Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Bush presses Congress for expanded veto power

And, just as I posted smart politics, now I have to counterbalance with some scary shit. Bush wants to revive the line-item veto, which has already been ruled unconstitutional. I think someone should remind him that he's already allowed to veto bills that contain spending that he thinks is excessive. I honestly cannot think of any possible reason the administration would want this except to selectively target Democratic earmarks to omnibus bills. I do have to say, though, that I loved this portion of the debate:

"You control all mechanisms of spending. You control the House, you control the Senate, you control the presidency and you need help before you spend again. What is this, Comedy Central? What is it you're doing here?" raged Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez.

Uggggh. Let's just hope cooler heads prevail, and he doesn't get total control of the government, like he seems hell-bent on doing. Thanks for voting this clown in again, America.

WASHINGTON, June 27 (Reuters) - President George W. Bush prodded the U.S. Senate on Tuesday to pass a bill that would bolster his power to propose the rejection of spending items he considers wasteful.

Bush, who has presided over a surge in budget deficits following the surpluses of the Clinton administration, said that by granting him a line-item veto, Congress would be taking a big step toward improving the nation's fiscal health.

"A line-item veto would be a vital tool that a president could use to target spending that lawmakers tack onto the large spending bills," Bush said in a speech to the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank.

The House of Representatives last week approved the line-item veto bill by a strong margin but it faces an uncertain outlook in the Senate.

The language in the bill is a modified version of a 1990s measure that gave the president the authority to cancel outright certain items in spending bills. That version was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court as unconstitutional.

The revised proposal would allow Bush to single out spending items he thinks should be deleted and then send the proposals back to lawmakers for a vote.

Bush called the veto bill a "crucial test" for lawmakers on fiscal discipline. In addition to the speech, he also met with a group of senators at the White House to discuss the measure.

So-called budget earmarks -- money set aside by lawmakers for specific projects -- have been a focus of controversy this year amid scandals involving lobbyists who have won special-interests favors in spending bills.

"The other thing the line-item veto will do is it will shine the light of day on spending items that get passed in the dark of the night," Bush said. "It will send a healthy signal to the people that we're going to be wise about how we spend their money."

Some Democrats have criticized Bush's call for a line-item veto, pointing out that he has never vetoed a bill during his 5-1/2 years in office.

Democrats also lay a big part of the blame for the budget deficits on Bush's 2001 and 2003 tax cuts. A number of conservative Republicans are upset over the run-up in spending on Bush's watch.

The U.S. government had a $128 billion budget surplus in 2001, according to figures from the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office. CBO projects the deficit will come in at around $300 billion in fiscal 2006 compared to a shortfall of $318 billion in 2005.

Federal spending has surged to more than $2.7 trillion this year from about $1.9 trillion when the president took office.

Amid the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the military has accounted for a major portion of the increased spending. Bush earlier this year proposed allocating nearly a half-trillion for the Pentagon in fiscal 2007.

But Bush said he had no regrets about the rise in military spending and added that cutting that budget would amount to "shortchanging" U.S. soldiers in harm's way.

Posted by crimnos @ 9:59 AM :: (0) comments

Democrats vow to block Congressional pay raises until minimum wage increased

Now THIS is smart politics. Way to go, Democrats!

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- Democrats ratcheted up their election-year push for an increase in the federal minimum wage Tuesday by promising to block a congressional pay hike unless some of the lowest-paid hourly workers get their first raise in nearly a decade.

"Congress is going to have earn its raise by putting American workers first: A raise for workers before a raise for Congress," said Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada.

Reid refused to spell out exactly how he will block a $3,300 pay raise scheduled for January 1 for members of Congress, who currently earn $165,200 annually. He said with 40 Senate Democrats backing the maneuver, "We can stop anything they (Republicans) try to do with a congressional pay raise."

Democrats in the House and Senate want the $5.15-per-hour federal minimum wage, in place since 1997, to rise in 70-cent increments to $7.25 by January 1, 2009.

In arguing for the minimum-wage increase, Democrats are emphasizing that salaries for members of Congress have risen $31,600 during the time the minimum wage has been frozen.

They complain that rising costs for gasoline, utilities, education and food have taken a chunk out of minimum-wage paychecks, which sometimes have to support entire families.

Republicans in Congress have blocked numerous attempts to raise the minimum wage, saying it would backfire by causing small businesses to hire fewer entry-level workers.

But with Republican control of the House and Senate uncertain after the November congressional elections, some moderate Republicans have been joining with Democrats to support a minimum-wage increase.

