Monday, October 24, 2005

Incumbent Fatigue

On Thursday October 20th, Senator Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) took the podium on the Sentate floor and gave a stirring speech. The fury in his voice and the righteousness of his message was powerful. However, Senator Stevens was not rallying the country in the war on terror. He was not as Churchill did during the time of war recounting a heroic defense of the "empire" like the battle of Britain in 1940. No, he was not referring to our country's "finest hour"

Senator Stevens was rising in defense of Alaska. The 50th state in the union received an aggressive and emotional defense of his home state's appropriation of almost half a billion dollars for the construction of two bridges.

Last Thursday, freshman senator Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma) in a seemingly all to infrequent case of reasonableness suggested that the appropriation of the "bridges to nowhere" be pulled back in light of the damage caused by hurricane Katrina. He suggested that the monies might be better spent on repairing the I-10 corridor that hundreds of thousands of people travel annually. Senator Stevens, in his response said the following: "I will put the Senate on notice -- and I don't kid people -- if the Senate decides to discriminate against our state, to take money only from our state, I'll resign from this body," he said. "This is not the Senate I came to. This is not the Senate I've devoted 37 years to, if one senator can decide he'll take all the money from one state to solve a problem of another.".

Mr. Stevens is not alone in this call for defense of his homeland. Senator Lisa Murkowski, (R-Alaska) and Congressman Don Young, Alaska's sole representative in the House, have both come to the defense of the bridges. Mr. Young, and Mr. Stevens, not surprisingly have an enormous amount of influence over governmental expenditures. Mr. Young is chairman of the House committee on Transportation (imagine that), and Mr. Stevens, is chairman of the Sentate's committee on Commerce, Science and yes, Transportation. Mr. Stevens, along with Ms. Murkowski an Mr. Young all voted in favor of the appropriation of funds to the disaster in the gulf. They are on record for sending relief to the region. However, when it comes time to pay the bill, they balked at sacrificing some of their hard fought pork. The Bridges must be defended!

During World War Two, President Roosevelt gave a speech five months after the attack on Pearl Harbor. In this speech, he called for some amazing sacrifices to be borne by the people of the United States. Consider these words spoken in April of 1942:

"The blunt fact is that every single person in the United States is going to be affected by this program. Some of you will be affected more directly by one or two of these restrictive measures, but all of you will be affected indirectly by all of them.

Are you a businessman, or do you own stock in a business corporation? Well, your profits are going to be cut down to a reasonably low level by taxation. Your income will be subject to higher taxes. Indeed in these days, when every available dollar should go to the war effort, I do not think that any American citizen should have a net income in excess of $25,000 per year after payment of taxes.

Are you a retailer or a wholesaler or a manufacturer or a farmer or a landlord? Ceilings are being placed on the prices at which you can sell your goods or rent your property.

Do you work for wages? You will have to forgo higher wages for your particular job for the duration of the war.

All of us are used to spending money for things that we want, things, however, which are not absolutely essential. We will all have to forgo that kind of spending. Because we must put every dime and every dollar we can possibly spare out of our earnings into war bonds and stamps. Because the demands of the war effort require the rationing of goods of which there is not enough to go around. Because the stopping of purchases of nonessentials will release thousands of workers who are needed in the war effort.

As I told the Congress yesterday, "sacrifice" is not exactly the proper word with which to describe this program of self-denial. When, at the end of this great struggle, we shall have saved our free way of life, we shall have made no "sacrifice."

The price for civilization must be paid in hard work and sorrow and blood. The price is not too high. If you doubt it, ask those millions who live today under the tyranny of Hitlerism."

Mr. Roosevelt's words were hard. People didn't want to hear it then anymore than people want to hear about sacrifice now. However, the reality of the 1940's were that there was sacrifice both abroad and at home. My parents were directly involved in WWII. My dad was a combat soldier in the pacific theatre, and my mom worked in a factory in Waco, Texas manufacturing goods for the war effort. Their parents had "victory gardens" and bought war bonds. Times were hard, but there was a sense of duty amongst those not engaged in active combat to help the war effort.

