For millions of low-income Americans, it's going to be a long, very cold winter. Fuel prices have skyrocketed – according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), the average cost of home heating this winter will be a whopping 24 percent higher than last year. To make matters worse, the number of people living in poverty, who are especially likely to need help paying their energy bills, rose last year by 1.3 million to 36 million people, or 12.5 percent of the population. Yet Congress is underfunding the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP helps poor households – many of which include people who are elderly or disabled – pay their heating bills during the coldest months of winter). About 30 million households qualify for help, but a lack of funding means only about one out of every seven families receives assistance. And initial sampling shows that this year, with temperatures dropping, fuel prices soaring and more Americans living in poverty, requests for assistance could reach an all-time high.
THE CHILLING STATISTICS: Energy costs can be devastating for low-income families. According to a survey conducted by the National Energy Assistance Directors' Association, families assisted by LIHEAP "spend three times as much of their income on energy costs as middle-income families." The survey also found a quarter of people the program serves skipped medical care or paying their rent or their mortgage at least once because of energy bills. One out of every five said they skipped meals because they were forced to "use food money to pay a utility bill."
CONGRESS'S FROSTY RESPONSE: In early October, a bipartisan group of 17 governors wrote to Congress, asking that funding for LIHEAP "include a larger base grant and $600 million in emergency funding." Millions of low-income families and frail elderly citizens, the governors wrote, "will likely be forced to choose between eating, paying rent or mortgages, buying prescription drugs or paying their heating bills." Congress didn't come through. In the recently enacted omnibus bill, the paltry increase in LIHEAP funding was "$164 million less than needed to cover the expected 24 percent increase in home heating costs." In fact, according to research by the CBPP, "adjusting for the price of fuel, the 2005 level of LIHEAP funding is lower than in any of the previous five years – 23 percent lower than the funding level for 2001."
BUSH'S COLD SHOULDER: President Bush has shown a decided lack of dedication to getting poor Americans funding for heat. In his first budget, for the 2002 fiscal year, Bush actually tried to cut LIHEAP funding by $300 million as compared with the previous year, despite higher unemployment and a colder winter. While energy costs have soared, "funding for LIHEAP and other energy assistance programs grew 7 percent under the Bush administration, barely matching inflation." When LIHEAP started 22 years ago, the program helped about 7 million families. Today, it only helps about 5 million.
STATES LEFT HOLDING THE BAG: With the federal government failing to provide necessary funding, the burden is falling on the states. Some governors are ready to take on the challenge: In Montana, Gov.-elect Brian Schweitzer announced he intends to make low-income heating assistance a budget priority next year. Wisconsin's Gov. Jim Doyle also got a jump on the crisis, opening LIHEAP enrollment a month ahead of schedule in anticipation of heightened need and the state is "kicking in $18.5 million to help keep Badger State residents warm." Many states are not as lucky. Colorado, for example, is slashing the amount of money eligible families will receive by $100. The state's lawmakers passed a bill to tack a voluntary 25-cent surcharge onto utility bills to subsidize the state's heating assistance program, but it was vetoed by Gov. Bill Owens "because it required utility customers to 'opt out' of paying the surcharge and he preferred an 'opt in' approach."
The right-wing has found an excuse to dust off its plans to undermine the United Nations. Without a doubt, the illegal exploitation of the United Nations' oil-for-food program by Saddam Hussein is a serious matter that deserves careful scrutiny. But it does not justify the dishonest and manipulative campaign by the right-wing lynch mob, led by Sen. Norm Coleman (R-MN), against U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Fox News, predictably, has skipped over the question of whether Coleman's allegations – which he claims oblige Annan to resign – are true, and jumped right to the broader conclusion that the United Nations itself is hopelessly corrupt and incompetent. This Sunday, Fox News' Brit Hume said "The deeper problem here, of course, is the U.N. itself. This scandal is really, really a sign of what the U.N. has become. It is an enormously corrupt bureaucracy up there. It's a world unto itself. Self-dealing, I think, is rampant." For anyone sick of the bluster from people like Hume, here are the facts – we report, you decide: (Click here for our list of ten things you should know about the U.N. oil-for-food scandal.)
THE SECURITY COUNCIL WAS RESPONSIBLE FOR MONITORING THE PROGRAM: Coleman and others are calling for Annan's head because he was at the helm of the United Nations bureaucracy while the scandal took place. But the U.N.'s oil for food program was developed and directed "not by U.N. civil servants but by the U.N. Security Council, as are all the organization's sanctions regimes." In other words, the people who ran the program didn't work for Annan, they "worked for the council's member states, including the United States and the four other permanent members." Therefore, diplomats from members of the Security Council – including the United States – are far more culpable for any problems with the oil-for-food program than Annan, who had no direct authority over it.
