Costa Rican voters narrowly approved the Central America Free Trade Agreement 10/7 after a massive, corporate-funded campaign of fear and intimidation involving Costa Rica's president and the White House. The next step is for the US Congress to consider another Bush proposal to expand "free trade" to Peru, with the same foreign investor privileges, service sector privatization, agriculture and other provisions that fueled Costa Rican public opposition.
"That nearly half the public in Latin America's richest free-market democracy opposed CAFTA despite the intensive campaign in favor of it should end the repeated claims that pushing more NAFTA-style free trade deals is critical to US foreign policy interests in the region or helps the US image," said Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch division (tradewatch.org). "This vote also debunks the claim that these pacts are motivated out of US altruism to help poor people in trade partner countries, given that many of the people in question just announced that they themselves don't want this kind of trade policy. This policy, supported by the elite, will help foreign investors seize control of their natural resources, undermine access to essential services, displace peasant farmers and jack up medicines prices."
Preliminary results in Costa Rica showed CAFTA approved with 52% of the vote. The anti-CAFTA vote received the majority in most rural regions, where fears about campesino displacement similar to that which has occurred in Mexico drove opposition to the pact. The pro-CAFTA vote won narrow majorities in most urban, populous regions, where Bush administration's threats made in the days before the vote were widely covered by the Costa Rican media despite a legally mandated black-out on advocacy for or against CAFTA in the press.
Citizens of El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala and the Dominican Republic had no opportunity to vote on CAFTA. Despite massive, long-running public demonstrations against CAFTA in those countries &endash;- which resulted in protestors being killed by the police in Guatemala and a legislature fleeing its own building to hold the vote in a downtown hotel in Honduras -- legislatures in those countries ultimately ratified and implemented CAFTA by mid-2006. CAFTA had been a volatile issue in Costa Rica's presidential election, with fair-trade presidential candidate Ottón Solís running against CAFTA-supporter and Nobel-Prize winner Oscar Árias on a campaign focusing on the widely unpopular NAFTA expansion. Early in 2007, after Árias narrowly won, Costa Rica's legislature passed a measure establishing a national referendum on whether Costa Rica should enter CAFTA.
The Bush administration repeatedly threatened to remove Costa Rica's existing Caribbean Basin Initiative (CBI) trade preferences if the public rejected CAFTA, even though the program was made permanent in 1990 and only an act of Congress could terminate it. (A tiny percentage of Costa Rica's US exports enjoys duty-free benefits under a CBI add-on program that was approved in 2000. The popular program, which covers nearly two dozen countries and cannot be removed for rejection of an FTA, is set for renewal next year.)
The US ambassador to Costa Rica, Mark Langdale, was slammed with a rare formal denunciation before Costa Rica's Supreme Electoral Tribunal in August after he waged a lengthy campaign to influence the vote on CAFTA. As part of that, Langdale employed misleading threats and suggested there would be economic reprisals if CAFTA were rejected. In response, Rep. Linda Sánchez (D-Calif.) who serves on the House Foreign Affairs Committee's Western Hemisphere Subcommittee, wrote a letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in late September demanding the cessation of Langdale's interventions. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in late September sent a letter to Costa Rica's ambassador to the US correcting Langdale's false threats that Costa Rica would lose its CBI trade preferences if the public rejected CAFTA. "Participation in CBI is not conditioned on a country's decision to approve or reject a free trade agreement with the United States, and we do not support such a linkage," Pelosi and Reid wrote. Despite this, Bush's US Trade Representative renewed the threats on 10/4, and the White House issued a statement repeating the threats on 10/6 -- just hours before the vote.
"Only two years after CAFTA squeezed through Congress on a one-vote margin, the narrowest margin ever for a trade deal, nearly half of Costa Rica's public took a strong stand, in the face of campaign trickery and lies, against the damaging agreement," said Todd Tucker, research director for Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch division and author of the CAFTA Damage Report. "No more countries should be subjected to the damaging policies imposed by overreaching 'trade' agreements."
The Bush-negotiated Peru free-trade expansion, which became bogged down in the past Congress, was revived by a deal between House Ways and Means Committee leaders and the administration. That deal and the modified agreement have been the focus of considerable opposition by many Democrats who are not on the trade committee. Not one key Democratic base group supports the expansion of NAFTA to Peru, according to Public Citizen. Dozens of unions and environmental, consumer, Latino civil rights, faith, development and family farm groups have called on Congress to oppose the deal, which also is opposed by Peru's two labor federations. See the Eyes on Trade blog at citizen.typepad.com/eyesontrade/.
