Weekly Roundup 2/27/2012

No one is ‘playing politics’ on Solyndra or birth control. This is politics.
Alec McGillis, The Washington Post, Feb. 26, 2012

Synopsis: Politics has become a dirty word, according to New Republic senior editor Alec McGillis, and that’s too bad. Politics “is the art of government, of ordering life among a people,” he writes. And it’s a necessary component of decisions on such issues as government funding of solar energy initiatives (Solyndra), teenagers’ access to contraception (Plan B) or approving job-creating, environmentally risky energy projects (Keystone XL pipeline)

Takeaway: “Americans have long professed disdain for [politics’] grubbier aspects,” McGillis writes. But “who would we rather have making these decisions – our elected representatives, acting with the input of experts . . . . but also with an ear to their constituents, or the experts alone?

For CQ Researcher coverage of recent political trends, see Peter Katel, “Occupy Movement,” Jan. 13, 2012, and “Tea Party Movement,” March 19, 2010 (updated May 23, 2011). For coverage of some of the issues mentioned, see Jennifer Weeks, “Energy Policy,” May 20, 2011; David Hosansky, “Wind Power,” April 1, 2011; and Marcia Clemmitt, “Teen Pregnancy,” March 26, 2010.

--Kenneth Jost, Associate Editor

Cost Doesn't Spell Success for Colorado Schools Using Consultants to Improve Achievement
Jennifer Brown, The Denver Post, Feb. 19, 2012.

Synopsis: The first report in a three-part investigative series by The Denver Post finds that Colorado, like most states, has not closely tracked the approximately one-third of new federal education funding that's going to consultants. The money, intended to help rescue troubled schools, pays for services such as coaching for principals, data analysis and seminars on changing school culture. But the paper finds that achievement still lags at many schools that have paid hefty consultant fees.

Takeaway: "Pueblo City Schools has a three-year, $7.4 million contract with a New York-based school-turnaround company to fix six failing schools. After the first year, school performance scores went down at five of the six schools; the sixth school's performance score didn't change. Out of $8 million in federal turnaround funds the district has received the past two years, $4.2 million has gone to its contracted partner."

For related material, see my April 29, 2011, report, “School Reform.”

Marcia Clemmitt, staff writer

The Greatness of Ike
Ross Douthat, The New York Times, Feb. 26, 2012

Synopsis: Most students today, I fear, know precious little about Ike. But they should. Unfortunately, says columnist Douthat, they won’t learn much from the monument to President Dwight D. (Ike) Eisenhower planned for the National Mall. The proposed Frank Gehry design fails on a fundamental level, he says. Aside from being an aesthetic disaster, he says, the monument fails to capture the greatness of the man (Supreme Allied Commander, actually) who led the nation – and the world – to victory in World War II.

Takeaway: “Eisenhower deserves a monument that puts him where he belongs — in the very first rank of American leaders — because the nation needs to be reminded of where true presidential greatness lies,” Douthat says. “Plenty of politicians combine inspiring rhetoric with grand ambitions. Far fewer have the gifts required to steer the ship of state away from every rock and reef, and bring it, eight long years later, undamaged into port.”

For current political background, see these CQ Researcher reports: Marcia Clemmitt, “Gridlock in Washington,” April 30, 2010; and Alan Greenblatt, “Future of the GOP,” March 20, 2009. The CQ Researcher Archive contains numerous reports on Eisenhower and presidential politics in the 1950s.

Thomas J. Colin, contributing editor

This Week's Report: Space Program

Fifty years ago this month, astronaut John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth, a milestone in NASA’s storied history that also includes moon landings, the space shuttle and numerous scientific forays into deep space. But the U.S. space program is at a crossroads, torn by disagreements over the next destination for human spaceflight and squeezed by budget cuts and shifting space priorities.

Journalist John Felton covers the full range of issues surrounding NASA’s future in this week’s report. It provides ideal background for classes and papers on science policy, federal budget priorities and, of course, space exploration.

--Thomas J. Billitteri, Managing Editor

Weekly Roundup 2/21/2012

Which was the most important U.S. election ever?
David R. Mayhew, The Washington Post, Feb. 19, 2012

Synopsis: With some Republican candidates using superlatives to describe the 2012 election (“most important . . . in my lifetime,” Gingrich says), the well-known Yale political scientist David Mayhew suggests some criteria for assessing the importance of a presidential contest. Among the questions he thinks to be considered: How important was the election considered at the time? Was the election associated with a major change in voter coalitions? What if the other candidate had won? Did the campaign itself have an independent impact apart from the outcome? Did the election set an important national precedent? On these criteria, Mayhew counts 1860 and 1932 as the nation’s most important presidential elections; recent elections don’t rank very high.

