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Harry Reid Finally Starts to Fight Smart

Harry Reid is finally coming to the realization reached months ago by the American people: That Democrats in Congress have been played for suckers by the Bush White House and its Republican allies on Capitol Hill.

The Senate Majority Leader's recognition of the realities of Washington in the Bush era--as evidenced by his decision Monday to set up a scenario that could clarify the role played by Republican senators in maintaining the president's exceptionally unpopular approach to the Iraq War--holds out the prospect that the politics of the debate over ending the occupation could change radically in the weeks to come.

Make no mistake, such a shift is necessary.

Despite the clear mandate they received last November--a mandate that, in a time of war and against a fierce campaign by the sitting President, restored the opposition party to control of both the US House and Senate for the first time since the "Republican revolution" of 1994--Congressional Democrats have for the past six months behaved as powerless bystanders in George Bush's Washington.

Instead of boldly challenging the most dysfunctional president in American history, using all the tools of the system of a checks and balances that was established to favor legislative oversight of the executive branch, Democrats have played the game by Bush's rules. And they have lost at every turn.

With a quarter of the term of the current Congress now done, it is clear that the cooperative approach adopted by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, and Senate Majority Leader Reid, D-Nevada, hasn't worked. It is not just that approval ratings for Congress are now below those of a failed president that Democrats were elected to challenge and constrain. It is that the disastrous war in Iraq, the central crisis of this American moment, continues to claim the lives of US troops and Iraqi civilians at an alarming rate.

The circumstance requires that Congressional Democrats change course. And their new priority should be to clarify rather than muddy the debate over Iraq.

That is what Reid is doing, at least tentatively, with his decision to, as he puts it, "highlight Republican obstruction" of Democratic efforts to bring the troops home.

Reid plans to do that Tuesday by refusing to allow Republicans to quietly make procedural moves to block voting on an amendment sponsored by Michigan Senator Carl Levin and Rhode Island Senator Jack Reed that would establish a withdrawal timeline. Instead, he plans to force the President's Senate allies to filibuster--at least for one night--in favor of continuing a war that even Republicans do not want to be associated with anymore.

"I would like to inform the Republican leadership and all my colleagues that we have no intention of backing down," Reid declared Monday afternoon. "If Republicans do not allow a vote on Levin/Reed today or tomorrow, we will work straight through the night on Tuesday. The American people deserve an open and honest debate on this war, and they deserve an up or down vote on this amendment to end it."

Unless Republicans agree to a simple-majority vote on Levin-Reed, Reid has indicated that he will keep the Senate in continuous session through Tuesday night and into Wednesday.

The point is to make it absolutely clear that Republican senators--even those who say they want to start bringing the troops home--are doing everything in their power to prevent a Senate vote that might embarrass of challenge Bush.

It is not likely that one night of filibustering complete the process of exposing the Republican shenanigans for what they are.

But Reid's move is a step in the right direction.

Nothing highlighted the ineffectual nature of the Democratic opposition to Bush's policies more than Reid's willingness to politely allow Republicans to prevent votes on fundamental issues such as the war.

Again and again, Republicans threatened to filibuster--a move that involves endless speechifying and limitless debate--in order to prevent the passage of measures designed to being bringing US troops home from Iraq.

Again and again, the majority leader responded to the threats by seeking a cloture vote that, if successful, would trump the filibuster threat and allow a vote of the full Senate in favor of the anti-war position that the vast majority of Democrats and a reasonable number of Republicans say they favor. Cloture refers to the only procedure by which the Senate can place a time limit on debate, thus overcoming a threatened filibuster, and get to clarity. Cloture can only be achieved if three-fifths of the members of the Senate, normally sixty of them, vote for it.

Unfortunately for Reid, the Democratic caucus has just fifty-one members--a few of whom, like Connecticut's Joe Lieberman, are in the pocket of the Bush White House--and the majority leader has only a handful of Republican allies who are willing to break with the administration on cloture votes regarding Iraq.

Thus, when Reid has sought cloture, he has more often than not been thwarted by Republican leaders, who successfully hold enough of their members to prevent the limit on debate. Only when the White House has ordered Senate Republicans to back off and allow a vote, as happened on the supplemental funding measure that Bush would eventually veto, does Reid get the vote he wants.

Reid and his fellow Democrats have tried to portray the votes on cloture as true tests of the will of senators.

But the American people have not seen these procedural clashes as consequential. As a result, Republicans who wanted to play both sides of the Iraq debate--making vaguely anti-war statements that get big play in the media while quietly providing the behind-the-scenes votes the White House needs to maintain its policies--were able to do so.

