The Nation

Below the Minimum

For the third time in two weeks, Republican leaders in the House of Representatives will prevent a vote today on raising the minimum wage.

The House Appropriations Committee actually did pass an amendment to a labor and health spending bill by Steny Hoyer and George Miller on June 13 to raise the minimum wage to $7.25 an hour. Almost immediately, the Republican leadership shelved the bill indefinitely.

The next week, Hoyer offered the minimum wage amendment to a different spending bill. Of the seven Republicans who initially voted with Hoyer the week prior, five switched their votes and two, Reps. John Sweeney and Jo Ann Emerson, walked out of the room, missing the vote.

Democrats tried again to force a floor vote on the minimum wage, but the House Rules Committee blocked the amendment from being considered last night.

Has there ever been a better illustration of just how out of touch this Republican Congress is? Apparently Congress is too busy cutting the estate tax, banning flag-burning and shelving the Voting Rights Act to bother caring about working Americans.

The Senate has been no better. Last week the Senate voted down a raise, 52-46, eight short of the 60 needed. It was the eleventh time since 1998 that Senate Republicans have blocked a pay increase. Lawmaker annual pay has risen $30,000 since that time.

The minimum wage has been stuck at a paltry $5.15 an hour for the past nine years. That amounts to $10,712 a year. I'd like to see a Congressman or Senator survive on that.

In January, the annual Senate salary will rise to $170,000. Of course, many Senators are already millionaires, so that salary is really just a nice bonus.

According to the New York Times, the top 10 percent of society have a greater share of wealth that at any time since World War II. This Congress and President, more than any other before them, would truly make Herbert Hoover proud.

Cynical Manipulation

In a democracy, the first responsibility of a journalist is to get accurate information about what the government is doing to the people so that they can make appropriate decisions about what is done in their name. That's why the founders put an unequivocal freedom-of-the-press protection in the First Amendment to the Constitution, and its why Thomas Jefferson famously declared, "The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter."

Of course, there have been some limits on what information journalists share with the citizenry. It is generally agreed, for instance, that reporters ought not report in too much detail on troop movements in wartime, as the publication of such information could endanger soldiers and undermine military objectives.

So when the Washington press corps began reporting this week on leaked information about planning by U.S. commanders in Iraq to withdraw two of the 14 combat brigades stationed in that country by September of this year, it would not have been surprising if the stories had raised eyebrows among the more sensitive players in the Bush administration.

While this is hardly a classic example of "reporting on troop movements," it is an instance where the media is getting into quite a bit of detail about where U.S. troops will be positioned in the none-too-distant future. As an example, television networks are showing maps of the regions of Iraq from which U.S. troops might exit in relatively short order.

So what has been the reaction of a White House that is known to be on edge about leaks to leaks regarding the deployment of U.S. troops in coming months?

President Bush and White House Press Secretary Tony Snow have both ruminated on the rumors in some detail. Each has suggested that no decision has yet been made, and they have even detailed the standards that are being used to come to decisions about withdrawal.

The conversations have been easy going and White House reporters have felt no presidential fury.

Contrast that reaction to the response by the president, his aides and allies to reports in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the Wall Street Journal that the president has authorized federal agencies to monitor the banking transactions of private citizens.

Ostensibly, the monitoring is intended to track transfers of money by supposed terrorists. But the program, like many of the administration's other moves to monitor the conversations and business dealings of private individuals, has been implemented in secret, without the subpoenas that are traditionally required for such reviews, and in a manner designed to avoid the sort of independent governmental oversight that is supposed to prevent abuse.

Now, it would be ridiculous to think that Osama bin Laden or anyone else associated with al Qaeda would be naïve enough to think that they could transfer large amounts of money through regular banking channels without being found out. So the revelation of the monitoring could hardly be called a threat to the "war on terror" – at least, not by anyone who knows anything about dealing with terrorist networks.

Yet, President Bush went ballistic about reporting on the monitoring, telling White House reporters, "The disclosure of this program is disgraceful. We're at war with a bunch of people who want to hurt the United States of America. And for people to leak that program and for a newspaper to publish it does great harm to the United States of America."

Vice President Cheney was even blunter, saying, "Some of the press, particularly the New York Times, have made the job of defending against further terrorist attacks more difficult by insisting on publishing detailed information about vital national security programs."

Bush allies in Congress have even called for the prosecution of the New York Times for revealing to Americans the extent to which they are being spied upon.

So why is the Bush administration so freaked out about a leak regarding a spying program that could not possibly have come as news to any terrorists but that certainly might interest average Americans? And why isn't the president concerned about leaks regarding specific redeployments of troops in the near future?

