House Democrats unveiled a six-point "New Direction" policy proposal that they plan to enact if they regain the majority in November. The agenda includes:

• Real Security: Phased redeployment starting before the end of 2006, double the size of the special forces, beef up homeland security in accordance with the 9-11 Commission's recommendations.

• Better Pay: Increase the minimum wage, block hikes in congressional pay till that's done, end tax breaks that encourage offshoring jobs.

• College Access for All: Make tuition deductible, cut interest rates on student loans, expand Pell Grants.

• Energy Independence: Initiatives for energy-efficient technologies and alternatives such as biofuels and ending tax giveaways to Big Oil.

• Affordable Health Care: Fix the Medicare prescription drug program by negotiating lower drug prices, end wasteful giveaways to drug companies and HMOs and promote stem cell research.

• Retirement: Safeguard Social Security, enact pension reform, expand savings incentives.

It's not as ambitious as we would like &emdash; we'd start with the expansion of Medicare to cover every American &emdash; but the Dems' New Directions is still way more than the Republicans have accomplished in 12 years in power. See housedemocrats.gov.


HEALTH CARE PROPOSALS: They didn't make the "New Directions" list, but Democrats have brought forward a trio of health care reform alternatives, Ezra Klein noted at Prospect.org (7/25). Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., and the centrist Democratic Leadership Council has an "American Dream Initiative," a set of policy proposals to help the middle class, subsidize the poor and encourage opportunity. The health care section focuses on electronic medicine, small business buying pools and giving kids insurance.

A more progressive proposal sponsored by Reps. Pete Stark (D-Calif.) and Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) is the AmeriCare Health Act, which would create a universal insurance program using a slightly revamped Medicare template. The plan would have a deductible of $350 ($500 for a family), a 20% copay, and an out-of-pocket limit of $2,500 for individuals and $4,000 for families. The benefits are full and comprehensive, the HHS secretary is empowered to bargain down drug prices, the poor are subsidized, the funding mechanisms are spelled out, and the plan uses a proven and highly effective model to provide universal care to everyone who wants or needs it without disrupting the care of anyone content with their current arrangement. It's a great plan. Klein noted that he found precisely one mention of the plan &emdash; at ModernHealthCare.com.

Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., unveiled a proposal to encourage states to adopt universal care plans on their own. Feingold's proposes no new national programs. Instead, it creates a $32 billion fund to finance a handful of states running universal health care pilot projects for the next 10 years. The bill is fully paid for through offsets from other programs, allowing the program to get going immediately. Instead of requiring states to follow a certain program, Feingold's bill gives states the flexibility to achieve expanded coverage through any system deemed appropriate by a Health Care Reform Task Force.


DEMS: BUSH BROKE TWO DOZEN LAWS: The Bush administration may have broken over two dozen federal laws and regulations &emdash; some of them multiple times &emdash; according to a report from House Judiciary Committee Democrats. "The misconduct I have found is not only serious, but widespread," reads a summary of the report by Ranking Member John Conyers (D-Mich.), obtained by TPMMuckraker.com (7/31): "The laws implicated by the administration's actions include federal laws against making false statements to Congress; federal laws and international treaties prohibiting torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment; federal laws concerning retaliating against witnesses and other government employees; Executive Orders concerning leaking and other misuse of intelligence; federal regulations and ethical requirements governing conflicts of interest; the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act; communications privacy laws; the National Security Act; and the Fourth Amendment. The document, an update to the Democrats' December 2005 report, "A Constitution in Crisis," is available at www.afterdowningstreet.org/constitutionincrisis.


DEM EMBRACES CLEAN MONEY: A proposal to enact public financing for California campaigns got a boost on 8/3 when Phil Angelides, the state's treasurer and Democratic candidate for governor, threw his support behind Proposition 89, the initiative to use taxpayer money to fund campaigns and restrict political donations to candidates. Angelides not only is at odds with Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, but also with big corporate donors and major unions &emdash; such as the California Teachers Assn., one of Angelides' biggest backers &emdash; who oppose the campaign finance overhaul, the Los Angeles Times noted. But the initiative is being sponsored by another important union, the California Nurses Assn., which has been one of Schwarzenegger's strongest critics. Schwarzenegger made sweeping away the influence of special interests a central platform of the 2003 recall as he blistered then-Gov. Gray Davis for his fundraising, the Times noted. Since then, Schwarzenegger has broken fundraising records himself and has shown little interest in changing campaign finance laws. Angelides characterized Prop. 89 as nothing less than protecting democracy and creating a system "where it's not how much money you can raise, but the power of your ideas." Under Prop. 89, the maximum donation to a statewide candidate would be lowered to $1,000 from the current maximum of $22,300. Individuals, corporations or unions would be limited to no more than $15,000 combined contributions to all candidates and political committees in a given year. A 0.2% tax on corporate profits would generate $200 mln to candidates who agreed to reject private donations and gather "seed money" in the form of $5 donations from as many as 25,000 donors, in the case of a race for governor. The plan is modeled after laws in effect in Arizona and Maine.