Takeaway: As for 2012, Mayhew takes a wait-and-see attitude: “So far in this campaign, we don’t seem to have witnessed big, energizing events, a new mood that invests the public in the outcome or signs of a clear voter mandate.” But he does not count that as a problem: “In most elections, deft management of the economy and smart, prudent foreign policy are enough to ask for.”

For CQ Researcher coverage, see Bob Benenson, “Presidential Election,” Feb. 3, 2012.

--Kenneth Jost, Associate Editor


The Volcker Rule and the Costs of Good Intentions
Andrew Ross Sorkin, The New York Times blogs, DealB%k, Feb. 13, 2012

The Volcker Rule and Wall Street's Pliant Media Plant
Raymond J. Learsy, The Huffington Post, Feb. 15, 2012

Synopsis: The so-called Volcker Rule in the Dodd-Frank financial-markets bill -- which forbids banks from speculating with their own money, rather than only with clients' funds at their behest -- will cost Wall-Street jobs and raise costs for bank customers, a troubling downside, writes New York Times financial-columnist Sorkin. But by stressing bankers' complaints about the rule, which former Federal Reserve chair Paul Volcker proposed to limit over-risky financial-industry behavior, Sorkin shows his hand as a reporter who's too much a captive of the businesses he covers, writes former commodities trader Learsy.

Takeaway: Sorkin "cites that paragon of banking virtue..., Jamie Dimon, chairman of JPMorgan Chase...., the very epitome of the type of banker the Volcker rule is meant to protect us, the public, from," noted Learsy.

For more, see Kenneth Jost's Jan. 20 report on “Financial Misconduct” and his May 9, 2008, report, “Financial Crisis,” and my July 30, 2010, report, “Financial Industry Overhaul.”

--Marcia Clemmitt, Staff Writer

This Week’s Report: Invasive Species

Plants and animals that are not native to the United States have invaded many areas of the country, including some of the most environmentally sensitive.

In the Florida Everglades, for example, thousands of giant Burmese pythons –the offspring of pets released illegally by owners – are killing native animals, and wildlife officials have spent millions of dollars trying to eradicate them. In some areas, climate change has allowed invasive as well as native species to spread rapidly and wreak environmental havoc.

This week, veteran environmental reporter Jennifer Weeks covers the full range of issues on this fascinating and important topic. Environmental policy, science, ethics and governance classes can especially benefit from the report.

--Thomas J. Billitteri, Managing Editor

Weekly Roundup 2/13/2012

Election 2012: Republicans united on goal – beat Obama – divided on how to get there
Karen Tumulty, The Washington Post, Feb. 13, 2012

Synopsis: Midway through the Republican state primaries and caucuses, the Post’s veteran political reporter finds the GOP “experiencing the bumpiest presidential primary season in anyone’s memory.” Despite the “bad reelection environment” for President Obama, Republican rank and file “have a palpable lack of enthusiasm” about the presidential hopefuls, while polls register strong negative feelings about the party among the public at large. Tumulty identifies (and elaborates on) five factors: unsettled voters, lackluster candidates, muddled messages, an unprecedented inflow of money, and new rules that have prolonged the race.

Takeaway: Turmoil and division within the ranks are nothing new, GOP leaders stress. That’s how the party has evolved and grown, they say. But, Tumulty adds, “along with the growing pains . . . have come some lost elections.”

For CQ Researcher coverage, see Bob Benenson, “Presidential Election,” Feb. 6, 2012.

--Kenneth Jost, Associate Editor


Turbo-graders Take Bank of America for a Ride
Pallavi Gogoi, Associated Press/San Francisco Chronicle, Feb. 10, 2012

Is This the End of Wall Street As They Knew It?
Gabriel Sherman, New York Magazine, Feb. 5, 2012

Synopsis: As new federal rules squeeze some of the risk -- and outsize profit -- from the finance industry, erstwhile Wall Street Masters of the Universe face uncertain futures. Meanwhile, "high-frequency trading" is a new bully on the block. High-speed computers swoop in in milliseconds to snatch tiny profits that add up to big ones, as the electronic traders hit trade after trade.

Takeaway: “If you’re a smart Ph.D. from MIT, you’d never go to Wall Street now. You’d go to Silicon Valley,” a hedge-fund executive complained.

"Fund managers fume that high-frequency computers can detect their stock orders, step in to change the price of a stock slightly and pocket a small profit," writes Gogoi.

For more about Wall Street, see Kenneth Jost's Jan. 20 report, Financial Misconduct, and his May 9, 2008, report, Financial Crisis, and my July 30, 2010, report, Financial Industry Overhaul.