There's no mystery.

The leak about spying on bank records will feed concerns about the extent that this administration has engaged in spying on citizens. That could be politically damaging.

On the other hand, the leak about planning for troop deployments – coming at a time when the majority of Americans say they want to see a plan for getting the U.S. out of Iraq – eases the political pressure on the president and his Republican allies.

What's the bottom line? The cynical Bush White House has always seen the "war on terror" as a political tool. The president and his allies – heeding the advice of White House political czar Karl Rove – regularly tailor their responses to new developments to benefit their domestic political fortunes while undermining the prospects of their political foes.

Leaks about plans for troop redeployment are fine with the president because they could help him and his congressional allies politically.

Leaks about the administration spying on citizens, on the other hand, are "disgraceful" because they could cause the president and his Republicans acolytes political harm.

It's Back

The last post I wrote about the estate tax was followed by a lively comment thread arguing the merits and meaning of a regulated economy. Even more importantly, it was also followed by a June 8 Senate vote (57 to 41) against permanent estate tax repeal. That was an important victory. But, somehow, there's going to soon be another vote on the estate tax. ("Like the ghoul in the horror movie that refuses to die," the Washington Post said.) Last week the House approved a proposal to sharply cut the estate tax that will cost roughly 75 percent as much as full repeal. The Senate is expected to vote on it this week, maybe even today.

According to experts, the vote should be extremely close. But the fact is that gutting the nation's most progressive tax would benefit less than one half of one percent of the country and would subtract, according to United For a Fair Economy (UFE), roughly 833 billion dollars from government coffers over the next decade. At a time of raging deficits and social spending cuts, it's the worst time imaginable to contemplate something like estate tax repeal. But then, as the New York Times editorialized, "The goal is not to pass good legislation, but to get this top priority for big-shot constituents nailed into law before the November elections produce a legislature that's more responsible on fiscal matters."

UFE, which is the group that discovered that 18 families worth a total of $185 billion have financed and coordinated the repeal campaign, sees Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray as the two key swing votes. Both voted against repeal in the last vote but they're apparently getting leaned on hard this time around. So UFE is urging people to contact Cantwell and Murray (especially Washingtonians) and implore them to hold firm against the moneyed interests seeking to concentrate wealth into even fewer hands. Ask them to oppose another huge tax break for multi-millionaires while the rest of the country suffers from breakdowns in infrastructure, housing and healthcare.

Here's UFE's suggested script:
"Don't cut the estate tax. Please vote ‘no' on the motion to proceed with consideration of HR 5638, and any other votes that sharply reduce the estate tax. And thank you for voting against repeal of the estate tax." Add a personal message about who you are and why you oppose cutting the estate tax, such as, "I am a small business person, and it is a myth that the estate tax hurts small businesses," or "I am wealthy and will pay this tax, and I believe it's an important part of our progressive tax system." Leave a full message and your number if you do not reach the staffperson.

**Call Senator Cantwell's DC office, 202-224-3441. Leave a short message about supporting the estate tax with the front desk, then ask to speak with Rachel Nuzum, the Leg. Asst. on Taxes. If you do not talk with her, please send one email with your support to michael_Meehan@cantwell.senate.gov, angela_becker-dippmann@cantwell.senate.gov, and rachel_nuzum@cantwell.senate.gov.

**Call Senator Murray's DC office, 202-224-2621. Leave a short message about supporting the estate tax with the front desk, then ask to speak with Josh Jacobs, the Leg. Asst. on Taxes. If you do not talk with him, please send one email with your support to lesley_turner@murray.senate.gov, rick_desimone@murray.senate.gov, and joshua_Jacobs@murray.senate.gov.

Don't forget to email your own Senators as well. Click here for contact info for your elected reps, and check out UFE's Estate Tax Action Center for a host of related resources.

Senate Takes on Prewar WMD Controversy--Sort of

Representative Walter Jones was out of place when he sat down at the dais in a committee room in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Monday. He had come to participate in an unofficial hearing being held by the Senate Democratic Policy Committee. And Jones is neither a Senator nor a Democrat. He is a hawkish Republican from North Carolina. But he asked one of the most poignant questions of the afternoon.

Before him were a panel of veterans of the intelligence wars that had raged before the invasion of Iraq: retired Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff of Secretary of State Colin Powell; Paul Pillar, former national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia; Carl Ford, former assistant secretary of state for intelligence and research; and Wayne White, a former Iraq analyst at the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research.

