Domestic Policy

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  As Gas Goes Up, Driving Goes DownMay 26, 2008 19:56 At a time when gas prices are at an all-time high, Americans have curtailed their driving at a historic rate.

The Department of Transportation said figures from March show the steepest decrease in driving ever recorded.

Compared with March a year earlier, Americans drove an estimated 4.3 percent less -- that's 11 billion fewer miles, the DOT's Federal Highway Administration said Monday, calling it "the sharpest yearly drop for any month in FHWA history." Records have been kept since 1942.

According to AAA, for the first time since 2002, Americans said they were planning to drive less over the Memorial Day weekend than they did the year before.

Tracy and Adam Crews posted on iReport that their annual Memorial Day weekend has traditionally involved camping and fishing.

"Well, due to the continual rise in gas, we felt our only recourse was to nix the idea this year and stay home" in Jacksonville, Florida, they wrote.

Instead, the couple said they "decided to camp out in the backyard. We set the tent up, just finished installing our above ground pool, and cleaned up the grill. ... We have ourselves a campsite! It's been a blast!"
  A Quick Senate Session Blocks Bush AppointeesMay 24, 2008 09:28 The Senate is famed for its longwinded debates, but on Friday it took Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown just seconds to stop Republicans in their tracks.

With the Senate entering the first day of its Memorial Day recess, the Ohio senator was briefly in the chair, before a near-empty chamber, to gavel in and gavel out what is called a pro forma session. Without that procedural move, the Senate would technically be adjourned and President Bush could install administration officials or judges as "recess appointments" — without Senate confirmation.

"That's the fastest I've ever done it," said Brown, who like other freshmen does duty as presiding officer when the Senate is in regular session. He said he didn't realize until he got there that the prayer and Pledge of Allegiance, which usually open a session, were dispensed with for pro forma meetings.

"I'm willing to do it," Brown said of showing up when nearly every senator has already left town. "We're not going to let them get away with that kind of abuse of power."

According to numbers provided by the Senate historian's office, Bush had made 165 recess appointments by last fall. That's when Democrats started blocking them with pro forma sessions.

By comparison, former President Clinton had a total of 140 recess appointments over eight years, George H.W. Bush had 77 in his four years and Ronald Reagan 243 in his eight years in office. A recess appointee is allowed to serve until the end of the congressional session, which in this case coincides with the end of the Bush presidency.

The mini-sessions must be held every three days to keep the Senate from officially going into recess. Next Tuesday, Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., who also got pro forma duty over the New Year holiday because he lives nearby, will take the chair. On Thursday, Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., will do his few seconds' worth.
  Drugs, Prostitution Threaten Wildlife RefugesMay 24, 2008 09:13 America's wildlife refuges are so short of money that one-third have no staff, boardwalks and buildings are in disrepair, and drug dealers are using them to grow marijuana and make methamphetamine, a group pushing for more funding says.

"Without adequate funding, we are jeopardizing some of the world's most spectacular wildlife and wild lands," said Evan Hirsche, president of the National Wildlife Refuge Association and chairman of the Cooperative Alliance for Refuge Enhancement.

The cooperative said in a report released Thursday to Congress that the nation's 548 refuges and the 100-million-acre National Wildlife Refuge System -- about the size of California -- is underfunded by 43 percent. The refuge system needs at least $765 million a year but is receiving $434 million, the report says.

A decrease in law enforcement has left the refuges vulnerable to criminal activity, including prostitution, torched cars and illegal immigrant camps along the Potomac River in suburban Washington, methamphetamine labs in Nevada and pot growing operations in Washington state, Hirsche said.

"The refuge system has been underfunded for years, but it has really mushroomed in the past several," Hirsche said.

The cooperative is recommending Congress increase funding for fiscal year 2009 to $514 million and that full funding be reached by 2013. The House and Senate are expected to take up the issue in coming weeks.

The report says the refuge system has cut 300 staff positions. Without more funding, a plan to reduce staffing by 20 percent will continue. The system needs 845 law enforcement officers but has 180.
  House Panel Subpoenas RoveMay 22, 2008 20:55 The House Judiciary Committee served a subpoena on former top Bush aide Karl Rove on Thursday to compel his testimony concerning allegations that the Department of Justice had dismissed U.S. attorneys based on party affiliation.

