Despite strong opposition from a variety of sectors, including US dairy producers, family farmers and ranchers, the Bush administration on May 18 signed a bilateral US-Australia "Free Trade Agreement." Under "fast track" rules, once the agreement is sent to the Hill, Congress will have only 60 days to debate and vote on the agreement, without amendment.
Dairy farmers object to the import of "milk protein concentrates" -- highly-processed dairy product that is not approved by the Food and Drug Administration but is used as an ingredient by food companies. Paul Rozwadowski, a Wisconsin dairy farmer representing the National Family Farm Coalition, stated, "US trade negotiators compromised our future as dairy farmers. Dairy imports from Australia, regardless of the amount, could cause a massive drop in our milk price. Only dairy processors and importers benefit from this trade deal."
Under the agreement, most lamb and sheep meat tariffs would be eliminated and Australia would also be able to export increasing quantities of beef duty-free to the US each year for the next 18 years. Multinational corporations that control significant portions of the beef market in both the US and Australia would profit tremendously from the agreement and have led lobbying efforts for it. "Removing tariffs on livestock imports will allow multinational meat packing cartels to dump more imported cattle into the US market at below the cost of production, and predatorily depress domestic cattle prices in violation of US anti-trust laws," said Dennis Olson of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. "The Bush administration should enforce US anti-trust laws at home, rather than cutting bad trade deals like this that make it easier for the meat packing cartels to manipulate livestock markets and further erode competition." Karen Englehart, a member of Dakota Rural Action and the Western Organization of Resource Councils' Trade Team, called on Congress "to take a good hard look at what these agreements have done to diminish our rural communities, independent businesses and family agriculture, while enhancing the power and profits of the multinational corporations."
The Citizens Trade Campaign (CTC) is a national coalition of environmental, labor, consumer, family farm, religious, and other civil society groups founded in 1992 during the fight over the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). See www.citizenstrade.org.
GOP IN 'OUTSOURCING' COVERUP. The Hindustan Times on May 16 reported that the Republican National Committee ran key fundraising and get-out-the-vote operations through a firm in India. The newspaper, based in New Delhi, India, reported that over a 14-month period in 2002 and 2003 the RNC voter database was exported to call centers in India. On May 21, the RNC claimed that John Kerry supporters were circulating a "false story from the Internet," claiming that the RNC outsourced fundraising calls to an Indian telemarketing firm. "This story in an untrue urban legend which has been traversing the nether regions of cyber space for the better part of a year. It's unfortunate that John Kerry's supporters have so little regard for the truth that they would spread Internet stories with no basis in fact," said RNC Communications Director Jim Dyke.
The Washington Post reported the RNC denial May 23 under the headline "Hit Turns Into a Myth," without bothering to check the facts, but the Hindustan Times, which relied on its Indian sources, reported the RNC awarded the contract to Washington-based Capital Communications Group, which outsourced the work to HCL Technologies, whose India unit contacted US voters through a highly automated process. The Times estimated the Indian call centers generated at least $10 million before the contract was ended in July 2003. The Hong Kong-based Asian Times confirmed the story through its own sources in India and reported May 19 that the Indian call centers contacted more than 10 million registered Republican voters. Sources told both papers that a backlash from the anti-outsourcing lobby within the party probably contributed to ending the contracts, but most GOP voters already had been contacted anyway.
BUSH 'MODEL PLANT' FIRES 1,300. An Ohio manufacturing company that George W. Bush used last year as a backdrop to show how his tax and economic policies were working recently announced it would close down three bearings plants and lay off 1,300 workers. Timken Co. is slashing a quarter of its employees in Canton, Ohio, as company officials said the wages were too high and benefits too generous. Center for American Progress noted that as Timken fires workers in Ohio it has expanded operation abroad, especially in China. The Timken announcement was just the latest in a northeast Ohio area hit hard by the loss of manufacturing and other jobs. Overall, Ohio "has lost about 155,000 manufacturing jobs since Bush took office.
