December 31, 2006

Final Thoughts for 2006

As we close out 2006 and inch closer to the day when President George W. Bush will thankfully become former President George W. Bush, perhaps our most important resolution should be to prepare ourselves for the work which lies ahead of us. Although November's mid-term election results are a promising sign that the nation is slowly taking off the blinders it has worn for the past several years, we have a long road to recovery before the ideals and values we espouse are once again supported by the substance of our actions.

As I have written in the past - most recently with A Nation of Hypocrites - we are no longer anything but pretenders to the sort of liberty and justice that we grew up believing were the hallmarks of America. We are a nation of double standards, and while the president's power has been curtailed and his approval ratings hover near all-time lows, he continues to work on shepherding this nation over the edge of a moral cliff. Glenn Greenwald at Unclaimed Territory has more on the utter, ludicrous hypocrisy of Mr. Bush's attempts to set himself up as the champion of due process and the rule of law in the wake of Saddam Hussein's execution, and I think he expresses it in a way that needs no amplification from me.

Have a happy and safe New Year, and enjoy a little end-of-year musical angst from Comedy Central's Last Laugh 2006!

December 27, 2006

Signs of Life on Capitol Hill?

For those unfamiliar with the term, a signing statement is a proclamation issued by the White House after the president signs a bill into law that provides clarification to federal agencies about the specific manner in which the president intends to carry out the newly legislated direction of Congress. At times in history, such interpretations have run somewhat counter to the focus of the legislation they have addressed, but they have never been intended to contravene it. Instead, when a president opposes legislation passed by both the House and the Senate, or believes that it is out of line with the Constitution, he may veto it. Congress can then override that veto, but needs a two-thirds majority - rather than a simple majority - to do so. In this manner, checks and balances are maintained between the executive and legislative branches of government.

As chronicled in Abject Failure in the Parliament of Whores, however, President George W. Bush has made unprecedented use of signing statements in ways that dramatically and directly contradict legislation passed by Congress, but has only exercised his veto power once during the time he has occupied the White House. In doing so, he has claimed the authority to disobey nearly 1,100 (and counting) provisions of laws that he himself signed, accruing power to himself and significantly undermining the struture of our system of government. The Republican 109th Congress, which will go down in history as one of the worst ever, sat idly by, refusing to exercise the powers of oversight to which it had been entrusted by the Constitution, and the effects of their dereliction of duty will be felt for years to come.

Without GOP majorities in either the House or the Senate however, there appear to be signs of life on Capitol Hill. Senator Patrick Leahy, who has forcefully declared that he intends to work to restore the balance of power between Congress and the President when he assumes control of the Senate Judiciary Committee, may move dormant legislation like S. 3731, the Presidential Signing Statements Act of 2006, out of committee for consideration by the full Senate. S. 3731 would block the Bush Administration's signing statement power grab on two fronts, mandating that all state and federal courts ignore presidential signing statements, and instructing the Supreme Court to allow either house of Congress to file suit in order to determine the constitutionality of signing statements.

At first blush, such a bill - which requires a presidential signature to become law - would seem to be dead on arrival and without the votes to overcome a veto. That may not be the case however, as S. 3731 was originally introduced by Republican Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, who may be eager to burnish his (justly) tarnished image as a moderate, and might support Democratic efforts to move the legislation forward. The fact that Specter introduced such a bill back in July is itself potentially indicative that there is a growing realization among even GOP members of Congress that they cannot simply let President Bush do whatever he wants.

Also encouraging has been congressional reaction to President Bush's most recent signing statement. On December 9th, mere hours after signing into law H.R. 5682, the United States Additional Protocol Implementation Act, the president crafted a signing statement that directly overrides several of its key provisions. H.R. 5682, which for the first time in 30 years permits the sale of U.S. nuclear fuel and reactors to India, was controversial among legislators, who have eyed with anxiety India's relatively close relations with Iran, and are concerned about American technology falling into that country's hands.

