|January 4, 2007|
||Go Beyond The Headlines|
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As of Jan. 1, judges in Kansas are able to carry concealed weapons into courtrooms, dog owners in California can no longer keep their pets tethered for more than three hours at a time, and unsolicited ads sent through fax machines are banned in Indiana. But more importantly, the year’s new laws in at least 32 states reflect progressive priorities supported by an overwhelming majority of Americans. As the 110th Congress begins its session today, it will take up an ambitious 100-hour agenda. This agenda attempts to take on issues — such as increasing the federal minimum wage and strengthening congressional ethics rules — that President Bush and 109th Congress ignored in favor of partisan politicking. Luckily, the states have not stood by idly, but have instead taken the lead in pushing the nation toward a more progressive future.
‘IT TAKES A WOMAN’: Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) will make history today as she takes her place as the country’s first female Speaker of the House, promising to root out corruption and waste in Congress. “It takes a woman to clean house,” Pelosi stated. Eighty-six women — a record number — now make up 16.5 percent of legislators on Capitol Hill. In state legislatures nationwide, there are now a record 1,736 women in office, up from 1,667 women in 2005. The BBC notes that this past year, “a record 2,433 women ran for state office and the number of female state governors are up to a high of nine.”
‘A SIGNIFICANT DOWN PAYMENT’ ON ETHICS REFORM: The 110th Congress will kick off its 100-hour agenda today with ethics reform legislation that will bar Members from accepting gifts, meals, flights on corporate jets, or lavish trips from lobbyists or their clients; end the infamous K Street Project; mandate ethics training for all House employees; and create a transparent earmarking process. The Washington Post today called the plan “a significant down payment on the promise to end the ‘culture of corruption'” of the 109th Congress that produced $71.77 billion in earmarks in 2006 and multiple scandals. But around the country, state legislatures have already passed their own laws against corruption — many of them stronger than the laws proposed for the federal government. On Jan. 1, Pennsylvania ended its status “as the only state without a lobbyist disclosure law, requiring lobbyists to make quarterly reports about how they spend their dollars. North Carolina has also tightened ethics laws, restricting gifts to lawmakers, requiring more disclosure from lobbyists and banning them from making personal donations to candidates’ campaigns.” Approximately half the states have created independent ethics watchdogs to police lawmakers’ behavior, a move that many federal lawmakers are resisting. (Seventy-nine percent of the American public supports an independent watchdog for the U.S. Congress.) More than a dozen states have also enacted “pay-to-play laws” that “block contractors or executives of their companies from making campaign contributions to officials who could influence state contracts.”
AT A MINIMUM, RAISING THE MINIMUM WAGE: Today, approximately 8 million Americans are living on $5.15 an hour. The federal minimum wage has been stuck at this level since 1996. Since Bush took office, the number of Americans living in poverty has increased by 5.4 million. The conservative leadership of the 109th Congress refused to raise the minimum wage on its own, instead tying it to a cut in inheritance taxes on multimilllion-dollar estates. Eighty percent of the American public supports an increase in the minimum wage. The new Congress has promised to raise it to $7.25 an hour. Luckily though, states nationwide haven’t waited for Congress to get its act together. In 2007, seven states — Arizona, California, Delaware, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania — raised their minimum wage, bringing to 29 the total number of states with wages above the federal $5.15 an hour.
INVESTMENT IN STEM CELL RESEARCH ‘WILL PAY FOR ITSELF’: Bush has vetoed just one bill during his presidency — a bill to increase federal funding for stem cell research. Congress has promised to reverse Bush’s veto, with the backing of 56 percent of the American public. As the New York Times notes, “Bush’s veto of legislation to expand federally financed embryonic stem cell research has had the unintended consequence of drawing state money into the contentious field.” As New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer (D) noted in his State of the State address yesterday, an investment in stem cell research “will pay for itself many times over in increased jobs, economic activity, and improved health.” He proposed a $2-billion state fund to fund stem cell and other medical research. This year, Connecticut will be doling out $20 million to 21 research projects “to take the most controversial form of stem-cell research, that involving tissue from human embryos, from the political arena to the laboratory.” In November, voters in Missouri approved a constitutional amendment that guaranteed that any federally allowed stem cell research and treatments could occur. “Soon California will begin to decide how to distribute nearly $150 million. New Jersey has already awarded nearly $10 million, though most of the research projects there do not involve embryonic cells [and] Maryland and Illinois have also agreed to finance stem-cell research.”
