Warning of the need for urgent action on his Social Security plan, Bush says the "crisis is now" for a system even the most pessimistic observers say will take in more in taxes than it pays out in benefits well into the next decade.
He calls the proliferation of medical liability lawsuits a "crisis in America" that can be fixed only by limiting a patient's right to sue for large damages. And Bush has repeatedly accused Senate Democrats of creating a "vacancy crisis" on the federal bench by refusing to confirm a small percentage of his judicial nominees.
...."This White House had made an art of creating crisis where a crisis does not exist," said Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.). [emphasis added]
Right on. And while we're at it. let's not forget Iraq. There Bush certainly created a crisis where none had existed before.
Oh, this is rich! A mere three days after the Government Accountability Office issued a letter (PDF) finding that the Administration had violated the law against using federal appropriations for "propaganda" by issuing "video news releases" touting its Medicare reform plan, USA Today finds that the Bush Administration paid columnist Armstrong Williams almost a cool quarter of a million in taxpayer dollars to tout its bogus so-called "No Child Left Behind" plan.
Seeking to build support among black families for its education reform law, the Bush administration paid a prominent black pundit $240,000 to promote the law on his nationally syndicated television show and to urge other black journalists to do the same.
The campaign, part of an effort to promote No Child Left Behind (NCLB), required commentator Armstrong Williams "to regularly comment on NCLB during the course of his broadcasts," and to interview Education Secretary Rod Paige for TV and radio spots that aired during the show in 2004.
Williams said Thursday he understands that critics could find the arrangement unethical, but "I wanted to do it because it's something I believe in."
The top Democrat on the House Education Committee, Rep. George Miller of California, called the contract "a very questionable use of taxpayers' money" that is "probably illegal." He said he will ask his Republican counterpart to join him in requesting an investigation.
The contract, detailed in documents obtained by USA TODAY through a Freedom of Information Act request, also shows that the Education Department, through the Ketchum public relations firm, arranged with Williams to use contacts with America's Black Forum, a group of black broadcast journalists, "to encourage the producers to periodically address" NCLB. He persuaded radio and TV personality Steve Harvey to invite Paige onto his show twice. Harvey's manager, Rushion McDonald, confirmed the appearances.
Of course, thanks to the House's new ethics rules, if the Republicans stonewall, no investigation will be forthcoming.
But while on the one hand, this is the story about (at least) one unethical journalist, on the other it's the story of an Administration using tax dollars for illegal domestic propaganda to push its legislative agenda. For shame.
"Freedom of Information Act." "Government Accountability Office." How the Bush Administration must hate those words.
I listened to some of Alberto Gonzales' confirmation hearing yesterday on NPR. And as an irrefutable case was built that Gonzales was a key auhtor of this Administration's thoroughly odious torture policies, I was constantly reminded that the GOP will vote to confirm him anyway. I'm too familiar with the current Republican Party to say that I'm surprised, but I'm sadly disappointed -- even disgusted -- nonetheless.
Still, I'm glad of the process. I want it on the record just how low the Republican Party is willing to sink in its lust for power.
As Paul Krugman commented this morning, "when the Senate confirms Mr. Gonzales, it will mean that [the doctrine of "It's OK if you're a Republican] remains in effect, that the basic rules of ethics don't apply to people aligned with the ruling party. And reality will continue to be worse than any fiction I could write."
Update:Mark Kleiman points out at least one honest conservative, Greg Djerijian, whom Kleiman correctly describes as having "earned everyone's respect on this issue by being uncompromisingly critical of the President he just voted for." Kleiman goes on to say:
[I]n ordinary circumstances the President is entitled to great deference from the Senate when it comes to his choice of Cabinet officers. But these are not ordinary circumstances. Gonzales, by his conduct, has made himself the symbol of torture, and in the face of that the President chose to nominate him to be Attorney General.
Whether you like it or not, there's no way to separate the resulting confirmation vote from the torture question. Confirming Gonzales will put the Senate on record as, in effect, not really objecting to torture.
That's a stain our flag doesn't deserve to carry.
Exactly. It's a horrible feeling watching the Republicans commit themselves to the very process of further shaming this nation.
Via Approximately Perfect, I find that the US government offers a handy how-to guide (PDF) indicating what to do in the event of a nuclear blast. (Besides die horribly, that is.) Considering George W. Bush's national security policy (with the admittedly incomeptent Condoleeza Rice as a key player), I'm sure the guide will come in handy.
