Saturday, July 01, 2006

Looking Down The Barrel

As I've noted previously, Tom Ferrick, Jr. of the Inquirer has been doing yeoman work trying to get a one-gun-a-month law passed in Pennsylvania because of the homicide rate in Philadelphia, and he has run into "the usual suspects" of pro-gun die hards and do-nothing politicians beholden to the NRA.

With this in mind, I came across the following letter in today's Inquirer:

Gun limits don't work

Your paper continues to call for limiting handgun purchases to one per month, saying that will reduce the number of handguns in criminals' hands and the number of murders.

Unfortunately, the facts don't support your position.

According to the FBI Uniform Crime Reports, Philadelphia had a murder rate of 18.9 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2002, but cities in states that have more restrictive gun laws actually have higher murder rates.

The murder rate in Newark was 23.3 in 2002, even though it is extremely difficult to purchase a handgun legally in New Jersey. The murder rate in Baltimore was 37.7, even though Maryland has the same one-gun-per-month law you claim is so necessary to reduce the murder rate in our city.

Statistically speaking, there is no correlation between stricter handgun purchasing laws and lower murder rates. The numbers in New Jersey and Maryland may even suggest that the exact opposite is true.

Mike Seidenberg
To me, this letter illustrates the reason why nothing gets done on this issue. I have neither the time nor the desire to research Seidenberg's claims, which I suppose are valid, though I would expect that details and context are missing in his argument that could swing it to a pro-one-gun-a-month position. But since the point of this post isn't really to pick a fight with him, I'll concede that he could be correct statistically.

However, as I read his letter, something occurred to me.

Where are the cops on this issue?

Why is it that the people leading the charge for the one-gun-a-month law to severely restrict "straw" purchases (where somebody buys a gun and resells it on the street) are grieving parents, family, friends, local community activists, newspaper columnists, and individuals such as your humble narrator? Wouldn't a statement in support of a tougher law from the Pennsylvania Chiefs of Police, for example, help our case considerably?

And please understand that I'm not trying to slam law enforcement here. I am grateful for the sacrifice made by these men and women to keep us safe, the majority of whom are highly skilled individuals doing the right thing. Besides, with my job, often the worst thing I have to deal with is inter-office political BS, insane deadlines, and traffic headaches. The worst thing our police have to deal with is the possibility that they may end their work day in the morgue.

I see no reason not to give one-gun-a-month a try, preferably with a high-profile assist from men and women in uniform. Besides, if we can prove conclusively that somehow it doesn't work or doesn't reduce homicides, we can repeal it. After all, we don't have a problem with getting laws repealed in this state, do we?

Update 7/6: I guess this answers one of my questions, at least concerning gun laws in Indiana.

So let me get this straight; for the added revenue to the state police that would come their way due to higher gun fees, the tradeoff is that a handgun could be stolen or otherwise used in the commission of a crime, and the police may never know that unless the owner notifies them because the owner of the gun has a lifetime permit? That doesn't sound like much of a trade to me (and the "good" people can turn into "bad" people in a second, though Varner of the NRA will never acknowledge that).

Friday, June 30, 2006

A Berry, Berry Good Movie

As noted here, the 20th anniversary DVD release of the concert film, “Hail! Hail! Rock N’ Roll” took place this week (the concert upon which the film was based was conceived as a celebration of Berry’s 60th birthday). The film was a documentary of two concerts performed to honor Chuck Berry and his music, complete with a wide array of guest musicians.

However, the film, directed by Taylor Hackford (of “An Officer And A Gentleman,” containing possibly the only movie performance, aside from “Chicago,” that I could ever tolerate by Richard Gere) is unlike other concert films in that it captures its subject, Berry, warts and all. There are frequent arguments onscreen with Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, who organized the concert and led the musicians, as well as with Hackford and others off screen.

As I saw the stories about this week’s DVD release, I was reminded of an excellent book on Berry that I read some time ago called, “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” by Bruce Pegg. It is an unauthorized biography, but it is an eminently fair, meticulous and respectful work about Berry and those in his very small inner circle, including the late pianist Johnnie Johnson whose great musicianship accompanied Berry’s legendary standards.

As Pegg recalled in his book…

Keith Richards’s reaction on encountering Chuck Berry at his home for the first time was…something of a shock. Arriving in Wentzville, MO (the location of Berry Park, the musician’s home and office complex which served as his personal retreat)…Richards was surprised to find that Berry’s living room contained “two large video screens. One played whatever (Berry) selected. The other ran constant pictures of naked white girls throwing pies at each other and falling over.” A month later, Richards invited Berry to his home in Jamaica, where Berry began to behave “like a fish out of water, flipping around enigmatically. One minute he was enthusiastic and entertaining and the next – poof! – he would withdraw into a stony silence.”

The arguments that took place during filming ranged from Berry’s stance that he should be paid separately for his stage performance and also his role in the film’s production to the level where Berry’s guitar amplifier should be set. Not surprisingly, then, as Mark Slocombe (a production assistant and limo driver) maintained, “over the course of the film…most of the people involved…grew to hate Chuck Berry.”

But Keith Richards, acutely aware of his mentor’s eccentricities, fully understood that this was a manifestation of Berry’s discomfort at the situation unfolding all around him. “I feel sorry for him,” Richards said later. “He’s a very lonely man…After living that secluded one-man show for so many years, he probably wasn’t prepared himself for how he was gonna act.”
There is a wealth of other information in Pegg’s book about the making of the movie, including the fact that Linda Ronstadt appeared to sing “Back In The U.S.A.” in the key of “C”, but Berry onstage changed the key to “G” – a frequent Berry tactic in his never-ending battle to manage the production – and Ronstadt sang the song well, but became so enraged over not knowing about the last-minute change that she stormed off the stage and rode away in her limo, thus only appearing in one of the two filmed concerts. More than that, though, the book provides enormous detail about many areas of Berry’s life, including his seemingly never-ending legal trouble; the book’s timeline actually ends while in the middle of a lawsuit Johnson filed against Berry which was settled before Johnson’s death.

