The Bush administration's pre-Labor Day "gift" to American workers was new overtime rules, effective Aug. 23, that Democrats and labor unions say will strip overtime pay from up to 6 million workers. The administration says only 107,000 workers will lose overtime under what Labor Department officials are calling the "Fair Pay" initiative. But according to the Los Angeles Times, "no one really knows" how many workers will lose O.T. eligibility under the new rules, which were the culmination of decades of lobbying by businesses representing retailers, restaurants, insurance companies, banks and others that have been hammered by workers' O.T. lawsuits.
In an analysis of the rules, Ross Eisenbrey of the progressive Economic Policy Institute noted that under the current Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) regulations, most workers are guaranteed the right to overtime pay, commonly known as "time-and-a-half," for every hour worked beyond the normal 40-hour workweek. The regulatory changes would make drastic changes to these tests, vastly increasing the number of exempt employees and making it likely that millions of them will work longer hours at reduced pay.
Under current law, each of the following three tests must be met to classify an employee as exempt and therefore ineligible for overtime. First, the "salary-level test" stipulates that employees earning less than a certain level each week cannot be exempt. Second, the "salary-basis test" states that employees must be paid a set salary -- not an hourly wage -- in order to be exempt. Finally, the third screening test is the "duties test," which states that a worker cannot be denied overtime pay unless his or her duties are primarily "administrative," "professional," or "executive" in nature.
The new regulations would raise the salary level under which all employees are protected to $455 per week (an annual salary of just $23,660, about $5,000 a year above the poverty level for a family of four). And because that exemption level is not indexed for inflation, it will protect fewer and fewer workers over time.
The many other rules changes -- principally those amending the three key duties tests -- would dramatically increase the number of workers who would be classified as "professional," "administrative," or "executive" and thus remove millions of additional workers from overtime coverage. As many as 2.3 million "team leaders" with no supervisory authority can be exempted as "administrative employees" even if they are line or production employees. See www.epinet.org, Briefing Paper 152 for the report.
'NO-FLY' LIST NAILS CONGRESSMEN. Sen. Ted Kennedy and Rep. John R. Lewis are among hundreds of passengers -- possibly thousands -- who have contacted the Transportation Security Administration complaining that secret "no-fly" watch lists are causing travel headaches for innocent travelers, the Washington Post reported Aug. 21. In July, more than 250 passengers sought to be removed from the lists, which can bar them from flying. In a Judiciary Committee hearing, Kennedy said he had been stopped five times as he tried to board air shuttles because his name is similar to one on the "no-fly" list. Airline agents told Kennedy that he would not be sold a ticket because his name was on a list. When he asked the agent why, he was told, "We can't tell you." Each time, a supervisor recognized Kennedy and got him on the flight. After the third incident, Kennedy's staff called the Transportation Security Administration and asked to clear up the confusion, but it was only after Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge intervened that his name was cleared. "If they have that kind of difficulty with a member of Congress, how in the world are average Americans, who are getting caught up in this thing, how are they going to be treated fairly and not have their rights abused?" Kennedy asked Homeland Security undersecretary Asa Hutchinson. Kennedy was luckier than US Rep. John Lewis, who for more than a year and a half has endured delays at the ticket counter, intense questioning by airline employees and suspicious glances by fellow passengers. Lewis was unable to get action out of the TSA, but circumvented the watch list by using his middle initial, the Post reported.
PUT PEOPLE FIRST. With Medicare and Social Security under threat of privatization, Campaign for America's Future is proposing that voters demand lawmakers take the People First-Corporations Second Challenge. "We can challenge them to take three concrete steps to undo and avoid more damage, and show that they stand with the American people first, and not drug companies, HMOs and Wall Street traders," CAF's Adam Luna wrote. Challenge lawmakers to 1) Change the new Medicare law to mandate that Medicare negotiate for lower drug prices, instead of prohibiting Medicare from negotiating for lower drug prices. 2) Change the new Medicare law to stop Medicare from paying billions to HMOs to take over parts of Medicare. And insist that HMOs return the tax-payer money they've already pocketed. 3) Oppose any law to privatize Social Security which would turn guaranteed benefits into risky Wall Street investment accounts. See www.ourfuture.org or phone 202-955-5665.
