Three years after the collapse of President Bush’s plan for private Social Security accounts, GOP presidential contenders are eager to try again, David Espo of the Associated Press reported (11/24). Not so Democrats, who gravitate toward increasing payroll taxes on upper-income earners to fix any problems with the program’s finances. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama favor a bipartisan commission, but Clinton said she would wait until the federal government moves toward fiscal responsibility. Obama, who brought up talk of the need for a Social Security fix, ruled out cutting benefits or raising the retirement age, but he, John Edwards and Christopher Dodd proposed taxing income above $200,000. (Income above $97,500 is now exempt from the payroll tax.) Among Republicans, higher taxes is a non-starter but private accounts are popular. Fred Thompson proposes to cut promised benefits for future retirees. Rudy Giuliani favors creation of a bipartisan commission but rejects any tax increase. Mike Huckabee proposes higher benefits for seniors who delay retirement past age 70.

Unfortunately, Espo’s article repeats the canard that Social Security will start having cash flow problems in 2017, as it starts spending more than the payroll tax takes in. By 2041, Espo writes, the funds would “run dry,” and a cut in benefits would follow. But as economist Dean Baker has noted at cepr.net (11/19), the projected problems with Social Security are distant and relatively minor, depending largely on economic growth rates that are unpredictable. “Politicians are not dodging a tough issue when they refuse to say what we should do with Social Security in the second half of the 21st century. Rather they are staying in touch with reality. We don’t know what the world will look like in 2040, 2050, and 2060. Under very plausible assumptions, Social Security will remain fully solvent through these decades with no changes whatsoever. However, even if the program needs to be changed to maintain solvency, none of us has great insight as to how those who have not yet entered the workforce will opt to divide their lives between work and retirement.” So talk of a Social Security “crisis” buys into the GOP scare tactic that is designed to undermine young people’s confidence in the system. Democrats should not play that game.

DEMS DREAM OF BIG GAINS. The GOP is burdened with a highly unpopular war, corruption scandals, ethical challengers and the Beltway mentality, which allows Democrats to harbor realistic visions of emerging from next year’s election with 55 to 58 seats in the Senate, up from the current 51-49 split (including two indies who caucus with the Dems), putting them within arm-twisting distance of the 60 votes needed to bust a filibuster, CQ Weekly reported (11/25). The magazine also projected that Dems would finish with well more than 240 seats in the House, which would be the biggest cushion that either party has enjoyed since the end of the last Dem majority in 1994. The Dems now hold a 233-200 House majority, with two seats vacant after the deaths of Jo Ann Davis (R-Va.) and Paul Gillmor (R-Ohio) The GOP hopes to take back some of the 30 seats lost last year, but they also need to replace 18 outgoing House R’s while only four House Dems plan to move on — and three of them are running for the Senate. CQ Weekly rates eight GOP-held seats as tossups — including six open seats — while only two Dem-held seats are rated tossups and both targeted incumbent Dems are seeking re-election.

Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) gave Dems hope for another Senate pickup when he announced (11/26) that he was quitting a year after re-election, reportedly to spend more time with his family, but coincidentally a new law takes effect at year-end requiring lawmakers to sit out two years before cashing in as a lobbyist. Among Dems interested in the five years remaining in Lott’s term are former state Att’y Gen. Mike Moore — the party’s top choice — and former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove. Gov. Haley Barbour (R) intended to name a Republican successor and hold off the election until next November, but state law requires a special election within 90 days, which could help the Dems. Republicans already face challenges replacing retiring Sens. Wayne Allard (Colo.), Pete Domenici (N.M.), Chuck Hagel (Neb.) and John Warner (Va.), as well as Larry Craig (Idaho), who is not expected to seek re-election. Former Gov. Mark Warner (D) is the favorite in Virginia, while CQ Weekly rates as tossups the open seats in Colorado, New Mexico as well as incumbents seeking second terms in Minnesota and New Hampshire. Dems hope to upset incumbents in Maine and Oregon. Although Mississippi gave George W. Bush a 60% majority in 2004 and just re-elected Barbour, Jonathan Miller of MyDD.com noted that the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has a 2:1 cash advantage over the GOP and Moore had a 65% approval rating as recently as 2002, when he was still AG. The only Dem who appears in danger is two-term Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) after tens of thousands of Dem-favoring black voters were forced out of New Orleans.

The Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee (dlcc.org) noted that Dems held both chambers of the Louisiana legislature despite a $2 mln effort by Republican and affiliated groups trying to flip the House. After the 11/17 runoff, Dems, who lost half of their members due to term limits, held onto a 53-50 House advantage, with two indies. Dems held a 24-15 Senate majority after the October primary. However, Louisiana legislators customarily let the governor choose their leaders, so incoming Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) named an R as House speaker and a D to head the Senate.

NEED IRAQ FUNDING? CALL MITCH. Democratic House leadership drew a line in the sand over Iraq war funding 11/20, as Reps. David Obey (D-Wis.), and Jack Murtha (D-Pa.), told journalists there was enough money to fund the war through February, and that if the president wanted the additional $50 bln passed by the House, he merely had to tell GOP leadership — which filibustered the measure in the Senate — to change its stance. “Let me repeat,” said Obey, “the money has already been provided by the House of Representatives. If the president wants that $50 billion released, all he has to do is to call the Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, and ask him to stop blocking it. That phone number is (202) 224-2541, in case anybody’s interested.” Bush had called on Congress to fund the entirety of his $196 bln war supplemental request. (Sam Stein, HuffingtonPost.com.)

PENTAGON DUNS WOUNDED FOR BONUSES. Thousands of soldiers who were wounded in Iraq are being asked to return part of their enlistment bonuses because their injuries prevented them from completing their tours. Pittsburgh’s KDKA reported (11/19) that Jordan Fox of suburban Pittsburgh was seriously injured when a roadside bomb blew up his vehicle. He was knocked unconscious. His back was injured and lost all vision in his right eye. Fox was sent home as his injuries prohibited him from fulfilling three months of his commitment. In November, he received a letter from the military demanding nearly $3,000 of his signing bonus back. “I tried to do my best and serve my country. I was unfortunately hurt in the process. Now they’re telling me they want their money back,” he told KDKA. In October, after hearing of similar outrages, Rep. Jason Altmire (D-Pa.) introduced the Veterans Guaranteed Bonus Act that would require the Pentagon to pay bonuses to wounded vets in full within 30 days after discharge for combat-related wounds. Back then, the Pentagon’s flack vaguely assured the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “We are going to give our wounded warriors and their families what they need to recover and return to duty or private life.” but Spencer Ackerman of tpmmuckraker.com noted (11/20), “apparently the policy has yet to change. It seems that the enlistment contract that at least some troops sign ... allows for withholding some of the signing bonus if a tour isn’t completed.”

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who looked into the case, said (11/25) that when Fox’s case was called to the Pentagon’s attention, officials replied that the demand for him to repay $2,800 was a “clerical error” and canceled the debt. But hundreds of other wounded veterans have also received letters demanding repayment, Schumer said. “When you talk to the Pentagon you get different answers from different people,” he said, according to the Associated Press. Wounded veterans whose bonuses have been revoked should call the Wounded Soldier and Family Hotline at 800-984-8523.

PENTAGON SHORT ON BRAIN INJURY COUNT. At least 20,000 US troops who were not classified as wounded during combat in Iraq and Afghanistan have been found with signs of brain injuries, according to military and veterans records compiled by USA Today (11/22). The data, provided by the Army, Navy and Department of Veterans Affairs, show that about five times as many troops sustained brain trauma as the 4,471 officially listed by the Pentagon through 9/30. These cases also are not reflected in the Pentagon’s official tally of wounded, which stands at 30,327. The House has passed a bill to mandate the Department of Veterans Affairs to screen soldiers for traumatic brain injury.

