doesn't make them unpatriotic -- not at all. But it does make them wrong -- deeply and profoundly and consistently wrong."

...At a time when Democrats have staked their hopes in large part on the issue of corruption, Rove and Mehlman showed that Republicans plan to contest the elections on themes that have helped expand their majorities under President Bush. They see national security and the vigorous prosecution of the campaign against terrorism at the heart of the GOP appeal to voters.

...Taking no questions from the audience or the news media, Rove used his platform to excoriate Democrats for "wild and reckless and false charges" against Bush on the issue of domestic spying and what he called an attempted smear against Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr. at his Supreme Court confirmation hearings last week.
[Emphasis added]

Rove's speech came just a day after Al Jazeera's release of an audio tape by Osama bin Laden, who might as well be called Osama bin Missing, in which the Al Qaeda leader threatened more attacks on the US. The timing of that tape may have been coincidental, but it sure came in handy for Mr. Rove. The fact that the Department of Vaterland Security did not raise the terror alert doesn't matter. The GOP got their shiny keys just as Americans began to take a closer look at the NSA illegal spying story and to express some unease at the fact that the Emperor in Chief thinks he has every right to spy on folks here in the US. Just to make sure everyone got the message, both Mehlman and Rove reminded them of the always imminent danger.

Mehlman and Rove accused the Democrats of trying to weaken the USA Patriot Act and of embracing calls for a premature exit from Iraq. They defended Bush's use of warrantless eavesdropping to gather intelligence about possible terrorist plots. "Do Nancy Pelosi and Howard Dean really think that when the NSA is listening in on terrorists planning attacks on America, they need to hang up when those terrorists dial their sleeper cells in the United States?" Mehlman asked. [Emphasis added]

While the strategy might have worked in 2004, the GOP might find that well has gone dry if enough Congress critters get indicted for bribery and corruption and if the public suddenly decides that being secure is not as important as having the basic civil liberties guaranteed by the Constitution.

Of course, we are still more than ten months from the election. Osama bin Laden might be persuaded to release another tape.

Friday, January 20, 2006

The GOP Does Battle...

...with the GOP.

After five years of giving the Emperor in Chief nearly everything he has asked for, the heretofor solid Republican bloc is beginning to show some cracks, and those fissures appear to be quite deep. That Congressional Republicans might feel that absolute fealty to Bush is no longer necessary or perhaps even unwise is not surprising. After all, Mr. Bush is not running for re-election this year, and many of them are. Further, the Grand Old Party has been rocked by scandals that reach from the White House (the Plame Affair, the NSA illegal spying on Americans) to Congress (Abramoff), and many in Congress want desparately to shift the attention to something else, anything else.

Even so, the topic du jour is hardly one I had expected: immigration reform. The LA Times has an article about what the Republican National Committee has on its agenda.

A deep split within the Republican Party over immigration policy is now reaching into the highest levels of the GOP machinery, as members of the Republican National Committee, which typically operates in lock step with the White House, are poised to vote today on a resolution repudiating President Bush's call for a guest-worker program.

A member of the committee, which acts as a national steering panel for the party, gathered enough signatures to force the vote, setting up a highly unusual public debate over an issue on which Bush has set a clear direction.

Bush has proposed letting workers from abroad, as well as some of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the U.S., legally take jobs in the United States as temporary workers. But the resolution before the party leadership today argues that a guest-worker program would "only result in more illegal immigration and increased crime in our country."

Republican strategists had hoped to avoid this week's confrontation, scrambling late Wednesday and Thursday to draft an alternative resolution that embraces a guest-worker program while calling for tougher border security to deter illegal immigration.

The disagreement illustrates Bush's challenge in trying to bridge GOP divisions about how to resolve the growing border crisis without alienating Latino voters by appearing to be anti-immigrant.

The issue has exposed tensions between crucial components of the GOP base.

Business interests, including agriculture and manufacturing firms, donate millions of dollars to Republican candidates and rely on immigrant labor; they want a guest-worker plan. So do some Republican senators.