Each man had offered an explanation of what had gone wrong with the prewar intelligence, and generally they excoriated the Bush administration. Wilkerson noted that "our national leaders had used intelligence in a careless manner and that there should be "some kind of accountability" for that. Pillar accused the Bush White House of having turned the "textbook model of intelligence-policy relations...upside down." He explained: "Instead of intelligence being used to inform policy, it was used primarily to justify a decision already made." Ford blasted the entire intelligence community for turning out lousy analysis. He maintained that "we" got the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq's WMD "wrong because we aren't very good at analysis....Unfortunately it represents one of our better analytical efforts." And White said that policymakers--including Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Condoleezza Rice--routinely "turned a blind eye to intelligence inconsistent with their Middle East agenda."

The witnesses went over many of the known horror stories of the prewar intelligence battles: the aluminum tubes cited by the White House as proof Saddam Hussein was developing nuclear weapons (which actually were for rocket launchers); the mobile biological weapons labs (which actually were for producing hydrogen for weather balloons); Saddam's alleged training of al Qaeda in biological and chemical weapons (which was sourced to an al Qaeda commander who recanted his story).

So after all this, Representative Jones, who had voted to grant Bush the authority to invade Iraq, had a question. He noted that "my heart has ached ever since I found out that the intelligence...was flawed and possibly manipulated." He said that he had written letters to relatives of every American soldier who has died in Iraq--8000 letters so far. "What perplexes me," he said, "is how in the world could [intelligence] professionals see what was happening and nobody speak out?"

It was an important question. Within the intelligence community, there were professionals who knew that critical parts of the Bush administration's case for war--which relied primarily on the argument that Saddam posed a direct WMD threat to the United States--had serious holes. Those who dissented internally did not go public--they worked within the system. But the system did not work. The White House made certain not to pay attention to any of the dissents, and it did not share the disputes with the voters. Why had the entire intelligence community allowed Bush and his aides to get away with this?

The panelists did not get a chance to respond to Jones, for he kept on talking--right over that query--and he segued to another subject, asking how it could be that the neoconservative hawks in the Bush administration gained so much power and had more influence than "you, the professionals."

Wilkerson fielded the question, first noting that as a Republican he was "embarrassed" that Jones was the only GOPer to attend the hearing (which was open to legislators of both parties). Then Wilkerson replied, "I'll answer you with three words: the vice president." That seemed to satisfy Jones. Neither he nor Wilkerson mentioned the two-word answer: the president.

The hearing--chaired by Senator Byron Dorgan--was the Senate Democrats' effort to examine an issue that the Republican-controlled Congress has so far ignored: how the White House handled and represented the prewar intelligence. The House and Senate intelligence committees did investigate the quality of the prewar intelligence and slammed the intelligence community for botching much of it. But they have not yet confronted how Bush officials characterized the intelligence and used it to promote a war. The Senate intelligence committee was supposed to probe this topic and release a report, but it has dragged its heels and watered down its investigation by tacking on an examination of statements made by Democrats about Iraq and WMDs going back to the early 1990s. The Republicans' obvious gotcha goal is to show that Democrats, just like Bush and his advisers, had, at various times, said that they believed that Iraq had WMDs. But no Democrat launched a war on such assertions.

The Bush administration overstated the overstated intelligence--on Iraq's WMDs and its supposed ties to al Qaeda. Yet every investigation to date has ducked the issue. The Senate Democrats cannot conduct a full-fledged investigation on their own. For instance, they could not compel administration officials to attend this hearing. They could not subpoena records. The most they could do is invite those willing to appear and make a point.

The points were sharply made. Wilkerson called Powell's now-infamous presentation to the UN Security Council--in which practically everything Powell asserted was wrong--"the lowest point of my professional life." Pillar noted that the intelligence community "never judged that there was anything close to an alliance" between Iraq and al Qaeda. Ford bemoaned that his own analysts at the State Department failed to persuade Powell not to use the aluminum tubes charge in his UN speech.

There were revealing moments at the event. But the press attendance was not great. After all, the session could be dismissed as not a real hearing. Only three Democratic senators were there for most of it (Dorgan, Jeff Bingaman, and Dianne Feinstein). And it is three years too late. The war happened. And now the White House and its allies dismiss talk of how the war started as unproductive given the present-day challenges. But as Wilkerson noted, accountability still awaits those who called it wrong--and those who misused the intelligence.

Supreme Court v Democracy

The Washington Post has a riveting article today on the death of legislative reform. The House and Senate haven't even tried to reconcile the sham lobbying "reform" bill approved by both chambers this Spring. Rampant corruption seems to have had little effect on the behavior in Washington.

"There's a belief among my colleagues that our constituents are not concerned," said John McCain.