There was no clarity. And more and more Americans came to see Reid and the Democrats as, at best, ineffective; and, at worst, in unspoken collaboration with Bush.

Reid appears finally to have recognized that problem--with a little prodding from Senate colleagues and grassroots activists.

North Dakota Senator Kent Conrad, a principled Democrat from a rather red state who voted against authorizing Bush to go to war in Iraq and who "gets" the Senate as well as just about any member, raised the prospect of a new approach when he appeared last week on Air America's "Young Turks" program. Conrad explained that a Republican senator had recently told him the GOP leadership had adopted a strategy designed to "prevent any accomplishment" by the Democratic Congress. A key component of the strategy is to repeatedly threaten filibusters that force cloture votes -- on the theory that, try as Democrats might to portray those votes as meaningful, all that most Americans would know is that under Democratic leadership nothing was getting done.

Conrad suggested that it might be wise to put the procedural debates aside and let the American people see what is really happening.

"We have a narrow but clear majority in the United States Senate. We have a narrow but clear majority in the House of Representatives. And so we do have more of an ability to have our points of view heard than we did when we were in the minority. But it's also the reality [that] he President has the biggest megaphone, and, you know, until Democrats have the White House, they're always going to be at a disadvantage in terms of getting a message out," explained Conrad. "With that said, with that said, I think that we could do a better job making our points, and one part of that is to let the American people see just how obstructionist this Republican minority is being."

Asked if Democrats should abandon the polite approach of seeking cloture votes, losing them and then going on to other business, and instead begin forcing the Republicans to filibuster--thus displaying their true positions on ending the war--Conrad said, "Yeah, I think there's a growing consensus that we ought to do that."

Conrad's statement inspired activists, including the folks at MoveOn.org, to begin a push to get Reid and the Democratic leadership of the Senate to call the bluff of the Republicans.

Reid has not quite done that. He is still playing the cloture game to some extent, and a single night of forcing Republicans to show their true colors may not be enough to scare wavering GOP senators into breaking with their president and their party's Senate leadership.

But it is a start, potentially, of a new chapter in the war debate.

Reid is beginning to realize that Democrats have gotten nowhere by playing according to rules that favor the White House and its congressional allies.

He is moving toward a point of saying to Republicans: "It you want to filibuster in favor of continuing the failed occupation of Iraq, go for it. Show the American people exactly how determined you are to maintain George Bush's war."

By abandoning at least some of the inside-the-beltway politeness that gave Republicans an opening they have ably exploited, Reid is forcing members of the president's party who like to hint that they are anti-war but never vote that way to publicly and officially take a side. The more republicans engage in pro-war filibusters, the more they establish once and for all that -- no matter what they say about their supposed discomfort with the president's approach -- they see it as their job to prevent Congress from checking and balancing the Bush White House.

Like the southern senators who filibustered against civil rights legislation in the 1950s, Republicans who choose to rant on and on about how Congress cannot block the president's war making will expose themselves and their party to the harsh light of day--and potentially to the harsh response of the voters in 2008. And those Republicans who like to sound like critics of the war but who allow their party's leadership to maintain the filibuster will be exposed as the hypocrites they are.

If particular Republican senators do not like this scenario, they can pull together enough votes to assure Reid will have the sixty supporters he needs to avert the filibuster threat and get a real debate and a real vote on whether to end the occupation. Then, instead of allowing Republicans to abuse the cloture process to obstruct the will of the people, Reid can use cloture to quickly and easily remove the obstruction.

The key is for Reid to stop giving Republicans an easy out. When GOP leaders threaten to filibuster in favor of endless war, the majority leader must continually call their bluff. That will give the president's partisan allies in the Senate political ownership of his war -- and it will give the American people a clear picture of who wants to bring the troops home and who wants to leave them mired in George Bush's quagmire.

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John Nichols' new book is THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders' Cure forRoyalism. Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson hails it as a "nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic [that] combines a rich examination of the parliamentary roots and past use ofthe 'heroic medicine' that is impeachment with a call for Democraticleaders to 'reclaim and reuse the most vital tool handed to us by thefounders for the defense of our most basic liberties.'"

Unjust Execution Delayed

Guest post by Liliana Segura. Liliana is a member of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty and has written on the death penalty for The Nation and other publications.

UPDATE: This evening the Georgia pardon board granted Troy Davis a 90-day stay, just a night before the state was set to execute him for a crime witnesses say he didn't commit. His tragic story is recounted below.

