Introducing "The Gavel"

Hey, Nancy Pelosi has a new blog, and it's legit! It's called "The Gavel," and it's a boon to C-SPAN junkies who can't watch TV during work hours. There's all sorts of neat video up now from House floor debate and Congressional hearings. It's wonky but cool. Also, be warned that it's kind of slow loading, either because there is so much video or because a ton of people are checking it out.

Take a look.

A Soldier's Take on Cutting the Funding

A DailyKos diarist who served in Iraq and Afghanistan weighs in on whether or not cutting funding for the war in Iraq will put the troops in danger. Very much worth a read.

Romney Follows Papa McCain's Lead on Pandering

CNN is reporting that Mitt Romney will give the commencement address at Pat Robertson's Regent University, just as John McCain, one of Romney's chief rivals for the 2008 Republican nomination, delivered the commencement address at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University last May.

First of all, how do all these guys get their own universities? Second, it's incredible how the religious right has these candidates on a leash. McCain's speech was part of a larger campaign to embrace the religious right, including forsaking his previously moderate views on Roe v. Wade; Romney's speech is part of a coordinated effort to fight his own moderate past and convince the right he is a true conservative, an effort that has included pulling a complete 180 on gay rights.

This is why I think Chuck Hagel has a chance to secure the Republican nomination: he is a conservative through and through with no weaknesses in his social record, and has bucked the party line on just two topics, the Iraq War and President Bush. He opposes both vehemently. Isn't that exactly what the polls indicate conservative voters want right now? The Republican nomination may end up depending on how well Chuck Hagel can make all of this apparent to the vast majority of American voters who have little idea who he is.

For years now, the Army has been stretching to keep its numbers up by compromising everything from enlistment standards to the quality of new recruits to the character of recruiters themselves. As Peter points out below, today's New York Times now warns us about the rash of waivers being given to incoming soldiers. Salon posted this snarky response under the headline "Need more recruits for Iraq? Take more criminals":

The good news: As the Times explains, "soldiers with criminal histories made up only" -- only! -- "11.7 percent of the Army recruits in 2006."

There are 52 million individuals in the FBI's Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System criminal history database; that's about 17% of Americans who've been in trouble for some crime at some point in their lives. So the percentage of recruits with criminal histories, less than 12%, is lower than that of the general population with criminal histories.

Moreover, people with criminal records don't equal lifetime criminals; working at a bank two years ago doesn't make you a teller any more than having sold pot in college makes you a dealer. It's not enough that ex-cons face employment discrimination and legal restrictions on where they can live in some states. The public is, evidently, so opposed to letting them establish legitimate lives that we don't even want them doing it in a war zone six thousand miles away.

—Nicole McClelland

A tornado system with twisters up to 135 miles per hour ripped through three major New Orleans neighborhoods early Tuesday morning, killing one person, injuring a few dozen, and doing what is estimated to be $20 million worth of damage. Several houses that had been rebuilt or almost rebuilt after Hurricane Katrina were torn apart, as were many FEMA trailers. Schools were closed, highways were shut down, piles of rubble were everywhere, trees were uprooted, and thousands of people were left without electricity.

Governor Kathleen Blanco declared a state of emergency yesterday afternoon, and asked the White House to do likewise. As of right now, late Wednesday night, the response from George W. Bush is that he will present the governor a timetable for when he will "consider" declaring the New Orleans area in a state of emergency.

If this sounds familiar, it should. The scenario lacks playful guitar strumming and a birthday cake at a desert resort, but it is all too similar to what happened in early September of 2005.

Bush declared an emergency within 24 hours of a tornado which recently struck Mississippi.

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From today's New York Times:

The number of waivers granted to Army recruits with criminal backgrounds has grown about 65 percent in the last three years, increasing to 8,129 in 2006 from 4,918 in 2003, Department of Defense records show.

It's actually a bigger story about the Army's change of standards regarding education, fitness, and criminal history (although not, of course, sexual orientation). For a helpful overview, check out Liz Gettelman's piece in the current issue of the magazine.

