Republicans claimed a big win with the "long count" passage of a bill that would spend $400 billion to enrich insurance and pharmaceutical companies under the cover of Medicare reform, but they apparently have not fooled the American people, if a Washington Post/ABC News poll released Dec. 9 can be believed. The poll, conducted Dec. 3-7, found 38% of respondents disapproved of the Medicare changes voted on by Congress last month, while 32% approved and 30% had no opinion. But of those most affected by the legislation, 47% percent of seniors (65 and over) said they disapproved of the changes to Medicare, while only 26% supported the legislation. The 55-to-64 age group was similarly opposed, 46% to 32%. The public clearly is skeptical of Republicans "saving" Medicare after they have been scheming to undermine the health care program for the elderly ever since it was created in 1965. While Bush at the bill signing ceremony claimed the bill was a bipartisan victory, Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., was not inclined to join that party, telling a rally of seniors, "We have only just begun to fight." Ron Pollack, executive director of Families USA, a health consumer lobby that opposed the legislation, told the Post Medicare patients could lose benefits under the law. They include retirees whose former employers abandon drug coverage once the federal benefit begins in 2006, as well as low-income people who now qualify for Medicaid -- a separate public health insurance program for the poor that in some parts of the country requires smaller co-payments and offers a wider choice of drugs than Medicare will cover. In addition, Pollack said, the law does not allow people who obtain the new drug benefit to keep private, supplemental insurance coverage -- known as Medigap -- that today provides more generous coverage than the federal program will offer.
JOBS STILL LAGGING. The Bush administration was proud that the unemployment rate was down a click to 5.9%, but the employment report for November showed a gain of only 57,000 jobs, which as Max Sawicky of the Economic Policy Institute commented, is "a lot better than getting poked in the eye with a sharp stick, but the fact of the administration's miserable failure in economic policy remains." The Bush administration has been issuing half-baked predictions of employment growth resulting from tax cuts, Sawicky noted. Instead there has been a significant loss of jobs. "We are two years into a 'recovery,' and we have yet to make up those job losses. We have only begun to see some increases in employment." On a monthly basis, it takes between 150,000 and 200,000 new jobs just to maintain the current unemployment rate, since there are new labor force entrants all the time. At the beginning of 2003, the Bushies promised monthly job growth in excess of 300,000 if tax cuts were enacted. So 1,530,000 jobs were supposed to be created in the first five months after the tax cuts took effect. In fact, only 271,000 jobs were created over those five months for a cumulative shortfall of 1,259,000 jobs. The friendly folks at www.jobwatch.org also noted that since the recession ended 24 months ago in November 2001, 726,000 jobs have disappeared, a 0.6% contraction. This is the first time since monthly job statistics began in 1939 that there has not been positive growth in jobs for two years after a recession ended. In every other recovery, jobs had grown by at least 5.0% by this stage. If jobs had grown by 5.0% in the last two years, there would have been 7.3 million more jobs in November.
OHIO FINDS E-VOTE PROBLEMS. Ohio's sweeping review of electronic voting machines turned up so many potential security flaws in the systems that the state's top elections official has called off deploying them in March. Detailed findings confirmed what academics, computer scientists and voter advocates across the country have said for months: Electronic voting systems are prime targets for manipulation by anyone from expert computer hackers to poll workers to individual voters, the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported Dec. 3. Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, who ordered the review, said he and machine vendors are confident that all 57 problems identified by investigators can be fixed, perhaps by next August. Diebold Election Systems, the Ohio-based company that has taken the most heat for potential flaws in the security of its machines, led the pack in the number of serious flaws in its systems, but the technology of the other companies -- Sequoia, Hart InterCivic, and Election Systems & Software -- also was found to be riddled with problems. Voting-machine critic Bev Harris of blackboxvoting.org praised Blackwell for releasing the comprehensive study. She said about two-thirds of a similar review conducted on Diebold technology in Maryland was blacked out before it was released. Democrats.com noted that a voter-verified paper trail is NOT one of the 57 problems! Call Blackwell at 877-767-6446 or email email@example.com to demand paper trails for ALL electronic machines!
