In 2004, Mississippi officials saw the infant mortality rate -- defined as deaths by the age of 1 per thousand live births -- fall to 9.7, Erik Eckholm reported in the New York Times (2/22). The national average in 2003, the last year for which data have been compiled, was 6.9. But after Haley Barbour was elected governor in 2004 on the promise of cutting Medicaid and other health programs, Mississippi cut 54,000 people from Medicaid and Children's Health Insurance Program, made it more difficult for parents to enroll in health programs and cut back the state's system of clinics. The infant mortality rate jumped sharply in 2005, to 11.4. Smaller rises also occurred in 2005 in Alabama, North Carolina and Tennessee. Louisiana and South Carolina saw rises in 2004 and have not yet reported on 2005.
Most striking is the racial disparity. In Mississippi, infant deaths among blacks rose to 17 per thousand births in 2005 from 14.2 per thousand in 2004, while those among whites rose to 6.6 per thousand from 6.1. (The national average in 2003 was 5.7 for whites and 14.0 for blacks.) The overall jump in Mississippi meant that 65 more babies died in 2005 than in the previous year, for a total of 481.
Maria Morris, who quit last year as head of a state office that informed the public about Medicaid eligibility, said that under the Barbour administration, her program was severely curtailed. "The philosophy was to reduce the rolls and our activities were contrary to that policy," she told the Times. But Mississippi's Medicaid director, Dr. Robert L. Robinson, said in a written response that suggesting any correlation between the decline in Medicaid enrollment and infant mortality was "pure conjecture."
While the infant mortality rate for blacks has averaged up to 20 per thousand in some counties, Sharkey County, one of the poorest, has had a startlingly different record. From 1991 through 2005, the rate for blacks hovered at around 5 per thousand. The county is small -- it registers only 100 births a year -- but a steep drop in infant deaths followed the start of an intensive home-visiting system run by the Cary Christian Center, using local mothers as counselors. "If this is a fluke it's a 15-year fluke," said Dr. Christina Glick, a neonatologist in Jackson, Miss., and past president of the National Perinatal Association. The program, which is paid for with private money, buses nearly all pregnant blacks in Sharkey and a small neighboring county to pre- and postnatal classes.
WHAT SOCIAL SECURITY CRISIS? A new report by Social Security trustees finds that the retirement system will be able to pay 100% of promised benefits until 2041, one year later than the 2006 report projected, and Social Security will pay 75% of promised benefits after that.
To put the "crisis" in perspective, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (cbpp.org) noted 4/23 that trustees place the estimated Social Security shortfall at 0.7% of the Gross Domestic Product (or $4.7 tln in present value over 75 years). The cost of extending the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts for the rich over the same 75-year period is an estimated 2% of GDP (or $14.4 tln in present value). In other words, the cost over the next 75 years of making the tax cuts permanent will be about triple the size of the Social Security shortfall.
The most serious financing problems are in Medicare, CBPP noted, but those problems are due to the continuing sharp rise in health care costs. For the past 30 years, the increase in costs per beneficiary in Medicare has been nearly identical to the increase in costs per beneficiary for private insurance.
Congress' expert Medicare advisory commission (the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission, or MedPAC) has found that Medicare is overpaying private insurance companies more than $10 bln per year. The Congressional Budget Office reports these overpayments are weakening Medicare's finances and accelerating the date of Medicare insolvency. Private insurance companies (which cover about one-fifth of Medicare beneficiaries) were brought into Medicare on the assumption that they would save money for the program, MedPAC and CBO have found the companies are instead being paid 12% more than it costs to treat the same patients under regular Medicare. CBO has projected that fixing the overpayment to insurance companies would save $150 bln for the program over the next ten years.
CBPP's Robert Greenstein said the report "shows why it is so important for Congress to stand up to the health insurance companies and eliminate the large overpayments Medicare is making to private health insurance companies. Those overpayments, which the insurance companies have launched a multi-million-dollar lobbying campaign to protect, are worsening Medicare's long-term financing problems and accelerating the program's date of insolvency."
CBO projected in June 2006 that Social Security could pay full benefits until 2046. Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (cepr.net) noted that the Social Security trustees, a majority of whom are appointed by Bush, continue to have substantially more negative assumptions than CBO on both productivity growth (1.7% compared with 2% for CBO) and unemployment (5.5% compared to 5% for CBO). The trustees also assume that the rate of immigration will decline substantially from its recent level during the years when baby boomers are retiring.
