Mother Jones Daily: Briefing


Chemical Carelessness
Dreaming up Roads through the Wilderness

POLITICS
Chemical Carelessness

In the wake of Sept. 11, worried lawmakers passed anti-terrorist regulations designed to beef up security at nuclear plants, water-treatment facilities and airports. A similar bill was introduced covering chemical plants, but it went nowhere. How come?

The New Republic‘s John Judis has the answer: Senate Republicans and the White House killed it at the behest of the chemical industry. Noting that there are almost 900 such chemical plants around the country — all of them vulnerable to terrorist attack — Judis concludes:

“It’s another instance of the enormous power that business lobbies wield over Republican politicians — and it mocks the GOP’s claim that national security is its highest priority.”

ENVIRONMENT
A Bush Road Trip

With little or no fanfare, the Bush administration has opened up the potential for unrestricted automobile access through millions of acres of federally-owned wilderness in the West. According to Julie Cart of The Los Angeles Times, a vision of “unfettered motorized access to remote country that has for decades been the province of wild animals and a few hardy backpacking humans..is a lot closer to reality” this month after the Interior Department caved into pressure from several Western states and counties to change the policy. Individual jurisdictions will now have the right to request greatly broadened use of backcountry roads. If isolated areas are made accessible, writes Cart, “it could also open remote country to drilling for oil and gas and other commercial development.” Heidi McIntosh, conservation director for the Souther Utah Wilderness Alliance, remarked:

“We’re concerned about highways, but in a way that’s just the tip of the iceberg…With roads comes pollution, wildlife fragmentation, off-road vehicles, the loss of solitude and quiet. Multiply that by 10,000, the number of claims here in Utah, and you have a mess. I can’t think of an issue the Bush administration is working on that can have a longer or more serious impact on public lands.”

However, Cart adds, the US Bureau of Land Management, which will ultimately rule on access to each road, is “virtually certain to face legal challenges to any rights of way granted through parks or wilderness areas where motorized transportation is now prohibited.”

Executing Foreign Policy
Roe at 30
SUV Subsidies

LAW AND JUSTICE
Executing Foreign Policy

Beginning what the US State Department has called a deep intrusion into the sovereignty of America’s criminal justice system, Mexico approached the International Court of Justice at the Hague this week, demanding stays of execution for all 51 Mexican nationals currently on death row in the United States, The Economist reports. According to the arguments before the Court, the United States has systematically denied Mexicans their rights to contact their consulates for help at the time of arrest, as mandated by the 1963 Vienna Convention on Consular Relations.

Frustrations have been mounting in Mexico since last year when a Mexican national was executed despite President Vincente Fox’s appeals to the Bush administration for clemency. Earlier this month, President Fox more fruitfully solicited outgoing Illinois Governor George Ryan, who cited the denial of consular rights as one of several injustices guiding his recent commutation of 167 Death Row inmates in his state, including five Mexican citizens, according to The Indianapolis Star.

But according to Monica Foster of the Mexican Capital Legal Assistance Program, a legal defense group working with the Mexican government to press its case, the fates of Mexicans are only part of a broader policy of exceptionalism that has characterized recent US foreign policy. The US must recognize the internationally accorded rights of Mexican nationals, she told The Star, just as it would expect Americans’ rights to be respected overseas: “They have exactly the same rights as Americans arrested in France… or Afghanistan.”

Rebuffing such criticism, US State Department legal advisor William Taft proclaimed that upholding a moratorium on any executions in America would require the International Court of Justice “to intrude deeply into the entire criminal justice system of the United States,” Reed Johnson reports in The Los Angeles Times. Taft moreover asserted that the Mexican case “fails to demonstrate that [a moratorium] is needed, either for the preservation of rights under the Vienna Convention” or “because of the urgency of events.”

