House Republicans pushed through a budget that would chop $467 billion from domestic spending programs including Veterans Affairs, Medicare and Medicaid -- a 1% reduction from current spending -- over the next 10 years to offset $726 billion in tax cuts Bush proposes in the same period. The budget cuts $15 billion from veterans benefits, including $844 million from veterans' health care next year and $463 million from other vets' benefits, including cash payments to veterans disabled by military service. Ray Sisk, commander in chief of Veterans of Foreign Wars, said cutting the VA budget even 1% would worsen many of the agency's problems, such as a backlog of 200,000 veterans waiting more than six months to see a doctor, according to Gannett News Service.
The GOP budget helmed by Rep. Jim Nussle, R-Iowa, also contains deep and widespread cuts in basic domestic programs such as Medicaid, student loans, school lunches, child care, food stamps, cash assistance for the elderly and disabled poor and many other programs. Two-thids of the tax cuts would go to the top 1% of taxpayers, averaging $90,000 each in 2003 for Americans with incomes over $1 million, according to the Tax Policy Center. "Class warfare turns out to be alive," center director Robert Greenstein commented. "It is a centerpiece of the Nussle budget, with deep budget cuts that could harshly affect the poor, the vulnerable, and many middle-class Americans, alongside lavish tax cuts for the nation's richest individuals. With this budget, we would be marching down the path toward a new Gilded Age."
While it was business as usual in the House there was a hiccup in the Senate on March 25 when three Republican senators joined the Democrats to reduce the tax cuts by $376 billion, to $350 billion, setting up a conference committee to reconcile the difference with the House. The Senate vote came after the White House finally admitted it would cost at least $74.7 billion to run the Iraq war for the next six months. A week earlier the Senate had approved a $626 billion tax cut. "What you're seeing is more concern than there was last week" about the war's cost, Sen. John Breaux, D-La., told reporters. He added that there was not much support for eliminating the tax on stock dividends. The White House also lost a battle in the Senate over plans to drill for oil in the Alaskan wildlife refuge.
NEW MEXICO GOES 'CLEAN ELECTIONS.' Gov. Bill Richardson March 14 signed the "Voter Action Act" that adopts public financing for the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission (PRC) beginning in the 2006 election cycle. New Mexico becomes the sixth state to enact Clean Elections campaign finance reform, joining Arizona, Maine, Massachusetts, North Carolina, and Vermont. The PRC, a five-member elected board, regulates public utilities, telecommunications companies, and insurance companies as well as the registration of corporations and compliance with applicable laws. Candidates who choose to fund their campaign without accepting political contributions from the corporate interests they would regulate would qualify for a portion of the fund, set at $300,000 per election cycle, coming from a small surcharge on the regulated industries that the PRC oversees.
The US Supreme Court on March 24 rejected a challenge to Arizona's Clean Elections system. Steve May, a Republican state lawmaker, had argued that it was unconstitutional to require people convicted of crimes and traffic violations to pay surcharges that help fund political campaigns. May refused to pay a surcharge for a parking ticket. Arizona voters approved public financing for state political campaigns in 1998. There are over 25 states with an active movement to pass Clean Money, Clean Elections campaign finance reform. See www.publicampaign.org.
FEDS USE SECRET POWERS. Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the Justice Department and FBI have dramatically increased the use of two little-known powers that allow authorities to tap telephones, seize bank and telephone records and obtain other information in counterterrorism investigations with no immediate court oversight, the Washington Post reported March 24. The FBI has issued scores of "national security letters" that require businesses to turn over electronic records about finances, telephone calls, email and other personal information. The letters may be issued independently by FBI field offices and are not subject to judicial review unless a case comes to court, officials said. Attorney General John D. Ashcroft has also personally signed more than 170 "emergency foreign intelligence warrants," three times the number authorized in the preceding 23 years, according to recent congressional testimony. Federal law allows the attorney general to issue unilaterally these classified warrants for wiretaps and physical searches of suspected terrorists and other national security threats under certain circumstances. They can be enforced for 72 hours before they are subject to review and approval by the ultra-secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. In both types of cases, the investigation target never has to be informed that the government has obtained his personal records or put him under surveillance.
