The scarlet letter
Fear that "the people's business" is being ignored amidst the partisan wrangling over ethics charges and countercharges in Washington is not very well-founded. It's getting done, but quietly. Case in point: News coverage of the new Congress's first day, Jan. 7, focused almost exclusively on the political jockeying over whether Newt Gingrich would be reelected Speaker of the House. Largely missed by the news media (WORLD included) were at least two significant measures approved the first day that could revolutionize the way the House does business: (1) the constitutional authority statement and (2) the Truth-in-Testimony rule. The first reform would require House committees to cite "the specific powers granted to Congress by the Constitution" that authorize each piece of legislation they approve. That alone should wipe out most proposed legislation. It won't. But there's no harm in provoking a debate over the constitutional role of government. Reform number two, which also involves House committees, is even more intriguing. It requires witnesses in hearings to disclose whether they have a financial stake in the outcome of legislation. Under the rule, anyone from a nongovernment organization giving testimony must first submit a report detailing how much taxpayer money their groups have received over the past three years--whether in the form of grants or government contracts. It would affect defense contractors and special interests alike. Truth in Testimony is a pet project--dubbed "PTL," for privatize the left--of conservative think tanks in Washington. House Republicans, angered by special-interest political campaign spending against them last fall, also were eager to enact the new rule. Eight groups, from the AFL-CIO to the American Association of Retired Persons, received a total of almost $100 million in federal grants in 1994; those groups spent $5.5 million trying to unseat GOP congressmen. The thinking is that once the taxpayers realize that supposedly neutral organizations advocating higher government spending are actually receiving benefits, they will be less likely to be supportive. Judging by the reaction from some of these federally funded groups, the thinking may be right. Nan Aron, leader of a coalition of pro-abortion and liberal legal groups that receive federal funds, complained the rules change is "an effort to brand witnesses who receive federal funds with a scarlet 'A' for advocacy." Not quite. Everyone knows witnesses are advocates; otherwise they wouldn't be witnesses. That scarlet "A" should instead stand for abyss--an apt warning to members of Congress of where the taxpayers' money is likely to go if they vote for continued spending for these organizations.
Below the belt?
Eavesdropping hobbyists John and Alice Martin recorded the tape heard 'round the beltway. The Florida couple--National Education Association members and staunch Democrats--admitted Jan. 13 they taped a December conference call including Newt Gingrich and other House leaders discussing the political damage control of ethics charges. They intercepted the call using a Radio Shack police scanner--which picked up the cellular phone of conference participant Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), who was in Florida on vacation. At a press conference put together by their attorney, the Martins provided details that shook official Washington and set in motion a string of contradictory statements and denials, as well as a resignation and an FBI probe. Their press conference came three days after a partial transcript of their tape appeared in The New York Times, along with a story insinuating that in the conference call, Mr. Gingrich was conspiring to break his agreement with the Ethics Committee. The Martins said they first gave the tape recording to Rep. Karen Thurman (D-Fla.), their congresswoman. According to their account, Rep. Thurman a day later gave back the tape in a sealed envelope, recommended they turn it over to the Ethics Committee, helped them draft a cover letter to the panel's ranking Democrat, and suggested they would be granted immunity from prosecution. (Making such recordings is a federal felony.) Mr. and Mrs. Martin on Jan. 8 personally delivered the envelope containing the tape to Ethics Committee Democrat Rep. James McDermott. Two days later, the Times story appeared. On the day of the Martins' Jan. 13 press conference, Mr. McDermott turned over the tape to the committee's lead counsel, who refused to accept it and instead sent the tape to the Justice Department's Criminal Division as evidence. The next day, the FBI began a criminal wiretapping probe, and Mr. McDermott angrily resigned the committee's investigation into the Speaker's ethics.It is a felony to divulge to the news media illegally obtained telephone tape recordings. On Jan. 16, the Washington Times reported that an aide to Rep. Thurman denied the Martins' statement that his boss helped draft the letter to Mr. McDermott; he said the congresswoman only helped them set up an office computer to type the letter. The aide also said the issue of the couple's immunity from prosecution was raised only as a possibility, and that Rep. Thurman got the idea from high-level staffers in the office of Minority Whip David Bonior. Mr. Bonior admits he suggested the tape be given to the Ethics Committee, but aides hotly denied ever discussing immunity with Rep. Thurman. On Jan. 17, the blistering report of special counsel James Cole in hand, the Ethics Committee opened public hearings into charges that Speaker Gingrich failed to seek proper legal counsel in financing and distributing a college lecture course he taught, "Renewing American Civilization,"and that he filed "inaccurate, incomplete, unreliable" information with the committee concerning the charges. Congressional sources said Mr. Cole recommended a reprimand by the House and a stiff fine--as reimbursement for extra work required of the committee because of Mr. Gingrich's false information. The evidence will be available to the Justice Department for further investigation.
