Wednesday, January 5 Nine Circles of Hell!


The Nine Circles of Hell! – all the news that gives you fits in print – for Wednesday, January 5, 2011,  are:

States plan to balance budgets by busting unions

Arizona ‘to redefine what it means to be an American’

Tea Party’s lobbyist’s party; “business as usual on Capitol Hill”

Pentagon loosens rules governing contractors

Israel to “keep the Gazan economy on the brink of collapse”

Since election, “wave of repression has swamped” Belarus

After critic’s killing, leaders warn of blasting blasphemy law

Wikileaks reveals activists success against Japanese whaling

Bird deaths now rattling Sweden, too

States plan to balance budgets by busting unions
The New York Times

Strained States Turning to Laws to Curb Labor Unions

Past This is Hell! guest Steven Greenhouse writes …

Faced with growing budget deficits and restive taxpayers, elected officials from Maine to Alabama, Ohio to Arizona, are pushing new legislation to limit the power of labor unions, particularly those representing government workers, in collective bargaining and politics.

State officials from both parties are wrestling with ways to curb the salaries and pensions of government employees, which typically make up a significant percentage of state budgets. On Wednesday, for example, New York’s new Democratic governor, Andrew M. Cuomo, is expected to call for a one-year salary freeze for state workers, a move that would save $200 million to $400 million and challenge labor’s traditional clout in Albany.

But in some cases — mostly in states with Republican governors and Republican statehouse majorities — officials are seeking more far-reaching, structural changes that would weaken the bargaining power and political influence of unions, including private sector ones.

For example, Republican lawmakers in Indiana, Maine, Missouri and seven other states plan to introduce legislation that would bar private sector unions from forcing workers they represent to pay dues or fees, reducing the flow of funds into union treasuries. In Ohio, the new Republican governor, following the precedent of many other states, wants to ban strikes by public school teachers.

Some new governors, most notably Scott Walker of Wisconsin, are even threatening to take away government workers’ right to form unions and bargain contracts.

“We can no longer live in a society where the public employees are the haves and taxpayers who foot the bills are the have-nots,” Mr. Walker, a Republican, said in a speech. “The bottom line is that we are going to look at every legal means we have to try to put that balance more on the side of taxpayers.”

Many of the proposals may never become law. But those that do are likely to reduce union influence in election campaigns, with reverberations for both parties.

Arizona ‘to redefine what it means to be an American’
The New York Times

Birthright Citizenship Looms as Next Immigration Battle

Of the 50 or so women bused to this border town on a recent morning to be deported back to Mexico, Inez Vasquez stood out. Eight months pregnant, she had tried to trudge north in her fragile state, even carrying scissors with her in case she gave birth in the desert and had to cut the umbilical cord.

“All I want is a better life,” she said after the Border Patrol found her hiding in bushes on the Arizona side of the border with her husband, her young son and her very pronounced abdomen.

The next big immigration battle centers on illegal immigrants’ offspring, who are granted automatic citizenship like all other babies born on American soil. Arguing for an end to the policy, which is rooted in the 14th Amendment of the Constitution, immigration hard-liners describe a wave of migrants like Ms. Vasquez stepping across the border in the advanced stages of pregnancy to have what are dismissively called “anchor babies.”

The reality at this stretch of the border is more complex, with hospitals reporting some immigrants arriving to give birth in the United States but many of them frequent border crossers with valid visas who have crossed the border legally to take advantage of better medical care. Some are even attracted by an electronic billboard on the Mexican side that advertises the services of an American doctor and says bluntly, “Do you want to have your baby in the U.S.?”

Women like Ms. Vasquez, who was preparing for a desert delivery, are rare.

Still, Arizona — whose tough law granting the police the power to detain illegal immigrants is tied up in the courts — may again take the lead in what is essentially an effort to redefine what it means to be an American. This time, though, Arizona lawmakers intend to join with legislators from other states to force the issue before the Supreme Court.