“Hail! Hail! Rock N’ Roll” was a great film, and I plan to go out and pick up the DVD and relive the experience (and enjoy what I hope will be plentiful bonus material) as soon as I can.

No Religion That I Know Of

Maybe Tony Perkins ought to reflect on his own past with David Duke a bit before he casts aspersions on people who are genuinely trying to do good. And as far as the Rev. Thomas Euteneuer is concerned, has he done or tried to do any of this?

- Partner with The Carter Center to eradicate guinea worm disease
- Fund developing of microbicides to help women afflicted with AIDS primarily in sub-Saharan Africa
- Fight acute diarrheal illnesses and lower respiratory infections in children, as well as malaria, tuberculosis and other diseases
- Improve existing vaccines for children and help develop new ones
Well, if he hasn’t (and The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has done all this and much more, by the way), then this man who supposedly represents the Catholic faith should shut his mouth and contemplate the harmful affects of his inflammatory language (and I agree with Gloria Feldt on this a hundred and fifty percent).

If you’re going to be part of the problem instead of part of the solution, then please have the good sense to shut up and get the hell out of the way.

A Blow To The 9/11 "Star Chamber"

This great opinion column in the Inquirer today about Dubya's latest defeat at the hands of the Supreme Court in his attempt to rule as some self-styled potentate should be the last word on the issue of the tribunals set up to try prisoners in the Forever And Ever Now And Always You Better Damn Believe It You Godless Liberal Hedonist War On Terror (but of course, I'm sure it won't be, since Dick Polman has noted that the freeper methane dispensers are already in high dudgeon over it...sigh).

Ruling negates premise of Bush's war on terrorism
By Ken Gude

The Supreme Court could not have been any clearer: President Bush's military commissions are illegal because they were not authorized by Congress and the procedures violate the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

The immediate impact of the ruling in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld will be to end the trials of Salim Ahmed Hamdan and the nine other Guantánamo detainees already charged and preclude such trials for other detainees at the prison against whom charges could be brought - still only a fraction of the more than 450 being held.

Bush claimed that Congress implicitly authorized him to establish military commissions when it passed the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) on Sept. 18, 2001. But the court rejected that view, holding that nothing in the AUMF "even hint[s]" at granting the president the power he claims.

Even if Congress were to provide specific authorization for the military commissions as currently configured, it would not be enough to make them legal in the eyes of the court. The trial procedures in the military commissions deviate significantly from those laid out in the Uniform Code of Military Justice to be used in courts-martial. This violates Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions of 1949, which states that any detainee captured during armed conflict can only be tried in "a regularly constituted court affording all the judicial guarantees which are recognized as indispensable by civilized peoples."

It is this part of the Supreme Court's decision that will have an impact far beyond the walls of Guantánamo. In ruling that Common Article 3 applies to the detention of Hamdan, the Supreme Court has rejected the fundamental premise upon which Bush has built the war on terrorism.

The Bush administration has consistently asserted that the war on terrorism was a new kind of war, rendering "quaint" and "obsolete" more than 100 years of U.S. military practice of applying international humanitarian law to armed conflict. As a result, Bush unilaterally declared that the Geneva Conventions did not apply to the conflict with al-Qaeda and threw out prohibitions on abusive interrogation techniques.

The Supreme Court has now forcefully stated that Bush was wrong, that the conflict with al-Qaeda does fall under the Geneva Conventions and that the United States is obliged to provide the minimum protections of Common Article 3 to any detainee captured during this conflict.

In addition to guidelines on fair trials, Common Article 3 also prohibits "violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture," and "outrages upon personal dignity, in particular, humiliating and degrading treatment." This standard applies to detainees held at Guantánamo, but also may apply to other captives held by the CIA at secret sites.

The application of Common Article 3 to all detainees in U.S. custody will breathe new life into congressional efforts to prohibit torture, and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of prisoners in the war on terrorism. Congress passed this new torture ban in December, but the president has claimed the right to ignore its restrictions. Now the Supreme Court has weighed in with a clear message that all detainees must be treated humanely.

The Bush administration's policies on detainees have been surrounded by controversy since the early days of the war on terrorism and have done serious damage to the safety and security of the American people. From the black hole of Guantánamo to the horrors of Abu Ghraib, the treatment of prisoners in U.S. custody has been an affront to American values, has served as a rallying cry for our enemies, and has hindered our ability to lead a truly united alliance against the terrorists.

The Supreme Court has presented Bush with an opportunity to restore the United States to its traditional position as the foremost champion of the rule of law. The road back to a sound detainee policy is now obvious: return to the proven, effective, legitimate, and fair procedures established by the Uniform Code of Military Justice and the Geneva Conventions. It seems they are not so obsolete after all.

Ken Gude is the associate director of the International Rights and Responsibility Program at the Center for American Progress.
By the way, with this column, the Inquirer has introduced what is supposedly the blog of the paper's editorial board called The Fishbowl. While any attempt at communication is a good thing and should be encouraged, I'm not holding out a lot of hope, especially in light of this paper's laughable record of infrequent "Blog Cabin" features that are supposed to appear every Wednesday, though in reality it seems that the feature appears only when the editorial section has leftover column space.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

The Runaway American Dream

Fifty years ago today, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act, and here is some background on that from USA Today founder Al Neuharth.

And, as noted from this link...

President Eisenhower vigorously campaigned for a safe, fast, interlocking system of highways that would connect cities but be free of cross traffic and signal lights. In 1954, Vice President Richard Nixon read Eisenhower's proposal to Congress, because the president was away at a family funeral.

"Let us look at the highway net of the United States as it is," Nixon told Congress in 1954. "It is obsolete because in large part it just happened. It was governed in the beginning by terrain, existing Indian trails, cattle trails, and arbitrary section lines. It was designed largely for local movement in an age of transcontinental travel. Every year there's a wastage of billions of hours in detours, traffic jams, and so on, amounting to billions of dollars in productive time.

