Domestic Policy

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  Kids' Health Care Bill Advances, Bush Veto LoomsSeptember 29, 2007 21:43 More than 50,000 Maryland children could be uninsured next year if President Bush makes good on his threat to veto the State Children's Health Insurance Program, which was passed by the Senate Thursday.

Despite the bipartisan and bicameral majority support, President Bush is threatening to veto the bill, calling it a step in the direction of government-run health care.

"There is no disagreement on the goal," said U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt in a conference call. "But there is disagreement on the path."

The Senate's 67-29 vote endorses a $35 billion expansion of the program, which would give coverage to 4.4 million previously uninsured children in addition to the 6 million the program already covers.

The program is set to expire on Sept. 30, and covers children who do not qualify for Medicaid and cannot afford private health care.

Maryland has 58,606 children slated to lose coverage if the bill is vetoed by Bush, according to data from the Kaiser Family Foundation, the fifth most in the country.

Members of the Maryland delegation see the veto threat as an attack on uninsured children.

  Smithsonian Faces $2.5 Billion Maintenance BacklogSeptember 28, 2007 19:19 The Smithsonian Institution's maintenance backlog has grown by $300 million in the past two years, as the museum complex faces problems such as corrosion of historic airplanes and leaky pools at the National Zoo. A report by the Government Accountability Office also questions security at the museums, finding that the overall number of guards has decreased despite an increase in the Smithsonian's square footage. The Air and Space Museum and the Museum of Natural History, have seen a 31 percent decrease in security personnel since 2003.

The critical maintenance problems cited in the report includes a lack of temperature and humidity control at the Museum of Air and Space's storage areas in Suitland, which has caused corrosion to historic planes.
  Bush'S Climate Meeting: Talk, But No ActionSeptember 27, 2007 22:36 For President George W. Bush, climate change is one of those pesky issues that he would love to see just go away. International diplomats say that when the topic of global warming comes up, Bush appears annoyed and has expressed exasperation that the issue still garners so much attention. After all, the White House position has been consistent from the very start of Bush's tenure: The U.S. will not require mandatory reductions in emissions of the so-called greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, that scientists say are warming the Earth. Bush, the self-proclaimed decider, has decided.

But climate change won't go away. The subject keeps arising because the scientific community has amassed powerful evidence that the problem is real. The consensus is that the world needs to take major steps soon to prevent the now-familiar litany of potential consequences, such as rising sea levels, more droughts and hurricanes, and heat waves. Meanwhile, much of the planet has already agreed to binding commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. And at major international meetings, such as recent G8 confabs, world leaders have taken Bush to task for U.S. intransigence on the issue.

For years, Bush's response was to refuse to talk about it. But his tune changed this year, under growing pressure. The Administration has grudgingly accepted that the Earth is warming and that human activities might be to blame. And in the most concrete sign of growing international pressure, Bush convened an international summit on climate change in Washington on Sept. 27-28 to explore a new "process" for moving forward.

New Summit Better than No Summit?
However, "no one knows what that means," says Steve Sawyer, former executive director of Greenpeace International and a veteran climate negotiator. "But it's better than a sharp stick in the eye"—the general view of the Bush Administration's previous responses to questions of its climate policy. "And the fact that this conversation is happening at this time in this town is a good thing," Sawyer says.

In particular, the White House's new willingness to talk about being a "leader" on climate change and about formulating a process for moving forward means that a discussion has finally begun. "If the White House says they are going to lead, we can now ask, 'Where are you going?' " explains José Alberto Garibaldi of Energeia in Mexico, an organization that seeks to enhance dialogue between researchers and government in Latin America, Asia, and Africa.

But other than that somewhat intangible change, expect no new policies from the Bush Administration as the result of this meeting.

  Bush Readies Veto Pen As Senate Passes Children'S Health BillSeptember 27, 2007 21:21 The stage is set for one of the most significant domestic policy showdowns of the Bush presidency.

The Senate on Thursday night cleared a massive children's health insurance bill by a veto-proof margin,
67-29, but House approval earlier this week of the same bill was not enough for a veto override, leaving President Bush with the upper hand for now.

Eighteen Republicans in the Senate, some of whom have been Bush allies for years, voted for the $35 billion increase in the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP). The Senate GOP defectors joined 45 House Republicans who voted for the bill.

For Democrats and the growing group of Republicans backing the bill, the expansion of SCHIP is an important moment in American health care policy because it would cover four million more uninsured children, on top of the 6.6 million already receiving benefits. The program was actually an innovation of the Republican Congress in 1997, but Democrats have sought to expand SCHIP to cover even more uninsured children whose parents make too much money to qualify for Medicaid.