"I think it's the right thing to do. It seems like if I can defend and be sincere about tax cuts, some to the wealthiest, if I can do that," then a minimum wage increase is also in order, Rep. Mike Simpson, an Idaho Republican, said in a recent interview with Reuters.

House Majority Leader John Boehner, an Ohio Republican who opposes an increase in the minimum wage, Tuesday acknowledged growing sentiment in this election year.

"We may have to deal with it," Boehner told reporters.

But not just yet. A move by House Democrats to attach the minimum wage to an unrelated spending bill now being debated in the House of Representatives was blocked.

A majority of senators are on record in favor of increasing the minimum wage, which currently brings a salary of $10,700 a year for full-time workers, about $6,000 below the poverty line for a family of three.

Last week, in a test vote, 52 senators supported the 40 percent increase Democrats are seeking.

Posted by crimnos @ 9:57 AM :: (1) comments

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

'Breathtaking' Waste and Fraud in Hurricane Aid - The New York Times

At this point, I'm actually going to give the government the benefit of the doubt and admit that I don't really know if there's much the government can do to get the horses back in the barn. They had to manage tens of thousands of relief applications using a system developed on the fly so, yeah, I'm not really surprised that there was a lot of fraud. Of course, there is this to consider:

The $7.9 million spent to renovate the former Fort McClellan Army base in Anniston, Ala., included fixing up a welcome center, clinic and gymnasium, scrubbing away mold and installing a protective fence between the site and a nearby firing range. But when the doors finally opened, only about 10 people showed up each night, leading FEMA to shut down the shelter within one month.

The mobile homes, costing $34,500 each, were supposed to provide temporary housing to hurricane victims. But after Louisiana officials balked at installing them inland, FEMA had no use for them. Nearly half, or about 10,000, of the $860 million worth of units now sit at an airfield in Arkansas, where FEMA is paying $250,000 a month to store them.

This seems indicative of a poorly established system of hierarchy, planning, and control. Par for the course with this administration.

Breathtaking' Waste and Fraud in Hurricane Aid


WASHINGTON, June 26 — Among the many superlatives associated with Hurricane Katrina can now be added this one: it produced one of the most extraordinary displays of scams, schemes and stupefying bureaucratic bungles in modern history, costing taxpayers up to $2 billion.

A hotel owner in Sugar Land, Tex., has been charged with submitting $232,000 in bills for phantom victims. And roughly 1,100 prison inmates across the Gulf Coast apparently collected more than $10 million in rental and disaster-relief assistance.

There are the bureaucrats who ordered nearly half a billion dollars worth of mobile homes that are still empty, and renovations for a shelter at a former Alabama Army base that cost about $416,000 per evacuee.

And there is the Illinois woman who tried to collect federal benefits by claiming she watched her two daughters drown in the rising New Orleans waters. In fact, prosecutors say, the children did not exist.

The tally of ignoble acts linked to Hurricane Katrina, pulled together by The New York Times from government audits, criminal prosecutions and Congressional investigations, could rise because the inquiries are under way. Even in Washington, a city accustomed to government bloat, the numbers are generating amazement.

"The blatant fraud, the audacity of the schemes, the scale of the waste — it is just breathtaking," said Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, and chairwoman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

Such an outcome was feared soon after Congress passed the initial hurricane relief package, as officials at the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the American Red Cross acknowledged that their systems were overwhelmed and tried to create new ones on the fly.

"We did, in fact, put into place never-before-used and untested processes," Donna M. Dannels, acting deputy director of recovery at FEMA, told a House panel this month. "Clearly, because they were untested, they were more subject to error and fraud."

Officials in Washington say they recognized that a certain amount of fraud or improper payments is inevitable in any major disaster, as the government's mission is to rapidly distribute emergency aid. They typically send out excessive payments that represent 1 percent to 3 percent of the relief distributed, money they then ask people to give back.

What was not understood until now was just how large these numbers could become.

The estimate of up to $2 billion in fraud and waste represents nearly 11 percent of the $19 billion spent by FEMA on Hurricanes Katrina and Rita as of mid-June, or about 6 percent of total money that has been obligated.

"This started off as a disaster-relief program, but it turned into a cash cow," said Representative Michael McCaul, Republican of Texas, a former federal prosecutor and now chairman of a House panel investigating storm waste and fraud.

The waste ranged from excessive loads of ice to higher-than-necessary costs on the multibillion-dollar debris removal effort. Some examples are particularly stark.

