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Save the Planet, But Not Too Much of It

This week Wal-Mart announced a gift of half a million dollars to help protect 28,000 acres of forest in Idaho and Washington, as part of the company's ongoing Acres for America program, run in partnership with the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

The first thing to be said about this move -- and, more broadly, Wal-Mart's involvement in Acres for America -- is, of course, that it's good for the forests, and shows that by relentlessly criticizing a company, activists can force it to do some decent things. However, I couldn't help recalling a recent conversation with Stacy Mitchell of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, author of The Home-Town Advantage.

When I asked Mitchell, some months back, what she thought of Wal-Mart's environment-friendly gestures,she said that the best thing for the planet would be for Wal-Mart to stop building new stores. Noting that the company was adding millions of square feet of new retail space, most of which would be built on cheap land outside of town centers, necessitating millions of additional car trips for consumers, Mitchell compared the company's simultaneous environmentalism to "the person who buys a car that is 25 percent more fuel efficient and then drives it twice as much, and expects us to applaud."

Speaking of driving, I noticed an interesting little "public service announcement" on walmartfacts.com, the website set up by the company to diffuse progressive criticism. Gas prices and global warming got you down? Don't even think about getting out of that car; just motor on over to Wal-Mart and get your tire pressure checked.

This seems to be the environmental non-solution du jour. (Though, actually, there's a plethora of competitors: how about those Starbucks ads empowering us to buy more efficient lightbulbs?) Just yesterday, former Wal-Mart director Hillary Clinton attempted to steal Al Gore's thunder on global warming with a breathtakingly unimpressive energy speech. (Gore's global warming movie opens in New York tonight.) Like Wal-Mart, Hillary urges us to take action against global warming by checking those tires. Pathetic.

Ace Up Its Sleeve

Note to Alberto Gonzales: there is a reason it's the FIRST Amendment. Nevertheless, on Sunday the attorney general played the ever-reliable ace up the administration's sleeve to throw even freedom of the press into question.

Gonzales stated on ABC's This Week, "… it can't be that that right trumps over the right that Americans would like to see, the ability of the federal government to go after criminal activity."

When in doubt, scare the bejeezus out of the American people.

The only way to beat the bad guys is to [fill in the blank]… torture… engage in domestic spying… use black sites… and now, perhaps, prosecute journalists who uncover the truth about the Bush administration's programs that are laying waste to our constitutional rights and freedoms. By this logic, what can't the executive branch do?

Gonzales commented on going after reporters who publish leaked classified information, "There are some statutes on the books which, if you read the language carefully, would seem to indicate that that is a possibility…. We have an obligation to enforce those laws."

Seems the entire administration was taught to read by George Bush.

The statute Gonzales obliquely alludes to is the 1917 Espionage Act. James Goodale, one of the leading First Amendment lawyers in the nation, writes that in order to indict journalists under this law, "[It] would require activating a relic from the Espionage Act…. The law is meant to prevent the publication of how the U.S. breaks codes…. It is so broad, in fact, it is probably unconstitutional. For this reason and others, the NSA or CIA has never used it against the press."

But the Bush Administration has other ideas, as Nation columnist Eric Alterman recently pointed out: "As its poll numbers fall, the Bush Administration is ratcheting up its war against the media to hide its massive failure to defend the nation's security and uphold the laws of its Constitution." An added absurdity is that, "… Administration officials decide which classified information they, personally, are entitled to leak and which information they can try to suppress, even to the point of threatening jail."

So, when the administration wants to leak the name of a covert CIA operative to the press, that's fine and dandy. And if it wants to prosecute reporters who are exposing dangerous abuses of power– nothing troubling about that either.

The bottom line is this: to the Bush administration, our rights and freedoms are a matter of convenience subject to their review. And they simply don't want the press meddling in their affairs. But if we are to preserve our rights and liberties, then meddle we must.

Checks, Balances & an FBI Raid on Congress

No one seriously believes that William Jefferson is going to survive the political train wreck he has made of his congressional career. Even the notoriously forgiving voters of New Orleans – who just reelected gaffe-prone Mayor Ray Nagin – are not going to be comfortable with a congressman who hid $90,000 in cash in his refrigerator and got caught on an FBI tape talking about taking bribes.