BUSH TO NAT'L GUARD: SCREW THE TROOPS. When 2,600 members of the Minnesota National Guard came home after 22 months in Iraq, after being deployed longer than any other ground combat unit as part of President Bush's "surge," half of them were surprised to learn that their tour was one day short of the number needed to get the education benefits they thought they earned under the GI Bill. The orders of 1st Lt. Jon Anderson and 1,161 other Minnesota guardsmen were written for 729 days, one day short of qualifying for full funding. "It's pretty much a slap in the face," Anderson told WCSH-TV in Minneapolis. "I think it was a scheme to save money, personally. I think it was a leadership failure by the senior Washington leadership ... once again failing the soldiers." All the soldiers qualify for school aid under the GI Bill, but guardsmen who serve less than 730 days get $660 a month, with benefits expiring when they leave the service, while guardsmen who serve 730 or more days can get $894 per month, up to 10 years after leaving the military. At the urging of the state's congressional delegation, the Army has agreed to review the status of the Minnesota Guard's 1st Brigade Combat Team of the 34th Infantry Division, with an eye toward improving their educational benefits, the Associated Press reported.
GOP CLIMB GETS STEEPER. Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.)'s announcement that he will not seek re-election makes at least five Republican Senate seats opening up next year (Colorado, Idaho, Nebraska, New Mexico and Virginia). And Newsweek (10/5) quoted Idaho Gov. Butch Otter saying Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told him a few more retirements might be coming. That prompted progressive bloggers to speculate who might be the next to decide that another campaign might not be worth the trouble. Markos Moulitsas of DailyKos.com speculated that Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) might let go, with the FBI digging around his lobbyist-built homes. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) has been rumored for the chancellorship at Vanderbilt. Jonathan Singer of MyDD.com speculates that Liddy Dole (R-N.C.) and Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) might retire. Cochran's exit could open the door for popular former state Att'y Gen. Michael Moore (D) to make a Senate bid.
Moulitsas notes that five of 21 Republicans up for election in 2008 are quitting. Of the remaining 16 seats (plus a special election in Wyoming), Dems have top-tier competitions in New Hampshire, Minnesota, Maine and Oregon. Of the remaining 12 seats, Dems are likely to have second-tier competition in Alaska, North Carolina, Kentucky and Texas. And there is an outside chance of putting Kansas, Georgia, and Oklahoma in play. And the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee holds close to a $10 million cash-on-hand advantage over the National Republican Senatorial Committee. Even in Idaho, where former US Rep. Larry LaRocco (D) is running for the Senate, the Twin Falls Times-News editorialized (10/5) that Craig "single-handedly made next year's Democratic nominee for his Idaho Senate seat a viable candidate."
Otter added that one reason Craig decided to stay in the Senate was to keep his seat on the Appropriations Committee for Idaho after the GOP leadership said there was "no way" his successor would keep the Appropriations seat, even for the 15-month interim. Instead, the GOP has demanded a Senate Ethics Committee investigation of Craig's misdemeanor. (Meanwhile, House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, ruled that Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Calif., will continue as the party's ranking member of the Appropriations Committee while under federal investigation on ethics charges.)
Domenici's withdrawal opens more than the Senate seat. Rep.
Heather Wilson (R-Albuquerque), who is in a marginally GOP district,
announced plans to run for the Senate and Rep. Steve Pearce (R-Hobbs)
is also eyeing the race, which could open two GOP seats. Dems
interested in the race include Albuquerque Mayor Martin Chavez, Lt.
Gov. Diane Denish and former Att'y Gen. Patricia Madrid. Gov. Bill
Richardson, who is running for president, is said to have ruled out
the Senate race.
(Note: this item was corrected on 11/18/07)
HOUSE DEMS CARRY MOMENTUM. Democrats have more opportunities in the 2008 elections to expand their new majority in the US House than Republicans have to whittle the Dems' edge in seats, according to ratings of next year's House races by Congressional Quarterly's CQPolitics.com (9/26). Barring a tidal shift of voters to the GOP's side over the next 13 months prior to Election Day 2008, the Republicans appear highly unlikely to achieve their goal of reclaiming the majority that they held for a dozen years prior to the 2006 elections. Dems currently have a 232-201 majority, with one Dem-held seat and one GOP-held seat vacant. Many of the Dems first elected in 2006 won in districts that had long elected R's, but national Dem strategists have acted early to defend potentially vulnerable incumbents, while continuing to recruit in districts where R's staved off the Dem surge in 2006 by narrow margins. While polls show a largely disgruntled national electorate thinks no more highly of the current Dem-controlled Congress than it did of the previous GOP-controlled chamber -- with the lack of resolution of the unpopular war in Iraq a driving issue -- the same surveys show that congressional Republicans as a whole remain more unpopular than their Democratic counterparts.
