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Inside Politics: House acts against high court on eminent domain

- - Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The House sought Tuesday to undercut a 2005 Supreme Court ruling that gives state and local governments eminent domain authority to seize private property for economic development projects.

Sponsors of the bill, which passed by a voice vote, said it was needed because the 5-4 high court ruling skewed constitutional intentions that eminent domain apply only to land for public-use projects.

Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., a Wisconsin Republican who co-sponsored the bill, said that ruling justified "the government's taking of private property and giving it to a private business for use in the interest of creating a more lucrative tax base." As a result, he said, the "government's power of eminent domain has become almost limitless, providing citizens with few means to protect their property."

His legislation would withhold for two years all federal development aid to states or locales that take private property for economic development. It also bars the federal government from using eminent domain for economic development purposes and gives private property owners the right to take legal action if provisions of the legislation are violated.

Mr. Sensenbrenner, a conservative, was joined in sponsoring the legislation by Rep. Maxine Waters of California, a liberal Democrat and senior member of the Congressional Black Caucus. She said that economic development projects have "all too often been used by powerful interest groups to acquire land at the expense of the poor and politically weak."

The ruling in Kelo v. City of New London allowed the Connecticut city to exercise state eminent domain law to take over the property of several homeowners for commercial use. Justices said the court had always given local policymakers latitude in determining the legitimate public interests of their areas.

The decision drew fire from lawmakers and others who said the ruling was a dangerous interpretation of the "takings clause" in the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution that allows the government to seize property for public use, with just compensation.

WHITE HOUSE

Obama plan for owl targets bird's rival

To save the endangered spotted owl, the Obama administration is moving forward with a plan to shoot barred owls, a rival bird that has shoved aside its smaller cousin.

The plan is the latest government attempt to protect the northern spotted owl, the meek, 1-pound bird that sparked an epic battle over logging in the Pacific Northwest two decades ago.

The government set aside millions of acres of forest to protect the owl, but the bird's population has declined 40 percent in 25 years.

A plan announced Tuesday would designate habitat critical for the bird's survival while allowing logging to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire and create jobs. Habitat loss and competition from barred owls are major threats to the spotted owl.

CONGRESS

Lawmakers to open access to their own investments

Congress is about to open a real-time window into its members' stock trades, real estate deals and other financial transactions, allowing anyone to view the information online within weeks of the investments.

The frequent reporting requirement also will cover top congressional aides and other senior government officials, including the president and the vice president — about 28,000 executive branch employees by one count.

Making lawmakers and other officials report their investment transactions every 30 days or 45 days, depending on the final language, is a key component of legislation explicitly prohibiting them from trading on insider information.

Both the House and Senate overwhelmingly approved different versions this month, and final passage is expected soon. The next step is up to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, who can bring the House's slightly narrower version to a vote or let a House-Senate conference work out the differences.

Mr. Reid told reporters Tuesday that he wants the bill to go to a conference. However, he said it would take three procedural votes — each needing a supermajority of 60 — to take that step unless there is unanimous consent to move in that direction. It is unclear whether the agreement will be unanimous, leaving the next move uncertain.

Insider trading already is illegal, and there is no exemption for government officials. But the perception persists that it's taking place in the halls of Congress, perpetuated by occasional investigations and media reports of key lawmakers buying, selling or holding stocks or real estate in areas where they influence policy.

The Office of Congressional Ethics is looking at the trading activities of Rep. Spencer Bachus, Alabama Republican. In the two months surrounding the 2008 financial collapse and subsequent $700 billion bailout enacted by Congress, he made more than three dozen trades.

TEXAS

Federal court issues new political maps

SAN ANTONIO — A federal court in San Antonio has issued new congressional and state House maps in time for Texas to hold a May 29 primary.

The ruling by a three-judge panel Tuesday could clear the way for elections, if none of the nine groups contesting the state's political districts files an appeal.

Time is running out for Texas to hold primaries, and the maps are intended to get Texas through the 2012 election cycle. Minority groups have accused the Republican-controlled Legislature of drawing maps that discriminated against them. The state's leaders say the maps merely give Republicans an advantage in the next election.

The latest maps were created after months or legal wrangling, including the U.S. Supreme Court throwing out the last set of maps that the San Antonio judges drew.

From wire dispatches and staff reports