Archive for July, 2009

Obama throws gays under the bus

President Barack Obama promised gay and lesbian voters he would repeal a law banning their open service in the military, would do away with a federal marriage law and would champion their causes from the White House. In his first five months, he’s taken incremental steps that have little real effect and left some people feeling betrayed.But he’s still willing to take money from a reliably Democratic constituency—he was sending Vice President Joe Biden to a Democratic National Committee fundraiser Thursday evening with gay and lesbian donors.

Some gay donors called for a boycott after Obama’s Justice Department in a court filing, compared gay marriages to incest.

“I don’t think it’s an appropriate time to be raising money. No one is happy now,” said Richard Socarides who advised former President Bill Clinton on gay issues and did not plan to attend the event. “On gay rights, the country is already in the age of Obama, but he’s governing from the Clinton era.”

Obama issued a presidential memorandum that expands some federal benefits to same-sex partners, but not health benefits or pension guarantees. He has allowed State Department employees to include their same-sex partners in certain embassy programs already available to opposite-sex spouses.

But that remains far short of his campaign rhetoric.

“At its core, this issue is about who we are as Americans,” Obama said a 2007 statement on gay issues. “It’s about whether this nation is going to live up to its founding promise of equality by treating all its citizens with dignity and respect.”

Since then, he publicly has committed himself to repealing the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that allows gays and lesbians to serve in the military as long as they don’t disclose their sexual orientation or act on it. On Jan. 9, Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs answered “yes” when asked whether the administration would end the policy. But as president, Obama hasn’t taken any concrete steps urging Congress to rescind the Clinton-era policy that even some former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have described as flawed.

Obama pledged during the campaign to work for repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act, which limits how state, local and federal bodies can recognize partnerships and determine benefits.

In a letter sent to gay-rights groups in February 2008, the president said “I support the complete repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA)—a position I have held since before arriving in the U.S. Senate.”

But lawyers in his administration defended the law in a court brief. White House aides said they were only doing their jobs to back a law that is on the books.

At the time, even Democrats in his party criticized the move.

“I was profoundly disappointed by this action, particularly coming from this administration,” said Rep.Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., the first openly gay nonincumbent to win election to Congress.

Even so, Baldwin and other high-profile gay and lesbians and their allies still planned to attend Biden’s fundraiser. The minimum donation was $1,000 and some tickets went as high as $30,400. The event was expected to draw 160 people, although the DNC was not releasing estimates on how much money the event would net, especially given some high-profile defections.

Human Rights Campaign grass-roots chief Marty Rouse Gay and Lesbians Advocates and Defenders projects director  Mary Bonauto and the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund President Chuck Wolfe all withdrew. Several other high-profile activists also did not intend to participate, hoping to pressure Obama to make good on his promises now.

The White House plans an East Room reception on Monday for gay and lesbian advocates to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Greenwich Village demonstrations at the Stonewall Tavern in New York City. The demonstrations are viewed as the start of the modern gay rights movement.

“Unless the president on Monday articulates a strong action plan, and is willing to do it with cameras rolling, it is going to go from bad to worse,” said Socarides, the Clinton adviser.

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Democrats off-loading economics to pass climate bill exchange.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has put cap-and-trade legislation on a forced march through the House, and the bill may get a full vote as early as Friday. It looks as if the Democrats will have to destroy the discipline of economics to get it done.

Despite House Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman’s many payoffs to Members, rural and Blue Dog Democrats remain wary of voting for a bill that will impose crushing costs on their home-district businesses and consumers. The leadership’s solution to this problem is to simply claim the bill defies the laws of economics.

Their gambit got a boost this week, when the Congressional Budget Office did an analysis of what has come to be known as the Waxman-Markey bill. According to the CBO, the climate legislation would cost the average household only $175 a year by 2020. Edward Markey, Mr. Waxman’s co-author, instantly set to crowing that the cost of upending the entire energy economy would be no more than a postage stamp a day for the average household. Amazing. A closer look at the CBO analysis finds that it contains so many caveats as to render it useless.

For starters, the CBO estimate is a one-year snapshot of taxes that will extend to infinity. Under a cap-and-trade system, government sets a cap on the total amount of carbon that can be emitted nationally; companies then buy or sell permits to emit CO2. The cap gets cranked down over time to reduce total carbon emissions.

To get support for his bill, Mr. Waxman was forced to water down the cap in early years to please rural Democrats, and then severely ratchet it up in later years to please liberal Democrats. The CBO’s analysis looks solely at the year 2020, before most of the tough restrictions kick in. As the cap is tightened and companies are stripped of initial opportunities to “offset” their emissions, the price of permits will skyrocket beyond the CBO estimate of $28 per ton of carbon. The corporate costs of buying these expensive permits will be passed to consumers.

