Republicans were celebrating their unity opposition to President Obama’s economy recovery package. “It would be an understatement to say GOP lawmakers were pumped after unanimously opposing the stimulus bill in the House,” Byron York wrote in the D.C. Examiner (2/8). “Although they lost, they were thrilled that not a single Republican voted for what all agreed was a terrible bill ... Republicans have won the first big message war of the Obama administration.” The Washington Post (2/9) quoted Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the House Republican whip, saying, “What transpired ... and will give us a shot in the arm going forward is that we are standing up on principle and just saying no.”

Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) compared the GOP to “freedom fighters” fighting against a “slide toward socialism.” Conservative strategist Grover Norquist said Republicans working with Obama should be treated as “collaborators.” Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas), head of the National Republican Congressional Committee, suggested that the party has learned from the disruptive tactics of the Taliban in Afghanistan. “Insurgency, we understand perhaps a little bit more because of the Taliban,” he said in an interview with National Journal’s Hotline (Feb. 5). “And that is that they went about systematically understanding how to disrupt and change a person’s entire processes.”

The central article of faith for fundamentalist Republicans is that tax cuts encourage wealthy people to invest in businesses, and only private businesses create jobs. “What this administration is talking about is making work,” new Republican Chairman Michael Steele told George Stephanopoulos on ABC’s This Week (2/8). “But that’s a job,” Stephanopoulos replied. Steele objected, “No, it’s not a job. A job is something that—that a business owner creates.” He reasoned that a government contract expires and “the work may go away.” Stephanopoulos replied, “Yes, but we’ve seen millions and millions of jobs going away in the private sector just in the last year.” Steele said, “But they come—yes, they—and they come back, though, George. That’s the point. When they go—they’ve gone away before, and they come back.”

In fact, much of the spending was to go to cash-strapped states to help them avoid laying off permanent employees, including police, firefighters and schoolteachers.

The Gallup Poll (2/9) showed 67% of respondents approved of Obama’s handling of the economic stimulus bill, while Republicans got a 31% approval rating in the nationwide poll conducted 2/6-7. Also, more than 50% of respondents had more confidence in Obama’s ability to improve the economy and manage the federal government than they did before his inauguration. And 80% believe that passing the stimulus bill is either important (29%) or critically important (51%).

The business community is starting to worry about the Republican intransigence. At the conservative Balloon-Juice.com blogsite, DougJ noted (2/8) that Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) read from a Chamber of Commerce endorsement to defend his support for the stimulus. The National Association of Manufacturers also told Republicans that votes on the bill, “including potential procedural motions,” may be considered as key votes when it comes to scoring legislative records. “I’ve always thought ... that some day the Republican Party would become so insane that it would begin to frighten big business. That day may have arrived.”

Another Republican who bucked his party is Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, who needs the federal money to keep his state running, so he was scheduled to appear with Obama at a town meeting in Fort Myers. Crist is one of 19 governors, including four Republicans, who joined in a letter urging Congress to pass the president’s stimulus package.

At his Feb. 9 press conference, Obama drove home the points that he didn’t cause the mess we’re in, but he intends to solve it with infusions such as a $100-a-month increase in unemployment compensation, job training for displaced workers, $1,000 tax breaks for working families, $2,500-per-student tax breaks for families to send their kids to college. “My bottom line is to make sure that we are saving or creating 4 million jobs, we are making sure that the financial system is working again, that homeowners are getting some relief,” Obama said. “And I’m happy to get good ideas from across the political spectrum, from Democrats and Republicans. What I won’t do is return to the failed theories of the last eight years that got us into this fix in the first place, because those theories have been tested, and they have failed. And that’s what part of the election in November was all about.”

GOP SPINNERS OUTNUMBER DEMS. Republicans continued to outnumber Democratic lawmakers 75-41 on the five cable news networks (CNBC, Fox Business, Fox News, CNN and MSNBC) from 2/2 through 2/5, ThinkProgress.org reported (2/6). The previous week, ThinkProgress reported (1/28), Republican members of Congress outnumbered their Democratic counterparts by a ratio of nearly 2 to 1.

GOP TRIES TO PENALIZE ACORN. Republicans took their vendetta against ACORN, the community organizing group that was criticized for its voter registration efforts, to the economic recovery bill as Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) offered an amendment that would have prohibited ACORN from receiving any funding from programs paid for by the stimulus bill. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) pointed out that ACORN volunteers rehabilitated some 3,500 homes in Louisiana in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The amendment was defeated 51-45. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), Robert Byrd (D-W.V.), Kay Hagan (D-N.C.), Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) and Jon Tester (D-Mont.) voted with the GOP.

