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Dispatches The Buzz

Rules rules rules

Although House Democrats had vowed to sustain bipartisan cooperation in the 111th Congress, on Jan. 6 they rewrote House rules in a move aimed at silencing minority Republicans. The new rules package for the 111th Congress will limit the GOP's use of a "motion to recommit," a century-old safeguard that gave the minority party the opportunity to offer an alternative to a bill and send it back to committee for further deliberation.

In the last session of Congress, Republicans used the procedural rule 50 times, primarily to block tax increases tacked onto larger bills. But under the new rules package, Republicans will have a much harder time stopping such measures. California Rep. David Dreier, ranking Republican on the House Rules Committee, says the changes fly in the face of President-elect Barack Obama's campaign promises: "While he's calling for the most transparent administration in history, his congressional Democrats are launching the most closed Congress in history."

House Democrats insist the rule changes will enable the House to function more efficiently and prevent minority Republicans from "abusing" parliamentary roadblocks. But according to Rep. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., it wasn't Republicans who were abusing the legislative process but rather Democrats, who during the last Congress brought legislation to the floor that had not gone through a committee before going to a vote. "The Democrats call this century-old tool that sends a bill back to committee for revision a gimmick or abuse," he said. "But last Congress the only gimmick we saw was what Democrats called a fair and open legislative process."

Inaugural test

George Washington didn't chop down that cherry tree, and he also may not have been the first to add "so help me God" to the end of his inaugural oath. American lore says Washington was the first, but USA Today quotes historical experts saying there's no eyewitness documentation of Washington adding the phrase. Washington's inaugural address, however, was full of references to religion and God.

The phrase is religiously under legal attack now. Michael Newdow-along with the American Humanist Association, Freedom From Religion Foundation, Atheist Alliance International, and others-filed suit to remove God from the oath and ban traditional inaugural prayers. In response, attorneys general from all 50 states filed a brief against Newdow, saying inaugural prayers and oaths invoking God have been part of inaugural ceremonies throughout American history and at every level of government. As he awaited a hearing, Newdow told CNN, "I have no doubt I'll lose."

African model

Africa isn't a continent well known for its stable democracies, but Ghana may serve as a model for the dozen African countries holding elections this year. Thousands of Ghanaians packed into the West African nation's capital in January to inaugurate President John Atta Mills, the opposition candidate who won by a razor-thin margin. Mills' election marked the second time Ghanaian government has peacefully transferred power from one legitimately elected leader to the next, a milestone for a continent marked by coups and violent elections.

Worsening crises in Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo threaten to upset critical elections in the neighboring nations later this year, but elections in South Africa may provide a bright spot: Jacob Zuma, the favored presidential winner, has condemned spiraling conditions in Zimbabwe under President Robert Mugabe and may press for an end to the deepening crisis that threatens thousands of lives.

Power politics

In the subzero temperatures of Moldova's breakaway region of Transdniester, bread supplies dwindled and homes grew frigid as businesses and residents endured Russia's mid-winter cutoff of natural gas. Russian authorities stopped its gas supplies to Eastern Europe that flow through Ukraine, accusing Ukrainian officials of siphoning off supplies and demanding higher payments for gas. The cutoff affected nearly 20 European nations, with at least two countries-Bosnia and Bulgaria--completely dependent on gas from Russia. A handful of countries said they had enough reserves to last for a few weeks, but Slovakia declared a state of emergency and said it would restart an aging Soviet-era nuclear reactor if supplies were not restored soon. Electricity use skyrocketed in countries like Croatia, where officials cut off gas to factories, shops, and restaurants, as negotiations between Ukraine and Russia stalled.

Legally wed

A third Pennsylvania county judge has upheld the legality of marriages conducted by Universal Life Church ministers ordained over the internet, even though another Pennsylvania court had ruled earlier that a minister must have a congregation or house of worship in order to perform valid marriages. The initial 2007 ruling in York County had sparked statewide confusion and led to three ACLU suits, which argued that state law only requires ministers to belong to an established church to perform marriages.

In the latest Dec. 31 ruling, Bucks County Judge C. Theodore Fritsch Jr. agreed that the York County decision was too narrow: "To interpret 'church' as merely a physical place of worship would limit persons who are authorized to perform a marriage in the Commonwealth to only those religious officials who preside over a group of worshipers in a specific building."

