Political MoJo

Alito on Church and State

Tue Nov. 15, 2005 6:14 PM PST

Just days after the quiet town of Dover, Pa. ousted its evangelical school board, which had been intent on infusing its public school curriculum with intelligent design theories, the apparent church-state views of Samuel Alito, Bush's pick for the Supreme Court were revealed in a 1985 application released Monday by the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. In the application, Alito described not only his thoroughgoing conservatism, but also how his inspiration to study constitutional law stemmed in part from his opposition to a strong separation of church and state.

The young Alito states in his application, which he submitted to apply for a promotion within the Solicitor General's Office, that he strongly disagreed with church-state precedents forged by the Warren Court (1953-1969), including its famed exclusion of prayer and barring coerced participation in religious activities at public schools. In addition, reflecting upon his as assistantship to Reagan's Solicitor General, Alito remarked that he was "particularly proud" of their work "in which the government has argued…that the Constitution does not protect a right to an abortion." Although today Alito discounted his antagonism to Roe v. Wade expressed in his 1985 application, as the statements of "an advocate seeking a job."

In a court already conflicted on matters concerning religious beliefs—such as abortion, and allowing prayer in public schools—Alito's presence could prove decisive, noted Elliott Mincburg of PFAW. While the absence of a paper trail allowed John Roberts to slip through his congressional hearings without divulging his political opinions, Alito's public record paves the way for a probing inquisition into his beliefs. Sen. Charles E. Schumer, who sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee, told the Washington Times

Past nominees have said they could not discuss these issues for fear of creating a perception of bias. Here, unfortunately, the memo itself creates the perception of bias, and it will be crucial for this nominee to address the issue head-on.

President of PFAW, Ralph G. Neas, noted that "unlike Chief Justice John Roberts, Alito says these are his own strong personal views, and not just those of the administration he was working for."

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How Plan B Was Delayed

Tue Nov. 15, 2005 11:46 AM PST

A recent GAO report on the Food and Drug Administration's rejection of Plan B, an over-the-counter morning-after-pill, in 2004 tells the story of how the agency allowed political biases to override its own scientific assessments of the drug.

Conflicting reports suggest that that the FDA might have denied approval of Plan B before scientific tests were even completed. High-ranking FDA officials, including former commissioner Mark McClellan, were involved in the review of Plan B, derailing its passage before even hearing feedback from agency scientists. Investigators found that FDA officials had already stated that approval of Plan B would be rejected months before the decision was made. The Director of the Office of New Drugs, as well as the directors of the reviewing office, refused to sign the final review of the drug application, which had wide-support within the agency.

According to the GAO report, the Acting Director on the application review

was concerned about the potential behavior implications for younger adolescents of marketing Plan B OTC because of their level of cognitive development and that it was invalid to extrapolate data from older to younger adolescents.

However, it continues,

FDA review officials noted that the agency has not considered behavioral implications due to differences in cognitive development in prior OTC switch decisions and that the agency previously has considered it scientifically appropriate to extrapolate date from older to younger adolescents.

Plan B is the only over-the-counter drug denied by the FDA between 1994 and 2004. According to Planned Parenthood experts, expanding access to the drug "could prevent up to 1.7 million unintended pregnancies a year — and 800,000 abortions."

Citing a history of delays and setbacks, Planned Parenthood President Karen Pearl said the GAO report was confirmation that the FDA has put the politics of contraception before women's health. Senators Patty Murray and Hillary Clinton concurred in a statement saying that the report—originally requested by congressional representatives incensed by the 2004 block—"has confirmed what we have always suspected, that this was a politically motivated decision that came down from the highest levels at the F.D.A."

An FDA representative said that the agency stands behind its rejection of Plan B.

Democratic Hawks Forced to Identify Themselves

Tue Nov. 15, 2005 10:25 AM PST

Two amendments to a defense spending bill have come before the Senate in the last two days, both of which would ratchet up the pressure on the White House over the war in Iraq. The first, defeated yesterday by a voted of 58-40, was the Democrats' version (S.Amdt. 2519, amending S. 1042). It called for the White House to offer a plan for a phased withdrawal of the roughly 160,000 U.S. troops now in Iraq, among other things. The second was the Republican version, which just passed by a 79-19 margin (S.Amdt. 2518). It was essentially the same bill with the "phased withdrawal" language removed. Democrat Carl Levin of Michigan, who sponsored the first amendment, said he supported the second because it was the "second-best approach."