The case of Troy Anthony Davis is a textbook example of blind prosecutorial zeal--and the legal blockades that can leave the innocent condemned to death.

Davis is a black man convicted for the 1989 killing of a white police officer in Savannah, Georgia. Those facts alone should raise an eyebrow or two when it comes to Southern justice. But consider these facts:

The case against Davis relied solely on eyewitness testimony. No physical evidence linked him to the crime. Nor was there a murder weapon found.

Out of nine non-police witnesses, seven would later admit to having been coerced by police and recant their testimony.

As the Washington Post reports:

"Three of four witnesses who testified at trial that Davis shot the officer have signed statements contradicting their identification of the gunman. Two other witnesses -- a fellow inmate and a neighborhood acquaintance who told police that Davis had confessed to the shooting -- have said they made it up. Other witnesses point the finger not at Davis but at another man. Yet none has testified during his appeals because federal courts barred their testimony."

Why would the courts refuse to hear such compelling evidence regarding a prisoner's possible innocence?

One reason is the Clinton-era Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, which in 1996 rolled back federal reviews of state death penalty convictions, making it nearly impossible for prisoners facing execution to introduce potentially exculpatory evidence. It's chilling to think of what the subsequent decade has wrought, given the number of overturned death sentences in recent years. Since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976, 124 people have been exonerated from death row. Six have been from Georgia. As Jared Feuer, the Southern Regional Director of Amnesty International told Democracy Now! this morning, "It really is a runaway train."

One would think that officials in Georgia would be hesitant to go through with an execution on so little evidence.

One would be wrong.

On Friday afternoon the state Board of Pardons and Paroles denied a request from Davis's lawyers asking for more time to make their case for clemency.

In legal papers filed last week, Chief Assistant District Attorney David T. Lock dismissed the witnesses' recanted testimonies, writing: "A recantation...does not prove that the witness' testimony was in every part the purest fabrication."

So much for "beyond a reasonable doubt."

"They're saying that actual innocence doesn't matter," Davis's sister Martina Correia told Democracy Now!

With Davis's execution previously hours away, more than 4,000 letters of support have been sent the Georgia parole board. Desmond Tutu, Harry Belafonte, and even William Sessions, the former head of the FBI, have spoken out against the execution. A number of jurors spoke before Georgia's clemency board this morning, saying that they would never have convicted Davis based on what is known now. And longtime civil rights leader Rep. John Lewis told the board: "If executing Troy Davis on the evidence we now have is the best our justice system can do, then that system is not worthy of the word justice."

Click here to voice your support for clemency in this case.

Call the Board of Pardons and Parole at (404) 657-9350.

Send an e-mail to: Clemency_Information@pap.state.a.us

Clinton and Obama Call to End Tax Breaks for Hedge Funders

Last Thursday, I pointed out that among the leading Presidential candidates only John Edwards had called for ending glaringly unfair tax breaks and loopholes for billionaire hedge funders and private equity managers.

When you look at the revenues desperately needed to fund healthcare, education, housing, infrastructure and support for returning veterans, it seemed high time that Democratic Presidential frontrunners took a stand on what should be the no-brainer issue of tax fairness and sound tax policy.

By Friday, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama had seen the light. They joined Edwards in calling for cracking down on a tax loophole that allows hedge funders and private equity managers to get away with paying dramatically lower tax rates on their income than those paid by average working Americans. At a rally in Keene, New Hampshire on Friday, Clinton denounced this "glaring inequality." That same day, Obama's campaign issued a statement confirming that the Senator would co-sponsor legislation to raise the 15 percent tax rates on certain private and hedge fund partnerships that go public to the top corporate rate of 35 percent.

At a moment when hedge funds have emerged as among the largest contributors to Democratic campaigns, it's heartening to see the front-running candidates challenge the tax loopholes these institutions are receiving. It's still important, however, to check the fine print of their proposals, and I'll be doing that in an upcoming Editor's Cut. Will they, for example, ensure that all private equity and hedge fund partnerships--not just those going public--be taxed at the higher rate? Will they close the loophole on what is called "carried interest"--which essentially allows fund managers to get away with paying a 15 percent capital gains rate on their outsized performance fees? Will they increase tax revenue by capping offshore tax deferrals used by these investment structures?