DEBATES DUCK NEW ORLEANS. When the bipartisan commission that sponsors presidential debates announced the four cities that will host the 2008 series, New Orleans boosters were upset that they missed the cut. They suspected politics was at play because Republicans did not want to have to confront the severe challenges that New Orleans poses. “Members of the Commission on Presidential Debates continue to come up with preposterous excuses — some of them contradictory — as to why they snubbed New Orleans as a debate site,” the Times-Picayune editorialized. “No wonder New Orleanians think the process was rigged and three presidential candidates have criticized the decision.” Frank Fahrenkopf Jr., the commission’s GOP co-chairman, said the decision was based on technical criteria, not politics. Paul G. Kirk Jr., the Dem co-chairman, said New Orleans “did not measure up,” though one of the debate choices is Oxford, Miss., which has about 700 hotel rooms, compared with 24,000 in New Orleans. The Commission on Presidential Debates, funded by corporate contributions, was established in 1987 by the Democratic and Republican parties to control the presidential debates after disputes with the nonpartisan League of Women Voters, which previously sponsored the debates.

LONG ROAD HOME. One of the questions most frequently asked by critics of the New Orleans recovery, Harry Shearer notes at HuffingtonPost.com (11/17), is “what happened to all that Federal money?” David Winkler-Schmit, in Gambit Weekly (11/13), answers part of that question with a meticulously reported piece on the less-well-known half of Louisiana’s Road Home program (the compensation for homeowners half is well known, and widely derided for slowness and bureaucracy). The “Small Rental Property Program” is supposed to provide $869 mln to replace some of the 82,000 rental units lost as a result of hurricanes Katrina and Rita. In New Orleans most landlords have four units or fewer and little resources to rebuild on their own, but the program has become a Kafkaesque nightmare, teasing people with the illusion of almost enough assistance to begin rebuilding, while, in fact, giving them nothing: No payments occur until the owner has secured financing, rebuilt and re-rented to a low-income tenant, with reams of paperwork to document every step. Shearer added, “Rest easy, there will be no fraud: so far, not one New Orleans landlord has received an SRPP check.”

TUMORS AND THE GOP. Rudy Giuliani, John McCain, and Fred Thompson are all cancer survivors, Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar noted in the Los Angeles Times (11/20). All three Republican candidates for president have offered proposals to help the uninsured buy health insurance. But under the plans all three have put forward, cancer survivors such as themselves could not be sure of getting coverage — especially if they were not already covered by a government or job-related plan and had to seek insurance as individuals. “Unless it’s in a state that has very strong consumer protections, they would likely be denied coverage,” said economist Paul Fronstin of the Employee Benefit Research Institute, who has reviewed the candidates’ proposals. “People with preexisting conditions would not be able to get coverage or would not be able to afford it.”

STUPIDITY THEORY CONFIRMED. In a story headlined “‘Blame US For 9/11’ Idiots In Majority,” the New York Post reported (11/24) that “Nearly two-thirds of Americans believe the federal government had warnings about 9/11 but decided to ignore them,” according to a recent Scripps Howard/Ohio University poll. “And that’s not the only conspiracy theory with a huge number of true believers in the United States … Sixty-two percent of those polled thought it was ‘very likely’ or ‘somewhat likely’ that federal officials turned a blind eye to specific warnings of the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.” But ThinkProgress.org noted (11/25) that it is a fact that the Bush administration failed to heed warnings of a terrorist strike, not a “conspiracy theory.”

Some facts for the Post:

1) Bush received intel briefing on 8/6/01 entitled “Bin Laden Determined To Strike In US.” The briefing specifically warned to “patterns of suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks,” particularly targeted at New York.

2) CIA Director George Tenet briefing Condoleezza Rice and other top administration officials on 7/10/01 about a specific urgent and looming threat from al Qaeda.