Lincoln Chaffee was the only Republican who voted in favor of the Democratic amendment. Five Dems voted against it. They are:

Kent Conrad (D-ND)
Joseph Lieberman (D-CT)
Bill Nelson (D-FL)
Ben Nelson (D-NE)
Mark Pryor (D-AR)

Not voting: Jon Corzine (D-NJ)

O'Reilly calls non-Judeo-Christians "crazy" for seeking recognition of their religious holidays

| Mon Nov. 14, 2005 3:55 PM PST

The recent controversy in Tampa over religious school holidays started when the Hillsborough County School Board voted, after much debate, to do away with school religious holidays. The board voted 6 to 1 to give Hilsborough County students three secular days off instead. A spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations described the move as "Just an excuse to hide bias against the Muslims," and the president of the Florida Council of Churches called the action "petty."

O'Reilly's take? "And to have these radical changes because somebody walks in and says, 'Look, I want a holiday because I'm a Buddhist, or I practice Shintoism. ... [W]hat are you, crazy?' "

According to O'Reilly, 85% of Americans identify as Christian (according to Media Matters for America, the correct figure is 77%), so it would be "fascist" to do away with recognition of America's Judeo-Christian heritage. An argument could be made, of course, that Native Americans did not practice Christianity until some of them were "converted," but when we are discussing the nation's religious heritage, we like to pretend that Native Americans do not exist. There is also a strong argument, bsaed on that prickly thing called historical fact, that the founding fathers were, for the most part, not Christian, but no one wants to hear that one, either.

At any rate, acknowledging that most Americans do identify as Christian today, it does not seem unreasonable to grant school children their Christian holidays off. But even a member of the Hillsborough County School Board showed a certain degree of cynicism about that when she declared Good Friday a secular holiday: "It is now about the Easter Bunny...They have taken religion out of it completely."

Certainly any student observing a serious religious holiday should be excused from school, and the Hillsborough County's school board agrreed to continue its policy of excusing a student who is observing such a day. The entire discussion became moot two weeks after the vote, however, when the board re-instated the religious holidays. Board members received 3,500 emails, many of which stated that Muslims were "foreigners" who did not deserve to have their religious holidays recognized by a Judeo-Christian culture.

As for O'Reilly, he has always advocated that America equals Christianity, and on paper, I suppose it does. But the Muslim religion is a major world religion, no matter what O'Reilly and the people of Tampa think of it. And more important, this is just not a good time in our history to imply that American Muslims are mentally impaired.

Stop the presses--F.D.A. declares condoms prevent pregnancy

| Fri Nov. 11, 2005 2:18 PM PST

The Food and Drug Administration has released a 63-page report that declares, among other things, that latex condoms are effective in preventing pregnancy and in reducing the risk of infection from sexually transmitted diseases and AIDS.
The report will form the basis on new condom packaging in the United States.

The F.D.A.'s report also concludes that latex condoms are less effective against genital herpes, syphillis, and the human papillomavirus than they are against potential pregnancy and other STD's. The human papillomavirus--the leading cause of cervical cancer--has become the subject of a new right-wing campaign to "protect" girls from being sexually active. There is now a vaccine that can be given to protect against the human papillomavirus, and it is expected to be submitted to the F.D.A. for approval soon. However, it is most effective when given to pre-teen girls, which has some conservatives in a dither. Bridget Maher of the Family Research Council, for example, has stated that "giving the HPV vaccine to young women could be potentially harmful, because they may see it as a license to engage in premarital sex."

Of course, multiple studies, such as the ones done by the World Health Organization, have been done about the effectiveness of using latex condoms, both alone and in combination with a spermicide. But in the past several years, many attempts have been made to promote the idea that condoms are ineffective. Three years ago, the Centers for Disease Control replaced their online fact sheet about condom use with one that omitted important information about condom use, and a hallmark of the Bush administration's school abstinence program has been the promotion of the idea that condoms are not effective.

The White House has gotten assistance from the Catholic Church in its campaign to discourage condom use. In 2003, Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, president of the Vatican's Pontifical Council for the Family, told the Fourth World Meeting of Families that condoms are not effective in preventing pregnancy.