In order to gain approval for his Indian atomic policy, President Bush conceded to all manner of congressional stipulations about the manner in which the nuclear relationship would be managed, and he declared:
As part of the agreement, the United States and India have committed to take a series of steps to make nuclear cooperation a reality, and we're going to fulfill these commitments. The bill I sign today is one of the most important steps, and it's going to help clear the way for us to move forward with this process.
Unfortunately, directives from Congress have never sat well with this president, and he moved quickly to make that clear in his signing statement, writing that his signature:
... "does not constitute my adoption of the statements of policy (in the law) as U.S. foreign policy." Also in responding to reports mandated by Congress, he would consider how releasing data requested by lawmakers might "impair foreign relations."

In one of its most controversial directives, Congress stipulated in the law that presidents should report annually on India's cooperation in restraining Iran's nuclear program, which Bush has condemned as a major international threat.

In the statement, Bush also said he considered as only "advisory" a congressional directive prohibiting nuclear transfers to India that conflict with guidelines of the 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group, which the United States helped establish years ago to restrain nuclear trade.
Reaction from newly-empowered Democrats was - happily - swift and strong enough to hint at a coming showdown. Senator Tom Harkin noted that President Bush was essentially dismissing both the Constitution and Congress, observing that, "With his recent signing statement, once again the president has shown he views Congress as a nuisance rather than an equal branch of government under the Constitution," and that it is "outrageous that the president has repeatedly stated the greatest threat to U.S. national security is a nuclear Iran, yet [he] explicitly rejects Congress' declaration that it shall be the official policy of the United States that India will not use its nuclear technology to help develop Iran's nuclear weapons arsenal."

While it would certainly be disturbing if President Bush was thumbing his nose at Congress because he disagreed with the policy statement within H.R. 5862 regarding India and Iran, the fact of the matter is that he does agree with it. Instead, Mr. Bush has opted to use his most recent signing statement to make clear that he will not brook even the perception that Congress has any say in the matter, or that it may place any restraints on him. The White House drove home that point by responding to Senator Harkin's remarks and explaining that the signing statement is intended to deal with the "domestic issue of government power rather than an issue of international nuclear policy."

It is unclear whether Congress placed the policy language in the bill with the specific aim of confronting President Bush's claims to executive supremacy, but the angry reaction to the H.R. 5862 signing statement is encouraging. Congressional checks and balances on presidential power are crucial to maintaining not just sound foreign policy, but civil liberties and accountability as well, and restoring them should be a top priority for the new Democratic leadership. Wherever one looks, the disastrous effects of unrestrained White House power can be seen, and it is high time to cut George W. Bush's imperial presidency off at the knees.

December 23, 2006

Happy Holidays!

Sensen No Sen's usual, twice-weekly posting schedule will be limited to about one post per week until after the first of the year. Have a joyous and safe close to 2006!

December 19, 2006

A Nation of Hypocrites

The trial of Jose Padilla, one-time accused "dirty bomber," appears likely to be delayed yet again. The Associated Press reported that it has been ruled that Padilla, an American citizen designated an "enemy combatant" by President Bush, and subsequently held in solitary confinement without charge and without access to counsel for three and a half years, must undergo a competency evaluation. From the AP story:
A psychiatrist and clinical psychologist who evaluated Padilla in September and October at his attorneys' request concluded independently that he has post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and is unable to help his defense lawyers prepare adequately for trial.

"His reasoning is clearly impaired and paranoid tendencies are evident throughout the interviews," the psychiatrist, Dr. Angela Hegarty, said in a formal assessment filed late Wednesday in federal court. "Facial tics are prominent when he becomes distressed. He appears hypervigilant at times."

Padilla, a 36-year-old U.S. citizen, is scheduled to stand trial January 22 along with two others in a terrorism support case. He claims he was tortured during his years in military custody at a naval brig in Charleston, SC. He has asked U.S. District Judge Marcia Cooke to dismiss the Miami charges against him because of "outrageous government conduct" during his detention and interrogations.
The circumstances of Jose Padilla, about whom I have written on several occasions (in chronological order: The Constitution as Inconvenience, The Abyss Stares Back, The Disappeared) are terrifying, shameful and sad in the extreme. Although he may indeed be guilty of some or all of the charges that have been leveled against him since his arrest and imprisonment, it is a sobering fact that no matter what the outcome of his ordeal, his day in court only came about because of relentless outside pressure. Absent that pressure, George W. Bush was content to incarcerate a U.S. citizen indefinitely and without trial.

