Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Politics marks Obama, GOP battle over regulations

A Republican-run House hearing on eliminating federal regulations quickly erupted into partisanship Wednesday, as GOP lawmakers said many rules cost American jobs while Democrats insisted they protect public health, the environment and even national security.

The hearing witness, Obama administration chief regulatory official Cass Sunstein, insisted that rules are designed to protect the public and the economy, and are issued only after balancing benefits against the costs.

"Job creation is in the first sentence" of President Barack Obama's recent executive order to review all government regulations, Sunstein said.

The session by the Energy and Commerce investigative subcommittee underscored the differences between the two parties, even though President Barack Obama issued an executive order last week ordering agencies to use the "least burdensome tools" when issuing regulations and to eliminate existing ones that are counterproductive.

GOP lawmakers challenged Sunstein on a range of rules, making clear that they have broad concerns about steps the administration is taking.

Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., who chairs the full Energy and Commerce Committee, was worried about an Environmental Protection Agency plan to regulate emissions from large boilers that by court order may be issued soon. Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Texas, objected to a new federal agency overseeing health insurers created in the wake of last year's health care overhaul.

Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., asked about Obama's moratorium on offshore oil and gas production in the Gulf of Mexico after last year's giant oil spill, and Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., complained about the EPA's revoking a permit allowing a mine in the state to operate.

"Sometimes regulations aren't worth the cost, which is just plain dumb," said Upton.

Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Fla., who heads the investigations panel, also went on the offensive, accusing the Obama administration of a "rush to regulate" and basing job-killing decisions on political correctness.

At one point, Rep. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., asked Sunstein to promise that "during this time of economic crisis, that you will use your power to make sure the administration doesn't put a stamp of approval on any regulation that costs American jobs?"

Gardner tried limiting Sunstein to a yes or no answer, but the administration official responded, " A yes answer would be preposterous. If there's a regulation that's saving 10,000 lives and costing one job, it's worth it."

Democrats argued that in many instances like the 2008 financial crisis and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, it was the lack of effective regulation that led to problems, not too much federal control.

"Regulations per se are not the problem. The mantra that regulations are inherently bad and kill jobs is wrong and dangerous," said Rep. Diana DeGette of Colorado, the investigations subcommittee's top Democrat.

Added Rep. Henry Waxman of California, leading Democrat on the entire Energy committee, "Let's prune unnecessary regulations where we find them. But let's also not hesitate to regulate where needed to protect our economy and children's future."

The two sides' differing views have led many to believe it will be hard for them to agree on rules that should be rolled back.

"A lot of what each party may want to go after is supported by some set of the public," said Peter Van Doren, editor of Regulation magazine, published by the Cato Institute, which favors limiting government's reach. He predicted numerous partisan clashes, "and in 2012 we'll have the election and see what happens."

Since Obama controls federal agencies and Democrats run the Senate, it will be tough for Republicans to force the administration to drop regulations the president likes. Either way, participants agree, the duel will have a distinct political flavor, with the GOP pushing for business interests' goals and Obama protecting Democratic constituencies like labor and environmental groups while also showing concern about stifling jobs.

"Clearly this White House is starting to think about 2012," when Obama faces re-election, said Gary Bass, executive director of OMB Watch, which monitors the regulatory process.

In one sign of the administration's changed sensibilities, it bowed to industry pressure Tuesday and delayed a proposal to require companies to keep separate records on workplace musculoskeletal injuries.

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., who chairs the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, has asked about 150 companies and trade groups for suggestions on which regulations to eliminate. He has yet to release any responses, but letters obtained by The Associated Press give a taste for the rules that business dislikes and Republicans might battle:

--The Associated Builders and Contractors, representing the construction industry, has complained about Obama administration policies and rules pressuring contractors to use union workers, eliminate workplace hazards and limit lead exposure.

--The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, representing a dozen carmakers, favors a single national fuel economy standard over conflicting state requirements. The group is also unhappy about forthcoming rules on ethanol, fuel economy labeling and visibility out the rear of vehicles.

--The National Association of Manufacturers cites a study claiming that regulations contribute to an 18 percent cost disadvantage U.S. companies face against other major countries. They say curbs on greenhouse gases, emissions from boilers and ozone pollution combined with other rules "could cost millions of jobs and weaken an economy in a still fragile recovery."

The government issues 3,000 or more regulations a year, though most are minor, according to data compiled by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress. Ever since President Bill Clinton issued an executive order similar to Obama's, agencies have been required to evaluate their rules, but few are killed.

In a speech in November, U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Thomas Donahue said regulations cost Americans $1.75 trillion a year. Though he said many are necessary, he complained about a "regulatory tsunami" that is the country's "single biggest threat to job creation."

Democrats and their supporters say such claims are extreme and unfounded, underscoring the gulf between the two sides.

"Implementation of environment and health laws don't actually impose a big burden on the economy," said David Doniger, climate policy director of the Natural Resources Defense Council. "It's an unproved big lie."

