Archive for the ‘National Politics’ Category

Hoyer: Keep Election Assistance Commission, Expect Changes

Thursday, April 14th, 2011

Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Mechanicsville, urged fellow lawmakers not to eliminate the Election Assistance Commission at a House Subcommittee on Elections hearing Thursday morning.

“The EAC has created a comprehensive program to test state voting systems for accuracy—and use of this program has been shown to save our states millions of dollars and up to 12 months of testing time,” he said.

Established by the Help America Vote Act of 2002, the commission assists state officials with election funding and data collection. It also collects and standardizes data from the states and acts as a clearinghouse for best practices and election information.

Witnesses discussed a bill proposed by Subcommittee Chairman Gregg Harper, R-Miss., which would eliminate the agency.

Florida Secretary of State Kurt Browning testified that the organization has “outlived its usefulness.”

Secretaries of state from Florida, New Hampshire and Mississippi supported eliminating the commission, saying the responsibilities of the agency could be handled by other entities like the Federal Election Commission or Federal Voting Assistance Program.

Hoyer said the commission should continue to handle voting-related issues because the FEC is focused on campaign finance, not elections.

Rep. Charles Gonzalez, D-Texas, said shifting the duties of the EAC  to another organization would not reduce spending because the agencies assuming those roles would require additional funding.

Witness John Fortier, a research fellow from the American Enterprise Institute, said he would like to see a “leaner, meaner EAC.”

Even if the agency is eliminated, Fortier said, continued data gathering and standardization by other agencies is necessary.

Jill LaVine, registrar of voters for Sacramento County, Calif., said election officials rely on the assistance and guidance of the commission. The agency helped local officials when Sacramento introduced assist terminals for disabled voters, she said.

“No one pays any attention  to an election official until something goes wrong,” LaVine said. “Now is not the time to terminate the EAC.”

Mississippi Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann said the commission has become redundant. He testified that the agency’s data reporting requirements have burdened states’ small election staffs.

Hoyer conceded that spending cuts and program reform may be appropriate for the agency but questioned the bill stating, “Should that mean that therefore we should abolish an agency which the Congress overwhelmingly decided was a useful and appropriate function for the federal government to follow? I think not.”

By Capital News Service’s Laura E. Lee

Hoyer Calls for Compromise to Avoid Government Shutdown

Tuesday, April 5th, 2011

Rep. Steny Hoyer,  D-Mechanicsville, called for Republicans to compromise on the looming budget challenges during a press briefing this morning.

The House Minority Whip said he opposes short-term continuing resolutions like the one introduced by the House Appropriations Committee on Monday. He said the “episodic, sporadic funding levels” of continuing resolutions, in lieu of passing an overall 2011 budget, do not address the essential challenges of funding the government.

The continuing resolution measure would fund the government for one week. The Department of Defense would receive funding through the end of the current fiscal year on Sept. 30.

Hoyer said Congress is not going to solve the budget with non-security cuts and that all aspects of the budget, with the exception of the interest on the national debt, must be on the table in budget negotiations.

Without a continuing resolution, federal employees could face a shutdown that Hoyer calls “costly and demoralizing — not just for federal employees, but demoralizing for the nation.”

The ability to compromise is essential to the process, Hoyer said, and tea partyers who rallied on The Hill last week are unwilling to compromise.

Referring to last year’s tax cuts, he said, “In December, we made some compromises we didn’t like,” he said. “We’re prepared to compromise” on the budget issues, he said.

Hoyer said the budget is “a reflection of what people think is important.”

By Capital News Service’s Laura E. Lee

Cardin Proposes Elimination of Blenders’ Ethanol Tax Credit

Friday, March 11th, 2011
Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., introduced legislation to repeal the  Volumetric Ethanol Excise Tax Credit, which gives companies 45 cents on every gallon of ethanol they blend with gasoline.

“There is no real justification for the subsidy for the blend on ethanol,” Cardin said. The subsidy does not help corn growers, but rather contributes to the profits of oil companies, he said.

Should the bill become law, the short-term impact on corn growers would be relatively small, said John Urbanchuk, technical director at Cardno ENTRIX, an environmental and natural resources consulting firm. But the long-term effect on ethanol demand could be substantial, he said.