Summer 2003 - There's no insurgency! Just some bandits. Winter 2004 - A few hundred to a couple thousand dead=enders. Summer 2004 - As many as 5,000. Fall 2004 - Up to 20,000. Winter 2005 - About 40,000 dedicated, up to 160,000 kibitzers. Summer 2005 - ?
All this time we've been assured that our kill ratios are splendid, that the insurgents lose every single encounter and so on. Meanwhile the top US estimate (the 20,000) quadrupled this year. Our intelligence has either sucked all along and the insurgency has always been much bigger than the Pentagon and NRO have imagined, or the insurgency has mushroomed despite all the Good News You Never Hear About and our unbroken string of military successes (Samarra, Fallujah, Najaf, Samarra, Najaf, Fallujah, Samarra . . . ).
We should remember that these numbers are not actual numbers of anything - no one at any point took a head count of the "insurgency", they do not indicate that the actual number of anti-US fighters has increased by 2-3 orders of magnitude over the last year (although it may be so) - these are figures pulled out of someone's ass, massaged for political expediency, and then released into the wild. So while this tells us nothing quantitative about the actual size of the insurgency, it's a useful way of measuring the anxiety in official quarters. The point of the 200,000 number is not that there are 200,000 insurgents, it's that things are going so poorly that it's no use saying anything less.
...The way that normal, non-hallucinating people of any political persuasion can help the soldiers in the field, the people of Iraq, and, not least of all, themselves, is to appreciate the true situation as best they can, and to demand accountability from our political leaders when the situation is not handled effectively. The true situation is that there is a large and popular insurgency in Iraq, made up of disparate interests, but all drawing their strength from the long-standing popular discontent with the American and coalition occupation, a discontent based on a very understandable dislike of foreign armies, and fueled by the thousands of Iraqis we have killed, intentionally or not, to say nothing of Abu Ghraib - here, 6 months later, almost completely forgotten. This is the reality that was apparent to journalists well outside the "Sunni triangle" last March, as well as to the Marines who first "liberated" Baghdad. True, many soldiers in Iraq have been in places where people were nice and glad to have them, which is great, but misses the main point. Kennedy was shot on a sunny day, but most newspapers didn’t lead with the nice weather.
"It was really distressing picking up dead bodies from destroyed homes, especially children. It is the most depressing situation I have ever been in since the war started," Dr Rafa'ah al-Iyssaue, director of the main hospital in Fallujah city, some 60 km west of Baghdad, told IRIN.
According to al-Iyssaue, the hospital emergency team has recovered more than 700 bodies from rubble where houses and shops once stood, adding that more than 550 were women and children. He said a very small number of men were found in these places and most were elderly.
Doctors at the hospital claim that many bodies had been found in a mutilated condition, some without legs or arms. Two babies were found at their homes, who are believed to have died from malnutrition, according to a specialist at the hospital.
Al-Iyssaue added these numbers were only from nine neighbourhoods of the city and that 18 others had not yet been reached, as they were waiting for help from the Iraqi Red Crescent Society (IRCS) to make it easier for them to enter.
There is rising concern amongst senior officials that President Bush does not grasp the increasingly grim reality of the security situation in Iraq because he refuses to listen to that type of information. Our sources say that attempts to brief Bush on various grim realities have been personally rebuffed by the President, who actually says that he does not want to hear "bad news."
Rather, Bush makes clear that all he wants are progress reports, where they exist, and those facts which seem to support his declared mission in Iraq...building democracy. "That's all he wants to hear about," we have been told. So "in" are the latest totals on school openings, and "out" are reports from senior US military commanders (and those intelligence experts still on the job) that they see an insurgency becoming increasingly effective, and their projection that "it will just get worse."
Our sources are firm in that they conclude this "good news only" directive comes from Bush himself; that is, it is not a trap or cocoon thrown around the President by National Security Advisor Rice, Vice President Cheney, and DOD Secretary Rumsfeld. In any event, whether self-imposed, or due to manipulation by irresponsible subordinates, the information/intelligence vacuum at the highest levels of the White House increasingly frightens those officials interested in objective assessment, and not just selling a political message.
In other words, anyone in the reality-based community.
For the first time in six decades, the Social Security battle is one we can win -- and in doing so, we can help transform the political and philosophical landscape of the country.