Al Qaeda Wants to Choke off U.S. Oil Supply

Al Qaeda called yesterday for attacks on U.S. oil suppliers worldwide, not just in the Middle East. The call came in the online newsletter of Al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia. (Yup, Al Qaeda has a website: Check out this nifty guide to jihad on the internet.)

The funny thing is, the new targets include Canada, Mexico and Venezuela. Can you imagine how psyched the Bushies would be to have Al Qaeda take out Hugo Chavez?

Poor Canada and Mexico are busy battening down the hatches, probably trying to figure out why, why this is happening to them.

For a handy-dandy reference on the role of oil in the U.S.'s battle with al Qaeda and the war in Iraq, go to the Mother Jones timeline, and click the oil tag.

State Farm Bails on Miss. Homeowners

State Farm announced today that it will stop writing new policies for homeowners in Mississippi. The action comes in the wake of $1.1 billion in payouts the company has made for Katrina-related lawsuits. The company's post-Katrina claim that water damage was not covered prompted even Trent Lott, notorious critic of frivolous lawsuits, to sue.

It's not global warming and the increasing risk of mega-hurricanes that has State Farm worried—insurance companies have been budgeting for environmental destruction for 30 years. Rather, State Farm's Mike Fernandez told the Washington Post, it's the "political and regulatory and legal environment" in the state. Lott always did call Mississippi "the center of jackpot justice." Too bad the state's residents will have to empty their wallets for pricier policies as a result of State Farm's action.

The Pure Products of America Go Crazy

Americans love their cars. A lot: We take 88 percent of all trips by car, pay high and unfair car insurance rates and tolerate 40,000 annual traffic-related deaths without flinching. Not to mention our parking woes.

Now with global warming hard and fast upon us and Democrats back in power, will the government take action to curb our enthusiasm for driving? Probably not, according to an article in the American Prospect.

Bush's proposed budget cuts funding for Amtrak and increases highway funding. The Democrats have requested a few additional pennies for railroads (remember mass transit?), but haven't said peep about the highway funding. Of course, the highway money could buy bike lanes, but it almost certainly won't. That's because improved mass transit has no one to lobby for it: The largest mass-transit lobby in the country has scarcely a dozen staffers. Meanwhile, big environmental groups tend to focus narrowly on saving land and species, failing to make a persuasive case against new roads or continued car emissions.

Americans' inability to rethink the car is what leads to dubious solutions like corn ethanol, which uses almost as much gas to produce as it replaces.

Full disclosure: I hate Mitt Romney. In the same blind, irrational, unflinching way that he hates me and the rest of the gays. So, when I began looking at The Fix's analysis of how Americans feel about a Mormon president, I hoped to find they weren't interested. But I'm a good person—really!—so I had to question my own base desires. What I came up with, besides the disclosure above, is that it's absurd for Romney to be running on a religious right platform. Since he doesn't believe in the same Christian values as the religious right, he's using religion, loosely defined, to justify a government that interferes in your private life without helping you out in any way (bye, bye Roe v. Wade, hello lower taxes for the rich). Either that or Romney thinks Mormonism should be the moral foundation for government, which makes far less sense than the also-problematic idea that Christianity should.

(By the way, the polls show that Americans are on the fence about voting for a Mormon candidate, which makes me think that a Mormon running on a religious platform won't make the cut.)

The polls the good little wonks over at WaPo parsed held another surprising tidbit. While a higher percentage of people indicated they would be "more likely" to vote for a candidate who was African-American than "less likely," fully twice as many said they would be less rather than more likely to vote for a female candidate (7 percent more/14 percent less). That's a strong showing for the women-aren't-as-competent contingent.

Isn't it hard to believe we're actually conducting polls about whether the U.S. is ready for anything other than a middle-aged Protestant white man for president? Dozens of countries have had female leaders and at least a handful have been led by members of an ethnic minority.