Despite the bipartisan support, conservatives still have enough votes to prevail in sustaining the veto. President Bush and GOP congressional leaders see the expansion to more middle income families as a step toward government run health insurance for everyone.

Republicans are quick to point out that they support SCHIP, they just balk at the expansion plan Democrats have proposed that would cover families making up to 300 percent of federal poverty level, or about $60,000 for a family of four.

"We are not supposed to be playing politics, particularly with something like this," said Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.). Republicans created this program, particularly to help low income kids. And so, I really don’t think it’s a good idea for Democrats to play politics."

Even though Republicans have the votes to sustain the veto, the SCHIP debate has buoyed Democrats on the domestic policy front after months of frustrating debate over the war in Iraq.
  Compromise Bill To Insure Kids Deserves To PassSeptember 23, 2007 19:07 A much-needed and effective federal health-insurance program for children will end Sept. 30 unless Congress takes action and the White House moves off its ideological pedestal to do what is right for kids.
Nine million American children did not have health insurance last year, according to census figures. About 250,000 of those children are Arizonans.
Elected officials are fond of invoking the image of innocent children to score political points on everything from crime legislation to Medicare policy to gay marriage. Think of the children, they implore us.
Yet here we are, days before the State Children's Health Insurance Program expires, and our elected representatives are locked in a political battle over which children should be covered, who should pay for it and how to protect the private medical insurance marketplace.
The fault belongs at the doorstep of the White House.
Both the U.S. House and Senate have approved bills that would, to varying degrees, expand the program known as SCHIP, to cover more kids by increasing the family income limit to qualify for coverage.
A bipartisan compromise bill is evolving, but according to the Washington Post on Friday, the compromise would increase SCHIP funding by $35 billion, for a total cost of $60 billion over the next five years.
The price tag will be covered with a 61-cent increase in the federal excise tax on cigarettes, to $1 a pack. Gone are funding ties to Medicare overpayments that sparked Republican resistance to the House bill.
This is a good compromise. It allows states to expand coverage to another 4 million uninsured children.
Yet President Bush repeated this week his promise to veto any legislation that is more generous than what he wants. He calls for a $5 billion increase over the next five years — a proposal so puny it would end up cutting kids from SCHIP coverage because it won't even keep up with current costs.
  Greenspan Criticizes Bush Policies In MemoirSeptember 15, 2007 11:07 Former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan sharply criticizes President George W. Bush's administration and Republican congressional leaders in his memoir for putting political imperatives ahead of sound economic policies, several newspapers reported on Friday.

"Little value was placed on rigorous economic policy debate or the weighing of long-term consequences," Greenspan writes of the Bush administration.

Accounts of Greenspan's book, "The Age of Turbulence: Adventures in a New World," which is due to be published Monday, appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Washington Post and USA Today.

Greenspan said he unsuccessfully urged the White House to veto "out-of-control" spending bills while the Republicans controlled Congress.

Republicans "deserved" to lose control of Congress in last year's election because in their willingness to approve spending measures that would benefit Republicans even at the cost of fiscal prudence, they "swapped principle for power," he said.
  U.S. Court Backs States’ Measures To Cut EmissionsSeptember 14, 2007 13:33 A federal judge in Vermont gave the first legal endorsement yesterday to rules in California, being copied in 13 other states, that intend to reduce greenhouse gases emitted by automobiles and light trucks.

Ruling in a lawsuit against Vermont’s standards on those heat-trapping gases, the judge, William K. Sessions III, rejected a variety of challenges from auto manufacturers, including their contention that the states were usurping federal authority.

The ruling follows a decision by the United States Supreme Court in April that the Environmental Protection Agency has the authority to regulate heat-trapping gases like carbon dioxide as air pollutants. The ruling in Vermont explicitly endorses the idea that California has the right to set its own regulations on the gases, and that other states, like Vermont, have the right to follow its lead.

Judge Sessions ruled that the auto manufacturers had not proved their claims that compliance with the rules in Vermont — clones of the groundbreaking standards adopted in California — was not feasible.

“Nor,” he wrote of Vermont’s regulatory framework, “have they demonstrated that it will limit consumer choice, create economic hardship for the automobile industry, cause significant job loss or undermine safety.”
  Judge Strikes Down Part Of Patriot ActSeptember 07, 2007 19:21 A federal judge struck down a key part of the USA Patriot Act on Thursday in a ruling that defended the need for judicial oversight of laws and bashed Congress for passing a law that makes possible ``far-reaching invasions of liberty.''

U.S. District Judge Victor Marrero immediately stayed the effect of his ruling, allowing the government time to appeal. Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd said: ``We are reviewing the decision and considering our options at this time.''

The ruling handed the American Civil Liberties Union a major victory in its challenge of the post-Sept. 11 law that gave broader investigative powers to law enforcement.