The biggest doozy in the CBO analysis was its extraordinary decision to look only at the day-to-day costs of operating a trading program, rather than the wider consequences energy restriction would have on the economy. The CBO acknowledges this in a footnote: “The resource cost does not indicate the potential decrease in gross domestic product (GDP) that could result from the cap.”

The hit to GDP is the real threat in this bill. The whole point of cap and trade is to hike the price of electricity and gas so that Americans will use less. These higher prices will show up not just in electricity bills or at the gas station but in every manufactured good, from food to cars. Consumers will cut back on spending, which in turn will cut back on production, which results in fewer jobs created or higher unemployment. Some companies will instead move their operations overseas, with the same result.

When the Heritage Foundation did its analysis of Waxman-Markey, it broadly compared the economy with and without the carbon tax. Under this more comprehensive scenario, it found Waxman-Markey would cost the economy $161 billion in 2020, which is $1,870 for a family of four. As the bill’s restrictions kick in, that number rises to $6,800 for a family of four by 2035.

Note also that the CBO analysis is an average for the country as a whole. It doesn’t take into account the fact that certain regions and populations will be more severely hit than others — manufacturing states more than service states; coal producing states more than states that rely on hydro or natural gas. Low-income Americans, who devote more of their disposable income to energy, have more to lose than high-income families.

Even as Democrats have promised that this cap-and-trade legislation won’t pinch wallets, behind the scenes they’ve acknowledged the energy price tsunami that is coming. During the brief few days in which the bill was debated in the House Energy Committee, Republicans offered three amendments: one to suspend the program if gas hit $5 a gallon; one to suspend the program if electricity prices rose 10% over 2009; and one to suspend the program if unemployment rates hit 15%. Democrats defeated all of them.

The reality is that cost estimates for climate legislation are as unreliable as the models predicting climate change. What comes out of the computer is a function of what politicians type in. A better indicator might be what other countries are already experiencing. Britain’s Taxpayer Alliance estimates the average family there is paying nearly $1,300 a year in green taxes for carbon-cutting programs in effect only a few years.

Americans should know that those Members who vote for this climate bill are voting for what is likely to be the biggest tax in American history. Even Democrats can’t repeal that reality.

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School Violated Teen Girl’s Rights, Supreme Court Rules

Arizona school officials violated the constitutional rights of a 13-year-old girl when they strip-searched her on the suspicion she might be hiding ibuprofen in her underwear, the Supreme Court ruled yesterday. The decision put school districts on notice that such searches are “categorically distinct” from other efforts to combat illegal drugs.

In a case that had drawn attention from educators, parents and civil libertarians across the country, the court ruled 8 to 1 that such an intrusive search without the threat of a clear danger to other students violated the Constitution’s protections against unreasonable search or seizure.

Justice David H. Souter, writing perhaps his final opinion for the court, said that in the search of Savana Redding, now a 19-year-old college student, school officials overreacted to vague accusations that Redding was violating school policy by possessing the ibuprofen, equivalent to two tablets of Advil.

What was missing, Souter wrote, “was any indication of danger to the students from the power of the drugs or their quantity, and any reason to suppose that Savana was carrying pills in her underwear.”

It was reasonable to search the girl’s backpack and outer clothes, but Safford Middle School administrators made a “quantum leap” in taking the next step, the opinion said. “The meaning of such a search, and the degradation its subject may reasonably feel, place a search that intrusive in a category of its own demanding its own specific suspicions,” Souter wrote.

Justice Clarence Thomas was the lone dissenter. “Judges are not qualified to second-guess the best manner for maintaining quiet and order in the school environment,” he wrote.

He said administrators were only being logical in searching the girl. “Redding would not have been the first person to conceal pills in her undergarments,” he wrote. “Nor will she be the last after today’s decision, which announces the safest place to secrete contraband in school.”

The court’s virtual unanimity was in contrast to the intense oral argument that seemed to exasperate the court’s only female member, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She later said her male colleagues seemed not to appreciate the trauma such a search would have on a developing adolescent.

“They have never been a 13-year-old girl,” she told USA Today when asked about her colleagues’ comments during the arguments. “It’s a very sensitive age for a girl. I didn’t think that my colleagues, some of them, quite understood.”

But yesterday’s opinion recognized just that. “Changing for gym is getting ready for play,” Souter wrote. “Exposing for a search is responding to an accusation reserved for suspected wrongdoers” and is so degrading that a number of states and school districts have banned strip searches. The Washington region’s two largest school districts are among them.

Redding said the decision “feels fantastic.” She described herself as shy and “not a good public speaker,” but said the long legal battle “was to make sure it didn’t happen to anyone else.”