The new F.D.A. report has drawn criticism from Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn, who also happens to be a physician. Coburn calls the report "misleading," and that condom labels provide "dangerous reassurance."

Coburn's medical specialties include family practice and obstetrics.

The Fuss About Russ

Fri Nov. 11, 2005 11:34 AM PST

I'm scratching my head over this Michael Crowley piece on Russ Feingold's potential as a 2008 Democratic presidential candidate. After laying out a case for why the Wisconsin Senator gets pretty good ratings in, um, Daily Kos polls—turns out the answer is (surprise!) that he supports a fixed exit date to get out of Iraq—Crowley drops this ominous phrase:

But much of what these bloggers know about him is based on his votes on Iraq and the Patriot Act. The rest of his career might surprise them.

Oh no! Do tell us more. What Dairy State secrets lie obscured under the milky waters of Lake Minnetonka? Prince-like puffy-shirts? Cannibalism? A poor golf game? No, the biggest fault Crowley can find is that his colleagues in the Senate just don't like him. As it turns out, when you push for campaign finance reform, forbid your staffers to take trade association freebies, argue against raising congressional salaries, and worry about your party's slide to economic conservatism, well, you just end up making everyone else look bad.

Correct me if I'm wrong, that's exactly the sort of thing that Democratic primary voters—and bloggers—eat up, especially as more and more Dems are calling for the party to take a clear stance against "business as usual" and corruption in Congress. Those stances are his bread and butter. (You may remember a little something called McCain-Feingold, perhaps the most famous senatorial hyphenate of the past decade.)

The only other two objections are pretty silly too. Crowley fears that an opponent might cut and add pointing out that Feingold was among the more post-Monica impeachment-friendly Senators. But I can't imagine any other candidate, come Winter '07, thinking it would be a good idea to refight that decade-old battle. Finally he worries that Feingold's rather consistent stand on deferring to the President's prerogative in Senate confirmations will be a liability. Maybe—but that's precious little to hang 4,000 words on.

Correction: My bad. Lake Minnetonka is one of the thousand un-milky lakes in Minnesota. The mistake stems from thinking Prince hails from Milwaukee.

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Selling Out, Abramoff Style

Thu Nov. 10, 2005 12:02 PM PST

The web of scandal surrounding Jack Abramoff has made for great political drama. But in some ways, it's the story of a young man who, misguided as he may have been, got involved in politics to change the world. As he grew older, he climbed the ladder of Washington influence peddlers. The black art of lobbying brought him money and power—whatever was left of his Reagan-era idealism was left behind. (This arc was described by a recent Mother Jones piece, "The Fall of a True Believer.")

Today's New York Times details Abramoff's $9 million dollar deal to arrange a single meeting between Bush and the President of Gabon. Compare that to Abramoff's work in Africa in the 1980s, where he was deeply involved in an odd chapter of Cold War history: as a prominent or member of various groups working to organizing grassroots and congressional conservative support for anti-communist regimes and militias throughout Africa, it stands to reason that Abramoff did his fair share of roughing it as he helped to fight against the Red Empire.

Not nowadays. When negotiating the Gabon contract, through newly disclosed e-mails, Abramoff offered to travel to Africa, but only "on the basis by which I travel anywhere, being in a private aircraft, which bears a substantial cost unfortunately." Yes, how unfortunate.

Louisiana's post-hurricane disaster: Part 2, the federal government

| Thu Nov. 10, 2005 10:20 AM PST

By now, most people have seen enough evidence to realize that FEMA's so-called response to Hurricane katrina was criminally incompetent. What they do not realize, though, is that the federal government's response continues to be inadequate.

Take Calcasieu Parish, for instance, which was devastated by Hurricane Rita. Officials there were told repeatedly by FEMA that every household in the mandatory evacutation area was eligible for assistance. George W. Bush made the same promise. But no one in Calcasieu has seen a $2,000 check. Coast Guard Vice Admiral Thad Allen, in charge of FEMA's on-site relief efforts, announced in late October that failure to provide assistance was an error and that he would see to it that it was corrected as soon as possible.