As a solution, President Eisenhower proposed a $50 billion highway program to be completed in just ten years. As it turned out, the final piece of the system as planned and funded -- an astounding tunnel and bridge project called The Big Dig in Boston -- opened in 2004 -- 50 years, not ten, after the Nixon speech.
I think it’s important to note, though, that there is a cost to the freedom we’ve enjoyed, spending untold amounts on money on road repair and vehicle maintenance at the expense of greater mass transit funding (though, to be honest, I enjoy rolling down the windows while doing upwards of 70-75 on my way down the Atlantic City Expressway as much as anybody). As noted here:

…Not everyone thinks the changes brought on by the interstate system were good. By easing long trips, the interstates opened up development away from core urban areas, creating sprawl.

The interstate system "has devastated our cities," said John Holtzclaw of the Sierra Club. "The unintended consequences of this experiment in social engineering are towns so spread out and inconvenient that residents are forced to drive, even if for only a loaf of bread or bottle of milk."
This link takes you to a detailed account of issues such as sprawl and congestion that have arisen partly due to our interstate highway system and how communities around the country are addressing these issues.

I don’t have a copy of Buzz’s Bissinger’s landmark book, “A Prayer For The City” available at the moment, but I can vividly recall his description of how transportation policy in the 1950s was geared towards industrial and residential expansion into the suburbs, and this affected the decline of our cities. This was aided in no small part by Eisenhower’s highway bill, though to be honest, the status quo at that time was unacceptable, as Nixon pointed out in his speech. And as I said, the freedom of driving down the highway something totally ingrained in our culture.

So for now, let’s offer some thanks for this to Ike, and wind it up and blow it out one more time as we scream on down the blacktop into the sunset.

It's Hard Out There For A Senator

Who knew that Sen. Charles Grassley (R-JESUSLAND) was such a funny guy?

Oh, right...our system of taxation in this country has become ridiculously skewed towards the rich, particularly over the last 25 years or so, but Grassley thinks it’s important to go after pimps and prostitutes to try and make up the difference?

I can just see an IRS revenue agent conducting a “field audit” from the back seat of a 1985 Plymouth Mercury parked at 12th and Norris streets in North Philadelphia at 2 AM.

“So, Ms. – Sapphire, is it? – what are your holdings?”

“My holdings? Fool, I jus’ took off my halter top. Can’t you see Isis and Chlorine youself? You blind AN' stoopid too?”

“Uh, well…never mind. Exactly how many dependents have you declared?”

“Well, two from Slick, I’m lookin’ after Rashawn’s two boys too, an’ Trina’s little girl also.”

“I see on your 1040 you’ve listed a Mr. Roderick Tasker also?”

“Oh, you mean Nightmare. He’s my pimp.”

“Do you mean you are his sole source of disposable income?”

“Far as I know. An’ speaking o’ him, you’d better tell me what you want, sweet cakes, or else he’ll be all over my ass. You got a half hour, and I’m doin’ a volume business.”
I’ll leave it up to you, dear reader, to imagine the rest of that scenario.

For some perspective on how exactly we came to this sad state of affairs, by the way, I think it’s important to give a read to this column by David Cay Johnston, reprinted in the San Francisco Chronicle from the New York Times. I think this excerpt in particular is illuminating:

While millions of Americans in the last quarter-century debated about who shot J.R. and scurried for news about who would be Jennifer Lopez's next lover, Congress quietly passed tax laws that shift the tax burden from the 28,000 Americans in households with incomes of $8 million per year or more.
And what exactly do we do about this? Well, as Johnston said so very well...

All of this is having a devastating impact on America, which the preamble to our Constitution says was created to "promote the general welfare." Until Americans decide to take back their democracy and become actively engaged in politics, the super rich will continue to rig the tax system for their benefit only.
And Repugs like Grassley will continue to advocate persecuting those with barely any means to support themselves while “The Gilded Age Of Bushco” extends into remote posterity.

Of Mice And Megalomania

I predict that this will be Mikey Fitzpatrick’s next “yes” vote (who knew that the philosophical matriarch of our government would one day be Britney “Trust Our Leaders” Spears…and love and kisses to HuffPo for making me see her nude-but-strategically-covered pregnant self all over the front of Bazaar even though I was trying to avoid it).

Also (speaking of our illustrious 8th district U.S. House rep), the Bucks County Courier Times added a bit of clarification to a Guest Opinion this morning criticizing Fitzpatrick’s flip flop on stem cell research, stating that Fitzpatrick supports the use of non-embryonic stem cells.

I had something to say about this a little while back, and also here is a related Boston Globe article from March that contains this excerpt:

The biology of mice and humans is quite close, but technical problems often emerge when techniques that work in mice are attempted in humans.

The new (mouse testicular) cells are clearly stem cells, but they may prove to be more difficult to work with than embryonic stem cells, or less able to form particular types of tissue (according to Dr. George Q. Daley, a stem cell scientist at Children's Hospital in Boston and Harvard Medical School).
Doesn’t it sound to you like working with stem cells from mice is a bit of a leap from working with embryonic stem cells, which is a huge leap in and of itself? An analogy I can relate to on this is learning how to drive in a beat-up economy sedan with an automatic shift first before you contemplate getting behind the wheel of a Porsche 911 with a 6-speed stick and a multi-point injection fuel system (I’ll let any bioethicists out there tell me whether or not I’m full of beans on this). Working on mice first sounds like you’re going right to the Porsche after you pass your driver’s test.

I guess it’s fair comment for the paper to offer that clarification, but to me, it still obfuscates the issue that we’ve basically taken a pass on development in this new industry that could hold the keys to solving various illnesses for the sake of offending the sensibilities of the holier-than-thou zealots who run our government. And if we think this won’t ultimately affect our own quality of life, then we truly are living in a dream world.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Where The Rubber Meets The Road (6/28)

As published in last Sunday's Philadelphia Inquirer, here is how Philadelphia-area members of Congress were recorded on major roll-call votes last week.


Defense spending. The House voted, 407-19, to appropriate $377.6 billion for the Department of Defense in fiscal 2007. The bill (HR 5631) also provides $50 billion to pay for six months of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan; it now goes to the Senate.