Monday, January 17, 2011

Third of Americans say Obama's presidency has improved race relations

Despite high public expectations that Barack Obama's presidency would improve race relations in the country, barely more than a third of Americans now say his tenure has made things better in this area, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

Overall, 35 percent say Obama has helped race relations, down from 58 percent who, in January 2009, expected them to improve as a result of the country's having its first black president. And blacks and whites continue to have starkly different assessments about how African Americans are faring in the United States when it comes to the racial equality championed by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Almost half of whites say that blacks have achieved racial parity, up significantly since Obama's inauguration two years ago. By contrast, views among African Americans have barely budged since Obama took office: Just 19 percent of blacks now see a level playing field. Then, as now, about half say racial equality either won't be achieved in their lifetimes or never will be.

Optimism is down: Far fewer blacks say Obama's presidency has helped race relations than said so in a January 2009 poll. A slender 51 percent majority say Obama has helped race relations - no change from last year, but a big letdown from the 75 percent who had anticipated such improvement.

In January 2009, most whites also anticipated Obama's bringing about a thaw in race relations; fewer than 1 in 3 now sees such progress. Among whites, 47 percent say racial equality has been achieved, up nine percentage points over the two years.

The poll was conducted by telephone Jan. 13 to 16 among a random national sample of 1,053 adults. The margin of sampling error for the full poll is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points; it is 9.5 points for the sample of African Americans.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Obama Asks For Country To Honor Arizona Shooting Victims

An alleged gunman has been formally charged in connection with Saturday's shooting on Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.

Jared Loughner, 22, seen above, was charged with one count of attempted assassination of a member of Congress, two counts of killing an employee of the federal government and two counts of attempting to kill a federal employee in connection with a supermarket shooting in Tucson, Ariz.

Arizona officials were working Sunday to appoint a public defender for him.

Investigators carrying out a search warrant at Loughner's home seized an envelope from a safe containing Giffords' name along with the message, "I planned ahead" and "assassination."

They also found a letter from Giffords to Loughner, thanking him for coming to a "Congress On Your Corner" event in 2007, similar to gathering where the representative was shot through the left side of her head on Saturday.

Giffords remained in critical condition at Arizona's University Medical Center on Sunday. While doctors were encouraged by her ability to respond non-verbally to commands, swelling of the brain remained a concern and Giffords' long-term prognosis was still unknown.

"This side of her brain is the one that controls whether or not she'll be able to put two and two together and say what she wants to. And how well she'll say it also depends upon how much damage has been done to these vital speech areas," said Dr. Arthur L. Jenkins III of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine.

The six people who lost their lives in the shooting include Arizona's chief federal judge John Roll, Gabe Zimmerman, who was one of Giffords' aides, and the nine-year-old granddaughter of former Mets and Yankees manager Dallas Green.

FBI Director Robert Mueller was in Tucson to coordinate the investigation, and commented on the senselessness of the shootings.

"This was an attack not only against dedicated public servants, but against our fellow citizens, one being a child who was there to learn about how our government works, other members who were meeting their elected officials for the first time, or who were simply running errands on what otherwise would have been an ordinary weekend," said Mueller.

Monday Moment Of Silence

On Sunday, President Barack Obama asked for a moment of silence for the victims of the shooting at 11 a.m. Monday Eastern Standard Time. The president will mark the moment on the South Lawn of the White House with staff.

"It is a tragedy for Arizona and it's a tragedy for our entire country. What Americans do at times of tragedy is to come together and support each other," said Obama. "So at this time, I ask all Americans to join me and Michelle in keeping all the victims and their families, including Gabbie in our thoughts and prayers."

The president had already ordered that flags fly at half-mast for the shootings victims.

Meanwhile, a second man who police originally called a person of interest has been cleared of any involvement. Investigators say questioning revealed the man was only a cab driver who drove Loughner to the grocery store outside where the shooting had occurred.

Politicians Say They Must Still Serve Their Districts

House Speaker John Boehner called the shooting an "inhuman act" and said representatives cannot let it deter them from serving their constituents.

Boehner spoke briefly from the township government building near his home in West Chester, Ohio.

"Public service is a high honor, but these tragic events remind us that all of us in our roles of service to our fellow citizens comes with a risk," said the House speaker. "No act, no matter how heinous, must be allowed to stop us from our duty."

In the wake of the shooting, the House of Representatives will suspend all legislative action scheduled for next week.

U.S. Capitol police are also urging members of Congress to be more vigilant about security.

"We try to tell our staff members to be alert to be courteous but don't be shy about phoning law enforcement if you have to," said Queens Congressman Gregory Meeks.

"The Capitol Police are sending out alerts to members of Congress and urging us to be careful and we will be meeting on the issue next week," said Manhattan-Queens Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney.

An armed guard is something Maloney says she has never used, but now she and her colleagues are now being forced to reexamine their own safety.

