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The Nation

Banning Genetic Discrimination

Rarely does an issue receive such consensus in Washington as that the Genetic Nondiscrimination Act currently enjoys.

Already, the bill has twice unanimously passed the Senate during the 108th and 109th Congresses; meanwhile last April, the House passed the bill by an overwhelming 420-3 margin. To date, the White House has issued three statements of support of the legislation, which prohibits insurers and employers from discriminating against a person based on genetic information.

One senator, however, still stands in its way: Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma).

Coburn--whose habitual contrariness earned him the nickname "Dr. No"--has a long track record of opposing bills that enable lawsuits against businesses and doctors. As Wired reported last November, internal Coburn memos indicate the same concern still motivates his hold on the bill today.

Though in 1996, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act provided the first fledgling federal protections against genetic discrimination in health insurance, HIPAA doesn't prevent insurance companies from requiring genetic testing for applicants or charging higher rates based on such tests' results.

Accordingly Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-New York), who first introduced the bill 13 years ago, says the Genetic Nondiscrimination Act's passage is long overdue. "No one is born with perfect genes," she wrote in yesterday's Huffington Post. "We simply cannot afford to wait any longer."

Already, researchers can screen for genes linked to the development of some 1,000 diseases. In one study, the NYT reported this weekend, 7 out of 92 insurance providers said they would deny coverage, charge higher premiums or exclude certain conditions from coverage based on genetic testing.

The Surge: Over by July?

Last January, when President Bush ordered some 30,000 additional troops to Iraq to shock-inject U.S. forces into Baghdad and the surrounding environs, there were 132,000 US. troops stationed there. Now, with the last of the surge campaign troops set to leave Iraq by July, the Pentagon reports 140,000 troops will remain, meaning that about 8,000 troops--over a quarter of the original 'surge'--will be left behind.

When Gen. David Petraeus testified before Congress last September, he said he expected troops levels would fall to pre-surge levels by this July. Yet this week, Lt. Gen. Carter Ham, chief of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, rejected suggestions that the Pentagon's latest update evinced any kind of negative turn. "Rather than look at this negatively, I would say there is an opportunity now to take advantage of the security that has been established by the five surge brigades," he said.

A chipper Dana Perino had more encouragement for reporters at yesterday's White House press briefing. "As long as we keep at it and we keep working at it, we're confident that Iraq will become a country that can sustain, govern, and defend itself," said Perino.

The New Face of Hunger

This week, UN World Food Program issued a bleak warning: In the future, the WFP said, there will be food on the shelves. It's just that many won't be able to afford it.

As food prices have spiked--in some places, by up to 40%--the WFP announced that its $2.9 billion budget is no longer enough to maintain even current food deliveries, much less expand. Last year to take one example, with the rising cost of fuel and food prices, the United States purchased less than half the amount of food aid it did in 2000.

But in the case of the U.S., it doesn't have to be that way. Currently, existing U.S. rules mandate that at least 75% of its food aid be grown and packaged in the United States (that is, benefit U.S. producers) before being shipped across the sea. Accordingly, the cost in transport--particularly as oil prices have risen--is extraordinary. (A recent GAO study reported shipping costs account for 65% of total program expenditures for the largest U.S. food emergency program.) These days as the UN scrambles to ration food, as the Bush administration has proposed (and Congress has rejected), it'd be a much more charitable gesture for the U.S. to step up what it buys locally--where it's needed.

Contemplating the Former Brilliance of Bill Buckley

Much attention has been afforded in this presidential campaign debating season to the attempts of the various contenders to utter memorable lines, most of which have ended in forms of failure perhaps best summed up by Hillary Clinton's stabs at biting humor in her last two debates with Barack Obama. Only Democrat Joe Biden's putdown of Republican Rudy Giuliani's disaster-mongering campaign theme ("a noun, a verb and 9/11") came close to making the mark.

But there really have been no 2008 equivalents of Ronald Reagan 1984 mockery of Walter Mondale's "youth and inexperience" or Lloyd Bentsen's devastating "you're no Jack Kennedy" line in his 1988 vice presidential dust-up with Dan Quayle.