All Philadelphia-area representatives voted for the bill.
This was not another supplemental appropriation, and there were lots of amendments offered to this bill by representatives on both sides specifying how the funds would be spent, presumably in an effort to ferret out corruption; many of them passed. I hope that was more than just election-year posturing but instead due to a reawakening of the realization by members of this body that they are actually supposed to perform an oversight function as opposed to giving Bushco whatever it wants.

Domestic spying. The House defeated, 219-207, an effort to require the administration to conduct its program of domestic electronic surveillance within the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). Under FISA, spying on American citizens suspected of terrorist connections must be authorized by a special court of federal judges, although surveillance seen as urgent can be conducted without warrants for up to 72 hours. The amendment was offered to HR 5631 (above).

A yes vote backed the amendment.

Voting yes: Robert E. Andrews (D., N.J.), Robert A. Brady (D., Pa.), Chaka Fattah (D., Pa.), Tim Holden (D., Pa.) and Allyson Schwartz (D., Pa.).

Voting no: Michael N. Castle (R., Del.), Charles W. Dent (R., Pa.), Michael G. Fitzpatrick (R., Pa.), Jim Gerlach (R., Pa.), Frank A. LoBiondo (R., N.J.), Joseph R. Pitts (R., Pa.), H. James Saxton (R., N.J.), Christopher H. Smith (R., N.J.) and Curt Weldon (R., Pa.).
All the Repugs lined up nice and neat for Dubya and Hayden to give them whatever they want. How pathetic is it that Congress has to try to pass a law telling Bush not to act like a criminal? And how pathetic is it STILL that the law failed? I guess that makes the no voters “accessories after the fact.”

And as for Mikey, let’s remind ourselves once again of his bold prediction while he lets Dubya continue to spy on us.

War powers. The House defeated, 262-158, a bid to require prior congressional approval of military acts against Iran, in accord with the Constitution's Article I, Section 8. The vote occurred during debate on HR 5631 (above).

A yes vote backed the amendment.

Voting yes: Andrews, Fattah and Holden.

Voting no: Brady, Castle, Dent, Fitzpatrick, Gerlach, LoBiondo, Pitts, Saxton, Schwartz, Smith and Weldon.
Remember this vote if Dubya decides to do something stupid – again – in the Middle East (though, to be honest, I think his intention with Iran is to play a game of “chicken” with them this election year as part of “Fear And Smear 2006”).

I mean, how silly is it that our elected representatives should want Dubya to ACTUALLY OBEY THE LAW OR CONSULT CONGRESS ON ANYTHING? This is THE IMPERIAL PRESIDENCY, REMEMBER??!!

And the support on this from Brady is a mystery to me, and it would have been nice if Allyson Schwartz had done the right thing also, but I can appreciate how deep-seated the animosity is towards Iran from Israel and its staunchest sympathizers.

Estate taxes. The House passed, 269-156, and sent to the Senate a bill (HR 5638) to exempt all but the "super rich" from federal estate taxes beginning in 2010. The bill sets the tax rate as low as 20 percent and exempts individual estates of up to $5 million ($10 million for couples).

A yes vote was to pass the bill.

Voting yes: Castle, Dent, Fitzpatrick, Gerlach, LoBiondo, Saxton, Smith and Weldon.

Voting no: Andrews, Brady, Fattah, Holden and Schwartz.

Not voting: Pitts.
I’ll tell you what; read the text from this link to get some idea of how out-of-control Bushco’s program of “welfare for corporations and the rich” has gotten, keeping in mind in particular the fact that, as this story points out, this country would have an extra $200 billion for funding needed government programs (like FDA enforcement that I mentioned earlier).

As we know, the “pie,” so to speak, is only so big, and when the rich keep taking bigger pieces, there is obviously less for the rest of us (welcome to Doomsy’s Kitchen Table Economics 101).

And if the Repugs had their way, all we’d have left would be the crumbs (and by the way, a great big “middle digit raised on high” goes out to all of the “yes” voters on this one, including Mikey and Crazy Curt).

Line-item budget controls. The House passed, 247-172, and sent to the Senate a bill (HR 4890) enabling presidents to ask Congress to rescind individual spending items or narrow tax breaks from appropriations bills. Both chambers would have to vote to approve the presidential requests.

A yes vote was to pass the bill.

Voting yes: Andrews, Castle, Dent, Fitzpatrick, Gerlach, LoBiondo, Saxton, Smith and Weldon.

Voting no: Brady, Fattah, Holden and Schwartz.

Not voting: Pitts.
The thought of giving Dubya the line-item veto scares me (the thought of giving Dubya anything, including a chew toy, scares me actually), since God only knows what he would do. However, since this guy has not vetoed a single bill in his entire term of office, it’s anyone’s guess what would happen.

I’m going to save my ire on this because there is a larger principle involved. President Clinton was given the line-item veto in 1995, but it was taken away by the Supreme Court in 1998 because they didn’t think it provided enough of a means for Congress to respond to the President’s decision. This new bill has supposedly been crafted in response to that.

If this passes the Senate and Dubya gets to sign it into law, I’ll just sigh and muster my resources to fight other battles (and just keep reminding myself that, barring impeachment, this empty vessel will depart the White House on 1/20/09).


Minimum wage. In a 52-46 vote, the Senate failed to reach the 60 votes needed to advance a bid by Democrats to raise the minimum hourly wage from $5.15 to $7.25 over 26 months. Congress last raised the base wage in 1997. A yes vote backed the Democrats' wage plan.

Voting yes: Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D., Del.), Thomas Carper (D., Del.), Frank Lautenberg (D., N.J.), Robert Menendez (D., N.J.) and Arlen Specter (R., Pa.).

Voting no: Rick Santorum (R., Pa.).
Memo to Bob Casey, Jr. – Here’s your next campaign TV ad.

GOP wage plan. The Senate defeated, 53-45, a Republican bid to raise the hourly minimum wage to $6.25 over 18 months while reducing the number of companies required to pay it. A yes vote backed the GOP minimum-wage plan.

Voting yes: Santorum and Specter.