The committee ordered Rove to appear July 10 to testify on claims that he was a key player in pressing the Justice Department to dismiss some U.S. attorneys and to prosecute Democrats.

It had authorized the subpoena earlier but delivered it Thursday after Rove's attorney said he would not appear voluntarily, Chairman John Conyers, D-Michigan, said in a written statement.

"It is unfortunate that Mr. Rove has failed to cooperate with our requests," Conyers said. "Although he does not seem the least bit hesitant to discuss these very issues weekly on cable television and in the print news media, Mr. Rove and his attorney have apparently concluded that a public hearing room would not be appropriate. Unfortunately, I have no choice today but to compel his testimony on these very important matters."

In a letter dated Thursday and addressed to Conyers, Rove's attorney, Robert D. Luskin, noted that his client has received a subpoena on the same issue from the Senate Judiciary Committee.

"While the committee has the authority to issue a subpoena, it is hard to see what this will accomplish, apart from a 'Groundhog Day' replay of the same issues that are already the subject of litigation," the lawyer wrote, referring to a movie in which a person lives the same day over and over again.

Luskin added that "issues of executive privilege and separation of powers" could limit Rove's testimony.
  Lawmakers Scramble To Fix Farm Bill Mix-UpMay 22, 2008 10:21 Lawmakers scrambled Thursday to fix a clerical error that derailed an effort to override President Bush's veto of a $300 billion farm bill.

The House of Representatives voted 316-108 Wednesday to override the president's veto, but shortly after the vote, lawmakers learned that a "not particularly controversial" section of the bill was accidentally omitted from the version that Congress sent to the White House, said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Maryland.

The discovery prompted concerns from Hoyer's Republican counterpart that the override vote was improper.

"What's happened here raises serious constitutional questions -- very serious," said Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio. "I don't see how we can proceed with the override as it occurred."

Hoyer suggested that the section left out of the original bill -- authorizing trade and food aid -- could be approved by both houses of Congress and sent back to Bush, "either to be signed by him or vetoed by him, and we would consider it in that context."

But late Wednesday, a Democratic leadership aide said the House likely will hold an entirely new vote on the complete farm bill, move it to the Senate for a quick vote and send it to the White House -- where Bush is likely to let it die without his signature during the Memorial Day recess.
  Nation'S Food System Is CollapsingMay 14, 2008 12:02 On a ranch nestled in the high plains of northeastern Colorado, thousands of cattle are being fattened up and prepared for slaughter.

Owner Gary Teague's operation seems enormous: 20,000 head of cattle over 25,000 acres. But it's a relatively tiny part of an industry with an estimated worth of more than $100 billion annually.

"There are over 800,000 beef producers like myself across the country that are working hard every day to ensure that the product we put out there is safe and wholesome," Teague said.

But some are concerned about the health of nation's meat inspection system. As nearly 12 million cattle nationwide are being readied for slaughter this year to satisfy America's passion for beef, new questions have arisen about the safety of the nation's meat supply and the agency that oversees it.

Graphic undercover video taped and released by the Humane Society of the United States this year raised questions about the safety of meat processing plants. Downed cattle shown in the video, by regulation, should have been examined by a U.S. Department of Agriculture veterinarian before they were slaughtered to make sure no animal with mad cow disease had entered the nation's food supply.

But those examinations never happened.
  Why U.S. Infants Die Too OftenMay 13, 2008 23:32 The U.S. ranks rather poorly compared to most developed countries. NCHS publishes a book each year called Health, United States, which has international rankings, and in the latest [edition], which ranks data based on the 2004 data year, the U.S. ranked 29th in the world in infant mortality.

One of the main [factors] is whether the baby is delivered too small or too soon, which increases its chances of death. About two-thirds of all of our infant deaths occur among the 8.2% of babies that are born at low birth weight. Most developed countries have lower rates of preterm and low birth weight deliveries [than the U.S.] and that makes a difference in infant mortality rates.