TOXIC CLOUD STILL PLAGUES NYC. A week after the World Trade Center towers fell, Christie Whitman, then administrator of the EPA, declared that the air and water in New York was safe. Residents were told to return to their homes and jobs in Manhattan. Two years later, Nikki Tinsley, the EPA's inspector general, told NBC News that the EPA didn't have the facts when it said it was safe to move back into the neighborhoods -- and she blamed the White House for changing press releases to provide false assurances. Now it turns out that the dust from the WTC collapse was even more toxic than researchers initially realized, and that a wide range of health problems have developed because of exposure to it. Newsweek reported at its Web site May 18 of the plight of John Graham, a carpenter with emergency medical technician training who was only a few blocks from the WTC when the first plane hit. He immediately went down to Ground Zero, and his unique combination of carpentry and medical skills made him an asset there for more than nine months, where he continued to help in spite of his own mounting health problems. Graham was rarely ill before 9/11. Now he carries a bag full of medications each day, taking 17 different drugs for ailments ranging from asthma to chronic infections. Experts believe he is one of tens of thousands who suffer debilitating health problems stemming from their exposure to contaminants in the air around the World Trade Center. And it may be years before the first related cancer cases develop symptoms.
BUSH RILES TOBACCO FARMERS. Bush didn't make many friends in crucial Southeastern states with his opposition to a buyout for hard-pressed tobacco growers. In his campaign swing through Ohio, in response to a general question about tobacco and regulation, Bush said he would keep the current quota system in place, the May 16 Washington Post reported. The system, set up in the 1930s, allocates how much tobacco each farmer can grow, but changes in the market and competition from foreign-grown tobacco have put thousands of US farmers out of business and they look to a buyout as the only way to stay solvent. "I've heard from any number of good Republicans who said they'll either stay home or vote Democrat in the fall if the White House doesn't change its position," Rep. Virgil Goode Jr. (R-Va.) told the Post. John Kerry supports the buyout plan, which he would tie to a bill to give the Food and Drug Administration regulatory authority over tobacco products, which Kerry said is the only way to eventually get either plan passed.
SENATE UPDATE. DailyKos.com compiled recent polling in Senate races that shows Democrats in the range of picking up Republican seats in Alaska, Colorado, Oklahoma and Illinois. Longer shots for Democratic pickups are in Kentucky, where Sen. Jim Bunning (R) had a 50%-27% lead over state Sen. Dan Mongiardo (5/5-11); Ohio, where Sen. George Voinovich (R) had a 47%-32% lead over state Sen. Eric Fingerhut (4/18-19); and Pennsylvania, where Arlen Spector has a 52%-40% lead over Rep. Joe Hoeffel (5/2-3). Democrats also must defend five seats where incumbents are not seeking re-election; they face tough fights but are well-positioned to hold onto seats in Florida, Louisiana, North and South Carolina but face the longest odds in Georgia, where retiring Sen. Zell Miller has all but switched to the GOP.
A June 1 special election for South Dakota's congressional seat may give an indication of party momentum as Stephanie Herseth (D) has been leading Larry Diedrich (R) for the seat vacated when Rep. Bill Janklow (R) was convicted of second-degree manslaughter in a traffic wreck. Republicans also are pulling out all the stops to try to unseat Sen. Tom Daschle (D) in the fall, even sending Sen. Majority Leader Bill Frist to campaign against his counterpart.
EDWARDS PUTS N.C. IN PLAY. John Kerry trails George W. Bush in North Carolina, but a poll out May 19 suggests that the Democrat could be competitive in the state if Sen. John Edwards were on the ticket. In a head-to-head matchup, Bush led 48% to Kerry's 41%, with Ralph Nader getting 3%, according to the Mason-Dixon poll sponsored by several news organizations and conducted May 14-17. With Edwards as Kerry's running mate, the race was statistically even, with Bush/Cheney at 46% and Kerry/Edwards at 45%.
ABORTION POLITICS. Catholic Democrats in Congress complained in a letter to Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, D.C., that threats by some bishops to deny communion to politicians who support abortion rights were "deeply hurtful," counterproductive and "miring the Church in partisan politics." The 48 signers, including about a dozen anti-abortion Democrats, said the bishops are "allowing the church to be used for partisan purposes" and question why these bishops made abortion a litmus test while ignoring politicians who voted counter to the church by endorsing the death penalty and the war in Iraq. "They're helping destroy the church by dividing it on issues, and they're politicizing the Eucharist," said Rep. Bart Stupak of Michigan, one of the anti-abortion Democrats (New York Times). Only four of about 300 American bishops have announced that they would deny the sacrament to policymakers who support abortion rights in their dioceses, according to Catholics for a Free Choice, a Washington advocacy group, while 15 more said Catholic policymakers who support abortion rights should voluntarily abstain from communion and 135 have said that they did not agree with denying anyone the Eucharist or that it would be the last resort.