Today, instead of the President or Congress asking for the nation to sacrifice in the face of war and in the aftermath of natural disasters like the hurricanes that have devastated the gulf coast region, we get Senator Ted Stevens threatening to resign his seat in the Senate instead of relinquishing some of his pork. Mr. Stevens, like I'm sure most of the members of Congress do, believes he is doing the right thing for his state. It is certainly a noble trait to be loyal to one's state. However, when we are at war, or we have suffered tragedy along the lines of the disasters in the gulf, we are no longer Alaskans, or Texas, or Ohioans or Floridians, we are Americans. Mr. Stevens, if you can't see that Mr. Coburn's suggestions are reasonable and prudent in the face of the situation at hand, you need to retire.

It seems like the lessons taught by our parents and grandparents in the 1940's have been lost on us. It seems like the congress of the United States is more interested in currying favor with the folks at home that addressing the realities of the nation at large. I am truly tired of seeing this behavior from congress year after year. I have incumbent fatigue.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

What's Next, No Dancing?

On the heels of announcements from Pharmaceutical Giants Merck and GlaxoSmithKiline about promising test results for a vaccine against the Human Papilloma Virus or HPV, which is responsible for most cases of cervical cancer, religious groups such as the Family Research Council have begun to muster opposition to the vaccine. Claiming that such a vaccine would “give licence for young women to engage in prematiral sex” the FRC is continuing to push abstinence as the best method for avoid HPV.
Annual deaths from cervical cancer are not at the horrifying levels of influenza deaths or AIDS deaths. Last year, in the United States, approximately 4,600 women died from cervical cancer. However, the HPV virus is common, and estimates are that half of women aged 18 to 22 in the US are infected. The infection usually subsides, but in some cases can remain and over time cause cervical cancer.

Religious organizations such as the FRC have decided that the vaccine, which could prevent HPV infection and potentially treat infected people (both male and female by the way) would cause a let down in the struggle against premarital sex. HPV is one of the big guns in the arsenal of the abstinence only advocates (AOAs). Since HPV can be transmitted via skin-to-skin contact, the AOAs claim that condoms are less effective as a protection against STDs. It is a hard truth that if no one ever had premarital sex, the rate of STD would drop signficantly. It is also a hard truth that people have sex. Single people do, even married people do it. Married people sometimes do it with single people and vice versa. Come on folks. The reality of the situation is this: as long as there are dark places to park and cars with back seats, folks are going to do the bad thing... Religious organizations or political organizations pushing only abstinence as a solution to these problems are naive.

Most troubling, however, is that in developing countries, cervical cancer instances are at their greatest number. If the rate of HPV infection is not deterred, experts predict by 2050, deaths from cervical cancer will reach one million people per year in poor countries. In the west, with better screening capability and medical attention, the instances of cervical cancer have thankfully decreased. However, it is in the west where the drugs to combat the HPV virus are developed. Because of the influence of religious and socially conservative special interest groups, the FDA has been reluctant to approve drugs that could be construed as enabling "promiscuous" behavior. Examples of this include barring RU-486, the abortion drug as well as deferring a decision on allowing the morning-after pill to be sold over the counter. If social conservative groups such as the FRC succeed in effectively barring the drug companies from gaining approval on an HPV vaccine, then this is essentially a tragedy waiting to happen. There is absolutely no good reason not to allow this vaccine to come to market if it completes clinical trials successfully.

Much has been made recently of the influence of social conservatives on public health policy. Over the last two years a storm of debate on the use of embryonic stem cells for research into treatments for afflictions such as Parkinsons or Alzheimer's has split the country. Senator Bill Frist, a medical doctor first supported the President's desire to minimize the research and then, in a supposedly lucid episode of reasoning, changed his mind and came out in favor of the research. The result: a conservative christian rally called "Justice Sunday II" disinvited Senator Frist to attend. Social conservatives and in particular, christian conservatives have not been shy in using their influence to combat what they consider to be a battle against the moral decay of the country.

I personally have no problem with someone boycotting, calling foul, or trying like hell to convince someone that what they are doing isn't right. It's all well and fine for social conservatives and evangelical christians to decry the moral decadence in the country. There's enough of it to go around. It is another thing altogether to withhold medical treatment that saves lives, simply because some feel that having the medicines available might contribute to a lifestyle they find repugnant. It is morally reprehensible for organizations such as the Family Research Council to oppose the development of treatments such as the HPV vaccine.