The question now is whether the system of checks and balances established by the founders in 1787 will be another victim of the train wreck.

When Federal Bureau of Investigation agents raided Jefferson's suite of offices in the Rayburn House Office Building, they committed an act unheard of even in the darkest days of the Republic. On orders from the executive branch, federal agents entered the office of a member of the legislative branch and spent hours going through that office and removing materials they deemed necessary to an investigation.

Even House Speaker Dennis Hastert, the Illinois Republican who has been no great friend of the Constitution, awakened from the comatose state that has usually characterized his response to White House assaults on the system of checks and balances.

Hastert boldly defended the founding document and the Congress he is charged with maintaining as a separate and equal branch of government. The Speaker reportedly telling the president that the raid on Jefferson's office was a direct violation of the Constitution – in general, of the principle of separation of powers, and in particular of the protections afforded the legislative branch by the "Speech and Debate" clause of the Constitution.

In a lengthy statement of concern, Hastert argued that, "The actions of the Justice Department in seeking and executing this warrant raise important Constitutional issues that go well beyond the specifics of this case. Insofar as I am aware, since the founding of our Republic 219 years ago, the Justice Department has never found it necessary to do what it did Saturday night, crossing this Separation of Powers line, in order to successfully prosecute corruption by Members of Congress. Nothing I have learned in the last 48 hours leads me to believe that there was any necessity to change the precedent established over those 219 years."

Is this just a tempest in Teapot Dome that is our corrupt Capitol? No. Not even the most Constitutionally-abusive administrations dared go so far as to raid congressional offices. It is true that John Adams, in his push to narrowly define the Constitution at the outset of the American experiment, did jail a congressional critic, Vermont Representative Matthew Lyon, for suggesting that the second president had displayed "a continual grasp for power [and] unbounded thirst for ridiculous pomp, foolish adulation and selfish avarice." But Adams, who would be voted out of office for his disregard Constitution, never dared dispatch armed officers to the Capitol.

Stung by the criticism of its overreach, the Bush administration has scrambled to suggest that what is at issue is merely the wrongdoing of one congressman. But they conveniently neglect to address the precedent that will be established if Congress fails to challenge the White House and the Department of Justice.

If this was just about Jefferson, the raid would not have stirred an outcry. Every indication is that the Louisianan congressman has betrayed his oath of office and abused the privileges of his position in ways that would make Tom DeLay blush.

But this is not just about Jefferson, who would be in plenty of trouble even without whatever information might have been garnered from the raid on his office. Remember, the FBI has the congressman on tape making classically incriminating comments.

This is about an executive branch that has already pushed the limits of its power on issues ranging from invading and occupying countries without a declaration of war to spying on Americans without a warrant and is now undermining whatever remains of the Constitutionally-mandated separation of powers between the White House and the Congress.

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, the former White House counsel who never encountered a law he wasn't willing to break in order to extend the powers of the president he has served far more diligently than he has ever served his country, can described the search as "a unique step in response to a unique set of circumstances."

With all due respect to Gonzales, the attorney general has a troubling track record of repeatedly responding to "unique sets of circumstances" in a manner that shreds the Constitution. And he has surely done so in this case.

Instead of working with congressional authorities, Gonzales got a judge to authorize the raid and, for the first time in the American history sending agents of the executive branch into action against a member of the legislative branch.

To their credit, Republican leaders of the House have reacted with appropriate fury.

Speculating about "whether people at the Justice Department have looked at the Constitution" lately, House Majority Leader Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, declared that "Congress will clearly speak to the issue of the Justice Department invasion of the legislative branch."In explaining the character of that defense, Boehner said, "I've got to believe at the end of the day it's going to end up across the street at the Supreme Court. I don't see anything short of that."Hastert left no doubt that he saw the need to address the issues raised by the raid as essential to the maintenance of the provisions of the Constitution written to protect the independence of the Congress.