The case, Safford Unified School District #1 v. Redding, began when another student was found with prescription-strength ibuprofen and said she received it from Redding.

Safford Middle School assistant principal Kerry Wilson pulled the quiet honors student out of class, and she consented in his office to a search of her backpack and outer clothes. When that turned up no pills, he had a school nurse take Redding to her office, where she was told to remove her clothes, shake out her bra and pull her underwear away from her body, exposing her breasts and pelvic area.

No drugs were found, and Redding said she was so humiliated by the incident that she never returned to the school. Her mother filed suit against the school district, as well as Wilson.

After years of legal proceedings, the full U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit eventually ruled in her favor.

Justices based their view on the court’s warning in a 1985 case that, although school officials have leeway in deciding when searches of students are reasonable, the officials may not employ searches “excessively intrusive in light of the age and sex of the student and the nature of the infraction.”

Lower courts have had trouble deciding when that standard applies, Souter wrote, so Wilson should not be held personally liable for the incident. The court ruled, though, that Redding’s suit could proceed against the school district.

Ginsburg and Justice John Paul Stevens criticized the decision to remove Wilson from the suit, saying he should have known the search violated Redding’s rights.

“Abuse of authority of that order should not be shielded by official immunity,” Ginsburg wrote.

Redding’s attorney, Adam Wolf of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the court made clear that strip searches would be used only in “extraordinary circumstances” and that “the justices saw what the general public saw: that these school officials overreacted and traumatized a young girl.”

Francisco M. Negrón Jr., general counsel for the National School Boards Association, said he was glad the court recognized that the school officials had acted “in good faith.” But he said the decision did not provide clear guidelines about how specific the accusation must be, or how dangerous the alleged drugs, before school officials employ such an intrusive search.

“I think there will be more litigation,” he said.

But many states and school boards, including some in the Washington area, are simply not allowing strip searches.

The policy in Fairfax County, for instance, specifies that “personal searches may extend to pockets; and to the removal and search of outer garments such as jackets, coats, sweaters, or shoes; and to items such as pocketbooks or backpacks.” In Montgomery County, officials with the Department of School Safety and Security said searches are limited to outer clothing and pockets. The “preferred method is self-search,” where a student is told what to remove, said school system spokeswoman Kate Harrison. A third person is always present for any search, she said.

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(New York Times) -As a drug kingpin and his bodyguard, both black, faced the first federal death penalty trial in Manhattan since the days of the Rosenbergs, their lawyers argued that the practice of capital punishment was racist.

“We’re doing what the death penalty has always done historically, which is target minority people,” one of the lawyers said in 1998 as he asked a Federal District Court judge to declare the penalty unconstitutional.

That judge was Sonia Sotomayor — a Bronx-born woman of Puerto Rican descent who as a young lawyer had leveled much the same attack on capital punishment. And as she listened to the arguments that day, she acknowledged there were many unresolved “tensions” surrounding the death penalty.

But she flatly told the lawyers she had no power to resolve them. “I don’t as a judge,” she said. “They are not up to me. Ultimately, they are up to Congress and the Supreme Court.”

Judge Sotomayor, of course, is now up for a seat on the Supreme Court, and her nomination has sparked questions about her early advocacy and whether that might flavor her performance as a justice.

The 1998 case, the only death penalty matter she appears to have handled on the federal bench, offers some answers. Transcripts provide a revealing look at the judge, acting as an official arbiter on an issue she once addressed strongly — and weighing the lives of two men.

The case record shows she was curious enough about the defense arguments that she ordered prosecutors to produce data on the race of defendants considered for the death penalty. But it also shows she was tough on defense lawyers, repeatedly challenging their claims that minority defendants were disproportionately singled out.

She even rejected the same kind of statistical argument against capital punishment that she had made years earlier as a lawyer, saying it was not sufficient to prove discrimination.

“We gave her enough ammunition that she could have struck down the death penalty,” recalled David A. Ruhnke, a defense lawyer in the case. “Whether it would have stood up in the U.S. Supreme Court, who knows? But we gave her enough room to do it — had she wanted to reach out and do it — and she didn’t.”

In the end, Judge Sotomayor never ruled on the merits of the death penalty, even though her remarks made clear that she was unlikely to find it unconstitutional. Some two years into the case, she was elevated to the federal appellate bench in New York, and the case was handed to another judge, who declined to strike down the law. Both defendants pleaded guilty and avoided execution.

But Judge Sotomayor conducted three lively pretrial hearings that explored the death penalty. In more than 100 pages of transcripts, she emerges as deeply engaged, vocal and demanding, scrutinizing both sides and sometimes floating provocative ideas.

At one point, pressed by defense lawyers to resolve the death penalty’s inequities, she advised them to be careful what they wished for.

