Election prognosticators are more bullish about the prospects of Democrats taking over one or both chambers of Congress this fall, the National Journal's Charlie Cook wrote 1/24/06. "Virtually no one argues against the proposition that the potential for a big wave for Democrats exists," Cook noted. "Those who focus on the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal, see President Bush's low, though somewhat improved job-approval ratings, or scrutinize the latest national generic Congressional ballot poll numbers the way a horse racing fan seizes on the Daily Racing Form are more likely to see a change of control. A more nuanced view held by some veteran Republican strategists involves turnout. In looking at the 2005 gubernatorial race in Virginia, those strategists point to a Republican and conservative base in Virginia that was unmotivated, causing the party to lose a race they had once thought they had in the bag. They fear a low turnout on the GOP side could be devastating, while Democrats, who are hungrier from being out of power, may be more likely to show up on Nov. 7."

In the 1/17/06 Rothenberg Political Report, Stu Rothenberg upped his House projection from a 4- to 6-seat Democratic gain to 5 to 8 seats. Amy Walter, The Cook Political Report's specialist on House races, puts it a bit wider at 4 to 8 seats. Chuck Todd, editor of The Hotline, puts his range at 6 to 8 seats.

Rothenberg's latest Senate projection was a 2-4 seat Democratic gain, the same numbers as Jennifer Duffy, editor of The Cook Political Report and specialist on Senate races, has. Todd guessed 3 to 4 seats.

In his Senate forecast as of 1/23/06, Chris Bowers of MyDD.com, a Democratic site, sees a likely Democratic pickup in Pennsylvania, where state Treasurer Bob Casey (D) maintains a double-digit lead over Sen. Rick Santorum (R). States where Democrats are expected to be competitive with Republican incumbents include Missouri, Montana and Ohio, while the GOP will be competitive with Democrats in New Jersey and Maryland. Other possible gains for the Dems include Rhode Island, Arizona and Tennessee, with Nevada and Virginia longer shots. Other potential pickups for the GOP include Minnesota, Washington and Michigan, with longer shots in Nebraska and Wisconsin. Conventional wisdom projects a Democratic gain of 0-2 seats. They need six to regain a majority.

Bowers concluded, "Come October, campaigns such as Casey vs. Santorum will not be the primary focus of resources for either national party ... Instead, the battle for the Senate will take place in close, competitive, 'toss-up' campaigns where both parties will focus their resources. If there is going to be a large national Senate swing in favor of one party or the other, as there was for Democrats in 2000 and as there was for Republicans in 2004, it will be because one party is able to stretch the defensives of their opponent extremely thin. Right now that doesn't look possible for Republicans to achieve, but [Dems] aren't there yet either."


BUSH HEALTH PLAN: YOU'RE ON YOUR OWN: Ezra Klein at Prospect.org (1/23/06) noted that health savings accounts, based on the idea that Americans have too much health insurance, are designed to let people sock away money for health care in tax-deductible accounts. "Newly responsible for their medical bills, consumers will be spurred by the Magic of the Market to make smarter decisions, show more prudence, lead healthier lifestyles, smile more often, and smell springtime fresh. It's gonna be awesome.

"At least if you're healthy. Because what HSA's really do is separate the young from the old, the well from the sick. Currently, insurance operates off of the concept of risk pooling. Since health costs tend to be unpredictable and illness isn't thought a moral failing, we all pay a bit more than we expect to use in order to subsidize those who end up needing much more than they ever thought possible. The well subsidize the sick, the young subsidize the old, and we all accept the arrangement because one day we will be old, and one day we will be sick, and no one wants to shoulder that alone.

"But HSA's slice right through this intergenerational, redistributionist arrangement: they're a great deal for young, healthy folks because they don't force subsidization. Just don't get sick. And if you're already sick, don't think you can hide by remaining in traditional insurance plans: When the healthy rush towards HSA's, older plans will hold only the ill, and insurance companies will send premiums skyrocketing to recoup the difference."