--Marcia Clemmitt, Staff Writer


Even Critics of Safety Net Increasingly Depend on It
By Binyamin Appelbaum and Robert Bebeloff, The New York Times, Feb. 12, 2012

Synopsis: Mitt Romney stirred up a hornet’s nest recently when he said he didn’t care about the very poor because they had a safety net. In the wake of his comment, the Times examined who, exactly, benefit from the federal safety net.

Takeaway: According to the Times’s analysis, many Tea Party members and other conservatives who say they eschew government handouts in fact increasingly rely on a variety of government payments. Moreover, with more middle-class Americans drawing more federal aid, the amount of aid available for the very poor is shrinking.

For background see the following CQ Researcher reports: Thomas J. Billitteri, “Middle-Class Squeeze,” March 6, 2009, and Thomas J. Billitteri, “Domestic Poverty,” Sept. 7, 2007 (updated by Marcia Clemmitt, April 27, 2011).

--Thomas J. Colin, Contributing Editor

This Week’s Report: Patient Safety

Tens of thousands of medical mistakes occur each year in hospitals and other health care facilities, often with serious consequences, including injury and death due to post-surgical infections, overmedication, contaminated catheters, in-hospital falls and oversight by overworked staff.

A groundbreaking Institute of Medicine report a dozen years ago found what one expert called “stunningly high rates of medical errors.” Despite government and private efforts since then, “many experts say health care remains unsafe,” writes veteran journalist Barbara Mantel.

This compelling report includes survey data on how hospital employees view patient safety and a list of tips that patients can use to help prevent medical errors.

--Thomas J. Billitteri, Managing Editor

Weekly Roundup 2/7/2012

The Kids Are More Than All Right
Tara Parker-Pope, The New York Times Magazine, Feb. 5, 2012

Synopsis: Drugs, alcohol and sex are all down among today’s teenagers compared to adolescents 30 years ago. Marijuana: 45 percent of today’s teenagers have smoked pot; 60 percent in 1980. Alcohol, historic lows: 40 percent report recently having consumed alcohol; 72 percent in 1980. Sex: 28 percent of boys and 27 percent of girls age 15-17 say they have had sex; 50 percent and 37 percent respectively in 1980. Possible factors in the decline: a rise in the drinking age to 21; fear of H.I.V.; and legal challenges to tobacco marketing.

Takeaway: Despite “media hype” – think “Teen Mom” and “Gossip Girl” – “there are a lot of kids who are pretty responsible,” says John Santinelli, president-elect of the Society for Adolescent Health and Medicine.

For CQ Researcher coverage, see Marcia Clemmitt, “Teenage Pregnancy,” March 26, 2010; Peter Katel, “Legalizing Marijuana,” June 12, 2009, updated July 21, 2010; Barbara Mantel, “Drinking on Campus,” Aug. 18, 2006.

--Kenneth Jost, Associate Editor


Sugar May Be Bad, But Is the Alternative Worse?
Brandon Keim, Wired, Feb. 3, 2012

Synopsis: Research over the past several years has suggested that using sugar substitutes is as likely to lead to obesity and diseases including diabetes and heart disease as eating a lot of sugar. Now researchers think they may be unraveling the science that underlies the mystery.

Takeaway: In a study of rats -- who fattened on low-cal and no-cal sweeteners just as humans do -- researchers theorize that, "when the rats’ bodies learned that sweetness didn’t predict an imminent caloric rush, as would naturally be produced by sugar-rich foods, their bodies may have automatically shifted into calorie-saving mode," which would cause weight gain, Keim reports.

For related stories, see Barbara Mantel's “Preventing Obesity,” Oct. 1, 2010, and Kenneth Jost's March 9, 2001, report, “Diabetes Epidemic.”