I think the single most important thing we can do to lower the rate of infant mortality is to reduce the rate of preterm birth. But in fact the trend is going in the opposite direction — that rate [in the U.S.] is increasing. There are several causes of preterm birth. One is spontaneous preterm labor. But there's another component, which is medical intervention — for example, doing a preterm caesarean section or induction of labor. That component has been increasing as well, and I think that's worrisome.

There are a lot of doctors who say it's O.K. to take a baby out a little bit early because they're going to do well — and it's true. It's only seven per 1,000 that are dying. Most of them do well. But still I think it's important to note that the infant mortality rate for late-preterm infants is three times what it is for [full-]term infants. This is not a difference that may be perceptible to the average obstetrician/gynecologist doing 300 deliveries a year. But when you're a statistician like me and you're grouping millions of births and thousands of infant deaths, you can see a difference there. Basically the longer that baby can stay in utero, the better it's going to do.

There are also really large differences in infant mortality rates by race and ethnicity. For 2004, the overall [U.S.] infant mortality rate was 6.78; but for non-Hispanic black mothers it was 13.60. It was also fairly high for American Indian mothers: 8.45. For non-Hispanic whites, it was 5.66. For Hispanics it was 5.55. And the lowest was for Asian or Pacific Islander mothers, which was 4.67. So there's a huge range there. The rate for non-Hispanic black mothers was 2.4 times the rate for Hispanic or non-Hispanic white mothers.
  Senate Votes To Halt Strategic Oil StockpilingMay 13, 2008 11:43 The Senate, jittery about a political backlash over the rising price of gasoline, voted by a veto-proof majority today to halt deliveries to the Strategic Petroleum Reserve over President Bush's objections.

The House is expected to follow suit later today.

The action, supported by the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates, comes as high fuel costs have contributed to the nation's economic woes and become a hot issue on the campaign trail. It could be the only legislation that Congress passes this year in response to public angst at the fuel pump because of the parties' differences over energy issues.

The Senate measure passed 97 to 1, with Sens. Barack Obama of Illinois and Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York breaking off from their campaigns to return to the Capitol to vote for the measure. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the presumptive GOP presidential nominee, supported the measure but was absent for the vote, continuing his campaigning in the Pacific Northwest.

"Why on earth should we be putting oil underground at a time of record high prices?" Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), the measure's chief sponsor, argued.

Bush has resisted calls to suspend the delivery of about 70,000 barrels a day to the emergency stockpile, contending that it would have little impact on prices in a nation that uses about 21 million barrels a day and would weaken weakening the nation's energy security. The reserve was established after the 1973 Arab oil embargo to protect against supply cutoffs and now holds about 702 million barrels in underground caverns on the Gulf Coast.
  White House Fights Broader Mad-Cow TestingMay 09, 2008 13:01 The Bush administration today urged a federal appeals court to stop meatpackers from testing all their animals for mad cow disease, but a skeptical judge questioned whether the government has that authority.

The government seeks to reverse a lower court ruling that allowed Kansas-based Creekstone Farms Premium Beef to conduct more comprehensive testing to satisfy demand from overseas customers in Japan and elsewhere.

Less than 1 percent of slaughtered cows are currently tested for the disease under Agriculture Department guidelines. The agency argues that more widespread testing does not guarantee food safety and could result in a false positive that scares consumers.

"They want to create false assurances," Justice Department attorney Eric Flesig-Greene told a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

But Creekstone attorney Russell Frye contended the Agriculture Department's regulations covering the treatment of domestic animals contain no prohibition against an individual company testing for mad cow disease, since the test is conducted only after a cow is slaughtered. He said the agency has no authority to prevent companies from using the test to reassure customers.

"This is the government telling the consumers, 'You're not entitled to this information,'" Frye said.

Chief Judge David B. Sentelle seemed to agree with Creekstone's contention that the additional testing would not interfere with agency regulations governing the treatment of animals.

"All they want to do is create information," Sentelle said, noting that it's up to consumers to decide how to interpret the information.
  Legislation By Democrats Takes Aim At Oil PricesMay 09, 2008 13:00 Democrats are meeting stiff resistance to efforts to rein in speculation on the oil markets as they try to push through a broader energy package ahead of the start of summer driving season.

But pressure continues to build on Capitol Hill to force President Bush to stop the flow of oil to the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.

