Deadly Earnest

In the mass media age, blogs should help re-anchor politics in reality by relying primarily on personal experience and the reporting of facts.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

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Monday, November 21, 2005

Sen Barack Obama (D-Illinois): Crusading against Lead Paint

By way of a profile of Senator Obama, I’m going to write a brief for his efforts to get rid of lead paint in old housing.

Lead is a neurotoxin – a poison that prevents a child’s brain from developing normally. Obama is attempting to force the EPA to certify home contractors so that they do not contaminate children with lead in the course of their work. There is an existing federal law requiring this, which the EPA has ignored for more than a decade.

Federal Regulation Worked Well:
The first point I’d like to make, something that often gets lost in arguments about environmental policy, is that environmental regulation often works VERY well. Lead paint is a case study for the effectiveness of federal action.

In 1978, it was estimated that some 4 million children suffered from lead poisoning. That was the year lead-based paint was banned. By 1992, only 434,000 children had elevated blood levels. That’s amazing progress, and the lead paint law was the critical new factor (though the ban on leaded fuel for cars also had an important effect.)

The Continuing Problem – and Exactly How Kids are Affected:
Still, 400,000 kids were somehow ingesting significant amounts of lead in 1992. At this point, it’s worth explaining exactly why this is a problem. There are many effects of lead poisoning in different organisms, and at very high levels, lead can actually cause convulsions. But the most succinct and troubling description that I found on why we should be worried is this sentence, from the website of the Franklin Institute, a scientific foundation:


for every 10 ug/dL (microgram per deciliter) increase in blood lead levels, there was a lowering of mean IQ in children by 4 to 7 points. (That's less than a thousandth of a gram of lead.) see the Franklin Institute web site for details.


That’s pretty dramatic. A lowering of IQ by 4 to 7 points for every increment!!

Statistics are kept using that basic point of reference – a child is considered to have an “elevated blood level of lead” with 10 ug/dl. In Illinois, the most recent stats suggest that something like 8% of young children are so contaminated. That means about 1 in every 12 kids is mentally impaired, to a measurable degree, by lead in their blood.

What's that Vector?:
I can remember the talk about lead paint when I was young. There was a campaign telling kids not to eat paint chips, and in turn, encouraging parents, landlords and health authorities to deal with flaking old paint. Even as an 8 or 9 year old, this was bewildering to me. It sounded awful, not lead poisoning, but just the idea of eating paint. Were there really a lot of other kids eating flaking paint off their walls? Were they that hungry? That adventuresome? That strange?

My 9 year-old hunch was correct. Kids don’t eat paint that often. The large numbers of kids still becoming contaminated, even as parents, landlords and others aggressively dealt with peeling paint, was evidence that something else was up. The vector was more insidious – dust, abrading from paint when doors closed, windows were raised and lowered, and just in the normal wear of the house. Kids breathed lead dust, ate from plates that carried lead dust, ate vegetables from house-gardens whose soil had dust from exterior lead paint.

The 1978 law meant that any new paint covering the old didn’t contain lead, and the more the lead is covered up, the less lead is abrading into the air. All good. But the underlying lead still does abrade. Thousands of kids each year were still being made substantially dumber because of it.

The Response of a Democratic Congress:
So in 1992, as part of a larger housing bill, Congress passed, and President Bush (that would be the older, wiser Bush.) signed the Residential Lead-Based Paint Reduction Act. One key goal of the bill was to set standards for contractors remodeling older buildings likely to have lead-based paint. Among the important provisions were these:

  • All realtors and landlords for housing built before 1978 are required to provide a pamphlet on the dangers of lead paint to buyers and tenants.

I got the pamphlet from my realtor (and from the landlord at my old apartment). I didn’t provide one to my tenants. She’s a lawyer – Gulp!!! Fortunately the two of them have no kids, and kids are the primary concern. I’ll get on it. How many of you received a pamphlet from your landlord or your realtor?

  • The EPA must create a standard within 18 months for certifying all remodeling contractors involved in tearing out ceilings, walls and other fixtures covered with lead-based paint in buildings from before 1978.

(To see the law, go to http://www.thomas.loc.gov/., click on Search Previous Congresses, then search for the title of the law, clicking on 102nd Congress and “Enrolled Bills sent to the President” – which will limit you to the version that actually passed. Unfortunately, searches of this Congressional database expire, so I can’t link you directly to the text.)

