In the House….Over a decade after its initial introduction, the Wellstone Mental Health and Addiction Equality Act--which requires more generous coverage for the 113 million Americans suffering from mental illness and addiction--won passage in a 268-148 vote. Though the vote is a substantial victory for Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-RI), who suffers from bipolar disorder and was the bill's chief sponsor, resolving differences with the less stringent Senate-passed legislation, backed by business and insurance groups (as well as Kennedy's father), remains still another battle. (President Bush opposes the House-passed bill.) Meanwhile, the House skirmish over an independent ethics office continued, as amendments to Rep. Michael Capuano (D-Mass.)'s proposal failed to placate Democratic or Republican concerns about the agency, and Speaker Pelosi again pulled a scheduled floor vote to decide its creation.
In the Senate…After four days' emotional debate (in which the mother of two boys poisoned by toys containing lead testified), members joined the House in an overwhelming vote to overhaul the Consumer Product Safety Commission. The Senate bill increases the commission's funding, bans lead from children's toys, allows manufacturers to be sued for up to $20 million and creates a public consumer database for logging faulty products. The White House objects to the creation of such a database, but with this week's 78-21 vote, overhaul legislation has passed both chambers by veto-proof margins.
In another development this week--and a possible signal that the impasse over confirmations is lifting--the Senate confirmed Mark Filip as deputy attorney general. The decision to award a $40-billion Air Force contract to the European parent of Airbus (and not Boeing, which has held similar contracts for the past 50 years) touched off controversy, with House lawmakers threatening to quash the contract unless the Pentagon explained its rationale. As the House GOP continued to heckle Democrats for their pro-pork proclivities, Speaker Pelosi declared she wouldn't stand for the assault--which Democrats call hypocritical--any longer. Since the Democrats took the Congressional reins, they've imposed a one-year earmark ban, reduced earmarks by 43 percent and created new earmark disclosure rules. "My patience is running out on earmarks,'' she told reporters waspishly. "We'll have them or we won't have them. We won't spend a lot of time talking about them.''
Meanwhile, Senate and House Budget Committees backed a $3-trillion budget blueprint, which ratifies Bush's proposed 7% increase in Pentagon funding, but allows the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts to expire. Both blueprints--passed in a party-line vote--would additionally award greater-than-inflation increases to domestic programs, a proposal that Bush swiftly responded to by threatening to veto future spending bills.
Also this week, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) introduced a resolution that classifies any Bush attempt to forge a long-term military and diplomatic agreement with the Iraqi government as a treaty, and accordingly in need of Congressional approval. Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) demanded an investigation into how a multi-billion dollar loophole that exempts companies working on U.S. government projects overseas from reporting contract abuse was slipped into DOJ-proposed rules last May.
The Take Back America conference, heading into its sixth year, brings together close to 2,000 of the country's most dedicated progressive activists and strategists for a series of speeches, conversations, panels, workshops, planning sessions and parties. A leading source of new ideas, TBA showcases some of the left's most innovative policy proposals, initiatives and projects.
Staged by the Campaign for America's Future with a host of supporting partner organizations, groups and publications, including The Nation, the idea of the confab is to bring together the various tribes of the progressive movement--grassroots and netroots activists, elected officials, policy experts, etc--for strategy sessions on how to build the most effective coalitions to put pressure on whoever the next occupant of the White House turns out to be. This year the conference will also feature a number of Nation speakers, including columnist Naomi Klein, netroots writer Ari Melber and legal correspondent David Cole as well as Barbara Ehrenreich, Van Jones, Majora Carter, Arianna Huffington, Robert Greenwald, Leslie Cagan and many others.
Watch this video for great clips of some of the fiery oratory of past conferences.
And check out this video featuring an original song adapted from Willie Nelson's A Peaceful Solution (a song he made available to all, without copyright protection, to promote peace and justice), to see both how critical the conference is and how much fun it can be.
In Congress yesterday, Representative John Tierney, Chair of the House National Security and Foreign Affairs Subcommittee, convened the first in a series of hearings to examine a US missile defense program that is out of control, straining relations with allies, and renewing an arms race with Russia.