As many have pointed out, let no one mistake this effort as anything other than an ideological battle. Which would be fine, if it were being debated honestly. Bush's tactics -- as confirmed by this memo -- prove that the GOP has no such intention. Of course.
The projected long-run Social Security Trust Fund deficit ranks no higher than fourth in urgency and in size on our list of fiscal problems.
Bigger fiscal problems include:
The current $600 billion a year General Fund deficit.
The long-run problems of finding financing for and controlling the growth of rapidly-rising Medicare and Medicaid spending.
The need to make sure that the General Fund has the resources to meet its commitments without undue strain after 2020--when it will no longer be able to borrow from the Social Security Trust Fund.
If our current General Fund deficit is like having an impaired driver who has just crashed us into a tree, and if the Medicare-Medicaid problems are like a melted transmission, and if the post-2020 General Fund is like having no brake pads left, then our long-run Social Security deficit is like a slow tire leak.
If our Social Security problems are neither extraordinarily urgent nor extraordinarily large, why is the Bush administration so focused on them?
Possibly because of incompetence: George W. Bush and his inner circle simply do not understand the magnitude and importance of the federal government's other fiscal problem.
Possibly because of ideology: it is for some reason important to undermine the successes of FDR's New Deal.
Possibly because of capture: just as the principal aim of the 2003 Medicare Drug Benefit bill as it was written was to boost pharmaceutical company profits, so when the Bush Social Security proposal emerges we will see that its principal aim is to boost Wall Street profits.
Which of these is really the most important reason? I don't know. Your guess is as good as mine. Certainly the public rationales the Bush administration has offered for the "reform" program it has not announced are extremely thin.
Today let's focus on one piece of those scare tactics: the claim that Social Security faces an imminent crisis.
That claim is simply false. Yet much of the press has reported the falsehood as a fact. For example, The Washington Post recently described 2018, when benefit payments are projected to exceed payroll tax revenues, as a "day of reckoning."
Here's the truth: by law, Social Security has a budget independent of the rest of the U.S. government. That budget is currently running a surplus, thanks to an increase in the payroll tax two decades ago. As a result, Social Security has a large and growing trust fund.
When benefit payments start to exceed payroll tax revenues, Social Security will be able to draw on that trust fund. And the trust fund will last for a long time: until 2042, says the Social Security Administration; until 2052, says the Congressional Budget Office; quite possibly forever, say many economists, who point out that these projections assume that the economy will grow much more slowly in the future than it has in the past.
So where's the imminent crisis? Privatizers say the trust fund doesn't count because it's invested in U.S. government bonds, which are "meaningless i.o.u.'s." Readers who want a long-form debunking of this sophistry can read my recent article in the online journal The Economists' Voice (www.bepress.com/ev).
The short version is that the bonds in the Social Security trust fund are obligations of the federal government's general fund, the budget outside Social Security. They have the same status as U.S. bonds owned by Japanese pension funds and the government of China. The general fund is legally obliged to pay the interest and principal on those bonds, and Social Security is legally obliged to pay full benefits as long as there is money in the trust fund.
There are only two things that could endanger Social Security's ability to pay benefits before the trust fund runs out. One would be a fiscal crisis that led the U.S. to default on all its debts. The other would be legislation specifically repudiating the general fund's debts to retirees.
That is, we can't have a Social Security crisis without a general fiscal crisis - unless Congress declares that debts to foreign bondholders must be honored, but that promises to older Americans, who have spent most of their working lives paying extra payroll taxes to build up the trust fund, don't count.
Politically, that seems far-fetched. A general fiscal crisis, on the other hand, is a real possibility - but not because of Social Security. In fact, the Bush administration's scaremongering over Social Security is in large part an effort to distract the public from the real fiscal danger.
There are two serious threats to the federal government's solvency over the next couple of decades. One is the fact that the general fund has already plunged deeply into deficit, largely because of President Bush's unprecedented insistence on cutting taxes in the face of a war. The other is the rising cost of Medicare and Medicaid.
As a budget concern, Social Security isn't remotely in the same league. The long-term cost of the Bush tax cuts is five times the budget office's estimate of Social Security's deficit over the next 75 years. The botched prescription drug bill passed in 2003 does more, all by itself, to increase the long-run budget deficit than the projected rise in Social Security expenses.