NEGOTIATING FOR LOWER DRUG PRICES: Prescription drugs under Bush’s Medicare program remain unnecessarily expensive, since his administration refuses to negotiate for lower prices with drug makers. In November, White House counselor Dan Bartlett stated that Medicare didn’t need to get lower prices because he felt the system was “working” and “benefiting America’s seniors.” But in reality, taxpayers “could save as much as $190 billion over the next 10 years” if Medicare negotiated prices with drug makers. Instead of benefiting seniors, the Medicare program has been “a financial windfall [for big drug companies] larger than even the most optimistic Wall Street analysts had predicted.” Part of Congress’s 100-hour agenda plans to empower Medicare to negotiate directly with drug companies, rather than through private health plans. A recent Kaiser Family Foundation survey found that 85 percent of Americans favor this approach. States are already taking steps to reduce drug prices and increased care for their residents. There are now five operating multi-state “bulk buying pools,” which allow groups of states to buy prescription drugs “in bulk” at lower prices.
ENERGIZING AGAINST CLIMATE CHANGE: Congress plans to repeal certain tax breaks for oil and gas companies and to fix drilling leases that have allowed big oil to not pay royalties. Under the Bush administration, oil companies have been able to largely go without paying billions of dollars in certain royalties for offshore drilling. According to estimates by the Democratic leadership, the “repeal of the 2004 tax cuts for the oil and gas industry would generate nearly $5 billion” and “royalty payments would yield between $9 billion and $11 billion.” The progressive leadership of the new Congress plans to use this additional revenue “to pay for a new fund for conservation and development of renewable energy sources.” This move would be a welcome step against climate change, which the Bush administration has largely ignored. He has refused to admit that global warming is manmade and has broken his 2000 campaign promise to regulate carbon dioxide. In the absence of federal action, states and cities have moved ahead. A group of 12 states has sued the Bush administration for failing to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. In a “”clear break with the Bush administration,” California — the world’s 12th largest carbon emitter — passed legislation to reduce “its emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases by an estimated 25 percent by 2020.” Ten other states are set to follow California’s lead with reducing vehicle emissions and “more than 20 states have required utilities to eventually generate some power from renewable sources.”
CLIMAGE CHANGE — NEW REPORT FINDS EXXON SPENT $16 MILLION TO ‘MANUFACTURE UNCERTAINTY ABOUT GLOBAL WARMING: Exxon “gave $16 million to 43 ideological groups between 1998 and 2005 in an effort to mislead the public by discrediting the science behind global warming,” a new Union of Concerned Scientists report finds. The company, according to the report, “has adopted the tobacco industry’s disinformation tactics, as well as some of the same organizations and personnel, to cloud the scientific understanding of climate change and delay action on the issue.” Harvard professor Dr. James McCarthy said Exxon has tried to “create the illusion of a vigorous debate” about global warming. A few of the other tactics the oil giant used are listed in the report: “funded an array of front organizations to create the appearance of a broad platform for a tight-knit group of vocal climate change contrarians who misrepresent peer-reviewed scientific findings; attempted to portray its opposition to action as a positive quest for ‘sound science’ rather than business self-interest; used its access to the Bush administration to block federal policies and shape government communications on global warming.” “A modest but effective investment has allowed the oil giant to fuel doubt about global warming to delay government action just as Big Tobacco did for over 40 years,” said Alden Meyer, the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Director of Strategy and Policy.
MILITARY — PRIVATE CONTRACTORS NOW SUBJECT TO COURT-MARTIAL UNDER THE UNIFORM CODE OF MILITARY JUSTICE: “Since the start of the Iraq war, tens of thousands of heavily-armed military contractors have been roaming the country — without any law, or any court to control them,” P.W. Singer of the Brookings Institution writes in Defense Tech. But tucked away in the Pentagon’s fiscal year 2007 spending bill is a change in law that means “contractors now can fall under the purview” of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). “Previously, contractors would only fall under” the court martial system “if Congress declared war. This is something that has not happened in over 65 years and out of sorts with the most likely operations in the 21st century.” Now, contractors fall under the UCMJ during “contingency operations” such as those in Iraq. “Not one contractor of the entire military industry in Iraq has been charged with any crime over the last 3 and a half years, let alone prosecuted or punished. Given the raw numbers of contractors, let alone the incidents we know about, it boggles the mind.” The change in law means that “if contractors violate the rules of engagement in a warzone or commit crimes during a contingency operation like Iraq” — such as the CACI interrogators at Abu Ghraib — “they can now be court-martialed.”
