President Barack Obama Weekly Address April 27, 2013 (Video/Transcript)

Remarks of President Barack Obama
Weekly Address
The White House
April 27, 2013
Hi, everybody.  Our top priority as a nation must be growing the economy, creating good jobs, and rebuilding opportunity for the middle class.

But two months ago, Congress allowed a series of automatic budget cuts to fall across the federal government that would do the opposite.  In Washington-speak, these cuts were called the “sequester.”  It was a bad idea then.  And as the country saw this week, it’s a bad idea now.

Because of these reckless cuts, there are parents whose kids just got kicked out of Head Start programs scrambling for a solution.  There are seniors who depend on programs like Meals on Wheels to live independently looking for help.  There are military communities – families that have already sacrificed enough – coping under new strains.  All because of these cuts.

This week, the sequester hurt travelers, who were stuck for hours in airports and on planes, and rightly frustrated by it.  And, maybe because they fly home each weekend, the Members of Congress who insisted these cuts take hold finally realized that they actually apply to them too.

Republicans claimed victory when the sequester first took effect, and now they’ve decided it was a bad idea all along.  Well, first, they should look at their own budget.  If the cuts they propose were applied across the board, the FAA would suffer cuts three times deeper.

So Congress passed a temporary fix.  A Band-Aid.  But these cuts are scheduled to keep falling across other parts of the government that provide vital services for the American people.  And we can’t just keep putting Band-Aids on every cut.  It’s not a responsible way to govern.  There is only one way to truly fix the sequester: by replacing it before it causes further damage.

A couple weeks ago, I put forward a budget that replaces the next several years of these dumb cuts with smarter cuts; reforms our tax code to close wasteful special interest loopholes; and invests in things like education, research, and manufacturing that will create new jobs right now.

So I hope Members of Congress will find the same sense of urgency and bipartisan cooperation to help the families still in the crosshairs of these cuts.  They may not feel the pain felt by kids kicked off Head Start, or the 750,000 Americans projected to lose their jobs because of these cuts, or the long-term unemployed who will be further hurt by them.  But that pain is real.
The American people worked too hard, for too long, rebuilding from one economic crisis just to see your elected officials keep causing more.  Our economy is growing.  Our deficits are shrinking.  We’re creating jobs on a consistent basis.  But we need to do more to help middle-class families get ahead, and give more folks a chance to earn their way into the middle class.  And we can, if we work together.  That’s what you expect.  That’s what I’m going to work every single day to help deliver. 

Thank you.


Australia & Gun Control's Aftermath (video)

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart
Get More: Daily Show Full Episodes,Indecision Political Humor,The Daily Show on Facebook

John Oliver learns it's pointless for America to study the Australian gun control experience because the situations are just too similar. 

Does only the United States has real people?

Is the United States the only real country?


Remarks by President Obama at Dedication of the George W. Bush Presidential Library

Bush Presidential Center
Dallas, Texas

PRESIDENT OBAMA:  Thank you so much.  (Applause.)  Thank you.  Please be seated.  To President Bush and Mrs. Bush; to President Clinton and now-former Secretary Clinton; to President George H.W. Bush and Mrs. Bush; to President and Mrs. Carter; to current and former world leaders and all the distinguished guests here today -- Michelle and I are honored to be with you to mark this historic occasion.

This is a Texas-sized party.  And that’s worthy of what we’re here to do today:  honor the life and legacy of the 43rd President of the United States, George W. Bush.

When all the living former Presidents are together, it’s also a special day for our democracy.  We’ve been called “the world’s most exclusive club” -- and we do have a pretty nice clubhouse.  But the truth is, our club is more like a support group.  The last time we all got together was just before I took office.  And I needed that.  Because as each of these leaders will tell you, no matter how much you may think you’re ready to assume the office of the presidency, it’s impossible to truly understand the nature of the job until it’s yours, until you’re sitting at that desk.

And that’s why every President gains a greater appreciation for all those who served before him; for the leaders from both parties who have taken on the momentous challenges and felt the enormous weight of a nation on their shoulders.  And for me, that appreciation very much extends to President Bush.

The first thing I found in that desk the day I took office was a letter from George, and one that demonstrated his compassion and generosity.  For he knew that I would come to learn what he had learned -- that being President, above all, is a humbling job.  There are moments where you make mistakes.  There are times where you wish you could turn back the clock.  And what I know is true about President Bush, and I hope my successor will say about me, is that we love this country and we do our best.

Now, in the past, President Bush has said it’s impossible to pass judgment on his presidency while he’s still alive.  So maybe this is a little bit premature.  But even now, there are certain things that we know for certain.

We know about the son who was raised by two strong, loving parents in Midland, famously inheriting, as he says, “my daddy’s eyes and my mother’s mouth.”  (Laughter.)  The young boy who once came home after a trip to a museum and proudly presented his horrified mother with a small dinosaur tailbone he had smuggled home in his pocket.  (Laughter.)  I’ll bet that went over great with Barbara.

We know about the young man who met the love of his life at a dinner party, ditching his plans to go to bed early and instead talking with the brilliant and charming Laura Welch late into the night.

We know about the father who raised two remarkable, caring, beautiful daughters, even after they tried to discourage him from running for President, saying, “Dad, you’re not as cool as you think you are.”  (Laughter.)  Mr. President, I can relate.  (Laughter.)  And now we see President Bush the grandfather, just beginning to spoil his brand-new granddaughter.

So we know President Bush the man.  And what President Clinton said is absolutely true -- to know the man is to like the man, because he’s comfortable in his own skin.  He knows who he is.  He doesn’t put on any pretenses.  He takes his job seriously, but he doesn’t take himself too seriously.  He is a good man.

But we also know something about George Bush the leader.  As we walk through this library, obviously we’re reminded of the incredible strength and resolve that came through that bullhorn as he stood amid the rubble and the ruins of Ground Zero, promising to deliver justice to those who had sought to destroy our way of life.

We remember the compassion that he showed by leading the global fight against HIV/AIDS and malaria, helping to save millions of lives and reminding people in some of the poorest corners of the globe that America cares and that we’re here to help.

We remember his commitment to reaching across the aisle to unlikely allies like Ted Kennedy, because he believed that we had to reform our schools in ways that help every child learn, not just some; that we have to repair a broken immigration system; and that this progress is only possible when we do it together.

Seven years ago, President Bush restarted an important conversation by speaking with the American people about our history as a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants.  And even though comprehensive immigration reform has taken a little longer than any of us expected, I am hopeful that this year, with the help of Speaker Boehner and some of the senators and members of Congress who are here today, that we bring it home -- for our families, and our economy, and our security, and for this incredible country that we love.  And if we do that, it will be in large part thanks to the hard work of President George W. Bush.  (Applause.)

And finally, a President bears no greater decision and no more solemn burden than serving as Commander-in-Chief of the greatest military that the world has ever known.  As President Bush himself has said, “America must and will keep its word to the men and women who have given us so much."  So even as we Americans may at times disagree on matters of foreign policy, we share a profound respect and reverence for the men and women of our military and their families.  And we are united in our determination to comfort the families of the fallen and to care for those who wear the uniform of the United States.  (Applause.)

On the flight back from Russia, after negotiating with Nikita Khrushchev at the height of the Cold War, President Kennedy's secretary found a small slip of paper on which the President had written a favorite saying:  "I know there is a God.  And I see a storm coming.  If he has a place for me, I believe I am ready."

No one can be completely ready for this office.  But America needs leaders who are willing to face the storm head on, even as they pray for God's strength and wisdom so that they can do what they believe is right.  And that’s what the leaders with whom I share this stage have all done.  That’s what President George W. Bush chose to do.  That’s why I'm honored to be part of today's celebration.

Mr. President, for your service, for your courage, for your sense of humor, and, most of all, for your love of country, thank you very much.  From all the citizens of the United States of America, God bless you.  And God bless these United States.  (Applause.)

Human infections with the emerging avian influenza A H7N9 virus from wet market poultry: clinical analysis and characterisation of viral genome

Source: The Lancet, Early Online Publication, 25 April 2013

Audio Link



Human infection with avian influenza A H7N9 virus emerged in eastern China in February, 2013, and has been associated with exposure to poultry. We report the clinical and microbiological features of patients infected with influenza A H7N9 virus and compare genomic features of the human virus with those of the virus in market poultry in Zhejiang, China.


