If a representative majority of Americans had crafted the 2006 federal budget, they would have gone in a rather different direction than their current elected leader. In lieu of mammoth defense spending, they would have devoted much more funding to education, job training and renewable energy development, according to 1,182 Americans polled recently by the Program on International Policy Attitudes. Over 60% of respondents favored cuts to defense spending ($133.8 bln, on average) and tax cut rollbacks for the wealthy. Meanwhile, employment, job training, medical research, education and veterans' benefits were at the top of the list of programs most deserving of money. More funding for renewable energy research and technology, in order to reduce dependence on oil, also received strong support. Respondents also felt it was important to preserve existing funding for intelligence, special ops and peacekeeping missions, as well as troops' salaries. They demonstrated a deep aversion to nuclear weapons development. (Respondents did not see a need to put more than an average 150 nuclear weapons on alert at any time).
The PIPA poll comes on the heels of a New York Times/CBS News survey that found Bush to be out of step with public opinion on a variety of policy initiatives, including its plans to recast Social Security. In that survey, a solid majority of respondents said the White House had different domestic and foreign policy priorities than most Americans, despite the fact that the president's approval rating held steady &emdash; at 49%. Asked to choose among five domestic issues facing the country, respondents rated Social Security third, behind jobs and health care. And nearly 50 percent said Democrats were more likely to make the right decisions about Social Security, compared with 31 percent who said the same thing about Republicans. On Social Security, 51% said privatization was a bad idea, and opposition jumped to 69% if respondents were told that private accounts would result in a reduction in guaranteed benefits, which are another feature of Bush's plan. A majority would support raising the amount of income subject to Social Security payroll tax above the current ceiling of $90,000.
STILL TWO AMERICAS: Democracy Corps found that support for Bush's Social Security privatization proposal has fallen to 36% or lower, depending on the question wording. Congressional Democrats are winning voters over 45 years by 12 points, according to an NPR survey. But a Democracy Corps poll in mid-February found the public's doubts about Social Security privatization have not hurt the Republican Congresssional leadership. "One explanation for the lack of price for failure is the polarized and divided politics that leaves the parties trapped at near parity, regardless of events," James Carville and Stanley Greenberg wrote. "There is a remarkable degree of stability in the responses to partisan political actors, leaving the president without a honeymoon following the election, but also without a crash after the Social Security launch."
GOP PUNISHES WORKING POOR: The federal minimum wage is $5.15 and has not changed since 1997. Democrat Chairman Howard Dean has identified minimum wage increases as winning proposals for Democrats and Sen. Ted Kennedy proposed one as an amendment to the bankruptcy bill. Under Kennedy's proposal, the federal minimum wage would go up in three bumps over 26 months, ultimately hitting $7.25 an hour. Republicans had a proposal of their own, drafted by Sen. Rick Santorum, which would increase the minimum wage in two bumps over 18 months, to $6.25 an hour. But Salon.com notes that's not the worst of it. Santorum's plan would also exempt from the minimum wage, and a whole host of other federal labor laws, any employer with revenues under $1 million; allow some employers to offset minimum-wage salaries with tips workers receive; and rob many workers of overtime pay by instituting federal "flex-time" rules. Thus, workers would receive a smaller increase under Santorum's plan, fewer of them would be protected by the federal minimum wage laws at all, and whatever gains some workers made through a minimum wage increase would be lost to offsets from tips or cutbacks in their overtime pay. But Republicans on 3/7/05 defeated both efforts, knocking off Kennedy's amendment 49-46 and Santorum's amendment 61-38. Salon's Tim Grieve noted that members of Congress, who now make about $160,000 a year, have given themselves at least five cost-of-living increases since the minimum wage last changed in 1997. "American workers who still make $5.15 an hour will just have to wait."
