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Congressional Briefs: Cummings, Jones, Lee, Lewis, Norton

Cummings and Allen Address Coast Guard Academy in Response to Racist Incidents

By Staff

Oct. 7, 2007, 10:20 p.m. -  Congressman Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation, was joined by United States Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Thad Allen in addressing the student body, faculty, and staff of the Coast Guard Academy in response to the placement of nooses in the bag of a student and the office of an officer conducting diversity training (copy of speech attached).

"These cadets are a group of extraordinary young men and women who represent the very best of the best," Congressman Cummings said. "However, it is important for them to understand that a service as noble as the United States Coast Guard has no place for hatred and disrespect for others, and they will only be as strong as their weakest link."

The trip to the Academy came following reports a noose was found in the bag of an African-American student in July, and that another was found in August in the office of a white female officer conducting diversity training in response to the first incident. Upon learning of the nooses last week, Congressman Cummings called upon Admiral Allen to initiate a full criminal investigation and to address the entire student body.

"Honor plays an extremely important role service-wide in the Coast Guard, and I wanted to make it clear that these racist, threatening acts were dishonorable. I also wanted these cadets to understand that they themselves should not tolerate one among them who will bring dishonor to the service," Congressman Cummings said. "I knew this was a message that needed to come from the very top, so I called upon Admiral Allen, who reacted immediately—as I knew he would."

 change of heart has to take place, and I feel that God demands it. Black America is in the midst of an Abraham and Job experience.                       

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Following his speech, Congressman Cummings will be touring the Academy as well as dining with cadets.

"The Coast Guard is a great service, best exemplified during Hurricane Katrina. When all other systems broke down and failed, the Coast Guard stood strong, and its members risked their lives to save everyone, not just those whose skin color matched their own," Congressman Cummings said. "I am confident that our message today resonated with these students, and I have hope that they will ensure that this service remains the shield of freedom it has been for more than 200 years."

Rep. John Lewis Holds Hearings on Food Safety

Amidst rising concern over the safety of foreign goods and a growing string of recalled products, the House Committee on Ways and Means Subcommittees on Trade and Oversight held a joint hearing today examining how the U.S. can better ensure the safety of its imports.

"I do not understand why a consumer cannot easily go to a single source and learn exactly what toys are safe for their children, what food is safe to eat, what beds are safe to sleep in, and what medicine won't kill them," said Subcommittee on Oversight Chairman John Lewis (D-GA). "We need to return to being proactive, not reactive. Inspecting and stopping harmful products at the border is common sense. It saves us from the headache of tracking defective products that are already in stores and homes."

There have been over 50 recalls of imported products in the past two months, involving millions of toys and consumer goods. Earlier this week, imported decorative fireplaces and electric toasters were recalled due to fire hazards along with baby rattles that present a choking hazard. There have also been recalls of tainted pet food, toothpaste and antibiotic laden seafood. These developments led the Subcommittees to examine whether there is the proper funding, coordination and attention being given to ensuring the safety of imports. Specifically, the Subcommittees sought to determine whether steps can be taken to provide the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Agency with adequate authority and resources to improve coordination with other Federal agencies charged with ensuring the quality of goods entering the U.S.

During the hearing, Committee members also voiced their frustration at the lack of a clear, concise medium to relay information to consumers about recalled or dangerous products. Members also expressed a strong interest in developing a means by which the government can effectively stop flawed imports from entering the U.S. without severely impeding the flow of commerce

Norton's Regional Economic Bill for U.S. Passes House

Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC), chair of the Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings, and Emergency Management, got House passage by a vote of 264 to 154 of the Regional Economic and Infrastructure Development Act of 2007 (H.R. 3246), her bill to provide a comprehensive regional approach to economic and infrastructure development in the most severely economically distressed regions in the nation. "I was especially pleased to develop this bill because it assists the most systemically poor regions in the United States," Norton said.  Authorizing two existing commissions and three new regional economic development commissions for $1.2 billion over five years, the bill creates a common framework to address problems of systemic poverty and underdevelopment in specifically named counties in five regions that met criteria set by Norton's subcommittee. The five commissions are: the Delta Regional Commission, the Northern Great Plains Regional Commission, the Southeast Crescent Regional Commission, the Southwest Border Regional Commission, and the Northern Border Regional Commission. 