Between March 7 and April 8, 2013, we included hospital inpatients if they had new-onset respiratory symptoms, unexplained radiographic infiltrate, and laboratory-confirmed H7N9 virus infection. We recorded histories and results of haematological, biochemical, radiological, and microbiological investigations. We took throat and sputum samples, used RT-PCR to detect M, H7, and N9 genes, and cultured samples in Madin-Darby canine kidney cells. We tested for co-infections and monitored serum concentrations of six cytokines and chemokines. We collected cloacal swabs from 86 birds from epidemiologically linked wet markets and inoculated embryonated chicken eggs with the samples. We identified and subtyped isolates by RT-PCR sequencing. RNA extraction, complementary DNA synthesis, and PCR sequencing were done for one human and one chicken isolate. We characterised and phylogenetically analysed the eight gene segments of the viruses in the patient's and the chicken's isolates, and constructed phylogenetic trees of H, N, PB2, and NS genes.


We identified four patients (mean age 56 years), all of whom had contact with poultry 3—8 days before disease onset. They presented with fever and rapidly progressive pneumonia that did not respond to antibiotics. Patients were leucopenic and lymphopenic, and had impaired liver or renal function, substantially increased serum cytokine or chemokine concentrations, and disseminated intravascular coagulation with disease progression. Two patients died. Sputum specimens were more likely to test positive for the H7N9 virus than were samples from throat swabs. The viral isolate from the patient was closely similar to that from an epidemiologically linked market chicken. All viral gene segments were of avian origin. The H7 of the isolated viruses was closest to that of the H7N3 virus from domestic ducks in Zhejiang, whereas the N9 was closest to that of the wild bird H7N9 virus in South Korea. We noted Gln226Leu and Gly186Val substitutions in human virus H7 (associated with increased affinity for α-2,6-linked sialic acid receptors) and the PB2 Asp701Asn mutation (associated with mammalian adaptation). Ser31Asn mutation, which is associated with adamantane resistance, was noted in viral M2.


Cross species poultry-to-person transmission of this new reassortant H7N9 virus is associated with severe pneumonia and multiorgan dysfunction in human beings. Monitoring of the viral evolution and further study of disease pathogenesis will improve disease management, epidemic control, and pandemic preparedness.


Larry Chi-Kin Yung, National Key Program for Infectious Diseases of China.


America's War Games

How the Obama administration is redefining the US military's strategic priorities with far-reaching consequences.

Source: Al Jazeera


The United States' military expenditures today account for about 40 percent of the world total. In 2012, the US spent some $682bn on its military - an amount more than what was spent by the next 13 countries combined.

Now that the war in Iraq is over and the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan will be complete in 2014, the stage might therefore appear to be set for a decrease in US defence spending. Even in Washington DC, many have argued that the defence budget can be cut substantially and the resulting "peace dividend" could be diverted to more pressing domestic concerns, such as dealing with the nation's continuing economic problems.

You can't do anything about it [because] there's too much political support.
Chuck Spinney, a defence analyst

However, a battle to ward off cuts to the Pentagon's budget has begun and the way things are going, it seems likely that the US will have the smallest drawdown or reduction of the military budget after a period of conflict since World War II - in comparative terms, smaller than after Vietnam, Korea and the end of the Cold War. 
The Pentagon's joint chiefs of staff have appeared before Congress warning of dire results from the impacts of sequestration, a requirement to reduce defence spending by $500bn over 10 years that grew out of a 2011 budget deal between President Obama and Congress. In March, sequestration led to a $41bn cut in 2013 defence spending.

Pentagon officials, defence companies, politicians and conservative commentators argue that defence cuts will be devastating for the military and the economy. Others point out that after sequestration, the Pentagon's base defence budget, which does not include additional funds for the war in Afghanistan - will remain above the Cold War average, and close to the highest level since World War II.

Chuck Spinney, who worked as an analyst in the US secretary of defence's office for 26 years, believes it is difficult for the United States to reap the benefits of a peace dividend because of the workings of the military-industrial complex that President Dwight Eisenhower warned about in his final 1961 address.

"It's what in Washington we call an iron triangle," Spinney says, " you have an alliance between the private sector, the defence contractors, the executive branch, in this case the Pentagon, and the legislative branch."

Everyone benefits from expensive procurement projects - the Pentagon gets weapons, defence companies get to make profits, and politicians get re-elected by funding armaments that generate jobs for constituents and campaign contributions from defence companies.

The result, according to Spinney, is a defence budget "that is packed to the gills with weapons we don't need, with weapons that are underestimated in their future costs".

The Pentagon and defence contractors low-ball costs and exaggerate performance in the early stages of a project to "turn on the money spigot". Then the companies engage in "political engineering," they spread the contracts and employment for a weapon around to as many Congressional districts as possible. They do that, Spinney says, so that once cost-overruns and performance problems become apparent, "you can't do anything about it [because] there's too much political support".

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is a textbook case of a Pentagon procurement project that reveals why it is difficult to cut the defence budget. Three versions of the F-35 are being built for the Air Force, Navy and Marines by Lockheed Martin, the largest defence contractor in the US. The F-35 is the most expensive military weapons programme in US history, bigger than the Manhattan Project that produced nuclear weapons.

The F-35 was sold as a programme that would cost $226bn for about 2,900 aircrafts. It is now seven years behind schedule, and the price has increased almost 100 percent to $400bn for only 2,400 fighters. At least another $1 trillion will be required for operations and maintenance of the F-35 over its lifetime.

Pierre Sprey, an aircraft engineer and analyst who was one of Defense Secretary Robert McNamara's 'whizz kids' in the 1960s, believes that the project should be cancelled or "there will be so little money left over for anything that's needed, it'll be unbelievable. They'll be cutting people, pilots, training, everything just to pay for this thing."


There will be so little money left over for anything that's needed, it'll be unbelievable.
Pierre Sprey, an aircraft engineer and analyst
Sprey played a key role in the design and procurement of the F-16 fighter and the A-10 ground support plane, two mainstays of the current US Air Force fleet.

Mike Rein, the F-35 spokesman for Lockheed, says that the company saw the period from 2012 and into 2013 as "a step of great progress for the programme and [something which is] certainly going in the right direction". He points to the tests of the F-35 that were completed in 2012. Sprey argues that "they're re-testing stuff they already failed. So this isn't progress. This is like every day that you're flying, you're finding new problems. And you're slipping the schedule worse and worse."

The F-35 was supposed to be operational by 2012, but critics say it is unlikely to be deployed before 2017 at the earliest.

Despite a litany of engineering and performance problems, Congress continues to support the programme. Lockheed has spread jobs and contracts to 47 states and Puerto Rico, according to its website.

The company also seems to have an international political engineering strategy - eight countries besides the US are involved in the aircraft's development program - including Britain, Italy, Canada, Australia and Turkey. Meanwhile, Israel, Singapore and Japan have plans to buy the fighter.

According to Spinney, that "makes it even more difficult to cut the programme because now you're creating an international incident of some kind. That's no accident. It was done deliberately."
Pork barrel deal-making that goes on in Congress over weapons projects also makes it hard to secure a peace dividend.

According to William Hartung of the Center for International Policy, "there will be a sort of log rolling process where you know, ‘I'll support your weapons system if you support my weapons system.' And so once that horse trading goes on, then it's much harder to cut anything."

Two years ago, the US army announced that it could save close to $2.8bn by pausing production of the Abrams M1 tank. Ray Odierno, the army chief of staff, said the M1 fleet was in good shape and no more tanks were needed. The Pentagon does not see much use for the M1 in confronting 21st century threats like terrorism and piracy. However, Congress did not go along. Over the last two years, it has provided $355bn to keep the M1 production line rolling at the Joint Systems Manufacturing Center in Lima, Ohio.

General Dynamics, which operates the tank plant, spent $22m on lobbying Congress over the past two years, and about $2m on campaign contributions. According to the David Berger, the mayor of Lima, General Dynamics also put together a study claiming that it would be more cost-effective to keep the tank plant open now than to reopen the plant in the future if it was needed.

The company would not send us the cost study, and declined our request for an interview.
Hartung says that Pentagon contractors have "for years used the jobs argument to revive weapons systems that have been cancelled. To push for things that even the Pentagon itself has not wanted." For months, a study has been circulating in Washington, underwritten by the Aerospace Industries Association, a major defence industry trade group. It claims that a million jobs would be lost as a result of sequestration cuts to defence spending.