And there certainly has been nothing so delicious as William F. Buckley's best line from his 1965 New York mayoral campaign debate with memorable Republican John Lindsay and forgettable Democrat Abe Beame.

Buckley, the veteran National Review editor, PBS "Firing Line" host and author of everything from ideological tomes to spy novels who has died unexpectedly at age 82, was known for more than a half century as one of the republic's abler practitioners of the English language and polemicist's craft.

But never were his skills so amply on display as during Buckley's sole foray into electoral politics.

Heading the metropolitan ticket of New York State's Conservative Party, which had been created three years earlier to challenge the liberal Republicanism of New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller and Congressman Lindsay, Buckley mounted his unlikely campaign as a no-hoper. He acknowledged as much at the time of his announcement – which roughly paralleled his relocation from his home in suburban Connecticut to a proper voting residence in the city he sought to lead – when the conservative commentator was asked what he would do if he was elected to lead the liberal city. "I'd demand a recount."

Perfect response.

Almost as perfect as Buckley's zinger in that televised debate with Lindsay and Beame.

Even against the charismatic Lindsay, it was Buckley who owned every platform on which the candidates appeared. His confidence as a debater thrown up against two more experienced political campaigners was startling, and yet entirely appropriate.

Offered an opportunity during a key debate to use time that had been allotted him to present a rebuttal, Buckley did what no politician has the courage or the wisdom to do. He turned the moment with microphone down. Instead of repeating points he had already made, Buckley said, "I am satisfied to sit back and contemplate my own former brilliance."

During the many years of our acquaintance, which began when I was researching a book on writers in politics, Buckley and I spent a good deal of time dissecting that 1965 campaign, which saw the commentator-turned-politico secure a credible 13.4 percent of the vote. Buckley argued that his ideas had touched a chord with disenchanted electors in the overwhelmingly Democratic city. And, surely, some of his ideas were appealing. While Buckley preached some standard tough-on-crime lines, he also criticized what would come to be described as "the war on drugs." He proposed congestion fees to keep cars off crowded Manhattan streets. At his best, he offered a rare mix of libertarian idealism and pragmatic common sense that had appeal far beyond the closed quarters of a conservative movement that had just lost badly with 1964 Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater.

With the movement he did so much to shape on its heels, Buckley was more intellectually bold and ideologically adventurous in those mid-1960s than he would be later in a life when his would come to be known as a defining voice of modern conservatism. His ideas were dynamic in those days, much more so than when he found himself trying to describe the stumbles of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush as pirouettes.

But the real appeal of that 1965 campaign, which Buckley chronicled with arch wit in a brilliant political book, Unmaking of a Mayor (Crown: 1966), was found in his smart wordplay and flamboyant style. Candidate Buckley was slyly self-deprecating and yet lavishly self promotional – often at the same time. Even those who might never have considered supporting the Conservative candidate relished his debate appearances and hung on his every word in television interviews.

Buckley was, as he suggested in one of the finer debate performances ever seen on an American political stage, "satisfied to sit back and contemplate my own former brilliance." So were the rest of us when Buckley was alive. So we shall be now that that the commentator who has left such a rich legacy of written and recorded work – and political playfulness -- has passed.

Oil Prices Peak as the House Takes Up Energy Subsidies

With consumers pinched across the country, today, the House will try again to eliminate the most lucrative tax breaks for oil companies--an $18-billion bounty--and simultaneously expand over $8 billion in tax incentives for the use and development of renewable energy.

While last December, Senate Republicans bucked similar legislation after it cleared the House, as gas prices inch toward $4.00 a gallon and on the heels of January job losses, House Demcorats hope the package has gained the critical across-the-aisle momentum it needs. Speaker Pelosi (D-Calif.), in particular, cites the need to expand renewable-energy tax incentives--currently in place until December 2008--to maintain and expand existing U.S. jobs. (The Solar Energy Industry Association estimates that Americans could lose 116,000 jobs in the solar and wind industry if existing renewable-energy tax credits are suspended.)