Nathan Newman at nathannewman.org/log noted that the Santorum amendment was just part of an assault on the ability of states to create higher labor standards, stronger consumer regulations or tougher anti-discrimination laws than the federal government. "Forget any rhetoric about 'states rights' or federalism, just think about this list," he said:
Congress just passed class action "reform" legislation that overrides local class action laws and forces most class action lawsuits, even when suing under state law, into the federal courts.
The Bush National Labor Relations Board has supported lawsuits to strike down state laws banning businesses receiving state funds from using that money to bust unions.
Under the federal No Child Left Behind law, school districts that fail to meet federal standards must provide tutoring to their students, but the federal government won't allow the schools to provide the tutoring themselves.
The FDA has sought to block attempts by states to import cheaper prescription drugs from Canada.
Congress passed an "anti-spam" law that was designed in back rooms to preempt tougher state laws to rein spam in and protect online privacy.
Bush's Office of the Controller of the Currency has adopted a federal preemption rule that states have no authority to regulate the mortgage practices of national banks to fight predatory lending or other consumer abuses.
The Congressional "privacy" law, the Fair Credit Reporting Act, was renewed in 2003 specifically with the goal of overriding stronger state privacy protections for banking consumers, such as that passed in California.
Bush's administration imposed a rule prohibiting states from using unemployment insurance funds to create paid family leave for families.
The Bush Transportation Department forced New Jersey to repeal a state anti-corruption rule intended to end political contributions by contractors hired by the state for highway projects.
States are now barred from requiring local hospitals to provide information about abortion and contraception services to their patients.
States seeking to legalize medical marijuana are facing federal lawsuits to overturn those laws.
The conservative majority on the Supreme Court held that states could not protect the right to a jury trial in employment disputes; instead, employees could be forced by federal law to have their cases heard by employer-designed private arbitration panels.
The Supreme Court held that local rules requiring that public and private fleet operators purchase low-emission vehicles were preempted by the Clean Air Act.
The conservative Court majority struck down New Jersey's law banning discrimination against gays by the Boy Scouts and struck down Michigan's affirmative action program for undergraduates.
"From Congress to the Presidency to the Supreme Court, conservatives in the federal government have sought to paralyze state government powers -- the one exception being state government power to engage in discrimination, the defense of racism being the sum total and only meaning of 'states rights' in the conservative lexicon," Newman wrote.
FAT CATS FIGHT MINIMUM WAGE HIKE: Big Business executives lobbied furiously against a proposal to raise the minimum wage, but USA Today reported 3/7/05 that the average director's pay at Fortune 200 companies could surge to $200,000, up 14% from 2004.
TRUTH ABOUT GREENSPAN: Some Beltway types called it a gaffe, but we think Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) spoke truth to economic power &emdash; which passes for a sin in D.C. &emdash; on 3/4/05 when he called bull on Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan. "I'm not a big Greenspan fan," Reid told CNN. "I voted against him the last two times. I think he's one of the biggest political hacks we have in Washington."
POLITICAL CAPITAL DEVALUED: For a president who was boasting not so long ago about all of the "political capital" he had piled up, George W. Bush isn't having much luck getting his domestic agenda through a Congress controlled by members of his own party. Bush's Social Security plan is on the ropes, and now it appears that one of his other big second-term initiatives &emdash; a drive to make his tax cuts permanent &emdash; may not even make it to the ring. The Washington Post reported 3/7/05 that even some Republicans now believe that the government can't afford to extend Bush's tax cuts. "The large deficits and apparent inability of Republicans to constrain spending has made it impossible for sensible folks to advocate" big tax cuts, the American Enterprise Institute's Kevin A. Hassett told the Post. "Sooner or later, government has to pay for everything."