CATHOLIC POLS WON'T CONFORM. John Kerry is not the only Catholic Democrat who has to be careful about where he goes to Mass. US Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., said he has been told not to take Communion because of his support for some laws permitting or funding abortions. Responded to the ban in a five-page article in the Aug. 16-23 issue of the Jesuit magazine America, Obey said he was told last November by Bishop Raymond Burke, then of La Crosse, Wis., "to refrain from receiving Communion if I did not conform to his wishes," particularly Burke's opposition to abortions in military hospitals and stem cell research. Soon afterward, Burke was named archbishop of St. Louis. Obey wrote that he detests abortion and agrees with Catholic teaching that in most instances it is morally wrong, but added, "I decline to force my views into laws that, if adopted, would be unenforceable and would tear this society apart." On stem cell research, Obey said he told Burke that "the church had no better chance to stop research into regenerative medicine than it had centuries ago in trying to stop Copernicus and Galileo from positing that the earth revolved around the sun rather than the other way around."
Even anti-abortion Democrats have their troubles with Catholic prelates. Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., told Patricia Zapor of the Catholic News Service that despite his opposition to abortion, he and other pro-life Dems finds themselves treated with suspicion by both pro-life and pro-choice groups. Stupak told of attending a Catholic celebration in Michigan and being introduced to a visiting cardinal as the local Democratic member of Congress. "He turned his back on me," Stupak said of the cardinal, whom he declined to identify. The priest making the introduction added, "He's pro-life, he's one of the good ones." The cardinal replied, "There are no good Democrats," and refused to shake Stupak's hand, Stupak said.
But the Vatican is not writing off the Dems, as the Pope reportedly rebuffed Bush's request to bring Catholics into line behind the GOP and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Vatican's doctrine chief, told US bishops that voters are free to support pro-abortion politicians without sinning, if they support them for other policies. (See Dispatches, "Vatican: No Sin to Vote Dem," 8/1-15/04 TPP.)
BUSH EYES FED SALES TAX. President Bush on Aug. 10 said replacing the income tax with a national retail sales tax is an idea worth considering. "It's an interesting idea," Bush told an "Ask President Bush" campaign forum in Niceville, Fla. "You know, I'm not exactly sure how big the national sales tax is going to have to be, but it's the kind of interesting idea that we ought to explore seriously." The next day White House officials denied that Bush was considering a sales tax, but right-wingers have pushed the administration to overhaul the tax code. House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., in a new book calls for replacing the current income tax system with either a national sales tax, a value-added tax or a "flat" income tax. Bruce Bartlett of the conservative National Center for Policy Analysis noted that when Congress' Joint Committee on Taxation scored a similar proposal by Rep. John Linder, R-Ga., four years ago, it estimated that it would require a tax-inclusive rate of 36% to equal current federal revenues if all transactions were taxed. Calculating in a normal, tax-exclusive manner would mean a 57% rate. Still, 54 House members co-sponsored Linder's bill. "They should all pray that their opponents overlook their poor judgment," Bartlett wrote, noting that in the last election where a national retail sales tax was a major campaign issue -- in the 1996 senate race in Louisiana -- the Republican sales tax supporter was crushed by his anti-sales tax Democratic opponent. "That may explain why only two senators support Linder's plan, one of whom is retiring this year," Bartlett said. "With all due respect to Speaker Hastert, trying to eliminate the IRS by adopting a national retail sales tax is a very dumb idea."
VP AIDE EYED IN SPY LEAK. Federal prosecutors apparently got closer to naming who leaked the name of a covert CIA officer when Lewis Libby, Vice President Cheney's chief of staff, released a Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper from a promise of confidentiality about a conversation the two had last year. Cooper gave his deposition Aug. 23 to the special prosecutor, US Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald of Chicago. Investigators are trying to find out who in the Bush administration leaked the identity of CIA officer Valerie Plame, whose name was published by columnist Robert Novak on July 14, 2003. Novak cited two "senior administration officials" as his sources. It can be a felony to leak the name of an undercover officer. The leak came after Plame's husband, former ambassador Joseph Wilson, criticized Bush's claim that Iraq sought to obtain uranium in Niger. The CIA had sent Wilson to Niger to investigate that claim, which he concluded was unfounded. Glenn Kessler, a Washington Post reporter, also agreed to an interview in June after Libby agreed to release him from a similar promise.
BUSH '527' HYPOCRISY. The American Prospect's Matthew Yglesias and Nick Confessore note in the prospect.com weblog for Aug. 23 that President Bush's denunciation of 527s is hypocritical and self-contradictory. "This is especially true," Confessore writes, "given ... that the campaign finance law the president signed just a few years ago deliberately avoided closing the 527 loophole; that Bush beat Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) during the 2000 primary in part with the help of a 527 run by his supporter Sam Wyly; that Bush's own campaign manager, campaign counsel and political guru (Ken Melhman, Ben Ginsburg, and Karl Rove, respectively) have attended fundraising and organizational events for Progress for America, a 527 founded by Bush's political director from the 2000 campaign, Tony Feather; that GOP chairman Ed Gillespie and Bush campaign chairman Mark Racicot recently issued a statement designating PFA and yet another GOP 527, the Leadership Forum, as a good place for Republicans to give money to; and that the second-biggest 527 in the US is the Republican Governors Association, a group spun off by the Republican National Committee two years ago specifically to collect and harness soft money for state and local GOP candidates. If President Bush is opposed to 527s, somebody better tell his senior campaign staff, and quick.