Some legal scholars believe that the government's case against Padilla is weak, and that he will either be convicted of a relatively minor charge or acquitted altogether. While there are those who might find comfort in this, telling themselves that "the system works," Mr. Padilla will still have undergone extremely harsh treatment - including sensory deprivation, as pictured above - the effects of which he will have to deal with for the rest of his life.

Of paramount importance - and what needs to be stated as clearly as possible and repeated often - is the fact that the case of Jose Padilla is in no way a one-time "mistake". Although it appears that many Americans are content to see foreigners in our custody denied fundamental rights, letting them suffer longterm solitary confinement, force-feeding and a complete lack of legal redress, additional accounts of U.S. citizens receiving similar treatment will perhaps generate the shock and anger that are crucial to reversing the tide of anti-civil liberties excesses from the Bush Administration.

The New York Times reported on just such a case this weekend, and while there will almost certainly be those who cling to the belief that Jose Padilla's troubled past and poor choices are ample cause for his unconstitutional imprisonment, it will be much harder to muster similar justification about Donald Vance. Vance, a 29-year-old Navy veteran from Chicago working in Iraq as a security contractor, was also passing information to the FBI as a whistleblower. He had stumbled upon suspicious activities at the security firm where he was employed - including what he believed to be trade in illegal weapons - but when U.S. soldiers raided the company at his urging, Vance and a fellow American contractor, Nathan Ertel, were detained as suspects.

According to official statements, the military was unaware that Mr. Vance was actually their confidential informer, and, giving him a taste of what foreign-born prisoners endure for years, disappeared him into solitary confinement for over three months without access to an attorney or contact with the outside world. From the Times story:
Mr. Vance said he began seeking help even before his cell door closed for the first time. “They took off my blindfold and earmuffs and told me to stand in a corner, where they cut off the zip ties, and told me to continue looking straight forward and as I’m doing this, I’m asking for an attorney,” he said. “ ‘I want an attorney now,’ I said, and they said, ‘Someone will be here to see you.’ ”

Instead, they were given six-digit ID numbers. The guards shortened Mr. Vance’s into something of a nickname: “343.” And the routine began.

Bread and powdered drink for breakfast and sometimes a piece of fruit. Rice and chicken for lunch and dinner. Their cells had no sinks. The showers were irregular. They got 60 minutes in the recreation yard at night, without other detainees.

Five times in the first week, guards shackled the prisoners’ hands and feet, covered their eyes, placed towels over their heads and put them in wheelchairs to be pushed to a room with a carpeted ceiling and walls. There they were questioned by an array of officials who, they said they were told, represented the FBI, the CIA, the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) and the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) ...

... The two men slept in their 9-by-9-foot cells on concrete slabs, with worn three-inch foam mats. With the fluorescent lights on and the temperature in the 50s, Mr. Vance said, “I paced myself to sleep, walking until I couldn’t anymore. I broke the straps on two pair of flip-flops.”
Granted hearings because of their American citizenship - something to which foreign-born prisoners have no guarantee - Nathan Ertel pleaded with the review board: “Please, I’m out of my mind. I haven’t slept. I’m not eating. I’m terrified." Mr. Vance, meanwhile, asked "Does my family know I’m alive?" to which he was given the response, "I don't know." Two weeks into his detention, Vance was allowed to call his fiancĂ©e in Chicago, who told him she thought he had been killed. Mr. Vance begged her to talk to anyone she could, and to bring as much pressure to bear as possible. That was the last time he spoke to her during his captivity.

Nathan Ertel was released relatively quickly, but for some reason which has yet to be explained, the military continued to label Mr. Vance a "threat," despite having cleared up the issue of his whistleblower status. Mysteriously, after an "additional review" months later, he was released and returned to the United States. Ashamed, depressed and paranoid, Mr. Vance is now preparing to sue former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld for violating his constitutional rights.

Again, to be clear: Charles Vance, an American citizen and Navy veteran, was interned for 97 days without access to the outside world and without independent judicial review. His family had no idea what had happened to him - or whether he was alive or dead - and it is only because the military deigned to release him - with implied threats that he'd better keep his mouth shut - that he is today a free man. Mr. Vance's ordeal is what happens when habeas corpus, a fundamental human right in Western civilization for more than 900 years becomes optional. It is what happens when checks and balances fall by the wayside and we do not hold our leaders to account.