"The Founding Fathers were very careful to establish in the Constitution a Separation of Powers to protect Americans against the tyranny of any one branch of government. They were particularly concerned about limiting the power of the Executive Branch," explained the speaker. "Every Congressional Office contains certain Legislative Branch documents that are protected by the Constitution. This protection-as the Supreme Court has repeatedly held-is essential to guarantee the independence of the Legislative Branch. No matter how routine and non-controversial any individual Legislative Branch document might be, the principles of Separation of Powers, the independence of the Legislative Branch, and the protections afforded by the Speech or Debate clause of the Constitution must be respected in order to prevent overreaching and abuse of power by the Executive Branch."

Hastert needs to wage this battle. And he ought not be mocked for the seriousness with which he has approached it.

This is an essential fight over whether a president and his minions can do as they please. To be sure, in this dark interregnum, it is not the only fight, as has been well noted by Senator Russ Feingold, D-Wisconsin, Congressman Maurice Hinchey, D-New York, and others in their struggle to hold this administration to account for its illegal domestic surveillance program. But if the legislative branch does not push back at the point when agents of the executive branch are raiding the offices of congressmen without the ascent of the Congress, then surely there is no chance that the separation of powers protection will be asserted with regard to the many other Constitutional abuses committed by this administration.

Health Held Hostage

Today's New York Times features a scary full page ad. The bold type headline, over large photos of Reverends Falwell and Robertson and James Dobson, reads: "Meet America's Most Influential Stem Cell Scientists." The ad is sponsored by DEFCON--a new and valuable online grassroots movement designed to combat the religious right 's threat to American democracy.

This campaign is needed now more than ever. Our health is being held hostage by an extremist minority. It's been a year since the bipartisan Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act was passed by the House. Since then, it's been blocked in the US Senate-- held hostage by political opportunists like Majority Leader Frist, who seem to care more for their political health than that of millions of American children and families. Polls show overwhelming support for stem-cell research.

Even more important, at a time when our Constitution is under daily assault, it's worth remembering that we elect leaders to put their hand on a Bible and swear to uphold the constitution--not the other way around.

As DEFCON'S ad starkly tells us: "Not since the Dark Ages have religious zealots held such dangerous power over scientific research."

It's time to end this immoral and unhealthy obstructionism. Go to DEFCON's site and tell Frist and these religious extremists like Falwell and Dobson what you think.

Joe Lieberman's Very Bad Year

Joe Lieberman's year just keeps getting worse.

After he emerged as just about the only member of Congress -- Democrat or Republican -- who is enthusiastically on board for the Bush administration's hellride in Iraq, local Democratic party groups in Connecticut began passing resolutions criticizing the Democratic senator's pro-war stance.

Lieberman and his aides said the grassroots Dems were just letting off steam.

Then, the senator attracted an able Democratic primary challenger in the person of progressive businessman Ned Lamont.

Lieberman's organization said Lamont would never get on the ballot.

Then, at the state Democratic convention over the weekend, Lamont got more than twice as many votes as he needed to secure a ballot position.

Lieberman backers noted that their man got the most votes at the convention and said the inside-the-party revolt would not translate into trouble in the August 8 Democratic primary.

Now, Democracy for America, the organization formed from the base of Howard Dean's 2004 campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination -- which, notably, did a lot better than Lieberman's presidential quest of that year -- has given a strong endorsement to Lamont's challenge.

"Ned Lamont has been loud and clear about America's position in Iraq and world affairs, one of the most important concerns for voters," says Jim Dean, the chair of Democracy for America, and the brother of the man who now heads the Democratic National Committee. "Senator Lieberman has been a broken record supporting broken policies."

While the Democracy for America endorsement will help with fund raising and volunteers, it certainly isn't going to give Lamont everything he needs to win a primary. By every measure, the challenger still faces an uphill race in a state where Lieberman has been a central figure in the Democratic Party for four decades.

But the senator is feeling the heat. On Monday, he dropped out of the MoveOn.org web primary, in which members of the group are being asked to express their preference in the race -- as they did early in the race for the 2004 Democratic presidential nod. No one doubted that he was seeking to avoid another setback.

