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Is Bush Ready for Real Democracy?

George Bush seems to want to be the president not of the United States but of the world.

Indeed, since his reelection in November, Bush has made foreign policy – a subject about which he displayed scant interest prior to September 11, 2001 – his primary focus. But, as with anyone who is new to complex subject matter, he has not always been graceful in his embrace of it.

This can lead to embarrassing contradictions, as we saw this week.

The president, appearing at the National Defense University, declared that, "Today I have a message for the people of Lebanon: All the world is witnessing your great movement of conscience. Lebanon's future belongs in your hands."

Unfortunately for the president, on the "today" when he was speaking, one of the largest crowds ever to gather in the history of Lebanon was protesting against the approach that Bush has counseled for that country. This does not necessarily mean that Bush is wrong. But it does mean that he looked like something of a fool when he suggested that "all the world is witnessing your great movement of conscience" at the same time that the streets of Beirut were filled with 500,000 people chanting anti-US slogans and expressing sympathy with Syria.

Make no mistake, I'm on the side of the Lebanese people who want Syria to end its occupation of Lebanon, just as I am on the side of the Palestinian and Israeli people who want Israel to end its occupation of Palestine and of the Iraqi people who want the United States to end its occupation of their country.

But these are not issues that should be decided by American policy makers. They should be decided by the citizens of the countries themselves, and the way to do that is with a popular referendum.

There is a very good model for such voting: the 1999 referendum in which the voters of East Timor rejected occupation of their territory by Indonesia. That referendum, which was organized by the United Nations Mission in East Timor (Unamet), saw 78.5% of East Timorese vote for independence. Indonesia grudgingly accepted the new reality – under the watchful eyes of United Nations peacekeeping forces – and with 450 years of foreign occupation finally ended, East Timor emerged as a free and democratic nation.

Why not follow the same course in those Middle Eastern countries where the climate seems most ripe for democratic experimentation?

Let the people of Lebanon vote--under the watchful eye of election monitors from the UN, the Carter Center and other international agencies--on whether they want the Syrians to leave on the more-or-less immediate timetable that Bush is promoting. My bet is that the majority of Lebanese voters would tell the occupiers to exit. But as someone who has spent a good deal of time in the region, I suspect that the vote would be closer than many observers from afar imagine. That's because after the horrific instability and violence of the 1980s, there is a portion of the Lebanese population that sees the Syrian military presence as a stabilizing force in a country that is deeply divided along lines of religion, ethnicity and class. The fact is that pro-Syrian parties have won a lot of votes in Lebanese elections, and it is not unreasonable to think that they will continue to do so in the future.

If President Bush really believes, as he told the Lebanese people on Tuesday, that "Lebanon's future belongs in your hands," then he should support a popular referendum that could settle the question of what future the Lebanese people want.

The president should not stop there. He should also support similar referendums regarding the occupations of Palestine and Iraq -- where polls suggest there is widespread opposition to the presence of foreign military forces.

If the president wants to lend credibility to the stirring statement he made in his speech at the National Defense University--"(Authoritarian) rule is not the wave of the future. It is the last gasp of a discredited past"--then he should begin by backing popular referendums and then making it the policy of the United States to abide by the will of the people of Lebanon, Palestine AND Iraq.

GM Chair for National Healthcare?

G. Richard Wagoner, Jr., chairman and chief executive of General Motors, is urging business and federal and state government leaders to find what the Washington Post described as "some serious medicine" to treat the health-care crisis--fast. To procrastinate, he warned in a February 10 speech, puts "our children and grandchildren at risk and threatens the health and global competitiveness of our nation's economy."

There's nothing new either about such warnings or about the self-defeating refusal of Corporate America to embrace, or even consider, taxpayer-supported universal health insurance, as Morton Mintz documented in a November 15, 2004 article in The Nation. (Click here to read the full text of the piece.) 

What was new was Wagoner's announcement of support for the idea of a federally sponsored national insurance pool to cover over-the-top costs of medical catastrophes. Now he's saying it. When John Kerry advocated just such a pool during the 2004 presidential campaign, Wagoner and his fellow corporate chieftains were silent.