To be sure, the human desire for security is a natural one, but it is vital to recognize that the founders of the United States wrote the Constitution with the express purpose of subordinating security to freedom. Today, as there have been throughout our history, there are men who ask us to surrender our freedoms, to place our fates in their hands, and to trust their benign despotism. Their rallying cry is that "the Constitution is not a suicide pact," ignoring the fact that the Declaration of Independence concludes "And for the support of this Declaration ... we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor," a statement that freedom is worth any price, if ever there was one.

The notion that individual liberty is more important than the convenient exercise of police power is fundamental to our national character. It is what has defined us as a nation of laws rather than men, and it is what shaped the admiration for the United States held by a good portion of the world's population in the post-War era. It is no coincidence then, that as we have abandoned our principles through stupidity and arrogance manifested in the invasion of Iraq, Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, and the Military Commissions Act, we have seen our standing plummet in the eyes of the world.

As Donald Vance puts it:
“Even Saddam Hussein had more legal counsel than I ever had. While we were detained, we wrote a letter to the camp commandant stating that the same democratic ideals we are trying to instill in the fledgling democratic country of Iraq, from simple due process to the Magna Carta, we are absolutely, positively refusing to follow ourselves.”
Our claims to fairness are belied by the kangaroo courts we have established to "try" our captives, and the cases of men like Padilla and Donald Vance amply demonstrate that we can no longer even claim to treat our own citizens as we would have others treat theirs. In the eyes of the world, we are greatly diminished, and deservedly so. We are - after all - what we do and not merely what we say, and by that measure, our leaders have made us little more than a nation of hypocrites.

[For more on Donald Vance, click on the radio icon for the podcast of a December 19th interview on NPR's On Point with Tom Ashbrook.]

PODCAST: December 19, 2006 Interview with Donald Vance on NPR's On Point

December 15, 2006

Oversight at Stake

Senator Tim Johnson
Two days after suffering an apparent stroke, Senator Tim Johnson of South Dakota is recovering in the Intensive Care Unit of George Washington University Hospital, having undergone what appears to have been successful brain surgery. As it turned out, Senator Johnson did not, in fact, suffer a stroke, but instead fell victim to a congenital defect called an arteriovenous malformation, that is essentially a tangle of malformed blood vessels. While it will be some time before Johnson would be back on his feet in a best case scenario, his initial prognosis is tentatively positive. (Nonetheless, this can only be a frightening time for the senator and his family, and I wish them the very best, along with a speedy recovery.)

As has been widely reported, the ramifications of Senator Johnson's incapacitation or death would be significant with regard to the balance of power in the Senate. While the November elections pushed the Democrats into a 51-49 majority, if Johnson is unable to complete his term, South Dakota Governor Mike Rounds, a Republican who would appoint his replacement, could pick a fellow member of the GOP to fill the seat until the next election in 2008. Such an appointment would result in a 50-50 partisan split within Congress' upper house, and maintain GOP control through Vice President Dick Cheney's tie-breaking vote.

From the perspective of the types of legislation that move through the Senate, such a shift might not, in fact, be earth-shattering; historically, it has been difficult to fully control the agenda of the Senate without a margin of significantly greater size than two votes. The House of Representatives would remain firmly in Democratic hands, and it is likely that that would be enough to at least set the tone for the types of laws that would pass through Congress. Where a potential restoration of Republican control truly matters however, would be in the role of oversight.

As Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont expressed in a speech at Georgetown University Law Center:

This Administration has rolled back open government laws and systematically eroded Americans’ privacy rights. It has brazenly refused to answer the legitimate oversight questions of the public’s duly elected representatives, and it has acted outside lawful authority to wiretap Americans without warrants, and to create databanks and dossiers on law-abiding Americans without following the law and without first seeking legal authorization. This White House has behaved as if the Constitution begins with Article II* and they have taken their extreme ideology of a “unitary executive” to strip both Congress and our independent federal judiciary of their rightful roles.

The constitutional balance must be restored. Congress has a solemn duty to protect the rights of the American people and to perform meaningful oversight to make sure the laws are followed. Real oversight makes government more accountable and more effective in keeping us safe.