Nor does anyone doubt that the man the Democrats nominated for vice president in 2000, and who looked at the start of the year like a sure bet for reelection, is going to have to fight to be the party's nominee for his own seat in 2006.

Isn't Iraq Enough?

Just as it did before invading Iraq, the Bush Administration is manufacturing a climate of fear to prepare public opinion for another possible preemptive action -- this time against Iran.

Three years ago it was the specter of Saddam Hussein's alleged weapons of mass destruction; today it's the threat of a possible Iranian nuclear bomb. The White House even insists on keeping the "nuclear option" on the table -- that is, using tactical nuclear weapons to strike Iranian nuclear facilities--many of which are located in or near civilian population centers. Although a full-scale invasion of Iran seems highly unlikely at the moment, the situation is so inflamed, the rhetoric so ugly, and the current Iranian regime so reactionary and crazy, that it's probably prudent to never say never.

The big problem so far, as the Campaign for Peace and Democracy's public call against both US aggression and theocratic repression in Iran, says: "The US government's attempts to bully Iran are succeeding mainly in terrorizing the Iranian people and weakening internal opposition to the mullahs."

That's why the CPD is devoting its latest campaign to highlighting how catastrophic a conflict with Iran could be. So click here to join Howard Zinn, Cornel West, Doug Ireland, Ruth Rosen, Meredith Tax, Noam Chomsky and many others in signing the CPD call. Contribute to publicize the statement. View full list of signers. And let your elected reps know that you expect them to forcefully oppose any further US military action in the Middle East.

Finally, don't mistake this for anything other than a straight repudiation of both the effectiveness and legitimacy (they're connected) of preemptive US military action. I'd like to see regime change in Iran as much as any neo-con. The place is run by a holocaust-denying thug kept in power by an un-elected oligarchy of clerics who deny women the most basic human rights and consider homosexuality a capital offense. But the revolution has to be brought about by the Iranian people themselves, not by Washington.


A School Is Not a Jail

This Thursday, May 25, two hundred high schoolers of the Urban Youth Collaborative will deliver 7,500 postcards from students representing 120 NYC schools to Mayor Bloomberg at the Tweed Courthouse. The student participants are calling for "safety with dignity," and oppose the presence of metal detectors, armed police officers, random scanning and surveillance cameras at their schools. Sign an online petition for the campaign and click here for more info.

A True Test of Character

If John McCain becomes President, his current chief of staff, Mark Salter, will be one of the most important figures in the new White House. The two have authored three books together. They are best friends.

So when Salter calls the student keynote speaker at McCain's commencement address "an idiot," it reflects directly on McCain.

The outburst provides a simple truth about a Senator who can seemingly do no wrong in the eyes of the media. McCain, despite all the hype about his character and the totality of his life experiences, doesn't handle criticism well. His temper tantrums are legendary on Capitol Hill. The Arizona Republic, his hometown newspaper, once labeled his outbursts "volcanic." So too are the deep grudges he holds against his enemies.

As McCain faces growing resistance in his second bid for the Presidency, something other than the "straight talk" side of has begun to reappear. Jean Rohe, the courageous New School student, was correct when she responded that Salter, as McCain's proxy, was trying to "hurt my feelings and frighten me into silence."

"I don't believe that anything I've written to the public so far has been quite as nasty to Senator McCain as Mr. Salter was to me," Rohe continued in her latest Huffington Post diary. "On the contrary, I think that my writing clearly reflected my values, which is to say, never was I rude to the Senator nor did I show any disrespect. In fact, I think my compassion was made clear. To pick on me in such a bullying and sarcastic way is a clear admission on Mr. Salter's part that his fear is far deeper than any I might have felt when sticking up for myself."

Tarring college students hardly befits a leading Senator or his top aide. The post-New School outburst raises serious questions about whether we want this man's finger on the nuclear trigger.

William Jefferson, D-Wall Street

Nancy Pelosi has shown little interest in holding George Bush to account, as evidenced by House Minority Leader's determination to distance herself from discussions of censuring – let alone impeaching – the president for the high crimes and misdemeanors that have characterized his tenure.

