Domestic Policy

  How Bush Screwed Our ThanksgivingNovember 24, 2007 13:48 There is a compelling article in yesterday's New York Daily News by Pulitzer Prize winner William Sherman.

Sherman shows that there is not much for us to be thankful for in terms of the cost of food we put on the table this week.

Consumers are getting slammed with the biggest increase in food prices in a decade -- fueled by a perfect storm of rising grain prices and a falling dollar.

Poultry -- including your Thanksgiving Turkey -- along with dairy products have risen the most. A glass of milk costs New Yorkers up to 42% more than last holiday season.

The wholesale price of eggs has soared 86% compared to last fall, at one point.

"I'm spending $50 to $80 more a week on food than last year", according to one Harlem shopper.

The surge is driven by a ripple effect -- the Iraq war, the rise in oil prices, the growing deficits -- and a confluence of factors beginning with corn and wheat crops diverted to ethanol production, according to economists.

Demand for ethanol, caused by the surging price of oil, drives up the price of feed grain. High oil prices also affect the cost of running tractors and combines and transportation.

In the food chain -- from the corn fed hens and cattle to the meal on the dinner table -- just about every menu is affected. Pizza prices in New York are up 15% since last year. Filet mignon has jumped 10% in the last two months. Striped bass, according to one luxury restaurant owner, has gone up from $3 per pound to $8 per pound in one year. The average turkey is up 15% since last year.
  Court Agrees To Rule On Gun CaseNovember 20, 2007 12:50 After a hiatus of 68 years, the Supreme Court on Tuesday agreed to rule on the meaning of the Second Amendment — the hotly contested part of the Constitution that guarantees “a right to keep and bear arms.” Not since 1939 has the Court heard a case directly testing the Amendment’s scope — and there is a debate about whether it actually decided anything in that earlier ruling. In a sense, the Court may well be writing on a clean slate if, in the end, it decides the ultimate question: does the Second Amendment guarantee an individual right to have a gun for private use, or does it only guarantee a collective right to have guns in an organized military force such as a state National Guard unit?

The city of Washington’s appeal (District of Columbia v. Heller, 07-290) seeking to revive its flat ban on private possession of handguns is expected to be heard in March — slightly more than a year after the D.C. Circuit Court ruled that the Second Amendment right is a personal one, at least to have a gun for self-defense in one’s own home. (The Court took no action on Tuesday on a conditional cross-petition, Parker, et al., v. District of Columbia, 07-335, an appeal by five District residents seeking to join in the case. The absence of any action may mean that the Court has decided not to hear that case. If that is so, it will be indicated in an order next Monday. The Court also may simply be holding the case until it decides the Heller case.)

  Ethanol a Bust?November 19, 2007 07:28 Ethanol, the centerpiece of President George W. Bush's plan to wean the U.S. from oil, is 2007's worst energy investment.

The corn-based fuel tumbled 57 percent from last year's record of $4.33 a gallon and drove crop prices to a 10-year high. Production in the U.S. tripled after Morgan Stanley, hedge fund firm D.E. Shaw & Co. and venture capitalist Vinod Khosla helped finance a building boom.

Even worse for investors and the Bush administration, energy experts contend ethanol isn't reducing oil demand. Scientists at Cornell University say making the fuel uses more energy than it creates, while the National Research Council warns ethanol production threatens scarce water supplies.

As oil nears $100 a barrel, ethanol markets are so depressed that distilleries are shutting from Iowa to Germany. An investor who put $10 million into ethanol on Dec. 31 now has $7.5 million, a loss of 25 percent. Florida and Georgia have banned sales during the summer, when the fuel may evaporate and create smog.

``I don't anticipate any sort of immediate rebound,'' says Barry Frazier, the 50-year-old president of Center Ethanol LLC in suburban St. Louis. ``It's going to take 12 to 24 months before the market is able to absorb the large amount of new capacity.''
  No Need For Cheap Foreign LaborNovember 16, 2007 12:10 Follow the link to check out this video that discusses the fact that there is really no shortage of high skilled domestic workers, but a shortage of jobs for them because companies are going overseas.
  Medical News: Stds On The Rise In The U.S. After Years Of DeclineNovember 14, 2007 22:28 Reported chlamydia cases in the U.S. topped one million in 2006, and diagnoses of gonorrhea and syphilis rose as well, CDC surveillance experts reported.