While legislation and laws are unquestionably important, at this point in time, what is even more crucial to the country is a restoration of Congress' role as watchdog. Senator Leahy, the incoming Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has promised just such oversight, but he will only be able to deliver if the Democrats retain control of the Senate. Without that control, the egregious Arlen Specter will once again preside over the Judiciary Committee, a position he has used consistently to rubber stamp the wishes of the Bush Administration and to undermine Congressional authority.

Fortunately, while there has been somewhat hopeful speculation in some quarters about the possibility that the Republicans could maintain control of the Senate at the expense of Senator Johnson, it appears Governor Rounds would only be able to fill his seat if it were vacant. Since there is no federal provision for forcing the senator to vacate, and the definition of "incapacitation" - a circumstance that might allow for vacating the seat under South Dakota law - is vague, this is unlikely to occur.

As long as Senator Johnson recovers from his surgery, or at a minimum does not resign, there is ample precedent for his maintaining the office to which he was elected. That is good news for the nation, and we can only hope that the news is as good for the senator and his family as he recuperates.

* This is a reference to the fact that the Constitution begins with the legislature - not the presidency - in Article I.

December 11, 2006

More Debates We Should Not Be Having

Last month, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich addressed an audience at an awards dinner held by the Nackey S. Loeb School of Communications to honor defenders of the First Amendment. Oddly, Mr. Gingrich - who is eying a run at the White House in 2008 - took this occasion to advocate the curtailment of free speech as a weapon in the fight against terrorism:

And I want to suggest to you that right now we should be impaneling people to look seriously at a level of supervision that we would never dream of if it weren’t for the scale of threat...

This is a serious long term war, and it will inevitably lead us to want to know what is said in every suspect place in the country, that will lead us to learn how to close down every website that is dangerous, and it will lead us to a very severe approach to people who advocate the killing of Americans and advocate the use of nuclear of biological weapons.

And, my prediction to you is that either before we lose a city, or if we are truly stupid, after we lose a city, we will adopt rules of engagement that use every technology we can find to break up their capacity to use the internet, to break up their capacity to use free speech, and to go after people who want to kill us to stop them from recruiting people before they get to reach out and convince young people to destroy their lives while destroying us.

In other words, in order to preserve America and the values that make it the country it is, we must destroy the very things which inform the character of the nation. Absurd? Absolutely. Surprising? Unfortunately, not. Since George W. Bush claimed the White House, there have been a number of issues that have become the subject of debate which would, simply, never have entered the pale of serious conversation only a few years ago:

Each of these questions, when posed as simply as they have been asked above, are generally pretty easy for most people to answer in the negative. Yet somehow, we find ourselves in the midst of conversations and arguments parsing out which people it's OK to imprison indefinitely without due process, which ones it is alright to abuse, and whether - as long as he means well - it is permissible for the president to blatantly ignore the rule of law. To this list, we can now add the "debate" Mr. Gingrich would like to spark centering on the circumstances under which we, as citizens, should be grateful for benevolent rulers who will determine for us what kind of speech is acceptable and what is not.

Astonishingly, according to his website, Newt Gingrich is "recognized internationally as an expert on world history, military issues, and international affairs." Given his purported expertise, one can only conclude that the lessons of history have either thoroughly escaped the former Speaker, or that he understands what happens when free speech is restricted, and is an advocate for repression in the United States.

For even blind to history, one need only look around today to see the unintended consequences of short-sighted policies of exceptionalism. Fox News reported in September that Muslim cab drivers working at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport often refuse to serve customers they know are transporting alcohol, out of religious concerns. It can certainly be argued that the drivers should expect to carry passengers with alcohol - a legal substance in the United States - or that they should find alternative employment. How to square that though, with the wide latitude given pharmacists in refusing to provide Plan B contraception based on "moral concerns," a policy wholly supported by Christian conservatives? Likewise, in Albemarle County, Virginia, parents who pressured the public schools to permit distribution of leaflets on Christian activities to students are finding it a bitter pill to swallow that local pagans are taking advantage of the same outlets for information.

Beyond these relatively small examples however, lies the simple fact that Mr. Gingrich's claims of unprecedented danger are patently false. The Bill of Rights was written and made law at a time when the very survival of the United States as a nation was profoundly in question. Great Britain, the world's preeminent power in the 18th century, posed the most serious, direct and imminent military threat that our country has ever faced, and loyalists to the British Crown literally lived side-by-side on American soil with those who favored independence.