SECURITY COUNCIL MEMBERS IGNORED U.N. OFFICIALS: Since the Security Council ran the program, its members were responsible for rejecting or accepting contracts to do business with Iraq. On 70 occasions, U.N. officials – who were under the control of Annan – reported evidence of oil pricing scams to the council. The Security Council, including officials from the United States, ignored all of these warnings. They ended up approving 36,000 contracts to do business with Iraq, but didn't hold up a single one on the basis that it could be used to siphon money.
LIES, DAMN LIES AND COLEMAN'S STATISTICS: Coleman issued a press release stating that "Saddam accumulated more than $21 billion through abuses of the Oil-for-Food program and U.N. sanctions." But Coleman fails to specify that two-thirds of this money had absolutely nothing to do with the oil-for-food program. Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) explained on CNN on 12/3/04 that $15 billion was acquired by Saddam through "direct oil sales...by Iraq to Jordan and to Turkey and to Syria." This was no secret to the White House or Congress. According to Levin, "both President Clinton and this President [George W.] Bush knowingly waived that problem by notifying Congress that those sales were taking place in violation of the oil-for food program, but nonetheless they didn't want to do anything about it relative to stopping foreign aid," as generally required under United States law.
THE OIL-FOR-FOOD PROGRAM WORKED: The two most important facts are ignored by Coleman, Fox News and rest of the right-wing's anti-U.N. mob. First, according to the administration's hand-picked weapons inspector, the sanctions regime was completely successful in preventing Saddam from acquiring weapons of mass destruction. Second, the oil-for-food program mitigated the effect of the sanctions on the Iraqi people. The Financial Times notes, while the oil-for-food program was in place, "malnutrition was halved, whereas since last year's invasion of Iraq it has almost doubled."
COLEMAN'S TORTUROUS HYPOCRISY: Coleman claims that "as long as Mr. Annan remains in charge, the world will never be able to learn the full extent" of the problems. But there is already a comprehensive independent investigation underway "headed by Paul Volcker, the former Federal Reserve chairman" for Ronald Reagan. Coleman has provided no evidence that Annan is impeding the investigation. Moreover, Coleman did not argue that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld step down so the military could make an independent investigation of the Abu Ghraib scandal that occurred under his watch. Instead, Coleman offered Rumsfeld words of support after he testified before Congress (calling his testimony "contrite, candid and thorough") and expressed confidence that a special commission investigating the scandal would be effective.
The House of Representatives recently had the chance to engage in deliberate, careful consideration and come up with a sensible plan to reform America's intelligence committee. They flubbed it. As Roll Call editorialized this morning, the legislative process behind the bill which passed last night was "handled miserably by the House." The Washington Post agrees, charging the 600-page legislation was not "read or carefully considered by the vast majority of members, including some of those most involved in its construction." Yesterday, we asked concerned Progress Report readers to call their members of Congress and ask whether or not they'd had time to read the massive 600-page bill. Hundreds rose to the challenge – here's some of what they reported back:
I talked with Rep. Issa's (California, 49th district) office, and they said "I believe he has read it, but we don't comment on his actions; we only take recommendations on how to act." I "recommended" that he read the bill. – D.C.
I called Senator Kennedy's office in Washington. The young man who answered the phone said, "I assume he has. But I don't follow him home at night, so I can't say for sure." – S.E.
I called my Pennsylvania representative's office about 1:45 p.m. (EST); at this point, the bill was not on the floor for a vote. I was told that he is currently in meetings relating to the final draft of the bill and therefore, at this point, has not read it. I asked whether he expects to read it before he votes and was told that he will. We'll see when the bill is presented for a vote. I doubt that he is a speed reader. – S.E.
I spoke to Rep. Ellen Tauscher's office this morning and was told that the final form of the bill was not yet released. Ellen has real concerns that a vote will be pushed in less than 24 hours and that not enough time to read the entire bill will be allowed. – G.S.
Major Owens is my Rep (D-11 NY). His staff said they hadn't received the bill yet. (this is 12:45 p.m., Tuesday). They were waiting for a "ruling" which describes how long they'll have before voting. He said that they'll probably have 2 hours to debate before voting. That's 300 pages an hour. Hard to read that fast. He said that if I really wanted to help, I might call Rep. Dreier (CA), who is in charge of the ruling, and ask him if he's going to give enough time to read and debate the bill. This person said that 3 days would be sufficient. But he expected to get hours. And he said that "they could put anything they want in there" in the meantime. Is this really how our govt. works? Scary. – T.C.
I called Rep. Waxman's office today and was told by one of his assistants that the intelligence bill was not available yet and therefore he had not read it. She also told me that Rep. Waxman had helped draft a letter to the leadership requesting that every bill is available five days in advance for review. – C.S.
I called Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen's office and asked if she had read the new version of the intelligence bill. The nice woman who answered the phone said, "I believe she has." I asked, "Really? All 600 pages of it already?" The response: "I know we printed it out for her and I believe she's in the process of reading it right now." Maybe she took one of those speed reading courses. – B.G.