Hartung, who has analysed the study, says it exaggerates the potential job loss number by a factor of three, and that many of those jobs will be replaced. He points out that spending on education, health care, and infrastructure "can create 1.5 to 2 times as many jobs. So the economy would be much better off spending on things other than the Pentagon."

Several recent reports examining ways to cut Pentagon spending call for changes in the US nuclear weapons posture. They claim that it would produce hundreds of billions of dollars of savings in coming decades, and the Obama administration is reportedly considering nuclear weapons cuts. But they will be difficult to achieve.

The economy would be much better off spending on things other than the Pentagon.
William Hartung, the Center for International Policy
"People are still mired in Cold War thinking and they feel like the more nuclear weapons we have the better," Hartung says. "And in addition to that the nuclear weapons industry has some of the biggest strongest companies in the military industrial complex."

Lockheed Martin builds submarines, launches ballistic missiles, and runs the nuclear weapons laboratories; General Dynamics builds nuclear subs; and Northrop Grumman, Boeing and Lockheed Martin are all hoping to build the next nuclear bomber.

Chuck Hagel, the new US secretary of defence, was a member of a US Nuclear Policy Commission sponsored by the anti-nuclear arms group Global Zero. Headed by a former vice chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, the commission called for shrinking the number of US nuclear warheads from 5,000 to 900. Commission members also thought there was little risk in eliminating ballistic missiles from the US nuclear delivery triad of submarines, bombers and missiles.

At his confirmation hearing, Hagel was attacked by senators whose states have a stake in the nuclear weapons business, and subsequently criticised by the staff of conservative think tanks like the Heritage Foundation. Steve Bucci, the head of the Center for Foreign Policy Studies at Heritage, believes that any change in America's nuclear posture would be "a very foolish thing to do".

Along with two other think tanks, Heritage has launched a campaign called Defending Defence to ward off cuts to the US defence budget. A major reason is the potential threat they see from China, which Bucci says "cannot be underestimated. They are trying to make themselves a world power, not just a regional power."

In his view, the US needs to keep defence spending high, in case the Chinese become "more aggressive and hostile".

Concerns about China were reflected in the Obama administration's announcement last year that it is re-positioning US military resources to the Asia-Pacific region after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is estimated that China spends about one-fifth to one-quarter as much on its military as the US. Spinney and others see warnings about China and the administration's so-called Asia-Pacific "pivot" as a way to bolster defence spending in the face of pressure for cuts.

"We need a threat," Spinney says, "Al-Qaeda has sort of run out of strength and we have to have a new threat to justify continued spending." Spinney believes that there is little chance of a peace dividend after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. "We are going to pivot to Asia and increase the defence budget," he says.

There are signs he could be right.

This month, President Obama released a 2014 federal budget proposal that called for $526.6bn in funding for the department of defense. It was widely expected that the defence total would be at least $50bn less.

The White House and the Pentagon chose to ignore the statutory requirement for a $50bn reduction mandated by sequestration. They apparently hope that sequestration can be overturned, and defence budget cuts already agreed to, reversed. Instead of laying the groundwork for a peace dividend by putting the Pentagon on a glide path to smaller budgets, the administration's proposal projects increases in America's base defence budget over the next five years.


Get Money out of Politics: Stop lobbyist bribery, End secret money & Empower voters.

Source: The American Anti-Corruption Act by United Republic


    Stop politicians from taking bribes

    Prohibit members of Congress from soliciting and receiving contributions from any industry or entity they regulate, including those industries’ lobbyists. Prohibit all fundraising during Congressional working hours.

    Members of Congress who sit on powerful committees get extraordinary amounts of money from special interests regulated by those committees. Politicians routinely host fundraisers, and invite lobbyists to contribute to their campaigns. The result is a Congress made up of politicians dependent on those special interests to raise the money necessary to win reelection. Politicians are forced to create laws that are favorable to those interests, often at the expense of the public interest.


Limit super PAC contributions and “coordination”

Require SuperPACs to abide by the same contribution limits as other political committees. Toughen rules regarding SuperPACs’ and other groups’ coordination with political campaigns and political parties.

The Supreme Court's Citizens United and subsequent court cases ruled that SuperPACs have the right to raise and spend unlimited money influencing elections, so long as the SuperPACs do not coordinate with the candidate campaigns. Since Citizens United, we've seen tremendous coordination between campaigns and their SuperPACs, making a mockery of the "independence" that the courts thought would exist. SuperPACs have become extensions of the campaigns, and allow mega-donors to exert undue influence on election outcomes.


Prevent job offers as bribes

Close the “revolving door” where elected representatives and their staff sell their legislative power in exchange for high-paying jobs when they leave office. Create a “cooling off” period on private employment that will last 5 years for all Congress members and all senior staff (currently 2 years in the Senate, 1 year in the House, and 1 year for senior staff.)

Today, politicians routinely move straight from Congress to lucrative lobbying jobs on K Street, in order to influence their former colleagues and friends. Senior staffers who work for congressmen do the same thing. This corrupts policymaking in two ways: members and their staff anticipate high-paying jobs with lobbying firms, and routinely do favors to their future employers while still in Congress; and once out of congress they enjoy undue access and influence to members of Congress. The biggest spenders hire these influencers, and win policy as a result.


Call all people who lobby, lobbyists

Significantly expand the definition of and register all lobbyists to prevent influencers from skirting the rules.

Today, the definition of who is a lobbyist—and who is not—is weak. The result: members of congress and their staff end up working as “historical advisors” (for all intents and purposes as lobbyists) to skirt the law while receiving big money to influence policy. Lawmakers are not subject to accountability since the public does not know all the people they meet with who try to sway them on policy decisions.


Limit lobbyist donations

Limit the amount that lobbyists and their clients can contribute to federal candidates, political parties, and political committees to $500 per year and limit lobbyist fundraising for political campaigns. Federal contractors are already banned from contributing to campaigns: extend that ban to lobbyists, high-level executives, government relations employees, and PACs of federal government contractors.

Lobbyists currently must abide by the same contribution limits to electoral campaigns as everyone else: $2500 per election. Lobbyists "bundle" these $2500 contributions with other lobbyists, and individuals working for special interests that seek to influence politicians. This adds up to serious money and political favors in return.


End secret money

Mandate full transparency of all political money. Require any organization that spends $10,000 or more on advertisements to elect or defeat federal candidates to file a disclosure report online with the Federal Election Commission within 24 hours. List each of the donors who gave $10,000 or more to the organization to run such ads. This includes all PACs, 501c nonprofits, or other groups that engage in electioneering.

Elections are being flooded with secret money funneled through "501c" organizations that are not required to disclose the names of donors. 501c's either spend money directly to influence elections, or make unlimited contributions to SuperPACs. This allows secret political donors to flood elections with money and, thus, influence outcomes.


Empower all voters with a tax rebate

Build up the influence voters by creating a biennial $100 Tax Rebate that they can use to make qualified contributions to federal candidates, political parties, and political committees. Flooding elections with small-donor contributions that will offset the huge spenders. Candidates and political groups will only be eligible for these funds if they agree to a set of contribution limits: they will only accept money from small donors (giving $500 or less a year), other groups abiding by the limits, and the Tax Rebates themselves.

Nearly $6 billion was spent on the 2012 elections, and the vast majority came from big special interest donors. In 2008, less than 0.1 percent of Americans contributed $2,300 or more. Politicians are dependent on this tiny percentage of the population. To change this, we need to dramatically increase the number of small donors to politics, so that politicians become dependent on everyday Americans and not moneyed interests. That's how we get politicians who actually fight for the general public.


Disclose “bundling”

Require federal candidates to disclose the names of individuals who “bundle” contributions for the member of Congress or candidate, regardless of whether such individuals are registered lobbyists.


Enforce the rules

Strengthen the Federal Election Commission’s independence and strengthen the House and Senate ethics enforcement processes. Provide federal prosecutors the additional tools necessary to combat corruption, and prohibit lobbyists who fail to properly register and disclose their activities from engaging in federal lobbying activities for a period of two years.

