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“The Senator Needs A New Hobby”: McCain Shows How Not To Argue About Wasteful Spending

It seems about once a year or so, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) publishes a report on “wasteful” federal spending that he’s eager to cut. The document invariably comes with a great deal of exasperation from the senator, who simply can’t understand why more lawmakers fail to take his findings seriously.

Last week, the Arizona Republican was at it again, writing a piece for Fox News, heralding his work as “a wake-up call for Congress about out-of-control spending.” Of particular interest, he noted “a $50,000 grant to investigate whether African elephants’ unique and highly acute sense of smell could be used to sniff-out bombs.”

The 19-page report (pdf) itself spends a fair amount of time on the bomb-sniffing elephants and the $50,000 grant from three years ago.

“While finding new ways to enhance our bomb detection methods is important, it is unlikely that African elephants could feasibly be used on the battlefield given their large size and sensitive status as ‘threatened’ under the Endangered Species Act.

“At a time when the defense budget faces serious cuts under the Budget Control Act of 2011, it is critical that Congress ensures our military branches spend their limited funds on worthwhile programs that effectively and efficiently enhance our military readiness.”

So, does McCain have a point? Not really.

Steve M. at No More Mister Nice Blog flagged this Associated Press piece from two months ago, which the senator’s report neglected to mention.

New research conducted in South Africa and involving the US military shows they excel at identifying explosives by smell, stirring speculation about whether their extraordinary ability can save lives.

“They work it out very, very quickly,” said Sean Hensman, co-owner of a game reserve where three elephants passed the smell tests by sniffing at buckets and getting a treat of marula, a tasty fruit, when they showed that they recognized samples of TNT, a common explosive, by raising a front leg.

Another plus: Elephants remember their training longer than dogs, said Stephen Lee, head scientist at the US Army Research Office, a major funder of the research.

Obviously, given elephants’ size, it’s unrealistic to think the animals would be brought to a minefield, but the AP piece noted that unmanned drones could “collect scent samples from mined areas,” and a trained elephant “would then smell them and alert handlers to any sign of explosives.”

A spokesperson for the Army research command added that the better elephants performed, the more researchers could “determine how they do it so that understanding could be applied to the design of better electronic sensors.”

Oh. So, for $50,000 – less than a rounding error in the overall military budget – we’re talking about research that could very well save many American lives on a battlefield.

This was one of the single best examples John McCain and his office could find of “wasteful” government spending.

As we’ve discussed before, part of the underlying problem here is that the Republican senator seems to think publicly funded research involving animals is, practically by definition, hilarious.

In 2009, for example, McCain used Twitter to highlight what he considered “the top 10 pork barrel projects” in the Recovery Act. In one classic example, McCain blasted “$650,000 for beaver management in North Carolina and Mississippi,” asking, “How does one manage a beaver?”

While I’m sure the senator was delighted with his wit, in reality, $650,000 in stimulus funds hired workers to disrupt beaver dams, which in turn prevented significant flood damage to farms, timber lands, roadways, and other infrastructure in the area (which would have ended up costing far more than $650,000). The Arizonan neglected to do his homework, and ended up blasting a worthwhile project for no reason.

In 2012, he did it again with the Farm Bill. As Alex Pareene explained at the time, McCain isn’t “developing any sort of larger objection to the bill’s priorities or major components,” rather, “McCain just decided to single out the things in the bill that sound the silliest.”

[On Twitter], McCain counted down the 10 “worst projects” funded by the Farm Bill, except by almost any standard they were not at all the worst things funded by the farm bill.

Like No. 6, starting a program to eradicate feral pigs, which McCain clearly included because it involves pigs, allowing him to make a “pork” joke. Except feral pigs are actually a major (and expensive) threat to the environment and property and businesses. And, oh my, $700 million to study moth pheromones! What a waste of money! Except it’s funding the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative’s competitive grants program, and if you don’t think “grants for scientific research on agriculture” is something the government should be doing, you should make that argument instead of delivering scripted zingers about welfare moths on the floor of the Senate in a pathetic bid at getting some ink for your brave stand against wasteful spending.

What McCain may not realize is that he’s actually helping prove his opponents’ point. If these spending bills were so wasteful, he’d be able to come up with actual examples to bolster his argument, and the fact that he can’t suggests (a) these bills aren’t wasteful at all and (b) the senator needs a new hobby.

For the record, I don’t doubt for a moment that there’s some unnecessary spending in the federal budget, and responsible policymakers should make every effort to prevent waste. But the more McCain thinks he’s good at this, the more he proves otherwise.

 

By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, May 11, 2015

May 12, 2015 Posted by | Federal Budget, John McCain, Scientific Research | , , , , , | 4 Comments

“On Leadership”: Does President Obama’s Actions Only Count As Leadership If He’s Taking Steps Republicans Like?

By all appearances, President Obama would welcome the chance to work with lawmakers on a solution to combat the climate crisis. But in 2010, a cap-and-trade bill couldn’t overcome a Republican filibuster in the Senate, and the legislative prospects effectively collapsed after the GOP claimed a House majority in 2011.