TRUTH COMMISSION PROPOSED. Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) announced that he wants to set up a truth commission to investigate abuses at the Department of Justice. House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers (D-Mich.) has introduced legislation setting up a National Commision on Presidential War Powers and Civil Liberties. Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and Carl Levin (D-Mich.) also support the idea of a “truth commission.” Leahy said the truth commission would include people recognized as fair-minded without any ax to grind. Leahy added, “Rather than vengeance, we need a fair-minded pursuit of what actually happened. And sometimes is the best way to move forward is to find out the truth, find out what happened. And we do that to make sure it never happens again.”

Obama said he will “take a look at Sen. Leahy’s proposal, but my general orientation is to say let’s get it right moving forward.”

REICH: GOP HOPES FOR WORST. Robert Reich, the former Labor secretary under Bill Clinton, wrote at robertreich.blogspot.com (2/9) that Republicans are hoping for a repeat of 1994, when Newt Gingrich turned the midterm elections into a national referendum about Clinton’s leadership. “Republicans don’t want their fingerprints on the stimulus bill or the next bank bailout because they plan to make the midterm election of 2010 a national referendum on Barack Obama’s handling of the economy. They know that by then the economy will still appear sufficiently weak that they can dub the entire Obama effort a failure—even if the economy would have been far worse without it, even if the economy is beginning to turn around. They’ll say “he wanted more government spending, and we said no, but we didn’t have the votes. Elect us and we’ll turn the economy around by cutting taxes and getting government out of the private sector.”

“Obama believes Republicans will eventually embrace bipartisanship. I hope he’s right but I fear he’s wrong. They want to take back Congress the way Newt Gingrich retook the House (and helped Republicans retake the Senate) in 1994—with hellfire and brimstone. Once in control of Congress, they’ll be able to block Obama’s big initiatives on health care and the environment, stop any Supreme Court nominees, and set up their own candidate for the White House in 2012.”

NUKE PORK STRIPPED FROM STIMULUS BILL (updated). The House-Senate conference committee stripped an $8.5 bln item from the stimulus bill that was supposed to guarantee $50 bln in loans to the nuclear industry, Environment News Service reported (2/12). The provision, whose sponsor was Sen. Robert Bennett (R-Utah), was supposed to guarantee “low-carbon energy producers,” but environmental groups say it likely would go to the nuclear industry, the Salt Lake Tribune reported (2/9). Bennett voted against the overall bill. Brad Johnson of ThinkProgress.org noted (1/30) that the House bill contained $52 bln for renewable energy and energy efficiency investments. Al Giordano noted at Narconews.com (2/10) that the nuclear projects are not “shovel ready,” they won’t be for years, they will not be labor intensive, and would take at least 10 years before supplying any energy, if at all. “Removing the atomic pork is the simplest and soundest way to put that $8.5 billion to work truly stimulating the economy rather than trying to resurrect a failed and dangerous industry,” Giordano wrote.

GROUP AIMS AT TRADE REFORM. The Citizens Trade Campaign (citizenstrade.org), a coalition of 347 national, state and local organizations with 18 mln members, is urging Congress to take up reform of trade rules. The group is opposed to “free trade” agreements the Bush administration negotiated with Colombia, Panama and Korea, which represent more of the same failed model backed by the Bush administration and strongly rejected by voters,” said Andy Gussert, coalition director. “Hundreds of groups are now organizing, rolling up their sleeves, and pushing for reform, including support for Buy American provisions in the stimulus package,” he wrote. Trade reform dominated Congressional races across the country in 2008, as 42 newly elected freshman senators and representatives ran on reforming the US trade model. They joined over two dozen fair traders first elected in 2006, making a total of 71 reformers replacing those who supported the status quo system based on the failed North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). “Candidates ran hard on trade reform, and they won. Voters sent a clear message—we support change,” Gussert wrote. “We want to let these newly elected trade champions know we support their campaign message, and are here to help keep those promises.”

Nearly three-quarters of Americans believe that a “free trade agreement” has had a negative effect on their families. GOP voters, by a two-to-one majority, agree that foreign trade has been bad for the US economy, because imports from abroad have reduced demand for American-made goods, cost jobs here at home, and produced potentially unsafe products. Majorities oppose NAFTA across every demographic, making reform the predominate view of voters across the country.

Senate candidates who made trade a centerpiece of their campaign included new Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Kay Hagen (D-N.C.). The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee ran seven trade ads across five states with top races. In 2006, nine Senate challengers beat incumbents while running on fair trade reform policies. All nine of those senators then went on to vote against the next free trade agreement put before the Senate, in December of 2007.