Both DeLong and Krugman hint that fixing Bush's atrocious Medicare bill could go a long way toward alleviating the so-called Social Security crisis -- and, to take a page out of the GOP playbook, it'd deprive the pharmaceutical and insurance industries of billions of dollars' worth of taxpayer-funded handouts. Sounds good to me.
I am writing to urge you to oppose President Bush's efforts to destroy Social Security.
As you well know, Social Security is hardly in a crisis, expecially compared to the exploding deficits and the meltdown in Iraq. Moreover, Bush's plans are not intended to save Social Security but to destroy it, while simultaneously providing a government-mandaded windfall to Wall Street.
No, sir. No indeed.
For more information, I urge you to consult this excellent blog entry by economist J. Bradford DeLong:
Attorney General nominee Alberto Gonzales, bracing for tough questions from lawmakers about his role in the Bush administration's decision to allow aggressive interrogations of terrorism detainees, is pledging to abide by treaties that ban torture of prisoners. [Too late -- ed.]
Gonzales said that, if confirmed, he would abide by the Geneva Conventions' strict prohibitions against torture and all treaty obligations, according to testimony prepared for his confirmation hearing Thursday by the Senate Judiciary Committee. [Would these be the same prohibitions he labeled as "quaint"? And if you're getting the impression that I doubt Gonzales' word can be trusted here, you're exactly right.]
As President Bush's top lawyer, Gonzales had a hand in much of the White House's post-Sept. 11 terrorism policies.
Gonzales, who would be the first Hispanic attorney general, faces criticism from Democrats at Thursday's confirmation hearing, especially concerning a January 2002 memo he wrote arguing that the war on terrorism "renders obsolete Geneva's strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners and renders quaint some of its provisions." [emphasis added]
A month later, Bush signed an order declaring he had the authority to bypass the accords "in this or future conflicts." Bush's order also said the Geneva treaty's references to prisoners of war did not apply to al-Qaida or "unlawful combatants" from the Taliban.
Some Gonzales critics say that decision and his memo justifying it helped lead to the torture scandal at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison and prisoner abuses in Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
...Democrats aren't satisfied with just those statements and say they plan to question Gonzales extensively about his paper trail in crafting the government's policies on questioning foreign prisoners.
"It is clear he was in the chain receiving this critical documentation relative to changing American standards on the treatment of prisoners, so he was not a bystander, he was part of it," said Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill.
...Democrats also plan to question Gonzales on other terrorism issues, including the government's detention of Jose Padilla, who has been held for 31 months without being charged as an enemy combatant suspected of plotting to detonate a radioactive "dirty bomb" in the United States.
Other topics that Gonzales probably will have to address include the administration's more restrictive rules on releasing government documents; the proposed constitutional ban on gay marriages; and memos he prepared for then-Gov. Bush about clemency appeals for Texas death row inmates. [emphasis added]
Totenberg reported that some Democrats may question whether Gonzales' personal loyalty to President Bush makes him suited for the nation's top lawyer.
No mention of Gonzales' role in the infamous torture memos.
No mention of Gonzales' reputedly sloppy work in presenting briefs that abetted Bush's great pleasure in signing death warrants as Governor of Texas.
No mention of Gonzales' further sloppy work in vetting former Homeland Secutrity nominee Bernard Kerik.
While she's no Dahlia Lithwick, I normally respect Totenberg's Supreme Court reporting. In this case, however, unless she's somehow privy to information that Democrats plan to let slide conspicuous evidence of Gonzales' conflicts of interest, incompetence and contempt for standards of civilized behavior -- let alone democracy -- her report was completely inadequate and utterly fails to address serious concerns about Bush's nominee that reportedly give even some few remaining honorable conservatives pause. For shame.
I have contacted the NPR Ombudsman with a message of dismay based on this post.
Sunday evening our friend Onye and her fianceé Anthony visited us, and brought a surprise: An import DVD of Zhang Yimou's House of Flying Daggers (official site) for us to watch. It was magnificent! I don't want to say more until I've written a review for Destroy All Monsters, but I'll link the review when I'm done.
Update: I just learned that House of Flying Daggers is scheduled at the Castleton Arts theater in a couple of weeks. w00t!
Kevin Drum has two great posts on Socual Security today, and offers some unsolicited advice to Congressional Democrats:
Bush needs to be sent down to stinging defeat on this, and any Democrat who hasn't figured that out ought to step down and give his seat to someone who does. If congressional Democrats can't manage a united front against an obvious political ploy aimed straight at the heart of the social safety net, they might as well pack up and go home.