Last year, the biggest five oil companies posted record profits, with ExxonMobil's earnings peaking at $40.6 billion--the largest corporate haul in U.S. history. Today, oil prices peaked at $102 a barrel for the first time.

The House votes on the legislation this afternoon. Meanwhile, President Bush has threatened to veto the bill.

A Texan Border Ambassador

Texas businessman Jay Johnson-Castro is a self-described Border Ambassador. But the word "crusader" might seem more fitting.

His journey started in September 2006, when Congress passed the Secure Fence Act. Outraged, Johnson-Castro decided to walk the 205 miles from Laredo to Brownsville in protest. "It was spontaneous," says Johnson-Castro, 61, who was joined on his solitary walk variously by curious stragglers, town residents and community groups. "It was the first time I did anything like that in my life--but I just didn't know how else to vent."

A longtime border resident, Johnson-Castro calls the fence an assault on a community that goes back centuries. "People don't understand that the border isn't a black line that goes down the Rio Grande," says Johnson-Castro. "It's a community on both sides of the river. To divide us is an insult, a violation of our border culture and friendship."

That next month, the Mexican town of Acuna invited him to replicate the march south of the border in a 60-mile trek, with the mayor of the city at his side. Since then, Johnson-Castro has embarked on a series of similar marches, some as far away as San Diego.

This week to highlight resistance to the fence's construction in advance of the March 4 primary, Johnson-Castro is continuing his journey--this time joined by a band of about a dozen--across the 60 miles from Brownsville to Mission.

The first day it was 97 degrees out, and the smell of skunk and diesel fuel was heavy in the air. But the band kept walking. The group plans to complete their march this Sunday.

"I grew up with the Iron Curtain being the symbol of what we detested," says Johnson-Castro. "Now, half a generation later, my government has turned around and is building miles of iron curtain to divide our community? I couldn't believe that my country would do such a thing."

Sens. Clinton, Obama and McCain all voted for the Secure Fence Act in 2006.

Clinton's Cringe-Worthy Moment

Hillary Clinton should probably spend a little more time boning up on her husband's trade record than watching NBC's "Saturday Night Live."

That might have helped her to figure out that no good was going to come from trying to be funny, biting and substantive at the same time.

But, as she did last week with her "change you can Xerox" line about Barack Obama's borrowing of speech lines, Clinton tried to take a swing at Obama and hit herself in Tuesday night's Democratic presidential debate.

It was a hit she couldn't afford to take.

With the criticial Ohio and Texas primaries less than a week away, Clinton needed to get everything right Tuesday night.

Instead, she created one of the more cringe-worthy moments of the 20 Democratic presidential debates in which the pair have participated.

Recalling last Saturday night's spoof of Obama-friendly media – which saw faux journalists asking an actor playing Obama if he was comfortable and then demanding that an actor playing Clinton answer probing questions – the senator from New York suggested that MSNBC debate moderators Brian Williams and Tim Russert were going easy on the senator from Illinois while giving her a hard time.

"Well, can I just point out that in the last several debates, I seem to get the first question all the time. And I don't mind. I -- you know, I'll be happy to field them," Clinton said after taking a perfectly legitimate question about the trade policy issues that are so central to the Ohio primary fight that will be decided March 4. "But I do find it curious, and if anybody saw ‘Saturday Night Live,' you know, maybe we should ask Barack if he's comfortable and needs another pillow. I just find it kind of curious that I keep getting the first question on all of these issues. But I'm happy to answer it."

Judging by the audience's reaction, Clinton struck precisely the wrong note.

As with the "change you can Xerox" line, Clinton's jab was greeted with boos.

On a night when she needed to turn in the best performance of her political career, the former frontrunner instead seemed petulant, even desperate.

Obama, in contrast, was able to suggest that his campaign "doesn't whine."

And in so doing he prevailed.

In a debate that failed to reveal fundamental differences between the candidates on the health care and trade issues that tended to dominate the night, he came across better: smoother, less easily ruffled, more in control.