Federal agencies routinely fail to enforce the anti-corruption rules that already exist because their leadership are appointed by those they are supposed to regulate. The result is an elections system where even lax rules can be skirted or broken with impunity.

Corruption, American Style

Bribery gets all the bad press, but lobbying is the real danger, because it affects everybody--whether they want it to or not.

 by Michael Maiello

 Source:Forbes Magazine
Con men, swindlers and cheaters pay bribes. Sophisticates hire lobbyists because lobbyists get better, more lasting results while only rarely landing in the slammer. We know intuitively that bribery and lobbying are related, and there are reams of academic papers that try to draw the line between legitimate issue advocacy and corruption. President Barack Obama isn't buying it. As he swore in his new staff, he banned them from future employment lobbying the White House, "for as long as I'm president."

Economists and sociologists don't tend to spend a lot of time arguing in favor of illegal activities like bribing bureaucrats, so their efforts tend to come down in defense of the K Street bandits. The common argument is that bribery happens in developing economies where the rule of law is questionable, while lobbying is a more civilized activity that brings economic benefits.

Bard Harstad of the Kellogg School of Management and Jakob Svensson of Stockholm University have approached the problem as one between developing and developed economies. But let's set aside the debate over third- and first-world corruption. Narco states, oligarchies, religious and secular dictatorships are ruled by graft because power and influence are traded in secret.

What's telling about the Harstad and Svensson paper is that in an open society like the U.S., our brightest minds are unable to draw meaningful distinctions between handing someone an envelope full of cash and flooding a senator's campaign war chest, except to point out that lobbying is far more effective. A briber wants a to circumvent the law. A lobbyist wants to change it.

The fact that laws affect everyone supposedly makes lobbying more legitimate, since the lobbyist isn't typically asking for special treatment the way a briber does. But maybe that's the problem. Someone who pays a bribe might be rich, powerful and dangerous, but they're also uniquely vulnerable. They open themselves to extortion by the corrupt official they're using, for example. Harstad and Svensson write: "Promises by individual bureaucrats not to ask (or extort) bribes in the future are not credible, since such contracts cannot be written when corruption is illegal and because firms deal with different officials over time."

The lobbyist takes no such risk. The lobbyist's goal is to make the government official depend on them for financing and support in elections. A bribe works once. Cajoling or inducing a congressional representative to help get a law changed is the gift that keeps on giving.

In his book Knowledge and Decisions, economist Thomas Sowell defends lobbyists as people who have acquired a great deal of technical knowledge so that they're better informed than the general public about whatever issue they care about most. They then become, as Sowell describes, a powerful force in government because "reform through democratic legislation requires either 'public consensus or a powerful minority lobby.'" Sowell defends this influence since it comes from knowledge fairly gained and deployed. But the power of the lobbyist is far greater than the power of the briber. A powerful lobbyist can get laws changed even if there's no public consensus to do so, and yet those laws still apply to everyone.

Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, now a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, doesn't make a distinction between the two activities. When asked by e-mail, "What's the real difference between me bribing a customs agent so that I can bring a banned substance into the country or me contributing money to a senator and then cajoling him into making the substance legal for import?" Reich answered, "Frankly, I don't see much difference. A bribe is a bribe. People authorized only to act in the public interest may not use their office for private gain. Period."

In the recently published Creative Capitalism, a discussion of corporate philanthropy and social responsibility, Reich argues that the only thing corporations can do to make life better for the people around them is to "refrain from flooding Washington and any other seat of government with so many lobbyists and campaign contributions so as to stymie democracy."
Bribery is easily regulated because we all know it's a crime. Somebody is trying to break a rule. Getting rules changed, on the other hand, is part of the democratic system and our feelings about lobbyists depends on who they're lobbying for. The novel Thank You For Smoking is a funny book because it's about the misadventures of an unlikable tobacco lobbyist. Make the main character a lobbyist for furry little baby seals and it's somehow less amusing.

When Obama first entered politics, he took money from lobbyists. He gradually changed his mind and when he ran in both the primary and general elections in 2008 he said he wouldn't take money from lobbyists. But he meant only federally registered lobbyists. He had certainly taken money from interest groups that operated at the state level and he had taken money from people who lobbied for only one company, trade or interest group (such people are, in the Byzantine regulatory world of registered lobbyists, not technically lobbyists).

Obama's recent declaration that nobody on the White House staff is allowed to work on regulations or contracts that touch on areas where they had previously worked as lobbyists caused a minor kerfuffle because, of course, a couple of his staff picks do have some lobbying experience and, of course, they're best qualified to work in the areas where they worked as lobbyists. William J. Lynn III, who Obama wants to have working at the Pentagon, had been a lobbyist for Raytheon (nyse: RTN - news - people ). William Corr, who Obama wants at Health and Human Services, had lobbied for Tobacco Free Kids.

The only way to remove lobbyists and their corruptive influence is for companies and interest groups to voluntarily disarm and work on building a public consensus in support of their causes or to elect and appoint people who are entirely incorruptible. Obviously these will never happen. But perhaps those living in rich, Westernized nations should be grateful that political corruption occurs in the twilight world of lobbyists, where they can at least catch a glimpse of the action, rather than the midnight black deals struck daily in the poorer sections of the world.


NRA spends record money on lobbying this year

Pro-gun group ratchets up influence spending as debate rages


As gun control debates raged in Congress early this year, the National Rifle Association increased its federal government lobbying expenditures to record levels, new filings with the U.S. Senate indicate.

The NRA and affiliated National Rifle Association of America Institute for Legislative Action together spent at least $800,000 lobbying the federal government during the first quarter — more than any year covering the same period, according to federal records.

Such aggressive advocacy preceded a major legislative victory Wednesday for gun advocates, as the U.S. Senate defeated a proposal to expand background checks on guy buyers.

And it came as gun control advocates  — from President Barack Obama and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg to former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and the families of children killed last year in Newtown, Conn. — pressured lawmakers to pass laws limiting purchases of firearms.
The NRA groups' first-quarter lobbying expenditures have been steadily increasing in recent years, but never cracked the $700,000 mark.

During the first three months of 2012, they spent $695,000. That follows $675,000 in 2011 and $615,000 in 2010.

This year, the NRA's lobbying efforts were exclusively directed at the House and Senate, according to federal disclosures. The group lobbied on numerous U.S. House and Senate bills proposed by federal legislators.

Among them:
  • H.R. 751, the Protect America's Schools Act of 2013
  • H.R. 274, the Mental Health First Act of 2013
  • H.R. 329, the Strengthening Background Checks Act of 2013
  • H.R. 575, the Second Amendment Protection Act of 2013
  • S. 54, the Stop Illegal Trafficking in Firearms Act of 2013
  • S. 374, the Fix Gun Checks Act of 2013
  • S. 146, the School and Campus Safety Enhancements Act of 2013
  • S. 174, the Ammunition Background Check Act of 2013
  • S. 480, the NICS Reporting Improvement Act of 2013
  • H.R. 138 and S. 33, the Large Capacity Ammunition Feeding Device Act
  • H.R. 142 and S. 35, the Stop Online Ammunition Sales Act of 2013
  • H.R. 437 and S. 150, the Assault Weapons Ban of 2013
The NRA itself spent $700,000 lobbying the federal government during the first quarter, federal records show. Wayne LaPierre, the NRA's chief executive, was among 12 in-house NRA officials to lobby during the year's first three months.

Several contract lobbying firms, including Crossroads Strategies, Prime Policy Group, FTI Government Affairs and Shockey Scofield Solutions, combined to spend at least another $100,000 lobbying on behalf of the NRA or National Rifle Association of America Institute for Legislative Action from January through March.

Companies, unions and special interest groups that lobby the federal government have until Monday to submit mandatory first quarter lobbying disclosure reports to Congress.
The NRA and its affiliate spent nearly $3 million on federal-level lobbying in 2012 — more than it has during any previous year, according to data maintained by the Center for Responsive Politics, but spending during this year's first quarter puts it on pace to exceed that mark.


Monsanto controls your diet

The chemical company's influence extends across all three branches of government -- and affects our daily lives

Forty percent of the crops grown in the United States contain their genes. They produce the world’s top selling herbicide. Several of their factories are now toxic Superfund sites. They spend millions lobbying the government each year. It’s time we take a closer look at who’s controlling our food, poisoning our land, and influencing all three branches of government. To do that, the watchdog group Food and Water Watch recently published a corporate profile of Monsanto.