In the comments, Reynolds' defenders insist that he isn't advocating torture, and that he's on record condemning it. But regardless, Reynolds' comments, by warning Democrats about opposing Bush on the torture issue, certainly seem to assign the pro-torture stance to Gonzalez and Bush.
Which is, certainly, where it belongs. Imagine that -- I agree with Instapundit!
As excuses for partying go, Mardi Gras is a pretty good one.
The whole point of Fat Tuesday, after all, is to gorge yourself on all the food, drink and revelry you're about to give up for a while.
Because it marks the beginning of Lent, it even has a tinge of respectability about it.
So it's no shocker that Mardi Gras celebrations are popular among schools, religious groups and private party givers alike. Giving your own is easy, requiring little more than a few strands of beads and a willingness to, as they say, let the good times roll.
As a professional party planner, Anne-Marie Dezelan has pulled together just about any type of celebration you can name. But a Mardi Gras theme is her favorite.
"I do it any chance I get, because it's an instant party," says Dezelan, who co-owns Annie-O's Event Design & Production with Tina Mahern. "You can be someone you're not. People can get a little crazy."
Like a lot of other people who grew up in the South, Dezelan remembers major Mardi Gras fun from childhood. North of New Orleans, less fanfare is made of the holiday, though that may be changing.
Crawford's Bakery & Deli started selling king cakes, a traditional Mardi Gras treat, five years ago. The numbers have been growing, and owner Rick Crawford now estimates that 1,800 to 2,600 of the bakery's cakes are devoured each year.
Most are sold during Epiphany, which begins this year on Thursday and ends on Mardi Gras, Feb. 8.
I've visited New Orleans for Mardi Gras several times, but my wife and daughters have never. When The Girls are a little older, I hope to take them -- Bourbon Street is no place for the very young, of course, but they'll enjoy the parades. And although I'm not into the "anything goes/Girls Gone Wild" ideal that seems to pervade MYV Spring Break Daytona Beach West Mardi Gras these days, with the right guide, one can still find plenty of fun in the local spirit of things.
"There is only one traffic law in Ramadi these days: when Americans approach, Iraqis scatter. Horns blaring, brakes screaming, the midday traffic skids to the side of the road as a line of Humvee jeeps ferrying American marines rolls the wrong way up the main street. Every vehicle, that is, except one beat-up old taxi. Its elderly driver, flapping his outstretched hands, seems, amazingly, to be trying to turn the convoy back. Gun turrets swivel and lock on to him, as a hefty marine sargeant leaps into the road, levels an assault rifle at his turbanned head, and screams: 'Back this bitch up, motherfucker!'
"The old man should have read the bilingual notices that American soldiers tack to their rear bumpers in Iraq: 'Keep 50m or deadly force will be applied.' In Ramadi, the capital of central Anbar province, where 17 suicide-bombs struck American forces during the month-long Muslim fast of Ramadan in the autumn, the marines are jumpy. Sometimes, they say, they fire on vehicles encroaching with 30 metres, sometimes they fire at 20 metres: 'If anyone gets too close to us we fucking waste them,' says a bullish lieutenant. 'It's kind of a shame, because it means we've killed a lot of innocent people.'"
Kind of a shame, killing the people you're trying to democratize, but after awhile, says the same lieutenant, "It gets to the point where you can't wait to see guys with guns, so you start shooting everybody..."
There's a Peter Cook-Dudley Moore routine, one of their woolgathering dialogues, where Dud asks Pete, "So would you say you've learned from your mistakes?" and Pete replies: "Oh yes, I'm certain I could repeat them exactly."
That seems to have been the Bush administration's approach to Iraq. Take the mistakes of Vietnam and repeat them exactly.
And at that you can't say they haven't succeeded.
The major difference between Iraq and Vietnam is sure to be that Vietnam, tragic as it was, didn't severely put US national security at risk. I doubt the same will be said for Bush's bloody adventure in Iraq.
Being a Republican in Congress these days is a little like being a limbo dancer: they keep lowering the ethical bar, and more and more flexibility and ingenuity are required to keep passing under it.
Of course, Kleiman goes on to identify a proud member of the GOP who has done just that.
Sen. John Cornyn of Texas doesn't look very limber physically, but ethically he seems to be virtually double-jointed. I think it's possible he's managed to go lower than anyone before him. If not that, at least he's gone low enough to crawl under a snake's belly.