The bill, which is co-sponsored by Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, comes on the heels of a report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office last week saying the VEETC subsidy cost $5.4 billion in 2010. The report indicated the measure could cost $6.75 billion in forgone revenue in 2015.

“We’re looking for ways to save money,” Cardin said. “I think this is way you can save several billion dollars to help balance the budget.”

A demand for ethanol would remain without the VEETC because of the Renewable Fuel Standard, which requires minimum volumes of biofuels like ethanol in transportation fuels, according to the GAO report.

“Importantly, the fuel standard is now at a level high enough to ensure that a market for domestic ethanol production exists in the absence of the ethanol tax credit and may soon itself be at a level beyond what can be consumed by the nation’s existing vehicle infrastructure,” the report stated.

Growth Energy, an organization advocating for ethanol production and use, issued a statement condemning the bill.

“The ethanol industry is fully prepared to reform and reduce the cost of current tax programs,” said CEO Tom Buisin in a statement released Thursday. “I would suggest Sens. Coburn and Cardin introduce legislation requiring the oil industry to do the same. ”

Urbanchuk said a repeal of the tax credit could create another unintended consequence: an increase in the already-growing investment in foreign ethanol production.

“We’ll end up, instead of being a net exporter, perhaps being a net importer of ethanol again,” he said.

Cardin acknowledged opposition but remained confident in his objectives for the legislation.

“There could be some regional controversy because people identify it with corn, but I really think when people look at it they’ll see that this is not really an issue about the corn industry,” Cardin said. “It’s really an issue about removing a subsidy that’s no longer needed.”

– By Capital News Service’s Laura E. Lee

Mikulski Speaks Against ‘Draconian’ Budget Bill

Wednesday, March 9th, 2011

From the floor of the U.S. Senate — with a fresh Ash Wednesday smudge on her forehead — Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., railed against the House Republicans’ proposed budget bill, H.R. 1.

“I’m not going to stand for further pummeling of the middle class,” Mikulski said.

About an hour after Mikulski finished speaking, the Senate defeated the measure along party lines. The House bill, a continuing resolution to keep the federal government funded until the end of the 2011 fiscal year, included about $57 billion in cuts.

The Senate also defeated the Democrats’ budget cut proposal Wednesday. The Democrats’ failed plan sliced less than $6 billion from the federal budget.

Current funding for government operations is approved through March 18.

Mikulski opposed the Republican plan because it cut education grants, transportation funding and scientific research.

In particular, Mikulski said that cuts to the Food and Drug Administration — headquartered in Silver Spring — would create a backlog of approvals for drugs and medical devices. Slowing the FDA approval process would have a domino effect on private biotech firms, Mikulski said, and create job losses.

Before making her prepared remarks, Mikulski responded to comments made by Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who spoke before her in support of the Republican bill.

Coburn supported his party’s budget proposal in part because it reduced spending on overlapping government programs.

Mikulski said Coburn was blaming the Obama administration for duplicative spending that proceeded throughout the George W. Bush years when Republicans controlled both houses of Congress.

“Let’s end the duplication,” Mikulski said, “but let’s end the duplicity in the way we talk about the duplication.”

– By Capital News Service’s Steve Kilar

Westboro Group Plans Protest in Hyattsville

Tuesday, February 22nd, 2011
Members of the Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church protest at Fort Myer, Arlington, Va.,  in July 2006. The group plans to protest at Northwestern High School in Hyattsville next week. (Creative Commons photo on Flickr courtesy of Graeme Wood)

Members of the Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church protest at Fort Myer, Arlington, Va., in July 2006. The group plans to protest at Northwestern High School in Hyattsville next week. (Creative Commons photo on Flickr courtesy of Graeme Wood)

A Kansas church known for its vehement anti-homosexual stance and for picketing the funerals of fallen soldiers is targeting a Hyattsville high school for a protest next week.

A small cohort from the Westboro Baptist Church is planning to demonstrate outside Northwestern High School on Tuesday to voice objections over what it describes as a “pervert-run” school.

The church did not cite a specific issue with Northwestern but said teachers across the country have “broken the moral compass of this generation.

