Political MoJo

Is Congress Doing Enough to Clean Itself Up? Can You Guess?

| Thu Jul. 6, 2006 4:29 PM EDT

Six months ago, Jack Abramoff pled guilty to conspiracy, fraud and tax evasion, upon which members of Congress, evincing much faux outrage, lamented the corrupting influence of lobbyist-paid travel, meals, and gifts, and the immorality of earmarking, and issued loud calls for wholesale ethics reform.

It's now July, and, as the Washington Post recently reported, the "call for lobbying changes is a fading cry." (Which is another way of saying lawmakers were never interested in reform and have all along assumed the public would lose interest in the subject, allowing them to resume business as usual.)

[Lobbying reform] legislation has slowed to a crawl. Along the way, proposals such as [Speaker Dennis] Hastert's that would sharply limit commonplace behavior on Capitol Hill have been cast aside. Committee chairmen once predicted the bill would be finished in March, but the Senate did not pass its ethics bill until March 29 and the House passed its version May 3. The House has yet to name negotiators to draft the final package.

Legislators and public-interest group advocates say the most likely result this year is a minimalist package that would allow members to say they have responded to the Abramoff situation and other scandals but would do little to crimp their ability to accept lobbyist favors.

The change, these people say, reflects a calculation that the political storm has mostly passed and that the need for more intrusive efforts to alter the congressional culture and the lobbyist-lawmaker relationship is less urgent.

Of course, how urgent the efforts are is a direct function of how much heat representatives get from the folks back home. In an admirable attempt to gauge the public mood and send a message to Capitol Hill, the Sunlight Foundation has just posted an online poll asking Americans if they think Congress is doing enough to address ethics and lobbying reform. You can do your bit by taking the poll here.

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Cheney Profiting Off Bad News?

| Thu Jul. 6, 2006 3:20 PM EDT

Where's Dick Cheney investing his money these days? See here. Apparently he's betting that the Bush administration's large deficits will drive down the dollar, drive up interest rates, and cause inflation. Who knew?

Censoring the Military Embeds

| Thu Jul. 6, 2006 2:40 PM EDT

One could devote a lifetime—or at least the better part of a year—to chronicling all the propaganda-like tricks the Bush administration and the military have pursued over the past few years. Here's a new one, courtesy of Rod Norland, Newsweek's former bureau chief:

The military has started censoring many [embedded reporting] arrangements. Before a journalist is allowed to go on an embed now, [the military] check[s] the work you have done previously. They want to know your slant on a story — they use the word slant — what you intend to write, and what you have written from embed trips before. If they don't like what you have done before, they refuse to take you. There are cases where individual reporters have been blacklisted because the military wasn't happy with the work they had done on embed.
What's fun here is that the two sides in the ongoing debate over the Iraq war can see this development with radically different eyes. The pro-war camp—that is, the camp that believes that the war's basically going well despite some setbacks, and that we can pacify Iraq and "win" if only the American public would just backbone up for the long haul, and that only the media can "lose" this war by reporting too much bad news and causing people to doubt the wisdom of the occupation—well, they'll likely applaud this decision and say that the military has no obligation to take on reporters working at cross-purposes with the war effort.

The anti-war camp, of course, will say that accurate reporting is necessary so that the public can see that this war is an utter failure and our continuing presence only making things worse and getting people killed, and that having the military censor the media will only obfuscate that reality and prolong our futile presence in Iraq. I'm certainly of that camp, and think the accuracy of those "cheerleading" journalists who would no doubt be approved by military censors tends to leave much to be desired… Needless to say, this isn't a good development at all.

A Picture of Iraqi School Life

Thu Jul. 6, 2006 1:59 PM EDT

Today's Washington Post features a riveting article on a subject little-broached in the American media—namely, the everyday lives of Iraqis, in this case Iraqi university students. The picture is not a pretty one:

The letter was slipped under the dean's office door, in an envelope slightly bulging from the AK-47 bullet tucked inside.