N.O., MISS. SHARE PUBLIC HOUSING SHORTAGE. There has been some resentment along the hurricane-flattened Mississippi Gulf Coast at the attention given to New Orleans over its flooding due to the the catastrophic collapse of poorly designed levees and floodwalls, but Harry Shearer noted at the HuffingtonPost.com (10/7) that the two recoveries, do share at least one characteristic: a shortage of "affordable housing." Even though Mississippi garnered a far higher per-damaged-property share of federal compensation money, and though New Orleanians have been lectured for months about the superiority of their neighbor's recovery, Shearer wrote, RAND researchers found (not surprisingly) that housing that sustained only limited or moderate damage is being rebuilt faster than units that were severely damaged. This is due to the high cost of repairs, a backlog in the construction market and difficulties homeowners and landlords face in obtaining financing for repairs and reconstruction, wrote Kevin McCarthy, the study's lead author. Recovery efforts for all housing types are expected to take at least three more years and cost a total of more than $4 billion, according to the study (see rand.org).
Meanwhile, the Bush administration came out 9/25 against a key portion of a bill mandating the replacement of every government-subsidized apartment in New Orleans that is demolished. The Gulf Coat Housing Recovery bill, co-sponsored by Sens. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., and Mary Landrieu, D-La., also took a shot from Sen. David Vitter, R-La., who said the rebuilding requirement would "re-create the New Orleans housing projects exactly as they were," the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported (9/26). The objections come just days after the US Department of Housing and Urban Development approved the demolition of 4,500 public housing units in the city and sparked outrage among Democrats and housing advocates charging that the administration was trying to keep poor people out of the city. Orlando Cabrera, an assistant secretary at the HUD, suggested that there is little demand for vacant public housing in New Orleans. He told a Senate committee that 400 apartments in New Orleans' public housing complexes remain unoccupied. "We can't get people into them. They won't come home," Cabrera testified to the Senate Banking Committee, which oversees housing. But estimates of homelessness in New Orleans have been placed as high as 12,000, as rental prices have risen 42%, placing many apartments out of the reach of residents, the Times-Picayune reported. The bill would authorize 4,500 affordable housing vouchers, continues rental assistance to evacuees and provides $25 million for the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority to buy land for development.
FEDS PROBE HOUSING SEC'Y. After Housing Secretary Alphonso Jackson in April 2006 regaled minority real estate executives in Dallas with stories of how HUD contracts are awarded to friends of the administration, HUD Inspector General Kenneth Donohue was prompted to launch an investigation. In September 2006, Donohue rendered his verdict, finding that although Jackson had, in fact, urged senior aides to consider the political views of contractors in doling out department business, "no direct evidence" linked political favoritism to such awards, the National Journal reported (10/4). But federal investigators are once again on Jackson's trail, the Journal reported, with Donohue's investigators working with the FBI, a federal grand jury in Washington and prosecutors from the Justice Department's Public Integrity Section. The investigation appears to focus, in part, on whether Jackson misled Congress when he testified earlier this year that he had never intervened in awarding HUD contracts. "I don't touch contracts," the HUD boss told a Senate panel on 5/3. Investigators are exploring whether Jackson lined up a contract at the HUD-controlled Housing Authority of New Orleans for a golfing buddy and social friend from Hilton Head Island, S.C. The friend, William Hairston, was paid more than $485,000 for working at HANO during an 18-month period, according to figures provided by HUD. The work was not competitively bid.
The Journal also reported that Jackson has financial ties to an Atlanta-based development company, Columbia Residential, that owes him $250,000 to $500,000, according to his financial disclosures. Before joining HUD, his spokesman said, Jackson was a "partner/consultant" for the developer. Jackson in August 2001 recused himself from HUD matters having "a direct and predictable effect on the ability or willingness" of the company "to satisfy its obligation to compensate me for prior service rendered," but Columbia Residential recently was part of a team that won a $127 mln competitive contract from HANO to redevelop the St. Bernard public housing project, which has been shuttered since Katrina.
