Ten Blockbuster Hearings
Congress should investigate and expose the Bush Administration's involvement in torture and the abhorrent practice of "extraordinary rendition," the sending of detainees to countries known for practicing torture. A key witness could be Maher Arar, the Canadian citizen of Syrian descent who was detained at Kennedy Airport in New York City in 2002 and accused of having links to Al Qaeda. The United States "rendered" Arar to Syria, where he was held in a dungeon for ten months and tortured. Although the Canadian government completely exonerated Arar and the head of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police resigned in disgrace, the Bush Administration has refused to clear Arar's name and to explain why he was "rendered" to Syria. Congressional hearings should lay the foundation for laws banning engagement in torture--either by US personnel directly or through outsourcing via rendition.
4. Unequal Sacrifice and the War.
Representative Charles Rangel, the incoming chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, caused a ruckus when he proposed reinstituting the draft. But Rangel makes an important point that hearings could examine further the issue of unequal sacrifice and how our country's privileged and political elites are AWOL from military service.
We already have a backdoor draft through the military's use of multiple deployments and stop-loss policies, which have involuntarily retained some 85,000 troops beyond their expected or contractually agreed-upon term of service. Backdoor draft hearings should involve listening to families at National Guard and military bases around the country.
Unequal wartime sacrifices have taken their toll on active-duty military and recently returned veterans. There have been horrifying reports of traumatized soldiers being returned to combat zones. "We know so many stories of servicemen and -women with severe post-traumatic stress syndrome who should be getting the care they need, not facing redeployment," said Nancy Lessin, co-founder of Military Families Speak Out (www.mfso.org). "One mother found her son sitting on his bed with a pistol in his mouth, contemplating suicide after receiving a letter putting him on a short list for recall to Iraq--where he had already served two deployments."
Representative Bob Filner, the incoming chair of the Veterans Affairs Committee, has pledged to convene hearings about the unmet needs of recently returned veterans and their families. Filner should invite all other committee chairs and the media to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington for the first hearing.
5. Runaway CEO Pay.
Nothing symbolizes our polarizing "two Americas" more dramatically than the 411-to-1 ratio of average CEO compensation to average worker pay. The system is full of perverse incentives for CEOs to outsource workers, goose stock prices and collect more millions.
Representative Barney Frank, the incoming chair of the House Financial Services Committee, has already pledged to hold CEO pay hearings. But the discussion needs to go beyond disclosure reforms to underscore the profound power imbalance between imperial corporate managers and other stakeholders, including workers, shareholders and communities.
Hearings are an opportunity to expose and change the culture of greed. Witnesses should include the abundant number of Warren Buffett-like business leaders who believe that reining in CEO pay is good for business. April 2007 hearings should feature the freshly disclosed top earners from 2006 along with infamous CEO compensation consultants and Lee Raymond, retired CEO of ExxonMobil, who could be queried about his $400 million retirement package.
6. Wealth Inequality and the Estate Tax.
The wealth gap has reached unprecedented levels--and the racial wealth divide persists despite expanding homeownership in communities of color. We should investigate the ways the estate tax, our nation's only tax on inherited wealth, can help close this wealth divide.
After a decade of hysterical "death tax" propaganda, Congress should hold hearings to set the record straight about the benefits of taxing inherited wealth. Hearings could explore how the estate tax could better reduce the democracy-distorting concentrations of power and wealth--and whether revenue should be channeled to programs that broaden economic opportunity.
One witness could be Bill Gates Sr., who refers to the estate tax as an "opportunity recycling program" and urges that revenue from it be dedicated to a "GI Bill for the next generation." After World War II our nation expanded opportunities through homeownership programs, small-business development and grants that enabled millions to get higher education. Many people of color, however, were excluded from those programs because of racial bias. Progressives should champion a bold and inclusive new wealth-broadening program that speaks to the aspirations of people left behind in our apartheid economy.