"You have to understand our circumstances. We cannot perform well on the exam because of the problems in Baghdad. And you have to help," the letter began, said its recipient, A.M. Taleb, dean of the College of Sciences at Baghdad University. "If you do not, you and your family will be killed."

It's finals time in Iraq. Black-clad gunmen have stormed a dormitory to snatch students from their rooms. Professors fear failing and angering their pupils. Administrators curtailed graduation ceremonies to avoid convening large groups of people into an obvious bombing target. Perhaps nowhere else does the prospect of two months' summer vacation -- for those who can afford it, a chance to flee the country -- bring such unbridled relief.

The article reports that female students at the university have been targets of intimidation, forced to dress and act more conservatively lest they come under attack by the religious extremists increasingly prevalent on the campus. It's not news that Iraqi women have suffered disproportionately from the violence engulfing their country. A report published by Human Rights Watch last October declared, "The violence and lack of security has had a major impact on Iraqi women, who once enjoyed a public role in the country's social and political life." Meanwhile, allegations of the abuse of Iraqi women by American soldiers had surfaced long before the recent investigation into an alleged rape and murder in Mahmudiya.

Global warming tied to forest fires

| Thu Jul. 6, 2006 1:56 PM EDT

A government-supported study hits the internets today connecting global warming to the increase, in recent years, in the number of large western wildfires.

AP reports:

Beginning about 1987, there was a change from infrequent fires averaging about one week in duration to more frequent ones that often burned five weeks or more, [researchers] reported. The length of the wildfire season was extended by 78 days.

The researchers said the changes appear to be linked to annual spring and summer temperatures, with many more wildfires burning in hotter years than in cooler years.

They also found a connection between early arrivals of the spring snowmelt in the mountainous regions and the incidence of large forest fires. An earlier snowmelt, they said, can lead to an earlier and longer dry season, which provides greater opportunities for large fires.

Says one researcher, "The increase in large wildfires appears to be another part of a chain of reactions to climate warming," while another calls the findings "one of the first big indicators of climate change impacts in the continental United States."

As the AP story notes, researchers say part of the increase is likely a function of natural fluctuations, but evidence also links it to the effects of human-induced climate warming. The report appears today in the journal Science.

While we're on the subject, check out Mother Jones' recent special issue on global warming.

Good news for whales (for a change)

| Thu Jul. 6, 2006 1:14 PM EDT

We've been pretty short on good oceans-related news of late, but here's an exception! On Monday a district judge issued a temporary restraining order blocking the use of high-intensity sonar by the U.S. Navy during its war games now taking place off Hawaii. She gave the Navy and the Natural Resources Defense Council until July 12 to meet and discuss a possible settlement ahead of a July 18 hearing. (NRDC and other organizations filed suit asking for the restraining order last week.)

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As we've reported in the past, Navy sonar has been directly implicated in mass strandings and deaths of whales, dolphins, and other marine species.

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(Note: Before anyone asks, these here marine mammals are not really wearing ear muffs; the image has been photoshopped.)

The decision comes three days after the Pentagon saw fit to declare the Navy exempt from the Marine Mammals Protection Act, which requires that steps be taken to avoid harm to marine mammals.

In her ruling, District Judge Florence-Marie Cooper wrote that environmentalists had submitted "considerable convincing scientific evidence that the Navy's use of...sonar can kill, injure and disturb many species, including marine mammals."

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A bad day for gay marriage

| Thu Jul. 6, 2006 12:57 PM EDT

Yesterday was a big (bad) day for the cause of gay marriage rights. Georgia's top court reinstated the state's constitutional ban on same. New York's highest court decided that same-sex marriage is not permitted under state law. And a conservative group, American Family Association of Michigan, sued to stop Michigan State University from offering health insurance to the partners of gay and lesbian workers. The group hopes to establish a precedent blocking domestic partner benefits at other state universities.

