Moderately Republican

The Power of the Maine-stream

Republicans support the Feldstein plan because, with the 2000 presidential campaign getting under way, it allows them to have it both ways: pledging to support current Social Security benefits and also advocating tax cuts. The Democrats are too out of it to fight back. Lobbyists have found them so ill-informed about the workings of the Social Security system that they are unable to discuss its operations, let alone make arguments for reform. Participants at last month's White House conference on Social Security came away aghast at the ignorance of congressional Democrats at a closed-door meeting on the subject. Since then, House minority leader Dick Gephardt has tried to bring members up to speed, and unions are jumping in to help make the fight.

In the Senate, Minority Leader Tom Daschle sits over a potentially explosive and divided Democratic caucus. Five of the Democrats on the key Finance Committee— Breaux, Moynihan, Bob Kerrey, Lieberman, and Robb— are for some sort of privatizing, which means, at this early stage in the fight, key Dem leaders are setting the party on a path toward political suicide in 2000 by embracing reduced benefits, something the right-wing Republicans have enough sense to oppose. Insiders say Al Gore is somewhat stronger in defending Social Security than is Clinton, whose mind is elsewhere.

Skyrocketing Costs
NASA Racks Up the Travel Bills

Tennessee's Senator Fred Thompson reports that NASA has been paying up to $20,000 per round-trip from Houston to Moscow, to and from airfields where there is virtually no security. "NASA is paying at least 10 times what an average flight costs to Moscow," Thompson said. "In fact, if NASA called a travel agent today they could purchase a ticket for $555 to Moscow." A report by the space agency's inspector general found that the average cost per passenger under NASA's charter contract with the Pentagon's Air Mobility Command ranged from $2753 to $19,883 during 1998.

Like everybody else, NASA officials could have hopped a commercial jet from Houston to New York and easily transferred to a Moscow flight, but according to the report NASA employees believed "the charter service is safer than commercial aircraft," and it was a plus for their "morale" and "comfort" because the government employees flying charters could "lie down across the seats and sleep." The report also notes the added benefit that charter passengers receive "up-to-date health information for overseas travelers as the passengers board the charter or during the flight"— even though these same advisories can be found on the Web site of the Centers for Disease Control, or obtained from companies like American Express. And, says the report, "personnel interviewed also stated the charter service is safer than commercial airlines because DOD flight safety requirements used by the AMC [Air Mobility Command] exceed Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) safety requirements for commercial airlines."

Since it relies on such ultrasafe transportation options, NASA skips security precautions. Neither its space at Ellington Field in Houston nor the one at the Vnukovo airport in Moscow has been checked for security. And this despite the bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa, our retaliatory war against terrorists in the Sudan and Afghanistan, stepped-up security measures at home, and the State Department's September 1998 Worldwide Caution Advisory, urging Americans working or vacationing abroad to increase security and lessen their vulnerabilities.

Because Air Force One and Two planes carrying the president and vice president land at Vnukovo, NASA just assumed somebody must have checked out the airport. In fact, the Secret Service makes a one-time check ahead of Clinton or Gore arrivals, and otherwise NASA's assumption proved wrong. Nobody really knows what's up at the Moscow field, other than that it possesses an X-ray machine, which may or may not be run by a trained operator. Following the issuance of the report, NASA ended the charter flights.

Furby, The Spook
The National Security Agency has banned the popular mechanical pets that look like owls from its Fort Meade premises in Maryland for fear the toy might start "talking classified," according to the Associated Press. In an internal message to workers, the NSA issued a warning about the toy, which is embedded with a computer chip that allows it to utter 200 words— 100 in English and 100 in "Furbish": "Personally owned photographic, video and audio recording equipment are prohibited items. This includes toys, such as Furbys, with built-in recorders that repeat the audio with synthesized sound to mimic the original signal . . . . We are prohibited from introducing these items into NSA spaces. Those who have should contact their Staff Security Office for guidance."

Research assistance: Ioanna Veleanu and Al Krebs

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