Signers of the statement included an officer of four-star rank from each of the services -- Shalikashvili of the Army (who served as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs), Hoar of the Marines, McPeak of the Air Force, and Guter of the Navy -- as well as John Hutson, retired Navy Judge Advocate General.
Of the twelve, five openly supported John Kerry in 2004, which isn't surprising if they regard torture as an important issue. But of course under the rules of GOP Fantasyland, anyone who criticizes the Young Churchill must be doing so for strictly partisan reasons, and Cornyn was quick to point that out. "There was significant overlap - I counted five of them that were actively supporting Senator Kerry's campaign for president, and I don't think that's a coincidence,'' he harruphed.
Fine. Nothing surprising there. But Cornyn -- naturally, a Vietnam-era chickenhawk -- was just warming up.
"Opponents of the president were unsuccessful in beating him for re-election and now have decided to continue this sort of political insurgency against his nominees.'' (Emphasis added.)
Hmmm ... "insurgency." Where have I heard that word before? Never in politics, as far as I know, except to describe an attempt from within a party to overthrow its leadership. It would be bizarre to describe the routine opposition of an opposition party to the ruling party as "insurgency."
But of course the word is in current use outside of politics. It's the usual designation for America's enemies in Iraq.
And that was, of course, Cornyn's point: to attempt to identify opponents of the President with enemies of the county, even if they're career military men and women.
And, of course, it's hard to interpret Cornyn's position as anything other than further evidence of the GOP's evident embrace of torture. The Republican Party, ladies and gentlemen. You can have them.
Illustrator Will Eisner, who helped create the splash and color of the American comic book and then brought those heroes into a grittier world of rain, fog and shadow, died in Florida on Monday at age 87.
Soft-spoken in conversation but bold and innovative on paper, Eisner is best known for his dark and moody strip The Spirit, about a dour, blue-masked crime fighter. It was featured in Sunday newspapers during World War II and the early '50s. His dramatic use of film-noir realism made him "a cartoonist other cartoonists swiped from," colleague Jules Feiffer wrote.
An upcoming film based on comic book work by Frank Miller, Sin City, owes much to the moonlit alleys and sharp angles of Spirit.
Eisner died less than two weeks after heart surgery and two days after the death of another comic book influential, MAD cover artist Frank Kelly Freas.
Born in Brooklyn and the son of Jewish immigrants, Eisner worked alongside creators of Batman and Captain America in the fabled comic shops of the '30s and '40s. In 1978, he helped invent the graphic novel with A Contract With God, about life in a tenement.
This year's Xmas video game is Namco's PS2 racing game R Racing Evolution. It's a departure from its arcade-stule Ridge Racer series in that it models licensed real-world cars and driving physics. On the other hand, it compensates for the extra degree of difficulty inherent in such modelling by including an auto-brake feature -- that is, the player basically need only accelerate and steer, and the computer slows the car as needed (more or less). Although optional, the feature defaults to on.
The game also returns to the "story mode" oddered by Ridge Racer 4. The player can choose individual, one-off races -- and use the proceeds to buy additional cars or upgrades -- or play a "story mode" that follows the comely female rookie driver Rena Hayami as she joins the pro racing circuit. R Racing Evolution includes more driving modes than its arcade-based predecessor, including rally and drag racing (one of the drag cars is a cool Dodge Charger). There's also a twist to the AI of opposing cars -- rather than being driven with ruthless computer efficiency, the drivers can be "intimidated" into making a mistake by "applying pressure" (i.e., following in their slipstream). After having legions of computer-driven cars bounce me into the rails in previous RR games, it's kind of fun to make the opponents spin out.
So far I'm having fun with it, but the auto-brake feature makes the game too easy, even though it is intentionally not as efficient as manual braking.
With The Girls visiting their grandparents, my lovely wife and I had an opportunity to watch the two-and-a-half-hours-plus Bollywood film I ordered off of eBay back in November, Mujhse Shaadi Karogi ("Will You Marry Me?"). It's a basic romantic-triangle comedy, although my wife grew a bit restless with it as it passed the two-hour mark (and offered up a seeming resolution that proved to be a red herring).
Still, the lead actors give appealing performances, there are some amusing Matrix-like effects, and the musical numbers are dazzling and replete with colorful costume changes. Plus, the female lead, Priyanka Chopra, is a smoking hottie.