In related developments, the New York Times on Dec. 8 endorsed Rep. Rush Holt's bill (HR 2239) to require a paper trail for votes. "Too many elections teeter on a few hundred votes, and candidates rightly expect human beings to be able to double-check the results," the Times editorialized. "America's election apparatus needs to move firmly and quickly into the computer age. But the public must feel secure that each vote is really counted. At this stage, a voter-verified paper trail offers the public that necessary security."
DIME IN THE ROUGH. Republicans have dreamt for years about repealing the New Deal and now a bill has been filed to at least replace liberal icon Franklin D. Roosevelt's face on the dime with Ronald Reagan's. Supporters of the "Ronald Reagan Dime Act" said FDR and the New Deal represented decades past, while Reagan's conservative administration ushered in society as it exists today. Rep. Mark Souder, R-Ind., said the bill was triggered by the controversy over a TV movie that depicted a doddering Reagan dominated by his wife. Souder collected 89 co-sponsors for his bill to oust FDR from the dime, but Rep. James McGovern, D-Mass., quickly rounded up 80 co-sponsors for an opposing bill to keep Roosevelt on the dime. Ironically, Joe Conason noted in Salon.com, the move might backfire because "if they pursue this new provocation against the memory of the greatest American president of the past century -- the leader who saved the world from fascism despite opposition from the Nazi-coddling 'conservatives' of his day -- they will make a full debate about the dying Reagan's record unavoidable."
Conason noted that the Marine Corps recently marked the 20th anniversary of the Marine barracks suicide-bombing in Beirut that killed 241 of their comrades on Oct. 23, 1983. "Nobody doubted that terrorists backed by Iran were responsible for that attack, just as the same groups had mounted a similar assault on the US Embassy that cost 63 lives the previous April," Conason wrote. Reagan responded by pulling American troops out of Lebanon. Then, in August 1985, he authorized the first of several secret arms shipments to Iran, using proceeds from the arms sales to aid "contra" rebels in Nicaragua, in violation of US law. "Then after this outrageous crime was uncovered by a Lebanese newspaper, Reagan lied to the nation, and authorized a coverup," as the special prosecutor who investigated the Iran-contra scandal later found.
The dime has borne Roosevelt's profile since 1946, a year after his death, in part commemorating his support for the March of Dimes campaign to fight polio.
DEMS SEEK MEDICARE BRIBE PROBE. Democrats and a legal watchdog group have asked Attorney General John Ashcroft to investigate allegations that Republicans offered a House member $100,000 in contributions for his son's election campaign if he would vote for a Medicare prescription drug benefit passed by Congress in November. GOP leaders may have crossed the line in the wee hours of Nov. 22 as they held the vote open for nearly three hours while House Speaker Dennis Hastert and others, including Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, worked on recalcitrant R's. An undisclosed Republican reportedly told Rep. Nick Smith, R-Mich., who is not seeking re-election, that if he voted for the bill, business interests would contribute $100,000 to help his son, Brad, succeed him. "Not only was this bribe offered to a member of Congress, it was offered on the floor of the House of Representatives by another member of Congress," Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe wrote Ashcroft. The allegation was first reported Nov. 27 by syndicated columnist Robert Novak. Smith's office confirmed Novak's account as "basically accurate." Smith did not support the bill, which eventually passed, 220-215 shortly before dawn Nov. 23. Smith told Gannett News Service on Nov. 24 that he had received promises that business interests and GOP leaders would help his son's campaign in exchange. He said he also was told those same groups would work to defeat his son if Smith voted against the bill. But on Dec. 5, Smith said his suggestion of a bribery attempt was "technically incorrect" because no money was actually offered.
WORKERS BEAR MORE HEALTH COSTS. Employers saw a 10.1% hike in health care costs in 2003 and expect a 13% increase in 2004, according to a survey by Mercer Human Resource Consulting, the San Francisco Chronicle reported Dec. 8. As high as those increases appear, they have come down from the nearly 15% hike reported by survey participants in 2002 and the 14% they predicted for this year. But the fact that this year's rates came in below the forecast was not due to a reduction of health care costs, but to aggressive shifting of some of those costs onto employees. The average contribution from a single employee on a health maintenance organization plan (or HMO) rose from 31% of the premium last year to 35% this year. The family contribution increased from 50% to 57%. In dollars, the average US worker kicked in $101 a month for an HMO and $82 for the costlier but more flexible preferred provider organization this year. Families paid $352 for the HMO and $381 for the PPO.