Voting no: Biden, Carper, Lautenberg and Menendez.
$6.25, huh? What big spenders! What a laughable scheme (this week’s “Arlen Two-Step” was threatening Dubya on the signing statements and then lining up like a good little Repug on this one).

Defense budget. The Senate passed, 96-0, a $467.7 billion budget for the military in fiscal 2007, up 6.1 percent from the comparable 2006 figure. The bill also authorizes $50 billion for six months of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. The bill (2 2766) now goes to conference with the House. All Philadelphia-area senators voted for the bill.
(My comment to the similar House action applies here also.)

Iraq withdrawal. Senators defeated, 60-39, a nonbinding Democratic amendment to S 2766 (above) urging major troop withdrawals from Iraq to begin this year but leaving it up to the administration to set a timetable. A yes vote backed the withdrawal measure.

Voting yes: Biden, Carper, Lautenberg and Menendez.

Voting no: Santorum and Specter.
Well, at least it wasn’t 93-6. The numbers are slowly turning in our favor.

Withdrawal deadline. The Senate defeated, 86-13, a binding Democratic amendment to S 2766 requiring the pullout of most U.S. troops from Iraq by July 2007. A yes vote was to set a troop-withdrawal deadline.

Voting yes: Lautenberg and Menendez.

Voting no: Biden, Carper, Santorum and Specter.
The MBNA Twins prove yet again why, when push comes to shove, no one takes them seriously.

As reported in the Inquirer, this week the House will take up fiscal 2007 appropriations bills, including a possible vote on the minimum wage. The Senate will take up estate tax relief and a constitutional amendment to prohibit flag-burning (and we know how that turned out, don't we - kudos to Pat Leahy in particular).

The Financially Deprived Administration

I said earlier that U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy may be the most important figure in our government because he apparently is all that stands between some remnant of sanity on the high court and a total right-wing Repug takeover. I should add, based on some recent reading, that the second most important figure is Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman, since he is apparently the only one watching over the Food and Drug Administration.

According to an article in USA Today yesterday...

The Food and Drug Administration issued 535 warning letters in the fiscal year ended Sept. 30, a 15-year low and down 54% from five years earlier, says the report by the Democratic minority staff of the House Committee on Government Reform (Waxman sits on that committee).
What really got me was this, I should point out…

“The FDA, which declined an interview request…”
Wait a minute here.

We’re talking about a U.S. government agency. You know, an agency on behalf of the government, the members of which were elected or appointed to serve...US!

And they’re “flipping off” Waxman, and in so doing, giving us the same treatment?

Well, you can just imagine how that went over with me, right? So I decided to look into things a bit, and I came across this Common Dreams article about whether or not the FDA is policing fraudulent drug ads (yes, I know the article is over three years old, but consider the budget cuts I’ve highlighted below from this article and then ask me if you think the status quo has changed since October 2002):

The new FDA budget proposes major cuts in both foreign and domestic inspection programs, including significant spending reductions in the following areas:

• 5 percent for domestic food safety inspections,
• 5.8 percent for foreign drug plant inspections, and
• 4.7 percent for inspections of national blood banks.
I visited the FDA web site to learn more and discovered that the person in charge is currently Dr. Andrew C. Von Eschenbach of Philadelphia. His resume is impressive, and I have no prior knowledge of him so I can’t say anything one way or the other.

No, dear reader, I strongly suspect that the issue here is funding for industry policing and enforcement, which is definitely lacking from the most radically pro-business congress and presidential administration that this country has ever seen.

And that’s why we need to speak out on this and support Rep. Waxman however we can. Standing up for our political beliefs, important as that is, is one thing. Speaking out on matters directly affecting our health and safety, however, is something else altogether.

A Bucks County Heretic Confesses

This charming correspondence appeared this morning in (where else?) The Bucks County Courier Times.

A genuine Catholic would never pledge his loyalty to the abortion industry.

The Courier Times announced the alignment of congressional candidate Patrick Murphy, a Catholic, with Planned Parenthood, America’s abortion giant (sic). Murphy says abortion should be “rare” but in reality that is not the case.

Last year in Pennsylvania, Planned Parenthood alone reported 10,386 surgical abortions executed in their chambers. This number does not include chemical abortions or abortions performed by other abortionists.

Abortion is reprehensible regardless of one’s religious beliefs. The Catholic Church firmly teaches that the inalienable right to life of every innocent human individual is a basic element of a civil society and its legislation. We should be suspicious of a man who betrays a core belief of his faith as he seeks to be elected.

Wishy-washy Catholics misrepresent Catholicism. It is disgraceful for a Catholic politician to disregard human life. However, practicing Catholics are encouraged by Jesus’ promise that the church he founded would not be overcome by the power of death (Matthew 16:18).

Rosemary Overberger
Lower Makefield
I’m wondering if this woman works for the Fitzpatrick campaign or not. I’m unsure because she didn’t refer to the Democratic nominee as “Pat” Murphy; referring to him by his nickname seems to be standard procedure for Mikey and his acolytes for some reason.

I’m not going to try and address or validate her numbers because I don’t care. I’m offended by her insult that, because both Patrick and I support a woman’s right to choose, that doesn’t make me a “genuine” Catholic in Overberger’s blinkered vision of what the Catholic faith represents.

Of course, the true goal of this hateful screed is to cast aspersions on Patrick, saying that “we should be suspicious” of him. Well, then, shouldn’t you also be “suspicious” of Mike Fitzpatrick because, though he represents himself as an environmentally friendly candidate, he did not oppose Bushco’s attempts to raise the acceptable levels of mercury in our drinking water, which hurts children and their developing nervous systems more than anyone else? Shouldn’t you be “suspicious” of Fitzpatrick for voting for a budget bill that shreds the safety net for our most vulnerable citizens who Fitzpatrick purports to represent? Shouldn’t you be “suspicious” of Fitzpatrick, a Catholic, for voting for an immigration bill that would send priests and ministers performing aid work to jail?

I don’t suppose it would do any good to point out yet again that Planned Parenthood performs a WIDE ARRAY of services for women and families aside from abortion. This is because Overberger’s tiny mind is no doubt made up on this issue; Planned Parenthood and any teacher’s union in Bucks County are favorite attack targets for the newspaper and its predominantly freeper readership.