This coalition of lawmakers will unveil its exact plans on Wednesday in Washington, but people involved in drafting the legislation say they have decided against the painstaking process of amending the Constitution. Since the federal government decides who is to be deemed a citizen, the lawmakers are considering instead a move to create two kinds of birth certificates in their states, one for the children of citizens and another for the children of illegal immigrants.

The theory is that this could spark a flurry of lawsuits that might resolve the legal conflict in their favor.

Tea Party’s lobbyist’s party; “business as usual on Capitol Hill”
McClatchy Newspapers

No tea party: Glitzy GOP fundraiser kicks off new Congress

An incoming California Republican congressman made a fundraising splash even before his Wednesday swearing-in, though his glitzy event wasn’t to everyone’s taste.

For $2,500 a ticket, lobbyists and others with money to politically invest partied Tuesday night with Rep.-elect Jeff Denham, other House Republicans and country singer LeAnn Rimes. The money raised will help re-elect GOP incumbents and candidates.

“This is to help our freshman class,” Denham said in an interview Tuesday afternoon. “It’s to bring us together, and it’s also to raise the money to make sure we can campaign well in 2012.”

A dozen other incoming GOP freshmen, including Reps. David Rivera and Steve Southerland of Florida and Renee Ellmers of North Carolina, joined in sponsoring the event.

But others are more skeptical, including, reportedly, some Republicans.

“This is business as usual on Capitol Hill, even though many of these Republicans were elected on a platform of not doing business as usual,” (past This is Hell! guest) Craig Holman, legislative representative of political watchdog Public Citizen, said Tuesday. “They’re already having huge fundraising events, and they haven’t even become lawmakers yet.”

Politico, which reported the fundraiser Tuesday, quoted several GOP fundraisers as saying the event sent the wrong signal at a time that Republican leaders were striking a lower-key image. Though the incoming House speaker, John Boehner, was identified as an “invited guest” on the invitation, he wasn’t expected to appear.

The ensuing kerfuffle drew half a dozen camera crews and a number of reporters to the swank W Hotel Tuesday night. Denham took the very unusual step of holding a pre-fundraising news conference, immediately before start of the reception …

The fundraising event, held several blocks from the White House, was a project of a fundraising entity called America’s New Majority. Denham said he conceived of America’s New Majority last year and rallied the dozen other incoming House freshmen to join him.

Pentagon loosens rules governing contractors

Pentagon Issues Ethics Memo Before Gutting Conflict-of-Interest Rules

Savor the irony: within days of the Pentagon’s second-in-command issuing a memo on ethics guidelines for its top leaders, the Defense Department loosened its restrictions on conflicts of interest for its contractors.

On December 29, the Department made it easier to brush under the rug conflicts between it and its contractors, all in the name of competition. Big defense companies can sometimes win defense cash to, say, build a weapon, while a subsidiary gets cash to test it out. Since Company X is in a position to stretch out the job during tests by bringing the weapon back to the drawing board, the Pentagon can call in its contract management officers to review so-called “organizational conflicts of interest” and potentially split up the contract.

Or at least it could. After months of industry worry that the Pentagon would make the rules tougher, the department opted to limit reviews to “major” programs, and pledged not to “unnecessarily restrict” the ability of defense firms to land lucrative deals.

Scott Amey of the Project on Government Oversight, which found the rule change, said the new language “reads like a contracting association lobbying letter.” And because it doesn’t define any penalties for violators, the department won’t be sufficiently able to “hold contractors accountable for failing to disclose an actual or apparent” conflict of interest.

Now for the bittersweet part. Just days before the department issued the change, William Lynn, the deputy secretary of defense, issued a memo to senior Pentagon leaders on “Ethics, Integrity and Accountability.” It reminded the leadership to “avoid any action that gives rise to public concern about the integrity of [Defense Department] business procedures and decisions.” But Lynn didn’t beef up any ethics rules or clarify any guidance about what to do if potential conflicts emerge …

There’s also a particular irony at work in the Pentagon relaxing its conflicts rules while Lynn reminds everyone to act above board. Lynn came to the Pentagon from Raytheon, where he was a top lobbyist for the defense giant. In fact, President Obama had to grant Lynn a waiver from the administration’s own restrictions on hiring lobbyists to ensure Lynn got the job. If anyone knows about the need to avoid even the appearance of conflict, it’s the deputy secretary.