But in light of a 1999 case, when a German was executed in Arizona despite an International Court-ordered stay on his death sentence, MCLAP director Sandra Babcock sees American cooperation as a pivotal touchstone in justly deliberating the case, which could take years even if the ICJ were to order a stay this week. “It doesn’t harm the United States simply to forbear from injecting lethal substances into people or flipping switches while waiting for a year or so for the courts to decide,” she told The Los Angeles Times.

POLITICS
Roe at 30

In what has become an annual occurance, advocates and opponents of abortion rights held competing rallies in the nation’s capital on Wednesday, the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision, the landmark 1973 Supreme Court ruling which legalized abortion across the nation. But, as activists and pundits alike are noting, this year’s anniversary rallies had greater urgency. And not just because it’s been 30 years since the high court handed down its decision.

With Republicans in control of Congress, and a president who is openly hostile to abortion rights, anti-abortion activists see their best opportunity in three decades to erode or even overturn Roe v. Wade. Those committed to protecting a woman’s right to choose, meanwhile, are increasingly energized by the looming fight.

The editorial board of the St. Paul Pioneer Press, argue eloquently for the protection of abortion rights. But the editorial writers also note that, despite three decades of debate, American opinion remains very much where it was when the Supreme Court ruled.

“Outlawing abortion would not by some imagined force of will stop abortion in America. History demonstrates that. History also proves that criminalizing abortion increases the risk of complications from poor medical practices and denies access to women who can’t pay to go overseas or find a medically responsible underground abortion provider.

Another thing history shows is that editorials, marchers, terrorists and political polarizations have made little difference in public opinion in all these years since the Supreme Court legalized abortion under some circumstances. Polling is consistent year after year, with roughly 20 percent of Americans opposed to abortion entirely, 40 percent in favor of legal abortion and 40 percent in favor of legal abortion with restrictions.”

Still, despite the overwhelming public support for legalized abortion, editorial writers like those at The San Francisco Chronicle warn that, for the first time in three decades, “a woman’s right to choose is truly imperiled.” And the Chronicle‘s editorial board worries that, after 30 years of fighting, “some people may have forgotten — or never known — why doctors, ministers, rabbis, abortion reformers and women activists waged such an uphill battle to make abortion legal. Every year, 1 million women had illegal abortions and 5,000 women died as a result of botched abortions.”

With legislative agendas in Washington and dozens of state capitols shaped by extremist politics, abortion rights will face challenges large and small, activists warn. And, while any direct challenge to Roe v. Wade will undoubtedly capture national attention, many subtle attacks by anti-abortion lawmakers are slipping under the media’s radar. Ziba Kashef details one such effort in Mother Jones, describing how Republicans in Congress — aided by the Bush White House — are seeking to funnel millions in federal funds to so-called ‘crisis pregnancy centers.’ The centers are marketed as offering unbiased advice for pregnant women, but abortion advocates claim they have only one mission: convincing women to abandon abortion.

SUV Subsidies

As war with Iraq looms and the economy limps along like a wounded animal, you’d think the White House would be encouraging oil conservation at home.

Instead, the opposite is true. Buried within the new Bush tax cut is a loophole that would grant SUV buyers a gigantic tax break. While originally designed to assist small-business owners who needed pickup trucks for their jobs, the deduction can also cover weekend warriors driving to and from the office in their Hummers. Under the White House proposal, the existing break would be raised from $25,000 to a whopping $75,000.

Noting that no such subsidy exists for hybrid cars, The Boston Globe‘s editorial board marvels at the irony of Bush’s latest move:

“This proposed bonus for purchases of the least fuel-efficient passenger vehicles comes at the same time the Bush administration is trying to persuade the world that its justification for war with Iraq is not just to ensure cheap oil for wasteful US consumers. It becomes increasingly difficult to accept that contention at face value when the administration refuses to use its authority to encourage greater fuel economy.”

Similarly, the editors of USA Today are skeptical of White House claims that concern for the struggling small-businessman prompted the increase. “ Talk about sending the wrong message at the wrong time,” they opine:

“A White House spokesman says the proposal doesn’t promote SUVs over other vehicles. Rather, it’s designed to help small companies buy equipment and create jobs.