Klein noted that medical costs already account for more than half of all bankruptcies. As more people are priced out of the insurance market, that number is expected to skyrocket.

Josh Marshall of TalkingPointsMemo.com suggested a slogan: "Bush Health Savings Accounts! Because the Bush Medicare Drug Bill is Working Out So Well!"


GOP DEAL SAVES INSURERS $22B: House and Senate GOP negotiators, meeting behind closed doors in December to complete a major budget bill that will cut aid to college students and health care to seniors and the working poor, agreed on a change to the Medicare legislation that would save the health insurance industry $22 bln over the next decade, according to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office, the Washington Post reported 1/24/06. The Senate version would have lowered payments to private HMOs participating in Medicare by $26 bln over the next decade. But after lobbying by the health insurance industry, the final version eliminating all but $4 bln of the projected savings. The Senate gave final approval to the budget-cutting measure on Dec. 21, but the House must give it final consideration early next month.


BUSH REGS KILL TWO MORE MINERS: Two coal miners were found dead 1/21/06 from a West Virginia mine fire. Ken Ward Jr. of the Charleston, W.V., Gazette reported that Bush's Mine Safety Health Administration adopted a regulation with the strong support of the mine industry that allowed mines to use a conveyor belt -- the same area the fire broke out in the Aracoma Alma No. 1 mine -- to draw fresh air to the workplace where coal is mined. This ventilation arrangement, which previously had been illegal, could help carry flames and deadly gases directly to the miners or prevent their evacuation. Davitt McAteer had resisted such a change when he headed MSHA during the Clinton administration, as had the United Mine Workers, but Bush's MSHA ignored these concerns. Jordan Barab of spewingforth.blogspot.com noted that the Bush administration also withdrew a rule that would have required improved flame-resistant materials on the type of conveyor belts that caused the fire.

Is it political opportunism to point out that budget cuts and deregulation have a human cost? "When people say they are cutting the budget, below-the-radar safety inspections and associated regulatory work are exactly the sort of things that are affected," Max Sawicky noted at MaxSpeaks.org. "Anyone who accuses us of exploiting a tragedy for political gain should be called a prostitute for homicidal corporate cost-cutters who exhibit zero regard for the lives of their workers. See how they like that."

In the absence of federal action, the West Virginia Senate 1/23/06 at the urging of Gov. Joe Manchin (D) unanimously passed legislation that would require mines to use electronic devices to track trapped miners and stockpile oxygen to keep them alive until help arrives.


BAD DAY FOR 'BIG BROTHER': George Bush on 1/23/06 hit the hustings in Kansas to defend his warrantless spy program, which he is now calling his "terrorist surveillance" but a poll reported the same day that the public appears to agree with lawyers who believe it is a clear violation of the Fourth Amendment and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. A USA Today/CNN/Gallup Poll released 1/23/06 shows that 51% of Americans say the administration was wrong to intercept conversations without a warrant. The poll also showed that 58% of Americans support appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate the issue. Another poll by American Research Group released 1/23/06 found Bush's overall approval rating has sunk to 36% among all Americans and 37% among registered voters. (The poll also found 35% of registered voters approve of the way Bush is handling the economy and 60% disapprove.) The Senate Judiciary Committee is set to take up the warrantless spying issue in public hearings early February.


UNION MEMBERSHIP LEVELS OFF: Long-declining union membership leveled off last year at 12.5% of the work force, the Labor Department said 1/20/06 in a report labor leaders called encouraging. Some 15.7 mln workers were union members in 2005. Blacks were more likely than whites, Hispanics or Asian workers to be members of a union. Men were more likely than women to be in unions and those in the public sector were four times as likely as those in the private sector to be in unions. Full-time workers who were union members had median weekly earnings of $801, compared with a median weekly income of $622 for workers who were not in unions.