DEMS KILL ESTATE TAX REPEAL: A group of mostly Democratic senators blocked legislation on 8/3 that would have raised the federal minimum wage for the first time in a decade, but also would have gutted state-law wage protections for roughly 1 mln workers and permanently cut estate taxes paid by the rich. DailyKos.com noted that on a 56-42 vote, the Republican-led Senate failed to get the 60 votes needed to clear the way for final congressional passage. As earlier approved by the House of Representatives, the bill would have raised the $5.15-per-hour minimum wage to $7.25 over three years. The Senate vote was a setback for conservative Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee, who put the inheritance tax cut at the top of their agenda. Democrats who voted for the bill included Robert Byrd (W.V.), Blanche Lincoln (Ark.), Ben Nelson (Neb.) and Bill Nelson (Fla.) On the GOP side, Republicans lost Voinovich (Ohio), Chafee (R.I.), and Frist (so he has the ability to reintroduce the bill).


NO IMMIGRANT HEALTH CARE CRISIS: Contrary to the propaganda coming from immigrant bashers in Washington, a new study released 7/18 on the website of the journal Health Affairs (healthaffairs.org) reported that undocumented immigrants are not the cause of a public health crisis defined by over-crowded emergency departments, higher health care costs, and lower-quality primary care. The study of 46,600 people living in 60 different communities found that communities with high levels of Latinos and undocumented immigrants had far lesser rates of emergency department use than communities with low undocumented representation. By far the largest cause of emergency department overcrowding was found to be an increased use of them as primary care facilities by native born Medicare and Medicaid recipients. (DailyKos.com)


GAS IS UNDERPRICED: The actual cost of gasoline refined from imported oil is more than $8 a gallon, according to Milton Copulos, an economist with the National Defense Council Foundation &emdash; a right-of-center Washington think tank. Paul Salopek, a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner, started at a busy gas station in South Elgin, Ill., and worked back to the source of the petroleum, for "Tank of Gas, World of Trouble" in the Chicago Tribune (7/29). Along the way, Salopek found Copulos, who spent 18 months to fix a price tag on America's addiction to global crude. Copulos parsed oil-related defense spending in the Middle East. He calculated US jobs and investments lost to steep crude prices. He even factored in the lifelong medical bills of some 18,000 US troops wounded in Iraq as of March. (About $1.5 mln each.) When he isolated the hidden costs of Middle Eastern crude in particular, the price jumped to $11. This included a war premium that swelled the Pentagon's spending to protect all Persian Gulf oil to $137 bln a year. In a truly transparent economy, by Copulos' math, filling up a Jeep would run about $230. "Consumers don't dodge the bill for all these masked expenditures," Salopek wrote. "Instead, they pay for them indirectly, through higher taxes, or by saddling their children and grandchildren with a ballooning national debt &emdash; one that's increasingly financed by foreigners. The result: Unaware of the true costs of their oil habit, US motorists see no obvious reason to curb their energy gluttony."


CONGRESSIONAL KIN MORE LOBBYISTS THAN MILITARY: Only 1% of Congress members have family in military service, Lt. Col. Bob Bateman noted at MSNBC.com's Altercation (8/2). Some 32, or 6%, however, apparently are married to lobbyists. However, a nephew of Sen. Max Baucus serving in the Marines was killed in Iraq, the Associated Press reported 8/1. Cpl. Phillip E. Baucus, 28, died 7/29 during combat operations in Anbar province. In a statement, Sen. Baucus, D-Mont., said the family was "devastated by the loss." Sen. Baucus voted to authorize war in Iraq in 2002. Earlier this summer, he joined other Democrats in voting to begin a phased redeployment of troops from the war-torn country by year's end.


EAVESDROPPER AGENCY RISKS OVERLOAD: The National Security Agency is running out of electricity for its high-tech eavesdropping mission, Siobhan Gorman reported in the Baltimore Sun 8/6/06. Demand for electricity has left the super-secret agency on the verge of exceeding its power supply at the sprawling 350-acre Fort Meade, Md., headquarters, according to current and former intelligence officials. Agency officials anticipated the problem nearly a decade ago as they looked ahead at the technology needs of the agency, but it was never made a priority in the agency's estimated $8 bln budget, and its ability to keep its operations going is threatened. The NSA is already unable to install some costly and sophisticated new equipment, including two new supercomputers, for fear of blowing out the electrical infrastructure, they said. At minimum, the problem could produce disruptions leading to outages and power surges at the Fort Meade headquarters, hampering the work of intelligence analysts and damaging equipment, they said. At worst, it could force a virtual shutdown of the agency, paralyzing the intelligence operation, erasing crucial intelligence data and causing irreparable damage to computer systems &emdash; all detrimental to the fight against terrorism.