“As my law clerk said to me the other day, what is the remedy? Should we just have more people sentenced to capital punishment? That’s as effective a remedy as having fewer people sentenced to capital punishment if we find that we need to remedy some overall societal inequity.”

Judge Sotomayor, who turns 55 on Thursday, has spoken very little publicly about the death penalty during her long career, which included about five years as an assistant district attorney in Manhattan. But conservatives who oppose her nomination have seized on a 1981 internal memo signed by her and two other directors of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund recommending that the organization oppose restoration of the death penalty in New York State.

The memo said capital punishment was “associated with evident racism in our society” and cited statistics to show that “the number of minorities and the poor executed or awaiting execution is out of proportion to their numbers in the population.”

Seventeen years later, she heard a similar argument on behalf of two defendants charged with multiple murders: Clarence Heatley, who led a multimillion-dollar crack-cocaine operation based in the Bronx, and his bodyguard, John Cuff, a former New York City housing police officer.

In 1997, Mary Jo White, the United States attorney in Manhattan, received authorization from Attorney General Janet Reno to seek the death penalty against both men. Congress had reinstituted the federal death penalty in recent years, and Ms. White’s office had considered a dozen other cases before settling on Mr. Heatley’s and Mr. Cuff’s.

Before the men could be tried, however, Judge Sotomayor had to consider their lawyers’ challenge to the law. They presented data showing that since 1988, the federal government had authorized 119 capital cases, with 79 percent involving minority defendants. Of the 16 men who had been sentenced to death, 13 were members of minorities.

But the judge agreed with prosecutors that the numbers alone did not prove discrimination in this case. The high percentage of minority defendants, she said, “tells me nothing about the pool from which that number comes from.” She said the defense had to offer more — “some actual proof of discrimination besides statistical evidence, because it can be manipulated.”

The defense had, indeed, tried to get more evidence, asking the judge to order the government to produce information on federal defendants across the country who had been considered for capital punishment, and on how each decision had been reached.

Judge Sotomayor balked. “The only way that we can end up with your getting anything that would be admissible,” she said, “is if we literally redid all of the deliberative processes in every single case that was eligible for the death penalty.”

Ultimately, she agreed to order data on the racial and ethnic composition of the pool of defendants.

“I would like to see the numbers myself,” she said. “I do agree with you that the death population in the federal system is so disparately different from the general population that one look more should be done, at least an initial inquiry.”

The judge also seemed open to the idea of allowing the defense, during a possible future sentencing hearing, to tell the jury that other murderers had been spared the death penalty.

She said: “You can very well see a potential argument by the defense that says, If Joe Blow, who kills his wife, 10 children, his mother, and didn’t get the death penalty, why should my client? Why shouldn’t society put to death murderers of more heinous crimes? These are drug dealers killing drug dealers.”

Judge Sotomayor was not shy about asserting a personal opinion. She allowed that in the past five years, she had noticed “a sea change” in Manhattan federal prosecutors’ handling of the death penalty — an apparent reference to an increase in cases considered for capital punishment and new policies on how such decisions were made. But she dismissed the defense’s claim that racial bias was the cause.

“It may be based on politics,” she said, “since it’s the only explanation that could justify the sea change. But I have no basis to believe, in what you presented me with or otherwise, that it’s based on race.”

Whatever her own feelings on capital punishment, the judge showed a willingness to understand and apply the death penalty law, even if the result could be two executions. When the prosecutor, Andrew S. Dember, seemed to ask for too much legal leeway on one point, she cautioned that his approach could lead to a reversal of any verdict.

“Remember two things,” she told him. “A conviction is important. Surviving conviction is more important.”

She also had a pointed word for the defense: Do not expect the Supreme Court to abolish capital punishment anytime soon.

Mr. Ruhnke, the defense lawyer, had suggested that in 50 years there might not be a death penalty. He asserted that the Supreme Court almost struck down capital punishment in a 1987 case involving racial disparities. The author of the 5-to-4 ruling, Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr., later said he regretted his vote.

“It was that close to being no death penalty,” Mr. Ruhnke said.

Judge Sotomayor suggested that the Supreme Court of 1998 was even less likely to overturn the penalty than the court had been in 1987.

“Unfortunately for your client, regardless of what the makeup of the decision-making will be 50 years from now, in the short run,” she said, the death penalty “will still be here.”

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He says the uninsured cost the rest of U.S. families $1,000 a year.


We found several claims in Obama’s recent health-care sales pitches that could use some explanation or qualification.

He said “the average family pays a thousand dollars in extra premiums to pay for people going to the emergency room who don’t have health insurance.” That’s from a recent report by Families USA, a group that lobbies for expanded government coverage. But another study for the authoritative Kaiser Family Foundation thinks that figure is far too high.