Hate mail

"If I had a gun, I would have gunned you down along with each and every other supporter." After some Proposition 8 donors received that and other threats via postcards sent to their homes and businesses, the conservative Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) took legal aim at California's Political Reform Act of 1974. The law requires public disclosure of some political donors' personal data, including their full names and home addresses. For people donating more than $100, the law also requires the disclosure of each donor's employer's name and business address. In a class-action suit filed Jan. 7 in U.S. district court, ADF contends the law unconstitutionally chills free speech and participation in the electoral process since groups such as CalifornianAgainstHate.com have used Prop 8 donors' personal data to threaten and/or harass them. At least one donor lost her job after her employer learned she had supported the measure, which reversed a state Supreme Court decision allowing gay marriage. In Buckley v. Valeo, the Supreme Court ruled that in certain cases, the government's interest in open records may take a back seat to free speech if a group can show that such disclosure caused "economic reprisal, loss of employment, threat of physical coercion, and other manifestations of public hostility."

Lost in translation

The release of a new study claiming that abstinence pledges make little difference in preventing sexual activity among teenagers (see WORLD, Jan. 17) created a firestorm when news outlets seized upon the findings as evidence that abstinence education is pointless. But according to U.S. News & World Report health editor (and former head of the Red Cross and National Institutes of Health) Bernadine Healy, the media reports misled. Healy discovered that it was only when the study's researchers compared virginity-pledging teens with non-pledging teens from similar religious and conservative backgrounds that the two groups' sexual behaviors were similar. She noted that "-virginity pledging teens were considerably more conservative in their overall sexual behaviors than teens in general-a fact that many media reports have missed cold." Also overlooked was the fact that the more sexually restrained teens exhibited certain traits, such as a higher level of religious belief and involvement with religious activities, participation in a weekly youth group, fewer friends who drink or use illegal drugs, and a strong sense of guilt about having sex before marriage.

Dawn treading

Reports since Christmas that Disney had opted out of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader film production had fans of the Narnia series wondering if the third installment promised in the Walden Media/Disney deal would ever happen. Walden, originally planning to begin filming this spring for a May 2010 release, now must find a new business partner.

That hunt is well underway, according to sources connected with the production, and the filming schedule appears to be on track, with pre-production and subsequent filming set to take place in Australia and other locales. Michael Apted, who directed Walden's William Wilberforce production, Amazing Grace, will direct the third installment based on the seven-book C.S. Lewis classic. Disney cited "budgetary and logistic reasons" last month in announcing that it would not exercise its option to co-finance and co-produce Dawn Treader.

John Doe letters

The Army owes 7,000 people an apology-and admits it. The service branch is sending personal apology letters to family members of 7,000 fallen soldiers after its Casualty and Mortuary Affairs Operations Center in December sent letters addressed to "Dear John Doe." Meant as a helping resource, the letters contained information about groups that assist surviving families. But a printing contractor failed to replace the "Dear John Doe" placeholder with specific names and addresses, the Army said. The Pentagon learned of the error when families called to complain. In a Jan. 7 statement, Army adjutant general Brig. Gen. Reuben D. Jones said, "There are no words to adequately apologize for this mistake or for the hurt it may have caused."

High seas, high stakes

Shippers afflicted with Somali pirates in the Gulf of Aden may have found a deterrent better than any navy. Pirates in Somalia released two foreign-owned ships, a Turkish chemical tanker and a bulk carrier from Japan, and promised to release a Ukrainian vessel after five Somali pirates who hijacked a Saudi supertanker drowned with their shares of $3 million in ransom delivered in cash Jan. 9. Three pirates survived but also lost their bounty. Locals recovered over $150,000 when one body washed ashore along the Somali coastline Jan. 11.

But piracy on the seas near the Horn of Africa isn't likely to end as long as Somalia remains a country in chaos. Ethiopian troops, which have for two years provided stability in Mogadishu and kept Islamist forces at bay, pulled out Jan. 13 as part of a UN-brokered agreement to allow a transitional government to take control of the capital. Fighting broke out between locals and the hardline Islamist militia Al Shabab and dozens were killed. The United States called for a UN peacekeeping force, just as the U.S. Navy announced the formation of a new international frigate force to fight piracy in the region.