EFFICIENT CARS SELL: Toyota is on track to pass GM as the world's largest automaker next year, Ezra Klein noted at Prospect.org 8/4. In July, the Japanese carmaker passed Ford to become America's second leading car company. Its second-quarter income rocketed up 39.2%, and its July sales increased by 12%. GM and Ford, meanwhile, saw sales drop by 23% and 24%, respectively. "I hate to harp so often on this point, but it remains true that unions are not the ill racking GM and Ford &emdash; it's their inability to make cars that people want to buy that has so hampered them," Klein noted. Toyota's sales are being driven by fuel efficient autos (Corollas are up by 37%, Priuses by 15%), while GM and Ford's drop comes anchored to losses in their trucks divisions. "Over the last couple of decades, the American automakers bet on power and size, leaving wimpy efficiency up to their Japanese competitors. They bet wrong. And they're paying dearly for it. But, speaking as a Ford owner whose car posts dismal mpg readings, I, for one, welcome our new Toyota overlords."


OIL ADDICTS GET DESPERATE: The US Senate voted 71-25 on 8/2 to open eight million acres off the shores of Louisiana, Florida, Mississippi and Alabama to oil and gas drilling &emdash; a move that Carl Pope of the Sierra Club said will only add to the billions in profits already being made by Big Oil, do nothing to lower gas prices for American families or energy costs for American businesses, and will keep our nation dangerously dependent on oil. "Instead of committing to destructive drilling off our beaches, Congress could be adopting smart energy solutions that will help wean Americans off oil and save money at the pump. Instead of increasing oil drilling, Congress could be raising the fuel economy of our cars, encouraging the use of renewable energy like wind and solar power, and adopting other, existing energy-saving technologies that cut pollution, curb global warming and create good jobs." If our cars, trucks and SUVs averaged 40 mpg &emdash; something that is achievable with technology gathering dust on the shelves &emdash; Pope said, "we would save as much oil as the US currently imports from the Persian Gulf, with another million barrels to spare. And the average driver would save nearly $600 a year at the pump." But Senate Majority Leader Frist refused to allow a vote on a bipartisan amendment by Sens. Lugar (R-Ind.) and Obama (D-Ill.) that would have raised fuel economy of cars and trucks.


McCAIN QUITS CAMPAIGN FINANCE REFORM: One of the Four Horsemen of campaign finance reform is missing from a bill to revive the crumbling system for public financing of presidential campaigns. The bill is largely identical to a measure Sens. John McCain and Russ Feingold and Reps. Martin Meehan and Christopher Shays introduced in 2003, but this time around McCain is not on board. According to the *New York Sun* (7/28), several people involved in discussions about the legislation said the senator's absence was related to his widely expected bid for the presidency in 2008. The proposed legislation would increase the check-off amount to $10 per taxpayer, boost matching funds, increase primary spending limits, and bar candidates from declining public funding in the primary and accepting it in the general election. Under the proposal, general election funding would increase to $100 million for the major candidates.


SUIT CHALLENGES BILBRAY ELECTION: A lawsuit filed 7/31 asks a Superior Court judge in San Diego to toss out the results of the 6/6 special election in which Republican Brian Bilbray defeated Democrat Francine Busby to finish the remaining term of disgraced former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham. The lawsuit also asks for a recount of all ballots cast in the election for the 50th Congressional District seat. Attorney Paul Lehto of Everett, Wash., who filed the suit, claims there is no way to ensure that the voting machines used by county elections officials were not tampered with, something that Registrar of Voters Mikel Haas vigorously denied, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune. The county used both paper ballots and touch-screen machines manufactured by Diebold. The lawsuit took specific aim at the practice of allowing poll workers to take the machines home with them prior to the election &endash;- a practice Haas said is done to ensure that polling places open on time.

Bilbray defeated Busby by four points &endash; 49% to 45% in the heavily Republican district -&endash; to fill out the term of Cunningham, who pleaded guilty to taking more than $2 mln in bribes from defense contractors. He was sentenced to more than eight years in federal prison. Bilbray and Busby are to face each other again in November to determine who will hold the seat in the next two-year term.

From The Progressive Populist, September 1, 2006

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