JOB-CUTTING FORD GETS $250M TAX BREAK: Ford Motor Co. shed 10,000 jobs last year and expects to cut 30,000 more. But Allen Sloan of the Washington Post noticed in his 1/24/06 column that the automaker pocketed $250 mln courtesy of the "American Jobs Creation Act of 2005," which allowed it to bring home $850 mln in foreign profits and pay only 5.25% tax, rather than the standard 35%. Sloan noted he has no problem with Ford taking advantage of the "idiotic legislation that Congress adopted and that President Bush signed despite objections from his Treasury Department and Council of Economic Advisers. My problem is with the legislation, and especially with its misleading name. Companies don't add jobs based on one-time chances to repatriate money from overseas." He noted that American Enterprise Institute fellow Phillip L. Swagel, formerly chief of staff of Bush's Council of Economic Advisers, told the Post last August that "you might as well have taken a helicopter over 90210 [a Beverly Hills Zip code] and pushed the money out the door." Sloan added, "That's a memorable quote -- and a dead-accurate observation."


SANTA FE SETS MINIMUM WAGE PACE: The city of Santa Fe, N.M., increased its minimum wage by one dollar, to $9.50 an hour, the highest in the country, on 1/1/06. With the federal minimum wage stuck at $5.15 since 1997, the District of Columbia, 14 states and an estimated 100 municipalities now top the federal level. A sprawling network of advocates, including church groups, labor unions and national activists, led by ACORN, are working to put increased-wage laws on the ballot this year or next in several states, with Colorado, Arizona, Michigan and Ohio among likely targets, Electra Draper wrote in the 1/22/06 Denver Post. While detractors say the law has priced low-skilled workers out of the market and punished small businesses with thin profit margins, supporters say the increased wage has allowed workers to better afford the essentials of life and has enabled some to quit working two or three jobs. "On the most basic human level, it's been a tremendous success," says Carol Oppenheimer, a labor lawyer and coordinator with the Santa Fe-based Living Wage Network. "It's put a lot more money in the pockets of some 9,000 workers."


CAFTA STARTUP DELAYED: Days before the Central America Free Trade Agreement was supposed to go into effect on Jan. 1, several of the Central American countries' parliaments were balking at making the changes in public health and other domestic laws required by the commercial deal. In Costa Rica's case, the Congress is unwilling to ratify the controversial agreement. In reaction, the Bush administration decided to delay the implementation until it can push through the anti-public interest changes to each Central American country's domestic laws. See www.tradewatch.org.

In other trade news, when the North American Free Trade Agreement was approved, a Trade Adjustment Assistance Program was supposed to provide job retraining for workers who lost their jobs due to the trade pact. But the program, which was only available in English, was of no use to Spanish-speaking Americans until the Association of Border workers brought a lawsuit against the Department of Labor with the support of Public Citizen's Litigation Group and Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid. A federal judge recently ordered the labor department and the Texas Workforce Commission to spend $6.5 mln on job training for Spanish-speaking workers in El Paso who received deficient training. See www.tradewatch.org.


CONS NARROWLY OUST LIBS IN CANADA: Conservatives won the election in Canada 1/23/06, but their 36% of the vote left them wih 124 seats, 31 short of a majority in the 308-seat House of Commons. That's not much of a mandate for change after 12 years of Liberal rule, particularly after Conservative Leader Stephen Harper adopted centrist themes to distance himself from President Bush. Considering that the separatist Bloc Québécois, with 51 seats, and the New Democratic Party, with 29 seats, are to the left of the Liberals, who got 103, it's hard to see how the election moves Canada much closer to the right-wing Bush administration.


NEED UNIFIED SECURITY BUDGET: Writing in The Nation (2/6/06), US Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., noted that the US spent $60 bln last year on the war in Iraq, while spending less than $1 bln on locking down nuclear weapons to keep them away from terrorists. "Does that sound like a smart way to allocate security dollars? Yet Congress's budget process makes it hard for members to make those kinds of comparisons and weigh priorities wisely. The dollar amounts for the invasion approach are funded overwhelmingly by the Defense Department budget; funding for the lock-down approach is spread across several departments. There is no systematic discussion of how best to balance, and fund, our national security priorities." He proposed that the Congressional Budget Office prepare a Unified Security Budget that would bring together three broad functions under the same budgetary umbrella: offense (primarily the military); defense (primarily homeland security); and prevention (primarily international affairs). "This seemingly simple step would give us a mechanism for examining, and fully debating, our big-picture security priorities. A Unified Security Budget would allow us to ask the important questions, like: Do we really want to spend thirty times as much on military solutions that don't work as on nonmilitary strategies with a proven track record of success? It's time for a budget process that encourages members of Congress to grapple with that vital question."