A total of 1,030,911 chlamydia diagnoses were reported in the U.S. in 2006, up from 976,445 in 2005, and the actual number of infections is probably on the order of 2.8 million, estimated Douglas M. Johnson, Jr., M.D., and colleagues, of the National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention.

Although there has been substantial progress in preventing, diagnosing, and treating certain sexually transmitted diseases in recent years, the CDC estimates that approximately 19 million new STDs occur each year.

Nearly half occur among teens and young adults, the investigators wrote in the CDC's annual surveillance update on trends in reportable STDs.

The national rate of reported chlamydia cases in 2006 was 347.8 per 100,000, compared with 329.4 per 100,000, translating into a 5.6% increase.

"The increases in reported cases and rates likely reflect the continued expansion of screening efforts and increased use of more sensitive diagnostic tests," the CDC investigators noted. "However, the continued increases may also reflect an actual increase in infections."

There were also significant racial disparities in chlamydia infections, with African Americans having a rate more than eight times higher than that of whites (1,275 per 100,000 versus 153.1 per 100,000). About 46% of all chlamydia cases in 2006 were reported among African Americans.
  Bush Fiddles While The Dollar BurnsNovember 12, 2007 10:11 Interesting compilation of the impact of the Bush Administration on the dollar and on our trade deficits. Yikes.
  Us Congress Overrides Bush Veto For The First TimeNovember 11, 2007 15:20 Lawmakers in both houses of the U.S. Congress this week handed President Bush a major defeat when they voted to override his veto legislation to fund popular water projects. It was the first time in his seven year presidency that the Congress was able to overturn a Bush veto. As VOA's Cindy Saine reports from Washington, the override is a sign that the Republican president will face growing pressure from the Democratic controlled Congress during his last year in office.

The U.S. Senate voted 79 to 14 on Thursday to overturn the president's veto of the water bill, with a total of 33 Republicans joining in with most Democrats. On Tuesday, the House of Representatives voted 361 to 54 to override the veto.

California Senator Barbara Boxer, a Democrat who chairs the Environment and Public Works committee, said it was a rare moment of unity. "It's one of those rare moments, you know, in a very, very divided Senate that we come together," she said.

Senator Boxer said the vote showed Congress is ready to change its priorities and spend more money at home, for America.

The $23 billion legislation authorizes funding for 900 projects and studies across the United States, including coastal restoration in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina, improving the Florida Everglades, and fisheries in the Great Lakes.

A White House spokesman called the bill "fiscally irresponsible." But the spokesman said the president was not surprised and understands that Republicans and Democrats are going to support projects in their districts.
  Crude Falls from HighNovember 07, 2007 09:47 Crude oil fell from a record after the release of an Energy Department report showing that U.S. inventories fell less than analysts expected.

Crude-oil supplies declined 821,000 barrels in the week ended Nov. 2. A drop of 1.5 million barrels was expected, according to the median of 16 responses in a Bloomberg News survey. Stockpiles of distillate fuel, a category that includes heating oil and diesel, unexpectedly rose.

``This report wasn't the impetus needed to push prices over the $100 finish line,'' said Chip Hodge, a managing director at MFC Global Investment Management in Boston, who oversees a $4.5 billion energy company bond portfolio. ``Something will probably come up over the next couple days, which will do the job.''

Crude oil for December delivery fell 72 cents, or 0.7 percent, to $95.98 barrel at 12:33 p.m. on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Futures climbed to $98.62 today, the highest intraday price since trading began in 1983. Prices are up 63 percent from a year ago.

Brent crude oil for December settlement declined 61 cents, or 0.7 percent, to $92.65 a barrel on the London-based ICE Futures Europe exchange. Brent reached $95.19 a barrel, the highest since trading began in 1988.
  Congress Intends To Override Bush Water Resources VetoNovember 07, 2007 09:33 Congressional Democrats and Republicans are united in their determination to override President George W. Bush's veto of a $23 billion waterways infrastructure and environmental protection bill that passed both the House of Representatives and the Senate with solid veto-proof majorities.