We'll see. And while it's good to hear the populist talk on the campaign trail and to track the action in Congress--with various Committees proposing legislation to crack down on these tax breaks--it's crucial that we don't miss the bigger picture of how these titans of greed are gaming our system. That bigger picture was detailed in David Cay Johnston's stunning, must -read article in Friday's New York Times. Lee Sheppard, a leading tax lawyer who critiques deals for the trade journal Tax Notes, tells Johnston: "There is a disconnect between the tax debate in congress and how the tax system actually operates at the highest levels of the economy, These guys have figured out how to turn paying taxes into an annuity. What people don't realize is that the private equity managers, the investment bankers, all the financial intermediaries, are in control of their own taxation and so the debate in Washington about what tax rate to pay misses the big picture."

In an easy-to-follow chart, Johnston (the best journalist reporting today on our tax system) shows how Blackstone, one of the leading private equity firms, "has devised a way for its partners to effectively avoid paying taxes on $3.7 billion, the bulk of what it raised last month from selling shares to the public."

Moreover, Blackstone and its partners will get back about $200 million *more* in taxes than they paid initially. According to Johnston, other private equity funds that plan to go public soon include similar push-the envelope tax gimmicks in their preliminary deal documents. (And a report issued last week by the Congressional Joint Committee on Taxation shows that such deals have been done at other companies.) Such "strategies" are so deviously rapacious that even a usually-cautious Democrat like Max Baucus, Chair of the Senate's Finance Committee, was moved to speak out on Friday: "The tax code is a road map for law-abiding citizens and businesses to pay what they fairly owe, not an obstacle course to be gamed and gotten around." Baucus also promised that the arrangement was already under review as part of a general look at issues surrounding private equity and similar investment structures.

But we need tougher steps. Here's a modest proposal. Let's fight for strong legislation, in the short-term, to crack down on the tax loopholes that loot our country's revenue and privilege the richest among us. Let's get legislation to end arrangements like Blackstone's--which game the system and expose these titans of greed for what they are. But let's also pressure the Democratic Congress to create a Special Committee on Taxation with a mandate to hold investigations (with subpoena power) into every aspect of our tax system, with a special focus on gimmicks benefiting private equity and hedge fund firms. The larger goal: to radically overhaul our tax system so it supports, not subverts, fairness, justice and the common good. Without radical reform of our rigged tax system, working people in this country will never get a fair break.

2,4,6,8! This Beheading is Really Great!

Why is the anti-war movement so lacklustre when 70% of Americans want to bring the troops home by spring and George W. Bush is the least popular president in history?

Some reasons are obvious: lack of a draft, low casualties, not much TV coverage, perceived futility of big rallies and marches. My fellow columnist Alexander Cockburn has a different idea. In his current Nation column, Alex argues that the anti-war movement is weak because it fails to show "international political solidarity" with "Iraqi resistance fighters."

Where's the love that US leftists felt for the Sandinistas and the Salvadoran FMLN--the sister cities, the links between unions, the love affairs between the "demure sisters in the struggle from Vermont or the Pacific Northwest" and "some valiant son of Sandino or downtrodden Nica sister, liberated by North American inversion from the oppressions of Latin patriarchy"?

True, he acknowledges, the "the contours of the Iraqi resistance are murky and in some aspects unappetizing to secular progressives in the West, or so they virtuously proclaim." ( Note the sarcasm --because nobody who disagrees with Alex could possibly have honorable motives.) But by cutting ourselves off from the Iraqis killling US soldiers, the US left is failing to learn "its internationalist ABCs."

Where to begin? Let's start with those murky contours and secular objections. With whom, exactly, are we supposed to be showing solidarity? Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia? Shiites massacring their Sunni neighbors? Sunnis killing Shiites? Religious reactionaries who have murdered doctors, professors, working women, Christians, students, hand-holding couples? "Ignorance about the Iraqi resistance is somewhat forgivable," Alex concedes, given the lack of first-hand sympathetic reporting--not that he deigns to enlighten the reader.

So, okay, call me ignorant: The Iraqi resistance isn't dominated by theocrats, ethnic nationalists, die-hard Baathists, jihadis, kidnappers, beheaders and thugs? Who haven't tortured and killed trade union leaders, feminists, aid workers, schoolteachers and such? We would like to live--Iraqis would like to live -- in the society they want to create?

The Sandinistas and the FMLN were far from perfect, but they were leftists. They stood for health care, education, land distribution, modernization--not burning down liquor stores and music shops, beating up unveiled women, suicide-bombing ordinary civilians, bringing back sharia law. They had support from all over the left end of the spectrum--labor,churches, feminists, socialists, human rights activists, peace activists--not just because they opposed US imperialism, but because they shared the goals of the American, and global, left.

