Sunday, October 08, 2006

Political news of the week take 26

[You can skip to the end of this post, if you want. See also: political news of the week takes 25, 24, 23, 22, 21, 20, 19, 18. 17, 16, 15, 14, 13, 12, 11, 10, 9b, 9a, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, and 1.]

Corpsman Admits to Conspiracy in Iraqi's Death:
A Navy corpsman pleaded guilty today to conspiracy and kidnapping in connection with the April death of an Iraqi man in which seven Marines are charged with murder.

In a barely audible voice, Petty Officer 3rd Class Melson Bacos admitted he conspired to take 52-year-old Hashim Ibrahim Awad from his home in Hamandiya, west of Baghdad, plant evidence near his body and lie to his superiors about the shooting incident.

As Exemptions Grow, Religion Outweighs Regulation (see also this post from PZ Myers):
At any moment, state inspectors can step uninvited into one of the three child care centers that Ethel White runs in Auburn, Ala., to make sure they meet state requirements intended to ensure that the children are safe. There must be continuing training for the staff. Her nurseries must have two sinks, one exclusively for food preparation. All cabinets must have safety locks. Medications for the children must be kept under lock and key, and refrigerated.

The Rev. Ray Fuson of the Harvest Temple Church of God in Montgomery, Ala., does not have to worry about unannounced state inspections at the day care center his church runs. Alabama exempts church day care programs from state licensing requirements, which were tightened after almost a dozen children died in licensed and unlicensed day care centers in the state in two years.


An analysis by The New York Times of laws passed since 1989 shows that more than 200 special arrangements, protections or exemptions for religious groups or their adherents were tucked into Congressional legislation, covering topics ranging from pensions to immigration to land use. New breaks have also been provided by a host of pivotal court decisions at the state and federal level, and by numerous rule changes in almost every department and agency of the executive branch.


Governments have been as generous with tax breaks as with regulatory exemptions. Congress has imposed limits on the I.R.S.’s ability to audit churches, synagogues and other religious congregations. And beyond the federal income tax exemption they share with all nonprofit groups, houses of worship have long been granted an exemption from local property taxes in every state.

As religious activities expand far beyond weekly worship, that venerable tax break is expanding, too. In recent years, a church-run fitness center with a tanning bed and video arcade in Minnesota, a biblical theme park in Florida, a ministry’s 1,800-acre training retreat and conference center in Michigan, religious broadcasters’ transmission towers in Washington State, and housing for teachers at church-run schools in Alaska have all been granted tax breaks by local officials — or, when they balked, by the courts or state legislators.

These organizations and their leaders still rely on public services — police and fire protection, street lights and storm drains, highway and bridge maintenance, food and drug inspections, national defense. But their tax exemptions shift the cost of providing those benefits onto other citizens. The total cost nationwide is not known, because no one keeps track.

Early Warning on Foley Cited by Former Aide:
A former Congressional aide said Wednesday that Speaker J. Dennis Hastert’s office knew about reports of “inappropriate behavior” by Representative Mark Foley far earlier than Mr. Hastert’s office has acknowledged.

Mr. Hastert’s chief of staff, Scott Palmer, denied the account of the former aide, Kirk Fordham, who said in an interview that he had informed Mr. Palmer of the concerns about Mr. Foley before 2004. Mr. Hastert’s office had previously said it first learned of concerns about Mr. Foley in the fall of 2005.

Mr. Fordham worked in Mr. Foley’s office until January 2004, and on Wednesday, he resigned as chief of staff to Representative Thomas M. Reynolds of New York, chairman of the House Republican campaign committee. Mr. Fordham said he had become a political liability in Mr. Reynolds’s re-election campaign.

Mr. Fordham’s assertion about early reports raised more questions about whether Mr. Hastert and his staff had failed to respond quickly and forcefully enough to multiple warnings about the conduct of Mr. Foley, the Florida Republican who resigned from the House on Friday after being confronted with sexually explicit messages he had sent to teenage pages.

The statement further clouded Mr. Hastert’s prospects of retaining his position as speaker as his party reached for a strategy to deal with a controversy that seems to have undermined its chances of keeping control of Congress on Election Day.

“I had more than one conversation with senior staff at the highest levels of the House of Representatives, asking them to intervene when I was informed of Mr. Foley’s inappropriate behavior,” Mr. Fordham said after resigning from Mr. Reynolds’s staff. “I have no congressman and no office to protect.”

Mr. Fordham said he had informed Mr. Palmer of the concerns while working for Mr. Foley, after the House clerk, Jeff Trandahl, approached him. Mr. Trandahl told him, Mr. Fordham said, that pages had come forward with accounts about Mr. Foley’s behavior. Mr. Trandahl, who resigned his position last year, did not return calls on Wednesday.