PENTAGON SPYING GOES TOO FAR: Michael Isikoff reported in Newsweek (1/30/06) that even Pentagon official say the domestic spying has gone too far. When a group of about 10 peace activists showed up at the Houston headquarters of Halliburton in June 2004 protesting what they charged the corporation's war profiteering, handing out peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches to Halliburton employees as they left work, analysts at the US Army's top-secret Counterintelligence Field Activity unit saw the peanut-butter protest as a threat to national security. As part of the Threat and Local Observation Notice (TALON) program to collect "raw information" about "suspicious incidents, Army analysts reported on the protest and stored it in the CIFA database. A Pentagon memo obtained by Newsweek showed that the deputy Defense secretary now acknowledges that some TALON reports may have contained information on US citizens and groups that never should have been retained. The department is not allowed to keep information about US citizens for more than 90 days -- unless they are "reasonably believed" to have some link to terrorism, criminal wrongdoing or foreign intelligence. The number of reports with names of US persons could be in the thousands, a senior Pentagon official told Newsweek. In December, the ACLU reported that the FBI investigated several activist groups, including People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and Greenpeace, supposedly in an effort to discover possible ecoterror connections. NBC News reported that TALON had collected information on nearly four dozen antiwar meetings or protests, including one at a Quaker meetinghouse in Lake Worth, Fla., and a Students Against War demonstration at a military recruiting fair at the University of California, Santa Cruz. In October 2004 the TALON team reported on plans by the Broward Anti-War Coalition to protest outside a strip-mall recruiting office in Lauderhill, Fla. The TALON entry lists the upcoming protest as a "credible" threat. As it turned out, the entire event consisted of 15 to 20 activists waving a giant BUSH LIED sign.


E-VOTE TROUBLES FOIL DEADLINE: Ion Sancho, election supervisor of Leon County, Fla., shook up the electronic voting industry in December when he authorized a security test that proved the Diebold e-vote system can be hacked. In short order, according to blackboxvoting.org, Volusia County, Fla., dumped Diebold, hastily signing an agreement to purchase a system from competing Election Systems & Software (ES&S); St. Louis County, Mo., changed its mind about buying Diebold, the state of California refused to certify Diebold (sending its machines back to federal testing labs) and the state of Pennsylvania decertified the Diebold optical scan system. California and Pennsylvania acted on the advice of their own independent voting system examiners, who confirmed problems with the code exploited by Finnish computer expert Harri Hursti to hack the system in Leon County.

However, after Sancho disqualified Diebold and shortly before the Jan. 1, 2006, deadline set under the federal Help America Vote Act for election officials to upgrade electronic voting technology, Sancho received word that ES&S CEO Aldo Tesi was abruptly aborting a deal to provide machines to Leon County. Coincidentally, two brothers, Bob and Todd Urosevich, are executives at Diebold and ES&S, respectively. The two companies counted an estimated 80% of the nation's votes in 2004.

A recent survey by the National Association of Secretaries of State found that 17 of 43 states that responded said they expected to miss the deadline to upgrade voting systems, as election officials have repeatedly clashed with voting-machine manufacturers, the Washington Post reported 1/22/06.

Johns Hopkins University computer sciences professor Avi Rubin, who is leading a group that has received a $7.5 mln grant from the National Academy of Sciences to research election technology, told the Post the vulnerabilities of electronic systems -- including new touch-screen voting machines -- point to the need for a paper trail in any election. "The more I see, I say we need voting to rely on paper," he said. About 26 states require paper ballots, according to VerifiedVoting.org, an advocacy group.


