United States News Digest
Congress Challenges Gonzales on Firing of U.S. Attorneys
On Feb. 7, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted 13-6 to send a bill offered by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) to the full Senate, which would eliminate a provision in the USA Patriot Act that gave the Attorney General new power to replace fired U.S. attorneys indefinitely, avoiding the Senate confirmation process. The House is expected to begin hearings on a similar bill next month.
These moves are occasioned by the fact that the Bush Administration has fired seven U.S. Attorneys, from Arkansas to California, since March of last year, and replaced them with "interim U.S. Attorneys" not confirmed by the Senate. U.S. Attorneys are appointed by the President as the chief Federal attorney in each Federal court district (of which there is one or more per state).
The Administration's motives for this purge are unknown; the DOJ says there's nothing unusual about it, and that most of those fired were fired because of poor performance. Yet the Wall Street Journal Feb. 8 cited former senior Justice Department officials who say that firing U.S. Attorneys is unusual. Some commentators posit typical Bush cronyism, while others suggest it was done to derail sensitive investigations. One of the latter cases, it's argued, is Carol Lam of San Diego, who successfully prosecuted Republican U.S. Rep. Randy Cunningham on corruption charges. House Democratic Caucus chair Rahm Emanuel sent a letter to Attorney General Gonzales Feb. 7, demanding that Lam be appointed as a special counsel, to continue overseeing the Congressional corruption probe.
On Feb. 8, AP reported that the fired Seattle U.S. Attorney, John McKay, says he was ordered without explanation to resign; this reverses his explanation at the time of his resignation, that it was simply time for him to move on. What makes the McKay story more interesting, is that he was fired seven months after having received a favorable job evaluation by the DOJ. The chief Federal judge in the district says he and his fellow judges don't understand the firing, that McKay was a superb U.S. Attorney.
Pelosi Reconsiders Opposition to Nuclear Power
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), testifying before the House Science and Technology Committee on Climate Change, on Feb. 8, said she is changing her mind on nuclear power. In response to a question on the role of nuclear power in cutting down on so-called greenhouse gases, posed by Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.), Pelosi said she has opposed nuclear power and is concerned about the waste problem, but with the change in technology, she said she now has a more open mind, and nuclear power has to be on the table.
Pelosi was also asked by James Sensenbrenner (R-Wisc.), what would be the economic consequences of mandatory caps on greenhouse gas emissions, and would it mean more outsourcing of jobs? Reflecting the non-stop propaganda about "global warming," Pelosi answered that "green can be gold" and create more jobs. Furthermore, doing nothing about climate change will have economic consequences.
Poor Contract Management Endemic in the Government
U.S. Comptroller General David Walker testified to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on Feb. 8 that poor management of outside contractors is a systemic problem throughout the Federal government. The particular subject of the Feb. 8 hearing was contracting by the Department of Homeland Security, focussing on two very large contracts, the Coast Guard's Deepwater program, and SBINet, which is supposed to provide a system for securing the northern and southern borders of the U.S. Deepwater program. Deepwater, which is supposed to replace the Coast Guard's aging fleet of ships and aircraft, has been much in the news lately, because the contractors delivered two 425-foot National Security cutters with defective hulls. The problems in these two contracts that Walker and DHS Inspector General Richard Skinner identified are familiar to anyone who's followed the Iraq contracting scandals: hiring contractors to oversee contractors, giving the contractors too much authority over what they are doing, giving them award fees even though they haven't delivered anything under the contract.
The Deepwater contract, like the Iraq contracts, shows that the problem is not just structural, however. Committee chair Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) asked the witnesses about a case of document tampering in the Deepwater contract. The Navy was asked to do an assessment of the hull design, and the its report included bottom-line warnings, in red ink, that the stresses on the hulls were too high for them to last the intended 30-year design life. When the commandant of the Coast Guard was briefed on the Navy's assessment, those bottom-line warnings were deleted from his briefing slides. Skinner, in response to Waxman's questions on the doctoring of the Navy report, described a consistent pattern of the Coast Guard and the contractors denying his office the documentation it needed to do its oversight, including denying that there were problems with the cutters.