Clinton, as has been her pattern in debates, was quicker on her feet and more detailed in her answers. At her best, she succeeded in presenting herself as what she seeks to be: the more experienced, more worldly and more politically savvy contender.

But Clinton was not always at her best, as the "Saturday Night Live" shtick illustrated.

Take her actual answer to the trade question.

"You know, I have been a critic of NAFTA from the very beginning," she claimed. "I didn't have a public position on it, because I was part of the administration, but when I started running for the Senate, I have been a critic. I've said it was flawed. I said that it worked in some parts of our country, and I've seen the results in Texas. I was in Laredo in the last couple of days. It's the largest inland port in America now. So clearly, some parts of our country have been benefited."

Let's try and follow that one for a moment.

Clinton's been "a critic of NAFTA from the very beginning." Does that mean she argued against the trade deal back in 1993, when the Congress was debating it? Well, not really. The best Clinton could do was to say, "I think (White House hanger-on)David Gergen was on TV today remembering that I was very skeptical about it."

Clinton says that, from the time she started running for her New York Senate seat in 2000, she's "been a critic." But, as recently as 2004, she was suggesting that, on balance, NAFTA's been good for New York and America.

Clinton says she's "a critic," that the deal is "flawed." But in the same breath she is detailing how "some parts of our country have been benefited."

In a word, her answer, which Russert got her to repeat several times, was "convoluted."

Obama was not particularly better. After Clinton had dodged and deviated for the better part of ten minutes, the Illinois senator said, "I think actually Senator Clinton's answer on this one is right."

In fact, for all of the sparring on the issue, the two candidates ended up saying pretty much the same thing.

"I will say we will opt out of NAFTA unless we renegotiate it, and we renegotiate on terms that are favorable to all of America," said Clinton.

"I will make sure that we renegotiate, in the same way that Senator Clinton talked about," said Obama.

Not an inch between them.

And that made the debate a win for Obama.

The Illinois senator, who is surging in the polls in Ohio, Texas and nationally, only needed to hold his own Tuesday night.

He did that, with a little help from Hillary Clinton.

The 60 Minutes Blackout

If it truly was an accident that the beginning of the 60 Minutes episode chronicling Karl Rove's machinations to unseat the former Democratic governor of Alabama happened to get blacked out in only one state--Alabama--that surely is a fortuitous coincidence.

As the NYT reported today, the Alabama TV station in question is managed by Robert M. Bass, who along with his brothers has contributed thousands to the Bush administration over the years. The station was also thoroughly hostile to Don Siegelman throughout the Justice Department's multi-year assault on his office.

The CBS connection had been fine before the 60 Minutes program aired. It broke off just as the program was going on.

This latest broadcast incident is only a narrow aperture into the broader Siegelman scandal, in which the former Democratic governor was denied office and subsequently jailed as the result of what 52 former state attorneys general (Republicans and Democrats) have called "irregularities" in his prosecution – that is, what was manifestly a concerted political attack, flamboyantly executed (thus far, with impunity).

If you didn't see the CBS investigation, you can catch it here:

Lobbying Revenue Jumps 9%

The economy may be looking browbeaten these days, but at least one sector is still thriving: the lobbying industry. According to this week's report by The Hill, last year, the 25 biggest lobbyist firms reported across-the-board increases in revenue--a 9% jump. Topping the charts was Patton Boggs, which broke new earnings records at $42.7 million.

"2006 was the worst time," Van Scoyoc and Cassidy CEO Gregg Hartley explained to Roll Call yesterday: "With so much controversy, a lot of people were backing off the playing field." Yet now, says Hartley, the new lobbyist rules are clear. "This has been a good year, and we would anticipate that appropriations will always be a good, strong, healthy part of our business," he says.

(So far not for everyone, though. In a rather embarrassing move for the lobbying industry--which likes to preserve the delicate appearance of not wielding direct influence over Congress--the National Association of Home Builders recently announced it was freezing its PAC contributions to lawmakers until they came to the aid of the housing sector.)