Maybe GM's plummeting sales and tens of billions of dollars worth of healthcare obligations for retirees--far more than competitors based in countries with national healthcare systems--are shaking up GM's bosses. Any rational businessperson has to understand that our healthcare system is in desperate need of some "serious medicine."

Bush Gives the UN the Finger

If you were sitting in the Oval Office and George W. Bush asked, "Hey, tell me, who could we appoint to the UN ambassador job that would most piss off the UN and the rest of the world," your job would be quite easy. You would simply say, "That's a no-brainer, Mr. President, John Bolton." And on Monday Bush took this no-brain advice and nominated Bolton to the post, which requires Senate confirmation.

Bolton is the rightwing's leading declaimer of the United Nations. He once said, "If the UN Secretariat building in New York lost ten stories, it wouldn't make a bit of difference." And when the Bush administration failed to persuade the UN to back its war in Iraq, Bolton observed that was "further evidence to many why nothing should be paid to the UN system."

Bolton has expressed much more vitriol for the UN than those two (representative) remarks, for he has been a UN-basher for years. Sure, the UN has many flaws and deserves reform. But what message does it convey to the UN and the world to send to the UN a fellow who has essentially called for total defunding of the institution? And this move comes right after Bush went to Europe to mend fences and after he has started working closely with France in an admirable effort to push Syria out of Lebanon. The Bolton appointment is unfathomable--except if viewed as a payback to the neocons. This band of Bush-backers were considered the losers when Bolton, formerly an undersecretary at the State Department, was not appointed to the number-two slot at Foggy Bottom when Condoleezza Rice took over the State Department. But this is some consolation prize. Imagine Jerry Falwell being placed in charge of marriage in Massachusetts.

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Don't forget about DAVID CORN's BLOG at www.davidcorn.com. Read recent postings on the feds pondering whether to regulate blogging, Bush's budget scams, the AIPAC scandal, Gannongate, a Republican congressman who wants to nuke Syria, and Hunter Thompson.

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Bolton's extremism does not stop at the UN's front door. A year and a half ago, I described Bolton, who's widely considered the leading hard-ass of the neocon clan, this way:

Bolton is a hawk's hawk in the Bush administration. He is the agent conservateurin Colin Powell's State Department. He has led the administration's effort against the International Criminal Court. Last year, he single-handedly tried to revise U.S. nuclear policy by asserting that Washington no longer felt bound to state that it would not use nuclear weapons against nations that do not possess nuclear weapons. (A State Department spokesman quickly claimed that Bolton had not said what he had indeed said.) Bolton also claimed that Cuba was developing biological weapons--a charge that was not substantiated by any evidence and that was challenged by experts. In July, he was about to allege in congressional testimony that Syria posed a weapons-of-mass-destruction threat before the CIA and other agencies, which considered his threat assessment to be exaggerated, objected to his statement. When England, France and Germany recently tried to develop a carrot-and-stick approach in negotiating an end to Iran's suspected nuclear weapons program, Bolton huffed, "I don't do carrots."

And there are questions about his integrity. Three years ago, Bolton was caught up in a little-covered scandal involving a pro-Taiwan slush fund. Writing about this, I noted,

Some scandals find traction in Washington, others fizzle. The Taiwangate affair--which involves a $100 million secret Taiwan government slush fund that financed intelligence, propaganda, and influence activities within the United States and elsewhere--seems to be in the latter category at the moment. The beneficiaries of the lack of attention include three prominent Bush appointees at the State Department who, before joining the Bush administration, received money from this account. And one of these officials, John Bolton, the undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, submitted pro-Taiwan testimony to Congress in the 1990s without revealing he was a paid consultant to Taiwan. His work for Taiwan, it turns out, was financed by this slush fund.

Bolton escaped damage in this scandal that got away, even though he arguably had acted as a foreign agent without having registered as one--a potential violation of US law. When the scandal broke in 2002--with Bolton then a senior official in the Bush State Department--the State Department refused to acknowledge Bolton's involvement in the scandal. And Republicans on the Hill called for no investigations. (Click here and here for previous columns on Bolton and the slush fund affair. )

On December 2, after John Danforth resigned as Bush's UN ambassador, I wrote on my blog:

So who is Bush going to name as a replacement? Paul Wolfowitz? John Bolton? (If you don't know who Bolton is, you're lucky. He's the neocon's sleeper-hawk/madman at the State Department.) How about Bill Safire? Or one of the many conservatives who have recently called for Kofi Annan's resignation? Or...Alan Keyes?