HOLIDAYS IN HOCK. From the Institute for Southern Studies: Percent of US residents who say they will "restrain" holiday spending this year: 34. Percent that consumer spending increased over last three months: 6.4. Percent by which personal bankruptcies increased over the last year: 7.8. Number of personal bankruptcies in the last year: 1,625,813. Total amount of consumer debt, in trillions: $1.7. Percent of US residents making minimum or no payments on their credit cards: 46. Percent of disposable income US households spend servicing debts: 13. Projected 2004 federal budget deficit by one estimate, in billions: $500. Sources on file at the Institute for Southern Studies (southernstudies.org).
SALVADOR LABOR ABUSES NO BAR TO 'FREE TRADE.' Human Rights Watch reported widespread abuse of labor rights in El Salvador just as final negotiations are to begin for that country and four Central American neighbors to create a free trade agreement with the US. Human Rights Watch documented many examples of violations of workers' rights in El Salvador's manufacturing, textile and transport industries. The 110-page report also criticized enforcement of labor laws and what it called the inability of many Salvadoran workers to fight labor abuses through the legal system. Robert B. Zoellick, US trade representative, hopes to conclude talks with El Salvador, Honduras, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Guatemala and perhaps the Dominican Republic, into a Central America Free Trade Agreement, to expand on the North American Free Trade Agreement. Carol Pier, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, said the proposal did not encourage stronger protection of workers' rights in El Salvador. The study recommended that CAFTA insist on labor laws that meet international norms.
BETTER DRUGGED THAN GAY? When 21 Iowa National Guard troops tested positive for drug use on the eve of their deployment to Iraq, they were sent overseas anyway, despite the Army's "zero tolerance" policy, the Associated Press reported Nov. 16. Troops tested positive for methamphetamine, cocaine and one soldier tested positive for both meth and amphetamines, according to records obtained by the Des Moines Register. Officials said some of the soldiers used the drugs intending to be caught and sent home. Apparently the Army decided it could tolerate drug users, as long as the soldiers aren't gay. That's right; while the military still has a critical shortage of Arabic and other foreign language speakers, the Washington Post reported April 16 that the Defense Department had identified at least 24 gay linguists for discharge, including nine Arabic speakers, eight Korean, three Farsi, two Chinese and two Russian speakers.
LEFT GETS SUGAR DADDY. Multi-billionaire George Soros is giving $10 million to America Coming Together, a Democratic get-out-the-vote operation, $2.5 million to the MoveOn.org Voter Fund, an Internet advocacy group that is airing advertisements to highlight the administration's misdeeds and $3 million to the Center for American Progress, a new progressive think tank. Defeating George Bush, he told the Washington Post, is "the central focus of my life." Just for the record, The Progressive Populist is not getting any of that money, so it's up to you to take advantage of our special Holiday Gift Offer (see page 24) to help us spread the word.
UNIONS PROTEST PAPERWORK RULE. The AFL-CIO is suing the Bush administration to block a new regulation that requires the nation's labor unions to disclose financial details, such as how much they spend on politics, gifts and management. The labor federation wants the US District Court for the District of Columbia to postpone the rule from taking effect Jan. 1. The rule forces national, regional and local unions with an income of more than $250,000 to provide much more financial detail in the annual forms they are now required to file with the Labor Department. Expenses and receipts of more than $5,000 must be itemized. Unions also will be required for the first time to file a new form detailing the finances of related trusts. The Labor Department says the new requirements will cost unions about $80 million in the first year. Unions say the cost will be well over $712 million.