The accounts did not include accusations of overtly sexual advances and did not involve e-mail or instant messages of the sort that surfaced last week, Mr. Fordham said. Instead, they encompassed reports that Mr. Foley had been “way too friendly” toward the pages, he said.

Mr. Fordham said that he could not recall the specific date of his meeting with Mr. Palmer, but that it was between 2001 and the end of 2003.

A spokesman for Mr. Hastert, Ron Bonjean, issued a statement in Mr. Palmer’s name saying, “What Kirk Fordham said did not happen.”

Bush Balks at Criteria for FEMA Director:
President Bush reserved the right to ignore key changes in Congress's overhaul of the Federal Emergency Management Agency -- including a requirement to appoint someone with experience handling disasters as the agency's head -- in setting aside dozens of provisions contained in a major homeland security spending bill this week.

Besides objecting to Congress's list of qualifications for FEMA's director, the White House also claimed the right to edit or withhold reports to Congress by a watchdog agency within the Department of Homeland Security that is responsible for protecting Americans' personal privacy

The standards for the FEMA director were inspired by criticism of former FEMA chief Michael D. Brown's performance after Hurricane Katrina last year. Brown, a lawyer and judge of Arabian horses, had no experience in disaster response before joining FEMA.

Bush's moves came in a controversial assertion of executive authority known as a "signing statement," which the White House issued late Wednesday, the same day the president signed the $34.8 billion measure. Congress has assailed the unprecedented extent of Bush's use of signing statements to reinterpret or repudiate measures approved by lawmakers instead of exercising a formal veto.


Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), chairman of the Senate's Katrina investigation, said its findings showed that the president needs a principal adviser for emergency management, as he has on military matters in the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Congress sets job requirements for officials from the U.S. solicitor general to the director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, she said. They are comparable to the five years of management experience and demonstrated emergency-management skills it mandated for the head of FEMA, she said. The director also should be allowed to make recommendations directly to Congress, she said, authority that the White House rejected.

"Congress needs a forthright assessment of the state of the nation's preparedness from the FEMA director," Collins said.

Rumsfeld Shift Lets Army Seek Larger Budget:
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld is allowing the Army to approach White House budget officials by itself to argue for substantial increases in resources, a significant divergence from initial plans by Mr. Rumsfeld and his inner circle to cut the Army to pay for new technology and a new way of war.

With its troops and equipment worn down by years of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army appears likely to receive a significant spike in its share of the Pentagon’s budget request when it goes to Congress early next year. Significantly, increases to the size of the Army made by Congress since 2001, amounting to 30,000 troops, have become a permanent fixture of the force, military and Congressional officials say.

Beyond that, the Army is discussing internally whether it should expand by tens of thousands more, as some in Congress have long advocated. This time, Mr. Rumsfeld is not standing in the way. His original vision for a transformed military called for leaner, more agile forces capitalizing on the latest technological innovations.

U.S. Rules Allow the Sale of Products Others Ban:
Destined for American kitchens, planks of birch and poplar plywood are stacked to the ceiling of a cavernous port warehouse. The wood, which arrived in California via a cargo ship, carries two labels: One proclaims "Made in China," while the other warns that it contains formaldehyde, a cancer-causing chemical.

Because formaldehyde wafts off the glues in this plywood, it is illegal to sell in many countries — even the one where it originated, China. But in the United States this wood is legal, and it is routinely crafted into cabinets and furniture.

As the European Union and other nations have tightened their environmental standards, mostly in the last two years, manufacturers — here and around the world — are selling goods to American consumers that fail to meet other nations' stringent laws for toxic chemicals.


Last year alone, China exported to the United States more than half a billion dollars' worth of hardwood plywood — enough to build cabinets for 2 million kitchens, a sixfold increase since 2002. Though China sends low-formaldehyde timber to Japan and Europe, Americans are getting wood that emits substantially higher levels of the chemical.

One birch plank from China, bought at a Home Depot store in Portland, gave off 100 times more formaldehyde than legal in Japan and 30 times more than allowed in Europe and China, according to July tests conducted by a lab hired by an Oregon-based wood products manufacturer. Formaldehyde exposure has been shown in human studies to cause nose and throat cancer and possibly leukemia, as well as allergic reactions, asthma attacks, headaches and sore throats.


In the wood industry, even though low-cost, chemical-free substitutes are available, much of the plywood, fiberboard and particleboard sold in the United States is manufactured with adhesives, or glues, that contain formaldehyde, said Michael Wolfe, a wood products consultant in Emeryville, Calif.

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