Patty Lovera, Food and Water Watch assistant director, says they decided to focus on Monsanto because they felt a need to “put together a piece where people can see all of the aspects of this company.”

“It really strikes us when we talk about how clear it is that this is a chemical company that wanted to expand its reach,” she says. “A chemical company that started buying up seed companies.” She feels it’s important “for food activists to understand all of the ties between the seeds and the chemicals.”

Monsanto the Chemical Company

Monsanto was founded as a chemical company in 1901, named for the maiden name of its founder’s wife. Its first product was the artificial sweetener saccharin. The company’s own telling of its history emphasizes its agricultural products, skipping forward from its founding to 1945, when it began manufacturing agrochemicals like the herbicide 2,4-D.

Prior to its entry into the agricultural market, Monsanto produced some harmless – even beneficial! – products like aspirin. It also made plastics, synthetic rubber, caffeine, and vanillin, an artificial vanilla flavoring. On the not-so-harmless side, it began producing toxic PCBs in the 1930s.

According to the new report, a whopping 99 percent of all PCBs, polychlorinated biphenyls, used in the U.S. were produced at a single Monsanto plant in Sauget, IL. The plant churned out toxic PCBs from the 1930s until they were banned in 1976. Used as coolants and lubricants in electronics, PCBs are carcinogenic and harmful to the liver, endocrine system, immune system, reproductive system, developmental system, skin, eye, and brain.
Even after the initial 1982 cleanup of this plant, Sauget is still home to two Superfund sites. (A Superfund site is defined by the EPA as “an uncontrolled or abandoned place where hazardous waste is located, possibly affecting local ecosystems or people.”) This is just one of several Monsanto facilities that became Superfund sites.

Monsanto’s Shift to Agriculture

Despite its modern-day emphasis on agriculture, Monsanto did not even create an agricultural division within the company until 1960. It soon began churning out new pesticides, each colorfully named under a rugged Western theme: Lasso, Roundup, Warrant, Lariat, Bullet, Harness, etc.

Left out of Monsanto’s version of its historical highlights is an herbicide called Agent Orange. The defoliant, a mix of herbicides 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T, was used extensively during the war in Vietnam. The nearly 19 million gallons sprayed in that country between 1962 and 1971 were contaminated with dioxin, a carcinogen so potent that it is measured and regulated at concentrations of parts per trillion. Dioxin was created as a byproduct of Agent Orange’s manufacturing process, and both American veterans and Vietnamese people suffered health problems from the herbicide’s use.

Monsanto’s fortunes changed forever in 1982, when it genetically engineered a plant cell. The team responsible, led by Ernest Jaworski, consisted of Robb Fraley, Stephen Rogers, and Robert Horsch. Today, Fraley is Monsanto’s executive vice president and chief technology officer. Horsch also rose to the level of vice president at Monsanto, but he left after 25 years to join the Gates Foundation. There, he works on increasing crop yields in Sub-Saharan Africa. Together, the team received the National Medal of Technology from President Clinton in 1998.
The company did not shift its focus from chemicals to genetically engineered seeds overnight. In fact, it was another 12 years before it commercialized the first genetically engineered product, recombinant bovine growth hormone (rbGH), a controversial hormone used to make dairy cows produce more milk. And it was not until 1996 that it first brought genetically engineered seeds, Roundup Ready soybeans, onto the market.

By 2000, the company had undergone such a sea change from its founding a century before that it claims it is almost a different company. In Monsanto’s telling of its own history, it emphasizes a split between the “original” Monsanto Company and the Monsanto Company of today. In 2000, the Monsanto Company entered a merger and changed its name to Pharmacia.
The newly formed Pharmacia then spun off its agricultural division as an independent company named Monsanto Company.

Do the mergers and spinoffs excuse Monsanto for the sins of the past committed by the company bearing the same name? Lovera does not think so. “I’m sure there’s some liability issues they have to deal with – their various production plants that are now superfund sites,” she responds. “So I’m sure there was legal thinking about which balance sheet you put those liabilities on” when the company split. She adds that the notion that today’s Monsanto is not the same as the historical Monsanto that made PCBs is “a nice PR bullet for them.”

But, she adds, “even taking that at face value, that they are an agriculture company now, they are still producing seeds that are made to be used with chemicals they produce.” For example, Roundup herbicide alone made up more than a quarter of their sales in 2011. The proportion of their business devoted to chemicals is by no means insignificant.

Monsanto’s pesticide product line includes a number of chemicals named as Bad Actors by Pesticide Action Network. They include Alachlor (a carcinogen, water contaminant, developmental/reproductive toxin, and a suspected endocrine disruptor), Acetochlor (a carcinogen and suspected endocrine disruptor), Atrazine (a carcinogen and suspected endocrine disruptor), Clopyralid (high acute toxicity), Dicamba (developmental/reproductive toxin), and Thiodicarb (a carcinogen and cholinesterase inhibitor).

Roundup: The Benign Herbicide?

Defenders of Monsanto might reply to the charge that Roundup is no Agent Orange. In fact, the herbicide is viewed as so benign and yet effective that its inventor, John E. Franz, won the National Medal of Technology. Glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, kills everything green and growing, but according to Monsanto, it only affects a metabolic pathway in plants, so it does not harm animals. It’s also said to break down quickly in the soil, leaving few traces on the environment after its done its job.

Asked about the harmlessness of Roundup, Lovera replies, “That’s the PR behind Roundup – how benign it was and you can drink it and there’s nothing to worry about here. There are people who dispute that.” For example there is an accusation that Roundup causes birth defects. “We don’t buy the benign theory,” continues Lovera, “But what’s really interesting is that we aren’t going to be having this conversation pretty soon because Roundup isn’t working anymore.”

Lovera is referring to “Roundup-resistant weeds,” weeds that have evolved in the past decade and a half to survive being sprayed by Roundup. Nearly all soybeans grown in the United States is Monsanto’s genetically engineered Roundup Ready variety, as are 80 percent of cotton and 73 percent of corn. Farmers spray entire fields with Roundup, killing only the weeds while the Roundup Ready crops survive. With such heavy use of Roundup on America’s farmfields, any weed – maybe one in a million – with an ability to survive in that environment would survive and pass on its genes in its seeds.

By 1998, just two years after the introduction of Roundup Ready soybeans, scientists documented the first Roundup-resistant weed. A second was found in 2000, and three more popped up in 2004. To date, there are 24 different weedsthat have evolved resistance to Roundup worldwide. And once they invade a farmer’s field, it doesn’t matter if his crops are Roundup-resistant, because Roundup won’t work anymore. Either the weeds get to stay, or the farmer needs to find a new chemical, pull the weeds by hand, or find some other way to deal with the problem.

“We’ve wasted Roundup by overusing it,” says Lovera. She and other food activists worry about the harsher chemicals that farmers are switching to, and the genetically engineered crops companies like Monsanto are developing to use with them.

Currently, there are genetically engineered crops waiting for government approval that are made to tolerate the herbicides 2,4-D, Dicamba and Isoxaflutole. (These are not all from Monsanto – some are from their competitors.) None of these chemicals are as “benign” as Roundup. Isoxaflutole is, in fact, a carcinogen. Let’s spray that on our food!

Corporate Control of Seeds

No discussion of Monsanto is complete without a mention of the immense amount of control it exerts on the seed industry.

“What it boils down to is between them buying seed companies outright, their incredible aggressive legal maneuvering, their patenting of everything, and their enforcement of those patents, they really have locked up a huge part of the seed supply,” notes Lovera. “So they just exercise an unprecedented control over the entire seed sector. Monsanto products constitute 40 percent of all crop acres in the country.”

Monsanto began buying seed companies as far back as 1982. (One can see an infographic of seed industry consolidation here.) Some of Monsanto’s most significant purchases were Asgrow (soybeans), Delta and Pine Land (cotton), DeKalb (corn), and Seminis (vegetables). One that deserves special mention is their purchase of Holden’s Foundation Seeds in 1997.

George Naylor, an Iowa farmer who grows corn and soybeans, calls Holden’s “The independent source of germplasm for corn.” Small seed companies could buy inbred lines from Holden’s to cross them and produce their own hybrids. Large seed companies like Pioneer did their own breeding, but small operations relied on Holden’s or Iowa State University. But Iowa State got out of the game and Monsanto bought Holden’s.