Perhaps. But by proposing special treatment for gas-guzzlers, the administration suggests it is tone deaf to concerns about the nation’s seemingly unlimited appetite for oil and its effect on the environment.”

SEC to the Rescue?
Labs and Lies

POLITICS
SEC to the Rescue?

Remember last year’s corporate accounting scandals? Given the high-profile hand-wringing on Capitol Hill following the fall of Enron, WorldCom et al., you’d think the Securities and Exchange Commission’s new regulations would have gotten tough on multinational miscreants.

Unfortunately, pundits say, the new rules read like they were written by the accounting industry itself. There’s a reason for that, the editors of The Washington Post opine: for all intents and purposes, they were.

“It’s true that the commission took some positive steps yesterday to regulate auditors who are supposed to assure investors that corporate books aren’t cooked. But the SEC, facing intense opposition from the powerful and vociferous accounting industry — and with the discredited and supposedly departed Harvey Pitt still in charge — also backed away from several measures that would have done more to break the insidious relationship between auditors and the companies that pay them. It appears the lessons of Enron haven’t sunk in everywhere.”

Indeed, Molly Ivins notes acidly, the new regulations fail to address most of the conflicts of interest that led to the mess in the first place. For this lapse, Ivins has no problem assigning blame — she lays most of it at the door of Harvey Pitt, the Big Three lobbyist-turned SEC chairman who was fired in November but still, inexplicably, calls the shots at his old agency.

“You probably thought he was long gone, but, nope, he’s still head of the SEC. Bush hasn’t gotten around to nominating anyone else. So Pitt is still there, working his fingers to the bone for his former clients.

Remember when we thought the minimum reform would be to separate the auditing and the consulting functions of accounting firms? Can that. The SEC plans to make it optional, leaving the choice up to a company’s audit committee. Let’s see, would Ken Lay and Jeff Skillings have voted to bring in another auditor to check out the offshore partnerships they set up with help from Arthur Andersen?

You’re going to find this hard to believe, but Pitt is actually making the rules on the accounting industry weaker than they were before all the corporate scandals came out. Now it will be even harder for investors to find out how much a company pays its accounting firm for auditing work and how much for consulting work.”

By and large, the editors of The St. Louis Post Dispatch agree. While they see more bright spots in the new rules than Ivins does, they nevertheless conclude that the lesson for investors is a grim one: “ You still can’t trust the numbers.”

Meanwhile, as if further proof of the need for a strong SEC were needed, Reuters reports that the number of companies that restated their earnings due to accounting errors surged 22 percent last year, to a record 330.

ENVIRONMENT
Labs and Lies

Every year the EPA relies on private laboratories to report on companies’ environmental practices, but a string of lawsuits against lab technicians reporting fraudulent data has called that system into question, the Associated Press reports. Laboratories across the country have been falsifying test results for drinking water, petroleum products, and air quality standards.

“‘In recent years, what has come to our attention is that outside (non-government) labs are oftentimes in bed with the people who hired them, and conspired to commit environmental crime,'” said David Uhlmann, chief of the Justice Department’s environmental crimes section. In some cases, the labs lied to the companies that submitted samples for testing, while in others the companies were part of the conspiracy.”

EPA Inspector General Nikki Tinsley said that there were numerous reasons for misconduct: poor training, ineffective ethics programs, shrinking markets and cost-cutting. Though lab fraud is not entirely new to the EPA, recent cases illustrate an ongoing problem. In Lawrence, Massachusetts, a senior chemist at a drinking water filtration plant fabricated water quality results and pleaded guilty to violating the Safe Drinking Water Act. In Pittsburg, Kansas a private lab owner was sentenced to 18 months in jail for violating the Clean Water Act for his fraudulent analysis of waste water, drinking water and hazardous waste.

“‘If we can’t rely upon science with supporting lab results, then we don’t know what’s out there for the public to eat or drink or use,’ said J.P. Suarez, the EPA’s assistant administrator for enforcement and compliance assurance.”

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