Good Morning, on this SOTU morn.
We'll start by taking a look at how the GOP is taking care of our vets this week. That's right - by passing bills that favor corporate America, of course. Perhaps you've seen the ocassional commercial about mesothelioma and the class-action lawsuits against the old asbestos industry? There were some certain industries, and in particular, US Navy veterans, that are particularly hard-hit by the generally fatal disease. So Congress has made it more difficult to sue.
WASHINGTON -- The Republican majority in the House passed a bill Jan. 8 that provides millions of asbestos victims' confidential information to industry attorneys, despite opposition from veterans groups.
The bill sponsored by Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas, opens up the injury records of victims - many of them veterans -- to companies defending against asbestos-poisoning claims in separate lawsuits, and calls for publishing their medical and work histories, as well as partial Social Security numbers, on the Internet.
The White House said it will veto the bill and at least 16 national veterans groups came out strongly against it prior to the vote, warning it would allow companies to delay the claims of terminally ill veterans while exposing their sensitive personal information to identity theft. House Democrats unanimously opposed the bill and tried unsuccessfully to sink it with nine amendments.
"Folks have said the FACT Act hurts veterans. I say it helps veterans," Farenthold said.
The US Chamber of Commerce and companies that once produced asbestos have lobbied for years to pass the legislation as new poisoning lawsuits and claims continue to be filed. The Government Accountability Office found the changes could give industry defense attorneys an advantage in court.
A similar bill has been filed in the Senate by Jeff Flake, a Republican from Arizona.
Veterans comprise up to 30 percent of deaths from asbestos-caused lung cancer, which can occur decades after exposure. The flame-retardant material was widely used in Navy ships and buildings until the 1980s. Companies that produced it - and sometimes hid its dangers - were forced to set up trusts over the years that have paid out at least $17.7 billion to more than 3 million victims who were sickened.
Farenthold and the chamber said the legislation would help veterans by giving the companies facing new lawsuits in civil court the information of all those victims as well as any future victims in order to root out fraudulent claims.
Those records are now widely considered to be private and not accessible by the public.
Unscrupulous victim attorneys are draining the trust accounts, leaving nothing for veterans who might become sick in the future but remain unable to sue the Defense Department over exposure, Farenthold said.
"Under sovereign immunity they have nobody to turn to but these trusts ... so it is important that we have the FACT Act to preserve these trusts," he said.
In a letter to House leaders Thursday, veteran groups called the bill an "offensive invasion of privacy to the men and women who have honorably served, and it does nothing to assure their adequate compensation or to prevent future asbestos exposures and deaths."
Speaking of Corporate America, we'll follow up on a story that was reported here a few weeks ago. It seems that food prices at the PX in Guam have started to settle.
With one peculiar exception - bagged salads. It's been declared a "convenience item", but if it's sent on the same transportation as "regular" food, shouldn't the premiums be the same? Something isn't quite adding up.
While produce prices at commissaries in Guam have largely leveled-off after a price hike late last year, the price of bagged salad has skyrocketed, commissary officials said.
"The most extreme challenges are with bagged salads," Kevin Robinson, a commissary spokesman said in a statement. "On average, prices of bagged salad products have risen slightly over 200 percent. These price increases are unacceptable."
Produce prices at the two commissaries in Guam surged late last year after the start of a new supply contract that passed on shipping costs to shoppers. Under previous agreements, the Defense Department had paid the roughly $48 million shipping expense, which also includes US military bases in Korea and Japan.
The price increase is evident in greens. In early December, for example, some pre-washed, bagged romaine lettuce was priced at $10.69. Bagged, baby spinach was $5.79, up from $1.80. Light caesar salad is $5.99, up from $1.65.
However, a list of 20 other produce items provided to Military.com by the Defense Commissary Agency shows that many have decreased in price since the new contract took effect. For instance, as of Jan. 4, a three-pound bag of granny smith apples was $3.69, down from $5.47. On the other hand, a three-pound bag of yellow onions increased from $1.98 to $2.49.
Robinson said commissary officials are working with the Guam area contractor, International Distributors, to develop different sourcing options that will reduce the price of bagged salads, which he said are considered a "convenience item."
"Our produce category manager and contracting departments are in contact with the contractors almost daily, working to identify sources of supply that can uphold the terms and conditions of the contract, with an emphasis to decrease pricing without sacrificing quality and freshness," he said.
Staying in the same general area, you're probably aware that ol, Kim Jong-Un wants to get into a dick-showing contest with ol' Uncle Sam. Kim blew up what may or may not have been a hydrogen bomb recently, so Uncle had to show off his bigger dick by sending some B-52s over Korea.
OSAN AIR BASE, South Korea -- A powerful US Air Force B-52 bomber flew low over South Korea on Sunday, a clear show of force from the United States as a Cold War-style standoff deepened between its ally Seoul and North Korea following Pyongyang's fourth nuclear test.
North Korea will read the fly-over of a bomber capable of delivering nuclear weapons -- seen by an Associated Press photographer at Osan Air Base near Seoul -- as a threat. Any hint of America's nuclear power enrages Pyongyang, which links its own pursuit of atomic weapons to what it sees as past nuclear-backed moves by the United States to topple its authoritarian government.
The B-52 was joined by South Korean F-15 and US F-16 fighters and returned to its base in Guam after the flight, the US military said.
"This was a demonstration of the ironclad US commitment to our allies in South Korea, in Japan, and to the defense of the American homeland," said Adm. Harry B. Harris Jr., commander US Pacific Command, in a statement. "North Korea's nuclear test is a blatant violation of its international obligations."
The B-52 flight follows a victory tour by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to celebrate the country's widely disputed claim of a hydrogen bomb test. Kim is seeking to rally pride in an explosion viewed with outrage by much of the world and to boost his domestic political goals.
There was no immediate reaction from North Korea's state media to the B-52 fly-over, which also happened after North Korea's third nuclear test in 2013.
And so here we are, on the cusp of Mr. Obama's last State of the Union address. We've gone through many of these now...under several presidents. I well recall that I had high hopes back on the first one that maybe someday I might stop writing this column. Looking forward to November - I'd say I have a permanent job.