Saying, "This bill lacks fiscal discipline," the president Friday vetoed the Water Resources Development Act, WRDA, which authorizes projects that impact waterborne commerce on the nation's rivers and coasts. WRDA also authorizes critical habitat restoration projects and environmental projects.

This is the first water resources bill passed by Congress since President Bill Clinton signed a water bill into law in 2000.

On September 24, the Senate voted in favor of the WRDA bill by a margin of 81-12. The House approved the bill in August by a vote of 381-40.

In his veto message, President Bush said, "The House of Representatives took a $15 billion bill into negotiations with a $14 billion bill from the Senate and instead of splitting the difference, emerged with a Washington compromise that costs over $23 billion. This is not fiscally responsible, particularly when local communities have been waiting for funding for projects already in the pipeline."

With his veto, the president has drawn a line in the sand against formerly loyal members of his own party.
  Republicans Deploy Senate Rules Against Democratic Spending PlanNovember 06, 2007 10:29 The spending showdown is heating up on Capitol Hill, with Republicans planning to turn the tables on Democrats by using new Senate rules to block a massive spending bill from going to the president.

Tomorrow Republicans in the Senate plan to raise a point of order against the Labor Health and Human Services bill that has been combined with the Veterans Affairs and military construction bill. The bills were combined by appropriators last week in an effort to streamline the delayed spending bills, but under a Senate rule adopted by the new majority earlier this year, items that were not agreed to by both chambers cannot be "air dropped" into a conference report on a bill. Republicans do have an advantage here _ it takes 60 votes to overturn the type of point of order the GOP will raise tomorrow in the Senate, so there's a good chance the veterans and labor bills will be broken up.

While all this parliamentary maneuvering over points of order may sound like inside the beltway gibberish, there's an important point being made here. The new rule was created because Democrats believed it was wrong when the Republican majority would insert major policy changes, as well as fishy earmarks, into bills during closed door negotiations. So when Democrats took charge of Congress in January, they decided to prohibit the practice of dropping items into the final conference reports unless they were considered by both chambers.

The veterans affairs bill was added in the conference committee last week, so Republicans believe that entire bill an unnecessary addition that breaks the new rules. Democrats counter that Republicans will simply be delaying funding for the nation's veterans by removing it from the Labor Health and Human Services bill. The Senate parliamentarian will ultimately decide whether the Republican move is legit.

If the GOP maneuvering is successful, Republicans may score points with their base by outflanking Democrats on a spending issue, but the reality is that it will only further delay the already tardy appropriations process. In the end, either Democrats on Capitol Hill or President Bush will have to give in on spending, but that end game probably won't happen until the week before Christmas.
  The Associated Press: Critics Decry U.S. Food Safety SystemNovember 05, 2007 19:07 Peanut butter is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. But chicken pot pies are the U.S. Department of Agriculture's responsibility. Frozen cheese pizzas — FDA. But if there's pepperoni on them, USDA has jurisdiction, too.

Critics of the nation's food safety system say that it is too fragmented and marked by overlapping authority, and they say that may help explain why dangerous foods keep slipping through and why contamination scares are handled in sometimes inconsistent ways.

"One of the underlying problems is the bifurcation of the regulatory system," said Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest's food safety division.

Critics also complain that the food safety system suffers from a shortage of money and inspectors and inadequate enforcement powers.

In the months ahead, Congress will consider several proposals to reform the system, including creation of a single food safety agency, an idea both the FDA and USDA oppose. A top FDA official said the agencies cooperate well now.

"We do not believe a single food safety agency would give us the efficiencies you can have from having two agencies responsible for 99 percent of the food that we eat in this country, both domestic and imported," said Richard Raymond, USDA undersecretary for food safety.

The government structure that protects the food supply took shape piecemeal over the past 101 years. The results could be seen in the way two recalls were handled over the past year.

When Peter Pan peanut butter was linked to a salmonella outbreak in February, ConAgra Foods Inc. recalled it as soon as federal health officials raised questions. But when ConAgra's Banquet-brand chicken and turkey pot pies were tied to a similar salmonella outbreak in October, the Omaha company waited two days to recall them, first issuing only a consumer health warning.
  Mukasey Is (Much) Worse Than GonzalesNovember 04, 2007 19:46 George Bush's nominee to replace disgraced former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, retired Federal Judge Michael B. Mukasey, must be rejected by the Senate Judiciary Committee for the same reason that Gonzales should have been rejected in 2005.

