Political MoJo

Homeland Security's Legal Loophole

| Tue Nov. 28, 2006 1:15 PM EST

Cross-posted from The Tortellini:

The Washington Post reported last week that the Department of Homeland Security has shown complete ineptness in contracting for a host of anti-terrorism services and devices. These include everything from airport screening machines to radiation detectors. The Post notes that DHS has wasted billions of dollars on security stuff, much of which doesn't work.

I find these stories especially disturbing because in creating the department, Congress allowed DHS to grant legal immunity to the manufacturers of anti-terrorism products. That means victims of a terrorist attack would not be able to sue a manufacturer if, say, its gas mask failed to filter out anthrax spores as promised.

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More of Democracy's Downside in the Middle East

| Tue Nov. 28, 2006 2:13 AM EST

As in Egypt, the Palestinian territories and Iraq, so in Bahrain. Given the chance to vote more or less freely, even for a Parliament with limited powers, voters in the island kingdom overwhelmingly threw their support behind Islamist parties. Their secular liberal opponents were stomped flat.

Death Sentences Dropping

| Tue Nov. 28, 2006 2:00 AM EST

Hurray for DNA! Thanks in large part to all those guys who keep getting exonerated from death row, the number of death sentences juries have handed down in execution-happy Texas has dropped by more than half in the last ten years, from 40 in 1996 to just 14 this year. That fits the pattern nationwide, where death sentences have fallen from about 300 per year in the 1990s to 125 in 2005. Even Texas' Harris County, which has sent more residents to Death Row than any other jurisdiction in America in recent decades, only sentenced three people to be executed this year.

Brownback May Block Bush's Nominee For U.S. District Court Judgeship

| Mon Nov. 27, 2006 9:15 PM EST

Judge Janet T. Neff, a member of the Michigan Court of Appeals, is George W. Bush's nominee for a spot on the U.S. District Court. Neff has a long-time neighbor who is a lesbian, and in 2002, she attended her friend's commitment ceremony in Massachusetts. According to Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, Neff's attendance gave the appearance that she "betrayed her legal views on gay marriage."

Apparently, whether Neff favors gay marriage or not, Brownback thinks it would be perfectly fine for her to betray her friendship and hurt her friend's feelings. Such is the complexity of "family values."

The senator says he does not believe Neff should automatically be disqualified because she attended the ceremony. "I'm still looking at the Neff situation, and I will in the future," he said.

Foreign Aid Used to Manipulate U.N. Votes

| Mon Nov. 27, 2006 8:46 PM EST

From the Atlantic (sub only):

The occupants of the ten rotating seats on the United Nations Security Council may, in effect, be trading their votes for cash, argues an article in The Journal of Political Economy. When nations begin their two-year terms on the Security Council, the aid they receive directly from the UN jumps 8 percent. Once a country's term expires, aid immediately drops to pre-membership levels, leading the authors to reject the possibility that temporary members receive more aid because they have become more visible. During periods when the Security Council is very active (and when temporary members' votes are more valuable), annual aid for developing countries holding temporary seats rises 166 percent. The authors single out the United States as an especially likely vote buyer: rotating members receive 59 percent more U.S. foreign aid while on the council, and their gains in direct UN aid come primarily via UNICEF, an organization seen as a center of U.S. influence.

For more [pdf]: "How Much Is a Seat on the Security Council Worth? Foreign Aid and Bribery at the United Nations," Ilyana Kuziemko and Eric Werker, The Journal of Political Economy

Did Exxon Nix Showing "An Inconvenient Truth" in Schools?

| Mon Nov. 27, 2006 4:54 PM EST

That's the theory put forth by Laurie David in the Washington Post, describing how the National Science Teachers Association rejected an offer to send 50,000 free copies of Al Gore's shockumentary to schools. The NSTA claimed that it didn't want to distribute materials from "special interests" and besides, the film offered "little, if any, benefit to NSTA or its members." And, oh yeah—it might tick off the global-warming deniers at Exxon:

But there was one more curious argument in the e-mail: Accepting the DVDs, they wrote, would place "unnecessary risk upon the [NSTA] capital campaign, especially certain targeted supporters." One of those supporters, it turns out, is the Exxon Mobil Corp.

That's the same Exxon Mobil that for more than a decade has done everything possible to muddle public understanding of global warming and stifle any serious effort to solve it.

While the NSTA won't distribute science-based documentaries like Gore's, it does promote curricula from companies including Exxon:

And it has been doing so for longer than you may think. NSTA says it has received $6 million from the company since 1996, mostly for the association's "Building a Presence for Science" program, an electronic networking initiative intended to "bring standards-based teaching and learning" into schools, according to the NSTA Web site. Exxon Mobil has a representative on the group's corporate advisory board. And in 2003, NSTA gave the company an award for its commitment to science education.

So much for special interests and implicit endorsements.

Exxon may be funding more than just innocuous science materials. Laurie reports that its free lesson plans for teachers include "propaganda challenging global warming."

