Thursday, March 10, 2005

News for March 10th: Tax the Poor to Pay the Rich Edition

I can’t decide which to be angrier about these days: the bankruptcy bill or the proposed 2006 budget. Both are working together to shaft the poor people of America, both are ill-conceived, or at worse blatantly obvious failures to fix systemic problems, and both are part of an obvious agenda to rob the poor and give to the rich.

How do these people live with themselves at night? I really want to know if they lay awake in bed at night, thinking of the American people that they’re shafting.

GOP Lawmakers Present Tax-Cutting Budgets
Blueprints Include Spending Reductions, Slower Growth for Entitlement Programs
By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 10, 2005; Page A04

House and Senate Republicans yesterday unveiled budget plans for the coming fiscal year that order up billions of dollars in spending cuts for veterans, agriculture, education and health care programs, while making room for as much as $106 billion in tax reductions over the next five years.

For the first time since the balanced-budget fight of 1997, GOP leaders hope to use the budget process to slow the growth of an array of politically sensitive entitlement programs, from student loans and veterans health care to Medicaid and agriculture subsidies. The House plan is seeking $69 billion in entitlement savings over five years, more than twice the $26 billion in savings written into President Bush's budget. The Senate plan would save $32 billion.

Non-defense programs that are subject to annual spending plans would also be hit, some of them hard. The House budget blueprint would cut discretionary spending for international affairs, the environment, agriculture, housing, transportation, education and training, health and justice. Funding for community and regional development programs would be slashed from $22.7 billion this year to $13.7 billion in the fiscal year that begins in October.

The House plan would shrink the federal budget deficit from the $412 billion recorded last year to $203 billion in 2010, even as it continues to cut taxes, said House Budget Committee Chairman Jim Nussle (R-Iowa). The Senate plan would reduce the deficit to $208 billion in five years.

"People will feel some real pain," said Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), "but I don't know how you get a deficit down without people taking some medicine."

Democrats, however, said those deficit figures significantly understate the government's red ink because they do not reflect the long-term costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, of Bush's Social Security proposal, or of fixing the alternative minimum tax -- a parallel income tax set up to plug tax loopholes for the rich but increasingly ensnaring the middle class.

What deficit reduction there is would be extracted from the nation's poorest, most vulnerable citizens, Democrats charged, as Republicans try to extend tax cuts mainly for the affluent, such as the 2003 reductions in capital gains and dividend rates, which will expire in 2008. "This budget asks the most from those who have the least, and the least from those who have the most," said Rep. Chet Edwards (D-Tex.).

Taxes are sure to be a major flash point, especially amid concerns over the deficit. The House budget assumes tax cuts totaling $106 billion over the next five years, enough to extend the capital gains and dividend cuts, as well as the other tax cuts that are set to expire, such as a college tuition deduction, a break for small-business investment, and the business tax credit for research and development. The House total would offer conservatives room for other tax moves under consideration, such as an immediate repeal of the estate tax or an extension of a tax break that allows residents from states without income taxes to deduct sales tax payments from their federal taxes.

The Senate approach is more modest, setting aside no more than $70.2 billion -- about $30 billion less than Bush seeks -- to extend popular tax cuts that are set to expire. But even that sum may be politically problematic. The Senate budget uses parliamentary language to ensure that its tax cuts could pass with a simple 51-vote majority rather than the 60 votes needed to break a filibuster. A small but pivotal group of moderate Republicans in the Senate has signaled it may balk at any tax cuts that are not paid for by spending cuts or revenue increases.

The stakes for securing passage of a budget are high. Congressional budget plans set bottom-line limits for spending and tax cuts, which the appropriations and tax-writing committees must adhere to as they craft legislation for the coming fiscal year.

To ease the way for cuts in entitlement spending, a budget plan would also include the same parliamentary test the Senate wants to use for tax cuts. Without a budget, any entitlement changes would probably need 60 votes to overcome a filibuster, a hurdle that could make Bush's policy prescriptions unattainable.

The House budget orders the Agriculture Committee to draft legislation by September trimming farm programs by $5.3 billion over five years. The Education and Workforce Committee would have to cut the entitlement programs under its jurisdiction -- mainly student loan and pension programs -- by $21.4 billion. The Energy and Commerce Committee would have to serve up $20 billion in savings, largely from Medicaid, environmental cleanups and federal power authorities. The Ways and Means Committee, which has jurisdiction over Medicare, the earned-income tax credit, welfare, child care and unemployment insurance, would have to produce a bill saving $18.7 billion through 2010. Even the Veterans' Affairs Committee would have to do its part, with $798 million in cuts.