Cultural conservatives oppose any guest-worker program, as does the House leadership. Many charge that illegal workers are stealing American jobs and flouting the law.

...Pullen's resolution calls on Congress and the president to enact laws restricting illegal immigration and to withhold federal funds from any state or local government that acts as a "sanctuary" for illegal immigrants by failing to fully cooperate with immigration authorities. Pullen said the resolution "pretty much reflects where the American public is, which is they want the border secured and they want illegal immigration ended. And they don't want amnesty provided to those in the country now."
[Emphasis added]

What is so delicious about this split is the cynicism and racist hypocrisy underlying both sides of the internal debate. Big business wants a cheap labor force and really doesn't care if that labor force is here legally or not. The cultural conservatives don't like the thought of more brown people swarming over the border. One side wants to build a wall, the other wants access to workers who are vulnerable and will therefor work cheaply under horrendous conditions.

It appears that the marriage of convenience between the competing interests is on the rocks. The GOP is beginning to look like the Democrats in elections past.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

The Story That Just Won't Die

As much as the White House would like for the story on the warrantless spying on Americans to just go away, to fade from the notably short-attention span of the American public, it just hasn't been successful. People may have forgotten about Katrina and the Sago mine disaster and about the Plame affair, but this story continues to generate editorials and stories, thereby keeping Americans focussed on the issue. The Emperor in Chief and his staff cannot be happy about this.

The latest offering comes in an article in the Washington Post.

The Bush administration appears to have violated the National Security Act by limiting its briefings about a warrantless domestic eavesdropping program to congressional leaders, according to a memo from Congress's research arm released yesterday.

The Congressional Research Service opinion said that the amended 1947 law requires President Bush to keep all members of the House and Senate intelligence committees "fully and currently informed" of such intelligence activities as the domestic surveillance effort.

"We believe that Congress was appropriately briefed," White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said in a statement last night.

...Cumming's analysis found that both intelligence committees should have been briefed because the program involved intelligence collection activities.

The only exception in the law applies to covert actions, Cumming found, and those programs must be reported to the "Gang of Eight," which includes House and Senate leaders in addition to heads of the intelligence panels. The administration can also withhold some operational details in rare circumstances, but that does not apply to the existence of entire programs, he wrote.
[Emphasis added]

The Congressional Research Service is a neutral (not bipartisan) service which aids all of Congress. Any report from this service is accorded great respect, as it should because it has no political axe to grind. As a result, this second report on the legality of the of the NSA's warrantless spying on people in America hits the issue hard.

Members of the House and Senate intelligence committees have been charged with oversight over the various intelligence agencies, including those operating on US soil. Committee members can hardly do their job if they have no idea that a particular program exists and is operational. The White House claims it told a few of those members, thereby satisfying the law. However, what actually happened is that the White House told only a handful of members in circumstances which amounted to little more than "this is what we're doing and it is so double super secret that you can't even tell other members of the committees anything about it." That makes genuine oversight impossible, which, of course, is the whole point. Emperors don't need oversight.

While I believe that part of the reason this story won't die is that canny Democrats have requested the two Congress Research Agency reports on the issue, I also believe that the very act of illegally spying on Americans is repugnant to most of the public. No amount of "a real American has nothing to hide" spin can offset the fact that thousands of innocent Americans have had their privacy invaded without even the most minimal of judicial review.

Here is where the role of the press is crucial. I only hope it is up to it, especially given the media's lackluster track record of late.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Irony, Like History, Is Not Dead

Yesterday I posted on the shabby coverage of Al Gore's speech by the Washington Post and the NY Times (scroll down to "Checking the News"). With that in mind, I read an editorial in today's Times and suffered whiplash.

In times of extreme fear, American leaders have sometimes scrapped civil liberties in the name of civil protection. It's only later that the country can see that the choice was a false one and that citizens' rights were sacrificed to carry out extreme measures that were at best useless and at worst counterproductive. There are enough examples of this in American history - the Alien and Sedition Acts and the World War II internment camps both come to mind - that the lesson should be woven into the nation's fabric. But it's hard to think of a more graphic example than President Bush's secret program of spying on Americans.