This is the first comprehensive review of the program since 1993 – the year before Republicans took control of Congress – and it's long overdue. The focus yesterday was on the extent of the missile threat – as compared to other security vulnerabilities – and whether spending more than $10 billion annually on ballistic missile defense (BMD) is justifiable from that perspective.
In his opening statement, Rep. Tierney pointed out that we have spent over $120 billion on missile defense in the past 25 years; that the annual budget is expected to double by 2013 to $19 billion; and that the current $10 billion per year is equal to one-third of the Homeland Security budget, roughly equal to the State Department budget, greater than the FEMA budget, 20 times greater than public diplomacy expenditures, and 30 times greater than Peace Corps.
Dr. Stephen Flynn, Senior Fellow for National Security Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and a retired Coast Guard Commander, testified that the "non-missile risk" – smuggling a weapon of mass destruction into the US by ship, train, truck, or private jet – is "far greater than the ballistic missile threat…." He noted that smuggling is the only realistic option for a terrorist group like al Qaeda; it offers anonymity to any attacking nation and therefore protection from retaliation; seaports, borders, and overseas flights "provide a rich menu of non-missile options"; and it has greater potential to "generate cascading economic consequences by disrupting global supply chains."
Despite these risks, Flynn said, "The combined budgets for funding all the domestic and international port of entry interdiction efforts… is equal to roughly one-half of the annual budget for developing missile defense. Nowhere in the US government has there been or is there now an evaluation of whether that represents an appropriate balance….The amount of resources we dedicate to the [more serious threat of cargo delivery] is miniscule compared to the kinds of resources we invest in dealing with the ballistic missile threat. That's the kind of disconnect we're operating in."
Joseph Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund and author of Bomb Scare: The History and Future of Nuclear Weapons, provided the Committee with an even more pointed assessment. He recalled his past work for the House Armed Services Committee and the National Security Subcommittee during the Cold War. "At that time, we were not worried about a prototype Iranian missile that might or might not be deployed. We were worried about 5,000 Soviet warheads… destroying not just our country but most likely this planet. I have known ballistic missile threats, I have researched ballistic missile threats. Mr. Chairman, this is not a serious ballistic missile threat that we face today…. [It] is limited and changing relatively slowly. There is every reason to believe that it can be addressed through measured military preparedness and aggressive diplomacy."
Cirincione, who organized the last serious hearings on the program as a staff member of the Government Operations Committee, pointed out that there are fewer ballistic missiles today than 10-20 years ago; fewer hostile missiles potentially threatening the US; there are five more countries that have started medium-range missile programs but they are poorer and less technologically advanced than the countries that had long-range ballistic missile programs some 20 years ago, and the total number of medium-range missiles has decreased by 80 percent.
"The vast majority of nations with ballistic missiles have only short-range missiles with ranges under 1000 kilometers, basically Scuds," Cirincione said. "This is often ignored when officials or experts cite the ‘30 countries with ballistic missile capability.' That's true, there are approximately 28. But of these, 17 have only Scud-B missiles or similar. Most of these are friends or allies."
Rep. Stephen Lynch asked whether the allocation of resources is proportional to the threat.
"Absolutely not. I believe that the Ballistic Missile Defense program is the longest running scam in the history of the Department of Defense," Cirincione said. "This is an enormous waste of money, and if you leave this decision to the Joint Chiefs they won't spend anything near what this Administration is requesting. In fact, the last time the Joint Chiefs were asked about this in 1993, [they] recommended to then-Pres. Clinton that we spend only $3 billion a year on these kinds of programs, and of that $2.3 billion should be spent on efforts to intercept short-range missiles – the ones that are a real threat to our troops and allies…. We're no further along in our ability to actually hit a real ballistic missile now than we were 20 years ago."
Both Cirincione and Flynn pointed to the disturbing fact that there is no comprehensive threat assessment comparing missile and non-missile threats to our security. "We haven't done a good threat assessment – an intelligence estimate that looks at the non-missile threat and the missile threat," Flynn said.