The president said the estimated $1 trillion cost of his proposals is “less than we are projected to have spent on the war in Iraq.” Maybe. But so far, Iraq war costs are around $642 billion.

He said that the U.S. spends 50 percent more per capita on health care than the next most expensive country. Not quite. We spend 20 percent more than the second most expensive country, and 50 percent more than the third.

On other points we found the president’s facts checked out. For example, many countries that spend much less on health care nevertheless have higher life expectancy than the U.S. And while we find it doubtful that the uninsured cost other families $1,000 in higher premiums alone, once higher taxes and higher medical costs are factored in, the price tag for the uninsured could well be that high.


President Barack Obama has made health care the focus of recent speeches, including one in Green Bay, Wisc., on June 11 and another at the American Medical Association conference in Chicago on June 15. While many of the statistics he cited on the state of health care in the U.S. were correct, we found problems with a few of them.

Shifting Costs

On June 11, Obama said that insurance premiums increase to cover the cost of health care for the uninsured, to the tune of $1,000 per family. The implication, of course, is that providing the uninsured with coverage would save others that much.

Obama, June 11: The average family pays a thousand dollars in extra premiums to pay for people going to the emergency room who don’t have health insurance. So you’re already subsidizing other folks; it’s just you’re subsidizing the most expensive care.

Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois repeated these claims on CBS’ “Face the Nation” on June 14:

Durbin, June 14: Well, keep in mind, now, everyone today faces a hidden tax estimated for most families at $1,000 a year that we pay in health insurance premiums that we shouldn’t pay. It’s money that we’re paying to cover those who have no health insurance and to really sustain a bloated system, a system that really needs efficiency.

Do insured families really pay $1,000 in extra premiums to carry the uninsured? The figure doesn’t come from thin air. A 2005 report by health care advocacy group Families USA found that this “cost shifting” amounted to $922 per family or $341 for those insured individually, and a May 2009 update revised those numbers to $1,017 and $368 respectively. The liberal Center for American Progress, also updating the 2005 Families USA estimate, reported in March 2009 that “8 percent of families’ 2009 health care premiums – approximately $1,100 a year – is due to our broken system that fails to cover the uninsured.” These calculations are based on distributing “uncompensated care” – care provided to the uninsured that’s not covered out of pocket or by private or public funds – over the insured population.

But the claim is disputed. A 2008 report conducted by researchers from the Urban Institute for the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation examined the first Families USA study, and found its claims to be unconvincing. They concluded: “[W]e are highly skeptical that the high and growing cost of private insurance is strongly related, if at all, to the amount of uncompensated care delivered by private providers or to the growing number of uninsured people.”

Jack Hadley, the lead researcher on the KFF study, told us that to assume that the insured end up paying for all uncompensated care is “clearly an exaggeration.” According to KFF, the amount of uncompensated care that providers could shift to the privately insured is much less, only $8 billion, not the $42.7 billion Families USA said could be passed on to premium payers in 2008. The KFF number is less than 19 percent of Families USA’s, and by our figuring that implies a per-family increase in health insurance premiums of less than $200 a year, not $1,000.

Obama later rephrased his $1,000 claim, and put himself on firmer ground. In his speech to the American Medical Association, Obama said the cost was paid not just in higher premiums but also in “higher taxes” and “higher health care costs.”

Obama, June 15: Each time an uninsured American steps foot into an emergency room with no way to reimburse the hospital for care, the cost is handed over to every American family as a bill of about $1,000 that’s reflected in higher taxes, higher premiums and higher health care costs.

Adding in taxes and health care costs changes the story. According to Hadley, “The savings that will accrue from covering the uninsured will be primarily in the form of lower taxes to pay for government-funded uncompensated care, not lower premiums for private insurance. These savings are a legitimate potential source of funding to help pay for expanded insurance coverage.” The Kaiser study found that insured adults “spend about $350 per person through taxes, donations, and payments for private health care and private insurance to subsidize care received by the uninsured.” That’s close to Families USA’s estimate of the average cost to insured singles. Kaiser didn’t give a per-family estimate, but a $350 per person cost is generally consistent with a cost of $1,000 per family.

Comparison Shopping

In his speech to the AMA on June 15, Obama tried to put the cost of revamping the nation’s health care system into perspective:

Obama: Making health care affordable for all Americans will cost somewhere on the order of $1 trillion over the next 10 years. That’s real money, even in Washington. But remember, that’s less than we are projected to have spent on the war in Iraq.

Iraq war spending may very well reach that point, but it hasn’t yet. Funding for the war totaled $642 billion through the first part of fiscal year 2009, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service. CRS estimated that by the end of September, when the fiscal year ends, the total will reach $684 billion if Congress passed a supplemental appropriation requested by the administration. (The House passed it June 16, and it moved to the Senate for debate.)

