Friday Capitol Letter

Friday Capitol Letter

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In the House….Two months after a dust explosion killed 13 in a Georgia factory, members passed legislation requiring the recalcitrant Occupational Safety and Health Administration to issue more stringent safety standards. The bill–which Bush threatens to veto–now moves to the Senate. On Tuesday, members approved a massive public lands bill that expands federal wilderness protection and extends federal labor and immigration laws to the Northern Mariana Islands. Once dubbed the “perfect petri dish of capitalism” by Tom Delay, the Islands are notorious for their history of sweatshop labor. The House additionally approved a bill to create a financial consumer hotline, and voted 414-1 to back the long-anticipated genetic nondiscrimination bill, which now awaits Bush’s promised signature.

In the Senate….Debate on how to modernize the nation’s aviation infrastructure foundered as an airline pension proposal continued to generate controversy. On Wednesday, the Senate approved House-passed legislation to bulwark student loans against troubled credit markets–a measure that’s received mixed reviews from student advocates concerned about higher debt limits. Bush is expected to shortly sign the legislation.

Refusing to ape Sens. McCain and Clinton’s political pandering, House leadership this week dismissed the gas tax holiday proposal both presidential candidates have backed. “Our challenge is to invest in renewable energy sources,” said Pelosi–in other words, not temporary measures that do little more than line oil companies’ coffers. The farm bill continued to stall as negotiators struggled to construct legislation that would survive Bush’s veto. Its current incarnation allows farmers with up to nearly $1 million in annual farm income to continue receiving federal payments–five times more than the income cap Bush supports.

On Thursday, the House Financial Services Committee approved legislation that would make $300 billion in federally insured loans available to refinance troubled borrowers’ mortgages. Republican backers continue to assemble behind the bill, despite the White House’s protests.

Early this week, Senate Democrats called for another $200-million increase in foreign food aid to address the spiraling food crisis. On Thursday, Bush upped the ante with a well-received call for $770 million in such aid–though, because Bush’s request is attached to a supplemental FY2009 budget request, any appropriated funds would likely arrive too late to address the current shortages, which the UN predicts may stoke civil wars across the developing world.

Also this week, another Bush appointee–this time the scandal-disgraced General Services Administration head–stepped down. Meanwhile, the Senate Intelligence Committee approved a bill that bans the CIA’s use of waterboarding and private contractors to conduct interrogations, and guarantees the Red Cross’s access to prisoners. In a unanimous vote, the Senate Armed Services Committee approved an effort to cut off U.S. military funding of Iraq reconstruction projects costing over $2 million. To which the head of body that oversees Iraqi government responded: “America has hardly even begun to repay its debt to Iraq….This is an immoral request because we didn’t ask them to come to Iraq, and before they came in 2003, we didn’t have all these needs.”

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