If the Central American revolutionaries had resisted American intervention in the name of the Spanish Inquisition and spent a lot of time ethnically cleansing their neighborhoods, American leftists probably wouldn't have been so eager to hold potluck suppers for them.

Why Alex thinks embracing the Iraqi resistance would strengthen the US antiwar movement is beyond me. On the contrary, the nature of the resistance is a major reason why the antiwar movement is so weak. No matter how intensely you oppose the war, it is hard to feel good about an Iraq in which the resistance calls the shots. That was not how anti-war Americans saw Central America, or even Vietnam. It's not just that the iraqi insurgents are killing our soldiers--which, let's remember, was not an issue in Central America. It's that they're killing each other.

UPDATE: Alexander Cockburn's column is posted in full at Counterpunch.

Cheney's Actions Put Impeachment on the Table

Four more members of the U.S. House signed on this week as cosponsors of H. Res. 333, the measure that outlines articles of impeachment against Vice President Dick Cheney for actively and systematically seeking to deceive citizens and Congress about an alleged threat of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and an alleged relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda and for openly threatening aggression against Iran.

Congressman Bob Filner, the chair of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, added his name, along with another veteran Democratic representative from California, Sam Farr.

The additional cosponsorships from Washington Democrat Jim McDermott, a Vietnam-era veteran who has been one of the House's sharpest critics of the war in Iraq, and Virginia Democrat James Moran bring the number of supporters for the articles to 14, including sponsor Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio.

House Members are backing impeachment for a number of reasons, including anger with Cheney's involvement with manipulations of intelligence regarding Iraq, illegal spying on Americans and the promotion of torture, as well his recent attempt to avoid scrutiny by claiming that the Office of the Vice President was not part of the executive branch. And then there was President Bush's decision to commute the 30-month prison sentence of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Cheney's former chief of staff and co-conspirator in moves to punish former Ambassador Joe Wilson for exposing the deceptions that led to war.

The founders were very clear about the fact that abuses of the presidential authority to pardon or otherwise lift the burden of the law from subordinates was an impeachable offense. And a number of House members who take constitutional matters seriously have spoken up for impeachment since the commutation of Libby's sentence.

As Illinois Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. said after Bush commuted the sentence of a former aide who could connect the dots outlining presidential and vice presidential wrongdoing, "In her first weeks as leader of the Congress, Speaker Nancy Pelosi withdrew the notion of impeachment proceedings against either President Bush or Vice President Cheney. With the president's decision to once again subvert the legal process and the will of the American people by commuting the sentence of convicted felon Lewis 'Scooter' Libby, I call on House Democrats to reconsider impeachment proceedings."

That's an increasingly popular sentiment among Congressional Democrats, who are breaking with Pelosi to speak the "i" word.

It is an even more popular sentiment among the American people.

According to recent polling by the American Research Group, 54 percent of Americans want Cheney impeached. Among Democrats, that number rises to 76 percent. A majority of self-described independents back action to hold the vice president to account, as do a striking 17 percent of Republicans. With conservatives such as former Reagan administration lawyer Bruce Fein coming out strongly for Cheney's impeachment, the numbers of Republicans who are pulling for accountability is likely to grow.

Local pro-impeachment initiatives around the country -- coordinated at the national level by the brilliant www.afterdowningstreet.org website and its driving force, activist David Swanson -- have kept the pressure on House members to sign on to Kucinich's resolution.

California's Farr, for instance, felt the heat from constituents in the Santa Cruz area. Last year, at the behest of the local Coalition for Impeachment Now (COIN) group, the Santa Cruz City Council voted unanimously to endorse impeachment -- as have close to 80 cities and towns nationwide.

In Congress, impeachment of Cheney is now formally supported by the co-chairs of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, California Democrats Lynn Woolsey and Barbara Lee, as well as the founder of the Out of Iraq Caucus, California Democrat Maxine Waters.

Also on board are three members of the House Judiciary Committee, California's Waters, Georgia's Hank Johnson and Minnesota's Keith Ellison. It is the Judiciary Committee that would take up the issue of impeachment, under the chairmanship of Michigan Democrat John Conyers.

Conyers, who has made little secret of his belief that the president and vice president have taken actions that are in conflict with the Constitution, has yet to endorse H. Res. 333. But he is feeling pressure to do so. In May, the Detroit City Council voted to support impeachment of Bush and Cheney for misleading Congress and the public regarding the threat from Iraq, approving spying on the American people, conspiring to encourage the use of torture and acting to strip American citizens of their constitutional rights by ordering indefinite detention without access to legal counsel.