I was trying to make a joke. But I suppose Bolton--who has ducked scandal and has escaped punishment for his misleading and false hawkish statements--is the one laughing now.

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IT REMAINS RELEVANT, ALAS. SO DON'T FORGET ABOUT DAVID CORN'S BOOK, The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception (Crown Publishers). A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER! An UPDATED and EXPANDED EDITION is AVAILABLE in PAPERBACK. The Washington Post says, "This is a fierce polemic, but it is based on an immense amount of research.... [I]t does present a serious case for the president's partisans to answer.... Readers can hardly avoid drawing...troubling conclusions from Corn's painstaking indictment." The Los Angeles Times says, "David Corn's The Lies of George W. Bush is as hard-hitting an attack as has been leveled against the current president. He compares what Bush said with the known facts of a given situation and ends up making a persuasive case." The Library Journal says, "Corn chronicles to devastating effect the lies, falsehoods, and misrepresentations.... Corn has painstakingly unearthed a bill of particulars against the president that is as damaging as it is thorough." And GEORGE W. BUSH SAYS, "I'd like to tell you I've read [ The Lies of George W. Bush], but that'd be a lie."

For more information and a sample, go to www.davidcorn.com. And see his WEBLOG there

Roosevelt vs. Bush

President Bush is losing his fight to privatize Social Security.

Even his own allies, such as House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., are warning the president that he cannot force the American people to accept the radical reworking of Social Security that Bush's allies in the financial services industry want.

In fact, the only hope the president has left is outright distortion of the facts - by the White House and by its amen corner in the media.

The Fox News Channel, which has a long history of being more loyal to the Bush administration than it is to the truth, is currently peddling the biggest of the big lies.

Fox news analyst Brit Hume and other Fox personalities have begun claiming that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, an iconic figure among elderly Americans at least in part because of the role he played in creating the Social Security system, favored privatizations schemes of the sort that President Bush is pushing.

"It turns out that FDR himself planned to include private investment accounts in the Social Security program when he proposed it," claimed Hume in a recent broadcast, where he also suggested that Roosevelt wanted the federal program to ultimately be supplanted by "self-supporting annuity plans."

To "substantiate" his statement, Hume rearranged Roosevelt's words to fake up "quotes" that seemed to suggest the 32nd president would have approved of undermining the Social Security system in order to enrich Wall Street.

The former president's grandson, James Roosevelt Jr., was so offended by Hume's abuse of FDR's words that he said last week, "(Hume) rearranged those sentences in an outrageous distortion, one that really calls for a retraction, an apology, maybe even a resignation."

James Roosevelt Jr. is not merely a guardian of his grandfather's legacy, he is a former associate commissioner for the Social Security system. In other words, he knows what he is talking about.

That's more than can be said for Hume and other conservative commentators - notably William Bennett and the Wall Street Journal's John Fund - who have tried to suggest that FDR would have favored privatization.

"It is really quite amazing to me that all of the folks supporting privatization, from the president on down, keep invoking the name of my grandfather, Franklin Delano Roosevelt," says James Roosevelt. "I think it's, in a way, it is flattering to him. It is testimony to how successful the program that he put in place has been and continues to be."

Asked by MSNBC host Keith Olbermann whether his grandfather was opposed to the sort of privatization schemes the Bush administration is now proposing, James Roosevelt said, "I'm definitely convinced of that."

Noting that "the dedicated Social Security tax has been very successful over the years in raising almost all of our elderly citizens out of poverty," where half of them were in poverty before Social Security, James Roosevelt said of his grandfather, "I'm convinced he never intended to phase it out."

Here's a tip: In the great debate over Social Security, put your faith in people named Roosevelt, not Bush - or certainly not Hume.

Sweet Victories

Since starting Editor's Cut in April 2003, I've often written about how it can be difficult, in these times, to maintain a sense of hope--as corruption, war, lies and injustices large and small loom all around, and outrage about the Right's assault on our democracy threatens to overwhelm us.