Yglesias asks: "If the president hates 527s so much, how did he and his wife wind up on the cover of Republican Woman magazine, a publication of the National Federation of Republican Women, which you'll find right here on OpenSecrets' list of 527 groups. Or how does he feel about the NFRW's upcoming tribute to Laura Bush at the Republican convention. Even more interesting -- why did the RNC donate $10,000 to GOPAC, yet another insidious 527 group?
Even former Sen. Bob Dole, who lost the use of an arm during World War II, played the role of party hack when he suggested on CNN that one or more of John Kerry's Purple Hearts may have been fraudulent in some way because they were for "superficial wounds." In fact, Kerry still carries shrapnel in his left thigh. Josh Marshall of talkingpointsmemo.com notes that Dole knows better anyway, since in his own 1988 campaign-trail autobiography, Dole said his own first Purple Heart came from a minor wound when a hand grenade he threw bounced off a tree and exploded near him, sending a sliver of metal into his leg -- "the sort of injury the Army patched up with Mercurochrome and a Purple Heart."
John Podesta, former chief of staff in the Clinton White House, defended Kerry's service. "Sen. Kerry carries shrapnel in his thigh as distinct from President Bush who carries two fillings in his teeth from his service in the Alabama National Guard, which seems to be his only time that he showed up," Podesta said.
The flap over Kerry's service reminded USA Today that questions about Bush's 1968-73 stint in the Texas Air National Guard remain unresolved. Some of the nagging questions: Why did Bush, described by some of his fellow officers as a talented and enthusiastic pilot, stop flying fighter jets in the spring of 1972 and fail to take an annual physical exam required of all pilots? What explains the apparent gap in the president's Guard service in 1972-73, a period when commanders in Texas and Alabama say they never saw him report for duty and records show no pay to Bush when he was supposed to be on duty in Alabama? Did Bush receive preferential treatment in getting into the Guard and securing a coveted pilot slot despite poor qualifying scores and arrests, but no convictions, for stealing a Christmas wreath and rowdiness at a football game during his college years? The White House has released hundreds of pages of records, but more records are unreleased and since February, the White House has banned all Guard and military commanders outside the Pentagon from commenting on Bush's records or service.
STONES FROM GLASS HOUSES. President Bush and Vice President Cheney have repeatedly accused their opponents of trying to slash intelligence, defense and national security spending in the lead up to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but the American Progress Action Fund notes that the record shows that top members of the Bush administration are guilty of the very charges they are now hurling. For example, Bush's nominee as director of central intelligence, Rep. Porter J. Goss, R-Fla., would have cut intelligence personnel by 20% in the late 1990s. The cuts Goss supported were larger than those proposed by Sen. John Kerry and specifically targeted "human intelligence" that has recently been found lacking. Cheney admitted he led the effort to slash the size of the armed forces. In 2000, Cheney said that as defense secretary he "did in fact significantly reduce the overall size of the US military," reducing active-duty troop strength from 2.2 million to 1.6 million while making deep cuts in the Reserves and National Guard. The Bush administration also took the focus off Osama bin Laden in the fight against terrorism, as a senior Bush administration official in April 2001 told CNN "the US government [under Clinton] made a mistake in focusing so much energy on bin Laden." Similarly, AP reported in 2002 that the Bush administration's "national security leadership met formally nearly 100 times in the months prior to the Sept. 11 attacks yet terrorism was the topic during only two of those sessions." In the months before 9/11, the Justice Department curtailed a highly classified program called "Catcher's Mitt" to monitor al Qaeda suspects in the US, Newsweek reported 3/21/04. And in its first budget request, the Bush administration called for spending increases in 68 programs, none of which directly involved counterterrorism. The Washington Post reported that the White House left "gaps" between "what military commanders said they needed to combat terrorists and what they got." When Congress tried to fill those gaps, the administration threatened a veto.
STAR POWER. Kos of DailyKos.com notes that US News reported that it was told several performers, including Lee Ann Womack, Randy Travis and even 1970s rock band Foghat have offered to tour to offset Bruce Springsteen 's pro-Kerry tour with fellow performers Jackson Browne, Pearl Jam, Bonnie Raitt, R.E.M., and others. To which Kos replied, "Umm. Okay. I think we win that round."