A few days later, Allen informed parish officials that FEMA checks had been discontinued. The reason given was that the money was intended to help people "immediately after the storm." This Through the Looking Glass excuse is outrageous, considering that immediately after the storm, the people of Calcasieu stood homeless, waiting for the so-called immediate relief from FEMA. The Calcasieu Parish crisis also brings to mind what happened earlier in Plaquemines Parish, when--by the end of September--FEMA had not sent any operating funds to parish officials, and the governor had to run around finding money to cut an emergency check to keep the parish operating.

Thousands of Louisianians are still waiting for FEMA trailers, which are sometimes visible to them in lots where they sit empty. At first, FEMA was opposed to residents hooking up trailers next to their houses while they re-built, but they have since backed down on their opposition. Then the agency issued an order denying aid to affected families in which an employee had to travel to New Orleans or other affected areas to live in work trailers; they have since reversed that order, also. Residents have also had to deal with fly-by-night "insurance adjusters" who have never been trained to do anything but deny coverage, and there has been no one to monitor the incompetence.

For privacy reasons, FEMA refused to allow Louisiana voting officials to access records of displaced citizens so that they can vote in upcoming elections; just this week, FEMA reversed that decision. Though the privacy argument is a strong one, it is a safe assumption that people would prefer to be informed of their voting rights.

Last month, yet another Department of Homeland Security official resigned because he was unable to secure catering contracts for local vendors. As of early October, .014% of contracts had gone to Louisiana companies.

The big news in Louisiana, however, has been the federal government's insistence that the state repay any federal loan; such a request has never before been made following a major disaster. The rumor is that Louisiana's history of corruption makes it a bad risk for utilizing federal funds, despite Governor Kathleen Blanco's hiring of an independent auditor to monitor the money. Louisiana's history of corruption is indeed impressive, but so is the history of corruption of the Bush administration, which Congress overlooks on a daily basis. Halliburton, for example, can "misplace" $9 billion in Iraq, and no one bats an eye. And in late September, the Bush administration had yet to provide Congress with the required weekly spending breakdown on hurricane relief.

Though Michael Brown is finally gone for good, Louisianians have no reason to believe that FEMA and the rest of the federal government will keep its promises to the state. The news media has gone home, the Bush people are doing the bird flu show, and the nation has moved on. But just as Louisiana's legislators are too short-sighted to understand the consequences of a failed New Orleans economy, so are the country's lawmakers shortsighted as to the consequences of the failure of the economy of a state that provides 30% of the nation's energy, and whose Baton Rouge and New Orleans ports, combined, comprise the largest port in the world.

Having Their Subsidies, and Eating Local Business Too

Wed Nov. 9, 2005 5:23 PM PST

Over at TomPaine, Greg LeRoy, the executive director of Good Jobs First, provides a much-needed look into the billions of dollars in subsidies that Wal-Mart receives:

A Wal-Mart official once stated that the company seeks subsidies in about a third of its stores, suggesting that more than 1,100 of its U.S. stores are subsidized. A national survey by Good Jobs First in 2004 looked at 160 stores and all of the company's distribution centers—and found that more than 90 percent of them have been subsidized. Altogether, 244 subsidized facilities in 35 states received taxpayer deals of more than $1 billion.

The full Good Jobs First survey, available here, also cites at least 40 instances where Wal-Mart enjoyed abatement on property-taxes. And critics of "eminent domain" laws can note that Wal-Mart too has leaned on that crutch by condemning Wisconsin cornfields and apple orchards to seize land for its stores.

The idea of public subsidies for a company with an economy larger than that of most countries is comical. But shaming tactics are unlikely to work against a corporation that's willing to dissuade the unhealthy from working at its stores in order to cut costs, or one that's happy to deny reports about working conditions in its South American subsidiaries. On the other hand, the new Wal-Mart movie, has at the very least goaded the company into spending millions on a public relations counter-attack. As a charmingly commonsensical letter to the NYT editor reads:

This might seem like a simple question, but instead of Wal-Mart's investing in a "war room" to improve its public image, why doesn't the company just raise salaries, allow unions and give its employees better health care? Then Wal-Mart wouldn't need a war room. The money that the company is spending on its image should be spent to do the right thing. Doesn't Wal-Mart see that?

One can agree with Cato Institute economist Brink Lindsey, who, in an interview with PBS, said:

Wal-Mart is doing what the American economy is all about, which is producing things consumers want to buy … offering consumers a wide range of goods at rock-bottom prices. It is meeting the market test.