The trustees suggest that the Social Security fund could be brought into actuarial balance over the next 75 years with a 16% increase in payroll tax revenues or a 13% reduction in benefits or some combination of the two.
Crisis skeptics also have noticed that economic projections more than 10 years in advance are almost useless, but "balance" also could be achieved under the trustees' projections by doing away with the ceiling on wages subject to the payroll tax, now $97,500.
K STREET WINS ON TAX BREAKS. The Iraq supplemental spending bill that emerged from House and Senate negotiators includes a provision to increase the federal minimum wage for the first time in a decade. But Democrats have stripped out a variety of contentious tax measures that had been tied to the minimum-wage legislation, under pressure from some of the nation's largest business lobbies, the Washington Post reported 4/24. Gone is a measure that would have restricted what executives and other highly paid employees can place in deferred-compensation plans. Gone is a proposal to deny tax deductions for fines and penalties associated with lawsuits. And gone are measures to target a variety of corporate tax shelters. Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) accused Democrats of "caving in to K Street, pure and simple." David Sirota noted at workingassetsblog.com that Grassley's comments signal that Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) actually had the support of his ranking Republican on Senate Finance to enact all of these progressive reforms. "Yet, incredibly, he went ahead and stripped out these measures anyway."
Sirota noted that the Billings Gazette reported 4/24 that Baucus has set up a joint lobbyist fundraising operation with House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) that allows "donors to make one campaign contribution to both chairmen who oversee taxes, trade and major entitlement programs." In the first three months of this year, the PAC has vacuumed in $144,000 -- or $12,000 a week, Sirota noted. "This little anecdote is the Hostile Takeover of our government -- and shows why the election of a congressional Democratic majority is no excuse for the progressive movement to back down. There's lots of work to be done keeping the pressure on."
CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR. Celebration by liberals over the banishment of Don Imus may be short-lived after MSNBC and CBS Radio announced that conservative shock jock Michael Smerconish would replace Imus, at least temporarily. MediaMatters.org noted that in addition to hosting his own Philadelphia radio talk show and writing a Philadephia Daily News column, Smerconish has been guest host for MSNBC's Scarborough Country and Westwood One's The Radio Factor with Bill O'Reilly. [As we went to press, MSNBC announced it also would give liberal talker Stephanie Miller a tryout.]
COMIC NEWS FANS SMARTEST. A Pew Research Study found that viewers of the Daily Show and the Colbert Report have the highest knowledge of national and international affairs, while Fox News viewers rank nearly dead last. Regular watchers of Comedy Central's news and talk parodies tied with regular readers of major newspapers in the top spot -- with 54% of them getting 2 out of 3 questions correct. Viewers of the NewsHour on PBS and NPR listeners followed just behind. Virtually bringing up the rear were regular watchers of Fox News. Only 1 in 3 could answer 2 out of 3 questions correctly. Fox topped only network morning show viewers.
In 2007, fewer people were able to name their governor, the vice president, and the president of Russia than in 1989, but more respondents than in the earlier era gave correct answers to questions pertaining to national politics. In 1989, for example, 74% could come up with Dan Quayle's name when asked who the vice president is. Today, only 69% are able to recall Dick Cheney. However, more Americans now know that the chief justice of the Supreme Court is a conservative and that Democrats control Congress than knew these things in 1989. See people-press.org.
SCALPED. Yes, $400 is a lot to pay for a haircut. So perhaps it was news when Dan Morain reported in the Los Angeles Times on 4/17 that John Edwards not only paid that much to a hair stylist on trips to Los Angeles, but paid it from his campaign fund. The Associated Press followed up with a snarky story with basically the same facts headlined "Edwards' haircuts cost a pretty penny." Then on 4/20 Adam Nagourney and Robin Givhan wrote variations of the same story in the New York Times and the Washington Post, respectively. Finally, snark queen Maureen Dowd piled on with her 4/21 column in the New York Times, which opined, "Whether or not the country is ready to elect a woman president or a black president, it's definitely not ready for a metrosexual in chief." She added, "Mr. Edwards this week had to pay back the $800 charged to his campaign for two shearings at Torrenueva Hair Designs in Beverly Hills. He seems intent of proving that he is a Breck Girl -- and a Material Boy."