The $7.9 million spent to renovate the former Fort McClellan Army base in Anniston, Ala., included fixing up a welcome center, clinic and gymnasium, scrubbing away mold and installing a protective fence between the site and a nearby firing range. But when the doors finally opened, only about 10 people showed up each night, leading FEMA to shut down the shelter within one month.

The mobile homes, costing $34,500 each, were supposed to provide temporary housing to hurricane victims. But after Louisiana officials balked at installing them inland, FEMA had no use for them. Nearly half, or about 10,000, of the $860 million worth of units now sit at an airfield in Arkansas, where FEMA is paying $250,000 a month to store them.

The most recent audit came from the Government Accountability Office, which this month estimated that perhaps as much as 21 percent of the $6.3 billion given directly to victims might have been improperly distributed.

"There are tools that are available to get money quickly to individuals and to get disaster relief programs running quickly without seeing so much fraud and waste," said Gregory D. Kutz, managing director of the forensic audits unit at the G.A.O. "But it wasn't really something that FEMA put a high priority on. So it was easy to commit fraud without being detected."

The most disturbing cases, said David R. Dugas, the United States attorney in Louisiana, who is leading a storm antifraud task force for the Justice Department, are those involving government officials accused of orchestrating elaborate scams.

One Louisiana Department of Labor clerk, Wayne P. Lawless, has been charged with issuing about 80 fraudulent disaster unemployment benefit cards in exchange for bribes of up to $300 per application. Mr. Lawless, a state contract worker, announced to one man he helped apply for hurricane benefits that he wanted to "get something out of it," the affidavit said. His lawyer did not respond to several messages left at his office and home for comment.

"The American people are the most generous in the world in responding to a disaster," Mr. Dugas said. "We won't tolerate people in a position of public trust taking advantage of the situation."

Two other men, Mitchell Kendrix of Memphis and Paul Nelson of Lisbon, Me., have pleaded guilty in connection with a scheme in Mississippi in which Mr. Kendrix, a representative for the Army Corps of Engineers, took $100 bribes in exchange for approving phantom loads of hurricane debris from Mr. Nelson.

In New Orleans, two FEMA officials, Andrew Rose and Loyd Holliman, both of Colorado, have pleaded guilty to taking $20,000 in bribes in exchange for inflating the count on the number of meals a contractor was serving disaster workers. And a councilman in St. Tammany Parish, La., Joseph Impastato, has also been charged with trying to extort $100,000 from a debris removal contractor. Mr. Impastato's lawyer, Karl J. Koch, said he was confident his client would be cleared.

A program set up by the American Red Cross and financed by FEMA that provided free hotel rooms to Hurricane Katrina victims also resulted in extraordinary abuse and waste, investigators have found.

First, because the Red Cross did not keep track of the hundreds of thousands of recipients — they were only required to provide a ZIP code from the hurricane zone to check in — FEMA frequently sent rental assistance checks to people getting free hotel rooms, the G.A.O. found.

In turn, some hotel managers or owners, like Daniel Yeh, of Sugar Land, exploited the lack of oversight, investigators have charged, and submitted bills for empty rooms or those occupied by paying guests or employees. Mr. Yeh submitted $232,000 in false claims, his arrest affidavit said. His lawyer, Robert Bennett, said that Mr. Yeh was mentally incompetent and that the charges should be dismissed.

And Tina M. Winston of Belleville, Ill., was charged this month with claiming that her two daughters had died in the flooding in New Orleans. But prosecutors said that the children never existed and that Ms. Winston was living in Illinois at the time of the storm. The public defender representing Ms. Winston did not respond to a request for comment.

Charities also were vulnerable to profiteers. In Burbank, Calif., a couple has been charged with collecting donations outside a store by posing as Red Cross workers. In Bakersfield, Calif., 75 workers at a Red Cross call center, their friends and relatives have been charged in a scheme to steal hundreds of thousands of dollars in relief.

To date, Mr. Dugas said, federal prosecutors have filed hurricane-related criminal charges against 335 individuals. That represents a record number of indictments from a single hurricane season, Justice Department officials said. Separately, Red Cross officials say they are investigating 7,100 cases of possible fraud.

Congressional investigators, meanwhile, have referred another 7,000 cases of possible fraud to prosecutors, including more than 1,000 prison inmates who collected more than $12 million in federal aid, much of it in the form of rental assistance.

Investigators also turned up one individual who had received 26 federal disaster relief payments totaling $139,000, using 13 Social Security numbers, all based on claims of damages for bogus addresses.

Thousands more people may be charged before the five-year statute of limitations on most of these crimes expires, investigators said.