SHOP AT THRIFT STORES, LOSE YOUR CREDIT. It’s no longer enough to pay your credit card bill promptly. Credit card companies apparently have been cutting credit lines if you patronize businesses whose other customers have poor credit histories. Ron Lieber reported in the New York Times (1/30) that American Express has been reconsidering credit lines based on home prices in your area, the type of mortgage lender you’re using and how you spend your money, searching for patterns of similarities to other customers who have trouble paying their bills. In some instances, if it didn’t like what it was seeing, the company has cut customer credit lines. It laid out this logic in letters that infuriated many of the cardholders who received them,” Lieber wrote. “Other customers who have used their card at establishments where you recently shopped,” one of those letters said, “have a poor repayment history with American Express.” The card company denied that it has developed a blacklist of merchants and the company has decided to stop using what it has called “spending patterns” as a criteria in credit line reductions. A spokesman for Citigroup told Lieber it uses some mortgage data to help it make credit decisions, but it is not using specific store data or looking at types of merchandise purchased. A spokeswoman for Capital One said that geography was one of many factors it considered and that it, too, did not make decisions based on where people shop. Bank of America and Chase declined to comment on how their underwriting works, “though it’s safe to assume that they and other companies are looking at more data more carefully than they ever have before,” Lieber noted.

Last year, CompuCredit, a subprime lender, got in trouble with the Federal Trade Commission for failing to disclose that it could reduce customers’ credit lines for using their cards at various establishments, including marriage counselors, tire retreading and repair shops, bars and nightclubs, pool halls, pawnshops and massage parlors, among others.

Beth Healy reported in the Boston Globe (1/31) that card issuers last July reported that they were constricting lines of credit. A Federal Reserve Bank survey in October found the same portion of bankers reporting tighter lending standards on credit cards.

AFFORDABLE HOUSING NEEDED. While the Senate economic recovery bill would give every homebuyer, no matter his or her income, a $15,000 tax credit, at a cost of $18.5 bln, Sheila Crowley, president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition (nlihc.org), noted, the bill did not include any funding to produce new units of affordable housing. The Senate bill does not capitalize the National Housing Trust Fund to build and rehabilitate rental homes that are affordable to low-wage workers, the unemployed, the disabled and the elderly. Nor does the Senate bill provide funding for housing vouchers that would help low-income families afford to rent existing housing in the market. The bill includes $1.5 billion for emergency housing assistance for people facing homelessness. But permanent affordable homes are required to assure housing stability for the lowest income households, Crowley said. Construction of each new multi-family rental unit produces 1.16 new jobs and every $100,000 spent on home remodeling produces 1.11 new jobs, she said.

TRAINS IN SPAIN. Spain has embarked on an ambitious high-speed rail network that aims to be the most extensive in Europe. The Economist (2/5) noted that a new high-speed train, called AVE, travels the 310 miles from Barcelona to Madrid at speeds up to 180 mph and increased rail’s share of the travel market from 28% to 38% while domestic airlines have lost a fifth of their travelers. The AVE line opened a year ago and in its first 10 months it carried 2 mln passengers. Another 5,400 miles of lines are planned over the next decade as Spain aims to put 90% of Spaniards within 30 miles of a high-speed rail station over the next decade. And while some environmentalists object to the lines, the Economist noted that carbon emissions are one-sixth those of air travelers and the trains free standard railways for freight trains.

NO CHARITY AT TEXAS MEDICAL BRANCH. The state of Texas is backing away from its historic commitment to provide charity care at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston as the hospital struggles to recover from Hurricane Ike, which devastated the island and heavily damaged the medical center that is the city’s largest employer last September. Ralph K.M. Haurwitz of the Austin American-Statesman noted (2/8) that five months later, the state’s oldest medical school, whose hospital traditionally has been the health care of last resort for uninsured Texans, is mostly back to normal, but just 250 of 600 beds have been returned to service, 20% of the schools health professionals have been permanently laid off, the trauma center remains closed and nearly all patients calling to make an appointment are turned away if they don’t have private health insurance or qualify for government programs. Such “unsponsored” patients, most of whom are employed but uninsured, made up a fifth of UTMB’s patient load before Ike but now must obtain care at emergency rooms, clinics and hospitals in Houston or elsewhere because UTMB was forced to spend $169 mln in reserves to pay salaries and other expenses. “We’ve tried to be true to that historical mission of UTMB, but it is no longer sustainable,” said Karen Sexton, executive vice president and CEO of the school’s health system.

At the same time, Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) has threatened to veto a legislative appropriation to take advantage of an expansion of the Children’s Health Insurance Program after President Obama signed a bill raising the income cap from 200% of the federal poverty level, or about $44,000 for a family of four, to 300% of the poverty level, or $66,000. Texas has returned $1 bln in CHIP funds over the past 10 years because the state didn’t want to pony up the state’s 28% share of CHIP financing. An estimated 1.4 mln Texas children are uninsured.