Also on the abortion beat, New Jersey voters disapprove 68%-21% of Catholic clergy who would deny Holy Communion to Gov. Jim McGreevey because of his support for abortion rights. Catholic voters disapprove 64%-27% in the Quinnipiac University poll. Only 7% of voters say they are less likely to vote for McGreevey because of these comments, while 9% are more likely and 82% say it won't influence their vote. By a 74%-21% margin -- 69%-25% among Catholics -- voters say it is wrong for Catholic church leaders to try to pressure politicians on issues such as abortion.
ARMY MAY CALL BACKUPS. The US Army is scraping up soldiers for duty in Iraq wherever it can find them, and that includes places and people long considered off-limits, Joseph L. Galloway reported May 18 for Knight Ridder Newspapers. The Army confirmed that it pulled the files of some 17,000 people in the Individual Ready Reserve, the nation's pool of former soldiers, to screen them for critically needed specialists. It has called about 100 of them since January. Under current authorization from Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, the Army could call as many as 6,500 back to active duty involuntarily. In demand are specialties, including civil affairs, military police, advanced medical specialists, such as orthopedic surgeons, psychological operations and military intelligence interrogators. The Army is also considering a plan to close its premier training center at Fort Irwin in California so the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, the much-vaunted Opposition Force against which the Army's tank divisions hone their combat skills, would be available for combat duty in Iraq. The Defense Department also announced that one of the Army's two mechanized infantry brigades in South Korea -- a total of some 3,600 soldiers -- would be rotating to Iraq this summer to pull 12-month combat tours, an unprecedented move.
MIDDLE-CLASS GRADE. The Senate earned a "B" grade for its support of the US middle class, the Drum Major Institute for Public Policy reported in "Middle Class 2003: How Congress Voted," while the House of Representatives scored only "C." Members of Congress were graded on their support of positions on nine bills that would benefit the middle class -- roughly those families making $25,000 to $100,000 a year. The non-partisan progressive organization found that 96% of Democratic senators received an "A" for their support of the middle class while one quarter of Republican senators received an "F" for their failure to support the middle class. In the House, only Democrats voted consistently for the middle class while 66% of R's got an "F," compared to 1% of their Democratic peers. It noted two bills that garnered strong support from both parties: the Unemployment Compensation Amendment Act of 2003 (HR 2185) and the American Dream Downpayment Act of 2003 (S 811).
This year several relevant pieces of legislation are up for consideration: The College Affordability and Accountability Act of 2003 (HR 3519), awaiting a vote in the House, will help American families afford the high cost of tuition at a four-year college. The Employee Free Choice Act (S 1225), awaiting a vote in the Senate, will help American workers form, join, and assist labor unions. The Payday Borrower Protection Act of 2003 (HR 2407), awaiting a vote in the House, will protect millions of Americans from the practices of unfair and unethical payday lenders. The Defending American Jobs Act of 2004 (HR 3888), awaiting a vote in the House, will require that American employers report on their workforce and compensation rates in the United States as well as abroad. The Responsible Lending Act (HR 833), awaiting a vote in the House, will significantly weaken regulations governing the lending industry to the detriment of financially strapped Americans. The Dream Act (S 1545), awaiting a vote in the Senate, will relax some of the prohibitions preventing undocumented residents from attending a public university. See the report at www.drummajorinstitute.org.
ANOTHER WHITE HOUSE LIE. When Bush took a spill during a Saturday afternoon bike ride at his Texas ranchette on May 22, the White House couldn't resist inventing a story to absolve the president from blame for his own abrasions. "It's been raining a lot and the topsoil is loose," White House spokesman Trent Duffy said. DailyKos.com noted that there had been no measureable precipitation in Crawford for eight days before the ride.
