SENATE SHUFFLE It was a remarkably different Senate that convened following Vermonter Jim Jeffords's switch from Republican to Independent status. The Jeffords jump did more than put a spring in the step of new majority leader Tom Daschle; it put a number of progressive players in a position, if not to pass all the bills they'd like, to use their control of key committees to alter significantly the tenor of the debate. "There's been a general view that you're only doing something when you are actually passing a piece of legislation," says incoming Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee chairman Paul Sarbanes. "I think you can also perform a very important service if [committees] exercise a careful oversight over the government departments and agencies and over the economic sectors for which they're responsible." Sarbanes plans hearings on predatory lending and perhaps credit-card-company abuses. While Daschle and Edward Kennedy continue to counsel caution and bipartisanship on the part of Democrats, other senators are leaping into action. Days after taking over as chairman of the Constitution subcommittee of the Judiciary Committee, Russ Feingold, the Senate's most ardent death penalty foe, convened a hearing that gave supporters of his bill seeking a death penalty moratorium a rare forum on Capitol Hill. On the same day that Feingold grilled aides to Attorney General John Ashcroft regarding discrepancies in their statistics on bias, the Justice Department announced it would initiate a comprehensive review designed to answer the question Feingold asked at his hearing: "How did we end up with 90 percent of the people on [the federal] death row minorities?"
SHOOTING DOWN STAR WARS With the Senate shift, few activist groups have seen prospects for lobbying success improve more dramatically than those opposing President Bush's National Missile Defense scheme. Senator Robert Byrd, the powerful Appropriations Committee chairman, is promising tough scrutiny of the bloated Defense budget, while Star Wars skeptics Joe Biden and Carl Levin now chair the Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees, respectively. Biden and Levin showed up at a session organized by the Council for a Livable World, where, according to Chris Madison, director of the CLW Education Fund's National Missile Defense Project, "They both made clear their extreme skepticism about where the Administration is going." Peace Action stepped up its "Star Wars Is a Lemon" campaign with a June rally at the Capitol and a lobbying push that included 115 meetings with legislators and their staffs. Peace Action's twenty-six state chapters are following up with an effort to deliver 300,000 "Star Wars Is a Lemon" postcards to Congress.
ELECTION INSPECTION Election reform initiatives that were expected to be unavoidable following last fall's Florida fiasco got buried in Trent Lott's Republican-dominated Senate, but that's likely to change now that Chris Dodd has taken over the Rules and Administration Committee. Dodd and Representative John Conyers Jr., ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, have proposed the sweeping Equal Protection of Voting Rights Act, designed to help states adopt uniform systems to assure that voting is easy and accessible, and that all votes are counted. Dodd is expected to arrange hearings not just on his bill but also on the broader issue of electoral disfranchisement. The opening comes just as activists are stepping up the pressure on the issue. A US Commission on Civil Rights draft report--characterized by the stark observation that "it was widespread voter disenfranchisement, not the dead-heat contest, that was the extraordinary feature in the Florida election"--has given new impetus to a Democracy Summer campaign backed by groups ranging from the Institute for Policy Studies to the NAACP Youth and College Division and the Fannie Lou Hamer Project. More than 100 young people from around the country gathered in Tallahassee in mid-June for a Democracy Institute at which Representative Maxine Waters urged them to re-create the "freedom rider" energy that led to passage of the original Voting Rights Act. Just prior to July 4, a Pro-Democracy Convention will bring activists to Philadelphia to make what IPS's Karen Dolan calls "the move from outrage to action." The groups are campaigning for an agenda that addresses problems that came into focus during the Florida recount, including bad ballot designs, outdated voting technologies and the denial of voting rights to ex-prisoners.
MAKING MUD The Bush Administration's energy plan may be DOA in a newly Democratic Senate, but real alternatives to utility company excesses are the province of the grassroots, especially in energy-strapped California. San Francisco activists launched a campaign in June for MUD, a proposed Municipal Utility District that could use eminent domain to take over Pacific Gas & Electric Company's electricity transmission and distribution systems. A November ballot initiative to create MUD has been endorsed by five San Francisco Commission members, California State Senate leader John Burton and the San Francisco Labor Council. "If we are able to take the power away from PG&E and put it in the hands of the people of San Francisco," says Global Exchange's Medea Benjamin, "we will send a louder signal regarding the answer to power problems than anything you hear coming from the Bush Administration."