Domestic Policy

  Environment Not Taking A BackseatDecember 27, 2006 08:54 More than a year ago, President Bush told a group gathered at the national small business conference that nuclear power is one of the safest, cleanest sources of power in the world, and we need more of it in the United States.

He’s right. And he hasn’t swayed in his support.

Earlier this month, Clay Sell, deputy secretary of the Department of Energy, told reporters that beginning construction of the first U.S. nuclear power plant in more than 30 years and convincing the public that the government can handle nuclear waste are key Bush administration energy policy goals for its last 800 days in office.

What may be surprising to many is that a number of environmentalists - who, to be blunt, have not supported Bush on hardly any of his policies - agree with the push for nuclear.
  FDA Likely to Approve Cloned MilkDecember 26, 2006 11:29 Truly, as long as there's no genetic tampering going on, this should be fine. I'm more concerned about the humane treatment of cloned animals as well as the potential for market-killing disease in genetically identical livestock.

Consumer advocates and others have complained bitterly in recent years that the Food and Drug Administration has veered from its scientific roots, making decisions on controversial matters -- such as the emergency contraceptive "Plan B" -- on political rather than scientific grounds.

Now comes a test of just how rational the public wants the FDA to be.

Later this week, the agency is expected to release a formal recommendation that milk and meat from cloned animals should be allowed on grocery store shelves. The long-awaited decision comes as polling data to be released this week show that the public continues to have little appetite for such food, with many people saying the FDA should keep it off the market.

The FDA decision is based on a substantial cache of data from rigorous studies, all of which have concluded that milk and meat from cloned animals is virtually identical to such products from conventional animals. Scientists have also been unable to detect health problems in laboratory animals raised on clonal food.
  Bush Signs VA Bill That Protects Data From MisuseDecember 26, 2006 11:25 What about a bill to protect veterans from underfunded hospitals and services?

President Bush signed into law a $3.2 billion bill that will improve veterans’ benefits, health care, the security of their sensitive data and, when it occurs, its response to a comprehensive breach.

The Veterans Benefits, Health Care and Information Technology Act of 2006, S. 3421, directs the Veterans Affairs Department to notify veterans promptly in the case of a data breach and to provide fraud alerts, data breach analysis, reports to Congress, credit monitoring and identity theft insurance. The bill also supports an Information Security Education Assistance program, an incentive to give VA the ability to recruit personnel with the IT skills necessary to meet department requirements.

The legislation is the result of the theft in May of a VA laptop that contained the personal information of millions of veterans. It was the government’s largest data security breach.

The bill’s provisions follow on VA’s decision to completely centralize its IT environment, including enforcement of data security.

“Nearly a decade of committee oversight, including 16 hearings, is paying off with secretary Nicholson’s commendable decision to centralize the management of VA’s information technology and security systems,” said Rep. Steve Buyer (R-Ind.), outgoing chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, who introduced the original legislation to strengthen VA security.
  End the War on TerrorDecember 15, 2006 13:51 Nearly four years after authorizing it, the United States Congress has finally begun a real discussion of the purpose of the War in Iraq and of how long U.S. troops should remain there.

Hopefully, only hundreds and not thousands more American soldiers will have to die before the politicians can admit they made a mistake in getting us involved in the petty squabbles and religious hatreds of this misbegotten "country."

Those who advocate a continuation of the Iraq war owe our soldiers and the general public a clear statement of the goals they hope to achieve, and how the path we are on can achieve them. If they cannot do this, we should pull our troops out now. It is immoral to ask our soldiers to continue to fight for no clear goal, simply because the decision-makers who sent them there aren't willing to admit their mistake.

Beyond the loss of life, the Iraq War represents a tremendous waste of resources. Pre-war, Donald Rumsfeld estimated that the overall cost would be under $50 billion. Now estimates of the total cost of the war run from $1 trillion to $2 trillion dollars- 20 times that initial estimate. According to Nobel-prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, total expenses will likely exceed $2 trillion.

Think of what we could do with that money! We could provide our own citizens with the health care they need. We could fund a massive campaign to develop alternative energy sources - so that we no longer have to monkey in Middle Eastern politics. In fact, we could get a good jump on both these goals with that much money. Why are we pouring it down a rat hole in Iraq?

While we have some serious thinking to do about the situation in Iraq, we also need to ask what the Iraq War tells us about contemporary America. I think it tells us that we are running scared.
  White House Tightens Publishing Rules For USGS ScientistsDecember 14, 2006 14:10 The Bush administration is clamping down on scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey, who study everything from caribou mating to global warming, subjecting them to controls on research that might go against official policy.