Cirincione agreed. "I believe that in order for Congress to judge whether these sums are necessary they need a comprehensive assessment of the ballistic missile threat. Congress has never – never – gotten this kind of assessment…. We need a comprehensive threat assessment of what the most serious security threats are facing the United States, and then budget allocations based on that."
Steven Hildreth, specialist in missile defense and nonproliferation for the Congressional Research Service, also warned that threats about a nuclear-armed Korea or Iran might be exaggerated. He testified to "the importance of examining assertions concerning weapon system development and performance." Hildreth noted that in 50 years, only five countries have been able "to develop, test and field ICBMs armed with nuclear warheads" because "the technical, organizational, and management challenges… [are] daunting…. Each and every [aspect] presents a multitude of technological challenges and hurdles to overcome that is not easily done." Hildreth also said that these weapons cannot be hidden, and that they have to be tested in an "observable" way. Despite these facts, Hildreth said, "There have been any number of intelligence assessments and studies that predicted there would be more than five nations that could have accomplished this capability at various times in the past 40 to 50 years….This perspective is lacking in so many of the discussions about ICBM threats today."
With the Administration requesting a record $12.3 billion for missile defense this year, pushing its European-based missile defense system on Czech and Polish citizens who want nothing to do with it, and fueling a new arms race with Russia, the need to put an end to this madness is clear. The jig is up, and hopefully Tierney's hearings will reveal the absolute folly at the root of the Missile Defense Program, and return us to a sane and proven path of diplomacy and nuclear nonproliferation negotiations.
TORONTO -- Here's an intriguing twist on the whole "NAFTA-gate" scandal: Barack Obama's campaign may not have been the only one suggesting to Canadian officials that they need not worry too much about the campaign-season pledges of Democratic presidential contenders to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement.
According to Toronto's Globe and Mail newspaper, Hillary Clinton's campaign may also have contacted the Canadians to suggest that campaign-season talk of getting tough on trade issues need not be taken seriously by foreign trading partners.
On February 26, Ian Brodie, the chief of staff for Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper -- a conservative with close ties to the Bush administration and the Republican Party in the U.S. -- reportedly got into a discussion about the trade debate in the U.S. with a group of reporters for Canada's CTV television network.
"The conversation turned to the pledges to renegotiate the North American free-trade agreement made by the two Democratic contenders, Mr. Obama and New York Senator Hillary Clinton," the Globe and Mail reports. "Mr. Brodie, apparently seeking to play down the potential impact on Canada, told the reporters the threat was not serious, and that someone from Ms. Clinton's campaign had even contacted Canadian diplomats to tell them not to worry because the NAFTA threats were mostly political posturing."
Hold it right there: "somebody from Ms. Clinton's campaign had even contacted Canadian diplomats to tell them not to worry because the NAFTA threats were mostly political posturing"?
According to the Canadian Press wire service, which has also been following the story of trade-related communications between the campaigns of the Democratic presidential contenders and the Canadians, several people overheard Brodie making the reference to the Clinton campaign making the contact.
Brodie's not talking – he might be worried about parliamentary calls for a Royal Canadian Mounted Police inquiry into leaks regarding the U.S. campaign. According to the Globe and Mail, "There was no explanation last night for why Mr. Brodie was said to have referred to the Clinton campaign but the news report was about the Obama campaign. Robert Hurst, president of CTV News, declined to comment.
The Prime Minister's communications director, Sandra Buckler, insists that Mr. Brodie "does not recall" discussing the issue." And, of course, the Clinton campaign denies the back-channel communication – as the Obama campaign did last week.
This new twist in the sordid tale of candidates who say one thing on the U.S. trail and another in behind-closed-doors meetings with representatives of foreign governments does not absolve the Obama campaign. When CTV Washington bureau chief Tom Clark investigated the comment by Brodie, he came up with the now well-circulated story that the Obama campaign – in the person of chief economic adviser Austan Goolsbee -- had told the Canadian not to believe the snit-NAFTA rhetoric coming out of the candidate's mouth.