So it not all that surprising that Pelosi, despite her promise to "clean up" Congressional corruption, has been slow to demand genuine accountability from a member of the House Democratic Caucus. The minority leader has backed an ethics committee inquiry into charges against Congressman William Jefferson, D-Louisiana, the "star" of a Federal Bureau of Investigation tape in which what sounds like a bribe of $100,000 is accepted. But she so far has refrained from suggesting the obvious: that it is time for the severely scandal-plagued Jefferson to resign.

Let's be clear, if Tom DeLay needed to go, so does Bill Jefferson.

What makes Pelosi's refusal to cut Jefferson loose so disappointing is the fact that Democrats owes the congressan from New Orleans no loyalty. Indeed, if ever there was a member of Congress who merited abandonment by his party, official censure and a hasty exit from the legislative branch, it is William Jefferson.

Putting aside the bribery probe, Jefferson has a horrific record of breaking with his Democratic colleagues to sell out his constituents, his country and the poorest people in the world. He may be a Democrat, but on the issues that really matter Jefferson has served the Bush administration and Wall Street more diligently than a number of Republicans.

Jefferson's has been one of the steadiest Democratic votes for the president's foreign policy agenda. The Louisianan voted to authorize Bush to use force against Iraq, consistently supports emergency "supplemental" spending to maintain the occupation of that country, and favors deployment of the "Star Wars" Strategic Defense Initiative. He voted for the USA Patriot Act when it was rushed through Congress in 2001, and was a big backer of Vice President Cheney's national energy policy. And, though his record on social issues is mixed, Jefferson has on a number of occasions cast his lot with the White House and its social-conservative allies to help enact restrictions on abortion, school prayer initiatives and a Constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.

But Jefferson's deepest loyalty is not to the Bush administration. Rather, it is to big business. In a Congress where there are plenty of Democrats who are friendly to the legislative agenda of corporate America, Jefferson is devoted to it. This Democrat puts more than a few responsible Republicans to shame when it comes to doing the bidding of Wall Street.

After a key export tax break for U.S. manufacturers was identified as an illegal trade subsidy by the World Trade Organization, Jefferson and most -- though not all -- House Republicans voted to provide $140 billion in new corporate tax cuts for impacted businesses. He has voted again and again for bankruptcy law "reforms" that favor the interests of banks and credit card companies over those of working families. And he is the king of the dwindling circle of free-trade Democrats.

Jefferson was not just one of "The CAFTA 15" – the group of Democrats who cast critical votes to save the Central American Free Trade Agreement after the administration was abandoned by 27 Republicans when the agreement came up for House approval in July, 2005 -- he was the chief Democratic cheerleader for that bad deal. When the corporate-funded Democratic Leadership Council sponsored a pro-CAFTA teleconference before the vote, there was Jefferson proclaiming: "I'm supporting CAFTA because I believe it's in the best interests of our country."

The Louisiana Democrat, who is a senior member of the House Ways and Means Committee's powerful subcommittee on Trade, did similar service during debates over trade deals with Chile, Singapore and Australia. And he was an essential Democratic supporter of normalizing trade relations with China in 2000, arguably the most devastating trade deal since the North American Free Trade Agreement of six years earlier, which Jefferson also backed.

But Jefferson's most unsettling advocacy on behalf of corporate-friendly trade agreements that have undermined job security and wages, environmental protection and human rights in the U.S. and abroad came in 1998, when the congressman was an outspoken advocate for the African Growth and Opportunity Act. AGOA, as that deal was known, was dubbed "NAFTA for Africa" by the business press. Condemned by South African President Nelson Mandela and Africa trade unions that saw it as a move to make it even easier for multinational corporations to exploit the continent's workers and resources, AGOA was described by a leading foe, Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr., D-Illinois, as the "Africa Recolonization Act."

During the House debate on the issue, Jackson pointed out that, "The AGOA extends short-lived trade "benefits" for the nations of sub-Sahara Africa. In exchange for these crumbs from globalization's table, the African nations must pay a huge price: adherence to economic policies that serve the interests of foreign creditors, multinational corporations and financial speculators at the expense of the majority of Africans."