The arguments for impeachment are varied, to be sure.

But at the heart of the growing enthusiasm for putting the process in motion is a sense that Congress can no longer neglect abuses of power by a lawless executive branch.

"The Founders intended impeachment to be used when those running the government forgot that they worked for the people, and the Founders intended impeachment to be used when those running the government acted as though they were above the law," explains Congressman McDermott, who argues that, "The vice president holds himself above the law, and it is time for the Congress to enforce the law."

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John Nichols' new book is THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders' Cure forRoyalism. Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson hails it as a "nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic [that] combines a rich examination of the parliamentary roots and past use ofthe 'heroic medicine' that is impeachment with a call for Democraticleaders to 'reclaim and reuse the most vital tool handed to us by thefounders for the defense of our most basic liberties.'"

Sectarian Extremists Versus Jefferson

Sectarian extremists invaded the U.S. Senate chamber Thursday, chanting "There's only one true God" and denouncing religious pluralism as an "abomination."

The noisy assault on American values and traditions unfolded as the Senate was opening with its daily prayer.

Rajan Zed, the director of interfaith relations at a Hindu temple in Nevada, began his brief invocation with the words, "We meditate on the transcendental glory of the deity supreme, who is inside the heart of the Earth, inside the life of the sky and inside the soul of the heaven. May He stimulate and illuminate our minds."

As he spoke two women and a man in the Senate gallery attempted to shout him down.

Even as Capitol police removed the trio from the gallery, they continued to taunt the first Hindu cleric to open a session of the Senate. One of the zealots shouted "we are Christians and patriots."

Some leading conservative religious figures hailed the interruption, including Pastor Wiley Drake, a former 2nd Vice President of the Southern Baptist Convention, who said, "When not one of the 100 members of the U.S. Senate would object on the record, and in proper order, the opening of the U.S. Senate July 12, 2007, Christian observers had no choice but to speak from the gallery of the Senate. Had I been present I too would have stood and objected since none of the Senators would."

The three individuals who did object udentified themselves as members of Operation Save America/Operation Rescue, a militant anti-abortion rights group, which issued a statement denouncing the Senate's show of respect for religious diverity.

"The Senate was opened with a Hindu prayer placing the false god of Hinduism on a level playing field with the one true god, Jesus Christ," it declared. "This would never have been allowed by our Founding Fathers."

On this point, the protesters are wrong.

Thomas Jefferson, the author of the concept that the United States should maintain a "wall of separation" in order to avoid the development of a state religion of the sort that had existed in the monarchies of Europe, was a student Hinduism. His library included Hindu texts, and when he wrote the Virginia Act for Religious Freedom, which laid the groundwork for the Constitution protection of religious practice and pluralism, he specifically avoided making reference to the Christian faith -- though its adherents dominated the public life of Virginia and other colonies -- because he wanted it to be known that all religions, including Hinduism, were respected and welcomed in the United States.

In his notes on the Virginia statute, Jefferson specifically argued that Hinduism and other faiths would be afforded the full protection and privileges of the act.

Noting the overwhelming rejection by Virginia legislators of an amendment to his statute that proposed to insert a reference to Jesus Christ, Jefferson found "proof that they (the legislators who enacted the measure) meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and the Mohammedan, the Hindoo and the (non-practicing and disbelieving) infidel of every denomination."

Jefferson's respect for religious pluralism in general, and Hinduism in particular, led him to compare notes with other founders of the American experiment. The third president and his predecessor, John Adams corresponded at some length about their respect for the teachings of the Hindu religion.

It was Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, who invited Rajan Zed do the chamber Thursday. But he did so in the name of Jefferson, Adams and the other founders who believed that America should make no religion supreme but rather should recognize and respect many faiths -- including Hinduism.

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John Nichols' new book is THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders' Cure forRoyalism. Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson hails it as a "nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic [that] combines a rich examination of the parliamentary roots and past use ofthe 'heroic medicine' that is impeachment with a call for Democraticleaders to 'reclaim and reuse the most vital tool handed to us by thefounders for the defense of our most basic liberties.'"

A Small Measure of Sanity (Continued)

As Walter Pincus reported in the Washington Post last week, Senate Democrats plan to follow the House lead in "reducing funds" for the insidious Bush plan for a European-based missile defense system when the Senate takes up the 2008 Defense Authorization Bill this month. The Bush plan – which senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, Joseph Cirincione calls "rushing to deploy a technology that does not work against a threat that does not exist" – would place 10 interceptor missile sites in Poland and the system's radar in the Czech Republic.