The leak of an official memo regarding the Goolsbee meeting with the Canadian diplomat in Chicago shook up the Democratic presidential race on the eve of the March 4 primary in Ohio, where late-deciding voters in that very anti-NAFTA state went for Clinton. Both the Clinton and Obama camps suggest the Goolsbee story in general and the leaked memo in particular influenced the March 4 voting in the Buckeye State.
Clinton made the issue a central theme in her stump speeches and her campaign cut a television ad referencing it And wisely so, as Clinton strategist Mark Penn says the controversy "had a significant impact" in a state where many voters had doubts about the sincerity of pledges by both candidates to renegotiate a trade pact that is seen one of many such deals that have done severe damage to the state's manufacturing sector.
Penn indicated that the Clinton camp would continue to use the "NAFTA-gate" scandal to paint Obama as a hypocrite on trade issues, saying that, "I think it's going to be a serious issue moving forward in the campaign."
But if the Clinton camp also was communicating with the Canadians, then the whole question of who to trust on NAFTA in particular and trade in general grows, and the "hypocrite" charge will cut both ways.
Canadian parliamentarians, led by the New Democratic Party's Jack Layton, are calling for the firing of Brodie for interfering in foreign elections and seeking a full investigation by the Mounties. Layton's blunt, saying, "We know that Ian Brodie, the chief of staff for the prime minister, was involved, and this was clear involvement in U.S. politics."
But what was the precise involvement? What was the precise intent? Was it a case, as Globe and Mail columnist Lawrence Martin suggests, of Harper and his conservative aides "doing a very good deed for their Republican cousins"? And what exactly have the Clinton and Obama camps been saying to the Canadians about the validity of campaign-trail claims regarding trade?
There are more questions than answers at this point. And the discussion of this leak needs to go deeper.
Even U.S. Ambassador to Canada David Wilkins, a Bush appointee, says of the leaks, "I've got no way of knowing whether it was unintentional or intentional or anything of that nature."
Canadian opposition leaders like Layton will work on their end to determine the answer to questions about what was being said about the U.S. campaign and NAFTA by Harper, Brodie and those around them.
American officials, particularly members of Congress who care about the trade debate such as North Dakota Senator Byron Dorgan, Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown and Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold, might want to press the both Democratic presidential candidates to come clean about who said what to the Canadians and what is being done about it. If the Canadians are talking about firing an official who was involved with the back-channel NAFTA discussions, shouldn't key Democrats be pressuring the Clinton and Obama campaigns to do the same?
Here in the United States, overseas tax evasion enjoys a bizarre degree of acceptance, with some tax avoidance purveyors even going so far as to try and patent some of their fancier schemes. But today's Boston Globe report, which details how Kellogg Brown & Root--the nation's top Iraq War contractor (financed with $16 billion in public funds)--has neatly sidestepped some $500 million in Medicare and Social Security taxes through use of shell companies in the Cayman Islands, should hopefully raise some eyebrows.
In the meantime, for more on KBR's pernicious backstory (involving bribe-taking, charging $45 per can of soda and receiving prostitutes as presents), check out last month's investigation from the Chicago Tribune. You can also read about the Levin-Coleman-Obama bill to curb overseas tax evasion here.
Yesterday, seemingly unperturbed by the recent failure of immigration-as-a-wedge efforts at the ballot box, Senate Republicans introduced their most jerkily reactive set of immigration bills yet. One would dock 10% of highway funding from states that provide driver's licenses to illegal immigrants. Another would end language assistance at federal agencies and the voting booth for people with limited proficiency in English. Still another would block federal funding to cities that bar police from asking about peoples' immigration status (a proposal not only fraught with public-safety issues, but one that would also dry up anti-terror funds for cities most at risk--New York, Los Angeles, et cetera).
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) is leading the crusade, with a bill that would impose a maximum two-year prison sentence on someone caught illegally crossing the border for the second time. (That would, after all, only cost the federal government some $44,500 per detainee.)