In the Senate, the bulk of entitlement cuts -- $15 billion worth -- would fall to the Finance Committee, which has jurisdiction over Medicare and Medicaid. The Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee would have to find $8.6 billion in cuts.

Nussle said all those cuts together would only slow the growth of entitlement spending from 5.6 percent next year to 5.5 percent. "We're not starving programs," he said. "They're continuing to grow at huge rates."

Democrats are demanding that the sacrifice should come in the form of tax increases as well as spending cuts. "If you have a dam with two holes and you plug up only one and leave the other one wide open, that doesn't get the job done," said Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.).

From the Washington Post.

Oh, and speaking of shafting the American people to make corporations richer…

House Begins Work On Social Security
By Mike Allen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 10, 2005; Page A05

The House began its first formal work on restructuring Social Security yesterday with a hearing that featured testimony from the head of the investigative arm of Congress, who issued several warnings about the individual accounts proposed by President Bush.

House Republican leaders also received a new report from their consultants showing that focus groups had found "great levels of concern about the financial risks associated" with such accounts, which would allow younger workers to invest part of their payroll taxes in tightly regulated stock and bond funds.

David M. Walker, a Republican who as U.S. comptroller general is head of the Government Accountability Office, told the Ways and Means Committee that allowing future retirees to manage part of their Social Security contributions could "exacerbate" the system's solvency problems. He cautioned lawmakers about the risk, debt and transition costs that the accounts could produce.

But Walker said the accounts can be part of a solution to the retirement system's "current unsustainable fiscal path" and added that a failure by Congress to rewrite the law swiftly "will gradually erode, if not suddenly damage, our economy, our standard of living and ultimately our national security."

"Social Security does not face an immediate crisis, but it does face a large and growing financial problem," Walker said. He titled his presentation "Early Action Would Be Prudent" and said that restructuring quickly would "make the necessary action less dramatic than if we wait."

More at the Washington Post.

Oh well, at least there’s one bit of good news out of this trainwreck we call a Government: the Dirty Skies bill is dead! At least for now…

Senate Impasse Stops 'Clear Skies' Measure
Pollution Bill's Failure a Setback for Bush

By Shankar Vedantam
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 10, 2005; Page A04

President Bush's bid to rewrite federal air pollution laws ground to a halt in Congress yesterday when Republicans were unable to overcome objections in the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee that the bill would weaken the central pillars of the nation's environmental protection framework.

The setback is a body blow to the White House's prized plan and a victory for environmentalists who have long said that the "Clear Skies" bill is a euphemism for rolling back safeguards at the behest of industry.

The Environmental Protection Agency will issue new regulations today and next week to set limits on air pollutants, but the rules will not change the provisions in the Clean Air Act that would have been revised by Clear Skies.

The panel deadlocked over fundamental differences on how to balance the desire for cleaner air with the cost to industry and jobs.

Republicans accused Democrats of obstructing effective and common-sense legislation to deny Bush an important environmental victory. Democrats, joined by Sen. James M. Jeffords (I-Vt.) and Sen. Lincoln D. Chafee (R-R.I.), said the negotiations were conducted in bad faith, that the pollution-control targets were too low and that the bill contained irresponsible loopholes.

More at the Washington Post.

Oh, and here’s a surprise: yet again, the people at the top of the prisoner abuse issues are exonerated yet again! Just a few bad apples! Frat House! Oh, and I’d like to note that that’s a pretty misleading headline, as just a few paragraphs down, there’s this:

“The report, to be presented on Capitol Hill this morning, says Rumsfeld twice approved questionable techniques for use against "resistant" detainees held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, according to a defense official who quoted parts of the document's executive summary yesterday. "These interrogations were sufficiently aggressive that they highlighted the difficult question of precisely defining the boundaries of humane treatment of detainees," Church's report says.”

Hmm…doesn’t sound like an exoneration to me.

Abuse Review Exonerates Policy
Low-Level Leaders and Confusion Blamed
By Josh White and R. Jeffrey Smith
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, March 10, 2005; Page A16

The Pentagon's widest-ranging examination of prisoner abuse at U.S. detention facilities has concluded that there was no deliberate high-level policy that led to numerous cases of mistreatment, and instead blames inept leadership at low levels and confusion over changing interrogation rules, according to government and defense officials who have read the report.

