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Turning Up the Heat on Bush
January 9, 2003
By David Swanson

Yesterday afternoon three elderly women out of a group of 50 protesters were arrested in Illinois Republican Party headquarters in Chicago where they had settled in with blankets and declared that they were spending the night. These families, many without heat in their homes, were demanding that President Bush release money for energy assistance and not slash funding for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) this year. At least the jail had heat.

Bush is speaking in Chicago today about how he can pretend to try to stimulate the economy without doing the only thing that might work, namely putting money in the hands of people who need it. Bush believes that those who work for a living should go on being taxed, but that money gained from investments in the stock market should not be taxed. And why not? Surely there's nothing useful our government could do with $600 billion. I guess no one would be pleased if this money were used, for example, to create good public schools?

This president has an amazing power to make people feel physically ill by the sheer force of his cynical cruelty. But some people are ill for a less intellectual reason: they have no heat.

Mahaley Somerville, 81; Gwendolyn Stewart, 68; Beatrice Jackson, 53; and Virginia Goldman, 27, were arrested for trespassing at 32 W. Randolph, 17th floor, the offices of the Illinois and Cook County Republican Party yesterday when they went to call on President Bush to rescind his proposed cuts in federal energy assistance.

"I'm 81 years old, and these old bones would be more comfortable in my own bed tonight," said Mahaley Somerville, longtime leader of the community group ACORN and organizer in Chicago's Westside Lawndale community. "But as long as there are other senior citizens living without heat tonight, we will not stop until the President hears us."

Because President Bush will make his national speech on the economy in Chicago today, ACORN members called on him to add two things to his speech: Release the $500 million in emergency energy assistance funds that are at his disposal; Fund the Low Income Home Energy Program (LIHEAP) at the same level as last year: $1.7 billion (instead of the $1.4 billion or less that Bush has threatened).

"It's too bad when the Republicans have to put senior citizens in jail and leave other seniors without heat," said Beatrice Jackson, president of Illinois ACORN. "But we won't stop until Bush understands that a leader should not let his people freeze."

More than 50 members of ACORN joined in the sit-in at Republican headquarters on Monday afternoon. The security guard in the lobby stood with his arms out as everyone trooped in, got in elevators, and headed to the 17th floor. The ACORN members went in, put down their blankets and pillows, and announced they were spending the night.

The leaders, Mrs. Somerville, Gwen Stewart and Bea Jackson, made statements. "We're willing to go to jail if that's what it takes to win heating assistance for seniors and children and families who are freezing," they said.

Doris Rodgers spoke. She is 81, has been without heat for two years, and still owes $2,400 on her bill, though the gas company confirmed today that she had been paying every month.

The police arrived and arrested four ACORN leaders on charges of misdemeanor trespassing.

While the 50 ACORN members were in the Republican Party headquarters, the phone rang, and an ACORN member answered it "ACORN, Can I help you?"

On the other end, they said, "What, ACORN? Wait a minute, this is the Republican Party in D.C. calling the Republican Party in Illinois."

The ACORN member said, "ACORN has taken over the Republican Party in Illinois. Can I help you?"

The response: "Oh my God."

But the heart and soul of the Republican party will not be taken over so easily by decency or kindness.

A cold winter and high fuel prices mean hard times for working families who struggle to keep their heat on. Home heating oil prices in the Northeast are expected to increase by 42% from last winter. Propane in the Midwest is predicted to increase by 21% and natural gas prices in the Midwest are predicted to increase by 17% over last winter's bills. Reports from around the country show that the number of households being disconnected are on the rise.

The Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) is a federal block grant program that provides money to help low-income families heat and cool their homes. LIHEAP is essential for protecting the health and safety of low-income children, seniors, and persons with disabilities.

For low-income people, whose incomes are often fixed, the increased cost of energy is a huge burden and getting heavier. In FY 2001, when LIHEAP received a total of $2.25 billion (regular plus emergency funds), states were only able to serve 17% of eligible households. The current economic downturn further exacerbates LIHEAP funding shortfalls. Unemployment is on the rise, the U.S. poverty rate increased last year for the first time in eight years, and household income declined in 2001 after remaining flat a year earlier.

The demand for LIHEAP is on the rise. President Bush has $500 million dollars in emergency LIHEAP funds at his disposal but refuses to release it. $200 million of these funds are leftover from the $300 million Congress appropriated for energy emergencies in FY 2002. $300 million of it has been approved by the Senate and requested by Bush himself for this fiscal year. President Bush has the sole authority to release these funds to low-income consumers.

FY 2003 appropriations must be finalized by Congress in January, and LIHEAP advocates are urging Congress to provide funding at no less than $1.7 billion, plus the $300 million in emergency appropriations. The President has proposed cutting funding to $1.4 billion (plus $300 million in emergency funds) for FY 2003. In FY 2002, Congress appropriated $1.7 billion (plus $300 million in emergency funds) for LIHEAP. The Bush Administration's proposed cuts in LIHEAP funding would mean that approximately 500,000 fewer low-income families would receive assistance. And according to the Energy Information Administration, last year's $1.7 billion regular LIHEAP budget would have to be increased by $345 million this year just for the program to provide assistance to the same number of households as last year.

The 108th Congress will complete FY 2003 appropriations when it convenes this month. In the event that Congress cuts LIHEAP funding, states are considering several actions to implement the Administration's proposal, including reducing eligibility ceilings, cutting benefits, and limiting program sign-up periods. In other words: a lot more people will be a lot colder this winter.

This needn't be. The president could promote LIHEAP funding as a payoff to fuel companies if it makes him feel better about doing something that actually helps people, but he needs to release this money or people are going to freeze.


David Swanson is communications coordinator for ACORN

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