GOP IGNORES LONG-TERM JOBLESS. Congressional leaders added last-minute legislation to their pre-adjournment agenda that would extend more than a dozen tax breaks scheduled to expire at the end of the year. But Congressional leaders have shown no willingness to consider extending the federal program to help the long-term unemployed, which expires Jan. 1, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reported (see cbpp.org). House Majority Leader Tom DeLay told BNA Daily Labor Report on Nov. 19 that there is "no reason" for extending those benefits. "The House approach implies that corporations need continued support amidst a still-weak economy, but that laid-off workers do not. This is despite the fact that firms might not use the tax breaks to hire new workers and that the unemployed workers who have their benefits run out will be receiving neither paychecks nor unemployment benefits." Without the unemployment benefits program, between 80,000 and 90,000 unemployed workers will exhaust their regular unemployment benefits every week in January without being able to receive any federal unemployment benefits to help them make ends meet as they continue to look for work.
LIES, DAMN LIES AND WHITE HOUSE BRIEFINGS. The Bush White House seems to live by Winston Churchill's observation that, "In time of war, the truth is so precious, she must always be accompanied by a bodyguard of lies." Still, sometimes it seems as if the Bushies will tell a lie when the truth would serve just as well. White House communications director Dan Bartlett may have embellished the drama of Bush's Thanksgiving visit to Baghdad just a bit when Bartlett told reporters on the return flight from Baghdad and announced that the secret trip had nearly been unmasked when Air Force One had come within sight of a British Airways flight over water. The British pilot, Bartlett said, radioed to ask, "Did I just see Air Force One?;" after a pause, the Air Force One pilot radioed back, "Gulfstream 5." After a long silence, Bartlett said, the British Airways pilot seemed to realize he was in on a secret and said, "Oh." A gripping account, Dana Milbank noted in the Washington Post Dec. 5. Except: No British Airways flight was involved. And Bush's pilot had no such conversation with any aircraft. After British Airways told Reuters that two of its planes were in the area at the time and that neither radioed the president's plane, nor did either hear another aircraft make such an inquiry, Milbank noted, the White House brought out Version 2.0: Bartlett said the pilot of a British Airways plane had the conversation with air traffic control in London, not Air Force One, while the two planes were flying off the western coast of England just before daybreak. But British Airways said that did not happen either. And Britain's National Air Traffic Services agreed. So the White House to come out with Version 3.0: Press secretary Scott McClellan said that the aircraft inquiring about Air Force One was, in fact, "a non-UK operator." The spokesman said there had been a British Airways plane "that was in the vicinity of Air Force One as it was crossing over for a good portion of that flight." The presidential pilots thought the query "was coming from a pilot with a British accent, and so that's why they had concluded that it was a British Airways plane." OK, maybe, but Milbank then wondered, "how is it that a British Airways plane could have been with Air Force One 'for a good portion' of the flight if the president's plane was averaging 665 mph -- far beyond the speed of commercial aircraft?"
Also, the Washington Post's Mike Allen, the pool reporter for the trip, noted Dec. 4 that in the most widely published image from his Thanksgiving day trip to Baghdad, the beaming president is wearing an Army workout jacket and surrounded by soldiers as he cradles a huge platter laden with a perfect golden-brown turkey. "But as a small sign of the many ways the White House maximized the impact of the 2-1/2-hour stop at the Baghdad airport, administration officials said yesterday that Bush picked up a decoration, not a serving plate."
Whatever. Anyway, the photo-op trip had its desired effect as a poll conducted four days after Thanksgiving by the National Annenberg Election Survey put Bush's job approval rating at 61%, up from 56% before the holiday. His job disapproval rating dropped from 41% to 36%. His personal popularity increased from 65% to 72%.
The Democratic National Committee noted that revising accounts of the president's travels and Air Force One has been a recurring pattern with this White House. When Bush took office in January 2001, White House officials encouraged media accounts that Clinton staffers had vandalized Air Force One -- claims that were later confirmed as baseless by Bush himself.
More gravely, the DNC pointed out, New York Times columnist William Safire on Sept. 13, 2001, wrote that there were credible phone threats against Air Force One on Sept. 11, according to senior Bush advisor Karl Rove and other administration officials. Administration officials were forced to later retract that account, saying no record of such a call existed.