MOORE SCOLDS BUSH. Congratulations to our occasional contributor, Michael Moore, who March 23 won the Academy Award for feature documentary for his film, Bowling for Columbine, which examined the reasons for the culture of violence in the USA. Moore thumbed his nose at Hollywood for trying to tone down opposition to the war, as he invited his fellow documentary nominees to accompany him on stage. "They're here in solidarity with me because we like nonfiction," he said, "and we live in fictitious times. We live in the time where we have fictitious election results that elects a fictitious president. We live in a time where we have a man sending us to war for fictitious reasons. Whether it's the fictition of duct tape or fictition of orange alerts we are against this war, Mr. Bush. Shame on you, Mr. Bush, shame on you." As the band tried to drown him out, he concluded, "And any time you got the Pope and the Dixie Chicks against you, your time is up. Thank you very much."
Later Moore said he was not concerned by the booing in the midst of the applause. "I saw the entire place stand up and applaud ... a film that talks about how we are manipulated by the fear that's put forth from the White House and put forth by corporate America to create a culture of violence, violence at home and violence abroad. We kill each other at an enormous rate ... What was the lesson we taught the children of Columbine this week? ... That violence is an acceptable means to resolve a conflict."
IMF: GLOBALIZATION NO HELP TO POOR. The International Monetary Fund sounded like its critics March 17 when it admitted there is little evidence globalization is helping poor countries. A new study found economic integration may actually increase the risk of financial crisis in the developing world, Reuters reported. The IMF often recommends that poor countries open their economies to foreign investors and free-market policies. But critics say those policies damage vulnerable economies, raising poverty rates and destroying the environment. In the last 10 years, developing countries from Thailand and Russia to Argentina, have seen their economies collapse, even though many of them were trying to follow IMF-prescribed open market policies.
Meanwhile, trade ministers from the Western Hemisphere will meet in a Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) ministerial Nov. 17-21 in Miami. Planning to greet them are the AFL-CIO, the Sierra Club, the Florida Fair Trade Coalition and many others. They will be joined by activists from around the world linking the local issues to the global fights and building solidarity and alternatives to what trade activists are calling "NAFTA on Steroids." Contact the Citizens Trade Campaign at 202-778-3320 or see www.flfairtrade.org or Global Trade Watch at www.citizen.org.
DEFEND ORGANIC STANDARDS. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., Rep. Sam Farr, D-Calif., and others hope to repeal a recently passed law that would weaken organic food standards. A measure slipped into the 2003 omnibus appropriations bill, apparently by House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., at the urging of Rep. Nathan Deal, R-Ga., would allow livestock producers to label their products "organic" even if they use conventional, non-organic feed containing antibiotics and pesticides. "Organic production is the fastest-growing part of the production agriculture sector," National Farmers Union President Dave Frederickson said. "Ongoing success is dependent upon the integrity of organic standards. Weakening these standards would have a dramatically negative impact on organic production." The organic industry is growing rapidly, about 20% a year, according to the Organic Trade Association. In 1990, when the Organic Foods Production Act became law as part of the 1990 farm bill, retail sales were less than $1 billion in the United States. By 2001, they were $11 billion. See www.nfu.org or www.ota.com.
IRAQ CAMPAIGN ANTI-MUSLIM? George W. Bush has repeatedly claimed that Saddam was involved with the 9/11 atrocities when there is no solid evidence. But Bush apparently has managed to convince a majority of the US populace that Saddam was behind the attacks. At a March 22 rally that drew an estimated 17,000 to the state Capitol in St. Paul, Minn., the only speaker who received a hostile reception was N. Ruby Zigrino, a Muslim from Minneapolis. She was cheered when she said she supports "ousting a tyrant regime," the Star Tribune reported, but when she read passages from the Qur'an, suggested that a new Marshall Plan will be needed in Iraq and said administration officials should study foreign-policy failures to avoid repeating them, the crowd responded with boos and shouts of "Screw Muslims!" "Screw the Qur'an!" and "Go home!"