...A chilling article in yesterday's Times confirmed our fears.

According to the article, the eavesdropping swept up vast quantities of Americans' private communications without any reasonable belief that they could be related to terrorism. The National Security Agency flooded the Federal Bureau of Investigation with thousands of names, e-mail addresses, telephone numbers and other tips that virtually all led to dead ends or to innocent Americans.

...This was not just a tragic waste of the F.B.I.'s resources in dangerous times. It was an outrageous and pointless intrusion into individuals' privacy. Anyone who read the original reports on the spying operation and thought, "Well, so what, I have nothing to hide," should think about the uncounted innocent Americans who had F.B.I. officers knocking on their doors because of secret and possibly illegal surveillance. The National Security Agency was originally barred from domestic surveillance without court supervision to avoid just this sort of abuse.

The first lawsuits challenging the legality of the domestic spying operation were filed this week, and Congress plans hearings. We hope that lawmakers are more diligent about reining in Mr. Bush now than they have been about his other abuses of power in the name of fighting terrorism.
[Emphasis added]

The editorial contains some rather noticeable echoes of Gore's speech, although it is not nearly as eloquent or passionate. I suspect that someone at the Times, possibly the editorialist, actually heard or read Gore's speech. Instead of alluding to something that couldn't make it to page 1, that was merely a truncated AP wire story emphasizing only that Gore stated the President was a law-breaker, the editorialist refers only to a story the Times reporters on the flood of tips sent to the FBI following 9/11.

The article referred to was a good one and should be allowed to resonate further by a timely editorial. I find nothing wrong with that. What I am curious about, however, is that there was and is no real coverage of a speech that was important for reasons even beyond who delivered it. Is referring to a former Democratic leader, one who just might re-enter politics via the 2008 campaign, off limits? It certainly appears so, especially since the editorial contains some strikingly similar language, historial allusions, and conclusions.

If that is the case, then the NY Times' failure to cover the Gore speech is even more shameful than I had originally thought.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Checking the News

Yesterday former Vice-President Al Gore gave a speech which was to be introduced by former Congressman Bob Barr. Given that the two men are on the opposite ends of the political spectrum, one would think the appearance of both on the same podium would have been considered quite newsworthy. Unfortunately, 'technological problems' caused Mr. Barr's appearance to be cancelled (he was to speak via satellite), but the cancellation didn't happen until the last minute, so one would have expected the event to have been covered by at least a few of the reporters from the top tier of the mainstream media. After viewing the articles in the NY Times and the Washington Post, that appears not to have been the case.

The NY Times didn't bother to send a reporter. The Times article is simply a reprint of an AP report in which nearly half of the article was eaten up by the responses to the speech by the GOP spokeswoman of the day and by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

The Washington Post did a little better. It printed a story (located on page A3)by one of its reporters, but the thrust of the article was simply Gore's statement that the President had broken the law with the warrantless NSA spying.

Given the actual contents of the speech, the coverage was appalling and shameful. The text of the speech (which varied slightly from that which was actually delivered) can be found here and should be read in its entirety. Here are a few snippets which will give some idea on what Mr. Gore said and what the allegedly liberal mainstream media missed.

A president who breaks the law is a threat to the very structure of our government.

...An executive who arrogates to himself the power to ignore the legitimate legislative directives of the Congress or to act free of the check of the judiciary becomes the central threat that the Founders sought to nullify in the Constitution - an all-powerful executive too reminiscent of the King from whom they had broken free. In the words of James Madison, "the accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny."

The greater the power of the executive grows, the more difficult it becomes for the other branches to perform their constitutional roles. As the executive acts outside its constitutionally prescribed role and is able to control access to information that would expose its actions, it becomes increasingly difficult for the other branches to police it. Once that ability is lost, democracy itself is threatened and we become a government of men and not laws.

...the most serious damage has been done to the legislative branch. The sharp decline of congressional power and autonomy in recent years has been almost as shocking as the efforts by the Executive Branch to attain a massive expansion of its power.