The House has already passed its version of the bill which slashed $160 million from the Bush Administration's $310 million request in FY2008 and denied funding for construction of the European sites. It would also require the Bush administration to report by January on how it will "bring NATO on board." The Senate Armed Services Committee has recommended $85 million in cuts and "firm agreements with Poland and the Czech Republic before funds are released." According to Pincus, the Committee pointed to the unreliability of the weapons system and a desire for completed talks between Russia and the US (as well as NATO) prior to any funding.

In addition to Congressional opposition in the US, the Czech and Polish people are about as thrilled with the Bush Push as the American people are with his Surge. I initially wrote about opposition in the host countries here and here, and that opposition has only grown. According to the Los Angeles Times, more than 25 Czech villages and towns have voted against the plan in referendums. McClatchy Newspapers reported on these recent referendums: in the town of Vesin, west of Prague, 98 percent of the people voted against the plan; in Sedlec, 96.5 percent; Vranovice, 96 percent; and in Rozmital, 94.5 percent. Perhaps Lenka Jelinkova, 24, of Rozmital, put it best: "From the perspectives of safety, ecology and quality of living, all it promises is destruction." Despite the overwhelming Czech opposition "… most people believe the government has made up it's mind, and it will be built here" (An all too familiar feeling these days for too many people in too many democracies – including our own.)

But the LA Times artricle noted that legislative support in Prague and Warsaw "is thin and fading… the most heated debate has come in Poland, where many believe Warsaw has done a series of favors for the US, including sending troops to Iraq, without reciprocation." And Victoria Samson, Research Analyst at the Center for Defense Information, told me, "There are NGOs gearing up in Czech to increase awareness about the potential impacts of the bases on local people's lives. Congress is right to be concerned about funding projects that may not receive approval from the host country parliaments."

It's good to see signs of life and opposition to the Bush missile defense folly in the US--and in the very countries we claim to be protecting with this so-called shield.

Congress Moves Toward Contempt Citation

"Are congressional subpoenas to be honored or are they optional?" House Judiciary Committee chair John Conyers asked Thursday.

It was a rhetorical question.

Conyers, who has served on the Judiciary Committee long enough to remember the Watergate-era clashes between the executive and legislative branches that were supposed to have resolved that issue, knows that congressional subpoenas are backed up by the full power of the U.S. Constitution.

Unfortunately, President Bush is not so familiar with the dictates of the Constitution and the rule of law it outlines.

So, says Conyers, "Apparently we have to run this out."

"This" is the process by which former White House counsel Harriet Miers could be held in Contempt of Congress for failing to appear before a Judiciary Committee hearing to which she had been summoned to testify about the role she and other key figures in the administration played in efforts to politicize federal investigations and prosecutions.

Miers was to have testified Thursday. But she failed to appear after the president ordered his former aide to defy the committee.

Bush asserts that he has the authority -- via a dramatically inflated interpretation of his executive privilege -- to declare that his former counsel is not bound by the rules that require individuals who are subpoenaed by Congress to cooperate.

The president appears to believe that he has the authority to obstruct an investigation that could eventually come to focus on his action.

The chairwoman of the subcommittee, California Congresswoman Linda Sanchez, disagrees.

In what was the most dramatic moment yet in the clash between the Congress and the Bush White House, the Judiciary Committee's subcommittee on administrative law was gaveled into session Thursday by Sanchez.

Across from the committee members was an empty chair at the table from which Miers was to have testified.

Sanchez ruled Bush's assertion of executive privilege out of order, declaring, "Those claims are not legally valid. Ms. Miers is required pursuant to the subpoena to be here now."

The subcommittee then voted 7-5 to sustain Sanchez's ruling. Said Congressman Steve Cohen, D-Tennessee, "What we've got here is an empty chair. I mean, that is as contemptuous as anybody can be of the government."

Such contempt can have consequences.

Unless the president backs down, the full Judiciary Committee is expected to vote to hold Miers -- a longtime friend and legal adviser to Bush who the president nominated for the Supreme Court -- in contempt.

After that, the full House can vote to approve a Contempt of Congress citation. If a majority of House members favor issuing the citation, it becomes the responsibility of the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia to bring the matter before a federal grand jury for action to compel Miers to testify.

The issuance of a Contempt of Congress citation, which could come before the August recess, would set up a legal battle between the Congress and the White House more serious than any since the struggles that played out in 1973 and 1974 between Congress and former President Richard Nixon.