Israel to “keep the Gazan economy on the brink of collapse”

Israel said would keep Gaza near collapse: WikiLeaks

Israel told U.S. officials in 2008 it would keep Gaza’s economy “on the brink of collapse” while avoiding a humanitarian crisis, according to U.S. diplomatic cables published by a Norwegian daily on Wednesday.

Three cables cited by the Aftenposten newspaper, which has said it has all 250,000 U.S. cables leaked to WikiLeaks, showed that Israel kept the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv briefed on its internationally criticized blockade of the Gaza Strip.

The territory, home to 1.3 million Palestinians, is run by the Islamist Hamas group, which is shunned by the West over its refusal to recognize Israel, renounce violence or accept existing interim Israeli-Palestinian peace deals.

“As part of their overall embargo plan against Gaza, Israeli officials have confirmed to (U.S. embassy economic officers) on multiple occasions that they intend to keep the Gazan economy on the brink of collapse without quite pushing it over the edge,” one of the cables read.

Israel wanted the coastal territory’s economy “functioning at the lowest level possible consistent with avoiding a humanitarian crisis,” according to the November 3, 2008 cable …

The Jewish state says it has significantly relaxed the blockade since May, with dozens of truckloads of goods entering the territory daily. Aid organizations have said shipments should be increased further.

Palestinians say impoverished Gaza remains effectively a “prison” sealed off by Israel, and have called for an opening to allow normal trade and other links with the world.

Since election, “wave of repression has swamped” Belarus
The Associated Press

Belarusian human rights group reports police raid

A human rights group in Belarus said Wednesday police have raided its office and detained its director, the latest in a wave of actions against activists and opposition supporters in the authoritarian country.

Belarusian authorities have cracked down on dissent since presidential elections Dec. 19 in which Alexander Lukashenko won a fourth term. More than 700 people, including seven candidates who ran against Lukashenko, were arrested after the voting, most of them at a massive demonstration protesting alleged vote fraud.

Belarus also ordered the closure of the local mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, whose monitors strongly criticized the election as unfair.

On Wednesday, a lawyer for the Belarus Helsinki Committee, Garry Pogonailo, said police had seized computers at its office and taken its director Oleg Gulak in for questioning.

“Lukashenko lost the election and that is why this wave of repression has swamped the country,” Pogonailo told The Associated Press.

The Helsinki Committee is an independent group whose name refers to the principles of the 1975 Helsinki Accords that were the precursor of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

In Warsaw, Belarusian opposition figures appealed Wednesday to the European Union and the world’s democratic community to use diplomatic and financial pressure to free those arrested and push Belarus to hold a truly free election.

“Belarus must hold new elections because the one held in December did not meet standards” said Alexander Kozulin, who ran against Lukashenko in 2006 and was arrested at a protest rally a week after that election and imprisoned for two years.

Kozulin said freeing the prisoners should be the initial condition for any contact the democratic world might have with Belarus, a former Soviet republic.

After critic’s killing, leaders warn of blasting blasphemy law

Pakistani scholars say mourning slain governor risky

A politician gunned down over his opposition to Pakistan’s blasphemy laws was buried on Wednesday after a murder likely to cow further those pushing for a more liberal and secular vision of Pakistani society.

Five hundred Pakistani religious scholars have warned that anyone who expresses grief over the assassination of a senior ruling party official who opposed the country’s blasphemy law could suffer the same fate.

Salman Taseer, a liberal politician close to President Asif Ali Zardari, had no day-to-day role in the central government.

But his killing in broad daylight at a shopping center in Islamabad reinforces the sense that the government is incapable of stabilizing the Muslim country of 170 million.