When unveiling their latest energy package this week, Senate Democrats knew they were resurrecting a number of proposals that had died in the past — from efforts to hit up the oil companies for higher taxes to taking a largely symbolic swipe at OPEC.

But arguing that "rampant speculation" in the oil markets has helped drive up crude prices, Senate Democrats proposed a new measure that would increase the amount of money traders would have to put down when buying oil futures.

"With gas and oil prices at record levels, it makes no sense to allow this growing bubble of speculation to take place," said Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., who is championing the measure. "By increasing the margin requirement, we will send a message to speculators that they will no longer be allowed to artificially drive up the price of oil and gas."

Currently, traders must put down anywhere between 5 percent and 7 percent when making energy futures trades, compared with 50 percent for stocks.

The legislation does not specify how high that new margin requirement should be. It would instruct the Commodity Futures Trading Commission to require a "substantial increase" in the amount.
  War-Funding Bill Ties In U.S. ItemsMay 05, 2008 22:11 House Democratic leaders plan a vote on war-funding legislation as soon as this week, but they will link it to billions in spending on domestic initiatives, the first step in what may be an extended skirmish with President Bush.

The roughly $180 billion measure, agreed upon in a meeting of top House Democrats Monday night, would give Mr. Bush nearly all of the funds he requested for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan into next year and would allow a vote on withdrawing most troops from Iraq by December 2009, House Democratic aides said.

Democrats plan to attach several of their domestic priorities to the legislation, including expanded funding for veterans' education benefits and an extension of unemployment benefits estimated to cost about $16 billion over two years. They also will include a one-year delay in Bush-backed cost-cutting regulations for the Medicaid health-care program for the poor.

Mr. Bush has threatened to veto war-funding legislation that includes spending on domestic initiatives. But Democrats, who have seized on the ailing economy as a top election-year issue, see a chance to paint Republicans and Mr. Bush as opponents of popular programs to help veterans and people who have lost their jobs.

"That's a fight we're willing to have," said a Democratic aide.

  Bush Administration Takes Aim At National Parks Gun BanMay 01, 2008 22:45 The Bush administration on Wednesday announced its intent to shoot down federal rules that prohibit individuals from carrying loaded firearms in U.S. national parks and wildlife refuges. The proposal would permit individuals to carry loaded and concealed weapons if permitted by state laws in the state where the park or refuge is located, a change many current and retired park rangers contend is unnecessary and potentially dangerous.

U.S. Interior Department officials said the proposed change would clarify conflicting state and federal restrictions. The 61 units of the National Park Service where hunting is permitted, as well as the public lands managed by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, follow state laws on firearms.

Concealed handguns would be allowed in national parks under the proposed regulation, if allowed in the state where the park is located. (Photo credit unknown)
"The safety and protection of park and refuge visitors remains a top priority," said Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne. "The proposed regulations will incorporate current state laws authorizing the possession of concealed firearms, while continuing to maintain important provisions to ensure visitor safety and resource protection."

Firearms were first banned in national parks in the 1930s in a bid to curb poaching. The current rules, implemented under President Ronald Reagan in the early 1980s, allow visitors to national parks and refuges to possess firearms so long as they are "rendered temporarily inoperable or are packed, cased or stored in a manner that will prevent their ready use."

"Much has changed in how states administer their firearm laws in that time," U.S. Interior Department Assistant Secretary Lyle Laverty.

Forty-eight U.S. states now have laws allowing for legal possession of concealed weapons.

The administration believes that management of national parks and wildlife refuges "should defer to those state laws," Laverty said.

But an array of park advocacy and law enforcement groups view the change as foolish and argue the administration is catering to the wishes of the U.S. gun lobby.

"This is purely and simply a politically-driven effort to solve a problem that doesn't exist," said Bill Wade, chairman of the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees. "There are no existing data that suggest any public interest to be gained by allowing visitors to parks to possess concealed handguns."

Seven former National Park Service directors sent Kempthorne a letter last month echoing that sentiment. Other parks groups, including the Association of National Park Rangers, the Ranger Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police, and the National Parks Conservation Association have also urged the Interior Department not to change the current restrictions.