The Week March 31-April 6

Monday, March 31, 2008

1. It's either an elaborate April Fools' joke, a serious look at an increasingly important field or a chance to introduce a new avatar of Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.): A House Energy and Commerce subcommittee has scheduled a Tuesday morning hearing on "Online Virtual Worlds: Applications and Avatars in a User-Generated Medium."

Surprisingly, this is not uncharted territory for Congress. Last January, Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) discussed the priorities of the new Congress with interested parties in Second Life, a virtual world with more than 2 million inhabitants.

A number of government agencies have Second Life presences, mainly for public information and recruiting purposes. NASA, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are among those making a serious Second Life effort. NOAA even has its own island, the thematically named Meteora; according to the agency, visitors can experience a hurricane from the wing of a research aircraft or stand on the beach during a tsunami, among other virtual thrills.

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From avatars to entertainment stars: Robert Redford, John Legend and Tony Award winner Brian Stokes Mitchell are set to attend a morning House Appropriations Committee hearing on arts funding.

2. Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) spent some of his spring recess urging Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton to drop her presidential bid. He had enough time left over to deliver harsh words to the Department of Homeland Security, as well.

Last Thursday, Leahy blistered the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative and referenced the law he co-sponsored to postpone implementation of those new passport rules until at least June 2009. "The good news is that the Bush administration will not fight the new law that moves the passport requirement to next year," Leahy said when DHS formally adopted the postponement. "The bad news is that there is little reason to believe DHS will be ready even then."

At a Wednesday morning hearing, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff will face Leahy's blunt talk in person, as the secretary is set to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee on the passport requirements, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services issues and the REAL ID Act.

Bear Today, Gone Tomorrow?

Thin ice is where the polar bear now lives, as the sea ice it calls home disappears while Arctic temperatures rise. That's what officials said when they first proposed calling the polar bears "threatened" and deserving of federal protection in December 2006. But the bears have not yet been listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act, and the delay over that designation has led to a number of lawsuits and congressional inquiries.

Thin ice may also be where Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne is in the eyes of Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). He was invited to testify Wednesday before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on the delay, but by the end of last week he had not confirmed whether he would attend. Boxer wrote Kempthorne on March 21, calling "wholly inadequate" his offer to brief her on the matter by telephone and appear before the committee once a decision is made. A hearing, Boxer wrote, was "urgently needed." So a hearing there will be: Set to testify are a scientist from the National Wildlife Federation and Kassie Siegel of the Center for Biological Diversity. And maybe Kempthorne.

3. They are the key players -- winners and losers, both -- in the spectacular Madison Avenue meltdown and Washington rescue act that was the Bear Stearns drama of the past month. On Thursday morning, summoned by Senate Banking Committee Chairman Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), they are set to appear for a hearing on "recent market turmoil" or to sort out just what happened, billions of dollars later.

Among those invited to appear are Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr.; Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernanke; Alan Schwartz, president and CEO of Bear Stearns; and James Dimon, chairman and CEO of JPMorgan Chase.

Dimon reportedly received something of a frosty reception in his first visits to Bear Stearns headquarters; it's not clear that as a venue, a Senate hearing room will be any warmer. Dodd, in requesting the hearing, noted that, because the merger put "public funds at risk," the committee wants a full accounting of the chronology of the deal, the Fed's role in it and "the implications of these actions on the American taxpayer."

Dimon and Schwartz are likely to discuss the implications of greater government oversight and intervention in financial institutions, a subject Paulson may also address. Last week, the Treasury secretary noted the magnitude of the merger, saying: "This latest episode has highlighted that the world has changed, as has the role of other nonbank financial institutions and the interconnectedness among all financial institutions."

By Rachel Dry

© 2008 The Washington Post Company