Above the fray
All the fighting on Capitol Hill allowed President Clinton to remain above the fray as he prepared to take the oath of office to begin his second term. As congressional Republicans and Democrats clubbed each other, Mr. Clinton Jan. 17 crowned his political opponent, Bob Dole, with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Not that Mr. Clinton spent the week entirely mud-free. On Jan. 13, the president's personal attorney and the solicitor general of the Justice Department appeared before the Supreme Court to argue that the Paula Jones sexual harassment lawsuit should be delayed until 2001. Meanwhile, administration officials Jan. 14 anonymously floated more trial-balloon items of the White House's FY 1998 budget that will be officially submitted Feb. 6: $16 billion more for welfare spending, $100 billion in savings over five years from the Medicare and Medicaid programs, tax cuts, and a balanced budget by 2002.
Who and why?
Less than a week before the 24th anniversary of Roe vs. Wade, two bombs exploded outside an abortion clinic in Atlanta. The first blast shattered windows and brought down parts of walls and ceilings, but caused no injuries at the lightly staffed clinic. The second explosion, an hour after the first, injured six--three federal agents, two rescue workers, and a TV cameraman. All had rushed to the scene in response to the first explosion. Pro-life groups, hoping to head off another round of guilt-by-association press coverage, quickly issued statements decrying the bombings: "No pro-life person could be involved in such an act; violence only hurts the cause of the unborn child," said David O'Steen of the National Right to Life Committee. "Violence is not an answer to violence," said Gary Bauer of the Family Research Council. Federal investigators, meantime, were unwilling to assume that the clinic was the actual target of the blast, saying the blasts could have been aimed at law enforcement officers. "We are not ruling out domestic terrorism unrelated to clinic violence," said U.S. Attorney Kent Alexander.
Choose or lose
A Wisconsin judge ruled Jan. 15 that the state should not have expanded its school-voucher experiment to include religious schools. Judge Paul Higginbotham said the expanded voucher program--which is limited to poor families in Milwaukee--violates a provision in the state constitution prohibiting tax revenues from being used for religious purposes. Voucher advocates plan to appeal the decision to the Wisconsin Supreme Court. Ohio has a similar school-choice program which has already survived one court challenge. In California, the Oakland School Board revised its position on "ebonics," the fanciful name--a combination of "ebony" and "phonics"--given to "black English." The board stirred up a national debate in December when it declared that ebonics was derived from "African Language Systems [that] are genetically based." The seven-member board voted unanimously Jan. 15 to drop any suggestion that ebonics is genetic. Also dropped: wording in the December policy statement that implied students would be taught in both ebonics and standard English. Meanwhile, the Boston Globe reported that dozens of public schools in Los Angeles--the city with the nation's second-largest school system--have used ebonics-based programs for six years. Test scores at those schools have plummeted, the paper reported, some by as much as 50 percent.