DRUG MONEY GETS LAUNDERED. Last year, Congress earmarked nearly $19 billion -- nearly twice what it spent on military operations in Afghanistan -- to enforce US drug laws. This year, however, according to the White House's 2003 "National Drug Control Strategy," released in February, the Bush administration will only spend some $11.2 billion fighting drugs. However, Paul Armentano of the NORML Foundation wrote that, thanks to new Enron-styled accounting procedures initiated by the White House, America's drug war only costs less than it used to on paper. In a little publicized announcement last year, officials from the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) revealed a "new methodology" for reporting the federal drug budget -- which had grown from less than $2 billion annually in 1982 to $18.8 billion last year. Under the new scheme, only funding for agencies involved in so-called "primary" drug war activities is now tabulated in the national anti-drug budget. As a result, more than two-thirds of the agencies included in past years' budgets are missing from this year's financial totals. For example, the Department of Justice reported a reduction of more than $5.5 billion in drug-war related expenses between 2002 and 2003, mainly by removing the costs associated with the incarceration and care of federal drug prisoners. Armentano attributed the bookkeeping change to nationwide surveys in recent years that have consistently shown majorities of Americans believe the drug war's "do drugs, do time" approach to be ineffective, fiscally costly and doomed to fail.
FRIENDS IN HIGH PLACES. ABC News obtained a copy of a 99-page USAID contract worth $600 million that is filled with details about plans to construct Iraqi schools, airports, roads, bridges, hospitals, power plants and more. USAID conducted the bidding in secret, asking seven companies to bid -- about half the number that normally would have sought the business. Among the companies bidding were Bechtel, Fluor, Parsons, the Washington Group and Halliburton, Vice President Dick Cheney's old firm. All are generous political donors -- principally to Republicans. USAID denied politics was involved in any of this.
As the first bombs rained down on Baghdad, CorpWatch noted at www.corpwatch.org, thousands of employees of Halliburton, Cheney's former company, were working alongside US troops in Kuwait and Turkey under a package deal worth close to $1 billion. They were building tent cities and providing logistical support for the war in Iraq in addition to other hot spots Cheney still draws compensation of up to a million dollars a year from the company, CorpWatch reported. In December 2001, Kellogg, Brown and Root, a subsidiary of Halliburton, secured a 10-year deal for a "cost-plus-award-fee, indefinite-delivery/indefinite-quantity service." which basically means that the federal government has an open-ended mandate and budget to send Brown and Root anywhere in the world to run military operations for a profit.
FRIEND OF FREE SPEECH? Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia banned broadcast media from an appearance in Cleveland March 19 where he received an award for supporting free speech. The City Club selected Scalia for its Citadel of Free Speech Award because he has "consistently, across the board, had opinions or led the charge in support of free speech," said James Foster, executive director. But Scalia insisted on banning television and radio coverage as a condition of his appearance. Meanwhile, First Amendment scholars wondered why Scalia was being honored in the first place. "He is not a person I would consider to be champion of free expression," said Jane Kirtley, a University of Minnesota law professor. "He has a mixed record," said professor Robert M. O'Neil, who heads the Thomas Jefferson Center for Free Expression at the University of Virginia. Scalia has voted to strike down limits on campaign contributions, but to uphold a ban on doctors in federal clinics from advising patients about abortion. Last year, Scalia dissented when the court struck down a law against computer-generated child pornography. He also wrote a ruling for a 5-4 majority that struck down state bans on judges taking stands on issues during election campaigns. In the case before the court, a Republican candidate for the Minnesota Supreme Court had been sanctioned for proclaiming his antiabortion views. "He is in the middle of the pack on the current court on free-speech issues," said UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh, who tracks voting patterns. "If I had to name a justice who broadly supports protection for speech, I would say Justice [Anthony M.] Kennedy, and then Justices [David H.] Souter and [Clarence] Thomas," he said.