There are, however, some steps the president can take on his own, and it appears Obama is increasingly prepared to do just that.

On the heels of the Senate’s passage of a long-awaited farm bill, the Obama administration is to announce on Wednesday the creation of seven regional “climate hubs” aimed at helping farmers and rural communities respond to the risks of climate change, including drought, invasive pests, fires and floods.

White House officials describe the move as one of several executive actions that President Obama will take on climate change without action from Congress.

In substance, the creation of the climate hubs is a limited step, but it is part of a broader campaign by the administration to advance climate policy wherever possible with executive authority. The action is also part of a push to build political support for the administration’s more divisive moves on climate change – in particular, the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulations on coal-fired power plants.

This move follows a more expansive climate policy Obama unveiled last June, relying almost exclusively on executive authority already acknowledged by the Supreme Court.

To be sure, these “climate hubs” are a fairly modest policy, intended to help a limited number of farmers adapt to changing conditions. But in the bigger picture, it’s also evidence of a sixth-year president eager to do something fairly specific with his power: lead.

And the more I think about it, the more common this seems to be.

There are a notable group of pundits who have spent much of Obama’s presidency demanding that he “lead more.” It’s never been entirely clear what, specifically, these pundits expect the president to do, especially in the face of unyielding and reflexive opposition from Congress, but the complaints seemed rooted in misplaced expectations and confusion over institutional limits.

As the argument goes, if only the president were willing to lead – louder, harder, and bigger – he could somehow advance his agenda through sheer force of will, institutional constraints be damned. And if Congress resists, it’s necessarily evidence that Obama is leading poorly – after all, if only he were a more leading leader, Congress would, you know, follow his lead. The line of criticism became so tiresome and so common that Greg Sargent began mocking it with a convenient label: the Green Lantern Theory of Presidential Power.

What’s I’m curious about now, however, is whether those same pundits are willing to concede that in the West Wing, there’s been all kinds of leading going on lately.

When Republicans threatened to hold the debt ceiling hostage last fall, promising to crash the economy on purpose unless Democrats met their demands, Obama drew a line in the sand – there would be no negotiations over the full faith and credit of the United States – and the GOP backed down. In the process, a new precedent was set, thanks to the president’s willingness to lead.

When a bill to impose new Iranian sanctions threatened to sabotage international nuclear diplomacy, Obama stepped up, applied pressure, worked the phones, arranged meetings, and convinced senators to hold off and give the ongoing talks a chance. The president’s leadership turned a bill that appeared ready to pass and stopped it in its tracks.

When congressional Republicans balked at a minimum-wage increase, Obama used the powers available to him to give thousands of government contractors a raise. The GOP remains outraged, but the president showed leadership and ignored the complaints. Obama now appears ready to take similar executive action on addressing climate change.

So here’s the question for the “lead more” pundits: doesn’t this count as presidential leadership, too? Or do Obama’s actions only count as leadership if he’s taking steps Republicans like?

 

By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, February 5, 2014

February 6, 2014 Posted by | Climate Change, Executive Orders | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

When Food Kills: A Threat To Public Health

The deaths of 31 peoplein Europe from a little-known strain of E. coli have raised alarms worldwide, but we shouldn’t be surprised. Our food often betrays us.

Just a few days ago, a 2-year-old girl in Dryden, Va., died in a hospital after suffering bloody diarrhea linked to another strain of E. coli. Her brother was also hospitalized but survived.

Every year in the United States, 325,000 people are hospitalized because of food-borne illnesses and 5,000 die, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s right: food kills one person every two hours.

Yet while the terrorist attacks of 2001 led us to transform the way we approach national security, the deaths of almost twice as many people annually have still not generated basic food-safety initiatives. We have an industrial farming system that is a marvel for producing cheap food, but its lobbyists block initiatives to make food safer.

Perhaps the most disgraceful aspect of our agricultural system — I say this as an Oregon farmboy who once raised sheep, cattle and hogs — is the way antibiotics are recklessly stuffed into healthy animals to make them grow faster.

The Food and Drug Administration reported recently that 80 percent of antibiotics in the United States go to livestock, not humans. And 90 percent of the livestock antibiotics are administered in their food or water, typically to healthy animals to keep them from getting sick when they are confined in squalid and crowded conditions.

The single state of North Carolina uses more antibiotics for livestock than the entire United States uses for humans.

This cavalier use of low-level antibiotics creates a perfect breeding ground for antibiotic-resistant pathogens. The upshot is that ailments can become pretty much untreatable.

The Infectious Diseases Society of America, a professional organization of doctors, cites the case of Josh Nahum, a 27-year-old skydiving instructor in Colorado. He developed a fever from bacteria that would not respond to medication. The infection spread and caused tremendous pressure in his skull.

Some of his brain was pushed into his spinal column, paralyzing him. He became a quadriplegic depending on a ventilator to breathe. Then, a couple of weeks later, he died.

There’s no reason to link Nahum’s case specifically to agricultural overuse, for antibiotic resistance has multiple causes that are difficult to unravel. Doctors overprescribe them. Patients misuse them. But looking at numbers, by far the biggest element of overuse is agriculture.