New rules require screening of all facts and interpretations by agency scientists. The rules apply to all scientific papers and other public documents, even minor reports or prepared talks, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press.

Top officials at the Interior Department's scientific arm say the rules only standardize what scientists must do to ensure the quality of their work and give a heads-up to the agency's public relations staff.

“This is not about stifling or suppressing our science, or politicizing our science in any way,'' Barbara Wainman, the agency's director of communications, said Wednesday. “I don't have approval authority. What it was designed to do is to improve our product flow.''

 
  E.P.A. Library Closures Could Threaten Public HealthDecember 14, 2006 11:11 If you needed to find out how much pollution an industrial plant in your neighborhood was spewing, or what toxic chemicals were in a local river, where would you go? Until recently, you could discover the answer at one of the Environmental Protection Agency's 29 libraries. But now the E.P.A. has obstructed the American public -- as well as its own scientists and staff -- by starting to dismantle its crown jewel, the national system of regional E.P.A. libraries.

Until now, any citizen could consult these resources, which include information on things like siting incinerators, storing toxic waste and uncovering links between asthma and car exhaust. E.P.A. staff members and other scientists have counted on the libraries to support their work. First responders and other state and local government officials have used E.P.A. information to protect communities. In the age of terrorism, when the safety of our food and water supply, the uninterrupted flow of energy and, indeed, so much about our environment has become a matter of national security, it seems particularly dangerous to take steps that would hinder our emergency preparedness.

Although lawmakers haven't yet agreed to President Bush's proposed 2007 budget, which includes $2 million in cuts to the agency's library system, the head of the E.P.A. has already instituted cuts. The agency's main library in Washington has been closed to the public, and regional E.P.A. libraries in Chicago, Dallas and Kansas City, Mo., have been closed altogether. At the Boston, New York, San Francisco and Seattle branches, hours and public access have been reduced.
  Boxer Statement On EPA's Politicization Of Clean Air Health StandardsDecember 09, 2006 17:01 "Since the Clean Air Act became law in 1970, EPA has set standards to protect public health from air pollution based on the best available science, not politics. This has occurred under both Democratic and Republican Presidents. For decades, the cornerstone of this process was that EPA got expert advice from the leading independent scientists, and then EPA scientists proposed standards to EPA managers based on the science and health evidence.

"Now, based largely on the recommendations of the American Petroleum Institute, EPA has taken a dangerous turn. Instead of basing health standards on the best science, they will now inject politics into the entire decision.

"This change in the process of determining standards for safe air for our families is deeply troubling to me, as well as health experts and former Republican EPA officials. Dr. Bernard Goldstein, a former EPA Assistant Administrator appointed by President Reagan, said that during his time at EPA, they had 'always taken the advice of their scientists.'

"This rollback comes on the heels of EPA's recent announcement that they are considering revoking the air standard for the toxic chemical lead. New data shows that lead poisons children's brains and nervous systems at lower levels than previously thought, and probably causes cancer. These air pollutants hurt us all, but hurt children and the elderly the most. What does it say about this Administration's values when it endangers the most vulnerable Americans?

 
  Tax Breaks at the End of the SessionDecember 08, 2006 16:48 The House of Representatives passed legislation that contains about $38 billion in corporate and individual tax breaks, allows expanded oil and gas drilling off U.S. coasts and prevents a fee cut for doctors who are paid by Medicare.

The 367 to 45 vote would renew many tax cuts that expired a year ago. The biggest items include renewal and modification of a $16.3 billion research tax credit that benefits companies such as Hewlett-Packard Co., and Monsanto Co. The provisions include a $1 billion incentive for retailers such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc. to hire welfare recipients, $2.7 billion for the restaurant industry by allowing faster amortization of construction and money to help clean up abandoned mines.

``It is a reasonable compromise,'' said Representative Jim McCrery of Louisiana, who will be the ranking Republican on the House Ways and Means Committee next year. ``It accomplishes the big things we would like to accomplish.''

The tax measure approved by the Republican-led House will now go to the Senate, where approval isn't assured. Dozens of senators oppose provisions in it. Senate Budget Committee Chairman Judd Gregg, a New Hampshire Republican, objects to the measure's cost.

``It will arguably be the largest or second largest budget buster passed by this Congress,'' Gregg said on the Senate floor. ``It has $39 billion of funding that will just be added to the debt. I mean, that's just incredible as a last act of Congress.''
  GOP Congress Makes Last-Gasp VotesDecember 07, 2006 15:01 In the final hours of Republican rule, Congress on Wednesday took up a trade bill that would change economic relations with old enemy Vietnam while giving conservatives perhaps their last chance for a while to vote on an abortion bill.