"We obviously have to keep people safe. That's for sure. But there also has to be a balance," said Senator Charles Schumer on CBS' "Face The Nation."

Reaction to the Arizona shooting has been pouring in from politicians across the spectrum, and the news all but took over the Sunday morning talk shows.

As investigators still work to identify a possible motive, several lawmakers addressed the tense political climate.

"One of the grandest of American values is debate. It can be strong debate but it should always be civil," said Schumer. "And when a shooting like this occurs, it sends a chill down the spine of the body politics and maybe what we should be doing now is in a certain sense, this terrible tragedy could be an opportunity for us to come together over our shared values."

"The vitriol has gotten so elevated until people feel emboldened by this," said South Carolina Representative James Clyburn on "Fox News Sunday."

"Sometimes statements are made that are dialed back because it turns out that the motive wasn't what people assumed, so we have to be careful there," said Arizona Congressman Jeff Flake on ABC.

"Of course we want civility instead of incivility and of course we don't want violence," said Republican Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander on CNN's "State Of The Union." "But I think in all of the talk about this, we have to be very careful about imputing the motives or the actions of a deranged individual to any particular group of Americans who have their own political beliefs."

Members of New York's congressional delegation also continued to be shocked and saddened by the shooting. While they said they will continue to get out and meet with constituents, they are urging politicians to refrain from negative campaigning and over-the-top language.

"Words matter, and those who use inflammatory rhetoric to achieve cheap political gain weaken the entire fabric of our democracy," said Manhattan-Queens Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney.

"I do not believe in negative campaigning. It serves no purpose," said Brooklyn Congressman Edolphus Towns. "It creates a problem out there with people who don't understand and they go out there and they do some ridiculous kind of things. So my advice is, let's eliminate negative campaigning, let's deal with the facts, talk about the facts and if we disagree, lets disagree in a very kind of a very wholesome and healthy manner."

Towns, who worked with Giffords for several years, said the country needs more people with her ability to respect different points of view.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Obama’s recess appointments met with criticism

President Obama made six recess appointments to the dismay of his Republican critics.

The power to make a recess appointment, or appointing people to positions that require Senate confirmation when Congress is not in session, is a useful tool for any president who wants to see his potentially problematic nominees get to work without having to go through the confirmation process. Most members in the Senate, however, view it as a slap in the face to their constitutional authority to confirm nominees.

Obama’s appointments – particularly Robert Stephen Ford as Ambassador to Syria and James Cole as deputy attorney general– sparked outrage among Republicans. Republican New York Rep. Peter King, the incoming chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, denounced Cole’s appointment, calling it “absolutely shocking,” and one of the worst appointments Obama will make during his term as president.

“I strongly oppose the recess appointment of James Cole to lead the national security team at the Department of Justice,” said King in a statement. “The appointment indicates that the Obama Administration continues to try to implement its dangerous policies of treating Islamic terrorism as a criminal matter.”

Republicans in the Senate had placed a hold on Cole’s nomination, taking issue with comments he made in 2002 about the September 11 attacks, his defense of a Saudi Prince against 9/11 families, and his stint at American International Group, Inc (AIG).

In a 2002 op-ed, Cole wrote: “For all the rhetoric about war, the Sept. 11 attacks were criminal acts of terrorism against a civilian population, much like the terrorist acts of Timothy McVeigh in blowing up the federal building in Oklahoma City, or of Omar Abdel-Rahman in the first effort to blow up the World Trade Center… Our country has faced many forms of devastating crime, including the scourge of the drug trade, the reign of organized crime, and countless acts of rape, child abuse, and murder.”

That article has been a source of contention for many Republicans who view Cole’s comments as an attempt to compare the tragedy of the attacks of Sept. 11 to drug trafficking. The fact that Cole also defended Saudi Prince Naif bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud when 9/11 survivors sued him for financing terrorists does not help his image with Republicans.

Moreover, when AIG reached a settlement with the U.S. government, the insurance giant was required to hire an independent counsel to review and oversee their compliance with new regulations, and report back to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and the Department of Justice (DOJ). Cole held the position from 2004 to 2006, but has come under fire for refusing to answer questions about his dealings with AIG personnel and K Street lobbyists.

Cole himself even has a record of being a de facto lobbyist at the firm Bryan Cave LLP, even if in name only, which also goes against President Obama’s repeated promise to stop the revolving door between K Street and presidential administrations.

The appointment of Robert Ford drew criticism because the U.S. has not sent an ambassador to Syria since 2005 due to the country’s sponsorship of international terrorism. Republican senators placed a hold on Ford’s nomination last April after reports surfaced that the Syrian government transferred missile systems to the terrorist group Hezbollah in Lebanon.

“I am deeply disappointed that the president decided to make such a major concession to the Syrian regime,” said incoming House Foreign Affairs Chairwoman Illeana Ros-Lehtinen in a statement. “Using this Congressional recess to make an appointment that has far-reaching policy implications despite Congressional objections and concerns is regrettable.”