The EPA Failure to Act:
The EPA never issued a regulation. I’d love to blame only the Bush administration, but Clinton’s EPA also did nothing. I’ve e-mailed Senator Obama to find out why.

However, the Bush administration made a further retreat from the law, announcing in May, 2005, that it intended to ignore the directive and simply create a voluntary educational program for contractors. The driving force behind this decision, according to an AP article, was Stephen Johnson, then deputy administrator, but later made the head of the EPA.

Senator Obama objected, ultimately putting a ‘hold’ on the President’s nomination of an assistant administrator to get his point across.

If the EPA finally released the regulation, its own studies suggest that the average cost to homeowners would be roughly $116 for interior work and $42 for external work. The benefits would be substantial. However, as so often with these things, the available reporting doesn’t really tell us how those cost figures were arrived at, exactly how the work would be different, and what the benefit would be. Likewise, I’ll be asking Obama for more information on these questions.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Chairman Inhofe - Profile

Today, I'll launch the Environment Committee monitoring blog with a profile of the Chairman, James Inhofe, Republican of Oklahoma. As I proceed, I'll profile each member, explaining their priorities and describing their philosophies. I'll try to keep links to these profiles on the front page.

James Inhofe,
Chairman, Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works

League of Conservation Voters Rating:
Inhofe scores consistently among the least conservation-oriented members, with an average 0.5 rating out of 100 over the last 8 years. The only pro-environmental vote he cast during that period was to prevent the Devil’s Lake Diversion, in which water from a lake in North Dakota has been re-routed into the Hudson Bay watershed, against the strong objections of the Canadian government and many environmentalists. Despite his opposition, this bill passed, so he can proudly say he has never done anything that helped environmentalists pass a bill important to them.

Inhofe’s Priorities:
(taken from his statement at the hearing with EPA administrator Johnson, Feb. 2005:
- The Tar Creek clean-up (a local Oklahoma issue)
- Holding Down the Costs of Ultra-Low-Sulfur Diesel – He states that the Bush administration considers this bill a victory, but he is concerned that it’s not worth the price.
- Grants Management – half the EPA budget goes to grants of various sorts. He describes them as non-competitive and ineffective.
- Costs imposed on local communities by federal water standards.
- The Clear Skies program – this is the Bush administration bill scaling back clean air standards and establishing emissions trading.
- He seems to accuse the Bush Administration of grandstanding on the budget, noting that criticism of a proposed 5% cut in proposed EPA funding is premature since the administration mostly cut programs “the Agency knows Congress will put back.”

Global Warming:
Inhofe approaches Global Warming with a strange, self-contradictory, devil-may-care attitude. Here are four quotes from the same speech – his statement from the Senate Floor on July 28, 2003.
· “There is compelling proof that human activities have little effect on climate.”
· “Anyone who pays even cursory attempts
· “Increases in global temperatures may have a beneficial impact on how we live our lives.”
And most frightening:
· “One might post the question, ‘if we had the ability to set the global thermostat, what level would we pick.”
In sum, we don’t know anything for sure about climate change, except that I’m absolutely positive it isn’t human-caused. But anyway, it might not be so bad if the temperature did go up a little, and in the end, wouldn’t it be fun to tinker, even though we’re not really sure of the effects.
Is this just smoke-blowing to smudge the debate, or are his ideas really this muddled? It’s hard to understand how the chairman of an important Senate committee could stake out a position that is so utterly incoherent.

From the Heartland Institute –
Inhofe championed the Chemical Facilities Security Act in the wake of 9/11. His bill was in contrast to the Corzine Chemical Security Act. Corzine’s bill would have emphasized both facilities security and reliance on ‘inherently safer chemicals’. The Inhofe bill emphasized company-developed security plans and oversight by the Department of Homeland Security, (moving away from oversight by the EPA.)

Transportation Policy
Inhofe has been a vigorous and vocal opponent of Amtrak.

Friday, November 11, 2005

A New Direction - Congressional Monitoring: the Senate Environment & Public Works Committee

Though the blogosphere is showing great strengths, (for instance the victory of this blog in its crusade for user-friendly, verifiable voting machines in Cook County), we often provide very little new information. Occasionally, some bloggers do offer anecdotes, observations and insider knowledge. But overwhelmingly, bloggers echo and amplify things we've read, heard or seen in other media. We help refocus the attention of the media, and in doing so, I think we provide a great service. But we have yet to become substantial sources of news in our own right.

That's surprising, and a pity, since the strength of the internet is its ability to distribute a program of political or issue-oriented research among the many intelligent observers interested in the public good.