Moreover, as the mainstream media continues to tout America's rightward turn, positive developments in the liberal/left/progressive community are too often overlooked--or ignored. But, it's during days like these that we need to remember that millions of us are organizing, agitating, mobilizing--and that there are many hard-fought victories to celebrate.

So, I'm starting Sweet Victories, a new weekly feature in which Editor's Cut will chronicle a triumph--from legislative and electoral victories, to successful organizing efforts, protests and boycotts, to the launching of a promising new organization or initiative. We hope that these stories will serve not only as a source of information, but inspiration. The victories may be small, but they'll always be sweet.

My partner in highlighting good news is former (ace) Nation intern Sam Graham-Felsen, a freelance journalist, documentary filmmaker, and blogger (www.boldprint.net) living in Brooklyn. We also want to hear from you. Please let us know if you have a story you think we should cover by emailing to: nationvictories@gmail.com. Below is our first victory.

Topekans Vote Against Hate

The only person asking, "What's the matter with Kansas?" right now is the Rev. Fred Phelps. His decades of anti-gay activism--which include picketing outside hate crime victim Matthew Sheppard's funeral with "God Hates Fags" signs--have apparently had little effect in his own backyard.

In Tuesday's elections, the city of Topeka officially refused to associate itself with Phelps' politics of hate--twice.

First, Topekans voted to reject Phelps' bid to overturn the city's ordinance banning discrimination of gays in municipal hiring. Phelps' repeal bid would have prevented Topeka from reinstating the anti-discrimination law for ten years, making Topeka the only city in the United States to specifically deny a single group protections against bias. Instead, Topekans voted it down 14,285 to 12,795.

And in the city council primary, Phelps' 20-year-old granddaughter and fellow anti-gay activist, Jael Phelps, lost big to Topeka's first and only openly gay council member, Tiffany Muller. Muller, who initiated the ordinance last November, received 1,329 votes to Phelps' 202.

The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force provided a boost in Tuesday's election, offering financial support for campaign staff and organizing volunteer phone banks across the country to call undecided voters. "Today, the people of Topeka not only rejected discrimination, they chose decency over immorality, truth over despicable lies," said Matt Foreman, Executive Director of the NGLTF.

Antiwar Events Coast to Coast

Yesterday we featured the peace concert being planned by Nation reader and bassist Brandon Kwiatek in Allentown, Pennsylvania on March 19, which will conclude a series of antiwar vigils scheduled across the Lehigh Valley that day.

Continuing our countdown to the second anniversary of Bush's invasion of Iraq and the nationwide series of rallies, marches, nonviolent civil disobedience and creative expressions of antiwar sentiment that are expected to meet the occasion, we wanted to highlight another event being organized by a Nation reader--Jacob Flowers--in Memphis, Tennessee.

Sponsored by the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center, an interfaith, inter-racial organization dedicated to education and advocacy for peace and justice issues operating in Memphis since 1982, the group asks people to join them at a rally at 12:00 noon on March 19 at the First Congregational Church, to be followed by a march to Veterans Plaza in Memphis's Overton Park, where they'll be music, food and more speakers. Flowers asks Nation readers to "help make this the largest antiwar demonstration this city [Memphis] has ever seen." Click here for more info on the event and the Center itself. And if you're in the Memphis area, click here to download a flyer and help get the word out.

As the antiwar coalition UFPJ reports, last year on the first anniversary of the invasion, there were at least 319 antiwar events in cities and towns across the United States. This month, they're looking to increase that number after a disastrous year of continued body counts and billions of dollars wasted on an illegal and immoral occupation.

Watch this space for more info on antiwar events around the country, click here to let us know about any events, and check out the UFPJ website for a complete calendar of nationwide happenings.

Vermont Votes No to War

Congress may not be prepared to hold an honest debate on when and how the United States should exit the Iraq imbroglio, but the town meetings of rural Vermont are not so constrained. Declaring that "The War in Iraq is a Local Issue," citizens in communities across the state voted of Tuesday for resolutions urging President Bush and Congress to take steps to withdraw American troops from Iraq and calling on their state legislature to investigate the use and abuse of the Vermont National Guard in the conflcit.