...both Houses of Congress should hold comprehensive-and not just superficial-hearings into these serious allegations of criminal behavior on the part of the President. And, they should follow the evidence wherever it leads.
[Emphasis added]

Mr. Gore, himself the Democratic nominee for President in 2000, gave the clearest definition of the 'unitary presidential powers' that I have seen to date, but, even more importantly, he explained forcefully what such a concept does to the Constitutionally defined separation of powers.

He excoriated the Congress for so willingly giving up its powers so easily and for confirming judges who only further the President's goal of usurping all governmental powers. In the last section cited above, Mr. Gore urged the remedy without having to say the word "impeachment," although that is surely where the evidence would lead.

Either the Times and the Post weren't listening or they are cowards and therefor complicit in the power-grab. Neither is particularly helpful to the public they purportedly serve.


Monday, January 16, 2006

The Price of Admission

The Congressional practice of accepting corporate 'gifts' has a long and glorious history. In my life time, a vicuna coat was the first memorable gift that caught my attention. I wasn't quite sure what a vicuna was, but I do recall the disgusted look on my father's face as he read the newspaper, so I pretty much knew it was an evil of some kind.

Today's gift giving is a whole lot more complex. While the current headlines talk mostly about cash transfers during election periods and during the run-up to crucial Congressional votes, and those transfers have been to Republican members' accounts, it is becoming clearer than ever that the bribery also takes more elegant forms and are so common that most members of Congress don't see anything unethical about them. An editorial in today's Washington Post details just one of the 'perks' that Congress critters have come to enjoy.

WHEN REP. TOM DeLay (R-Tex.) had to attend his arraignment on money-laundering charges in Texas last year, he got there in the style to which he had become accustomed as House majority leader: on a corporate jet, in this case one owned by R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.

There are many hard calls to make about how to tighten rules governing lawmakers and lobbyists. Banning members of Congress from using corporate jets as their own private air taxi service isn't one of them. This practice -- as seductive for lawmakers as it should be offensive to their constituents -- ought to be prohibited.

... According to a report in The Post last May by R. Jeffrey Smith and Derek Willis, a dozen current and former leaders, in both houses and both political parties, flew on corporate jets at least 360 times between January 2001 and December 2004; Republican leaders took 265 trips, Democrats 95. Mr. DeLay and then-Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), now seeking to take Mr. DeLay's place, were the two top users, accounting for at least 140 trips between them; Mr. Blunt alone hitched a ride on about 30 companies' planes.

Members of Congress don't fly free on corporate planes, but neither, for the most part, do they pay anything near full freight. Senate rules require payment of first-class airfare if the route has regular commercial service and full reimbursement if no scheduled service exists. Under House rules, lawmakers must reimburse companies for the equivalent of first-class airfare if the plane was scheduled to fly the route in any event. While specially arranged flights theoretically require reimbursement for the full cost, the Post investigation found that "virtually none of the reimbursements matched the actual cost of the unscheduled flights." Moreover, lawmakers' corporate trips aren't easily found in the public record. Their use of the aircraft is buried in campaign records.

...Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) well understands the benefits of this travel: During the 2000 presidential campaign, he tapped a dozen companies and wealthy donors for use of their planes. Now the senator has proposed a lobbying bill, as has Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.), that, while it would not absolutely ground such flights, would require that members pay fair market value and disclose where the plane was going, the purpose of the trip and who was on board.
[Emphasis added]

Now, there are a few things that bother me about this information. First of all, I fail to see why lawmakers need to 'borrow' corporate jets in the first place, especially since one key member of the flight crew is always that corporation's lobbyist. If there are no commercial flights available, why can't the member of Congress just charter a flight and then pay for it?

Second, why are the records of the use of these flights buried in 'campaign' reports? In fact, why are campaign reports so difficult to access?