“These students are sitting in these high schools and actively together are rebelling against God and his commandments,” said Shirley Phelps-Roper, a spokeswoman and daughter of the church’s founder. “It’s the same everywhere. You seen one, you seen them all.”

Prince George’s County Schools Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. defended the school, saying the district does not support the planned demonstration.

“Our school district … is committed to supporting all of the students in our diverse population,” Hite said in a statement.

Prince George’s County School Board member Rosalind Johnson had stronger words for the church.

“I am appalled,” she said. “I can’t imagine someone claiming to be a member of a Christian church and truly perverting the word of God.”

The planned picket in Hyattsville comes as the U.S. Supreme Court returns from its winter recess. The Topeka, Kan.-based church is at the center of a Supreme Court case that stems from a protest in which church members picketed the funeral of a slain Marine from Carroll County, Md. The father of the Marine sued, but a federal appeals court ruled the church members were protected by the First Amendment.

The Supreme Court heard arguments in the case in October and will decide if the First Amendment protects protesters at funerals from liability for intentionally inflicting emotional distress on the family of the deceased.

Church members frequently travel across the country to protest gay rights and the Jewish faith. The protests can ignite strong emotions, as church members generally scream slurs at passers-by and display signs with controversial slogans like “God Hates America” and “God Hates F –s.”

About seven church members are expected to picket Tuesday across the street from the entrance of the school’s main parking lot, Phelps-Roper said.

In response, Hyattsville Police are planning to beef up security around the school and are developing a contingency plan “in case things go bad,” said Sgt. Chris Purvis.

The church is planning a separate protest in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday morning. Phelps-Roper said the church chose Northwestern, a school of roughly 2,500 students that claims Muppets creator Jim Henson as an alumnus, because it is in the general area, which she said is densely populated with military families.

In a news release, however, the church described Northwestern as a “F — infested, pervert-run” school.

The church was founded by Fred Phelps, who ran a street ministry in the 1950s that crusaded against people making out in public, said Mark Potok, director of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups and has followed the church for years.

Phelps first drew national attention in 1998 when he picketed the funeral of slain University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard, who was targeted because he was gay.

Since then, Phelps has used funerals as his “signature protest,” Potok said.

“This is a guy who will do anything to get publicity,” he said.

–By Capital News Service’s David Saleh Rauf and Maryland Newsline’s Alexandra Wilding

Guantanamo Bay Detainee Plea Deal

Monday, February 21st, 2011

GUANTANAMO BAY, CUBA — A military tribunal in Guantanamo Bay sentenced Noor Uthman Muhammed, a Sudanese native, to 14 years confinement on Friday but a plea agreement suspended the sentence and he will serve 34 months in exchange for his future cooperation in other investigations. Noor, as he requested to be called in an earlier hearing, will not get credit for the nine years he already served in Guantanamo.

Noor pleaded guilty to conspiracy and materially supporting terrorism on Tuesday. Under the charges, he admitted to training terrorists recruits at Khaldan training camp in Afghanistan between 1996 and 2000.

A nine-member commission heard arguments in the sentencing phase without knowledge of the plea arrangement and sentenced Noor to the maximum punishment after more than five hours of deliberation.

Capital News Service was among more than two-dozen news organizations permitted to observe Noor’s trial at the detention center in Cuba.

“Terrorists are not born, they are made,” said Lt. Cmdr. Arthur Gaston in the opening remarks for the prosecution. “And Noor Uthman has made hundreds of them.”

In his opening statement for the defense, lead counsel Howard Cabot, a civilian attorney from Phoenix countered: “I don’t have a catchy phrase to start my remarks.”

Though Noor made some mistakes, Cabot said, he has changed from the young man who left the Sudan for Pakistan 17 years ago.

The parties agreed to a stipulation of facts and offered no live testimony. The commission members- all military officers- saw statements of expected testimony and other documents including terrorism tactic manuals found in the safe house where Noor stayed just before his capture in 2002.

Defense counsel read an unsworn statement from Noor which detailed the alleged abuse he suffered in detention. “The worst time that I spent in Guantanamo Bay was while I was locked in Camp 5. I was there for two years in a cell by myself. I thought that I would lose my mind,” the statement read.