In that dispute, the courts ruled repeatedly and decisively in favor of the Congress.

Ultimately, the House Judiciary Committee would endorse an article of impeachment charging Nixon with failing to cooperate with Congress. Shortly afterward, Nixon resigned in disgrace.

As in the Watergare fight, Republicans on the Judiciary Committee tried Thursday to suggest that the rule of law did not apply a Republican president and his aides. "It's time for the majority to stop swaggering its power in this Congress," grumbled Utah Congressman Chris Cannon, the senior Republican on the subcommittee.

Cannon, who has never been accused of being a Constitutional scholar, claimed the courts would uphold the president's assertion of executive privilege.

In fact, White House lawyers have based Bush's unprecedented claim of an authority to declare his aides and appointees immune from congressional scrutiny not on precedents found in court rulings but on opinions outlined by administration lawyers. Jonathan Turley, the noted Constitutional scholar who teaches law at George Washington University, told the Associated Press that Bush is going significantly further than past presidents in refusing to cooperate with Congress. As such, he suggests, the administration "could not have picked worse ground" from which to try and defend a claim of executive privilege.

The fight is now about more than getting to the bottom of the of the U.S. Attorneys case, and the role of Miers and Bush in that scandal.

"If we do not enforce this subpoena," says Conyers, "no one will ever have to come before the Judiciary Committee again."

And the Constitutionally-defined system of checks and balances, which has served the Republic for the better part of 220 years, will become a relic of history.

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John Nichols' new book is THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders' Cure forRoyalism. Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson hails it as a "nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic [that] combines a rich examination of the parliamentary roots and past use ofthe 'heroic medicine' that is impeachment with a call for Democraticleaders to 'reclaim and reuse the most vital tool handed to us by thefounders for the defense of our most basic liberties.'"

FEMA: Still F’d Up

Written and Reported by Matthew Blake

Gulf Coast residents who've witnessed the incompetence of FEMA might find dark humor in the federal agency's unifying effect. Democratic and Republican Senators, Louisiana and New Orleans government leaders, and even former FEMA officials say the agency remains a major obstacle to Hurricane Katrina disaster recovery.

Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska upped the ante at a Senate Homeland Security subcommittee hearing Tuesday, decrying FEMA as fundamentally incapable of correctly spending and allocating the $110 billion dollars it was given by Congress to assist the Gulf. (In reality, only $26 billion was appropriated to rebuild Louisiana.) The Republican Senator compared the damage from Katrina to France and Germany after World War Two concluding, "You need a new Marshall Plan for this area, not just FEMA."

That comparison struck a chord with Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu, who convened the hearing. "You really hit the nail on the head comparing it to parts of Europe after World War Two," she said. The city's population is 60 percent of what it was before Katrina, murder rates have climbed to the deadliest in America and areas like the Lower Ninth Ward remain blighted and barren.

Stevens, one of the oldest and most conservative members of the Senate, would seem an unlikely champion of aggrieved New Orleans citizens. But he effectively conveyed both the magnitude of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita's devastation and the structural problems FEMA has encountered under the Bush Administration and the four year-old Department of Homeland Security.

Additional voices in the anti-FEMA chorus Tuesday included Mark Merritt, an assistant director at FEMA under Bill Clinton; Jeff Smith, the Louisiana governor's office executive director for homeland security and emergency preparedness, and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin. Nagin told the committee that, "There needs to be some consistency. Every two months we deal with a different FEMA representative. It's like we're always starting from scratch."

Example after example was given to illustrate how FEMA has not delivered promised funds. Witnesses were sharply critical of the agency's "project worksheets," the excessively bureaucratic and inefficient reimbursement program through which federal Katrina recovery money is rewarded to state and local government--and often delayed, if it arrives at all. "If we used project worksheets after World War Two, we'd still be rebuilding Germany today," Landrieu remarked.

For example, Kevin Davis, President of St. Tammany Parish in New Orleans, said one FEMA official gave the green light to a plan to clean up his devastated neighborhood, but then a new official was reassigned to the area and concluded that the worksheet's wording disqualified his Parish for funding.

"FEMA officials arbitrarily decided what they could and could not get done," he said. St. Tammany Parish is now suing the agency in federal court.

Such criticisms come a day after a House Homeland Security Committee report noting that about one-third of all top-level FEMA positions are currently unfilled. Landrieu conceded that ultimately "it's the private sector that will rebuild New Orleans." Yet "without basic government infrastructure" she said, the city will remain in rubble.