House and Senate lawmakers were also working on renewing tax breaks that affect millions of people. Completing that bill could be the last major task before this Congress adjourns at the week's end, making way for the new Democratic-controlled Congress to convene on Jan. 4.

The breaks include deductions for research and development, for college tuition and for taxpayers whose states do not have an income tax.

The tax bill has become a magnet for proposals that lawmakers are keen to pass before leaving town, such as:

Blocking a proposed cut in Medicare reimbursements to doctors, at a cost of more than $10 billion.

A plan to open 8 million offshore acres in the Gulf of Mexico to oil and gas drilling.

An abandoned-coal-mine bill, estimated to cost $5 billion over 10 years.

If the tax bill were loaded with expensive and unrelated measures, it would lose the votes needed for passage.

House GOP leaders, in a parting gesture to their conservative base, brought up a bill that would require abortion providers to inform a woman 20 weeks into her pregnancy that an abortion would cause pain to the fetus.

The legislation has almost no chance of advancing in the Senate, while the new Democratic Congress is expected to have little appetite for abortion-related bills.

Congress on Wednesday did send to the president a measure to renew the $2.1 billion-a-year Ryan White CARE Act for the prevention and treatment of AIDS.
  Boxer To Call State Leaders To Testify On Warming LawDecember 06, 2006 10:23 Sen. Barbara Boxer, the soon-to-be chairwoman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said Tuesday she will ask Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and two Democratic state lawmakers to testify about why Congress should pass federal legislation modeled on California's landmark law to combat global warming.

"We will invite them to come and tell America that this can be done," Boxer said, noting that with the governor she'll invite Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez and Assemblywoman Fran Pavley, who wrote the measure passed last year requiring all California businesses to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases.

Boxer's remarks came as she previewed her agenda for when she takes the gavel of the committee from Sen. James Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican who has called global warming a hoax and has fought against any federal limits on carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases.

Boxer said legislation on climate change will be her No. 1 priority as committee chairwoman. She plans to conduct hearings early next year with scientists, environmentalists and religious leaders who want to address climate change. She also will ask business leaders to testify about their efforts to limit greenhouse gases.

 
  House Will Not Consider Plan To Open Gulf To DrillingDecember 05, 2006 21:10 Apparently short of votes, House Republicans on Tuesday abruptly scrapped plans to consider opening a huge swath of the Gulf of Mexico to oil and gas drilling.

The bill is scheduled to come up for another vote Wednesday, either alone or as part of a package of tax breaks.

But Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., who helped craft the legislation, warned that time was running out and said the Senate won't touch the bill if the House tinkers with it.

"Anytime you have to work within a time frame, it's a concern," Martinez said.

A spokesman for House Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, offered no details on why the vote was canceled.

Republicans needed a two-thirds vote to pass the measure without any amendments. Environmentalists hailed the canceled vote as a sign that there wasn't enough support to pass the legislation.

 
  New Head Of Senate Committee Says No To Further Environmental RollbacksDecember 05, 2006 11:11 Environmental rollbacks from the Bush administration "in the dead of the night" are history, the incoming head of the Senate environment committee declared Tuesday.

"That's over. We are going to bring these things into the light," Sen. Barbara Boxer, a Democrat, said in a wide-ranging interview laying out her agenda with The Associated Press. She cited concerns about a host of new Bush administration rules on air, land and water quality.

"I am saying today, unequivocally, any kind of weakening of environmental laws or secrecy or changes in the dead of night — it's over," Boxer said. "It is not going to go down easily. And we are going to take these issues to the American people, through this committee. And we're going to for once, finally, make this committee an environment committee, not an anti-environment committee. ... This is a sea change that is coming to this committee."

She cited concerns about a host of new Bush administration rules on air, land and water quality, saying the Environmental Protection Agency sometimes ignores the advice of its own scientific advisors.
  Offshore Drilling Back On Washington AgendaDecember 05, 2006 09:37 Lawmakers and the Bush administration are renewing controversial efforts to blast open new channels for offshore oil and gas drilling in Florida and Alaska.

The US House of Representatives is set to vote on a bill that would open up 8.3 million acres off Florida’s Gulf coast for drilling. The House Republican leadership approved the initiative for a vote as it prepares to yield to an incoming Democratic majority.