CIVIL LIBERTIES SCORE WIN. A federal judge in Miami on May 21 threw out criminal conspiracy charges against Greenpeace, the London Independent reported May 22. In an attempt to clamp down on civil disobedience tactics, the US Justice Department applied a 19th-century law maritime law, intended to prevent prostitutes from soliciting business from passing ships, to an April 2002 protest in which two activists left the port of Miami-Dade in a rubber dinghy and boarded a ship carrying mahogany timber from the Brazilian rainforest. Six Greenpeace members were initially charged with misdemeanors, but a year later the government convened a grand jury to press criminal conspiracy charges against Greenpeace under the 1872 statute against "sailor-mongering." Judge Adalberto Jordan threw out the case because the Greenpeace action took place six miles off shore, so the mahogany-carrying ship could not be said to be "about to arrive" as the sailor-mongering statute specifies. However, he warned Greenpeace that the law remained on the books and might be a threat to the organization in the future.
CANNES GOLD BOOSTS 'FAHRENHEIT.' Michael Moore got a big boost in his attempt to find a US distributor for his Bush-bashing film, Fahrenheit 9/11, when the Cannes Film Festival awarded it the Palme d'Or (Golden Palm) May 22. "What have you done?" a surprised Moore asked the jury, according to press reports. "I have a sneaking suspicion that you've ensured that the American people will see this film ... You've put a huge light on this, you've taken truth out of the closet. A Republican President once said, 'If you just give people the truth the Republic will be saved.' That was Abraham Lincoln, a different kind of Republican than George Bush."
It was the first time in nearly 50 years that a documentary claimed the grand prize. Moore noted that Albania became the final country, other than the US, to sign a distribution deal. Disney has prohibited its subsidiary, Miramax, from distributing the film due to its political content. Moore still hopes to find a distributor in time for a July 4 release in the US.
"I fully expect the right wing and the Republican Party to come at me and this film with everything they've got," Moore wrote to his email list. "They will try, as they have unsuccessfully in the past, to attack me personally because they cannot win the debate on the issues the film raises -- namely, that they are a pack of liars and the American people are on to them." He also noted that of the nine members of the festival jury, only one was French and four were Americans, including the president of the jury, Quentin Tarantino, who defended the choice in remarks to the press, saying the choice had nothing to do with politics. Rather, he said, it was simply the best picture at the festival.
GOP STALKS OBAMA. In a first in Illinois politics, Jack Ryan, the Republican candidate for US Senate in Illinois, assigned a camera-toting staffer to stalk Democratic nominee Barack Obama and film the state senator even when he goes to the bathroom or talks with his wife on his cell phone, the Chicago Sun Times reported May 21. Ryan assigned aide Justin Warfel to follow Obama with a digital camcorder to record Obama's every movement and every word while he was in public. "It's standard procedure to record public speeches and things like that," Obama told reporters as the bald, 20-something operative filmed away. "But to have someone who's literally following you a foot and a half away, everywhere you go, going into the restrooms, standing outside my office, sitting outside of my office asking my secretary where I am, seems to be getting a little carried away." The Sun-Times reported that Warfel interrupted Obama several times with heckling questions, but wouldn't respond when reporters asked him about who he was and why he was filming Obama's every move, only saying, "You'll have to speak to the campaign office." Even some senior Republicans were turned off by the tactic. "I don't care if you're in public life or who you are," Senate Minority Leader Frank Watson (R) said. "You deserve your space, your privacy. I don't think it's appropriate." Later, the Ryan campaign apologized and said the video stalker has been told to maintain a "comfortable distance."
CAL TO OK MODIFIED E-VOTE. California Secretary of State Kevin Shelley reportedly is ready to recertify nearly all the e-voting machines that he decertified in April if counties take steps to prevent machine tampering and offer all voters the option of voting on paper ballots instead of electronic machines, Wired.com reported. Ten counties that were told they could not use paperless touch-screen voting machines in the presidential election will likely have them in place come November -- with the state's blessing. Four other counties, however, will not be able to use their machines. Three counties are suing, claiming Shelley's move would disenfranchise disabled and non-English-speaking voters, who benefited from certain features the touch-screen systems offered.
Nevada has required that touch-screen machines have printers in time for election day. More than a dozen states are considering legislation to require backups. Ohio Gov. Bob Taft recently signed a law that requires voter-verified paper ballots for all touchscreen voting machines by 2006 but VerifiedVoting.org notes the law doesn't prohibit counties from buying inauditable machines today -- and 11 counties are now deciding whether to purchase new paperless voting systems before the November election. Another 20 counties have postponed purchases until after November.