But I suppose what bothers me the most is the timing of this editorial. Why wasn't it written last May when the investigative report was printed in the Post? The answer to that one is fairly easy to discern. The current scandal involving Jack Abramoff is in fact a purely Republican scandal. Apparently the Post editorial board has been suckered into believing the GOP whine that "the other side does it, too." I'm sure a quick computer search of the archives that pulled up the Smith and Willis article was done so that the paper could take the edge off the headlines about the recent resignations from GOP leadership posts. Fair and Balanced.

Sadly, the Democrats will now have to deal with what is clearly an abuse as well. The new McCain-Finegold bills will at least be a start.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

That Pesky Other Branch of Government

That the current regime believes it can do whatever it wants whenever it wants is clear. Having a totally subservient Congress willing to rubber stamp whatever comes down from the White House is one reason that belief is now so firmly entrenched in BushCo. Just to make certain that belief remains vigorous and healthy, the White House has made several appointments to the US Supreme Court who will back it up as necessary. Through it all, the opposition has been, for the most part, noticeably silent. That is why finding an op-ed piece written by Nancy Pelosi in the Washington Post came as a welcome surprise.

The uproar concerning President Bush's admission that he authorized the National Security Agency (NSA) to conduct certain electronic surveillance affecting people in the United States is a wake-up call for intensive congressional oversight of intelligence activities.

Congress is not an afterthought in assessing intelligence activities; federal law requires that it be kept informed of all such activities. But despite that clear statutory directive, the Bush administration consistently acts as though it alone owns intelligence information.

The products of our intelligence agencies belong to the government, of which Congress is an equal branch. The executive branch operates intelligence programs and activities, and Congress oversees and pays for them -- and thus has a responsibility to ensure that they are effective and carried out in a manner consistent with the Constitution, our laws and our values. That's why the intelligence committees were created. But as the Sept. 11 commission noted, the way intelligence information is conveyed to Congress and the way Congress operates make rigorous oversight impossible.

...The executive branch provides notice of some especially sensitive intelligence information only to the chairman and the ranking member of the minority party of the House and Senate intelligence committees, and to the leaders of Congress. This is how I came to be informed of President Bush's authorization for the NSA to conduct certain types of electronic surveillance.

But when the administration notifies Congress in this manner, it is not seeking approval. There is a clear expectation that the information will be shared with no one, including other members of the intelligence committees. As a result, only a few members of Congress were aware of the president's surveillance program, and they were constrained from discussing it more widely. That limitation must change.

...The members of the intelligence committees are entrusted by their colleagues with the responsibility for making sure that intelligence practices are consistent with our laws and our values. Unless the entire committee has access to the same information, under tight confidentiality rules, Congress cannot respond legislatively to intelligence activity by the executive branch.

We all recognize that our efforts against terrorism or other threats require new, more flexible approaches. But in a democracy, those approaches cannot be fashioned unilaterally by an administration with a disturbingly expansive view of the powers of the president.
[Emphasis added]

It is gratifying that Democrats are finally speaking up about the egregious power grab currently underway by the Emperor In Chief, but it is sadly overdue. While there is no doubt that the Republican dominated Congress will ignore, for the most part, Ms. Pelosi's request for a review of the current practices with respect to the Intelligence Committee, the demands should continue, and should continue loudly in whatever forum the Democrats can get into.

In other words, Nancy, Harry, Ted, Russell, Barbara, Louise, and all the rest of you who will shortly be flooding our mailboxes with requests for campaign contributions, hit 'em with a chair, and the sofa, and then with whatever other piece of furniture is available. It's time for you to earn your keep.

Another View of the Wall

One would think that a hastily drafted piece of legislation that was rammed through the House of Representatives shortly before Congress left for the holiday recess would receive scant attention in this country. James "Tex" Sensenbrenner's and Tom "Nuke Mecca" Tancredo's immigration bill did get a few headlines a day later, but the US press has been pretty silent on the bill since then. After all, the bill has little chance of passage in the Senate, especially in the bill's current state.

The foreign press, however, is still writing about it. That Mexico and Central America might be interested in the bill does make sense, since the bill is directed towards those nations' citizens. That said, that France would be covering the story at this point surprised me. Le Figaro has a story covering a diplomatic conference on the issue.