Spearheaded by the Vermont Network on Iraq War Resolutions, Green Mountain Veterans for Peace and the Vermont Chapter of Military Families Speak Out, the campaign to get antiwar resolutions on town meeting agendas succeeded in more than 50 communities statewide. That meant that the issue was raised in more than one fifth of the 251 Vermont towns where the annual celebrations of grassroots democracy take place. Forty-nine towns voted for the resolutions. Only three voted "no," while one saw a tie vote. In the state's largest city, Burlington, the antiwar initiative received the support of 65 percent of electors.

"Many have wondered how a town meeting could direct something on a national scale," admitted Middlebury Town Manager Bill Finger. "But it does send a message that hopefully people are listening to."

Ned Coffin, an 83-year-old retired poultry farmer in the town of Bethel agreed. "I can't think of another forum in which people can express their views on any subject, even ones of national importance," explained Coffin. "The war was a mistake and this is a way for that message to be heard."

There is no question that the message was heard by Vermont's Congressional representatives. US Rep. Bernie Sander, I-Vermont, announced his support for the resolution being considered at the town meeting in Burlington. US Senator Jim Jeffords, I-Vermont, endorsed the resolution campaign, as did US Senator Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, the ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Committee's Subcommittee on Foreign Operations. ''This resolution has prompted the kind of constructive debate that should be happening not only in Washington but in every community in the country, and Vermonters again are setting a good example of civic responsibility and participation,'' said Leahy.

Activists hope the Vermont resolution campaign will go national. Already, Amherst, Massachusetts -- which begins city council meetings by reading aloud the names of Iraqis and US soldiers who have died in the war -- has passed a "Bring the Troops Home" resolution, as has Arcata, California.

In November, San Francisco voters endorsed Proposition N, an antiwar statement that ended with the declaration, "The Federal government should take immediate steps to end the US occupation of Iraq and bring our troops safely home now."

One of the strengths of the Vermont resolution campaign was the focus on the status of the Vermont National Guard. That brought the issue home, as 200 of the state's 251 towns have residents who have been called up to serve in Iraq. A rural state where wages are low in many regions, Vermont has traditionally had a high level of participation in the National Guard. With Guard units being so heavily used in the Iraq, several studies show that Vermont has suffered the highest per capita death toll of any state since the war began a two years ago.

"There is nothing more quintessentially local than war, and the local connection is the National Guard," explains Ben Scotch, a former director of the Vermont American Civil Liberties Union who helped draft the model resolution for the town meetings. "The guard members and their families are our first concern. Discussions over the appropriateness of their use in the war need to start in our own communities."

Nancy Lessin, a co-founder of Military Families Speak Out, a national antiwar network that includes more than 2,000 military families, agreed. Lessin told the Christian Science Monitor that the Vermont approach "brings into discussion the very people who should be discussing the impact of this war: National Guard families, local politicians, police departments, school officials."

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John Nichols's new book, Against the Beast: A Documentary History of American Opposition to Empire (Nation Books) was published January 30. Howard Zinn says, "At exactly the when we need it most, John Nichols gives us a special gift--a collection of writings, speeches, poems and songs from thoughout American history--that reminds us that our revulsion to war and empire has a long and noble tradition in this country." Frances Moore Lappe calls Against the Beast, "Brilliant! A perfect book for an empire in denial." Against the Beast can be found at independent bookstores nationwide and can be obtained online by tapping the above reference or at www.amazon.com

"I Am Free--To Think--To Speak"

In a series of extraordinary speeches, Senator Robert Byrd, a longtime historian of the Senate, has persistently sounded the alarm about imperial executive power. He has unflinchingly exposed the grave danger we face from an Administration that routinely abuses power and tramples democracy without batting an eye.

Yesterday, Byrd delivered another wakeup call. Taking aim at the Republicans' threat to use the "nuclear option"--a change to the rules of the Senate that would effectively bar Democrats from filibustering judicial nominations--he assailed those who would aim "an arrow straight at the heart of the Senate's long tradition of unlimited debate."  He didn't stop there. "Many times in our history," Byrd said--perhaps speaking to the hypocrites in power who prefer to lecture the world about democracy rather than protect it at home-- "we have taken up arms to protect a minority against the tyrannical majority in other lands. We, unlike Nazi Germany or Mussolini's Italy, have never stopped being a nation of laws, not men."