Monsanto’s tactics for squashing its competition are perhaps unrivaled. They use their power to get seed dealers to not to stock many of their competitors products, for example. When licensing their patented genetically engineered traits to seed companies, they restrict the seed companies’ ability to combine Monsanto’s traits with those of their competitors. And, famously, farmers who plant Monsanto’s patented seeds sign contracts prohibiting them from saving and replanting their seeds. Yet, to date, U.S. antitrust laws have not clamped down on these practices.

With the concentrated control of the seed industry, farmers already complain of lack of options. For example, Naylor says he’s had a hard time finding non-genetically engineered soybean seeds. Most corn seeds are now pre-treated with pesticides, so farmers wishing to find untreated seeds will have a tough time finding any. Once a company or a handful of companies control an entire market, then they can choose what to sell and at what price to sell it.

Furthermore, if our crops are too genetically homogenous, then they are vulnerable to a single disease or pest that can wipe them out. When farmers grow genetically diverse crops, then there is a greater chance that one variety or another will have resistance to new diseases. In that way, growing genetically diverse crops is like having insurance, or like diversifying your risk within your stock portfolio.

Food and Water Watch Recommendations

At the end of its report, Food and Water Watch lists several recommendations. “There are a lot of ways that government policy could address the Monsanto hold on the food supply,” explains Lovera. “The most important thing is that it’s time to stop approval of genetically engineered crops to stop this arms race of the next crop and the next chemical.”

She also calls Monsanto “the poster child for the need for antitrust enforcement” – something that the Justice Department has yet to successfully deliver up. In fact, last November the government ended a three-year antitrust investigation of Monsanto.

A third recommendation Lovera hopes becomes a reality is mandatory labeling of genetically engineered foods. “If we had that label and we put that information in consumers’ hands, they could do more to avoid this company in their day-to-day lives,” she says.

In the meantime, all consumers can do to avoid genetically engineered foods is to buy organic for the handful of crops that are genetically engineered: corn, soybeans, canola, cotton, papaya, sugar beets, and alfalfa.


President Barack Obama Weekly Address April 20, 2013 (Video/Transcript)

Weekly Address
The White House
April 20, 2013

On Monday, an act of terror wounded dozens and killed three innocent people at the Boston Marathon.

But in the days since, the world has witnessed one sure and steadfast truth: Americans refuse to be terrorized.

Ultimately, that’s what we’ll remember from this week.  That’s what will remain.  Stories of heroism and kindness; resolve and resilience; generosity and love.

The brave first responders – police officers, firefighters, EMTs, and National Guard – who ran toward danger to help their fellow citizens.

The race volunteers, spectators, and exhausted runners who rushed to help, including troops and veterans who never expected to see such scenes on the streets of America. 

The determined doctors and nurses at some of the world’s best hospitals, who have toiled day and night to save so many lives.

The big-hearted people of Boston – residents, priests, shopkeepers – who carried victims in their arms; delivered water and blankets; lined up to give blood; opened their homes to total strangers. 

And the heroic federal agents and police officers who worked together throughout the week, often at great risk to themselves, to keep our communities safe.  As a country, we are eternally grateful for the profound sacrifices they make in the line of duty – sometimes making the ultimate sacrifice to defend the people they’ve sworn to protect.

If anyone wants to know who we are; what America is; how we respond to evil and terror – that’s it.  Selflessly.  Compassionately.  And unafraid. 

Through days that would test even the sturdiest of souls, Boston’s spirit remains undaunted.  America’s spirit remains undimmed.  Our faith in each other, our love for this country, our common creed that cuts across whatever superficial differences we may have – that’s what makes us strong.  That’s why we endure.

In the days to come, we will remain vigilant as a nation.  And I have no doubt the city of Boston and its surrounding communities will continue to respond in the same proud and heroic way that they have thus far – and their fellow Americans will be right there with them every step of the way.  May God bless the people of Boston and the United States of America.

Fertilizer trade group opposed stricter security rules

Source:The Center for Public Integrity
Like many, the Fertilizer Institute, a trade group, has extended its condolences to the people of West, Texas, where a blast at a fertilizer plant Wednesday evening killed at least a dozen and injured about 200.

The Washington-based institute, however, has lobbied against legislation that would require high-risk chemical facilities – including some of its members – to consider using safer substances and processes to lower the risk of catastrophic accidents and make such facilities less inviting to terrorists.

Senate records show that the institute has spent $7.4 million on lobbying since 2006, some of it in opposition to legislation like a 2009 bill that passed the House but never became law.
A spokeswoman for the institute did not respond to requests for comment Friday from the Center for Public Integrity. The organization says on its website that it supports existing rules enforced by the Department of Homeland Security and opposes any expansion of the rules “to mandate inherently safer technologies.”

In a 2011 letter to the chairman and ranking member of the House Homeland Security Committee, the institute and nine other groups maintained that “America’s agricultural industry has limited resources available to address all security related matters and it is very important that those resources are spent wisely to coincide with the appropriate level of risk for each particular facility…”

The groups said they supported continuation of the Homeland Security Department’s Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards (CFATS) program, begun in 2007, and “oppose any federal requirement to use inherently safer technology (IST)… If an IST requirement is put in place for the nation’s agricultural industry it could jeopardize the availability of lower-cost sources of fertilizers or certain agricultural pesticides used by farmers and ranchers.”

(An example of IST: Replacing poisonous chlorine gas at a water treatment plant with ultraviolet light).

CFATS sets broad security standards for chemical facilities and requires them to prepare “vulnerability assessments,” which are reviewed by federal regulators.

Environmentalists, worker advocates and others say the program is riddled with loopholes. It bars the Homeland Security Department, for example, from requiring any “particular security measure,” exempts thousands of facilities and doesn’t allow for unannounced inspections.
A September 2012 report by the Government Accountability Office raised questions about the department’s management of CFATS, pointing to an internal memo in 2011 that claimed the program suffered from “a lack of planning, poor internal controls, and a workforce whose skills were inadequate to fulfill the program’s mission…”

Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., has introduced legislation again this year to close the CFATS loopholes. Rick Hind, legislative director for Greenpeace, argues that the Environmental Protection Agency already has the power to do so.

The EPA should steer chemical companies “toward disaster prevention rather than risk management by giving facilities a requirement to reduce the consequences of a catastrophe like [the Texas explosion],” Hind said. “They would be free to choose how they reduced those consequences.”

In the months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the EPA drafted legislation along the lines of what Hind described. The Bush White House shot it down.

Christine Todd Whitman, the EPA’s administrator at the time, joined others last year in urging the agency to use its authority under the Clean Air Act to address shortcomings in CFATS, saying “millions of Americans [are] at risk.”

An EPA spokeswoman did not respond to requests for comment Friday.

It’s unclear whether West Fertilizer Co., the plant that blew up this week, is among the 4,458 facilities nationwide that the Homeland Security Department considers high-risk.
The company stored anhydrous ammonia, a toxic gas that becomes flammable under certain conditions. More than 10.5 billion pounds of the chemical is kept at 7,378 facilities nationwide, according to data compiled by The Right-to-Know Network, a project of the nonprofit Center for Effective Government.

The West plant also stored ammonium nitrate, which can explode spectacularly if combined with fuel and set aflame. The compound was used by domestic terrorists to blow up the federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995 and all but wiped out Texas City, Texas, in a port accident in 1947.

Texas Plant May Not Have Been Inspected in Years, Despite Risks

A 2011 report highlighted hazards at the fertilizer plant, including tens of thousands of pounds of anhydrous ammonia.

—By , , and  

Source: Mother Jones 

As the news of the deadly explosion at the West Fertilizer Company plant in West, Texas, has unfolded, journalists and observers wasted no time in wondering if anyone could have seen this catastrophe coming.

The Dallas Morning News reported that the West facility had claimed in an emergency planning report that an explosion of the kind that happened Wednesday would be virtually impossible. However, further analysis of this report shows that it contained other red flags about potential hazards and shoddy equipment. The plant's June 2011 risk management plan (RMP), filed with the Environmental Protection Agency, identified several potential hazards, including equipment failure; toxic release; overpressure, corrosion, or overfilling of equipment; an earthquake; or a tornado.