Beyond 2009, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that the U.S. will spend from $388 billion to $867 billion on war funding in the next 10 years, depending on how fast troops come home. CBO’s numbers include money spent in Afghanistan and for enhanced security at military bases. So far, about 73 percent of total war funding has gone to Iraq.

Finally, we should note that Obama’s health care estimate is just that – an estimate. And Washington estimates are often lower than what the true costs turn out to be in reality. It’s worth remembering thatthe Bush administration once estimated that the Iraq war would cost only $50 billion to $60 billion, a small fraction of what the actual price is turning out to be.

Measuring Up

In both the Green Bay speech and the AMA speech, Obama said that the U.S. spends 50 percent more per person on health care than the next most expensive nation. Actually, data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, which compares the health care of 30 industrialized nations, shows that we spend about 20 percent more per capita than Luxembourg, the next most expensive nation in 2006. The U.S. does spend 50 percent more per capita on health care than Switzerland, the next most expensive after that.

In the AMA speech, Obama went on to say that this spending didn’t have a positive effect on our national health:

Obama: And yet, as I think many of you are aware, for all of this spending, more of our citizens are uninsured, the quality of our care is often lower, and we aren’t any healthier. In fact, citizens in some countries that spend substantially less than we do are actually living longer than we do.

He’s right on this one. The OECD countries with the highest life expectancy (Japan, Iceland, Switzerland, Sweden and Australia) spent, on average, half as much per capita on health care as the United States. According to the World Health Organization, Japan’s average life expectancy is 83 years, compared to 78 for the United States, and OECD data shows that Japan spends 60 percent less per capita than the U.S. does. A 2000 WHO report ranked the United States No. 1 in per capita health expenditures, No. 37 on overall health system performance and No. 72 on level of health.

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Students manhandled by police in Bloomberg’s schools have no place to complain.

When our mayor and schools chancellor accept awards from national education organizations for regenerating New York City’s schools, they somehow neglect to mention a certain school safety issue: There is a room, located in the dean’s office at Hillcrest High School in Queens, that students call “the strip-search room,” which is where School Safety Agents have manhandled students.

Attorney Victoria Renta Irwin, who is representing one of these students, 16-year-old Rohan Morgan, has filed a personal injury claim against the City of New York, saying that Morgan was handcuffed, dragged into that dreaded room on June 24 by School Safety Agents, and beaten. His crime: He brought his cell phone to summer school.

During previous sessions in the strip-search room, Irwin says, her client “suffered various injuries, including bruises, a lacerated finger, and a knee injury requiring surgery. . . . The mental, emotional, and physical trauma endured by Rohan is all the more troubling because it was inflicted by adults assigned to protect him. These incidents have robbed him of his dignity and have made going to school a terrifying experience for him.”

That’s true not just for Morgan, says 17-year-old Hillcrest senior, Deidra Jones: “They take you in the back room, and they strip-search you just to get your phone.”

As other battered Hillcrest students come to court, much of the evidence on which the lawsuits are based will come from the investigations and student interviews conducted by Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM) in Jackson Heights, which describes itself as “a community-based social-justice organization of low-income South Asian immigrants, and immigrants facing deportation.”

For the past year, DRUM parents, students, and youth leaders have been organizing at Hillcrest while also calling again and again for the City Council to pass the Student Safety Act, which, as I’ve often reported, will finally bring accountability to these official SSA bullies; their ultimate boss (Ray Kelly); supine Schools Chancellor Joel Klein; and, of course, the schools’ Commander in Chief Michael Bloomberg, who has not said a single word on how the students’ fear of the police—not only at Hillcrest High—has been instilled under his watch.

I’d sure like to see Kelly, Klein, and Bloomberg in the dock as witness Kumar Heeralall, a member of DRUM Youth Power, confronts them, repeating his testimony for DRUM on what happened to him on May 24, 2007: “I was 19 at the time and accidentally brought my phone in to school that day in my pocket. . . . When I walked through the metal detector, it beeped. The SSA agent Gregory Robinson . . . told me to take it out of my pocket or ‘I’ll slam your face against the desk’. . . . I took out my phone and threw it on the table, but it fell to the floor. I bent down to pick up the phone, and that’s when Officer Robinson grabbed my arm very aggressively and started pulling it and me. . . . I kept yelling at him to let go of my arm and he wouldn’t, so I tried to push him away, but my hand accidentally touched his face. . . . Robinson starts hitting me back, and all the other guards come on top of me to restrain me. They take me to the strip-search room. . . . They handcuff me to a desk, and a guard held my hands to my back, and Robinson starts hitting and kicking me. . . . I end up being taken to central booking and spent the whole day in a cell. I was suspended for a week and had to go to Queens Criminal Court, where I was charged with assault and resistance to arrest. My lawyers told me to go to anger-management classes for 12 weeks. I went to those classes, got a certificate, and brought it to court—where my case was dropped.”