Last year, commenting on his decision (along with 36 other Republicans) to scuttle Senate immigration reform, Sessions declared that "[he] was not going to support a piece of legislation that will not work." It's unclear how bullying states and cities that recognize immigration is a serious, human issue--and treat it as such--increases his credibility (or that of his party) on that account.
As the Democrats prepare to fold on FISA, this week's comments from Assistant AG for National Security Kenneth Wainstein suggest that what the White House is really after isn't interception of foreign-to-foreign phone calls, but your email. From the Washington Post:
Wainstein highlighted a different problem with the current FISA law than other administration officials have emphasized. Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell, for example, has repeatedly said FISA should be changed so no warrant is needed to tap a communication that took place entirely outside the United States but happened to pass through the United States....
[But] Wainstein said FISA's current strictures did not cover strictly foreign wire and radio communications, even if acquired in the United States. The real concern, he said, is primarily e-mail, because "essentially you don't know where the recipient is going to be" and so you would not know in advance whether the communication is entirely outside the United States.
"What this means, of course," says Chris Soghoian, "is that while the public outcry has been focused on AT&T, it should have included a few other firms, including perhaps Microsoft, Yahoo and Google." And, as well, the DOJ that allowed Republican fear-spouting like this to proliferate. Ryan Singel has more.
Now that a Democratic presidential race that was supposed to end in early February has evolved into a contest that may not end until late August, DNC chair Howard Dean has come to the conclusion that there is time to set right parts of the process that were done wrong.
Dean's right to recognize the need to address the democracy-deficit that has afflicted the process. But he's not going far enough when it comes to taking responsibility for making the "fix" a success.
Specifically, Dean is calling for Michigan and Florida, big states that risked their presence at this summer's party convention by jumping ahead on the Democratic National Committee's primary and caucus schedule, to come up with plans to hold presidential nominating contests that will count.
"All they have to do is come before us with rules that fit into what they agreed to a year and a half ago, and then they'll be seated," says Dean, who has come to realize that the party's dysfunctional process now threatens to become a major issue in a close race for the nomination between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.
Clinton "won" faux primaries in January in Michigan and Florida. But because the states had scheduled their votes outside the window allowed by the DNC, she secured no delegates to the convention. For the past month and a half, Clinton has been trying to suggest that she is going to "find a way to seat the delegations from Michigan and Florida."
But that is not going to happen unless she has a dominant majority of convention delegates from the rest of the states, since her campaign would need to win a convention floor fight to change the rules and seat Michigan and Florida delegations.
The notion of such a fight is nightmarish for Democrats, and especially for members of Congress and party leaders who, as so-called "super-delegates," would be called upon to tip the balance in the rules fight. The notion of a convention where delegations selected under dubious circumstances might be seated in order to nominate a candidate -- Clinton -- who would otherwise have lost the nod is a recipe for disaster.
Similarly, smart players in the Obama camp -- and friendly super-delegates -- are properly horrified at the idea that they might be put in a position of disenfranchising the essential Democratic state of Michigan and the swing state of Florida.
Florida and Michigan officials may have created the mess. But the DNC urgently needs to clean it up.
Dean knows this.
So, now that officials in both Florida and Michigan are toying with do-over scenarios, Dean is essentially saying, "O.K., whatever you want to do, we're down with that."
Unfortunately, the DNC chair is still saying the parties in Florida and Michigan have to come up with the money to fund new primaries -- or perhaps caucuses -- that would probably be held in June.
"We can't afford to do that," Dean said when asked whether the DNC would help pay for the new votes in Florida and Michigan. "That's not our problem. We need our money to win the presidential race."
That's an absurd statement.
The Michigan-Florida mess is the DNC's problem. They cannot afford to have a rules fight that raises fundamental questions about the legitimacy of the party's nomination process blow up in August. The negative publicity would cost the DNC far more than paying for new votes -- and it might even cost the party the presidential race.
Does this mean the DNC must pay the whole cost of new votes in Florida and Michigan? No. But Dean and other key players at the DNC must be actively engaged in the work of finding the money and repairing the biggest breach in the DNC's poorly-designed and even more poorly-managed 2008 nominating process.