Senate Agriculture Committee Backs Bio-Foolery
Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns was the chief witness at an over three-hour Senate Agriculture Committee hearing Feb. 7 on the White House's proposal for the 2007 farm bill. Flanked by USDA Chief Economist Keith Collins, and Deputy Secretary Chuck Connor, Johanns stressed that the next five-year farm bill will help breakthroughs in cellulosic ethanol, so that U.S. bio-energy "goes from a cornbelt program to a national program." He presented visions of harvesting what's on your forest floor, and of utilizing grasses, if that's what your state grows. Of the 15 Senators who spoke, Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) raved the most about, what he called, "the energy revolution as it intersects agriculture," and reported how in rural counties, "tax revenues, and deposits in the bank" are up. In contrast, other Senators raised various reality-based concerns, including the lack of Federal farm disaster relief, the fact that family-sized livestock operators now can't afford feed, and so on. Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.) reported that 10,000 cattle in his state have died, from the severe winter weather.
Sen. Robert Casey (D-Pa.) raised the most important principle at the hearing, when he asked Johanns about dairy farmers receiving only $14-16 per 100 pounds for their raw milk, when it costs them far more to produce it. "Why doesn't Federal policy reflect the true cost of production for farmers, just to survive?" Casey, a freshman Senator, asked. Johanns ducked it.
Committee chair Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) said that he and House Agriculture Committee chair Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) intend introduce a five-year farm bill to be passed by September. The White House plans retain, but reduce, farm subsidies, boost bio-fuels, etc.
Bush Sends Up 'Guns, Not Butter' Budget
As expected, the budget plan for Fiscal 2008 that President Bush sent up to Capitol Hill Feb. 5 asks for $93 million for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars for the rest of fiscal 2007, and $141 billion for fiscal 2008, on top of a $481 billion baseline budget for the Pentagona whopping total of $716 billion. This compares to $300 billion for all Pentagon spending in 2000. At the same time, the budget plan calls for austerity in almost everything else, holding defense discretionary spending to 1% growth, less than the rate of inflation, and for reducing Medicare spending by $66 billion over the next five years, primarily by reducing payments to providers such as hospitals and nursing homes. It also proposes discretionary spending caps like those of the 1990s that caused problems for Medicare providers during that period.
Democrats uniformly panned the budget plan. Senate Budget Committee chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) told reporters that, "I would say that this budget is filled with debt and deception. It's disconnected from reality." Conrad's counterpart in the House, Rep. John Spratt (D-S.C.) agreed: "This budget fails to cover the realistic costs of government over the next ten years. It goes deeper and deeper into debt." House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chair James Oberstar (D-Minn.) declared that the "Bush budget shortchanges critical infrastructure needs" and vowed to protect "full funding" for the nation's "Federal surface, air, and rail transportation programs as well as emergency preparedness, inland water transport, and environmental infrastructure development." Since this is the first budget submitted by the Bush Administration to a Democratically controlled Congress, it is likely to be subject to examination like no previous Bush budget ever saw. It therefore is likely that many of the proposals in it could be considered "dead on arrival."
Retired Officers Sound Alarm Over Iran War Danger
In a letter to the London Sunday Times published Feb. 4, three former U.S. military leaders charged that attacking Iran "would have disastrous consequences for security in the region [and for] coalition forces in Iraq and would further exacerbate regional and global tensions.... The current crisis must be resolved through diplomacy." The letter was signed by retired Army Lt. Gen. Robert Gard, a former military assistant to Defense Secretary Robert McNamara; retired U.S. Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Hoar, a former commander-in-chief of U.S. Central Command; and retired Navy Vice Adm. Jack Shanahan, a former director of the Center for Defense Information. They urged the U.S. government to "engage immediately in direct talks with the government of Iran, without preconditions. There is time available to talk, we must ensure that we use it," they said.
This new warning underlines how urgent it is for the Congress to use its powers to impeach Cheney, since the Iran war plan is obviously on go.
Graham Admits: GOP Senators Worried About 2008
During an interview with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) Feb. 4, Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace said that Fox's count is that there are 16 GOP Senators opposing the surge policy, or expressing serious doubts about it, and he asked Graham if there is panic in the Republican Party about the 2008 elections. Graham, who totally supports the Administration's policy, at first evaded the question, and then acknowledged that there are, in fact, a number of Republican Senators who are worried about how this will play in 2008. He didn't name names.