MEDICARE BUNGLING GIVES DEMS OPENING: Republican bungling of the Medicare prescription drug program gives Democrats a prime opportunity to reclaim the support of older voters, Jonathan Singer wrote at MyDD.com (1/22/06). In 2004, George Bush did surprisingly well among older voters, outpolling John Kerry by 54% to 46% margin among voters over age 60. That was a 7-point swing for Bush between 2000 and 2004. But in a poll commissioned by the Associated Press and reported 1/22/06, Ipsos Public Affairs found that 52% of Americans and fully two-thirds of older Americans find the program "confusing" and "tough to understand."


ABRAMOFF HAD CLOSE WHITE HOUSE TIES: The White House is playing down ties with disgraced GOP fundraiser and lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Spokesman Scott McClellan said Abramoff visited the White House for a few "staff-level meetings" and a couple Chanukah parties. But Time magazine 1/22/06 reported it has seen five photographs of Jack Abramoff and President Bush "that suggest a level of contact between them that Bush's aides have downplayed." Time reported several of the photos are of the sort that could have been taken at a White House holiday party: one of Bush and Abramoff in front of a blue drape, a few of Bush and Abramoff and various Abramoff kids. But then there's the picture of Bush, Abramoff, a couple of unidentified men and Raul Garza Sr., the blue-jeaned and bolo-tied chairman of the Kickapoo Traditional Tribe, a Texas Indian tribe Abramoff represented. "It sure doesn't sound like a snapshot from a Chanukah party, and it isn't," Tim Grieve notes at Salon.com. "The photo seems to have been taken during a May 2001 event in which Bush met with tribal leaders at the Old Executive Office Building -- a meeting arranged with the help of both Abramoff and Grover Norquist. As we noted the other day, Lou Dubose described such a meeting in a June 2005 article in the Texas Observer. The White House has said that its records don't show that Abramoff was in attendance. Time says that the photograph and three sources who were at the meeting all say otherwise."

The Associated Press last May reported that in George Bush's first 10 months in office, Abramoff and his lobbying team logged nearly 200 contacts with the new administration as they pressed for friendly hires at federal agencies and sought to keep the Northern Mariana Islands exempt from federal labor laws. The meetings between Abramoff's lobbying team and the administration ranged from Attorney General John Ashcroft to policy advisers in Vice President Dick Cheney's office, according to his lobbying firm billing records. Two of Abramoff's lobbying colleagues on the Marianas won political appointments inside federal agencies. AP reported that Abramoff had cultivated relations with Bush's political team as far back as 1997, when Abramoff charged the Marianas for getting then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush to write a letter expressing support for the Pacific territory's school choice proposal, his billing records show.


LIBBY'S LAWYERS TEE UP PARDON? Attorneys for Scooter Libby said they'll need to subpoena lots of reporters and the newspapers, magazines and TV networks they work for in order to defend Dick Cheney's former chief of staff against criminal chargse in the Valerie Plame case. On 1/23/06 Plame's team said they're also going to need to get into some classified material, possibly about the work Plame was doing for the CIA. All this leads Tim Grieve of Salon.com to wonder if Libby hopes for a presidential pardon. The request for classified information launches a highly secretive process that could bog down the case, and if Libby's lawyers can drag the case long enough, Grieve wrote, Bush might have a reason for saying the nation would be better off if he just "set Scooter free."


CHILE'S PENSION NO MODEL FOR US: "Free marketers" pointed to Chile's privatized pension system as the model for a privatized US Social Security System, but all of the candidates in Chile's presidential contest agreed that the privatized pension system, which was created by the dictator Augusto Pinochet 25 years ago, is in trouble and needs immediate repair. Transition costs from the old system have been higher than expected while pension benefits are lower than expected. The Century Fund, in a 1/11/06 report at tcf.org, noted that "voracious commissions and other administrative costs have swallowed up large shares of personal accounts." One measure estimates that fees took roughly 28 to 33 percent of contributions made by employees retiring in 2000. No wonder Wall Street hopes to get its hooks into the Social Security fund if Republicans maintain control of Congress.