Vice Adm. Albert T. Church III's inquiry, which included reviews of several earlier military investigations, found there is "no single overarching explanation" for the abuse and that many of them occurred when soldiers came in contact with detainees on the battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan rather than in U.S. detention facilities. It also found that interrogators, for the most part, followed U.S. and international standards for treating detainees humanely and that "there is no link between approved interrogation techniques and detainee abuse."

While the review largely summarizes previous military reports about Defense Department detention operations, it specifically points out that aggressive efforts to increase the quality of human intelligence after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks might have led Pentagon officials to approve the use of interrogation techniques that were on the borderline of acceptable treatment. As previously disclosed, the report says military lawyers initially debated the use of 39 sometimes controversial techniques -- such as water boarding, a tactic that mimics drowning -- but pared that list to 35. Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld approved 24 techniques.

The report, to be presented on Capitol Hill this morning, says Rumsfeld twice approved questionable techniques for use against "resistant" detainees held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, according to a defense official who quoted parts of the document's executive summary yesterday. "These interrogations were sufficiently aggressive that they highlighted the difficult question of precisely defining the boundaries of humane treatment of detainees," Church's report says.

More at the Washington Post.

Hey, more great news from the Culture of Life. They’re protecting the right to kill people and detain them illegally yet again! Man, this just looks like another domino. Another slap in the face to the international community, another tightening of policy to allow for indefinite detention, another law that they can escape from. What else can you expect from a pack of criminals, though?

U.S. Quits Pact Used in Capital Cases
Foes of Death Penalty Cite Access to Envoys
By Charles Lane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 10, 2005; Page A01

The Bush administration has decided to pull out of an international agreement that opponents of the death penalty have used to fight the sentences of foreigners on death row in the United States, officials said yesterday.

In a two-paragraph letter dated March 7, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice informed U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan that the United States "hereby withdraws" from the Optional Protocol to the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. The United States proposed the protocol in 1963 and ratified it -- along with the rest of the Vienna Convention -- in 1969.

The protocol requires signatories to let the International Court of Justice (ICJ) make the final decision when their citizens say they have been illegally denied the right to see a home-country diplomat when jailed abroad.

The United States initially backed the measure as a means to protect its citizens abroad. It was also the first country to invoke the protocol before the ICJ, also known as the World Court, successfully suing Iran for the taking of 52 U.S. hostages in Tehran in 1979.

But in recent years, other countries, with the support of U.S. opponents of capital punishment, successfully complained before the World Court that their citizens were sentenced to death by U.S. states without receiving access to diplomats from their home countries.

More at The Washington Post.

Hey, at least this time there’s some honesty coming out of Washington, though I highly doubt they’re going to acknowledge this report…

US in dark on Iran's WMD, says inquiry

Julian Borger in Washington
Thursday March 10, 2005
The Guardian

A presidential commission has found that US intelligence on Iran is so patchy that it is impossible to reach definite conclusions about the country's suspected weapons programmes, it was reported yesterday.
The Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the US Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction is due to report to the president by the end of this month, primarily on the intelligence fiasco over Iraq's non-existent WMD.

Its findings could also knock a significant dent in the Bush administration's Iran policy, which is built on the presumption that Tehran is bent on building nuclear weapons and is not prepared to trade that for economic and diplomatic incentives, as European states hope.

Late last year, Porter Goss, the CIA director, reported to Congress that Iran continued "to vigorously pursue indigenous programmes to produce nuclear, chemical and biological weapons".

In response to yesterday's report, Mr Bush insisted that Washington was not alone in its sceptical view of Iran's intentions. "I think it's very important for the United States to continue to work with our friends and allies which believe that the Iranians want a nuclear weapon and which know that Iran possessing a nuclear weapon would be very destabilising.

"In my trip to Europe, I discovered common ground with a lot of European nations which believe and are worried about Iranian intentions."

Washington has refused to get involved in talks with Tehran conducted by Britain, France and Germany. The Bush administration has also been lobbying to replace Mohamed ElBaradei as head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, which has discovered evidence that Iran has attempted to conceal its nuclear research but stopped short of declaring that the regime is trying to build weapons.

More at the Guardian UK.

Your quote of the day: “Rob not God, nor the Poor, lest thou ruin thyself; the Eagle snatcht a Coal from the Altar, but it fired her Nest.” – Benjamin Franklin

Posted by crimnos @ 8:51 AM