Heeralall wanted to complain, but “I thought it’s my words against the School Safety Agent and school staff, so nobody will take me seriously. Now that I know that more students have been beaten like me, I have to stand up.”

Why doesn’t teachers’ union President Randi Weingarten stand up? As I’ve reported, UFT teachers trying to intervene have been scorned by School Safety Agents. If she came out for the Student Safety Act, Heeralall and other students abused by School Safety Agents would realize that she could help them pass the act.

The Student Safety Act has not even had a hearing before the City Council. Although a majority of the Council supports the Act, one man stands with the School Safety Agents—who, by the way, are trying to get civil service status from the City Council. As I reported last week, Queens Councilman Peter Vallone Jr., chairman of the Public Safety Committee, is blocking a hearing. A member of his staff told Vladic Ravich—who has been covering this vital story for the Queens Chronicle far better than any of the city’s one-shot dailies or radio and television stations—that there aren’t enough funds for what the bill would cost. (The Student Safety Act would allow parents and students to complain to the Civilian Complaint Review Board.)

On December 12, the New York Civil Liberties Union—which broke this story and has kept it insistently alive—submitted the bill to the city’s Independent Budget Office. That nonpartisan committee will find out the actual costs for the CCRB to handle complaints about the roughhouse School Safety Agents—thereby calling Vallone’s bluff.

Ravich tells me that when the CCRB previously testified before Vallone’s Public Safety Committee, it said the cost would be about $1.5 million ($1.2 million plus the funds for hiring additional personnel).

Consider this: New York City spends about $200 million a year on school safety. Is this small percentage of that sum too much to prevent more students from undergoing—and long remembering—the effects of what Rohan Morgan and other students are experiencing?

It’s also significant that the NYCLU has disclosed that the NYPD has, from 2002 to 2007, received more than 2,700 complaints about police misconduct in schools. Whatever happened to these complaints, Commissioner Kelly?

Meanwhile, Rani Chetty, a DRUM youth leader, asks the question that pierces to the disgraceful irresponsibility of Klein, Kelly, and Bloomberg: “Who has authority over what happens? The principal cannot control security, and the guards (including the menacing School Safety Agents) protect each other. So we don’t know what to do when something happens.”

As the New York state legislature decides whether Bloomberg will continue to run this city’s schools, it damn well should call as witnesses Morgan and other students around the city with the bitter firsthand knowledge of what the NYCLU has fully documented in its “Criminalizing the Classroom” report. There is a need for thoroughly trained police presence in the schools, but not for ruffians with the power to manacle and arrest.

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WASHINGTON – Sweeping healthcare legislation working its way through Congress is more than an effort to provide insurance to millions of Americans without coverage. Tucked within is a provision that could provide billions of dollars for walking paths, streetlights, jungle gyms, and even farmers’ markets.

The add-ons – characterized as part of a broad effort to improve the nation’s health “infrastructure’’ – appear in House and Senate versions of the bill.

Critics argue the provision is a thinly disguised effort to insert pork-barrel spending into a bill that has been widely portrayed to the public as dealing with expanding health coverage and cutting medical costs. A leading critic, Senator Mike Enzi, a Wyoming Republican, ridicules the local projects, asking: “How can Democrats justify the wasteful spending in this bill?’’

But advocates, including Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, defend the proposed spending as a necessary way to promote healthier lives and, in the long run, cut medical costs. “These are not public works grants; they are community transformation grants,’’ said Anthony Coley, a spokesman for Kennedy, chairman of the Senate health committee whose healthcare bill includes the projects.

“If improving the lighting in a playground or clearing a walking path or a bike path or restoring a park are determined as needed by a community to create more opportunities for physical activity, we should not prohibit this from happening,’’ Coley said in a statement.

The Senate health panel’s bill does not specify how much would go to the community projects. A Senate staff member said the amount of spending will be left up to the Obama administration. A House version of the bill caps the projects at $1.6 billion per year and includes them in a section designed to save money in the long run by reducing obesity and other health problems.

It is not clear yet how the money would be allocated. The legislation says that grants will be awarded to local and state government agencies that will have to submit detailed proposals. The final decisions will be made by the secretary of Health and Human Services.

The proposal was inserted at the urging of a nonprofit, nonpartisan group called Trust for America’s Health, which produces reports about obesity and other health matters. Part of the group’s proposed language for the community grants was inserted into the Senate bill. It called for “creating the infrastructure to support active living and access to nutritious foods in a safe environment.’’ The group provided examples of grants for bike paths, jungle gyms, and lighting, though the Senate bill doesn’t list those specifics.