The plan involves leases for oil and natural gas exploration on the Outer Continental Shelf – underwater territory ringing the country’s coasts. The bill is a somewhat watered down version of earlier, more-ambitious proposals that would have essentially eliminated restrictions along the entire Shelf.

The Senate approved the Florida plan in August, aiming to feed domestic fuel demands while funneling royalties to federal and state governments. Under the special voting procedure, the bill will be considered with limited time for debate, but will need a two-thirds majority for passage.

Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council opposed the Senate bill, criticizing it as an effort to undermine environmental protections just to enrich the oil industry and Gulf Coast states.

Meanwhile, the Bush administration has acknowledged it may rescind an executive moratorium on offshore drilling in Alaska’s Bristol Bay. Industry interests and local tribal and business groups seeking revenues have pushed to repeal the ban.

 
  Patent Rules Questioned by Supreme CourtDecember 04, 2006 09:14 Software and hardware makers have long complained that a glut of so-called junk patents threatens to disrupt the way they do business. In their third major patent case this year, Supreme Court justices appeared to take issue with the current legal standard for granting patents, which many high-tech firms claim is ineffective at weeding out inventions that should be obvious.

During hour-long oral arguments in a case closely watched by the business community, Chief Justice John Roberts suggested that an existing federal-court test for determining patent obviousness relied too little on common sense. Justice Antonin Scalia went so far as to call the test "gobbledygook" and "meaningless."

If the high court decides to rewrite the legal standard of patent "obviousness" to make it more restrictive, it could have wide-ranging effects by reshaping U.S. intellectual-property law and reducing the number of marginal patents. A decision is expected by July 2007.

CNET News.com readers expressed displeasure with the current state of the patent system.

"Common sense dictates that patent protection must be granted and preserved for only those ideas that cross the threshold from existing and obvious to ingenious and inventive," one reader wrote in the CNET News.com TalkBack forum.

 
  Supreme Court Weighs Race In Public School AdmissionsDecember 04, 2006 09:12 Several hundred demonstrators, many of them college or high school students, gathered on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court early this morning to proclaim support for using skin color as a factor in admissions in order to maintain racially diverse public schools.

The court is hearing arguments today in two high-stakes school desegregation cases-- the first test on the issue Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. since they were appointed to the court last term. Both justices in the past have been skeptical about the use of racial classifications.

Some in the crowd that gathered before dawn wore t-shirts bearing a photo of Thurgood Marshall, the late Supreme Court justice who as a civil rights attorney famously argued the 195 Brown vs. Board of Education case that led to the desegregation of the nation's schools.

"Roberts, Alito, Scalia and Thomas," the demonstrators chanted, "will try to segregate us, and take what we've been promised."

 
  Bush May End Drilling Ban In Alaskan BayDecember 02, 2006 23:36 President Bush is deciding whether to lift a ban on oil and gas drilling in federal waters off Alaska's Bristol Bay, home to endangered whales and sea lions and the world's largest sockeye salmon run.

Leasing in a portion of the area rich in oil and natural gas ended nearly two decades ago - while Bush's father was president - in the outcry after the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989.

But with natural gas prices higher, the Interior Department's Minerals Management Service proposed reopening up the North Aleutian Basin. That includes Bristol Bay and part of southeastern Bering Sea.

White House spokesman Scott Stanzel confirmed Saturday the president was considering taking that step.

Environmentalists oppose drilling there because of the potential for oil spills and harm to wildlife. They have speculated in recent days that Bush might allow such drilling before Democrats regain control of Congress in January.

"If the Bush administration decides to allow drilling in Bristol Bay, it will simply illustrate the level to which they will sink to satisfy Big Oil," Carl Pope, the Sierra Club's executive director, said Saturday.
  Forecast: U.S. Renewable Energy To Hit 700 GwDecember 01, 2006 10:10 The U.S. renewable energy industry collectively tallied its future deliverable energy capacity at 550 to 700 gigawatts (GW) in Washington, DC yesterday. At such a GW-production rate, the U.S. could produce, at a minimum, 25% of the country's electrical energy requirement with renewable energy by 2025.

According to Michael Eckhart, American Council on Renewable Energy (ACORE) president whose organization hosted the 5th annual national policy conference "Renewable Energy in America: Phase II Market Forecasts and Policy Requirements" in DC yesterday, this is the first time a panel of renewable energy experts has assembled such a combined production capacity forecast.

"We have today put real numbers on America's renewable energy future that we have for years felt in our gut," said Eckhart. "This is a huge tipping point that will guide the public policy support required for renewable energy to help lower CO2 emissions and reduce our nation's dependence on foreign fossil fuels."