IRAQ — MCCAIN ON IRAQ: ‘THIS ISSUE ISN’T GOING TO BE AROUND IN 2008’: In the latest issue of Vanity Fair magazine, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) is quoted telling a group of conservatives last October that the Iraq war “isn’t going to be around in 2008.” According to Vanity Fair, an audience member told McCain, “The war’s the big issue. Some kind of disengagement — it’s going to have to happen. It’s a big issue for you…in 24 months.” McCain responded: “I do believe this issue isn’t going to be around in 2008. I think it’s going to either tip into civil war…” McCain stopped there. “Listen, I believe in prayer. I pray every night.” Later, McCain told Vanity Fair editor Todd Purdum, “It’s just so hard for me to contemplate failure that I can’t make the next step.” Quotes attributed to anonymous McCain advisers also suggest that the Arizona senator — who passionately supported the initial Iraq invasion and is leading the charge for escalation — now sees his initial support as a liability: “Asked whether, knowing all that is known now (no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, no effective Iraqi army), McCain would have still supported the invasion, his aides say he doesn’t view the question in such simple terms. … ‘He stands by his support for doing something,’ one aide said. … ‘If you knew we were going to lose, would you still be for it?’ the aide asked. ‘That’s a different hypothetical question, that he doesn’t have to answer yet.’”
“President Bush has quietly claimed sweeping new powers to open Americans’ mail without a judge’s warrant,” the New York Daily News reports. “The President asserted his new authority when he signed a postal reform bill into law on Dec. 20. Bush then issued a ‘signing statement’ that declared his right to open people’s mail under emergency conditions.”
Though prominent neoconservatives “have found themselves under attack in Washington policy salons and, more important, within the Bush administration,” over the Iraq war, “a small but increasingly influential group of neocons are again helping steer Iraq policy.” Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Joe Lieberman (I-CT) will press for escalation at an event tomorrow at the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute.
The “surge” becomes a “bump.” A State Department official says that President Bush is considering sending “no more than 15,000 to 20,000 U.S. troops” to Iraq. “Instead of a surge, it is a bump,” said a State Department official.
“A laboratory that has tested most of the nation’s electronic voting systems has been temporarily barred from approving new machines after federal officials found that it was not following its quality-control procedures and could not document that it was conducting all the required tests.”
The Washington Post highlights the plight of pregnant women in Iraq, who are “forgoing prenatal visits to doctors as a result” of the ongoing violence. “Fearful of going into labor during the nighttime curfew, they are having elective Caesarean sections.” They also suffer from a shortage of doctors, many of whom have fled the country, been kidnapped or killed.
The AFL-CIO has sued the Department of Labor to compel it to issue a rule requiring employers to pay for protective equipment used by an estimated 20 million workers to protect them from job hazards. By the department’s own estimates, “400,000 workers have been injured and 50 have died due to the absence of this rule, since 1999 when the rule was first proposed.”
2007 is “set to be the hottest on record worldwide due to global warming and the El Nino weather phenomenon,” beating the last record set in 1998, the Britain Meteorological Office says today. “This new information represents another warning that climate change is happening around the world,” the office said.
The New York Times may eliminate the “public editor,” an autonomous watchdog position created after controversies involving faulty Iraq war reporting and the Jayson Blair plagiarism scandal. Executive editor Bill Keller says the position might be scrapped after the current public editor, Byron Calame, completes his term in May.
In a Washington Post op-ed, Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) says Congress has to pass “more than window dressing when it comes to ethics reform,” and calls for the creation of a “nonpartisan, independent ethics commission that would act as the American people’s public watchdog over Congress.”
And finally: Paris Hilton and 89-year-old Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV) have more in common than you thought, including “a penchant for wearing leopard print,” spending a lot of time in front of cameras, and, The Hill reports, drinking Red Bull. “Although Byrd sometimes imbibes the hipster beverage, he’s not about to adopt a club-hopping lifestyle. ‘He likes Bob Evans and the Dairy Queen and Shoney’s,'” a spokesman said.