Jeffrey Levi, the group’s executive director, said that “it is easy to satirize’’ the projects, but they are needed to improve America’s health.

“We will see a return on this investment if you use this money strategically for proven, evidence-based programs,’’ Levi said in an interview, citing efforts to stop smoking and to promote physical activity. “We will prevent or reverse chronic diseases such as heart disease. . . . It will pay for itself.’’

While many may think the healthcare bill strictly aims to increase coverage, Levi said that is a mistaken impression. “This isn’t just about health insurance,’’ he said. “This bill is about creating a healthier country.’’

The group says that a modest community project can lead directly to improvements in public health. In a recent report, the group cited two examples from Massachusetts that it said were effective: Shape Up Somerville, which helped elementary school children lose weight by promoting physical activity, and the Physical Activity Club in Attleboro, which also helped children lose weight.

The idea of using the healthcare bill as a vehicle for preventing diseases has bipartisan appeal. President Obama has called for “the largest investment ever in preventive care, because that’s one of the best ways to keep our people healthy and our costs under control.’’ Enzi, too, has said that “reducing healthcare costs has to begin with promoting healthier behaviors.’’

But there is disagreement about the best way to do that. Senator Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat who is working closely with Kennedy on the healthcare bill, has criticized the current healthcare system for focusing on “sick care’’ and has called for more investment in a variety of measures that would help prevent diseases, including the community grants, restricting junk food in schools, and encouraging children to be more active.

“We spend 75 cents of every healthcare dollar treating people with chronic diseases like diabetes, heart disease, and asthma, and only 4 cents on prevention,’’ Harkin said in a statement. “But the majority of these diseases can be prevented through lifestyle and environmental changes.’’

However, it can be difficult to quantify the benefits of a park or pathway, leading some critics to say such funding is an example how the healthcare legislation has spiraled out of control.

Enzi has said that instead of paying for pathways, it would be more effective to encourage lower insurance premiums for individuals who can prove they have taken steps to improve their health. He said that construction grants belong in other bills.

Enzi, the top Republican on the Senate health committee, has unsuccessfully pushed an amendment that would specifically prohibit the use of funds for sidewalks, streetlights, and other infrastructure projects.

Kennedy spokesman Coley said such proposed amendments are counterproductive, stressing that the projects would be modest and are not intended to replace larger ones that can be funded in other bills. Nonetheless, he said, the projects “may be a very cost-effective and long-lasting intervention.’’

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Agriculture Department would be given the power to regulate all food sold in schools — including vending machine snacks — when Congress renews child nutrition programs, the chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee said on Tuesday.

Chairman Tom Harkin said he hopes the committee will start work on legislation to reauthorize school lunch programs in October or November, with a goal to conclude the work by the end of the year.

“I can tell you it won’t be this month,” Harkin told reporters who asked when work would begin. He said precedence must go, for now, to his work on health care reform and on drafting the annual federal spending bills.

Agriculture Committee work on child nutrition will begin with a draft that gives the USDA the authority to oversee all food in schools, so nutrition programs are not “undermined” by junk food in vending machines, Harkin said at a confirmation hearing for the head of the USDA’s nutrition programs.

Earlier this year, Harkin co-sponsored a bill focused on setting nutritional standards for food in school vending machines and stores to combat childhood obesity rates.

Kevin Concannon, the Obama administration’s nominee to run USDA’s food and nutrition programs, told Harkin he wants to work with other federal and state agencies to address health issues caused by poor eating habits.

“It’s a cultural thing. We’ve evolved to this over the past 30 or 40 years, and it’s going to take efforts on a number of fronts,” Concannon said.

Roughly 17 percent of school-age children are obese, triple the rate in 1980 and “an epidemic in the United States,” says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Obesity increases the risk of diabetes, heart disease, arthritis and other chronic illnesses.

At present, USDA oversees the contents of school lunches and bars the sale of foods with minimal nutritional value, such as soda in the lunchroom. It does not control food sold in a la carte lines or school stores.

Concannon, who ran food stamp and public nutrition programs in Iowa, Maine and Oregon during his career, noted he has seen “pushback” from schools that count on revenue from vending machines to pay for student activities.

Concannon also said he wants people who rely on USDA food programs to be able to buy more food from farmers’ markets.

Food stamps, school lunch programs, and other nutritional assistance account for more than $75 billion, or two-thirds of USDA’s annual spending.

One in nine Americans uses food stamps to buy groceries, a record number due to recession and job losses, and more than 30 million children count on USDA-funded school programs for lunch.

The Obama administration, which has a goal of eliminating childhood hunger by 2015, proposed a $1 billion a year increase in child nutrition programs but has provided few details of how it would spend the money.

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