Norton said the strongly bipartisan bill is especially important today when even prosperous areas are feeling the effects of the global economy and international trade. "The additional burden of long existing systemic and persistent poverty in these underdeveloped counties in regions of our own country has been particularly debilitating," Norton said on the floor. 

Modeled after the very successful Appalachian Regional Commission, the bill provides a consistent method for distributing economic development funds in parts of regions most in need of assistance, and ensures a comprehensive regional approach where federal assistance has been insufficient to meet needs, Norton said.  Most important has been the ability of this legislation to leverage a small amount of federal funds to attract more private investments.  Planning is done entirely with stakeholders at the state and local levels.   

Even before chairing the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee's Economic Development Subcommittee, Norton consistently got revenue streams for the District's economy through this subcommittee.  However, in her capacity as chair, she also guides projects and programs that affect the entire country. Although today's bill addresses regions rather than cities, Norton said that she is working with the Environmental Protection Agency, which supervises H.R. 3246, on a District priority, and that D.C. is close to receiving a large grant through the Economic Development Administration for Eastern Market as a result of the fire there in May. 

Norton Gun Buyback Bill Responds to National Rise in Gun Killings

As the District's handgun ban goes before the Supreme Court this month and gun control opponents and supporters are lining up on both sides, Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) introduced a bill to launch a nationwide gun buyback program that "offers a common sense, bi-partisan attempt to find a solution to gun violence that does not conflict with most stances on the controversial issue of gun control."  The Nationwide Gun Buyback Act (NGBA) would provide $50 million in federal funds for local jurisdictions to run gun buyback programs like the successful programs that have been conducted by the District of Columbia and other big cities during periods of increasing gun violence.  This program would allow people who desire to remove guns, including illegal weapons, from their homes to do so voluntarily without incurring criminal penalties for possession.

Norton's bill comes as this year's D.C. homicide rate is 6 percent ahead of last year's rate, with nearly all of these killings committed with handguns.  In 2006, the District recorded a 20-year low in murders.  However, 2007 is on pace for an increase in the murder rate for the first time in five years.  Beyond the nation's capital, the latest Justice Department national statistics show that murders increased by almost 2 percent in 2006 when compared with 2005 murders.  "The devastating effect of handguns on inner cities is indisputable," Norton said. "The federal government can play a role in reducing gun violence by providing the small amount of funding authorized by my bill to encourage and facilitate buyback efforts where a local jurisdiction believes they can be helpful." The bill's purpose is particularly targeted to get illegal guns off the streets, which local jurisdictions would support regardless of views or laws concerning possession of handguns.

Norton said that D.C.'s gun buybacks have proven to be a faster and easier way to put guns under the control of law enforcement where criminals cannot use them, and children and adults cannot misuse them.  Several years ago the District conducted a pilot buyback program using funds from the Department of Housing and Urban Development.  Long lines of residents desiring to turn in their guns prompted police to expand the program citywide.  The city used almost $300,000, but later ran out of money, but did not run out of guns that could have been collected.  "The guns were a 'good buy,' but hard-pressed jurisdictions, especially big cities, have no readily available funds and should not have to rob Peter to pay Paul when it comes to public safety," Norton said.  After an evaluation of proposals, added weight would be given to jurisdictions with the greatest incidence of gun violence according to Norton's bill.

The Congresswoman was first encouraged to introduce a gun buyback bill in 2003.  On Father's Day of that year, citizens who had lost relatives to gun violence and others gathered to declare a moratorium on murder for the Father's Day weekend. The moratorium had important symbolic value and perhaps more because there was only one murder that weekend.  Norton said what impressed her most was the fact that the moratorium was entirely citizen initiated. "Residents themselves, around the country, must take responsibility for crime and not regard criminal activity as a matter for the police alone," she said, "but the federal government is obligated to find a way to help as crime rises sharply throughout the country."  Families, and especially mothers, have feared guns in their homes, but often do not know how to get rid of them.  Groups such as street gangs and crews also could take advantage of the buyback provisions to encourage them to disarm themselves.