What do they do, sell the stuff on Ebay?

| Thu Jul. 6, 2006 2:06 AM EDT

It's always fun, the annual roundup of gift-giving to U.S. officials from foreign dignitaries; under current ethics rules, presents worth more than $305 are considered property of the U.S. government while those less than that are the recipient's to keep, though exactly what you'd do with "a 16-inch bronze statuette of an Arab man helping a woman from a bath, mounted on a black-slate base, valued at $300" is not entirely clear (you'd have to ask former CIA head George Tenet, who got the artwork from an unnamed foreign official). Hillary Clinton turned a Versace wallet she was given in India over to the State Department, whose rummage sales must be something to see. Donald Rumsfeld, meanwhile, didn't get to keep the $380 aromatherapy gift set he got from the Jordanian royals around Christmas '04. Pity that.

Oceans getting more acidic, threatening corals

| Wed Jul. 5, 2006 7:31 PM EDT

In news of ocean degradation unrelated to Rep. Richard Pombo, a new report finds that all this CO2 we're putting in the atmosphere is making the world's oceans more acidic, threatening to destroy coral reefs and "creatures that underpin the sea's food web." One climate scientist calls the trend "the single most profound environmental change I've learned about in my entire career."(Washington Post)

For more on the sorry state of our oceans, see Mother Jones' recent cover story here. Learn what you can do to turn the tide here. And find out more about coral reefs here and here.

Will Bush flip-flop on immigration?

| Wed Jul. 5, 2006 7:01 PM EDT

Joe Klein is going to be terribly disappointed. Here he is writing in May about the split between the White House and the Congressional GOP over immigration policy. The column ran under the headline, "Bush Is Smart on the Border--and the G.O.P. Isn't"

George W. Bush's position on immigration has been consistent and honorable, even when he was clawing his way toward the Republican nomination in 2000, facing conservative audiences who inevitably asked hostile questions about the Mexicans coming across the border. ... He stood by his principles again last week in his prime-time speech, promising to make a greater effort to protect the border while refusing to cave to conservative pressure against a pathway toward citizenship for the 12 million illegals already here. ...[I]t is never easy going against your party's base. ...

[T]he strongest feelings against immigrants tend to come from the places—red-state rural counties—where immigrants don't exist: 59% of voters in counties where immigrants make up less than 5% of the population believe that all illegals should be deported. That constituency is as ancient as the Republic, perennially exploited by unscrupulous politicians who are willing to play to their racial fears—the Democrats for a century after the Civil War, the Republicans ever since.

Today comes word that Bush is signalling, as the New York Times puts it, "a new willingness to negotiate with House Republicans in an effort to revise the stalled [immigration] legislation before Election Day.

Republicans both inside and outside the White House say Mr. Bush, who has long insisted on comprehensive reform, is now open to a so-called enforcement-first approach that would put new border security programs in place before creating a guest worker program or path to citizenship for people living in the United States illegally. ...

Polls show the public is deeply troubled by the problem of illegal immigration, and Mr. Bush, who has made the issue his domestic policy initiative, is eager for a victory on Capitol Hill. But a carefully constructed White House strategy to prod the House and Senate into compromise collapsed last month when skittish House Republicans opted for field hearings instead. ...

One major question is whether Mr. Bush would give up on a path to citizenship for some of the estimated 11 million to 12 million people living here illegally. He has said repeatedly that it is impractical to deport those who have lived in the United States for a long time and built lives here; the Senate bill permits some longtime illegal residents to become eligible for citizenship if they learned English and paid taxes and a fine. ...

Whether Mr. Bush would accept that is not clear. Aides to Mr. Bush, including Karl Rove, the White House chief political strategist, and Tony Snow, the press secretary, say he remains adamant that any bill must address the status of the immigrants who are here illegally.

But one Republican close to the White House, granted anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, predicted that Mr. Bush would ultimately abandon the idea of a path to citizenship.

And if he does, immigration reform will die this year, and it'll be much harder to make a case for Bush's "consistency and honor" on the issue.