--Marcia Clemmitt, Staff Writer

Anti-Gay Marriage Measure Struck Down

By Kenneth Jost
Supreme Court Editor, CQ Press
      California voters violated the U.S. Constitution in 2008 when they approved a ballot initiative withdrawing from same-sex couples a judicially recognized right to marry, a federal appeals court ruled on Tuesday in a case likely to reach the U.S. Supreme Court.
      The 2-1 decision by the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Perry v. Brown stopped short of recognizing an unqualified right to marry for gay and lesbian couples, as gay rights advocates had hoped. Instead, the San Francisco-based court found that California’s Proposition 8 — approved six months after the California Supreme Court had recognized a right to marry under the state constitution — was invalid because it had no legitimate purpose.
      “All that Proposition 8 accomplished was to take away from same-sex couples the right to be granted marriage licenses and thus legally to use the designation ‘marriage,’” Judge Stephen Reinhardt wrote in the 80-page majority opinion. “Proposition 8 serves no purpose, and has no effect, other than to lessen the status and human dignity of gays and lesbians in California, and to officially reclassify their relationships and families as inferior to those of opposite-sex couples. The Constitution simply does not allow for ‘laws of this sort.’ ”
      Reinhardt’s opinion, joined by a second Democratic-appointed judge, Michael Daly Hawkins, cited as authority the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1996 decision in Romer v. Evans, which struck down an anti-gay initiative in Colorado. The Colorado measure, Amendment 2, barred the state or local governments from passing laws to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex orientation. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, likely to hold a critical vote if the issue reaches the high court, wrote the majority decision finding the measure unconstitutional.
      Dissenting in the Prop 8 case, Judge N. Randy Smith said he would have upheld the ban on same-sex marriage on the grounds urged by supporters of the marriage that it would advance “responsible procreation” and “optimal parenting” of children by opposite-sex couples. “I am not convinced that Proposition 8 lacks a rational relationship to legitimate state interests,” Smith, an appointee of President George W. Bush, wrote.
      Reinhardt, appointed to the bench in 1980 by President Jimmy Carter, has a national reputation as one of the most liberal judges on the federal bench. Hawkins was appointed by President Bill Clinton in 1994.
      If the ruling is upheld, California will become the seventh state along with the District of Columbia to recognize marriage rights for same-sex couples. The other states are Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York and Vermont. A measure to approve same-sex marriage is awaiting likely final approval in the Washington state House of Representatives; Gov. Christine Gregoire says she will sign the bill if it reaches her desk.
      The impact of the Prop 8 ruling is both limited and likely to be delayed pending further appeals, including to the U.S. Supreme Court. California is the only state to have recognized and then withdrawn marriage rights from same-sex couples. The Maine legislature approved a same-sex marriage bill in 2009, but opponents defeated it by referendum later that year before it went into effect.
      Supporters of Proposition 8 are expected to seek a stay to prevent the ruling from going into effect during further appeals, just as they had requested a stay after the lower court ruling striking down the ballot measure. Lawyers for the gay and lesbian couples who were plaintiffs in the suit said they will oppose a stay, but they had also opposed the earlier stay.
      In the ruling Tuesday, the appeals court panel unanimously agreed that supporters of the ballot measure, individual voters and the organization ProtectMarriage.com, had standing to appeal the lower court ruling. The issue was critical because California Gov. Jerry Brown and Attorney General Kamala Harris declined to defend the measure.
      The appeals court put a hold on its proceedings while asking the California Supreme Court whether a ballot measure sponsor would have standing, as a matter of state law, to represent the state under such circumstances. The state justices said yes, and the federal judges on Tuesday said they were effectively bound by that determination.
      Supporters of the measure can now ask the full Ninth Circuit court to hear the case before an “en banc” panel that would consist of Chief Judge Alex Kozinski and 10 of the court’s other 24 active-service judges, chosen randomly. Or they can appeal directly to the U.S. Supreme Court. Even if the supporters bypass an en banc hearing, the Supreme Court would not hear the case until its next term — which begins in October — and would not rule until sometime in 2013.
      On a second preliminary issue, the three-judge panel was also unanimous in rejecting the Prop 8 supporters’ motion to throw out the ruling by U. S. District Court Judge Vaughn Walker because he is in a long-term same-sex relationship. Walker, who took semi-retired status after his 2010 ruling in the case, publicly confirmed his sexual orientation and his relationship only after the decision.
      In striking down Proposition 8, Reinhardt said the measure did not advance the supporters’ claimed interests in childbearing and parenting because it left unaffected the right of same-sex couples to bear and raise children. He also rejected the supporters’ argument that the measure served the state’s interest in “proceeding with caution” when considering changes to the definition of marriage.
      “To enact a constitutional prohibition is to adopt a fundamental barrier,” Reinhardt wrote. “Such a permanent ban,” he added, “cannot be rationally related to an interest in proceeding with caution.”
      For background, see “Gay Marriage Showdowns,” Sept. 26, 2008, updated Oct. 15, 2010.

This Week’s Report: Presidential Election

This year’s race for the White House, pitting President Obama against an unusually large group of GOP contenders, is shaping up to be one of the most bitterly fought presidential campaigns in recent memory.

As veteran political analyst Bob Benenson explains in this week’s report, wealthy donors are pouring millions of dollars into TV attack ads through so-called SuperPACs, the conservative Tea Party movement and Occupy Wall Street protest are animating the candidates’ stump speeches and the struggling economy is providing a high-stakes backdrop to the election campaign.

--Thomas J. Billitteri, Managing Editor