Federal bills that would require a voter-verifiable paper ballot on every voting system include HR 2239 by Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.) and (S 1980 by Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.) (See www.verifiedvoting.org.)
INDY E-VOTE MANAGER QUITS. An electronic vote project manager has quit Election Systems and Software (ES&S) after she revealed software problems with the voting machines in Indianapolis that the company tried to hide. In her letter of resignation, effective May 10, Wendy Orange said she found the corporate philosophy at Nebraska-based ES&S to embody unethical and disreputable practices, WISH-TV of Indianapolis reported. Orange said she had "personally witnessed open discussions of potentially illegal procedures," which she said was "personally disappointing."
MONSANTO WINS BIOSEED CASE. In a blow to farmers worldwide, the Canadian Supreme Court ruled May 21 that a Saskatchewan farmer who was unaware that patented genetically engineered crops were growing in his field must compensate Monsanto for theft of its intellectual property. Similar legal challenges between farmers' rights and patented genetically engineered technology will likely continue in other countries, including the US.
"This case highlights the legal risks genetically engineered crops pose for farmers -- even those who haven't purchased them," said Kristin Dawkins, vice president at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. "Today's ruling is a major setback for farmers in Canada, and their ownership of what is grown on their farm. It's time to clarify these issues in the US to better protect the rights of farmers."
Monsanto has sued hundreds of farmers over the last decade for using genetically engineered seeds without their permission. In the case of Canadian farmer Percy Schmeiser, DNA from genetically engineered Roundup-Ready canola were discovered on Schmeiser's farm. Schmeiser had not bought the GE canola, nor had he signed the seed contract that comes with such a purchase. But Monsanto sued Schmeiser to get payment on the genetically engineered canola. Also at issue was whether Schmeiser had the right to save seed from the crop thereby using the GE-contaminated canola in future years -- a typical practice among many farmers.
IATP has produced the report, "GMO Liability Threats for Farmers," available at www.gefoodalert.org.
GOLD-CARD HEALTH CARE. Gregory M. Lamb reports in the May 17 Christian Science Monitor on the small but growing field of "boutique" or "concierge" physicians; doctors who, for an annual fee of $1,800 above insurance or Medicare payments, offer such services as round-the-clock access to them via pager or cell phone, a guarantee that patients will be seen within a day of making an appointment, and a 15-minute cap on time spent in the waiting room. Concierge patients will also be given more extensive physical exams, extra testing, and may even request a personal CD-Rom of their health records.
Interest in "concierge" medicine, say practitioners, is growing, both among doctors, who long for more time and contact with patients, and in patients attracted by the prospect of better healthcare. "Of course," reminds Lamb, "concierge practices can't claim to offer better medical care -- not if they want to remain eligible to receive money from Medicare or private insurers ... So rather than emphasizing basic services, they play up the extras and amenities."
Those disturbed by the trend worry that this may be the beginning of a "three-tiered" American health care system: "high quality care for those who pay extra, less-than-optimum service for those covered by ordinary private or government insurance programs and spotty healthcare for the more than 40 million Americans without health insurance." Dr. Robert Blendon, professor of health policy at Harvard University's School of Public Health is among the concerned. "It makes it look like America is becoming less equity-oriented and more market-oriented in that people with money will get more [healthcare] faster, and people without it will face more barriers ... It moves further from the original Medicare idea that everybody would be treated the same with a Medicare card." Proponents of concierge healthcare respond that primary care is already in desperate need of reform and that their system is a way to provide consumers with the kind of medical attention they want and deserve. Pratt, a non-profit concierge practice, funnels its earnings into the Tufts New England Medical Center, the "money-losing teaching hospital that it is part of." Dr. Deeb Salem, who is the hospitals chief of medicine, hopes to use the money from Pratt to subsidize medical care for the poor. According to him, other teaching hospitals may be interested in following Prattís lead. Debate over the feasibility of this kind of trickle down healthcare continues. (C.C.)
EVANGELICALS WAVER ON BUSH? Concern among evangelical Christians over the war in Iraq is opening a crack in their strong bond with Bush and the Republican Party, Nigel Hunt reported for Reuters May 18. Some academics estimate evangelical Christians represent 25% to 30% of the 105 million people who voted in the last presidential election. Few think they will support Kerry, but if they stay home on Nov. 2 it spells more trouble for the GOP.