In order to curb soaring budget deficits, Bush has already proposed massive cuts in this year's budget as well as "user fees" &emdash; in another day, Bush would have called them "taxes" &emdash; on everything from explosives to airline tickets. As the Post noted, more fiscal woes are on the horizon: According to the Government Accountability Office, Medicare funding will come up short by about $28 tln over the next 75 years. The GAO says Social Security will need $3.7 tln more than it will have &emdash; and that's not counting the "trillions" that the administration says Bush's Social Security plan will cost. In such a climate, extending tax cuts might just seem a little reckless &emdash; a point Republicans on Capitol Hill are beginning to understand. The chairmen of the Senate Finance and Budget Committees tell the Post that they may wait until next year &emdash; or later &emdash; before even trying to push an extension of the tax cuts through Congress. (Salon.com.)
CLUELESS GEORGE: Sen. George Allen, R-Va., commented on President Bush's proposed cuts to Community Development Block Grants, "I don't give a s**t about Community Development Block Grants. Virginia doesn't see any of that money." (Roll Call, 3/7/05) But the Center for American Progress noted that in 2004 alone, Virginia received almost $50 million in Community Development Block Grants for programs such as affordable housing, neighborhood security and small business assistance.
JOBS STILL LAG: Payroll jobs are now 332,000, or 0.3%, greater than at the start of the recession, in March 2001. However, the Economic Policy Institute noted that private-sector jobs are still down by 477,000, a contraction of 0.4%. The 809,000 jobs created in the government sector in this time explain the difference between growth in total payroll and private-sector jobs. Overall, this level of creation represents the worst job performance since the Bureau of Labor Statistics began collecting monthly jobs data in 1939 (at the end of the Great Depression). In the three downturns since the early 1970s, the economy had not only recovered all the jobs lost during the recession but had also generated 6.0% more jobs (6.1% more private-sector jobs) than existed at the start of the recession. If this historical standard had prevailed in the private sector, the economy would have 7,282,000 more private-sector jobs today. (JobWatch.org.)
MONTANA GOV TARGETS TAX CHEATS: Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer set an economic populist agenda 3/7/05 with a plan to crack down on cheating taxpayers that he said could bring in $20 million for the state over two years. The plan, some of which will require legislative approval for changes in laws, is aimed mostly at large multistate corporations, wealthy taxpayers and those out-of-state taxpayers making money from selling Montana property, Associated Press reported. The proposal targets what the administration calls "abusive tax shelters and income shifting techniques" that some people and companies use to avoid paying what they should in Montana taxes. "Montana's hardworking and law-abiding citizens do not deserve to be ripped off by high net worth individuals and multistate corporations who aren't playing by the rules," Schweitzer said.
The federal General Accounting Office has estimated that the federal government lost up to $85 billion over the past decade to improper tax shelters, he said. Some of those moves include such things as creating phony deductions, miscalculating gains from sales of assets and shifting money to untaxed operations, or to states and nations where income is not taxed. The Multistate Tax Commission has estimated the states lost $12 billion in corporate taxes in 2001 alone, and Montana's share of that was $26 million.
SEE FRONTLOADED PRIMARIES IN '08: Expect the 2008 primary calendar to be Iowa, followed by New Hampshire eight days later, followed by a much-larger mini-Tuesday seven days after that, Chris Bowers reported 3/7/05 at MyDD.com. North Carolina is considering moving the primary to Feb. 5, joining Pennsylvania and seven states that held primaries the first Tuesday in February in 2004, creating the possibility the race will be decided Feb. 5. (Arizona, Delaware, Missouri, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma and South Carolina.) "This probably means that if [Hillary] Clinton wins either Iowa or New Hampshire, she would basically seal the nomination on Feb. 5, 2008," Bowers wrote. "If someone else wins both Iowa and New Hampshire, that person would probably seal the nomination on Feb. 5. If two people who are not Hillary Clinton split Iowa and New Hampshire, then look out for a wild, long lasting primary season that might not be decided until the convention. Ever-constricting television coverage of the primary season before Iowa and New Hampshire will almost certainly continue to grant Iowa and New Hampshire their ridiculous power, especially if extensive political restrictions are placed upon the rising political information source that is the Internet. 2012 might see some improvements to the primary system, but it is growing obvious that 2008 will not."