There are bigger cases of government waste or fraud in United States history. The Treasury Department, for example, estimated in 2005 that Americans in a single year had improperly been granted perhaps $9 billion in unjustified claims under the Earned-Income Tax Credit. The Department of Health and Human Services in 2001 estimated that nearly $12 billion in Medicare benefit payments in the previous year had been based on improper or fraudulent complaints.

Auditors examining spending in Iraq also have documented hundreds of millions in questionable spending or abuse. But Mr. Kutz of the accountability office said that in all of his investigative work, he had never encountered the range of abuses he has seen with Hurricane Katrina.

R. David Paulison, the new FEMA director, said in an interview on Friday that much work had already been done to prevent such widespread fraud, including automated checks to confirm applicants' identities.

"We will be able to tell who you are, if you live where you said you do," Mr. Paulison said.

But Senator Collins said she had heard such promises before, including after Hurricane Frances in 2004 in which FEMA gave out millions of dollars in aid to Miami-Dade County residents, even though there was little damage.

Mr. Kutz said he too was not convinced that the agency was ready.

"I still don't think they fully understand the depth of the problem," he said.

Posted by crimnos @ 11:43 AM :: (0) comments

Bush Whines about Freedom of Press

Come on, you big baby, if you can't be leader of the free world, then don't take the job. I especially loved how he said the disclosure endangered the United States of America; he's just upset that someone might take his job.

President assails press disclosures

Revelation of secret federal program monitoring bank data called 'disgraceful'
By Peter Wallsten and Greg Miller
Originally published June 27, 2006
WASHINGTON // President Bush criticized newspapers yesterday for disclosing a secret U.S. government program monitoring international banking transactions, calling the disclosures a "disgraceful" act that could assist terrorists.

Bush, speaking during a White House meeting with organizations that support the war in Iraq, echoed comments Friday by Vice President Dick Cheney and conservative commentators, who condemned the reports last week in the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and other media outlets.

The newspapers published their reports despite requests from the Bush administration to withhold them.

The controversy has sparked renewed debate about whether the government has gone too far in tracking terrorists and whether news organizations are obstructing the terrorist-tracking effort by exposing the government's methods.

Bush said yesterday that members of Congress had been briefed in advance on the program and that "what we did was fully authorized under the law."

"The disclosure of this program is disgraceful," he said. "We're at war with a bunch of people who want to hurt the United States of America, and for people to leak that program and for a newspaper to publish it does great harm to the United States of America.

"What we were doing was the right thing. Congress was aware of it, and we were within the law to do so."

Rep. Jane Harman, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee said yesterday that she and many of her colleagues on the committee were briefed on the program by Treasury Department officials only after the administration learned that it would be exposed in the media.

Harman, a California Democrat, said she did not learn about the transaction-monitoring program until last month. It has been in operation since shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

"They knew it was going to leak," Harman said.

Harman said the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Peter Hoekstra, a Michigan Republican, was informed of the operation before the full committee briefing.

A Hoekstra spokesman said the Michigan lawmaker was briefed on the program shortly after he became chairman in 2004. Harman said she did not know why she had not also been given an earlier briefing

The Treasury Department began briefing ranking members of the Senate intelligence committee periodically shortly after the program began but did not brief the full panel until last month, said a senior Senate aide who asked not to be identified when discussing sensitive committee matters.

According to the newspapers' reports, the program, run by the Treasury Department, obtains information from the world's biggest financial communication network to monitor international bank transfers. That network carries up to 12.7 million messages a day that typically include names and account numbers of bank customers.

The U.S. government obtained the information using administrative subpoenas, which are not subject to independent reviews that check for abuse.

Posted by crimnos @ 9:34 AM :: (0) comments

Monday, June 26, 2006

Here we Go Again: The Continuing Prosecution of the Press

So is the plan just to make it impossible to continue a free press? Because this seems like the right way to go about it.

Lawmaker wants newspapers investigated over stories on financial-monitoring program

WASHINGTON The chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee wants criminal charges brought against newspapers that reported on a secret financial-monitoring program used to trace terrorists.
New York Republican Peter King cited The New York Times in particular. It published a story last week that the Treasury Department is working with the C-I-A to examine messages within a massive international database of money-transfer records.

King says he will write Attorney General Alberto Gonzales urging him to "begin an investigation and prosecution of The New York Times."

King's action was not endorsed by the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Senator Arlen Specter tells "Fox News Sunday" that calling for a prosecution of the Times is "premature."

Stories about the money-monitoring program also appeared in The Wall Street Journal and Los Angeles Times.

Posted by crimnos @ 9:50 AM :: (0) comments