I will also take this opportunity to point out once more that, while the New Testament has a great deal to say about bettering yourself as a person by reaching out to others and “speaking truth to power,” it has nothing whatsoever to say on the subject of abortion. Maybe Overberger should consider that along with the fact that individuals in the public eye such as Rick Santorum, John Roberts and Antonin Scalia profess to speak for my faith, when they in fact inspire at least the same ire in me for their words and actions as anything Overberger could feel based on what Patrick Murphy could ever say or do.

I would write to the paper and say this myself, but I have something else “in the can” which praises Patrick and criticizes Mikey, so assuming it even sees the light of day at all, I don’t expect that that will happen for some time.

Update: Somehow, I thought Barack Obama was better than this.

Oh, and silly me...I forgot to remind everyone that the Bucks County chapter of the Godless Hedonist Secularist Democrats Society will be meeting tomorrow evening inside the men’s room of the Yardley train station at Main Street and Reading Avenue at midnight. Our agenda includes a free-form commentary based on the theme “Prosecuting the Afghanistan Invasion and Taliban Overthrow In Response to the 9/11 Attacks: Any Regrets?,” a Ward Churchill retrospective, and donations to the Saddam Hussein legal fund. Don’t be late!

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Lawyers, Drugs and Money

This link (via Atrios) takes you to a story that notes the Democrats are going to present today their alternative to the Republican boondoggle of a Medicare drug plan that took effect on January 1st of this year (I’ve been saving a bunch of stuff on this, and it looks like I’ll finally be able to use it – long one coming up).

As noted in the NC Times link:

The Democrats envision using the money that is saved to close a gap in coverage, called the "doughnut hole” (I’ll explain in a second or two) that will affect an estimated 6.9 million people this year.

Overall, about 43 million elderly and disabled Americans are eligible to participate in the Medicare benefit. An estimated 4.5 million to 5 million beneficiaries do not have prescription drug coverage.
Based on what I can determine, the two biggest issues facing the Medicare Part D drug benefit are the “doughnut hole” (which occurs between the cost ceiling of $2,250 where the subsidy stops and the $3,600 figure where it resumes, with the government picking up 95 percent of the purchase from that point) and the inability of Part D participants to buy drugs in bulk, which would result in cost savings (Patrick Murphy, among others, has pointed this out).

As the NC Times story also notes:

Democratic lawmakers contend that insurers do not have the clout the federal government would have when negotiating the purchase of medicine for seniors. They cited a study from the advocacy group, Families USA, which indicated that the Veterans Affairs prices for drugs were consistently lower than prices charged by Part D plans. The median price difference was 46 percent.

The Democrats said the savings that Medicare would gain through federal negotiations would be used to enhance coverage.
This story from The Nation provides some excellent background on Medicare Part D and how it came into existence. I think it’s important to keep in mind, as you read the article, that a scenario something like the one described in the story (with a wide range of players in the pharma and insurance industries marketing for customers) would be replicated to a certain point with financial services firms in the event that (God help us) Dubya and the Repugs are ever able to “privatize” Social Security, with all of the attendant confusion while the “big boys” make out like bandits as usual under this administration.

As the story tells us…

The government has allowed sellers to mold Part D coverage into hundreds of combinations of deductibles; co-insurance (a percentage of the drug cost consumers pay); drug utilization techniques (such as trying cheaper generic drugs first); and drug tiers, with their own dizzying array of co-payments (the flat amount consumers pay for each drug). Co-payments differ depending on whether people buy generics, preferred brand drugs, non-preferred brand drugs or specialty drugs--and depending on whether they buy from an in-network pharmacy where the insurer has negotiated good discounts or from an out-of-network pharmacy where it hasn't. Adding to the confusion is the fact that there's no standard nomenclature; sellers can use any fanciful name they think will lure buyers to their plan. They can also cover whatever drugs they want to; prescription formularies are not standardized either.

And what happens when seniors are understandably flummoxed by the overabundance of options? They're sent to a complicated web tool for answers--even though, according to one survey, three-quarters of seniors say they have never gone online.
The Nation story tells us that the two individuals who used to serve in the U.S. Congress (though they left for markedly different reasons) who are most responsible for Medicare Part D are former House speaker Tom DeLay (why did I KNOW he was involved somehow?) and former Louisiana Democratic Senator John Breaux. We know about “The Hammer” of course, but Breaux is one of these one-time “Third Way” guys who was a friend of Bill Clinton and took a nice, cushy payout when he left government, a la former U.S. House Rep. Jim Greenwood a lot closer to home. In fact, you can look at it this way; what former Clintonite Mike McCurry has morphed into for the telecoms (sadly) parallels what has happened with Breaux and Big Pharma.

Breaux is nobody’s fool, I’ll give him that, but I have a problem with his misrepresentation of Medicare Part D by conjuring up misty, yellowed “Great Society” memories of LBJ and passage of the original Medicare program in 1966 (as he does in this Inquirer opinion column from last month – registration required of course).

Another aspect of Medicare Part D which should be either modified or repealed outright, as noted in this link from The Century Foundation, is the asset test that determines whether or not seniors qualify for the Part D subsidy. Also, a deadline of May 15th had been imposed for enrollment, with anyone enrolling afterwards subject to penalties (why May 15th, I ask myself?), but in a stroke of sanity, that was abolished.

Here’s more on the asset test from The Century Foundation story:

Holding assets of more than $11,500—which include those readily convertible to cash such as stocks, bonds, mutual funds, IRAs, or equity in real estate--disqualifies seniors for subsidies. An even lower limit applies for the most generous subsidies. Fewer than one in three Medicare beneficiaries who have applied have been approved. UCLA School of Public Health professor Thomas Rice estimates that over half of those who have been denied have failed to pass the asset test. Of these, the majority exceed the amount of allowable assets by less than $35,000. Moreover, the application materials include questions about excludable assets like burial plots and insurance policies that appear further to have confused potential qualifiers.