DEMS CAVE ON HEDGE FUND TAX REFORM. Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) has told private-equity firms that a tax-hike proposal they have spent millions of dollars to defeat will not get through the Senate this year, the Washington Post reported (10/9). Democratic lawmakers had been pushing to more than double the tax rate on the management fees for hedge funds from the capital-gains rate (15%) to the normal income tax rate (35%). The tax boost was seen as a way to pay for such measures as the repeal of the alternative minimum tax, which this year threatens to increase taxes on 23 mln households. But lawmakers and lobbyists agree that if the tax is not raised this year, its chances are not strong in 2008, either; Congress tends to be leery of tax increases in election years.
DEMS DISPUTE 'SECRET MEMO' BRIEFING CLAIM. After the New York Times revealed (10/4) that the Bush administration gave the CIA secret approval in 2005 to use harsh interrogation techniques, White House Press Secretary Dana Perino asserted that members of Congress had been "fully briefed" on the secret opinions. On 10/5, Sen. John Rockefeller (D-W.V.), the Senate Intelligence Committee chairman, said that the administration "can't say that Congress has been fully briefed" because they have withheld "key documents." Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.), ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee in 2005, said the same thing: "We were not fully briefed. We were told about operational details but not these memos. Jay Rockefeller said the same thing, and I associate myself with his remarks. And we want to see these memos." On Fox News Sunday (10/7), House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who as minority leader in 2005 would have been informed of the most highly classified information, said that she had not been briefed "about the secret memos" in 2005. ThinkProgress noted (10/7) the White House has little credibility when it says it has "fully briefed" Congress on its counterterrorism activities. Though officials have repeatedly claimed that they briefed key lawmakers on the NSA domestic wiretapping program and other spying programs, those claims have never held up in the past.
GOP WONDERS ABOUT SENATE INACTION. The Senate GOP is on track to block more legislation in the 110th Congress than any in history -- filibustering at triple the usual rate. But according to a recent report in *Roll Call*, some of the same Republicans who've been blocking bills are working on a plan to improve the way the Senate does business. "Minority Whip Trent Lott (R-Miss.) hosted a meeting ... with a handful of the Senate's most notable compromisers to figure out how to unclog the gridlock that has slowed the chamber's progress this year. About half a dozen moderate and independent-minded Republicans and at least one Democrat -- Sen. Ben Nelson (Neb.) -- participated in the Members-only huddle, which was held quietly in Lott's Capitol office ... Afterward, few Senators offered much detail, but several said there's a feeling among them that the narrowly divided chamber no longer can operate at an impasse and they want to find ways to avoid the growing number of filibusters sidelining Senate legislation this year."
Steve Benen commented at TPMMuckraker.com (10/7), "this whole endeavor strikes me as kind of silly. If Senate Republicans want to help unclog the gridlock they can stop blocking legislation. It's not rocket science. Indeed, it's kind of ironic that Trent Lott would even be involved in this. In April, he was the one boasting, 'The strategy of being obstructionist can work or fail ... and so far it's working for us.' All of a sudden, though, they're interested in starting to move legislation again. Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), who has supported nearly all of the GOP filibusters, said, 'We're all impacted by the failure of being able to do the things that people sent us here to do.' ... There's no need for a new 'gang' or 'working group.' There's simply a need for the Senate minority to stop standing in the way of every important bill that comes to the floor."
While Republicans criticize the Democratic Congress for not getting much done, Politico.com noted (10/9) that the House has set a record for votes. When it adjourned on 10/4, the House had recorded 948 votes, breaking the previous record of 942 votes, a mark set in 1978. Last year, the Republican-controlled House held 543 votes. The Senate, which has held 363 votes this year -- many of them cloture votes on Republican filibusters -- isn't on pace to break any records, but has already surpassed the 2006 Senate mark of 279 votes.
TEAMSTERS ENDORSE 'NET NEUTRALITY.' Teamsters have joined the effort to enact "net neutrality" rules to protect freedom of expression on the Internet. Teamsters President Jim Hoffa noted that AT&T recently updated its terms for Internet service to allow the company to suspend Internet service to anyone who speaks out against the company. "When corporations control communications and the ability to appeal to the public for justice, workers will ultimately lose, he said. When Canadian telecom workers struck telephone giant Telus in 2005, the company blocked access to voices-for-change.ca and 600 other sympathetic web sites for 16 hours, Hoffa noted. "Consolidation of the mainstream media has already led to a visible decline in coverage of workplace issues. The Internet has become the last refuge for truth and balance for organizations fighting for public safety, public security, workers' rights and the public's right to know," he said, urging the Senate to take up S. 215, the Internet Freedom Preservation Act, a bipartisan measure that would update the 70-year-old Communications Act of 1934 with a provision for net neutrality that "would ensure that discrimination and economic injustice does not return in a 21st-century form."