HOME OWNERSHIP GAINS WIPED OUT. Home ownership gains of the last eight years have been wiped out, CalculatedRiskblog.com observed (2/3) noting that the Census Bureau reported home ownership rate decreased to 67.5% in the fourth quarter of 2008. The homeowner vacancy rate was 2.9% in the fourth quarter, or about 900,000 vacant homes. Home ownership peaked at 69.2% in the second and fourth quarters of 2004.

The rental vacancy rate increased slightly to 10.1% in the fourth quarter ’08, or 820,000 excess rental units. With 150,000 unsold new houses, that gives about 1.87 mln excess housing units in the US that need to be absorbed in the next few years.

WHITE HOUSE STOPS MEDICAL MARIJUANA RAIDS. Two days after Barack Obama’s inauguration—before the Senate had confirmed the nomination of Attorney General Eric Holder—the Drug Enforcement Administration raided a medical marijuana dispensary in South Lake Tahoe, Calif., one of the states that has made such facilities legal, Al Giordano noted at Narconews.com (2/6). “This, with full knowledge that as a presidential candidate Obama had pledged to discontinue such raids,” Giordano noted. On 2/3 the DEA carried out multiple raids at medical marijuana clinics in the Los Angeles area. On 2/4, the White House made it clear to the Reuters news agency that the DEA is acting without its blessing. “White House spokesman Nick Shapiro ... reiterated Obama’s stance that ‘federal resources should not be used to circumvent state laws.’ And as he continues to appoint senior leadership to fill out the ranks of the federal government, he expects them to review their policies with that in mind,” Shapiro said.

FOOD SAFETY FULL OF HOLES. Minnesota disease detectives traced the nationwide salmonella outbreak to peanut butter, but David Shaffer of the Minnesota Star Tribune reported (2/7) that the nation’s patchwork system of detecting dangerous illnesses spread by food relies on 50 states and hundreds of local health agencies with widely varying expertise. The salmonella outbreak first identified last year has sickened 575 people in 43 states; eight have died, including three in Minnesota, and food companies have pulled back nearly 1,700 peanut products, one of the largest food recalls in history. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 1995 established a national network to track DNA fingerprints of pathogens from sick patients. But testing of samples and interviewing sick people to track foods is mostly done by state and local agencies. Prof. Michael Osterholm, who helped create Minnesota’s foodborne-disease unit and now heads the Center for Infectious Disease Research & Policy at the University of Minnesota, said it would take $25 mln to $50 mln a year to pay for a better system. He believes it could save lives and pay for itself because fewer people would land in hospitals with food poisoning. The House Energy and Commerce Committee chaired by Rep. Henry A. Waxman, D-Calif., is considering legislation after the salmonella outbreak traced to the Peanut Corp. of America processing plant in Blakely, Ga. The plant owner also is under criminal investigation for allegedly shipping food that tested positive for salmonella.

SIERRA CLUB RALLIES FOR LABOR RIGHTS. The Sierra Club reaffirmed is strong commitment to working for the passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, as President Allison Chin spoke at a 2/4 rally outside the US Capitol featuring Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), Reps. George Miller (D-Calif.) and Pete Visclosky (D-Ind.), AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, United Steelworkers President Leo Gerard, Communications Workers of America President Larry Cohen, more than a dozen other national labor leaders, and workers who had been fired for attempting to form a union in their workplace. “We support this vital piece of legislation because it’s right for workers, right for America, and because it is simply the right thing to do,” Chin said. “But we also know that companies that treat their workers right are much more likely to treat our environment right.”

SALAZAR CANCELS UTAH OIL LEASES. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar on 2/4 canceled 77 oil and gas leases the Bush administration issued that would have opened 100,000 acres of Utah wilderness to drilling. The cancellation was welcomed by Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA), Earthjustice, and the Wilderness Society, whose coalition filed suit to stop the leasing,. In January, a federal judge granted a temporary restraining order preventing the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) from moving forward with these leases. Salazar said some of the parcels will be reviewed for possible leases later.

FARMLAND DECLINES. Some 16.2 mln acres of land has been taken out of farm production, the recently released 2007 Census of Agriculture reported. Farmland dropped by from 938,279,056 to 922,095,840 acres. “Once again we see a nationwide decline in land in farms,” said Jon Scholl, president of American Farmland Trust (farmland.org). “While this does not automatically mean the land has been converted to developed uses, it does mean the agricultural land is no longer in production. This comes at a time when there is much discussion about the importance of agriculture and agricultural land in meeting some of the biggest food, fiber, energy, and ecosystem challenges our nation faces.” The census does not measure farmland conversion. The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service formerly provided reliable farmland conversion data through the National Resources Inventory (NRI) at the national and state levels, but the agency has not had adequate resources to support this effort for several years. AFT would like to see the NRI revived, and the development of state level tracking systems so communities can understand what’s happening to agricultural land, set farmland protection goals and measure their progress.

From The Progressive Populist, March 1, 2009

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