William Novelli, the CEO of AARP, wrote a letter in late April to (Center for Medicaid and Medicare Services) administrator Mark McClellan urging him to end the asset test, calling it “cumbersome and unnecessary.” McClellan thus far has demurred on this point, questioning whether his agency has the authority to waive the requirement and whether the application form is truly onerous.
I guess when you’re as thoroughly immersed in the “wealth” perspective as Bushco is, it’s hard to understand that weighing burial plots as part of one’s accumulated assets over time when considering qualification for a drug subsidy is completely and totally ridiculous (and since we’re talking about Bushco, I should add that they’ve been completely honest and above board at all times when selling this mess to the American people).

This is an issue that affects all of us regardless of our age, by the way, since, God willing, as many of us as possible will reach an age where this issue will become absolutely crucial. We should make our opinions heard about this and support candidates who represent us on this issue as well as the Iraq War, the economy, and impeachment (which is DEFINITELY IN PLAY STILL, let’s not forget), and other matters.

As Trudy Lieberman, the reporter who wrote the Nation story, pointed out:

Even with standardized formularies, runaway drug prices could cause Congress ultimately to conclude that Medicare is simply too expensive--and transform it into a means-tested welfare program that would make doctor, hospital and drug benefits available only to the very poorest seniors. That would end Medicare as we know it. Maybe that was the real goal of Part D all along.
That’s why we have to change Medicare Part D to the point where enrollees participate in a single plan administered by the federal government, as stated in the NC Times story.

And we also have to get rid of the bunch of bought-and-paid-for Repug crooks running Congress to make that happen, because no change to this mess will take place while they remain in power.

Finally, as long as we're talking about buying drugs cheaply, I can think of no other organization I can recommend more highly than these good folks.

The Crooked Norm Of Repug “Reform”

John Perzel strikes again!

The Bucks County Courier Times quite rightly chastised the PA House of Representatives in an editorial today for passing an extremely watered-down lobbying “reform” bill last week. According to the editorial, the amount of money lobbyists spend on particular legislators will still remain hidden from the public.

As Dave Ralis noted in his blog, State Rep. Greg Vitali of Delaware County was the only person who voted against the bill since his amendment to the bill requiring specifics on who’s paying off who was stripped out of it. As Vitali noted:

“Lobbyists have become not information providers, not educators; they’ve become our friends. They’ve become people who buy us rounds of golf, buy us dinners in the finest restaurants…”
Though the Courier Times did the right thing by drawing attention to this continued “feathering of this foul nest” in Harrisburg, I think it’s important to note that the paper did not identify Perzel or anyone else in the House Repug leadership in doing so. They kept their criticisms in the abstract, attacking the defects of the final bill instead of those responsible for the existence of those defects.

Of course, I know they’ll show no such reticence if Patrick Murphy or some other Democrat does not immediately fall into lockstep with the next Repug scheme that will be unveiled as we approach Election Day in November.

Monday, June 26, 2006

A Port Of Last Resort

I’ve been meaning to get to this for about the last two weeks, but William Finnegan, a reporter for The New Yorker, wrote an excellent article on the Port of New York and New Jersey in the magazine’s June 19th issue. It’s a very detailed and well-crafted look at the port’s operation and an interview with people well-versed in the port’s storied history. The main theme of the article, as you may expect, is how vulnerable the port is to terrorism, and Finnegan posed the question of how a ship could be used as a weapon.

“It could be a loaded oil tanker, intended to be used as a bomb, or to take down a bridge. Or maybe a bad guy plans to sink a ship in the middle of Kill Van Kull (the entrance to Newark Bay where the biggest container terminals reside). That would stop about eighty percent of our container traffic, “ according to Captain (Glenn) Wiltshire, U.S. Coast Guard and Captain of the Port of New York and New Jersey. “We’re also on the lookout for a U.S.S. Cole-type attack.” He was referring to the al Qaeda attack, in 2000, in Yemen, by a bomb-filled dinghy against a Navy destroyer, which killed seventeen American sailors.
Port security, based on Finnegan’s excellent article, seemed to be a patch work of informal contacts, timely expertise, insider smarts, hard work, and luck. And as far as increased inspections at the ports is concerned (for purposes of ferreting out potentially dangerous cargo)…

“Charles Schumer was pushing for one hundred percent container inspection. That would kill the port!,” a quote attributed to Shmuel Yahalom, a transportation economist at SUNY Maritime in the Bronx.
And given the huge revenues at stake here, take three guesses who has been leading the charge against tighter port security (the first two don’t count):

…Companies like Wal-Mart have been actively working against stronger port and container security laws since shortly after the 9/11 terror attacks. The Retail Industry Leaders Association, a Washington lobby dominated by Wal-Mart, actually boasted, in a 2005 report to its members, about its “continued industry leadership in opposition to ill-advised ad onerous port security measures (i.e., cargo fees, increased physical inspections).”
Another potential danger area according to Finnegan could come from the trucks that regularly access the port to receive freight that will be transported over land. According to the article…

…port trucking is a badly paid, precarious line of work, pursued only by the economically desperate. Most of the truckers at the major ports are Latino immigrants, and a good percentage of them are undocumented. (Bill Brush, of Customs and Border Protection, told me, “If you were to make a firm policy that, say, (the ports of) Los Angeles and Long Beach had to check the immigration bona fides of every trucker, you’d have a major trucker shortage. You’d have a trade breakdown.”) In May, ninety per cent of the drivers at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach took part in the nationwide work boycott in support of immigrants’ rights.”

Port trucking is also a port-security problem. The Department of Homeland Security recently conducted a study of nine thousand truckers who work in the Port of New York and New Jersey. All had been issued identification cards that gave them access to the entire port. According to a draft of a study obtained by the Associated Press, nearly half of the drivers had criminal records, and about five hundred were carrying phony drivers licenses.
And what leaves the port more than anything else?

“Empty containers are the Port of New York and New Jersey’s biggest export, followed by wastepaper and scrap metal. The wastepaper mainly goes to China, and comes back later as paper goods. No empty containers arrive.”
So we send our trash to China, and they actually manufacture it into something for reuse. Wasn’t there a time when this country did stuff like that?