DOPE PROHIBITION COSTS $41B. Marijuana prohibition costs taxpayers $41.8 bln every year in law enforcement expenses and revenues lost to government at all levels. An analysis by researcher Jon B. Gettman is based on government estimates of the US marijuana supply, prices and arrests. Gettman made international headlines in December 2006 with an analysis showing marijuana to be the top cash crop in the US The full report, "Lost Taxes and Other Costs of Marijuana Laws," is available at www.drugscience. "This report documents a massive waste of taxpayer dollars in pursuit of eradicating a government-forbidden plant, and the financial waste hit all-time high levels last year, as the FBI just reported there were a record 829,627 marijuana arrests in 2006," said Rob Kampia, executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project in Washington, D.C. "Prohibition has done nothing to reduce marijuana use, which remains at about the level it's been for decades, but prohibition has created a massive underground economy that's completely unregulated and untaxed. The parallels with Alcohol Prohibition in the 1920s, including the needless violence and a huge underground economy, are eerie."
Key findings from Gettman's report: Marijuana arrests constitute 5.54% of all US arrests, costing taxpayers $10.7 bln. The total US marijuana supply is 14,349 metric tons annually, with a retail value of $113 bln. Marijuana prohibition diverts the entire $113 bln in sales from the legal, taxed economy. Based on the White House Office of Management and Budget's estimate that 28.7% of the US gross domestic product goes to federal, local and state governments as tax revenue, marijuana prohibition costs $31.1 billion in lost tax revenues annually.
LEAKS SINK BIN LADEN SURVEILLANCE. When the private intelligence group SITE obtained a copy of the most recent Osama bin Laden video, SITE founder Rita Katz provided free and early access to White House counsel Fred Fielding and Michael Leiter, the principal deputy director of the government's National Counterterrorism Center. Just one condition, she said: "We ask you not to distribute ... [as] it could harm our investigations." About 12 minutes after Katz e-mailed a link to the video to Fielding and Leiter, the Washington Post reported (10/9) somebody at the Pentagon used the link to access it. Two minutes later, someone at the Defense Department's Network Information Center did the same. A minute later, someone at the Army Information System Command used the link. Within the next three hours, the Post says, computers with "addresses registered to defense and intelligence agencies" accessed the video dozens of times. By that afternoon, the Post says, journalists had transcripts of the video and were talking about it on television. Katz says al-Qaeda supporters responded by taking steps to block SITE from using the methods it had used to get the video in the first place. The result, Katz says: "Techniques that took years to develop are now ineffective and worthless." (Tim Grieve, Salon.com)
NIXON: THOMPSON 'DUMB' BUT 'FRIENDLY'. Just in time for Fred Thompson's GOP debate debut, ABC News unearthed some vintage Richard Nixon commentary that fits in just a little too comfortably with the fast-emerging conventional wisdom on the man. Thompson was minority counsel to the Senate Watergate Committee; in that context Nixon says -- on tape, of course -- that he thought the young lawyer wasn't smart enough to go up against his Democratic counterpart, Sam Dash. "Dash is too smart for that kid," Nixon tells John Dean on one tape. On another, Nixon tells Alexander Haig that Thompson is "dumb as hell." In June 1973, White House counsel Fred Buzhardt tells Nixon that the White House has developed "a pretty good rapport" with Thompson, who "came through fine for us this morning."
Nixon: "He isn't very smart, is he?"
Buzhardt: "Not extremely so, but --"
Nixon: "But he's friendly."
Buzhardt: "But he's, he's friendly."
Nixon: "Good." (Tim Grieve, Salon.com.)
GREENS SUPPORT '07 CANDIDATES. The Green Party of the United States has selected nine Green candidates for special campaign aid in the 2007 election. California: Janice Brittain for City Council, Hermosa Beach. Connecticut: Jean de Smet for First Selectman, Windham; Ronna Stuller, Candidate for Board of Education, New London. Maryland: Maria Allwine for President of the Baltimore City Council. Massachusetts: Grace Ross, for Councilor-at-large, Worcester. New York: Howie Hawkins for Councilor At-Large, City of Syracuse; Margaret Human for New Paltz Town Councilman (At-Large); David Lussier for Albany County Legislature, District 7. Pennsylvania: Jennaro Pullano for Mayor, Reading. There are at least 121 Green candidates running for public office in the 2007 election. For a complete list of candidates, visit the Green Party election page at greens.org/elections/.
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