The Punjab province governor was killed on Tuesday by one of his guards, who was apparently incensed by the politician’s opposition to the blasphemy law, in a parking lot at the block of shops popular with foreigners.

The scholars also noted the “courage” and religious zeal of the killer, saying his action has made Muslims around the world proud.

Human rights groups say the blasphemy law is often exploited by religious conservatives as well as ordinary people to settle personal scores.

But it has widespread support in a country that is more than 95 percent Muslim, and most politicians are loath to be seen as soft on the defense of Islam. Taseer, however, was an outspoken critic.

Thousands waved ruling Pakistan People’s Party flags at Taseer’s funeral at his official residence in the city of Lahore, which was attended by Gilani and other top government officials. Supporters also waved as a helicopter transported his coffin away.

Wikileaks reveals activists success against Japanese whaling
The Wall Street Journal

WikiLeaks Japan: Whale Diplomacy

A total of four U.S. diplomatic cables — three originating from Tokyo, one from the State Department — show a push and pull effort from both countries to nudge Japan towards a more compromising position towards its controversial whale hunting activities. Japan’s escalating problems with the U.S.-based Sea Shepherd Conservation Society group are repeatedly mentioned from the Japanese side as a thorn in negotiating efforts.

Fisheries Agency Deputy Director General Masayuki Yamashita explained to U.S. officials that the Sea Shepherd’s actions held Japan back from fulfilling its quota for the last several years in a cable dated January 27, 2010. He implied that the confrontations were causing domestic political embarrassment for the Japanese government, making it hard for officials to negotiate with other countries.

Indeed, Japan’s troubles with the Sea Shepherd group had been highlighted early on. Referencing a discussion with an official in Japan’s fisheries ministry, the first confidential cable dated Nov. 2, 2009 indicates the Sea Shepherd was hampering its ability to curtail annual whale hunts …

Another cable sent from the Tokyo Embassy a week later — on Nov. 9, 2009 — cites the director general of the Fisheries Agency of Japan as saying U.S. action regarding the Sea Shepherd group would “positively influence Japan’s negotiating position in the Future of the IWC [International Whaling Commission] process,” underscoring just how nettlesome the Sea Shepherd’s presence on the high seas has become for Japan’s whalers …

In the first set of cables leaked by WikiLeaks that originate from the U.S. embassy in Tokyo, Japan asked the U.S. to take action against an anti-whaling activist group for harassing Japanese whalers, including taking away the group’s tax-exempt status. The cables were sent two months before a Japanese harpoon vessel collided into one of the Sea Shepherd boats, destroying the activist’s boat.

Bird deaths now rattling Sweden, too

Dead Birds in Sweden May Have Been ‘Scared to Death’

Dead birds suddenly falling from the sky has become more than just a localized set of incidents in the southern United States. Officials in Sweden reported Tuesday that a population of jackdaws numbering between 50 and 100 were found by a police patrol dead “on the street” of Falkoping. And like one of the theories advanced in the United States for the red-winged blackbirds falling from the Arkansas sky, one Swedish veterinarian believes the gray and black birds were literally scared to death.

County veterinarian Robert ter Horst told The Local that he thinks the jackdaws, which generally nest in trees during the night, were probably frightened from their roost, became disoriented, and later flew into objects or were hit by cars. He noted that thus far he had heard of only one incident of a bird being struck by a vehicle.

Horst said the large number of birds may have been scared by fireworks set off late Tuesday evening. Jackdaw populations often were weakened by a lack of food and severe temperatures as well. The veterinarian noted that those factors and others could have caused the dark birds to die from “winter stress.”

The Swedish veterinarian’s theory echoes one put forth by Arkansas authorities over the weekend to explain an estimated 5,000 red-winged blackbird deaths late New Year’s Eve. Just an hour before midnight, the blackbirds began to rain down on the small town of Beebe, Arkansas. Although uncertain of anything at the time, officials suggested that the birds may have been frightened, flying disoriented in the dark (like jackdaws, red-winged blackbirds are diurnal avians) and crashing into objects.