Actually, the shearings were not at the shop. Edwards was paying extra to have the stylist, who normally charges $175, meet him off-site. Paul Waldman noted at Prospect.org that it was the fifth column in which Dowd had called Edwards "Breck Girl," adopting the GOP trash talk term.
Interestingly, neither these reporters nor their editors, when presented with the rehashes, thought to inquire what other presidential candidates pay for their haircuts. However, Ezra Klein noted at EzraKlein.typepad.com (4/17) that Laura Bush in 2005 had her hair done by famed New York City stylist Sally Hershberger, who charged $700 for a haircut, according to Barbara Walters.
NEW ROVE PROBE. The federal government's Office of Special Counsel is launching an investigation into a set of seemingly disparate White House controversies, all of which have at their center the man who's at the center of everything: Karl Rove. The Los Angeles Times reports 4/24 the investigation by the OSC, "an obscure federal investigative unit" that usually finds itself monitoring relatively low-level federal employees for violations of ethical and administrative rules. The OSC's Web site describes it as "an independent federal investigative and prosecutorial agency" charged with responsibility for the Civil Service Reform Act, the Whistleblower Protection Act and the Hatch Act. Scott Bloch, the Bush appointee who runs the OSC, said the investigation into White House political activities grew out of investigations into two separate controversies: one involving the firing of David Iglesias, one of the eight US attorneys forced out last year, and one involving a partisan PowerPoint presentation one of Rove's assistants made before a group of General Services Administration managers. The new "unified investigation" will include the case of the missing emails and could cover "many facets of the political operation in which Rove played a leading part," the Times says.
BOMBING SUSPECT RELEASED. Luis Posada Carriles, suspected in several bombings, including one that downed a Cuban airliner with the loss of 73 lives in 1976, was released on bail by a federal judge in El Paso 4/19 while he awaits trial for illegal entry into the US. Posada, 79, a Venezuelan national and former CIA operative, was awaiting trial for the airliner bombing when he escaped from a Venezuelan jail in 1985, but the Bush administration refuses to extradite him to Venezuela or Cuba or try him here on terrorism charges. After his release on $350,000 bail, he travelled on a chartered flight to Miami, where his wife lives and told reporters "Estoy muy contento" ("I'm very happy"), the Miami Herald reported. In Cuba, relatives of the victims of Cuban airliner downing reacted with indignation to Posada's release, according to Agence France-Press in Havana. ''We are deeply angered. We didn't expect them to release him because they have sufficient elements to punish him for being a liar and a terrorist. They are protecting the murderer of our parents,'' said Camilo Rojo, of the Committee of Relatives of the Victims.
INTUIT KILLED FREE E-FILE. Electronic filing saves the IRS time and money, and is more accurate than IRS employees who type in the data from paper returns. But lobbying by private tax preparers has stopped the IRS from setting up its own Web portal to receive the filings, National Public Radio's All Things Considered reported 3/23. That left most Americans no choice but to e-file through private companies like Intuit (Turbo Tax) and HR Block (Tax Cut). In other countries, free and direct electronic filing is a given. But in the US, Intuit has lobbied hard to make sure taxpayers aren't allowed to e-file directly to the IRS.
This year on tax day, a flood of one million last-minute tax filers swamped Intuit's e-filing system April 17, causing long delays for taxpayers trying to check that their electronic returns had been submitted successfully. On April 18, the IRS granted a two-day extension to taxpayers who were unable to e-file their returns using Intuit software products.
BREAUX SAVED BY A.G.? Louisiana Att'y. Gen. Charles Foti (D) may have done former Sen. John Breaux a favor in declining to clear up whether the conservative Dem, who has lived in Maryland since he left the Senate in 2005, met the residency requirements to run for governor. Although officially Breaux was disappointed in Foti's ruling that the matter should be resolved in the courts, Tom Schaller noted at Prospect.org (4/23) that Breaux looked at the $ mln Rep. Bobby Jindal (R) already has raised and the relocation of tens of thousands of New Orleans Dems out of state and feared he might embarrass himself by running and losing to Jindal. "To get him off the hook, Breaux wanted anything but a green light from the Louisiana AG's office -- because if he got the go-ahead and then dropped out everyone would know Breaux was too scared of losing," Schaller wrote. Two Democrats have announced their candidacies so far: Public Service Commission member Foster Campbell and the Rev. Raymond Brown of New Orleans, a civil rights activist.