And speaking of our “good friend” and trading sugar daddy (do you see the same linkage here I do between this country and the Walton family?), I read this excerpt and felt like banging my head against a table for a few hours.

The main Chinese ports are essentially brand new. “New York-New Jersey is ten to fifteen years behind China in port technology,” Chang Qian Guan, a professor of maritime science at the United States Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, New York, told (Finnegan).

This link takes you to a Q&A with Finnegan in which he gets into a lot more detail concerning what I’ve mentioned above, as well as the issue of mob control of the port.

No Love In The Sunshine State

I wonder what will arise next with Flush Limbore? (I know - that was cheap).

Don't you just love how people who think they're better than everybody else think they live by another set of rules? I mean, if I'm leaving the country with a scrip, I'd better make damn sure it has my name on it somewhere, along with the ID of the drug ("Privacy concerns?" Nice legal trick, Mr. "America Trusts Rush"!).

And who knew that OxyContin, and possibly Hydrocodone and Xanax, could be a gateway to (horrors!) Viagra?

I was thinking of giving this clown a pass until I actually went to his home page and saw that he was trying to smear PA Representative Jack Murtha with some innuendo about ABSCAM, and the obligatory freeper ridicule of Al Gore for pointing out what is patently obvious to anyone with reasonably functioning brain matter; namely, that man-made greenhouse gasses are slowly extinguishing human life on this planet.

Of course, Murtha never actually took the money, but what do trivial things like facts matter to Dr. Feelgood?

I'm sure Donovan McNabb of the Eagles is too classy of an individual to revel in Limbaugh's misfortune, given Flush's crash-and-burn episode of supposed football analysis. And I won't say anything else except to point out that both of this supreme egotist's legal run-ins took place in The Land Of Jeb Bush And The Cartoon Rodent, so maybe he'd better take another route home the next time he goes looking for hookers in the Dominican Republic.

"The Sky Is Falling With WMD!"

So you thought Little Ricky was the only Repug jumping up and down last week about supposedly finding WMD in Iraq which, as it turned out, were canisters of an expired chemical agent that David Kay knew about anyway.

Au contraire!

Nope, it turns out that the one and only Crazy Curt Weldon was hot on the phony trail also (as Tom Ferrick, Jr. of the Inquirer noted here, where he includes this humorous excerpt):

"So, let's add it up: Don't tell the Democrats [about WMD's]. Don't tell anyone in the intelligence community. Don't tell the Department of Defense. Just go to a war zone and dig up the WMD's Gaubatz believed he had located for a photo op. Strikes me as weird. Strikes me as whacky. Strikes me as typical Weldon."
Also, as long as we’re talking Iraq here, Bob Cesca of The Huffington Post caught Russ Feingold going toe-to-toe with Timmeh of “Bleat The Press” yesterday, in which The Only Democrat Who Totally And Completely Gets It pointed out that Gen. George Casey is advocating a plan for drawing down troops in Iraq similar to what the Democrats have offered for which they have been flayed and pilloried mercilessly by the Repugs who, after all, created the mess anyway by not listening to anyone who ACTUALLY KNEW WHAT WAS GOING ON BEFORE BUSHCO DECIDED TO START A PRE-EMPTIVE WAR BASED ON LIES!

(Oh, and one more thing - I forgot this a few minutes ago - but speaking of lies, I've roundly chastised Joe Biden for quite appropriate reasons, but he had a good comeback for Billion Dollar Cheney recently.)

Update: Here's something else I forgot to link to (slipping, Doomsy...get with the program!) - this good question, which is where and how did Little Ricky get those declassified docs anyway?

Class Warfare 101

Regarding Dubya’s time-worn fiction that illegal (“undocumented”…whatever) workers perform jobs “that Americans won’t do,” this item from Bloomberg news bludgeons that bit of propaganda pretty thoroughly, particularly this paragraph:

"The idea that somehow you have a need for people to do jobs that Americans won't do is just insane,'' says George Borjas, an economist at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who has written extensively about immigration and wages. He says that as immigrants flow into an occupation, ``the wage goes down, and you go do something else."
And this story from USA Today notes why nothing will change (particularly this paragraph):

“The Bush administration is committed to a policy of non-enforcement, and that's why the overall effort at enforcement is going to fail," says Steven Camarota, research director at the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington, D.C., non-profit research group focused on immigration. "We don't do anything to employers who hire illegals. There's a complete lack of commitment."
Meanwhile, the beat goes on and we are left to fight the battles that keep us merely from sinking instead of actually getting ahead.

Monday Repug Lowlights

So Sen. John Warner voted in favor of amnesty for Iraqis who kill our troops because he wanted the Iraqi people “to take this decision unto themselves, and make it correctly”?

Has this man grown senile?

As Carl Levin so accurately pointed out, it’s apparently not enough that over 2,500 of our soldiers have died for this fiasco. Now, we can’t even stand behind them enough to punish their murderers?

Also from the “Big Brother Is On The March” department, we have a choice outburst from Rep. Peter King of New York, who wants Bushco to prosecute the New York Times for publishing the story that our government is now “secretly monitoring the financial transactions of suspected terrorists.”

There’s no other way to say this; King is an idiot for defending this failed regime.

As I and others have said many, many, many, many, MANY times, if Bushco really wanted to play ball with our system of due process, it could go get an order to conduct surveillance from a court, and I somehow don’t think it would have a problem with extending that order for as long as necessary. But the simple fact is that they don’t want to do that because they don’t want to govern; they want to rule. It has been that way and it will ALWAYS be that way as long as they are in power (and I have a suggestion for what Dubya can do with that finger, by the way, but I really am trying to watch it with the swear words).

Warner is not up for election this year in Virginia (his fellow Repug George Allen is, and to help Allen’s Democrat opponent Jim Webb, click here), but King is running in New York, and here’s more information on his potential opponents. I haven’t been able to find web sites for either David Mejias or Jim Brown, but if I do, I’ll link to them from here.