We would never think of trying to keep our children healthy by adding antibiotics to school water fountains, because we know this would breed antibiotic-resistant bacteria. It’s unconscionable that Big Ag does something similar for livestock.

Louise Slaughter, the only microbiologist in the United States House of Representatives, has been fighting a lonely battle to curb this practice — but industrial agricultural interests have always blocked her legislation.

“These statistics tell the tale of an industry that is rampantly misusing antibiotics in an attempt to cover up filthy, unsanitary living conditions among animals,” Slaughter said. “As they feed antibiotics to animals to keep them healthy, they are making our families sicker by spreading these deadly strains of bacteria.”

Vegetarians may think that they’re immune, but they’re not. E. coli originates in animals but can spill into water used to irrigate vegetables, contaminating them. The European E. coli outbreak apparently arose from bean sprouts grown on an organic farm in Germany.

One of the most common antibiotic-resistant pathogens is MRSA, which now kills more Americans annually than AIDS and adds hugely to America’s medical costs. MRSA has many variants, and one of the more benign forms now is widespread in hog barns and among people who deal with hogs. An article this year in a journal called Applied and Environmental Microbiology reported that MRSA was found in 70 percent of hogs on one farm.

Another scholarly journal reported that MRSA was found in 45 percent of employees working at hog farms. And the Centers for Disease Control reported this April that this strain of bacteria has now been found in a worker at a day care center in Iowa.

Other countries are moving to ban the feeding of antibiotics to livestock. But in the United States, the agribusiness lobby still has a hold on Congress.

The European outbreak should shake people up. “It points to the whole broken system,” notes Robert Martin of the Pew Environment Group.

We need more comprehensive inspections in the food system, more testing for additional strains of E. coli, and more public education (always wash your hands after touching raw meat, and don’t use the same cutting board for meat and vegetables). A great place to start reforms would be by banning the feeding of antibiotics to healthy livestock.

By: Nicholas D. Kristof, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, June 11, 2011

June 13, 2011 Posted by | Congress, Consumers, Corporations, Environment, Government, Homeland Security, Lobbyists, Politics, Public Health | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

What’s In The Compromise Spending Bill?

After a marathon four-day bill drafting session, the House Appropriations Committee early Tuesday morning unveiled compromise legislation to fund the federal government for the remainder of the fiscal year and cut $38.5 billion from current spending levels.

House Republican leaders struck a deal with Senate Democrats and the White House late Friday after pushing to cut $61 billion from current spending levels. GOP leaders hope to put the bill on the floor Wednesday, with Senate action expected Thursday. The current stopgap funding measure expires Friday.  

Overall, labor, health, and education programs received a $5.5 billion cut from last fiscal year’s level, including the cancellation of 55 programs for savings of more than $1 billion. The final legislation prevents 218,000 low-income children from being removed from Head Start and rejects education grant funding that would have cost approximately 10,000 jobs and reduced educational services to 1 million students, according to Senate Appropriations Committee summary.

Here’s where the spending cuts (and, in the case of Defense, the increases) come from:

  • TRANSPORTATION AND HOUSING. These programs would receive the largest cut under the compromise, $12.3 billion from fiscal 2010 levels, including a total of $2.9 billion in cuts for high-speed rail, $991 million in cuts to transit programs, and a $3.2 billion rescission of highway funding, including $630 million worth of old earmarks. The Department of Housing and Urban Development’s community development fund would get a $942 million cut.
  • SCIENCE. The continuing resolution also blocks funding for the establishment of a Climate Service at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; for the approval of new fisheries catch-share programs in certain fisheries; and for NASA and the Office of Science and Technology Policy to engage in bilateral activities with China.
  • AGRICULTURE. Agriculture programs would see $3 billion in cuts from fiscal 2010, including a $10 million cut to food and safety inspection, but the plan allows “for uninterrupted meat, poultry, and egg products inspection activities of the” Agriculture Department, the committee said. The USDA’s Special Supplemental Feeding Program for Women, Infants, and Children, also known as WIC, received $6.75 billion, which is a $504 million cut from the fiscal 2010 level.
  • ENERGY. Energy and water programs were reduced by a relatively modest $1.7 billion. The bill funds the Army Corps of Engineers at the president’s request level of $4.9 billion and supports existing applications for renewable energy loan guarantees at the Department of Energy.
  • WASHINGTON, D.C. The compromise restores a long-standing provision against the use of federal and local funds for abortions in the District of Columbia, and includes the reauthorization of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarships, along with a $2.3 million funding increase, to stop the termination of the program and allow new students to participate.
  • HOMELAND SECURITY. A $784 million net reduction over last year, including a $786 million cut to Federal Emergency Management Agency first-responder grants and elimination of $264 million in funding that was previously targeted to earmarks.
  • DEFENSE. Funded at $513 billion in the CR, about $5 billion above last year. The bill also includes an additional $157.8 billion for overseas contingency operations (emergency funding).

By: Humberto Sanchez, National Journal, April 12, 2011

April 13, 2011 Posted by | Budget, Congress, Deficits, Economy, Education, Energy, Environment, Government, Health Care, Homeland Security, Jobs, Labor, Politics | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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