It was in this treacherous, perilous environment that the essential freedoms encapsulated in the first ten Amendments to the Constitution - including freedom of speech - were both written and enshrined. While terrorists are unquestionably a frightening enemy, the idea that the danger they represent justifies compromising the Bill of Rights - a document birthed in the most threatening of environments - is unsubstantiated by even a cursory examination of history. Mr. Gingrich's claims to the contrary are nothing more than un-American, fear-mongering authoritarianism at its worst, and conversations about restricting free speech are simply a debate we should not be having.

Keith Olbermann has more:

December 7, 2006

Vietnamization 2.0

On Wednesday, the Iraq Study Group (ISG) released its final report, and while hardly groundbreaking, the contents of that analysis and recommendation represent a sobering departure from the delusional language of "stay the course" and "we are winning" that has been rote recitation from the Bush Administration. The opening sentence of the document's executive summary notes that "the situation in Iraq is grave and deteriorating," and while the ISG's report is in no way binding, the rebuke to the policies of President Bush and his followers is clear: mature men of high diplomatic standing - at least in the persons of James Baker III and Lee Hamilton - have assessed the situation as dire, and pressure on the White House to change direction will be even heavier than it has become in recent weeks.

The conservative blogosphere, long enamored of the machismo of "regime change" and "spreading democracy" has reacted with dismay, dubbing the ISG the "Iraq Surrender Group" and questioning how we can ask men to die to "mitigate defeat". Unfortunately, that question should have been asked a long time ago, perhaps when wargames conducted in 1999 revealed that at least 400,000 troops would be required to invade and occupy Iraq; the administration pointedly ignored that inconvenient recommendation by firing the general who voiced it, and then invaded with less than half that many. Better questions to ask might have been "How can we ask men to die for a wretchedly-conceived fantasy that detracts from pursuing the real enemy, al-Qaeda?" or "Will the lessons of Vietnam (and now Iraq) ever teach the United States to stop wasting lives in countries about which our leaders are demonstrably ignorant?"

Indeed, despite the fact that casualty counts (to date) are much lower in Iraq than they were in the Vietnam War, the ISG exit strategy remains the same. Vietnamization - the passing of responsibility to the South Vietnamese during that conflict, and a precursor of "As Iraqis stand up, Americans will stand down" - was lipstick on the pig of failed policy 35 years ago, and the fact that the Report recommends what is effectively the "Iraqification" of the current conflict would be ironic if it weren't already tragic. Vietnamization as a means of creating stability was a failure, and as with the current recommendation, there was no time table for withdrawal - just rough goals that kept the U.S. in-country for years longer. Ultimately, it was rendered moot by a back door deal struck at the Paris Peace Accords which allowed the United States to declare victory and withdraw completely, leaving the Vietnamese to fight it out amongst themselves. This recommendation of the Iraq Study Group - the Iraqification element if you will - will also fail to stabilize Iraq.

What we will witness in the Persian Gulf over the coming months will be tragic: more loss of life; the potential collapse of Iraq into the status of an Iranian backwater and the rising friction that status will cause with Saudi Arabia; tension and likely combat along the border with Turkey as that country works to keep its Kurdish minority from seceding to join a de facto independent Iraqi Kurdistan. It will also happen whether or not the U.S. remains or fights on to "honor" those who have already fallen. To use a somewhat crass business analogy - but one that is "realist" to the core - losses to date are a sunk cost; since they cannot be reclaimed, they should not factor in determining our course going forward.

To be sure, there are positive recommendations in the Iraq Study Group report. But while it is without question better than the policy vacuum we have experienced to date, the lack of a schedule for troop withdrawal is an untenable political compromise. Worse, it is one that will provide the Bush Administration with just enough political cover to make nothing more than token adjustments, while "staying the course" in practice if not in name. Without a time-bound plan for withdrawing our forces, we risk sacrificing more American lives to a cause that was lost before it ever began, and George W. Bush is free to pass along his mess for someone else to clean up.

Enough is enough.