And still disagree that "Wal-Mart is good for America," as he goes on to say. It's clear the company has undermined the original philosophy that served as the bedrock for its humble Bentonville origins, which predicated the store's success not just on its famed "every-day low prices," but also on an understanding that happy employees make happy customers, and an underlying culture of entrepreneurialism that perhaps has been diluted in its exponential expansion.

The Trouble with Housing Policy

| Wed Nov. 9, 2005 2:03 PM PST

James K. Galbraith argues that expanding homeownership is a good and proper policy route for helping working families to increase wealth. George Fredrickson made a similar point in a recent New York Review of Books essay, "Still Separate and Unequal," where he discussed the vast wealth gap between white and black Americans, and argued that historical disparities in homeownership were to blame:

How did this vast inequality come about? It was mainly the result of the greater white access to home mortgages that were insured and subsidized by the federal government. Before the 1930s a home buyer had to put down 50 percent of a house's price and could get only a relatively short-term mortgage, perhaps only ten years. By the 1950s, as a result of a series of federal housing programs, including the GI Bill, most Americans could get long- term mortgages—up to thirty years— with a down payment as low as 10 percent. By 1984 seven out of ten whites owned their own homes, worth on average $52,000. But only one in four blacks owned a home, worth, on average, less than $30,000. ...

The advantages of whites over blacks ... were more characteristically Northern than Southern; they manifested themselves in the growth of virtually all-white suburbs outside the major cities and virtually all-black ghettos within them. This new form of racial segregation was not simply the product of private choices, among them the refusal of white home-owners to sell to blacks, blockbusting and the racial "steering" of home buyers by real estate agents, and the personal prejudice of bankers asked to approve loans for blacks.

The urban segregation that has contributed so much to the persistence of black inequality came about in large part because between the 1930s and the 1970s federal housing agencies refused to approve mortgage loans in neighborhoods that were "redlined," which meant property values were deemed uncertain because of the presence of blacks.True enough. All the same, modern-day housing policy to correct this imbalance sometimes seems pretty painfully misguided. The Bush administration, like its more liberal predecessor, has made a point of offering subsidized mortgages to low-income and especially minority families, which is a great idea in theory, as Galbraith's and Frederickson's pieces might suggest. But so long as homes remain unaffordable for 80 percent of all renters, including 21 million renters who couldn't get mortgages under even the loosest of underwriting standards, these sorts of policies will only go so far.

Lower-income families that can afford homes, meanwhile, often end up with units in need of costly repairs or are located in poor neighborhoods plagued by crime and unemployment. Not the best way to create wealth, obviously, or reduce the inequality and segregation Frederickson's talking about. In Baltimore a few years ago, reporters discovered that homes basically falling apart were being "patched up" and sold to low-income families at inflated prices. In the South, 40 percent of low-income home-buyers were steered into trailer parks on leased land. Not to mention the fact that extending homeowner credit to low-income and/or minority neighborhoods usually opens the door to predatory lenders to walk on in.

Plus, it's not even clear that owning a home is always a fantastic wealth-enhancing strategy for low-income families. It's true that the median wealth of low-income homeowners is 12 times that of renters with similar incomes, and most of that comes from the home. But renters and owners tend to be very different people to begin with, at different stages of the life cycle, in different financial situations. How "good" of an investment owning a home is often depends on when an owner enters the market, how long it holds the property, local market conditions, etc. On the downside, some low-income families who buy a home can quickly find themselves assailed with all sorts of costs—insurance costs, property taxes, utility bills—and often borrow against the equity of their home in a financial pinch, erasing any wealth.

That's not to say Galbraith or Frederickson are on the wrong track; clearly they know what they're talking about. Still, we hear about policies to promote homeownership—from both parties—as a strategy for helping working families, but they deserve far more scrutiny. It's troubling, for instance, that the percent of mortgage loans that end in foreclosure have risen from 1.24 in the 1990s to 1.46 these days—a potential sign that people are being steered into homes before they're ready. A proper housing policy, perhaps, would increase the stock of affordable housing and help out low-income renters until they're ready to own a home. What we have now, unfortunately, is a national housing policy primarily intended to benefit lenders—who, these days, depend on sub-prime loans to low-income families for profits—while slashing rental-assistance programs like Section 8.