The crime scene
Both sides rested in the O.J. Simpson civil trial, where he is being sued for the "wrongful death" killings of ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman. Mr. Simpson's attorneys portrayed their client--who was acquitted on murder charges in 1995--as a victim of police ineptitude and deliberate wrongdoing. But prosecutors presented strong, new evidence that Mr. Simpson lied under oath when he claimed that he never owned the brand of rare designer shoes that left bloody footprints at the murder scene. There was little light shed on the mysterious murder of child beauty queen JonBenet Ramsey, daughter of a Colorado computer entrepreneur. Two men were charged with peddling stolen crime scene photos to a supermarket tabloid, but no breaks in the actual case were reported. To help crack the case, the girl's parents hired John Douglas, former head of the FBI's behavior science unit. Mr. Douglas was the inspiration for the detective in the movie Silence of the Lambs. California police searched for an unidentified gunman who Jan. 16 shot and killed the only son of comedian and actor Bill Cosby. Ennis Cosby, 27, was gunned down while stopped to change a flat tire on a stretch of road in the Santa Monica Mountains. Police suspect the motive was robbery.
Back in business
In Michigan, new Oakland County prosecutor David Gorcyca dropped all charges against Jack Kevorkian related to 10 assisted suicides. The charges had been filed last fall by then-prosecutor Richard Thompson, whom Mr. Gorcyca defeated in an election. Mr. Gorcyca, who said that prosecuting Mr. Kevorkian under existing statutes would be "wasting a lot of taxpayer money," has called on the Michigan legislature to pass a "clearly enforceable" law on assisted suicide. Mr. Kevorkian has never been convicted.
Ice and snow made travel difficult--if not impossible--all the way from the mountains of Southern California to the northern part of Alabama. While nearly 200,000 utility customers went without power in Texas, drifting snow in Utah shut down almost 140 miles of Interstate highway. North Dakota was whipped with 90-below wind chills and 15-foot snow drifts. Wind chills of 50 to 75 below were common in much of the upper Midwest.
After months of negotiations, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat struck a deal Jan. 15 that turns most of the West Bank city of Hebron over to Palestinian rule. Initialed between 2 and 3 a.m. at an outpost on the Israeli-Gaza border, the agreement commits Israel to transfer land and limited governing power to the Palestinian Authority. Eighty percent of Hebron--the place where David was anointed king--was transferred almost immediately. Other parts of the West Bank are to be handed over next year. The accord was not well received by some members of Mr. Netanyahu's cabinet, who saw it as violating both his campaign promises and the longstanding Israeli nationalist concept that Israeli lands must never be given away. After a tumultuous 12-hour meeting filled with heated exchanges, a bitterly divided cabinet signed off on the deal 11 to 7. Opposition in the Israeli parliament was much more subdued. There, the Hebron agreement passed handily, 87 to 17. While many Israelis seethed over the Hebron deal, so did members of the militant Islamic organization, Hamas, which maintains a strong presence in Hebron. In a statement published in Arabic-language newspapers, Hamas said the partial Israeli pullout was unacceptable because it meant "the last and highest word remains in the hands of the Israeli army."
The Saudi-owned Arabic-language paper, Al-Hayat, was the target of multiple letter bombs discovered Jan. 13--four at the paper's London office, four more at the U.N. building in New York, en route to the newspaper's office there. One of the London bombs exploded, seriously wounding a mail clerk. Investigators say the eight booby-trapped greeting cards were the latest in a series of 18 such letter-bombs discovered this month, most of them sent to Al-Hayat. All the envelopes were postmarked Dec. 21 in Alexandria, Egypt.
Needed: a mediator
In Peru, the standoff between hostage takers and the Peruvian government entered its second month, with Marxist rebels still holding 74 captives in the residence of the Japanese ambassador. On Jan. 15, rebel forces accepted a government proposal to form a commission to mediate the situation. Three American missionaries kidnapped four years ago by guerrillas in Colombia were reported to be alive. According to the ALC News Service, Costa Rican Vice Chancellor Roderigo Carreras told an evangelism conference in Panama that guerrilla leaders have assured him the three--David Mankins, Mark Rich, and Rick Tenefoff--are still living. Costa Rica has been trying to win their release. The three men, on assignment with New Tribes Mission, were kidnapped in 1993.