On Viagra, Splenda, oil, labor, outrage, courage, a 'nutjob,' etc.

Ross Mackenzie
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Posted: Jun 30, 2005 12:00 AM

Highlights on the landscape of issues as viewed from summer's peak..

In Congress, at least this may be going right: The House has voted better than 2-1 to remove Viagra and other drugs that treat impotence from reimbursement coverage under Medicare and Medicaid. In the words of  Iowa Congressman Steve King, "We don't force taxpayers to pay for face-lifts, weight-loss drugs, hair-growth treatment or vacations, so we should not force them to pay for sexual-performance drugs." It's just common sense. As with so much else, the measure now awaits action from the Senate.

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Making less sense is giving such drugs, under Medicare and Medicare, to convicted sex offenders. In May, about a month before the House vote, word went out to the states from the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services that states may deny such coverage. New York and Virginia, among others, have been helping sex offenders pay for drugs that treat erectile dysfunction - marking one of the great disconnects between government policy and right reason.

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There may be less to rejoice about regarding energy legislation. For four years, Bush administration energy initiatives have been stymied in Congress. Now the two houses have approved bills that are greatly different, meaning disagreements will have to be worked out in a House-Senate conference - if they are worked out at all. So the do-nothing drumbeat goes on. Meanwhile, U.S. dependence on foreign petroleum sources edges inexorably upward - as do crude oil prices ($100 per barrel, anyone?), hitting the nation's gross domestic product hard. And those who should know better talk down Alaska National Wildlife Refuge and off-shore drilling and nuclear power, while talking up such inefficient, low-return hobbies as solar and wind power - near-euphemisms for hot air.

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Big noises are emanating from the nation's long-quiescent labor movement. Five unions, representing about 40 percent (5 million) of the 58-union AFL-CIO membership, have moved to depart that 50-year-old union federation and start a labor coalition of their own. The dissident unions evidently don't like the AFL-CIO's leadership, notably its president John Sweeney - expected to win re-election to that post. Nor do the dissidents - soon to be renegades? - like the practically uninterrupted decline in union strength since the 1940s. As a percentage of the nation's workforce, just 12 percent of American workers belong to unions.

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Those at both ends of the ideological spectrum too often say stupid things. For instance, conservative ideologue Grover Norquist recently termed Republican Sen. John McCain "the nutjob from Arizona." When called on it, Norquist noted he didn't go far enough, adding: "I meant to say gun-grabbing, tax-increasing Bolshevik." A McCain aide issued this statement: "John McCain hasn't spent five seconds in his entire life thinking about Grover Norquist. He's not going to start now."

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And speaking of raising cane, the sugar lobby is unlimbering its biggest guns against the new sweetener Splenda - so popular it soon may leave sugar-substitutes Equal and NutraSweet as mere dregs in yesterday's coffee. The lobby vehemently disputes Splenda's claim to be made from sugar. Notes Dr. Elizabeth Whelan, of the American Council on Science & Health, "The reality is that Splenda does have its distant origins in sugar." It's enough to make one wonder why the sugar lobby would oppose a sugar-derived product - but never mind.

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As a commentary on the level of democracy in one of the most advanced Arab/Islamic "democracies," this headline: "Police in Cairo Allow Anti-Mubarak Protest." The operative word is allow. For the first time, the essentially self-appointed government of president Hosni Mubarak is permitting demonstrations against the maximum leader.

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Is there a privacy problem regarding, for instance, credit cards? There is. How bad is it? For starters, try 40 million Visa and MasterCard accounts evidently compromised by a single hacker. Is this an outrage? You said it, brother.

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Quoted. Historian David McCullough, author most recently of "1776" - on the lessons Americans can learn from a study of that year: "That courage is contagious. That our blessings as a free people and the noble ideals of the Declaration of Independence were only achieved through struggle - long, often painful, struggle. That democracy doesn't come easily. We sing about the 'home of the free and the brave,' but it takes the brave to maintain the free, to make possible the free."