The defenders of the American Dream confront closure at the border. This is the message conveyed by the foreign ministers of Mexico, Central America, Columbia and the Dominican Republic, who met Monday in Mexico to respond together for the first time to the decision of the House of Representatives to build a steel wall along a third of U.S. southern border. In their closing statement, the representatives of these ten countries refrained from explicitly condemning the initiative, but they reaffirmed the right of emigrants not to be treated like criminals.

The United States, they added, must adopt a temporary worker program; regularize the situation of undocumented people already on its soil and guarantee the "full protection of migrants" and "compliance with labor laws." This 694-mile [1,116-kilometer] wall is part of a plan approved by the House of Representatives in December. The wall, along with other proposed anti-immigration measures such as the criminalization of undocumented visits, must win approval in the Senate to become reality. But just the possibility of their passage is enough to worry neighbors of the world's greatest power. Mexico, which shares a 1,988-mile [3,200-kilometer] border with the United States, would suffer the most from this wall: every year, 400,000 of its inhabitants illegally work and settle in the United States. The tiny countries of Central America, where money from emigrants is often the primary source of income, would also face great difficulties.

"The American government says it is Latin America’s partner, but apparently it is only interested in our money and our merchandise, considering our people to be an epidemic," said Guatemalan Vice President Eduardo Stein before the meeting in Mexico.

According to Mexican Consulates in the United States, 441 undocumented people died between January and December 2005 while attempting to cross the border. Since 1993, the carnage has been 3,800 deaths, including an 18-year-old man killed on December 30 in Tijuana by American border guards - an incident which caused the Mexican media to compare this wall to another one, which was just as "shameful" and "murderous:" the Berlin Wall.
[Emphasis added]

The irony of the Sensenbrenner silly bill is that it was passed while the State Department and the White House continue to push CAFTA on the Central American nations. Many of those nations are struggling to meet the requirements in place to participate in the free trade program even as their citizens are now wondering why they should go along with the agreement, especially given the slap in the face the House bill just administered to them.

It's pretty hard to blame them for feeling used, abused, and discarded.

Way to go, Tex.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Business Friendly Government

A few days ago, in a post on the Sago mining tragedy, I pondered what the problem with the Mine Safety Agency was, "too much 'Brownie' or too much 'Abramoff.'" It turns out that the problem was a hybrid of both, as an editorial in the Washington Post points out.

JUST AS HURRICANE Katrina put a spotlight on the leadership and competence of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, so, too, it seems, is the Sago coal mine disaster destined to shine a light on the Mine Safety and Health Administration. Unlike FEMA, the mine safety agency -- which sets safety standards for the mining industry and inspects mines to ensure they meet them -- has not been run by inexperienced people. But it does seem that MSHA, like a slew of other agencies in this administration, has been run for the past five years by people who emerged from the industry being regulated.

For three years, until November 2004, the head of MSHA was David D. Lauriski, a former senior mining executive. Mr. Lauriski left his job soon after a Labor Department report found that while he was in charge, the agency had awarded questionable contracts to companies with ties to him or his associates. His term in office was also marked by disputes over an investigation into a major environmental disaster, as well as his attempts to change dust regulations in a way that would have directly benefited his former employer. Since then, the agency has been run by an acting administrator, a political appointee with no background in mine safety. He can, of course, always ask advice from his deputies, many of whom have also come directly from the industry over the past five years.
[Emphasis added]

The current regime decided early on that it wanted such agencies to be less police and more partner when dealing with the industries the agencies regulate. While nice in theory, I suppose, what generally turns out is that the agency suddenly becomes more concerned with the industry's bottom line than in the issues it is supposed to regulate. The results are rarely as dramatic as the Sago disaster, but they are every bit as destructive.

I wonder how many more people will die because of their jobs before 2008?

Way to go, George.

Friday, January 13, 2006

The Imperial Visit

The Emperor in Chief got around to visiting New Orleans and the Gulf Coast yesterday. He managed to make a couple of stops, but carefully avoided those areas hardest hit by the winds and floods. He also managed to avoid those areas where pesky protestors had gathered. Elisabeth Bumiller duly noted his itinerary in the NY Times.