Read Byrd's warning to the republic:

Stopping a Strike at the Heart of the Senate by Senator Robert Byrd, delivered on March 1, 2005

In 1939, one of the most famous American movies of all time, "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," hit the box office.  Initially received with a combination of lavish praise and angry blasts, the film went on to win numerous awards, and to inspire millions around the globe.  The director, the legendary Frank Capra, in his autobiography "Frank Capra: The Name Above the Title," cites this moving review of the film, appearing in "The Hollywood Reporter," November 4, 1942:    

Frank Capra's "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," chosen by French Theaters as the final English language film to be shown before the recent Nazi-ordered countrywide ban on American and British films went into effect, was roundly cheered...

Storms of spontaneous applause broke out at the sequence when, under the Abraham Lincoln monument in the Capital, the word, "Liberty," appeared on the screen and the Stars and Stripes began fluttering over the head of the great Emancipator in the cause of liberty.

Similarly cheers and acclamation punctuated the famous speech of the young senator on man's rights and dignity.  'It was...as though the joys, suffering, love and hatred, the hopes and wishes of an entire people who value freedom above everything, found expression for the last time...

For those who may not have seen it, "Mr. Smith" is the fictional story of one young Senator's crusade against forces of corruption, and his lengthy filibuster for the values he holds dear.  

My, how times have changed. These days Smith would be called "an obstructionist." Rumor has it that there is a plot afoot in the Senate to curtail the right of extended debate in this hallowed chamber, not in accordance with its rules, mind you, but by fiat from the Chair.

The so-called "nuclear option" purports to be directed solely at the Senate's advice and consent prerogatives regarding federal judges.  But, the claim that no right exists to filibuster judges aims an arrow straight at the heart of the Senate's long tradition of unlimited debate.

The Framers of the Constitution envisioned the Senate as a kind of executive council; a small body of legislators, featuring longer terms, designed to insulate members from the passions of the day.  

The Senate was to serve as a "check" on the Executive Branch, particularly in the areas of appointments and treaties, where, under the Constitution, the Senate passes judgement absent the House of Representatives.  James Madison wanted to grant the Senate the power to select judicial appointees with the Executive relegated to the sidelines. But a compromise brought the present arrangement; appointees selected by the Executive, with the advice and consent of the Senate.  Note that nowhere in the Constitution is a vote on appointments mandated.    

When it comes to the Senate, numbers can deceive. The Senate was never intended to be a majoritarian body. That was the role of the House of Representatives, with its membership based on the populations of states. The Great Compromise of July 16, 1787, satisfied the need for smaller states to have equal status in one House of Congress: the Senate.  

The Senate, with its two members per state, regardless of population is, then, the forum of the states.  Indeed, in the last Congress, 52 members, a majority, representing the 26 smallest states accounted for just 17.06 percent of the US population.   In other words, a majority in the Senate does not necessarily represent a majority of the population.  The Senate is intended for deliberation not point scoring. It is a place designed from its inception, as expressive of minority views.  Even 60 Senators, the number required for cloture, would represent just 24 percent of the population, if they happened to all hail from the 30 smallest states. Unfettered debate, the right to be heard at length, is the means by which we perpetuate the equality of the states.  

In fact, it was 1917, before any curtailing of debate was attempted, which means that from 1806 to 1917, some 111 years, the Senate rejected any limits to debate.   Democracy flourished along with the filibuster.  The first actual cloture rule in 1917, was enacted in response to a filibuster by those who opposed U.S. intervention in World War I.

But, even after its enactment, the Senate was slow to embrace cloture, understanding the pitfalls of muzzling debate.  In 1949, the 1917 cloture rule was modified to make cloture more difficult to invoke, not less, mandating that the number needed to stop debate would be not two-thirds of those present and voting, but two-thirds of all Senators.

Indeed, from 1919 to 1962, the Senate voted on cloture petitions only 27 times and invoked cloture just four times over those 43 years.