BUSH STARVES MEDIA: Eric Boehlert examined the Bush administration's troubling relationship with the media. Writes Boehlert at Salon.com on 3/2/05, "Recent headlines about paid-off pundits, video press releases disguised as news telecasts, and the remarkable press access granted to a right-wing pseudo journalist working under a phony name, have led some to conclude that the White House is not simply aggressively managing the news, but is out to sabotage the press corps from within, to undermine the integrity and reputation of journalism itself." Doing so would serve the Bush administration in two ways. First, it would hamstring an entity &emdash; the press &emdash; that Boehlert calls "structurally an adversary of the White House." Second, it would allow the White House to do away with one of its greatest enemies, commonly agreed-upon fact.
Former Wall Street Journal reporter Ron Suskind charges that "Republicans have a clear, agreed-upon plan how to diminish the mainstream press." According to Suskind, "For them essentially the way to handle the press is the same as how to handle the federal government; you starve the beast. When it's in a weakened and undernourished condition, then you're able to effect a variety of subtle partisan and political attacks. Armstrong Williams [the columnist who was paid $240,000 by Bush's Department of Education to tout the 'No Child Left Behind' Act] and others are examples of that."
Many are perplexed by how little the press has resisted being starved, tricked, and otherwise abused by the Bush administration. The mainstream (what NeoCons would call liberal) press has consistently under-reported stories that might have damaged or embarrassed the White House even as the White House has continued to attack it.
A press willing to be undermined by an administration that disdains it will have serious consequences for the US. In Suskind's words, "If you believe there is no inherent value to public dialogue based on fact, then that frees you up to try all sorts of things other people in power wouldn't have ever thought of. And we're seeing the evidence of that now."
BLAME RUMMY FOR TORTURE: Human rights groups have taken legal action that lays responsibility for civil rights abuses in the USA at the feet of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Faye Bowers reported in the 3/2/05 Christian Science Monitor. Acting on behalf of eight men who claim that they were tortured by their American captors, the ACLU and Human Rights First filed a lawsuit in Illinois federal court that charges Rumsfeld with violations of constitutional provisions prohibiting the mistreatment of prisoners. According to ACLU lead counsel Lucas Guttentag, "Secretary Rumsfeld bears direct and ultimate responsibility for this descent into horror by personally authorizing unlawful interrogation techniques and by abdicating his legal duty to stop torture."
The suit, which builds on the legal tradition of the Nuremberg Trials, is so unusual that no one is exactly sure how it will proceed. But what happens next will have serious implications for CIA and Pentagon officials who may have been complicit in the abuse of detainees. Said military law expert Eugene Fidell, "This is obviously the opening gun in what is likely to be a very hard-fought case on both sides."
GOP GOVS HAMSTRING UNIONS: Several new midwestern governors have taken it upon themselves to roll back collective bargaining agreements for city employees.
David Bacon writes in the 2/24/05 In These Times that "Republican governors in both Indiana and Missouri have rescinded previous measures that extended state employees collective bargaining rights. Gov. Ernie Fletcher did the same last year in Kentucky. And public sector bargaining is under siege in Iowa and Oklahoma."
The movement against "public sector bargaining" stabs at the heart of a labor movement already in crisis by eroding rights of an historically powerful union base: public employees.
Here's a quick look at the latest in the midwestern
Matt Blunt ran for governor of Missouri on a platform that included ending collective bargaining for state workers; he did so just after taking office.
Gov. Mitch Daniels refused to re-authorize Indiana's public bargaining agreement.
In Oklahoma, county District Judge Daniel Owens declared collective bargaining for all municipal workers (except fire and police) unconstitutional.
Iowa Republican Rep. Bill Dix is pushing a plan that would allow the state legislature and the governor to interfere in negotiations with state workers.