While I doubt we'll watch the full-length film repeatedly, the DVD does offer a nice feature: In addition to the regular chapter stops, it allows the viewer to jump directly to six musical numbers.
In a surprising and pleasing reversal, the GOP leadership has removed one of the more odious "reforms" to the House Ethics Committee rules.
House Republicans suddenly reversed course Monday, deciding to retain a tough standard for lawmaker discipline and reinstate a rule that would force Majority Leader Tom DeLay to step aside if indicted by a Texas grand jury.
The surprise dual decisions were made by Speaker Dennis Hastert and by DeLay who asked GOP colleagues to undo the extreme act of loyalty they handed him in November. Then, Republicans changed a party rule so DeLay could retain his leadership post if indicted by the grand jury in Austin that charged three of the Texas Republican's associates.
When Republicans began their closed-door meeting Monday night, leaders were considering a rules change that would have made it tougher to rebuke a House member for misconduct. The proposal would have required a more specific finding of ethical violations.
Of course, now Republican apologists will pretend that the rule changes were never proposed, and that, having abandoned them, the GOP retains some semblance of honor (in much the same way they hastily disavowed the embarrassing Istook Amendment. While it's refreshing that some rank and file Republicans retain enough honor to be unable to stomach such blatant pandering to an ethically challenged Republican, let's not forget that, barely a decade after attaining control of Congress on a reformist platform, the GOP leadership had every intention of tailoring the rules to ensure that the party would remain unaccountable.
But wait! Did the story say the GOP also intended to toss some other measures to water down hte House Ethics rules? Not so fast!
The U.S. House of Representatives opened its 109th session by approving a Republican proposal to limit the ability of the chamber's ethics panel to open investigations of misconduct charges.
Passage of the measure, which allows ethics charges to be dismissed if the House ethics committee reaches a deadlock, came after Majority Leader Tom DeLay was admonished three times this fall by the ethics panel. The measure was the first test of the Republicans' expanded majority in the chamber after the November elections and drew criticism from Democrats and good-government groups.
``The Republican Party has already gone to extraordinary lengths to cover for and protect Mr. Delay from his long pattern of unethical behavior,'' said Representative Louise Slaughter of New York, ranking Democrat of the House Rules Committee. ``Now they are changing standing rules of the House to gut the ethics process, a shameful business for the majority to be involved in.''
...Republican leaders, who last night abandoned two other plans to lower ethical standards after complaints from rank-and-file lawmakers, said the change improved the fairness of the ethics process because lawmakers would be investigated only if the panel decides a charge merits further examination. Current rules require an investigation of ethics charges if the panel -- divided evenly between the parties -- reaches a deadlock or takes no action within 45 days.
``This change restores a presumption of innocence,'' said House Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier, a California Republican.
At a closed-door meeting last night, Hastert withdrew a plan to lower the standards of conduct for House lawmakers. House Republicans agreed by voice vote to abandon a new rule that would have allowed DeLay to keep his post if he is indicted by a Texas grand jury.
The ethics panel rebuked DeLay three times in October and November. He was admonished for contacting the Federal Aviation Administration for political purposes, holding a golf fundraiser for energy executives that gave the appearance they could influence legislation, and offering to endorse the candidacy of a lawmaker's son in exchange for his vote in favor of Medicare legislation.
Representative Joel Hefley, a Colorado Republican who chairs the ethics committee, said in a statement yesterday that he opposed weakening the standards.
Hefley, who could be replaced by Republican leaders this week as chair of the ethics panel, voted in favor of the rules change today. In an interview in advance of the vote, he said there is ``no question'' ethics standards would be weakened by the change, but he felt he could support it after leaders dropped the ``worst'' proposals.
He said Hastert has not told him whether he will stay on as chairman. ``I assume I'm going to get booted, but I don't know,'' he said.
Presumption of innocence, my foot. An individual's presumption of innocence, Congressperson or otherwise, doesn't entitle them to trump an investigation into possible wrongdoing. Make no mistake about it -- the GOP has voted to give themselves veto power over ethics investigations, and thus shield themselves from accountability no matter how sleazy their actions become. These actions are hardly those of a party confident in its so-called "moral values," but worse, they're not at all the behavior of a party that believes in checks and balances -- or in other words, small-d democracy. Ladies and gentlemen, I give to the Republican Party. You can keep 'em.
That they have had to partially back off is good news. The acutual changes may not be. The willingness of the press to report the partial backing-off as if it were total is depressing, though not surprising.