3) An FBI agent in Phoenix sent a memo to FBI headquarters on 7/10/01, which advised of the “possibility of a coordinated effort” by bin Laden to send students to the United States to attend civil aviation schools.

ThinkProgress.org concluded: “The alarming nature of the Scripps poll is not that 62% of Americans believe the government ignored warnings of 9/11; it’s that nearly 40% still aren’t aware of that fact.”

AUSSIES REPLACE BUTTINSKY. The humiliating defeat of Australia’s conservative Prime Minister, John Howard, who not only lost his party’s majority but also his seat in Parliament (11/24), was driven largely by domestic concerns, and it had little to do with the US. Still, Glenn Greenwald noted at Salon.com (11/24), Howard’s defeat is worth celebrating as he was “one of the very few remaining world leaders who loyally supported the worst and most war-loving aspects of the Bush/Cheney foreign policy.” In February, Howard inserted himself into US domestic politics by saying: “If I was running al-Qaeda in Iraq, I would put a circle around March 2008, and pray, as many times as possible, for a victory not only for [Barack] Obama, but also for the Democrats.” Greenwald noted that comment was not only wildly inaccurate and repugnant in its own right, but it was also unbelievably hypocritical, given that Howard’s close political aide, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, tried to support of Bush’s 2004 re-election effort by criticizing John Kerry’s claim that unnamed foreign leaders had expressed support for Kerry’s campaign. Downer told the Washington Times: “I think it’s probably better to keep foreign leaders and the views of foreign leaders out of domestic elections, I mean, certainly we do that here in this country.”

Labor’s leader, Kevin Rudd, a former diplomat, has pledged to begin withdrawing Australian troops from Iraq, put a new emphasis on diplomacy and sign the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, further isolating the global warming deniers in the Bush administration.

GOP DELAYS HOUSING RELIEF. Thousands of Americans may be losing their homes to foreclosure or facing hefty mortgage-payment resets, but Senate Republicans are in no rush to help. The House passed several major housing-relief measures, including a sweeping reform of the national mortgage system, Kenneth Harney wrote in the Washington Post (11/24), but Senate R’s stalled legislation that would strengthen the Federal Housing Administration’s mortgage programs, a key resource for homeowners who need to refinance out of adjustable-rate loans into more affordable fixed-rate ones. The FHA reform bill passed the House in September and had been approved by the Senate Banking Committee by a 20-1 vote. But it was blocked from floor action by a small group of R’s who are unsympathetic to federal involvement in the mortgage market, even if it’s designed to assist subprime borrowers. The bill was blocked from a floor vote on 11/15 by Sens. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) after a hold by Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.). Dole objects to the FHA’s plan to begin pricing mortgages based on credit risk starting in January, whether the reform bill is approved or not. Dole is an ally of the private mortgage insurance industry, which would have to compete with a revived FHA in the low-down-payment mortgage market.

LOOSE STANDARDS ON CELLPHONE WARRANTS. Some federal judges are not requiring government officials to show “probable cause” of a crime before issuing orders to cellphone companies to furnish real-time tracking data so law enforcement can pinpoint the whereabouts of suspects, Ellen Nakashima wrote in the Washington Post (11/23). The issue is taking on greater relevance as wireless carriers race to offer services that allow cellphone users to know with the touch of a button where their friends or families are. Spencer Ackerman noted at tpmmuckraker.com (11/23), “It’s not just foreign-to-domestic calls involving suspected terrorists. Nor library, business and medical records of American citizens in (mostly) terrorism-related cases. The list of circumstances under which law enforcement can jettison probable cause as a standard for obtaining information is expanding to include carrying a cellphone.” To guard against abuse, John Morris, senior counsel for the Center for Democracy and Technology, told the Post, Congress should require comprehensive reporting to the court and to Congress about how and how often the emergency authority is used.