On January 4, 1957, Senator William Ezra Jenner of Indiana spoke in opposition to invoking cloture by majority vote.  He stated with conviction:

We may have a duty to legislate, but we also have a duty to inform and deliberate.  In the past quarter century we have seen a phenomenal growth in the power of the executive branch.  If this continues at such a fast pace, our system of checks and balances will be destroyed.  One of the main bulwarks against this growing power is free debate in the Senate...So long as there is free debate, men of courage and understanding will rise to defend against potential dictators...The Senate today is one place where, no matter what else may exist, there is still a chance to be heard, an opportunity to speak, the duty to examine, and the obligation to protect.  It is one of the few refuges of democracy.  Minorities have an illustrious past, full of suffering, torture, smear, and even death. Jesus Christ was killed by a majority; Columbus was smeared; and Christians have been tortured.  Had the United States Senate existed during those trying times, I am sure these people would have found an advocate. Nowhere else can any political, social, or religious group, finding itself under sustained attack, receive a better refuge.  

Senator Jenner was right. The Senate was deliberately conceived to be what he called a "better refuge," meaning one styled as guardian of the rights of the minority.

The Senate is the "watchdog" because majorities can be wrong, and filibusters can highlight injustices. History is full of examples.

In March 1911, Senator Robert Owen of Oklahoma filibustered the New Mexico statehood bill, arguing that Arizona should also be allowed to become a state. President Taft opposed the inclusion of Arizona's statehood in the bill because Arizona's state constitution allowed the recall of judges. Arizona attained statehood a year later, at least in part because Senator Owen and the minority took time to make their point the year before.

In 1914, a Republican minority led a 10-day filibuster of a bill that would have appropriated more than $50,000,000 for rivers and harbors.  On an issue near and dear to the hearts of our current majority, Republican opponents spoke until members of the Commerce Committee agreed to cut the appropriations by more than half.

Perhaps more directly relevant to our discussion of the "nuclear option" are the seven days in 1937, from July 6 to 13 of that year, when the Senate blocked Franklin Roosevelt's Supreme Court-packing plan.  

Earlier that year, in February 1937, FDR sent the Congress a bill drastically reorganizing the judiciary.  The Senate Judiciary Committee rejected the bill, calling it " an invasion of judicial power such as has never before been attempted in this country" and finding it "essential to the continuance of our constitutional democracy that the judiciary be completely independent of both the executive and legislative branches of the Government."   The committee recommended the rejection of the court-packing bill, calling it "a needless, futile, and utterly dangerous abandonment of constitutional principle....without precedent and without justification."

What followed was an extended debate on the Senate Floor lasting for seven days until the Majority Leader, Joseph T. Robinson of Arkansas, a supporter of the plan, suffered a heart attack and died on July 14.  Eight days later, by a vote of 70 to 20, the Senate sent the judicial reform bill back to committee, where FDR's controversial, court-packing language was finally stripped.  A determined, vocal group of Senators properly prevented a powerful President from corrupting our nation's judiciary.                                                               

Free and open debate on the Senate floor ensures citizens a say in their government.  The American people are heard, through their Senator, before their money is spent, before their civil liberties are curtailed, or before a judicial nominee is confirmed for a lifetime appointment.  We are the guardians, the stewards, the protectors of our people. Our voices are their voices.

If we restrain debate on judges today, what will be next: the rights of the elderly to receive social security; the rights of the handicapped to be treated fairly; the rights of the poor to obtain a decent education? Will all debate soon fall before majority rule?

Will the majority someday trample on the rights of lumber companies to harvest timber, or the rights of mining companies to mine silver, coal, or iron ore?  What about the rights of energy companies to drill for new sources of oil and gas?   How will the insurance, banking, and securities industries fare when a majority can move against their interests and prevail by a simple majority vote?  What about farmers who can be forced to lose their subsidies, or Western Senators who will no longer be able to stop a majority determined to wrest control of ranchers' precious water or grazing rights?  With no right of debate, what will forestall plain muscle and mob rule?

Many times in our history we have taken up arms to protect a minority against the tyrannical majority in other lands.  We, unlike Nazi Germany or Mussolini's Italy, have never stopped being a nation of laws, not of men.

But witness how men with motives and a majority can manipulate law to cruel and unjust ends. Historian Alan Bullock writes that Hitler's dictatorship rested on the constitutional foundation of a single law, the Enabling Law.  Hitler needed a two-thirds vote to pass that law, and he cajoled his opposition in the Reichstag to support it.  Bullock writes that "Hitler was prepared to promise anything to get his bill through, with the appearances of legality preserved intact."  And he succeeded.