I'm afraid that the decision on indicted leaders means that DeLay is now convinced that he has the fix in with the Texas Legislature to get Ronnie Earle off his back. Restoring the "conduct unbecoming" rule won't much matter if the Ethics Committee is stocked with DeLay loyalists on the Republican side and the rules are changed so that a tie vote kills an investigation.
D.C. House Republicans, led by Speaker Dennis Hastert, are pushing a plan to require the House ethics panel, which has an even balance between Republicans and Democrats, to produce a majority vote before it can undertake an ethics investigation. At present, a tie vote would keep a complaint pending. Such a change would have stopped the panel from investigating allegations of campaign finance law violations and issuing several reprimands against DeLay earlier this year.
In another move seen as retaliation for those reprimands, House Republicans are pressing to replace the chair of the ethics panel, Rep. Joel Hefley, a Republican. As chairman, Hefley allowed the DeLay investigation to go forward. According to Fred Wertheimer, president of the government watchdog group Democracy 21, "the removal of Representative Hefley ... would constitute a flat out declaration of war by Speaker Hastert against ethics in the House."
Meanwhile, closer to home, Republican lawmakers in Austin are honing proposed bills to remove authority for prosecuting campaign violations from local district attorneys and vest it with the Texas attorney general. That would stop Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle from prosecuting indicted DeLay associates and put the ball in Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott's court. Another proposal would legalize the corporate contributions that are the focus of Earle's investigation.
Outgoing Houston Congressman Chris Bell brought the first complaint to the House committee in seven years, one that resulted in the DeLay reprimand. The panel also slapped Bell's hand for exaggerating allegations for political gain. Bell says House Republicans' vote to allow DeLay to serve as majority leader even if indicted indicates just how far they are willing to go.
More and more, it's becoming clear that the GOP has no interest in democracy, but rather power. "The purpose of power is power," as George Orwell wrote. It should give honorable conservatives -- if there are any left -- pause to see the modern GOP so blatantly taking Orwell as a model, not a warning.
There isn't much I can say about the terrible tsunami that devastated many nations along the Indian Ocean, save that I felt extremely grateful to be safe with my wife and children. For what it's worth, Planet Swank expresses its sympathy with the victims and their families. BoingBoing has a series of good links on the tragedy.
A bit of belated Xmas posting: While engaged in some last-minute shopping, I discovered a display of dollar DVDs at the card shop where I was picking up some gift wrap. I was delighted to discovered the wonderfully Bad Movie Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. It has everything a Bad Movie needs -- unconvincing robot costumes, generous use of stock footage, and Pia Zadora. Its holiday/science fiction theme also proved entertaining to The Girls on the trip down to Florida.
In Florida, we generally just relaxed and enjoyed the (relatively) warm temperatures. The Girls swan at the pool, and my lovely wife and I got an opportunity to relax in the hot tub at the community's rec center. (Although I did swim a little, I'm more of a relax-beside-the-pool-in-a-deck-chair-with-a-book kind of guy.) My in-laws' neighbors kindly took us on an extremely pleasant tour of the lakes and canals in their small motorboat. We also spent a day visiting Sea World.
My wife and I left for home on New Year's Eve -- The Girls are staying an extra week with their grandparents. Of course, we wanted to celebrate the occasion, but wondered if such an accomplishment would be possible on the road. (Ringing in the New Year at a Krystal burger joint seemed a dismal prospect.) Happily, we were fortunate enough to find a Japanese steakhouse in Tifton, Georgia. We had hoped to reach the far side of Atlanta before stopping, but we arrived at the southern end of hte city at about 11 p.m. and deemed it wise not to drive through once the New Year's revelries had begun. We watched the peach drop.
The Xmas holiday obviously represented a hiatus in blogging. In fact, I was completely offline the entire time, save for a brief period checking out air fares. Neither of the hotels at which we stayed offered wireless Internet access, and my father-in-law uses only an intermittent and tempramental dial-up connection. Actually, it was refreshing being offline for a week or so, although it was strange having my news arrive only via a single newspaper. As far as New Year's resolutions are concerned, the obvious one is that I hope to be more diligent about blogging. Considering that my first post of the year is on the 3rd, I realize it's none too auspicious a start, but I remain hopeful. (Although I must say that I spent much of Sunday deleting the accumulated spam and viruses blocked by my email filter -- and those that made it thru.)