GRUMPY GRUNTS. Stars and Stripes European edition on Dec. 5 reported that many soldiers were turned away from their Thanksgiving meal because they were not in the units pre-selected to participate in the reception for Bush. "Imagine [my soldiers'] dismay when they walked 15 minutes to the Bob Hope Dining Facility, only to find that they were turned away from their evening meal because they were in the wrong unit," wrote Sgt. Loren Russell in a letter to the editor.
ISRAEL TRAINS US ASSASSINS. Israeli advisers are helping train US special forces in aggressive counter-insurgency operations in Iraq, including the use of assassination squads against guerrilla leaders, US intelligence and military sources told Julian Borger of the London Guardian Dec. 8. US forces in Iraq's Sunni triangle have already begun to use tactics that echo Israeli operations in the occupied territories, sealing off centers of resistance with razor wire and razing buildings from where attacks have been launched against US troops. But the secret war in Iraq is about to get much tougher, in the hope of suppressing the Ba'athist-led insurgency ahead of next November's presidential elections, Borger wrote. A former senior US intelligence official told him, "It is bonkers, insane. Here we are -- we're already being compared to Sharon in the Arab world, and we've just confirmed it by bringing in the Israelis and setting up assassination teams."
COOKED BOOKS IN CASUALTY COUNT? Five members of the Mississippi National Guard who were injured Sept. 12 by a booby trap in Iraq were denied Purple Heart medals, causing a Mississippi congressman to wonder if the Pentagon has undercounted combat casualties in Iraq. The guardsmen were wounded by an artillery shell that detonated as their convoy passed the tree in which it was hidden, but their injuries were classified as "noncombat," according to Rep. Gene Taylor, D-Miss. Taylor, a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee, learned of the classification when he visited the most seriously injured of the guardsmen, Spc. Carl Sampson, 35, at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington. Defense Department statistics show that as of Dec. 4, some 2,150 service members had been wounded in action in Iraq, while 354 were injured in "nonhostile incidents." Of 441 service members who've died in Iraq, 304 are listed as killed in "hostile action;" 137 deaths resulted from "nonhostile action."
NEIL BUSH IN ASIAN SEX ROMP. Neil Bush, younger brother of George W. Bush, detailed lucrative business deals and admitted to engaging in sex romps with women in Asia in a deposition taken in March as part of his divorce from now ex-wife Sharon Bush, Reuters reported. According to legal documents disclosed Nov. 25, Sharon Bush's lawyers questioned Neil Bush closely about the deals, especially a contract with Grace Semiconductor Manufacturing Corp., a firm backed by Jiang Mianheng, the son of former Chinese President Jiang Zemin, that would pay Bush $2 million in stock over five years. Marshall Davis Brown, lawyer for Sharon Bush, expressed bewilderment at why Grace would want Bush and at such a high price since he knew little about the semiconductor business. Bush said he joined the Grace board at the request of Winston Wong, a co-founder of the company and the son of Wang Yung-ching, the chairman of Taiwan's largest business group, Formosa Plastics Corp.
Bush also admitted in the deposition that he had sex with several other women while on trips to Thailand and Hong Kong at least five years ago. The women, he said, simply knocked on the door of his hotel room, entered and engaged in sex with him. He said he did not know if they were prostitutes because they never asked for money and he did not pay them. He agreed with Brown that "It was very unusual" for a man just to go to a hotel room door and open it and have a woman standing there and have sex with her."
HATCH AIDE HACKED DEMS. US Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, expressed "deep regret" on Nov. 25 after an internal investigation of computer records found one of his staffers had "improperly accessed" Democratic documents. Hatch, who had initially ridiculed the allegations, placed the unnamed staffer on administrative leave with pay pending a separate probe by the Senate sergeant at arms. Hatch also said a former staffer "may also have been involved," but declined to identify either person by name. The disclosure came a week after congressional law enforcement authorities began looking into what Democrats called an apparent computer theft of 14 staff memos critical of George W. Bush's embattled judicial nominees. The Democratic memos were quoted in The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Times.