Hitler's originality lay in his realization that effective revolutions, in modern conditions, are carried out with, and not against, the power of the State: the correct order of events was first to secure access to that power and then begin his revolution.  Hitler never abandoned the cloak of legality; he recognized the enormous psychological value of having the law on his side.  Instead, he turned the law inside out and made illegality legal.

And that is what the nuclear option seeks to do to Rule XXII of the Standing Rules of the Senate.  

It seeks to alter the rules by sidestepping the rules, thus making the impermissible the rule.  Employing the "nuclear option", engaging a pernicious, procedural maneuver to serve immediate partisan goals, risks violating our nation's core democratic values and poisoning the Senate's deliberative process.

For the temporary gain of a hand-full of "out of the mainstream" judges, some in the Senate are ready to callously incinerate each Senator's right of extended debate.  Note that I said each Senator.   For the damage will devastate not just the minority party.  It will cripple the ability of each member to do what each was sent here to do - - represent the people of his or her state.  Without the filibuster or the threat of extended debate, there exists no leverage with which to bargain for the offering of an amendment.  All force to effect compromise between the two political parties is lost.  Demands for hearings can languish.  The President can simply rule, almost by Executive Order if his party controls both houses of Congress, and Majority Rule reins supreme.   In such a world, the Minority is crushed; the power of dissenting views diminished; and freedom of speech attenuated.  The uniquely American concept of the independent individual, asserting his or her own views, proclaiming personal dignity through the courage of free speech will, forever, have been blighted.  And the American spirit, that stubborn, feisty, contrarian, and glorious urge to loudly disagree, and proclaim, despite all opposition, what is honest and true, will be sorely manacled.

Yes, we believe in Majority rule, but we thrive because the minority can challenge, agitate, and question.  We must never become a nation cowed by fear, sheeplike in our submission to the power of any majority demanding absolute control.

Generations of men and women have lived, fought and died for the right to map their own destiny, think their own thoughts, and speak their minds.  If we start, here, in this Senate, to chip away at that essential mark of freedom - - here of all places, in a body designed to guarantee the power of even a single individual through the device of extended debate - - we are on the road to refuting the Preamble to our own Constitution and the very principles upon which it rests.  

In the eloquent, homespun words of that illustrious, obstructionist, Senator Smith, "Liberty is too precious to get buried in books.  Men ought to hold it up in front of them every day of their lives, and say, 'I am free--to think--to speak. My ancestors couldn't. I can.  My children will."

Get Out on March 19

It's time to start making plans for what are expected to be a nationwide series of antiwar protests from March 18 to March 20 to mark the second anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. The antiwar coalition United for Peace & Justice is calling for vigils, rallies, marches, nonviolent civil disobedience and creative expressions of antiwar sentiment of all kinds.

As UFPJ reports, last year on the first anniversary of the invasion, there were at least 319 antiwar events in cities and towns across the United States. This month, they're looking to increase that number after a disastrous year of continued body counts and billions of dollars wasted on an illegal and immoral occupation.

In the coming days, we'll be highlighting some of the many grassroots, antiwar efforts taking place on March 19th. Today, I'd like to thank Nation reader and bassist Brandon Kwiatek for alerting us to what's happening in the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania where his acoustic duo Real West will stage a free concert at Bethlehem Book Loft & The Caffeine Café from 8:00 to 10:00pm. The concert, called War is a Wonderful Thing: An Evening of Dissent, will be the culmination of a series of antiwar vigils and rallies scheduled across the Lehigh Valley that day.

In the interest of promoting solidarity within the Lehigh Valley progressive movement, Kwiatek writes, a number of local organizations will participate or distribute information during the concert: Bill of Rights Defense Committee (Bethlehem); Progressive Students Alliance (chapters from Lehigh University and Northampton Community College); LEPOCO Peace Center; Moravian College's chapter of Amnesty International-USA.

Watch this space for more info on antiwar events around the country, click here to let us know about any events, and check out the UFPJ website for a complete calendar of nationwide happenings.