Like Gonzales, Mukasey refuses to accept that the president of the United States must abide by the laws of the land, beginning with the Constitution. In fact, the nominee to replace the worst Attorney General since Calvin Coolidge forced Harry Micajah Daugherty to quit rather than face impeachment is actually takes a more extreme position in defense of an imperial presidency than did Gonzales.

When questioned by Judiciary Committee chair Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont and Constitution sub-committee chair Russ Feingold, D-Wisconsin, during the key hearing on his nomination, Mukasey embraces an interpretation of presidential authority so radical that it virtually guarantees more serious abuses of power by the executive branch.

There is no question that one of the ugliest manifestations of that expansion of authority involves the Bush-Cheney administration's embrace of extraordinary rendition and torture as tools for achieving its ends. But those who focus too intensely on Mukasey's troubling dance around the waterboarding question make a mistake. Even if the nominee were to embrace the Geneva Conventions -- not to mention the 8th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution -- and condemn all forms of torture as the cruel and unusual punishment that they are, he would still be an entirely unacceptable choice to serve as the nation's chief law-enforcement officer.

And while some Democrats on the Judiciary Committee have made their peace with Mukasey -- shame on New York's Chuck Schumer and California's Dianne Feinstein -- the fight to block this nomination cannot be abandoned. Mukasey's critics on the committee, led by Leahy and Feingold, should do everything in their power to re-frame the debate to focus on the broader question of whether a president can break the law -- and on the nominee's entirely unacceptable answers to it. They should pressure Schumer and Feinstein to reconsider, and they should reach out, aggressively, to "Republicans who know better" such as Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter.

  Trouble At The Top For Safety AgencyNovember 03, 2007 01:02 Nancy Nord, the country's top cop when it comes to consumer product safety, is troubled. I know that because she repeatedly said so when we spoke the other day.

"I'm terribly troubled by all this," she said.

What's all this? All this is legislation approved by a Senate panel last week that would significantly beef up the Consumer Product Safety Commission with more money and more power.

With about 20 million kids' toys being recalled in recent months because of lead paint and other hazards, critics say the commission is in dire need of overhaul.

They say the commission lacks the resources to adequately oversee the thousands of products under its jurisdiction -- and to save lives, such as two infants who died in defective cribs, prompting the September recall of a million Graco and Simplicity baby beds.

Yet Nord, who was appointed to the commission by President Bush, said thanks but no thanks to the Senate's offer. She warned in a recent letter to lawmakers that the provisions of the bill "would harm product safety and put the American people at greater risk."

Nord's background suggests that the interests of consumers haven't always been her primary concern. Along with having worked for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, she previously was employed by the law firm Verner, Liipfert, Bernhard, McPherson & Hand, one of Washington's top lobbyists.
  Bush Vetoes $23-Billion Water BillNovember 03, 2007 01:01 President Bush delivered his threatened veto of a $23-billion water bill Friday, but Congress is virtually certain to reverse it in the first override of a Bush veto.

And Bush and the Democratic-controlled Congress are moving closer to a federal budget showdown that could result in more vetoes.

The House and Senate are expected to move swiftly next week to override Bush's veto of a bill loaded with water-related projects sought by members of both parties, from shoring up California's levees to protecting the Gulf Coast from hurricanes.

In a statement accompanying his veto, Bush said, "This bill lacks fiscal discipline."

On Capitol Hill, Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) said, "I am 100% confident that we can override this veto."

The defiant bipartisan response to the veto underscores the difficulty the president faces in his new zeal to hold down federal spending, especially when it affects highly visible construction projects cherished by lawmakers.

"This will be the first veto this Congress has overridden, and it was all about getting parochial water projects back to their home districts," said Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a watchdog group.

The bill would authorize more than 900 projects, such as restoration in the Florida Everglades and the replacement of seven Depression-era locks on the Upper Mississippi and Illinois rivers that farm groups say is crucial for shipping grain.