President Bush made his first trip here in three months on Thursday and declared that New Orleans was "a heck of a place to bring your family" and that it had "some of the greatest food in the world and some wonderful fun."

Mr. Bush spent his brief visit in a meeting with political and business leaders on the edge of the Garden District, the grand neighborhood largely untouched by the floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina, and saw little devastation. He did not go into the city's hardest-hit areas or to Jackson Square, where several hundred girls from the Academy of the Sacred Heart staged a protest demanding stronger levees.

...Mr. Bush, who appeared to be trying to spread optimism in a city that is years away from recovery, did not tell the group or the city's residents what many were hoping to hear: that he would commit the federal government to building the strongest possible levees, a Category 5 storm protection system.
[Emphasis added]

One wonders whether he could have been as optimistic if he had seen the parts of the city that were under water long enough to destroy entire neighborhoods, where less than half of the debris has been removed by the no-bid contractors and which don't look all that different than they did the day after the hurricane. I guess those areas wouldn't have provided the desired background for the Imperial presence. It would look too much like it is: evidence of yet another failed policy.

Besides, Mr. Bush had other, more pressing appointments:

From New Orleans, Mr. Bush traveled to Waveland and Bay St. Louis in Mississippi, where he viewed destruction along the Gulf Coast. He then headed for Palm Beach, Fla., for a closed-door $4 million fund-raiser for the Republican National Committee and Republican candidates at the home of Dwight Schar, a homebuilder and a co-owner of the Washington Redskins. [Emphasis added]

One must have priorities, you know.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Same Old Tune

One of the favorite Republican memes is that liberals are out of touch with heartland values. It is difficult to tell just what exactly is meant by this, but I suspect the conservatives are trying to imply that liberals tend to be elitist snobs who live on either coast and who have no connection to the hardworking people who live in the wide swath beween the coasts. That's why it's always amusing when one of the major newspapers from "the heartland" comes out with an editorial that spanks the current regime for not paying attention to what really matters to Americans. The Minneapolis Star Tribune did just that in an editorial posted last night.

...it is galling to see that, with Congress on winter break, President Bush has used his recess appointment power to name a badly underqualified candidate to run the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Julie Myers is an attorney, former prosecutor and former White House personnel officer who seems to be a rising star in the administration (she is also married to the chief of staff at the Department of Homeland Security), but she has little expertise in immigration and no management background to suggest she can take over an agency with 15,000 employees and a $4 billion budget.

...A White House spokeswoman told the New York Times that the president has complete confidence in Myers. Then why use a recess appointment? It implies that even a compliant GOP Congress would have balked at her nomination. And why cite Myers' experience prosecuting drug smugglers and money-launderers as relevant job experience? If the White House equates immigration policy with felony law enforcement, that is a very bad sign.

After fiascoes with Iraq, Medicare, Social Security and FEMA, the White House badly needs to restore public confidence in its managerial competence. This appointment is not a good start.
[Emphasis added]

The editorialist is quite properly concerned with the cronyism involved in the appointment. While Ms. Myers may be a very experienced and highly qualified prosecuting attorney, nothing in her resume suggests that she has any experience or training in running a large agency which deals with immigration, a subject which some elements of the GOP have promised will be a major campaign issue in both 2006 and 2008. By using the recess appointment, the Emperor in Chief has effectively admitted that she wouldn't pass muster even in a Republican controlled Congress.

I think more than cronyism is involved in Bush's increasing reliance on the recess appointment tool, although that is certainly reason enough to be upset. I believe that the White House is demonstrating once again the theory that the President has greater powers than Congress and the Judiciary and intends to wield those powers as proof those powers exist. By totally ignoring the "advise and consent" provision of the US Constitution, the Emperor demonstrates that he has unlimited power, and the other two branches can do nothing about it.

Perhaps this Congress can't, but unless the Emperor intends to cancel all future elections, the next Congress had better begin reining in the boy-king.