WAL-MART WORKERS ORGANIZE, SORTA: Wal-Mart workers in Florida have decided not to wait for permission from the National Labor Relations Board to form a union, Nathan Newman notes at nathannewman.org. The Wal-Mart Workers Association (WWA), a group of 300 current and former Wal-Mart workers in over 40 stores with help from unions and ACORN (a community advocacy group) are leading petition drives demanding restoration of cut hours, protesting firing of workers and generally demanding better treatment, Nick Robinson writes in Labor Notes' January issue (labornotes.org). One of the early focus of the campaigns is Wal-Mart's inconsistent scheduling system where workers see their hours cut semi-randomly. The WWA launched a campaign to encourage Wal-Mart workers to file for unemployment compensation. Rick Smith, WWA organizer and Florida director of the Wal-Mart Association for Reform Now (WARN), a coalition of labor, community, homeowner, and anti-poverty groups, estimates that "hundreds, if not thousands" of Wal-Mart workers have filed for unemployment as part of the WWA's campaign. They usually win, according to Smith, costing Wal-Mart tens of thousands of dollars, and when they lose, they force Wal-Mart into a lengthy and revealing appeal process. As a result, a number of Wal-Mart stores with higher levels of WWA member activity have changed their scheduling policy.

The point of all of this, Newman said, is not to talk to Wal-Mart workers in theory about what a union can do for them, but to demonstrate through smaller campaigns what worker solidarity does -- and make the case for why even greater solidarity can only make their lives better. "There's no reason any set of workers have to wait for a majority of their fellow workers to join them in order to demand better treatment from their employers. And given Wal-Mart's determination to fight any NLRB-style approach to organizing a union, this non-majority union approach to organizing is probably the only way to step-by-step build a critical mass to take on the company."


CAFTA STARTUP DELAYED: Days before the Central America Free Trade Agreement was supposed to go into effect on Jan. 1, several of the Central American countries' parliaments were balking at making the changes in public health and other domestic laws required by the commercial deal. In Costa Rica's case, the Congress is unwilling to ratify the controversial agreement. In reaction, the Bush administration decided to delay the implementation until it can push through the anti-public interest changes to each Central American country's domestic laws.

In other trade news, when the North American Free Trade Agreement was approved, a Trade Adjustment Assistance Program was supposed to provide job retraining for workers who lost their jobs due to the trade pact. But the program, which was only available in English, was of no use to Spanish-speaking Americans until the Association of Border workers brought a lawsuit against the Department of Labor with the support of Public Citizen's Litigation Group and Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid. A federal judge recently ordered the labor department and the Texas Workforce Commission to spend $6.5 mln on job training for Spanish-speaking workers in El Paso who received deficient training. See www.tradewatch.org.


USDA IGNORES MONOPOLY: The USDA's Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration (GIPSA) has failed to enforce the Packers and Stockyards Act, which is supposed to protect livestock and poultry producers from fraud, abuse and anti-competitive behavior, Sen. Tom Harkin said 1/18/06. A USDA Office of Inspector General (OIG) report said GIPSA management has blocked investigations of anti-competitive behavior through numerous means, such as failing to provide established procedures for investigations and refusing to approve and provide clearance for employees seeking to investigate wrongdoing. The report documents instances where top employees at GIPSA instructed regional offices to count routine correspondence and other mundane activities as investigations to give the misleading appearance that GIPSA was actively pursuing cases of unfair, deceptive and anti-competitive acts in livestock and poultry markets. "America's producers have faced an increasingly integrated and consolidated market, but in the past five years, USDA has made virtually no attempt to investigate or take action against unfair and anti-competitive market behavior," Harkin said. "Sweeping changes are needed at USDA," he added.

From The Progressive Populist, Feb. 15, 2006

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