NEXT REAGAN? Stuart Rothenberg, in the 4/19 Roll Call, on GOP search for next Ronald Reagan: "Ironically, conservatives who call for the 'next Reagan' have already had him. His name is George W. Bush. Like Reagan, Bush talks tough about foreign enemies, has advocated lower taxes and talks like a social conservative. It was former Reagan aide Michael Deaver who called Bush 'the most Reagan-like politician we have seen.' The major difference is that Reagan was a political success. Yet 'another Ronald Reagan' probably would easily be demonized by Democrats as 'another George W. Bush,' and that's pretty much the absolutely last thing Republicans should want next year."
GOP SENATE BLUES. The Rothenberg Political Report newsletter rates three Republican Senate seats as vulnerable -- Norm Coleman (Minn.), Susan Collins (Maine) and the Colorado seat Wayne Allard is giving up. On the "watch list" are Gordon Smith (R-Ore.), John Sununu (R-N.H.) and Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) and Mary Landrieu (D-La.). The other 16 Republicans and 10 Dems are rated "safe," though controversies over care at Walter Reed Hospital and the removal of US attorneys by the White House have added to the GOP's problems.
In other Senate news, a Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee poll shows Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) with potential re-election problems. The poll showed 41% favorable to Cornyn, 19% unfavorable and 39% unable to rate him. Against a generic Dem, he leads by a shallow 47% to 38% with 15% undecided. Texans gave President Bush a negative rating (47% positive, 51% negative overall, and a 58% negative rating on his handling of Iraq).Voters are split over whether their family would be better off with a Dem or GOP majority in the Senate (41% Dem, 43% GOP).
After considering a race against embattled Sen. Gordon Smith, Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), decided he likes gaveling a House Transportation subcommittee responsible for highway funding better. "I just did not feel that becoming a junior member of the Senate was going to allow me to serve as well and as effectively, particularly in the short term, as my current position," he told he Oregonian (4/20). But Dem challengers include Steve Novick, who has never been elected but held numerous Dem policy positions (see votehook.com). Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Portland) also reportedly is considering a race, DailyKos.com reported.
OPEN HOUSE. There may be more openings for Democrats as the FBI expands its investigation of Congress members with ties to disgraced GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff. The FBI reportedly has asked Rep. Tom Feeney (R-Fla.) about a golfing trip he took with Abramoff to Scotland. Other reps under investigation include Rick Renzi (R-Ariz.) and John Doolittle (R-Calif.)
PRESIDENTIAL BANKROLLERS LINING UP. Lawyers and employees of the nation's top investment firms are the biggest underwriters of the 2008 presidential campaign, according to an analysis of the candidates' first campaign finance reports by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics (opensecrets.org). Lawyers have already contributed at least $14.6 mln to the 18 major Republican and Democratic candidates. The securities and investment industry ranks second behind the lawyers, with more than $8.6 mln, but Wall Street firms dominate the list of top companies from across all industries. "While candidates are collecting more money from small donors than ever before, this campaign is largely being financed right out of the gate by big money from big interests," said Sheila Krumholz, the Center's executive director. Mitt Romney (R) and Hillary Clinton (D) led their parties in money from the securities and investment industry. Both collected about $1.7 mln, with Romney raising slightly more in CRP's preliminary analysis. Edwards, a former plaintiff's attorney, is the legal industry's favorite candidate, by far. Edwards has taken in nearly $4.4 mln from lawyers and their firms since January, or $1 out of every $3 he has raised. Clinton trails Edwards with about $2.8 mln from lawyers. Other top industries footing the bill for the presidential race so far include real estate ($5.9 mln; top recipient: Romney), the entertainment industry ($2.4 mln; top recipient: Clinton) and doctors and other health professionals ($2.2 mln; top recipient: Clinton). Retired individuals have contributed almost as much as the investment industry -- more than $8.3 mln (with Romney leading the field).
A NEW COURT. After the 5-4 decision in which the Supreme Court reversed its position on abortion, upholding the federal Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act, court watchers examined the 5-4 cases in which Sandra Day O'Connor had been the swing vote before she was replaced by Sam Alito last year. "O'Connor was the swing vote in so many cases, especially in high-profile areas like affirmative action, campaign finance and separation of church and state," the Associated Press quoted Erwin Chemerinsky, a law professor at Duke. "Sam Alito is likely to bring about a change in all of those areas."