In closing arguments, the defense again offered photographs of the defendant as a young man and his family. They reassured commission members that Noor’s family and tribe would provide support if he is permitted to return to Sudan.

Several non-governmental organizations sent representatives to observe the trial.

Laura Pitter, counterterrorism advisor for Human Rights Watch, questioned the proceedings saying, “There’s a lot of pressure on these people to make a deal.”

Noor is the sixth individual to be convicted through the military commissions proceedings. Capt. John Murphy, chief prosecutor for the Office of Military Commissions, said he was pleased with the outcome calling it, “another step in the justice we are achieving.”

–By Capital News Service’s Laura E. Lee

O’Malley Helps Democratic Governors’ Group Raise $670K

Thursday, February 17th, 2011

ANNAPOLIS — In roughly one month as chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, Gov. Martin O’Malley helped it raise more than $670,000, according to an IRS filing.

In all, the DGA raised $670,916 between Nov. 23 and Dec. 31, the organization reported in its year-end financial disclosure filing. Only about $425 was donated before Dec. 1, the day O’Malley was elected chairman. He served as vice chairman the previous two years.

The DGA is the arm of the party that helps raise money to elect Democratic governors. O’Malley, who has shrugged off assertions that he’ll run for higher office, will reach a national audience and attain a higher profile with his chairmanship.

The year-end report shows O’Malley and the DGA relied heavily on contributions from big corporations. Among them is a $100,000 contribution from pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, which donated $400,089 to the DGA in 2010. O’Malley drew $100,000 contributions from BNSF Railway Co. and Duke Energy Corp. and a $50,000 check from San Francisco-based biotech firm Genentech.

Maryland-based companies kicked in a total of $55,000 during the roughly five-week reporting period, including $10,000 checks from Salisbury-based Perdue Farms and Annapolis-based lobbying firm Capitol Strategies.

There were only a few individual contributors to the DGA during the period. The biggest individual donor was former Texas Lt. Gov. Ben Barnes, the founder of Austin-based lobbying firm Ben Barnes Group LP. Barnes gave $10,000 during the period for a total of $20,000 during the year.

Democrats hold governorships in 20 states across the country. Money pumped into the DGA will help fund upcoming gubernatorial elections in Louisiana, Kentucky, and Mississippi.

The Republican Governor’s Association reported raising $1.5 million during the period, according to this filing.

O’Malley was scheduled to appear in Washington today to present the state’s legislative wish list to the Maryland delegation, but the event was canceled because lawmakers are working to pass funding legislation.

– By Capital News Service’s David Saleh Rauf

Md. Redistricting Data to be Released Next Week

Wednesday, February 2nd, 2011

Redistricting data for Maryland and three other states will be released next week, said U.S. Census Bureau Director Robert Groves, at the National Press Club in Washington Wednesday.

“Summaries of population totals, as well as data on race, Hispanic origin and voting age” will be included in the release, according to a statement from the Census Bureau.

Redistricting data based on the 2010 census is released to all 50 states on a rolling basis between the beginning of February and April 1, a legal deadline, Groves said. The data will be used by state legislatures to draw lines for legislative representation, Groves said.

The Census Bureau considers two main factors in determining the release order of redistricting data, Groves said: The complexity of certifying the data — some states’ data takes longer to process — and each state’s election schedule.

States with off-cycle elections, in 2011, are likely to receive redistricting data earlier than states that do not have elections until 2012, said Cathy McCully, chief of the Census Redistricting Data Office.

Maryland’s statewide elections are not scheduled until 2012 but the state’s data release was expedited because Baltimore City Council elections are scheduled for next fall, McCully said.

Virginia, Louisiana, New Jersey and Mississippi will be the first states to receive redistricting data, which will be released later this week. In addition to Maryland, Arkansas, Indiana and Iowa will receive data next week, Groves said.

-By Capital News Service’s Steve Kilar

O’Malley Says Tough Decisions Make Better Future

Tuesday, February 1st, 2011
Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley addresses a governing conference

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley addresses states' immediate economic future. Capital News Service photo by Laura E. Lee

State governments have to make “tough choices” that include spending cuts and balancing budgets, said Gov. Martin O’Malley at the National Press Club on Tuesday as keynote speaker for the Outlook in the States and Localities conference hosted by Governing magazine.