FCC TO ACT ON LOW-POWER RADIO. The Federal Communications Commission announced (11/20) that it was ready to pass new rules governing low-power FM radio (LPFM) service — a noncommercial radio service that hundreds of schools, churches, municipalities and community groups use to connect with their local communities. Pete Tridish, founder of the Prometheus Radio Project (prometheusradio.org), which supports community radio projects, expressed hope that the FCC would ensure that low-power licenses, authorizing 100-watt signals that usually reach only a few miles, will be available in cities as well as rural areas in the future and that the FCC would protect the low-power stations from losing their frequencies to full-power stations that encroach upon their signals and threaten to knock them off the air. LPFM advocates also have proposed that the FCC prioritize local low-power radio stations over translator chains fed by distant signals. The FCC has frozen the granting of translator licenses for the time being, to investigate the practices of these chains and to balance the priority of distant translator use with the needs of local radio.

CLONE MILK TO HIT US MARKET. Despite widespread opposition from consumer groups, the FDA has approved the commercialization of milk from cloned animals as “safe” and will not require labels, the Organic Consumers Association reports. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.)’s consumer-friendly amendment to the Farm Bill, which is currently stuck in the Senate, would require the FDA to place a temporary moratorium on cloned milk and examine its potential health hazards for animals and humans, but it is vehemently opposed by the biotech industry. See organicconsumers.org.

TEXAS DEMS BATTLE FOR UPHILL FIGHT. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) is not on the endangered list, but his approval ratings are tepid so he is considered potentially vulnerable. At least two Dems are fighting for the chance to take him on: Ray McMurrey, a Corpus Christi high school teacher, is running as a progressive populist who would advocate public financing of campaigns and ethics reforms to make it easier for working people to run for office, single-payer universal health care, repeal Bush’s tax cuts and hasten the transition from fossil fuels to alternative energy. He faces state Rep. Rick Noriega, a Houston energy executive and National Guard lieutenant colonel who is a veteran of the Afghanistan war and compiled a moderate-to-progressive record in the legislature, has a head start in fundraising and endorsements. Noriega’s campaign told the Corpus Christi Caller-Times (11/19) McMurrey’s entry into the race is a sign that people are frustrated with the status quo on issues such as the progress on the war in Iraq, education and health care.

DEATH NO STRANGER. New York City is on track to have fewer than 500 homicides this year, Al Baker reported in the New York Times (11/23). That would be the lowest toll since reliable statistics became available in 1963, and down from a high of 2,245 in 1990. Of the 212 cases for which relationship data was available, NYPD found, only 35 murders were committed by strangers (in a city of over 8 mln people). All the rest are by acquaintances — intimates, business or gang rivals, family members, etc. Josh Marshall of TalkingPointsMemo.com (11/23) said the stats give more credence to a suspicion that the current low murder rates make the whole concept of the TV police procedural unrealistic. “Can the two detectives at Law & Order really have one murder case to solve once a week? And all three series? Or what about the old NYPD Blue? The structure of the show was based on murders right and left for just the single precinct.” He added, “Death at the hands of people we know has always been an understated factor in the mental picture of crime. But this does suggest that in New York City at least the sort of anonymous death by violence that bulks largest in our fears of crime has fallen to almost microscopic proportions.”

TAX BILL STALLS IN SENATE. The House voted 216-193 to pass HR 3996, which would extend relief for middle-class taxpayers from the Alternative Minimum Tax and offset the costs by reducing tax loopholes for private equity fund managers and others. All but eight Dems present voted for the bill, while all the Republicans present voted against it. The AMT provision would prevent the tax from reaching millions of more taxpayers (as it is scheduled to do under current law) for a year but does not permanently address this problem. Senate Republicans have made it clear that they would rather increase the federal budget deficit than pay for AMT relief, Citizens for Tax Justice (ctj.org) noted.

From The Progressive Populist, December 15, 2007

Home Page

Subscribe to The Progressive Populist

Copyright © 2007 The Progressive Populist.