"Gun buyback efforts are not new, and my bill is certainly no substitute for gun safety legislation, but it is based on demonstrated and successful experience in a number of cities that have achieved voluntary compliance by citizens with local laws," Norton said.  "In a market economy, efforts to buy back guns have obvious appeal. We may disagree on the various approaches to reduce gun violence, but Democrats and Republicans alike can agree to this sensible approach."

Norton Calls on FEMA and DHS to Honor Public Comment Commitment on Controversial Plan for National Disasters

The Office of Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) released a letter Norton wrote to Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Administrator R. David Paulison, requesting a 30-day extension of the period for public comment on requirements in the National Response Framework (NRF), a plan to make the country safe in the event of natural or terrorist disasters, after the agency declined to give assurances that Paulison would honor his commitment to extend the comment period.  In the letter, Norton formally requested that FEMA extend the public comment period, set to end a week from today, an additional 30 days. Quoting from a September 11th hearing, Norton, chair of the subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings, and Emergency Management, challenged Paulison to honor the commitment he made at the subcommittee hearing to extend the comment period if comments were still coming in.  FEMA already has received a record number of public comments on the plan.

During the hearing there was blistering criticism of the Framework from experts, state and local emergency managers, and academic witnesses, raising serious, unanswered questions that still must be settled.  Of special concern, was criticism that the NRF ignores the important role of on-the-ground first responders who must implement the plan in the event of disasters.  Norton wrote, "Considering the wholesale criticism of the document before and since, our Committee was surprised to learn that neither FEMA nor the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), on its own, sought to respond to the criticisms by welcoming more public participation through the comment process. The importance of the document to the nation and respect for the affected public demand every effort to be responsive to public concerns."    

As a result of issues and problems raised at the hearing, Norton subsequently asked the General Accountability Office to review and analyze the NRF, particularly whether the document follows the requirements outlined in the Post Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act of 2006.  In response to the failures of Hurricane Katrina, Congress mandated that DHS develop a comprehensive framework for federal response in a major disaster.  

Barbara Lee's Statement in Support of Security Guards

Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-Oakland) issued the following statement on Wednesday in support of unionized security guards who are engaged in protracted contract talks with several private security firms in the Bay Area:

"I am deeply concerned that the predominately African American Security Guard force does not earn a living wage.  Like all workers, they should be able to provide the quality of life for their families that they deserve.  I hope that the management of these firms engage in meaningful contract negotiations that will bring about a fair and equitable solution to this labor dispute."

Tubbs Jones Joins Democratic Leadership in Introducing Plan to Stem Subprime Foreclosure Crisis  

Congresswoman Stephanie Tubbs Jones joined Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Reps. Barney Frank and Carolyn Maloney, and Senators Chris Dodd and Charles E. Schumer to offer a plan to stem the rising tide of home foreclosures created by the subprime mortgage market crisis. The plan would increase funding for foreclosure prevention, temporarily lift portfolio caps on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and call on the President to appoint a special advisor to oversee and coordinate the federal government's response to the subprime meltdown.  The lawmakers urged the administration to act quickly and decisively to help families around the country who were victimized by unscrupulous lending practices to keep their homes, hold lenders accountable, and deploy the resources necessary to prevent the foreclosure crisis from taking a toll on the broader economy. 

"For the past seven years I have introduced legislation to combat predatory lending in the form of the Predatory Lending Practices Reduction Act," stated Rep. Tubbs Jones. "This legislation calls for federal certification of mortgage brokers and agents and stiffer penalties for violation of federal law and would work to weed out the bad actors that are responsible for equity stripping and other predatory practices. Additionally, it will authorize funding for Community Development Corporations to provide training and education on this issue.  

"I hate to say 'I told you so' but the numbers don't lie. In my home state of Ohio, the foreclosure epidemic went from bad to worse last year as the number of new cases grew by nearly 24% from 2005.  Cuyahoga County led the state in new cases with 13,610 new filings last year. This ranking has attracted national attention with Ohio's foreclosure rate currently at 18% which is higher than the national average of 17%. Additionally, those living in low-income and minority communities are three times more likely to receive subprime loans. 