The report asserted that the worst-case scenario for the plant "would be the release of the total contents of a storage tank released as a gas over 10 minutes." It reported no flammable material on site, despite listing 54,000 pounds of anhydrous ammonia at the plant.

In a list of its regulated substances and thresholds, the EPA classifies anhydrous ammonia as toxic, but not flammable. OSHA considers anhydrous ammonia a flammable gas, as do the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The National Fire Protection Association gives anhydrous ammonia a flammability rating of 1 (0 being the lowest, 4 the highest), likely because it requires a high concentration and strong ignition source to catch fire.
It's unclear if the EPA conducted any follow up in response to the potential hazards listed in plant's 2011 risk report. The safety inspector listed on the report was an employee of Security Truck Services, a transporter of anhydrous ammonia located in Baytown, Texas. The EPA and Security Truck Services have not yet responded to requests for comment on the inspection process.
In response to the West explosion, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) reports that it has pursued seven investigations of the fertilizer plant since 2002, both routine and in response to complaints. The last recorded investigation occurred in 2007, 10 months after the agency dealt with an odor complaint.

The Texas Tribune notes that this probably means the facility hadn't been inspected in the past five years. This would be consistent with a steep decline in the TCEQ's investigations in the past few years. The agency's last annual enforcement report showed that the number of complaints investigated has plummeted by 20 percent since 2007, though it is unclear it has been receiving fewer complaints. Its total number of investigations has fallen by more than 7 percent since 2007. Since 2008, the agency's operating budget has been slashed by nearly 40 percent. The TCEQ has not responded to a request for comment on its investigations and whether it was familiar with the West plant's 2011 risk report.

Turning to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration for information on the plant's safety record turns up little. The plant's last OSHA inspection was in 1985—not surprising considering that it would take the short-staffed agency 98 years for the agency to inspect each of the state's workplaces. (It would take 130 years for OSHA to inspect every workplace in the United States.)

Pushing for reform


  Source:Al Jazeera

We examine Obama's efforts to reform gun control legislation, immigration laws and cybersecurity regulations.

This has been an important week for three key issues in Washington.

On Wednesday, April 17, the US Senate voted to reject a bipartisan plan to expand background checks for gun buyers drawing the anger of President Barack Obama, and relatives of victims of last December's Newtown mass shooting.

The proposal that was defeated by just six votes would have extended background checks to online and gun show sales, but it did not require checks for gun sales between family members or friends. It also pledged to keep the government from creating a federal registry of gun owners.
"President Obama is just the latest in a long line of democratic presidents, that have run afoul of the NRA, and been burned .... So this is not unfamiliar territory, we knew that President Obama was taking a bold step by pushing for gun control laws that were going to be hard to adopt, it turns out that his strategy for overcoming that resistance wasn't  good enough."
- Adam Winkler, a constitutional law professor 
On Tuesday, April 16, the so-called Gang of Eight, a bipartisan group of senators, published their immigration bill that they say will put millions of undocumented immigrants on a 13-year pathway to US citizenship and strengthen border security.

Although it creates a path to citizenship, it comes at a cost, with applicants having to pay more than $2,000 in fines and fees. No one, however, who entered the country after December 31, 2011, would be able to apply.

And the path to citizenship will be enacted only if various border security "triggers" are met. They include proving that the US-Mexico border has been secured, and that 90 percent of those crossing without required papers were being turned back, finally the bill proposes spending an initial $4.5bn on increased security measures including the use of drones.
On Thursday, April 18, the House of Representatives voted to pass the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA).

CISPA allows internet service providers and telecoms companies and the US government to share information, and it would also grant businesses legal immunity for violating an individual's privacy so long as they acted "in good faith."
"The political dynamics are different. With guns you had the NRA 100 percent against absolutely anything … whereas immigration, Republicans want  to get something done, the Chamber of Commerce is on board, and a lot of other conservative organisations will like it if their movement was not called racist anymore so they have some incentives to actually get something done." 
- Ryan Grim, the Washington bureau chief for the Huffington Post
The stated aim of the law is to help the US government investigate cyber threats and protect the security of networks against attack.

But civil liberties advocates argue that it will give the federal government unprecedented powers to access the data of Americans.

And critics argue the language of the bill is vague, opening up the possibility that innocuous online activities could be presented as cybersecurity threats and shared with the government.
So where are the new reforms heading? And what impact will they have on American society?
Inside Story Americas, with presenter Shihab Rattansi, discusses with guests: Ryan Grim, the Washington bureau chief for the Huffington Post; Adam Winkler, a professor of law at UCLA and author of Gunfight: The Battle over the Right to Bear Arms in America; Sarahi Uribe, the national campaign coordinator for the National Day Laborer Organizing Network; and Holmes Wilson, the co-founder and co-director of Fight for the Future, a digital rights advocacy group.

"The intend of CISPA is to make it easier for companies to share information on security vulnerabilities with each other and with the government, which is great. The problem is they didn't include any requirement. The companies strip out people's personal information before they share it with the government. So we are talking your emails, your personal messages, your text messages, your photos, your real time location if you have a cellphone. All of this could be shared with the government, and they can use it without a warrant."


On Meeting Our Meat

Going undercover at a slaughterhouse in an age of agribusiness gag laws
Source: Harper’s Magazine

I eat meat. Always have. I’ve tried a couple of times to stop, but have never done more than cut back: I miss it too much.

Given its intimate connection to my body and my health, I’m interested in how meat is made. This seems natural enough in an age in which farmers and feedlots and meat companies fill animals with hormones and antibiotics, and grow animals in factories in order to maximize production.

But the producers of meat apparently worry that if we know how it’s made we’ll eat less of it. They make it all but impossible for journalists and members of the general public to visit production facilities, be they poultry plants, pork factories, or beef slaughterhouses. Animal-rights groups, dissatisfied with this secrecy, have made it their business to send operatives inside with hidden cameras, to devastating effect.

So I decided to find work in a beef slaughterhouse, an experience I write about in this month’s issue of Harper’s Magazine. Before I set out, I touched base with the Humane Society of the United States, PETA, and Mercy for Animals to learn about their investigations. I asked: How did you pick the farms or plants you went to? Had you heard complaints?

In each case, the answer was that they hadn’t targeted anyplace in particular; they’d just gone where they thought they could get hired. “We have never found a facility where there wasn’t abuse,” Nathan Runkle, the founder of Mercy For Animals, told me. “Finding it is not the issue. Our challenge is just to have a camera there when it happens.”

I thought I might gain a broader view by getting a job not simply as a company line worker but as a federal meat inspector. The Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) of the USDA oversees live slaughter, and it hires inspectors on the basis of either experience in the industry (often factory work, including quality control) or education, specifically a four-year college degree with sufficient math and science credits. After reviewing my transcript, the FSIS said I was short some credits, so I enrolled in a distance-learning math course at the University of Illinois, completed it five months later (B+!), and reapplied.

During the two years I waited to get a job, I watched with growing alarm the rise of so-called ag-gag laws. This class of laws, promoted by agribusiness in farm states, criminalizes the unauthorized recording of video or photographs inside a production facility. Their passage (in six states so far, with seven others considering them) has been accompanied by rhetoric denouncing the terrorism of  “extremist vegans” who would destroy the industry. In other words, in lieu of cleaning its house, the meat industry has elected to kill the messenger.

Though recording video was not my goal, I was nevertheless concerned as a writer. Some of the laws go beyond video and photography: proposed legislation in Arkansas would have made it illegal for anyone but law-enforcement personnel to “collect evidence into alleged claims of criminal conduct involving an animal.” (Whether such laws would be constitutional or enforceable remains to be seen.)

Nebraska, where I was finally hired in October 2012, is considering an ag-gag law but has not yet passed one, so my research was unaffected. But what about the next journalist? What about the next activist? With the underlying problems at slaughterhouses left unaddressed, undercover investigations won’t stop, which means that before long some idealistic person will be charged with a felony and become a martyr to the cause of safe, humanely produced food. And that should very much focus meat-eating Americans on the question of what’s so wrong with our food that the industry would promote draconian laws to keep its practices hidden from view.

President Obama Speaks at an Interfaith Prayer Service in Boston

Remarks by the President at Interfaith Service in Boston, MA
Cathedral of The Holy Cross
Boston, Massachusetts
THE PRESIDENT:  Hello, Boston!