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The Press is Less and Less Protected in America: An Update from the Front Lines

| Mon Nov. 27, 2006 4:28 PM EST

One for the "War on the Press" file. Back when the 2006 Press Freedom Rankings were released -- with the U.S. placing a depressing 53rd -- Mother Jones made mention of the plight of Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams, the indicted-and-likely-to-be-jailed San Francisco Chronicle reporters who used leaked grand jury testimony to expose the Balco steroid scandal. Today, the New York Times hangs out with Fainaru-Wada and Williams' lawyer, as she fights on behalf of Hearst employees, usually reporters, who are having their notebooks, phone logs, and personal correspondence forced open by the federal government. She does not see the plight of the press becoming any easier:

In the last 18 months, she says, her company has received 80 newsgathering subpoenas, for broadcast stations, newspapers and magazines. "But that was after the Judy Miller case," she said, mentioning the case in which the former New York Times reporter went to jail to protect a source. "In the two years before that, we had maybe four or five subpoenas. We didn't even keep track."

And as for Fainaru-Wada and Williams, the lawyer says:

"This is the single biggest case I have ever been involved in," she added. "In terms of the public's right to know what the government does and doesn't do, it is huge. If the government wins in this case, every reporter's notebook will be available to the government for the asking....You won't get the Watergate story, you won't get the Pentagon Papers."

In The Good Fight, Peter Beinart argues that America's brightest policymakers in the early Cold War period realized that a strong American foreign policy required a thriving domestic polity. That is to say, in order to spread (or attempt to spread) an American vision abroad, the American public needed to be healthy and whole, with each member given an equal chance to a succeed and a set of rights that were respected and protected. One wonders if the Bush Administration needs a reminder: You make a less convincing argument for democracy to the Iraqis and Afghanis (and Iranians and Syrians) when you go around tossing the fourth estate in prison.

K Street's New 800-lb Gorilla

| Mon Nov. 27, 2006 4:10 PM EST

Just in time to face down Washington's new regulatory mavens, the two major Wall Street lobbying groups, representing securities and bonds traders, have merged this year into a behemoth. Reports the Washington Post:

The Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association, with a budget of $80 million, is the main mouthpiece for the financial services industry, the biggest corporate player in national politics. Only organized labor donates more to candidates for federal offices.

When added together, SIFMA's political action committees gave more than $1 million during the 2006 election season, putting the organization in the top 25 of all PACs. Its combined $8.5 million in spending on federal lobbying last year placed it in the top 30.

The association will need all that and more. It's already at the center of some of the most heated, high-stakes battles on Capitol Hill. It has begun to question the regulatory requirements under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act and wants to extend the temporary, multibillion-dollar tax breaks for profits garnered from stocks and bonds.

Don't expect Democrats to shoot this new K-Street Kong off the ramparts. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's top campaign donors? Securities and investment companies. Her supporters in Silicon Valley have argued Sarbanes-Oxley creates too many roadblocks to taking companies public. The Speaker supports reforming the law. Look for proposed administrative changes to Sarbanes by the SEC in a week or two.

"Peace on Earth and Goodwill to Men": A Homily of the Radical Left?

| Mon Nov. 27, 2006 2:12 PM EST

Does this mean the Christmas carol is now an anti-war chant?

DENVER (AP) -- A homeowners association in southwestern Colorado has threatened to fine a resident $25 a day until she removes a Christmas wreath with a peace sign that some say is an anti-Iraq war protest or a symbol of Satan.

Some residents who have complained have children serving in Iraq, said Bob Kearns, president of the Loma Linda Homeowners Association in Pagosa Springs. He said some residents have also believed it was a symbol of Satan. Three or four residents complained, he said.

''Somebody could put up signs that say drop bombs on Iraq. If you let one go up you have to let them all go up,'' he said in a telephone interview Sunday.

What to ban next? Melting snowmen! Red and blue christmas lights! And Far, Far Away on Judea's Plains, to be sure.

Mass Extinction Led to Reordering of Marine Ecosystems

| Mon Nov. 27, 2006 10:12 AM EST

Scientists have recently discovered that the "Great Dying," 250 million years ago when a massive extinction wiped out nearly 95 percent of marine life and 70 percent of land species, also brought about a fundamental change in the ecology of the oceans.

Published in Friday's Science, a report from scientists with The Field Museum in Chicago have found that ecologically simple marine communities were displaced by complex communities initiating a new pattern that has continued since: the dominance of higher-metabolism, mobile organisms like snails, clams and crabs that go out and find their own food over the older groups of low-metabolism, stationery organisms that filter nutrients from the water.

The scientists were studying how life forms in the oceans changed over the last 540 million years when they stumbled on the data which shows that there had been sudden relative abundance in marine life shortly after the "great dying."

An accompanying article suggests that this striking change escaped detection until now because previous research relied on single numbers--such as the number of species alive at one particular time or the distribution of species in a local community--to track the diversity of marine life while this research used a huge repository of fossil data in the new Paleobiology Database.

This is only the beginning of what this cool sounding database will tell us about the earth and its species' early tracks. The lead author of the study, Peter J. Wagner says, "We think these are the first analyses of this type at this large scale."

"Tracing how marine communities became more complex over hundreds of millions of years is important because it shows us that there was not an inexorable trend towards modern ecosystems. If not for this one enormous extinction event at the end of the Permian, then marine ecosystems today might still be like they were 250 million years ago."

These results also might cause scientists to shift their view of how humans are affecting marine ecosystems today. Wagner added: "Studies by modern marine ecologists suggest that humans are reducing certain marine ecosystems to something reminiscent of 550 million years ago, prior to the explosion of animal diversity. The asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs couldn't manage that."

The research is new, the whys are still unclear, but for now this discovery is opening the door to exciting areas of research that hopefully can better inform us on the history, and the mysteries, of the deep.