December 4, 2006

One Last Helping of Pork

The Christian Science Monitor reported last month that President Bush's proposed budget for fiscal 2007 will terminate government funding for research into geothermal and hydropower. The White House's position is that these technologies are "mature," and that, if there is truly merit to developing them further, venture capitalists will step in to fill the void.

Given that energy independence would go a long way to reducing U.S. interests in volatile parts of the world such as the Persian Gulf, it would be reasonable to expect that the amount of funding from the government for geothermal and hydropower must be quite large. After all, the savings would have to be significant in order to justify impeding the move away from fossil fuels - and entanglement with countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran and Iraq - wouldn't it?

Well, not exactly. The sum in question is 24 million dollars - that's "million" with an "m" not "billion" with a "b" - or roughly what it costs to fund just over three days of the Iraq War.

To be sure, there is merit in the idea that private investors will embrace worthy technologies, but there is also the question of speed to market, and the sooner the United States can put a dent in its dependence on oil - foreign oil in particular - the better off the country will be from both environmental and security perspectives. From the Monitor article:
"The idea that geothermal is a mature technology that doesn't need further research doesn't even pass the laugh test," says Mr. Gawell. ... Together, high-tech hydropower and geothermal resources could contribute at least enough power to replace more than 100 medium-size coal-fired power plants with emissions-free electricity - about the number now on the drawing board. ... "There's this view that hydropower is a technology that's been around a long time, and there's not much more we can do to improve it - but we've got the next generation of hydropower - ocean, tidal, wave and conduit energy coming on," says Linda Church Ciocci, executive director of the National Hydropower Association, a Washington trade group.
The share of private equity going to clean energy companies has indeed risen rapidly over the past several years, but there is something undeniably out of whack when American petroleum companies - representatives of one of the most mature industries in the country - received as much as $4 billion in tax breaks last year, and nascent technologies that are both continuing to evolve and showing promises of practicality are cut off completely. In fact, according to a recent piece in The International Herald-Tribune:
In the United States, annual federal spending for all energy research and development - not just the research aimed at climate-friendly technologies - is less than half what it was a quarter-century ago. It has sunk to $3 billion a year in the current budget from an inflation-adjusted peak of $7.7 billion in 1979, according to several different studies.
The effect of this trend is that, as Tom Engelhart wrote in The Nation's blog:
Practically speaking, what that means is: From solar power to wind power, the U.S. is ceding a lucrative energy future to other countries. Whatever breakthroughs might be achieved in alternative fuel development are ever less likely to happen here.
Meanwhile, S. 3711, the Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act of 2006, was passed in the Senate, and is now on its way to the House of Representatives where the lame-duck Republican 109th Congress is looking to dole out one last, dinner-sized helping of pork to its friends in Big Oil before heading for the exits. While there have been hyperbolic claims about potentially enormous finds in the Gulf, it is far from certain that petroleum reserves there would be significant at all. In fact, the U.S. Minerals Management Service estimates that the area addressed by the bill would only yield enough natural gas for between 26 and 34 days at current national consumption rates, and productive wells would not be online until 2013 at the earliest.

With 80% of the nation's offshore oil reserves already open for development and more than 4,000 oil leases in the Gulf of Mexico that have yet to be developed, it is difficult to see the urgent need for the passage of this bill, especially when potential damage and resultant pollution from frequent hurricanes is considered. But while the national interest in opening up an area that has been off-limits to drilling for more than a quarter century might be hazy, there is little question that the oil industry is rapacious in its desire for new territory, or just as importantly, that revenue re-apportionment language within S. 3711 would benefit Alabama, Florida, Mississippi and Louisiana - Republican strongholds all, with the possible exception of Florida - to the tune of $60 billion over the next 25 years at the expense of the rest of the nation.

Although the threatened House vote on S. 3711 was postponed today by Republican leadership because of insufficient votes, the outgoing GOP remains committed to bringing it back to the floor before handing over control of Congress to the new Democratic majority at the close of this session. So, while their due diligence to the interests of the United States can be questioned, never let it be said that President Bush and the Republicans of the 109th Congress were anything but dutiful in their pork barrel spending for supportive special interests, no matter what the consequences to national energy security, the environment, or the health of the the country's technology sector.

When the final gavel of this Congress is struck on Friday, it will be a very good thing.