Scripture tells us to “run with endurance the race that is set before us.”  Run with endurance the race that is set before us.

On Monday morning, the sun rose over Boston.  The sunlight glistened off the Statehouse dome.  In the Common and the Public Garden, spring was in bloom.  On this Patriot’s Day, like so many before, fans jumped onto the T to see the Sox at Fenway.  In Hopkinton, runners laced up their shoes and set out on a 26.2-mile test of dedication and grit and the human spirit.  And across this city, hundreds of thousands of Bostonians lined the streets -- to hand the runners cups of water and to cheer them on.

It was a beautiful day to be in Boston -- a day that explains why a poet once wrote that this town is not just a capital, not just a place.  Boston, he said, “is the perfect state of grace.”  (Applause.)

And then, in an instant, the day’s beauty was shattered.  A celebration became a tragedy.  And so we come together to pray, and mourn, and measure our loss.   But we also come together today to reclaim that state of grace -- to reaffirm that the spirit of this city is undaunted, and the spirit of this country shall remain undimmed.

To Governor Patrick; Mayor Menino; Cardinal O’Malley and all the faith leaders who are here; Governors Romney, Swift, Weld and Dukakis; members of Congress; and most of all, the people of Boston and the families who’ve lost a piece of your heart.  We thank you for your leadership.  We thank you for your courage.  We thank you for your grace.

I’m here today on behalf of the American people with a simple message:  Every one of us has been touched by this attack on your beloved city.  Every one of us stands with you.
Because, after all, it’s our beloved city, too.  Boston may be your hometown, but we claim it, too.  It’s one of America’s iconic cities.  It’s one of the world’s great cities.  And one of the reasons the world knows Boston so well is that Boston opens its heart to the world.

Over successive generations, you’ve welcomed again and again new arrivals to our shores -- immigrants who constantly reinvigorated this city and this commonwealth and our nation.  Every fall, you welcome students from all across America and all across the globe, and every spring you graduate them back into the world -- a Boston diaspora that excels in every field of human endeavor.  Year after year, you welcome the greatest talents in the arts and science, research -- you welcome them to your concert halls and your hospitals and your laboratories to exchange ideas and insights that draw this world together.

And every third Monday in April, you welcome people from all around the world to the Hub for friendship and fellowship and healthy competition -- a gathering of men and women of every race and every religion, every shape and every size; a multitude represented by all those flags that flew over the finish line.

So whether folks come here to Boston for just a day, or they stay here for years, they leave with a piece of this town tucked firmly into their hearts.  So Boston is your hometown, but we claim it a little bit, too.  (Applause.)

I know this because there’s a piece of Boston in me.  You welcomed me as a young law student across the river; welcomed Michelle, too.  (Applause.)  You welcomed me during a convention when I was still a state senator and very few people could pronounce my name right.


Like you, Michelle and I have walked these streets.  Like you, we know these neighborhoods.  And like you, in this moment of grief, we join you in saying -- “Boston, you’re my home.”  For millions of us, what happened on Monday is personal.  It’s personal.

Today our prayers are with the Campbell family of Medford.  They're here today.  Their daughter, Krystle, was always smiling. Those who knew her said that with her red hair and her freckles and her ever-eager willingness to speak her mind, she was beautiful, sometimes she could be a little noisy, and everybody loved her for it.  She would have turned 30 next month.  As her mother said through her tears, “This doesn’t make any sense.”

Our prayers are with the Lu family of China, who sent their daughter, Lingzi, to BU so that she could experience all this city has to offer.  She was a 23-year-old student, far from home. And in the heartache of her family and friends on both sides of a great ocean, we’re reminded of the humanity that we all share.

Our prayers are with the Richard family of Dorchester -- to Denise and their young daughter, Jane, as they fight to recover. And our hearts are broken for 8-year-old Martin -- with his big smile and bright eyes.  His last hours were as perfect as an 8-year-old boy could hope for -- with his family, eating ice cream at a sporting event.  And we’re left with two enduring images of this little boy -- forever smiling for his beloved Bruins, and forever expressing a wish he made on a blue poster board:  “No more hurting people.  Peace.”

No more hurting people.  Peace.

Our prayers are with the injured -— so many wounded, some gravely.  From their beds, some are surely watching us gather here today.  And if you are, know this:  As you begin this long journey of recovery, your city is with you.  Your commonwealth is with you.  Your country is with you.  We will all be with you as you learn to stand and walk and, yes, run again.  Of that I have no doubt.  You will run again.  (Applause.)  You will run again. (Applause.)

Because that’s what the people of Boston are made of.  Your resolve is the greatest rebuke to whoever committed this heinous act.  If they sought to intimidate us, to terrorize us, to shake us from those values that Deval described, the values that make us who we are, as Americans -- well, it should be pretty clear by now that they picked the wrong city to do it.  (Applause.)

  Not here in Boston.  Not here in Boston.  (Applause.)

You’ve shown us, Boston, that in the face of evil, Americans will lift up what’s good.  In the face of cruelty, we will choose compassion.  In the face of those who would visit death upon innocents, we will choose to save and to comfort and to heal.  We’ll choose friendship.  We’ll choose love.
Scripture teaches us, “God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love, and self-discipline.”  And that’s the spirit you’ve displayed in recent days.

When doctors and nurses, police and firefighters and EMTs and Guardsmen run towards explosions to treat the wounded -- that’s discipline.

When exhausted runners, including our troops and veterans -- who never expected to see such carnage on the streets back home  -- become first responders themselves, tending to the injured -- that’s real power.

When Bostonians carry victims in their arms, deliver water and blankets, line up to give blood, open their homes to total strangers, give them rides back to reunite with their families -- that’s love.

That’s the message we send to those who carried this out and anyone who would do harm to our people.  Yes, we will find you.  And, yes, you will face justice.  (Applause.)  We will find you. We will hold you accountable.  But more than that; our fidelity to our way of life -- to our free and open society -- will only grow stronger.  For God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but one of power and love and self-discipline.

Like Bill Iffrig, 78 years old -- the runner in the orange tank top who we all saw get knocked down by the blast -- we may be momentarily knocked off our feet, but we’ll pick ourselves up. We’ll keep going.  We will finish the race.  (Applause.)

  In the words of Dick Hoyt, who’s pushed his disabled son, Rick, in 31 Boston Marathons -- “We can’t let something like this stop us.”  (Applause.)  This doesn’t stop us.  (Applause.)

And that’s what you’ve taught us, Boston.  That’s what you’ve reminded us -- to push on.  To persevere.  To not grow weary.  To not get faint.  Even when it hurts.  Even when our heart aches.  We summon the strength that maybe we didn’t even know we had, and we carry on.  We finish the race.  (Applause.)  We finish the race.  (Applause.)

And we do that because of who we are.  And we do that because we know that somewhere around the bend a stranger has a cup of water.  Around the bend, somebody is there to boost our spirits.  On that toughest mile, just when we think that we’ve hit a wall, someone will be there to cheer us on and pick us up if we fall.  We know that.  (Applause.)

And that’s what the perpetrators of such senseless violence -- these small, stunted individuals who would destroy instead of build, and think somehow that makes them important -- that’s what they don’t understand.  Our faith in each other, our love for each other, our love for country, our common creed that cuts across whatever superficial differences there may be -- that is our power.  That’s our strength.

That’s why a bomb can’t beat us.  That’s why we don’t hunker down.  That’s why we don’t cower in fear.  We carry on.  We race. We strive.  We build, and we work, and we love -- and we raise our kids to do the same.  And we come together to celebrate life, and to walk our cities, and to cheer for our teams.  When the Sox and Celtics and Patriots or Bruins are champions again -- to the chagrin of New York and Chicago fans -- (laughter) -- the crowds will gather and watch a parade go down Boylston Street.  (Applause.)

And this time next year, on the third Monday in April, the world will return to this great American city to run harder than ever, and to cheer even louder, for the 118th Boston Marathon.  (Applause.)  Bet on it.  (Applause.)

Tomorrow, the sun will rise over Boston.  Tomorrow, the sun will rise over this country that we love.  This special place.  This state of grace.

Scripture tells us to “run with endurance the race that is set before us.”  As we do, may God hold close those who’ve been taken from us too soon.  May He comfort their families.  And may He continue to watch over these United States of America.  (Applause.)