“Constant streamlining, constant closings, constant consolidations have become the new normal of governing and I am sure that is true in all of your states,” he told the crowd of about 200 people.

The difficult decisions are necessary, he said, to improve the future for the next generation.

“No generation of Americans ever built monuments to their own comfort,” he said. The tough decisions are made because “we want our children to be winners in this change to a new economy.”

At several points in the speech, O’Malley echoed President Obama’s words from last week’s State of the Union about “winning the future.”

With 87 cents of every general fund dollar spent on public education, public safety and public health, there are limited resources for other areas of government like the judicial system, environmental protection and economic development, he said.

Part of the current economic struggle is the result of increased health care costs, O’Malley said. “I think one of the biggest drains on the innovative capacity of our economy in recent years has been the rapidly escalating, out of control cost of health care.” Businesses have difficulty investing in new hiring, marketing, expansion and skills development when health care costs are so high, he explained.

O’Malley warned that states that do not embrace health care reform risk losses in the long-term. “We believe that states that are slow to adapt and slow to embrace this will lose out in this new competitive, this innovation edge, that will come to those states that figure out how to control those costs,” he said.

All the economic news is not bleak. The state gained 26,000 net new jobs in the innovation economy last year– the best year of new job creation since the recession began, he said.

O’Malley praised the education system, noting that, unlike any other state, Maryland’s university system has avoided any tuition increase in the last four years.

He explained that Maryland governmental units track and monitor data to improve efficiency and reduce costs.

Governing magazine named O’Malley a 2009 Public Official of the Year for his “data-driven approach to policy and administration.”

The speech comes in advance of the governor’s fifth State of the State address scheduled for Thursday at noon.

-By Capital News Service’s Laura E. Lee

House Votes to Eliminate Public Financing of Presidential Campaigns

Wednesday, January 26th, 2011

Just over a year after the Supreme Court’s landmark decision on campaign finance, the House Wednesday passed a Republican- sponsored bill to eliminate the public financing of presidential campaigns and party conventions.

Republican supporters said the legislation would reduce the deficit by cutting $617 million over 10 years. Democrats countered that the legislation would expand the Citizens United decision that allowed corporate entities to fund independent political ads and decrease the power of individuals in elections.

The White House budget office released a statement in opposition to the bill stating the effect of the legislation would be “to expand the power of corporations and special interests in the Nation’s elections; to force many candidates into an endless cycle of fundraising at the expense of engagement with voters on the issues; and to place a premium on access to large donor or special interest support, narrowing the field of otherwise worthy candidates.”

Several members criticized President Obama for opposing the bill because his 2008 campaign opted out of public financing and instead raised record funds through individual donors. Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., said Obama broke his pledge to participate in the program she called “outdated.”

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., said “The idea that Americans need this program in order to support candidates is absurd. It’s not 1971 anymore.” Republican members called on passage of the legislation as a way to reduce the federal deficit. Maryland Rep. Roscoe Barlett, R-Frederick, was one of the bill’s 20 co-sponsors.

Under current law, citizens may check a box on their tax return to designate $3 to a fund for distribution to candidates who meet certain eligibility requirements. Candidates must agree to funding limits and must meet certain reporting requirements by the Federal Election Commission.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Kensington, spoke in opposition to the bill. “Rather than presidential candidates trafficking in secret slush funds our nation decided that our democracy would be better served by a system of public disclosure, contribution limits, and emphasis on smaller dollar contributions, matched by the presidential financing fund,” he said.

Van Hollen called for a revision rather than elimination of the 1974 tax code provision that established the program. He and Rep. David Price, D-N.C., introduced legislation to amend the current law.

Several Democratic members expressed concern that the end of public financing would increase the power of special interests in elections. Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., said the bill added “insult to the injury” of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision last year. “Now my Republican colleagues propose to further erode whatever protections our government has left against a state of democracy for the highest bidder,” she said.

Ten Democratic members voted in favor of the legislation which passed the House with a vote of 239-160.

-By Capital News Service’s Laura E. Lee