Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Congressional Black Caucus Roundup

Congressional Black Caucus Roundup for the week of June 25

Illinois Senator Barack Obama voted no on the proposed constitutional amendment to prohibit flag desercration. Following is the Senator's floor remarks about the amendment:

"I cannot imagine anything more abhorrent to a veteran than seeing the flag they fought for being burned to make a political point. I too have great pride in our flag. I share outrage at the thought of it being disrespected. And though I have never seen anyone burn a flag, if I did, it would take every ounce of restraint I had not to haul off and hit them.

"But we live in a country of laws. Laws are what stop people from resorting to physical violence to settle disagreements, and laws are what protect free speech. And when I became a Senator, I swore an oath to protect the Constitution. Under that oath, my first allegiance is not to a political party, or to an ideology, or to a president, or even to popular opinion, but to the Constitution and to the rule of law.

"The Framers made it difficult to amend the Constitution because our founding document should not be changed just because of political concerns or temporary problems. And even the strongest supporters of this amendment are hard-pressed to find more than a few instances of flag burning each year. Those problems were left to be solved through legislation, and I support legislation introduced by Senator Durbin that makes it illegal to burn the flag without changing the Constitution. The Constitution has only been amended 27 times. These amendments include guarantees of our most basic freedoms, the freedom of religion, the right to a trial by jury, the protection against cruel punishment.

"Today, there are hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops risking their lives for their country, looking to us to come up with a plan to win the peace so they can come home. Across America, there are millions who are looking for us to do something about health care, about education, about energy. The Senate will likely be in session for about 50 more days for the rest of this year. To spend the precious time we have left battling an epidemic of flag burning that does not exist is a disservice to our country.

"As Richard Savage of Bloomington, Illinois wrote to me, "I am a Vietnam veteran and Republican. . . . Those who would burn the flag destroy the symbol of freedom, but amending the Constitution would destroy part of freedom itself." Mr. Savage is right, which is why I will vote against this amendment. Senator Durbin's amendment is a way forward to balance our respect for the flag with reverence for the Constitution."

David Scott (D-GA) took to the House floor to argue against an amendment that would have stopped funds from being used to implement parts of the Section 203 in the Voting Rights Amendment. The Congressman's remarks follow:

Mr. Chairman, this is a very shameful amendment, and I will tell you why it is shameful.

Here we are on the eve of the 4th of July at the very foundation of this country when those noble words were spoken by Thomas Jefferson, ``We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among those, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,'' and the most important guarantee of that pursuit of happiness is the right to vote.

Not long ago, many of my colleagues on that side of the aisle stuck their finger in purple ink and proudly went around and promoted it because the Iraqis had the freedom to go and vote. There was a private first class named Private First Class Rincon from my district in Conyers, Georgia, who gave his life and died for that right, and he was not even a United States citizen. This House had to approve his citizenship posthumously.

Now we want to pass an amendment that would give just a little bit of help to his wife, to his mother, to his grandmother, who have difficulty with the English language.

This is a terrible moment at a terrible time, when we should be speaking to the greatness of this country, to the right to vote, to cherish it. Here we are on the eve of the 4th of July being what was referred to 40 years ago in the bestseller, being the Ugly American.

Let us prove that we are the good American and vote down this ``Ugly American'' amendment.

Also on the case for the Voting Rights Amendment was Congressman Scott's Georgia colleague John Lewis.

Speaking on the same amendment, Congressman Lewis gave some history about the need for the funds and preceded to talk about why the dollars are still needed. His remarks are below:

There are some mistaken ideas about Section 203 of the VRA. It does not offer voting assistance to illegal or non-naturalized immigrants. It refers only to U.S. citizens who may not speak English fluently enough to comprehend some of the complex ballot initiatives that are often a part of the voting environment today. More than 70% of the citizens who use the language assistance provision of the VRA are born in the United States and include not only Latino citizens, but Alaskan natives, American Indians and Asian Americans.

“The Stearns Amendment is a modern-day literacy test,” said Rep. Lewis. “It is a back-door attempt, through the appropriations process, to cripple federal enforcement of Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act. We must decide as a nation whether we want to live in a truly democratic society, or whether we want to reserve democracy for a privileged few. Are we suggesting, through the Stearns Amendment, that Native Americans, the only original citizens of this land, should not have the language assistance they may need to participate in the democratic process? That is not right, that is not fair, that is not just.”

Language assistance is vital to the equal representation of Native Americans. In Apache County, Arizona, DOJ enforcement of the language assistance provisions of the Voting Rights Act resulted in a 26 percent increase in Native American voter turnout, and it allows Native veterans who have defended democracy abroad, Navajo Code talkers who aided American intelligence efforts in World War II, as well as elderly tax-paying Native American citizens to participate knowledgeably in the electoral process.

The provision of Chinese language ballots in New York City helped more than 100,000 Asian-American citizens vote in recent elections. Even though the city is home to the largest Asian-American community in the country, they had never been able to elect an Asian American to a major elected post. Finally, due to DOJ language assistance support mandated by Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act, John Lui was elected to the City Council in 2001. These are just a few examples of the powerful benefit of the language assistance portions of the VRA. Rep. Lewis encourages his colleagues to vote NO on the Stearns Amendment.

On another topic Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-CA) teamed up with fellow Californian Henry Waxman (D-CA) to atttach an amendment to a funding bill on the issue of public health in trade policy. Ms. Lee's comments are below:

“If the only formal advisors for our trade representative are representatives from the pharmaceutical industry, the policy will be biased toward industry and will overlook serious public health concerns,” said Lee. “This amendment will help make sure that our trade policy is both fair and balanced by ensuring that it is informed by advice from public health experts.”

Lee and Waxman’s amendment will block the use of Science-State-Justice-Commerce funds for Industry Trade Advisory Committees (ITACs) 3 and 15, which advise the U.S. Trade Representative on pharmaceutical and intellectual property negotiations, unless their membership is “fairly balanced” as required by the Federal Advisory Committee Act.

“The status quo is unacceptable," said Waxman. “The longer the USTR delays adding public health representatives to these panels, the more we need to be concerned about biased advice that is resulting in controversial trade policies.”

In December 2005, the Administration acknowledged the need for more diverse input on these issues. The International Trade Administration issued a Federal Register notice seeking nominations for public health and community health representatives to serve on ITACs 3 and 15. However, more than six months have passed, and despite receiving a number of applications and congressional inquiries, no appointments have been made.

According to Waxman and Lee, recent free trade agreements have reflected the influence of the pharmaceutical industry at the expense of public health concerns. The FTAs have extended patent terms and delayed generic competition - moves that increase profits for drug companies, but make it more difficult for governments to respond in the case of a public health crisis.

For example, Thailand has initiated a program of universal access to government-subsidized antiretroviral drugs that now reaches 70,000 of 170,000 Thai people living with HIV/AIDS. There is strong concern, however, that the future costs of expanding treatment with newer patented medicines will be prohibitive if provisions included in recent FTAs are included in the pending trade deal with Thailand.


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