In March, shortly after President Barack Obama signed an extension of the Violence Against Women Act into law, the Justice Department's Office on Violence Against Women sent an email to the hundreds of nonprofits and government agencies around the country that rely on its annual grants. The message was grim: Due to cuts mandated by the 2011 Budget Control Act, better known as sequestration, programs that fight domestic violence and sexual assault would see a $20 million drop in funding over the next year. It was Washington at its most inept: Almost immediately after renewing VAWA, a popular law intended to help victims of abuse, Congress had stunted its own efforts, leaving already cash-strapped programs looking for ways to scrape by.
In the months since sequestration kicked in, Congress acted swiftly to restore funding for tuition aid for active-duty service members and prevent unpopular furloughs at the Federal Aviation Administration. But lawmakers have shown little interest in restoring funding to programs that deal with domestic violence and sexual assault.
"The tower is understaffed and the rescue plane can't land," says Kim Gandy, president and CEO National Network to End Domestic Violence. "We're talking about really vital services to people who are already in a terrible situation and really in need of emergency services—and there aren't alternatives."
Texas GOP Sen. Ted Cruz might run for president. That's been apparent for a while, but it was confirmed most recently on Wednesday, when the National Review's Bob Costa cited Cruz confidantes who believe their guy could be "a Barry Goldwater type...but with better electoral results." The case for Cruz, according to Cruz, is that he is uniquely positioned to capture the kind of grassroots conservative activists who propelled him to victory in his 2012 Senate primary.
If nothing else, Cruz seems determined to hold onto those right-wing supporters. That might explain why, last week, he and and eight other Republican senators signed onto a letter to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan opposing the Common Core curriculum standards, which the Department of Education has been encouraging states to adopt. As I reported last month, Common Core has attracted criticism from all sides of the education debate, and for a variety of reasons. Some advocates decry the lack of flexibility it affords local school districts. Others, like Diane Ravitch, think it's a great idea but should be purely voluntary. And still others, specifically grassroots conservative activists, believe it is nothing less than back-door brainwashing—part of a global push to indoctrinate kids into a socialist worldview. That's the Glenn Beck view, anyway.
Cruz's letter is comparatively tame. Put simply: He wants the Department of Education to back off. But it's a move that's sure to please the conservative base in the weeks and months ahead. Here's the letter:
Meanwhile, here's a letter from Tuesday signed by 34 Republican congressmen, including Rand Paul acolytes Justin Amash (Mich.) and Thomas Massie (Ky.):
"It's outrageous!" thunders the recently retired 10-term Republican congressman from Maryland. "It's outrageous!"
The source of his ire is a stack of newspaper clippings about 20 feet away from where he's standing in the wood-paneled ballroom of National Press Club in downtown DC. For the last three days, Bartlett and five other retired members of Congress have been holding hearings on the "truth embargo"—that is, the government's decades-long silence on unidentified flying objects. Next to the empty bottle of Honest Tea orange–mango Honest Ade, which he has been drinking out of a wine glass, Bartlett has a pile of stories from mainstream news sources that have dismissed the privately organized hearings. On top is a New York Daily News story featuring a photo of a woman with a headband featuring a "third eye" that, she maintains, allows her to contact beings in other dimensions. (It includes this caption: "Ex-Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (center) and ex-Sen. Mike Gravel (right) listen to testimony without cracking a smile.")
The hearings are being sponsored by the Paradigm Research Group, the nation's only organization dedicated to lobbying Washington on UFO disclosure. Its president, Stephen Bassett, is a full-time lobbyist on this front.
(MoJo readers might remember Bassett for his theory that alien technology recovered at Roswell holds the secret to stopping climate change, and for his endorsement of the Exopolitics Institute, which contends that the Iraq War was a ruse to recover an ancient interstellar portal that had been buried in Mesopotamia.)
In addition to Bartlett, Bassett recruited former Reps. Carolyn Kilpatrick (D-Mich.), Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.), Darlene Hooley (D-Ore.), Merrill Cook (R-Utah), and ex-Sen. Mike Gravel (D-Alaska) to come to DC to hear testimony about aliens.
Bassett doesn't have much influence in Congress, but his organization apparently does have some money. The former members will receive $20,000 apiece for five days work.
"It helped," Woolsey says, of the honorarium. "It was nice, and I think…let's put it that way." As she puts maintains, it's standard operating procedure for retired politicians to make money on the speaking circuit; learning about UFOs is kind of like getting paid to speak to a trade association. Cook says the money was a big part of Bassett's pitch, but it's not why he's here. "Even though the fee was offered up first thing, that still didn't convince me," the barrel-chested former talk radio host says. "It really didn't." Kilpatrick called the honorarium "minuscule," adding, "And I'm appalled that someone would even raise that." Bartlett is likewise appalled that anyone would associate his participation in the hearings with the appearance fee. "It's an insult to infer that that's why I'm here." Hooley insists she's actually losing money by taking a week off from her consulting firm.
West, Texas reels after fertilizer plant explosion.
It didn't take long in the aftermath of April's explosion in West, Texas, for the problems with the fertilizer industry to come into focus. Inspections are virtually nonexistent; regulatory agencies don't talk to each other; and there's no such thing as a buffer zone when it comes to constructing plants and storage facilities in populated areas.
Lost in the fallout, though, is a damning fact: Fertilizer doesn't have to be explosive. Pure ammonium nitrate like the kind that caused the West disaster is already banned in the United Kingdom, Germany, Colombia, the Philippines, and China, due to its explosive risk; Australia's largest fertilizer manufacturer discontinued the use of the compound after it was used in the 2002 Bali hotel bombing. And the Department of Defense has pressured fertilizer manufacturers overseas to neutralize their own products, warning that anything less constitutes a threat to American personnel. But in the United States, with the backing of the chemical industry, explosive ammonium nitrate has held onto a small but powerful share of the market as the fertilizer of choice for citrus growers.
It wasn't for lack of opportunity. In the late 1960s, a chemist from Kansas, Charles Saffer, and an explosives engineer, Samuel Porter, began working in their spare-time to develop an antidote to the kind of destructive devices Porter had witnessed while stationed in Somalia with the US military. Porter and Saffer secured a patent for noncombustible fertilizer that involves diluting ammonium nitrate with diammonium phosphate. Because diammonium phosphate is itself used as fertilizer, the new compound was—in theory—still an effective agricultural compound. The duo enlisted a partner, Robert Colbert, and found a lawyer: a young Louisiana attorney named Billy Tauzin.
Starting March 1, federal programs and their state and local beneficiaries began grappling with $85.4 billion in cuts mandated by the Budget Control Act of 2011. Some programs have been spared—Congress voted to restore tuition assistance for members of the armed services and, just last week, restored funding to the Federal Aviation Administration to forestall flight-delaying furloughs. But for the most part, the cuts have remained intact. Six weeks in, we took a look at how sequestration is has impacted 50 states, from canceled festivals to shuttered Head Start programs to massive layoffs.
Birmingham: North Albama public defenders office furloughing 11 of 15 employees.
Huntsville: Huntsville Housing Authority, which provides heating, plumbing, and financial assistance, to serve 300 fewer people.
Jefferson County: Head Start program closing for 10 weeks, affecting 276 kids. Fifteen staffers will be furloughed.