Economic pressure is changing the climate-change policy debate around the world-except maybe in the United States. President Barack Obama came out of his Feb. 19 meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper sounding remarkably similar to his predecessor. Obama resolved to pursue carbon-capture technology, a system that would allow industry to avoid cutbacks in energy use. He also stated that the participation of China and India are "absolutely critical" for the success of any worldwide energy pact, a position that echoes the Bush administration if not the existing Kyoto Protocol. Sagging markets are leaving large Kyoto-adhering European companies with loads of carbon credits to sell off without any need to alter their emitting practices. And the UN has warned that the global credit crunch threatens to dry up funds pledged from wealthy nations to help developing countries adapt to the impacts of climate change.
Tea party revolts are popping up around the country after CNBC reporter and former trader Rick Santelli in a televised report from the Chicago Mercantile Exchange declared that the "government is promoting bad behavior" by buying up mortgages he says belong to "losers." "How about rewarding people who can carry the water instead drinking the water only?" said Santelli in a news clip that's accumulated over three-quarters of a million views on YouTube. When Santelli said he'd stage a Boston Tea Party-like revolt in July, citizen groups decided they couldn't wait: The first were set for Feb. 27.
'Dogging the stimulus
The Obama Administration launched its own website to track the $787 billion flowing from the stimulus package (www.recovery.gov) "so that every American can find out how and where their money is being spent," the president said in a Feb. 24 State of the Union message. But some groups aren't leaving it to the government to root out waste, fraud, and abuse.
StimulusWatch.org and ShovelWatch.org are two of the websites recently launched to ensure that transparency occurs when the Treasury starts doling the dollars. The sites plan to act as virtual accountability groups, and both plead for the help of a nationwide network of readers. "We plan on being up until the last dime is spent," said Mike Webb with ProPublica, one of three groups behind Shovel Watch. StimulusWatch.org already has posted the U.S. Conference of Mayors project wish list released in anticipation of stimulus bucks. On the site viewers can vote on the merits of each project. Currently voted most critical: $4.3 million for a nursing home in Tennessee. Least critical: nearly $100,000 for doorbells in Laurel, Miss.
Optimists say reader-friendly sites that break down 1,000-page congressional legislation could lead to a new frontier of digital watchdogs and give the nation its best chance at transparency when it comes to getting inside the stereotypical dark closets of Washington spending. Pessimists say it's impossible to eliminate waste when this much money is being spent. But Steve Ellis with Taxpayers for Common Sense says keeping the seepage to a minimum is worthwhile: "If there is just a 1 percent waste, you are still talking about nearly $8 billion," he said.
Only weeks after the State Department revealed it will not renew its contract with Blackwater Worldwide, the security firm announced it is changing its name to Xe. The company's move to distance itself from its tarnished past comes as five former Blackwater guards face charges over a 2007 Baghdad shooting that left 17 Iraqi civilians dead. According to president Gary Jackson, the company will no longer actively pursue new security contracts but will focus on operating its worldwide training facilities.
Washington, D.C., license plates read, "Taxation without representation," but Congress likely will grant the District of Columbia its first voting member in the House of Representatives. Similar legislation failed two years ago by three votes in the Senate. Republicans argue it is unconstitutional because the District isn't a state. Democrats argue that a clause in the Constitution allows exceptional laws for the District. President Obama voted for D.C. voting rights when he was in the Senate, and he told D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty he would continue to support the measure. The D.C. representative will no doubt be a Democrat, and the bill includes a new seat for Utah based on population growth, a likely Republican.
Iran kicked its nuclear energy program to life Feb. 25, conducting the first test of its nuclear power plant at Bushehr as the head of Russia's state nuclear company and reporters looked on. With Secretary of State Hillary Clinton scheduled to meet with Russia's foreign minister March 6, the top agenda item is likely to be Russia's ongoing support of Iran's uranium enrichment program, which the United States and its allies believe is meant for military purposes. A likely bargaining chip will be the U.S. ballistic missile defense program carried forward from the Bush administration: The Russians oppose the program but U.S. officials insist it's needed as long as a hostile Iran pursues nukes.
Despite its reputation as a showcase for liberal brow-beating, the 2009 Oscar telecast shocked some viewers when several presenters and winners took aim at religious groups. ABC producers chose talk show host and director of the documentary Religulous, Bill Maher, to present the documentary category, and while announcing the winner, the noted atheist commented, "Someday, we all have to confront the notion that our silly gods cost the world too greatly."