In the coming months, the court is set to decide two important cases in areas where O'Connor played a crucial role. One case considers whether the school systems in Seattle and Louisville, Ky., may take into account students' race to make sure schools remain integrated. In Grutter v. Bollinger, the 2003 decision in which O'Connor, writing for a 5-to-4 majority, upheld a racially conscious admissions plan at the University of Michigan's law school. That case involved not integration, but affirmative action, with the court allowing the government to give some groups a boost. But the integration cases will almost certainly give a powerful hint about where the court is headed, not only on affirmative action but also on the use of race by the government more generally.
Another case could undo O'Connor's legacy on campaign finance reform. In 2003, she was in the majority in McConnell v. Federal Election Commission, which upheld the major provisions of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law, including restrictions on some campaign-season television advertising paid for by corporations and labor unions. In the new case, an anti-abortion group, Wisconsin Right to Life Inc., sought to run TV commercials criticizing a Senate filibuster against Bush's judicial nominees and urging viewers to ask the state's two senators, one of whom was up for re-election, to permit the nominations to come to a vote. The FEC says that the advertisements were thinly veiled campaign commercials, while the group says they are just the sort of speech at the core of what the First Amendment protects. "If Alito takes the position of the dissenters" in the 2003 case, said Richard H. Pildes, a law professor at New York University, "that would represent a profound transformation in the power of Congress to reach campaign finance practices. The betting line is that he's likely to go that way." After the McConnell decision, Congressional power to drive money from politics, even at the expense of free speech, had seemed settled. Only four years later, the issue is back on the table.
O'Connor also played a central role in religion cases, and in recent years she had shown increasing skepticism in capital cases. In 2005, O'Connor was in the five-justice majority in a decision invalidating the display of the Ten Commandments in a Kentucky courthouse. When the issue next comes up, Chemerinsky said, "there is every reason to believe that Alito will join Scalia and Thomas" in allowing displays of religious symbols on government property.
CLIMATE CHANGE DISASTER DOWN UNDER. Australia will have to switch off the water supply to the continent's food bowl unless heavy rains break an epic drought -- heralding what could be the first climate change-driven disaster to strike a developed nation, the London Independent reported 4/20. Prime Minister John Howard, a hardened climate-change skeptic, told the nation's farmers on 4/19 that unless there is significant rainfall in the next six to eight weeks, irrigation will be banned in the principal agricultural area. Crops such as rice, cotton and wine grapes will fail, citrus, olive and almond trees will die, along with livestock. A ban on irrigation, which would remain in place until May next year, spells possible ruin for thousands of farmers, already debt-laden and in despair after six straight years of drought. The causes of the current drought, which began in 2002 but has been felt most acutely over the past six months, are complex, Kathy Marks wrote in the Independent. But few scientists dispute the part played by climate change, which is making Australia hotter and drier. Australia is the only major industrialized country other than the US to reject the Kyoto Protocol, ThinkProgress.org noted.
PRIVATE SLIPS SINK SHIPS. After months of crifticism and setbacks, Coast Guard Commandant Thad Allen announced on 4/17 that eight patrol boats that were supposed to be renovated under the ambitious $24 bln Deepwater fleet modernization program will be decommissioned because of hull cracks and other problems that made them unseaworthy after $100 mln of work. The Deepwater program, managed by Lockhood Martin and Northrop Grumman, was supposed to be a model for the privatization of government contracts, but it has been plagued by cost overruns, design problems and serious issues with contractors. The Coast Guard has resumed its oversight role.
GM CORN SHOWS TOXIC SIGNS. A variety of genetically modified corn that was approved for human consumption in 2006 caused signs of liver and kidney toxicity as well as hormonal changes in rats in a study performed by researchers from the independent Committee for Independent Research and Genetic Engineering at the University of Caen in France, NewsTarget.com reported 4/10. The corn in question, MON863, is made by the Monsanto and approved for use in Australia, Canada, China, the EU, Japan, Mexico, the Philippines, and the United States. It has had a gene inserted from the bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), which causes the plant's cells to produce a pesticide. Researchers fed rats either unmodified corn or diets containing 11% or 30% MON863 for 90 days. The rats who ate modified corn showed signs of liver and kidney toxicity, as well as signs of hormonal changes. Greenpeace responded to the study by calling for an immediate recall of all MON863 corn and the reassessment of all genetically modified foods currently approved for the market.
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