Effective today, I'm redirecting this blog towards a project that I think could ultimately shape the blogosphere into a stronger voice for accountable government -- I'd like to see a broad network of blogs that monitor Congress (and ultimately, the legislatures, as well), each taking a specific area of interest and holding a microscope up to it.

I've decided to adopt the Senate Environment and Public Works committee. It's chaired by James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma) and Jim Jeffords (I-Vermont, but working through the Democratic caucus) is ranking minority member. There are 18 members, including 10 Republicans and 8 from the minority side of the aisle.

One of the members is Barack Obama of my home state, and I intend to speak with his staff and profile his agenda in the next week.

An important part of what I'd like to do will be linking up with other blogs that take a similar tack. If you know a blog that focuses on a particular committee or area of Congressional power, please let me know so I can link to it.

- Earnest

Friday, May 27, 2005

Suburbs Get Optical Scan

I unrolled my home delivery paper a couple mornings ago and found that someone had wrapped a bouquet of roses inside:

Cook County Switching to Optical Scan Ballots

Down the page, an interesting paragraph:
"The city of Chicago, which has its own election authority, is also doing away with punch card ballots and expects to choose a company for its new voting equipment within the next few weeks, Chicago Board of Election Commissioners spokesman Tom Leach said."

They must be considering a different system. Are they thinking about a different vendor for an optical scan system, or a different type of system completely?

Most collar counties already use optical scan systems. With suburban Cook now converting, it seems like it would minimize confusion if everyone in the region were doing the same.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

NYTimes Weighs In on Voting Systems

The New York Times weighs in with an editorial on voting equipment. Since the link may disappear into the Times' pay-per-view archives at some point, I'll excerpt the conclusion:

The draft bills that the Legislature is working on do not rule out optical-scan voting, but they are far more focused on touch-screen voting. That may be because voting machine manufacturers have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars lobbying legislators, or it may simply be that optical-scan equipment has had a lower profile. Whatever the reason, the Legislature owes it to the voters - and the taxpayers - to promote optical-scan voting.

I'm sympathetic, but aware of other competing interests and factors. The developments in touchscreen voting are significant -- all serious electronic systems now provide a verifiable paper trail, and few election authorities are even considering purchasing systems that don't have a paper trail. That's progress.

Here in Chicago, there has also been progress since my last posts. The city board of elections is reconsidering former favorites, looking at new options. That's good.

I want to ask more questions here for people to think about, because I think we'll make a better decision if there is informed public discussion. What should the criteria be, because there are trade-offs with each type of voting system still in the running?

On a scale of 1 (worst) to 10 (best), how do you rank each of these attributes:
- a system that allows all handicapped voters to vote in the precinct, without assistance from someone else;
- a system that is most accurate (i.e., where falloff is low);
- a system where the voting mechanism is familiar from daily life;
- a low-cost alternative;
- judicial retention. [Some retention judges worry that some of the new systems may not lead people through to the end of the ballot so easily. Some judges have told me privately that they think that's a positive change - that people who are aware of the retention ballot before they walked in will still find it, but some of the unthinking yeses and the mindlessly cynical no's may not vote.]

- are there other attributes that I haven't mentioned?

What do you think of the criteria I put forward previously - paper trail and accuracy, with a lesser emphasis on cost?

The New York Times has weighed in. What criteria will the Trib and Sun-Times use to measure this decision? It isn't fair to the city board of elections to withhold the terms of praise or blame, and then blast them later. I'm not as cynical as some who read my previous posts and suggested that there was an intent to pick a system to disenfranchise certain voters. Many factors can contribute to the selection of equipment. But what should they be? The Trib and Sun-Times need to editorialize and let decision-makers know where they stand - before the decision, not afterward.

Likewise, it would be nice to hear what the city and county are looking for. It's always easier to trust a governmental decision if the criteria are made clear beforehand, and the decision seems to adhere to those criteria. Where is the press release saying "we will pick the most accurate system!" or "we want every single voter who wants to vote on the retention judges to find that section easily so their vote is cast and counted!" Or, "We're balancing the high-tech ease of paper-verified touchscreen with the cost!"

If the professionals want to set the terms of the debate, that's fine. They've studied this more than we have. But do set the terms of the debate, for god's sake!

And readers, what do you think? What is most important? What can you do to raise the profile of this enormously important decision?

Friday, January 28, 2005

More to come

I guess I have not followed up on my promise to describe the various voting systems, but there is more to come....stay tuned.