"The foreclosure issue can affect communities on a variety of different levels. Increased foreclosures often turn neighborhoods that were once vibrant into neglected, blighted areas lowering property values and bond ratings. This can also increase crime rates which ultimately raise costs for local governments. Additionally, since Ohio schools are funded through property taxes, foreclosures can ultimately decrease much needed revenue for children's education." 

"I am pleased to join my colleagues in offering this plan to address the issue of subprime foreclosures so that we can provide much needed assistance to American families."

Tubbs Jones joins CBC in Meeting with Leading Military Personnel                                                                                     

Congresswoman Stephanie Tubbs Jones and members of the Congressional Black Caucus met at the Pentagon with Mr. Gordon England, Deputy Secretary of Defense, Mr. David Chu, Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel, Admiral Patrick Walsh, Vice Chief of the Navy, General Duncan McNabb, Vice Chief of the Air Force, among others, to discuss the small number of African American senior commanding officers throughout the armed forces.  

"If the military's goal is to be a more diverse body, then its leadership should also be diverse," said Rep. Tubbs Jones. "It is in the interests of our nation's national security to maintain and improve the racial composition throughout all branches of the military. Our brave young men and women must be able to see members of their own race in high-ranking commands, as this will increase solidarity within the ranks of our armed forces and truly give weight to the saying 'One team one fight!.' While overall I was pleased that we had this historic meeting and hope that it is the first of many, I was disappointed that the Joint Chiefs of Staff did not show up to the meeting." 

During the meeting Rep. Tubbs Jones reinforced a statement issued in an amicus curiae for the case Grutter v. Bollinger. In this brief that several retired high ranking military officials and Senators stated, "At present, the military cannot achieve an officer corps that is both highly qualified and racially diverse unless the service academies and the ROTC use limited race-conscious recruiting and admissions policies."  

Additionally, Rep. Tubbs Jones acknowledged the current efforts of the Department of Defense and the various training schools and programs within it to increase the numbers of minorities but expressed the need for stronger recruitment of minorities to build a larger selection pool for senior level commands within the military. To do this she suggested an increase in military dollars allocated towards ROTC programs.

Cummings Criticizes Blackwater for Undermining U.S. Military Operations

Calls on State Department to Start Holding Private Companies Accountable

At a hearing before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform examining private military contracting, Congressman Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), a senior member of the Committee, released the following statement:

"Blackwater and similar private security companies have created a shadow military of mercenary troops in Iraq that are not accountable to the U.S. government or to anyone else. The questionable and careless practices of these companies, which have in the past mistakenly been attributed to U.S. military, are endangering the credibility of our troops during a time when cooperation with the Iraqi people and government is critical for the success of our mission.

"We have received numerous reports showing controversial actions taken by the company—independent of the September 16 shooting incident in Baghdad that killed 11 Iraqi civilians, wounded 14 others, and resulted in efforts by the Iraqi government to ban the company from operating in Iraq—including attempting to cover-up a shooting that killed an innocent Iraqi bystander. Furthermore, despite a contract with the State Department permitting them to use force only for defensive purposes, Blackwater reports firing the first shot in over 80 percent of the 195 'escalation of force' incidents. I find these reports very troubling.

"I am equally troubled by the vacuum of legal accountability in which these contractors are operating. This is perhaps best illustrated by the incident on Christmas Eve, 2006, when an intoxicated Blackwater contractor shot the Iraqi Vice President's security guard—the equivalent of shooting a Secret Service member here—and walked away with nothing but a slap on the wrist: a small fine, the termination of his contract with the company, and a paid plane ticket home. Even more disturbing, when the U.S. military was blamed for the incident in the Iraqi press, Blackwater did nothing to clarify the record.

"We cannot afford such carelessness and misplaced blame, particularly when we are trying to win the trust and cooperation of the Iraqi people. This undermines the ability of the U.S. military to complete its mission in Iraq—a war it should not even have entered. While it is encouraging that the FBI will be investigating the September 16 incident, it is too little, too late. The State Department must step up its accountability efforts by setting standards by which these private contractors must operate and implementing just penalties for misconduct by contractors."

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