The ACLU had challenged the law on behalf of an Internet service provider, complaining that the law allowed the FBI to demand records without the kind of court supervision required for other government searches. Under the law, investigators can issue so-called national security letters to entities like Internet service providers and phone companies and demand customers' phone and Internet records.

In his ruling, Marrero said much more was at stake than questions about the national security letters.

He said Congress, in the original USA Patriot Act and less so in a 2005 revision, had essentially tried to legislate how the judiciary must review challenges to the law. If done to other bills, they ultimately could all ``be styled to make the validation of the law foolproof.''

Noting that the courthouse where he resides is several blocks from the fallen World Trade Center, the judge said the Constitution was designed so that the dangers of any given moment could never justify discarding fundamental individual liberties.

He said when ``the judiciary lowers its guard on the Constitution, it opens the door to far-reaching invasions of liberty.''

Regarding the national security letters, he said, Congress crossed its boundaries so dramatically that to let the law stand might turn an innocent legislative step into ``the legislative equivalent of breaking and entering, with an ominous free pass to the hijacking of constitutional values.''

He said the ruling does not mean the FBI must obtain the approval of a court prior to ordering records be turned over, but rather must justify to a court the need for secrecy if the orders will last longer than a reasonable and brief period of time.

A March government report showed that the FBI issued about 8,500 national security letter, or NSL, requests in 2000, the year prior to passage of the USA Patriot Act. By 2003, the number of requests had risen to 39,000 and to 56,000 in 2004 before falling to 47,000 in 2005. The overwhelming majority of the requests sought telephone billing records information, telephone or e-mail subscriber information or electronic communication transactional records.

The judge said that through the NSLs, the government can unmask the identity of Internet users engaged in anonymous speech in online discussions, can obtain an itemized list of all e-mails sent and received by someone and can then seek information on those communicating with the individual.

``It may even be able to discover the web sites an individual has visited and queries submitted to search engines,'' the judge said.

Marrero's lengthy judicial opinion, akin to an eighth-grade civics lesson, described why the framers of the Constitution created three separate but equal branches of government and delegated to the judiciary to say what the law is and to protect the Constitution and the rights it gives citizens.

Marrero said the constitutional barriers against governmental abuse ``may eventually collapse, with consequential diminution of the judiciary's function, and hence potential dire effects to individual freedoms.''

In that event, he said, the judiciary could become ``a mere mouthpiece of the legislature.''

Marrero had ruled in 2004, on the initial version of the Patriot Act, that the letters violate the Constitution because they amounted to unreasonable search and seizure. He found free-speech violations in the nondisclosure requirement, which for example, disallowed an Internet service provider from telling customers their records were being turned over to the government.

After he ruled, Congress revised the Patriot Act in 2005, and the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals directed that Marrero review the law's constitutionality a second time.
  New Attorney General Has Rebuilding AheadSeptember 04, 2007 07:34 Whoever replaces Attorney General Alberto Gonzales will face a daunting challenge.

Charges of cronyism and partisan politicking have sunk the Justice Department's reputation to levels not seen since Watergate and damaged the Bush administration's ability to fight crime, pursue the war on terrorism and achieve its other goals, current and former department officials said.

President Bush has downplayed the criticism of Gonzales as political mudslinging, but if he selects a new attorney general who seeks to restore the department's independence and professionalism, he could repair the damage before the end of his administration, said officials who have served both Republican and Democratic administrations.

Restoring the department's reputation also could give the administration more elbowroom to pursue its own agenda.

"The Justice Department needs to be depoliticized," said Guy Lewis, who oversaw the U.S. attorneys' offices under former Attorney General John Ashcroft. "Loyalty to the president is a wonderful thing, but it can't be the be-all and end-all."

For the most part, Justice Department lawyers said, the scandal did little to disrupt the day-to-day prosecution of cases. But Gonzales' handling of the firings of nine U.S. attorneys and his subsequent shifting testimony damaged morale and the public's perception of a politically impartial Justice Department.

The department's standing was especially hurt by revelations that Gonzales' aides had screened job applicants based on their political credentials and by allegations that they had pressured Justice Department lawyers who were overseeing politically sensitive cases, current and former officials said.

Adding to the concern about the department's ability to remain impartial, Gonzales changed policy in a way that allows White House officials unprecedented access to information about pending criminal and civil cases. When Congress confronted him about the change, he testified that he, too, was concerned when he realized the possible effect.

Gonzales appears to have had little sense of the inner workings of his own department, some lawyers said.

When he was told that budget cuts meant that U.S. attorneys would be filing fewer cases, Gonzales turned to aides and asked, "When were you going to tell me this?" people familiar with the meeting said.