Though not the biggest winner of the night, the biopic Milk walked away with two significant awards. The film focused on Harvey Milk, the country's first openly gay elected official, prompting Best Screenplay winner Dustin Lance Black and Best Actor winner Sean Penn to address voters who supported traditional marriage propositions in past elections.
Said Black, "If Harvey had not been taken from us 30 years ago, I think he'd want me to say to all of the gay and lesbian kids out there tonight who have been told that they are 'less than' by their churches, by the government or by their families . . . no matter what anyone tells you, God does love you and that very soon, I promise you, you will have equal rights federally, across this great nation of ours." Penn echoed these sentiments, stating, "I think that it is a good time for those who voted for the ban against gay marriage to sit and reflect and anticipate their great shame and the shame in their grandchildren's eyes if they continue that way of support."
President Barack Obama touted his $787 billion economic stimulus package as pork-free, but House Democrats added plenty of bacon to a proposed $410 billion spending bill. The measure to keep the government running through the end of the fiscal year included thousands of earmarks: Pet projects for lawmakers from both parties totaled at least $3.8 billion. House GOP leaders called for a spending freeze, noting that the bill includes an 8 percent increase in funding over last year and comes on the heels of a massive bailout and economic stimulus package. House Minority Leader John Boehner said, "This is not fiscal responsibility; it is fiscal negligence, paid for by our children and grandchildren."
Night at the museum
Heavily armed soldiers patrolled the roof of Iraq's National Museum on Feb. 23 as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki reopened the hall shuttered by war six years ago. The museum grabbed attention in the wake of the U.S. invasion in 2003 as looters stole thousands of priceless artifacts, carting off some of the oldest museum pieces in the world.
Many of those artifacts remain missing, and over half the halls in the museum remain closed. But Maliki pushed for the reopening as a sign of progress. Officials in the country's Culture Ministry objected, citing security concerns and the museum's diminished condition. Curators worried too: In the Room of Treasures, they displayed pictures only of intricate jewelry made in Nimrud nearly 3,000 years ago. Only invited guests attended Maliki's event, where visitors still gazed at stunning works of art, including the 2,700-year-old stone reliefs from the palace of Assyrian king Sargon II.
Despite the recession, giving to evangelical charitable organizations is higher than expected, the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA) reports. In January ECFA surveyed its 1,350 members on giving. Of 350 who responded, 72 percent exceeded, met, or came close to meeting contribution goals. Just in the fourth quarter of 2008, 44 percent met or exceeded their goals for charitable contributions, while half experienced a 15 percent to 30 percent loss. Those on the losing end say they have coped in the following ways:
• Froze or delayed salary increases: 41 percent
• Froze or reduced hiring: 38 percent
• Lay-offs: 18 percent
• Cut travel or conference expenses: 53 percent
• Cut or delayed capital projects: 30 percent
• Reduced programs: 27 percent
Embryonic stem-cell researchers await a go-ahead order from President Obama, who at a Feb. 5 meeting told congressional Democrats, "I guarantee you that we will sign an executive order for stem cells." President George W. Bush in 2001 banned federal funding of research involving newly derived embryonic stem-cell lines. In the absence of federal support, state governments including Massachusetts, Wisconsin, and California have footed the bill for embryonic stem-cell research and others have continued their work through donors and private partners.
U.S. District Judge Larry A. Burns on Feb. 6 ruled that nondiscrimination policies at San Diego State and Long Beach State universities do not infringe on the rights of Every Nation Campus Ministries, a group that requires its members to be Christians and to reject homosexuality as a "lifestyle" or protected minority class. The Christian group had sought official recognition at the California schools but was denied because it would not comply with the university policy which says that membership cannot be restricted on the basis of religion or "sexual orientation." The Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) is representing the student group and has appealed the decision.
U.S. special envoy George Mitchell met Feb. 26 with Likud leader and likely prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But it is a meeting with opponent Tzipi Livni that is key for the conservative leader to form a broad-based government. Netanyahu was tapped after elections last month, even though Livni won more of the popular vote. Now Livni has held out from joining his coalition, forcing Netanyahu, himself a former prime minister, to look to smaller rightist parties for partners.