The Illinois Democrat asked, "Whose interests will the AGOA advance? Look at the coalition promoting it -- a corporate who's who of oil giants, banking and insurance interests, as well as apparel firms seeking one more place to locate their low-paying sweatshops. Some of these corporations are already infamous in Africa for their disregard for the environment and human rights."

The coalition promoting African Growth and Opportunity Act was able to counter the criticisms from Mandela, Jackson and others by highlighting the enthusiastic support for the deal by a prominent member of the Congressional Black Caucus. That member, William Jefferson, gleefully declared that, "Africa is a reservoir of opportunities for American businesses."

(Among the bribes Jefferson is alleged to have accepted are more than $400,000 in payments to help telecommunications firms do business in Nigeria and other West African nations.)

The split in the black caucus back in 1998 helped secure passage of AGOA in a form that was much worse than might have been the case if Jefferson and others had echoed the honest concerns expressed by Jackson.

No wonder that, in his latest campaign finance filing, Jefferson reported that almost 79 percent of the political action committee contributions to his reelection campaign -- $340,912 -- came from business interests, while just 19 percent came from organized labor.

Even in his campaign coffers, William Jefferson has the profile of a Republican – and an unsavory Republican at that.

You Heard It Here First

You Heard It Here First

This morning on WNYC, host Brian Lehrer and guest Charles Fishman, author of The Wal-Mart Effect, were chatting about Wal-Mart's entry into the organic food market (stay tuned for a Nation feature on this subject in our upcoming special Food Issue). As people often do when discussing Wal-Mart, Lehrer and Fishman segued into the subject of the company's crummy health insurance, and the burden it places on taxpayers, who end up footing the bill when Wal-Mart workers have to turn to the public dole for health care. (According to the retailer's own statistics, 46% of the children of Wal-Mart workers are on Medicaid, or uninsured.) Wal-Mart Watch and Wake Up Wal-Mart, the national groups now attempting to reform the company, are working in states and towns all over to pass Fair Share Health Care laws, to compel Wal-Mart to insure its employees more generously. But, Lehrer suggested, and Fishman concurred, wouldn't it be great if Wal-Mart used its immense lobbying muscle to agitate for national health care?

According to an excellent article, in the June Atlantic Monthly, Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union, which funds Wal-Mart Watch, is hoping to force Wal-Mart to do just that. The company could neutralize a lot of progressive criticism this way, and if we did get a single-payer plan out of the ensuing fracas, we'd all be better off. I have made this very point on this very website, as well as, more than a year ago, in the aforementioned Nation/Economist debate on Wal-Mart, which was moderated by Brian Lehrer. But the point is not just to toot our own horn (well, perhaps a passing, staccato toot); rather, that it's delightful that this idea is catching on.

After all, let's be realistic: the Fair Share for Health Care campaign is a fine way to make the point that health benefits ought to be taken out of competition, but it isn't going to solve the dire problem of spiraling health care costs in America. Given that Wal-Mart has no intention of complying with the new laws, and will mount legal challenges to each and every one, Fair Share makes more sense when viewed as a means to an end, and that end should be national health insurance. In recent speeches, Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott has said that the cost of health care in America is a larger problem demanding more leadership from "government." Let's see how far he's willing to go.

Let's see, too, how far labor will go. In his new book, Solidarity for Sale, Robert Fitch argues that unions haven't made serious efforts to organize for national health insurance; indeed, they have often opposed it, for a combination of self-interested and ideological reasons. (This goes way back: Samuel Gompers argued that national health insurance had sapped the "virility" of British workers.) If we are to have meaningful health care reform, that attitude needs to change. Pressuring Wal-Mart is a good place to start.

In related news, Target has just announced that it intends "Wal-Mart-like" changes to its own health care plan, and may eliminate traditional health insurance for employees. This underscores the urgent need for single-payer healthcare, and the need for continued pressure on Wal-Mart, the industry leader that sets the standards for its fellow retailers.