Apparently, neither is the Supreme Court. Today the nation's highest court overturned a Vermont law mandating strict caps on the amount of money politicians can spend and raise during a campaign. The Vermont law--along with clean money initiatives in Arizona and Maine--could have been a model for breaking the hold of money on politics.

But by a verdict of 6-3, the Supreme Court further set back the cause of reform.

"The findings made by the Vermont legislature on the pernicious effect of the nonstop pursuit of money are significant," Justice David Souter wrote in a dissenting opinion.

"I am firmly persuaded that the Framers would have been appalled by the impact of modern fundraising practices on the ability of elected officials to perform their public responsibilities," added Justice John Paul Stevens, concurring with Souter.

Souter and Stevens rightly noted that what ails our contemporary politics can be summed up in one word: money. The solution is publicly financed elections, which 74 percent of voters support, according a new poll released by Public Campaign.

According to Lake Research Partners and Bellwether Research, "82 percent of voters believe it is likely, as a result of publicly financed elections, that candidates will win on their ideas, not because of the money they raise, and 81% believe it is likely politicians will be more accountable to voters instead of large contributors."

Today, the will of the people was of little concern to the Roberts court.

"A Conspiracy Against the Public"

"People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public..." wrote Adam Smith in 1776. Four new class action suits allege that folks running hospitals are doing just that: conspiring to depress nurses' wages, even though, as I've written before, raising them could help address a nurse shortage which threatens public health.

Filed yesterday in Albany, Chicago, Memphis and San Antonio, the suits allege that hospitals in those cities are exchanging detailed information about nurses' pay, so that each can keep labor costs low without suffering a competitive disadvantage. A lead lawyer on the suit, Dan Small of Cohen, Milstein, Hausfeld and Toll (a large corporate firm whose deep pockets are backing the sex discrimination suit against Wal-Mart) tells me that the suits are based on interviews with current and former employees of these hospitals, who were privy to meetings and discussions in which pay information was shared.

In each of these markets, raising the wages could have helped to alleviate a nurse shortage. Instead, understaffing and low pay is leading to widespread burnout. Yesterday I spoke with one of the named plaintiffs, Conise Dillard, of Cordova, Tennessee, an RN who worked for Baptist Memorial Hospital in Memphis. Conise painted a disturbing picture of the consequences of a nursing shortage. She worked the night shift, handling thirteen patients at a time all by herself, because "the hospital was not able to send us more nurses." Conise explained that more patients are admitted during the night, more die during the night, and pain levels are higher, so the understaffing made it almost impossible to adequately care for everyone. "I'd be crying my eyes out at the end of my shift," she recalls. With so many patients, if one needs all your attention, "you just have to pray that the others are holding their own." Conise adds, "Sometimes you would have a patient go, expire, and you didn't anticipate it because you have so many."

The lawsuits are based in part on evidence uncovered by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU)'s Nurse Alliance. Given the current political climate, no one wants to say publicly that the legal actions are part of an organizing strategy, but let's hope that nurses in these cities do organize for better pay and conditions.

With three children, Conise did need to make more money. (Memphis hospitals are charged with conspiring to underpay nurses about $14,000 yearly.) But she also quit her hospital job because understaffing made it impossible to care for sick people, which she feels is her "calling." Her description of her night shift should strike fear into the heart of anyone who might ever find themselves in a hospital bed. That is to say, all of us.

Blind Loyalty

I returned from traveling over the weekend to find Richard's Coulter-esque attack on my credibility. Actually, it was quite civil. Except for the line about "pom-poms." For the record, Richard, I prefer face paint and flags.

As I noted in my last post, I've reported over and over about the Democrats confused and often cynical posturing on the war in Iraq. I agree that I don't think the Democrats are yet an antiwar party--nor am I sure they ever will be.

But the point of my post was that Democratic "divisions" pale in comparison to the Republican Party's blind loyalty to Bush's never-ending war.

There are Democrats who want to leave Iraq, either quickly or according to a phased timetable. There are Democrats who want to leave but don't quite know how. There are a handful of Democrats who want to stay indefinitely. And there are some Democrats who don't seem to believe anything at all. You can guess who I'm referring to.

But, with three or four exceptions, there is only one type of Republican: stay-the-course. Sure, sensible Republicans like Chuck Hagel occasionally object to the war on the Sunday talk shows. But when it comes time to vote against Bush's policy, the Hagels of the world fall back in line.

The Levin-Reed amendment, on the other hand, represented the first time that most Democrats voted on record in favor of withdrawing troops. Though not as bold as John Kerry and Russ Feingold's proposal to leave within a year, Levin and Reed's approach marked a significant shift in the debate. One that most of the press, including Richard, either downplayed or ignored.

As I wrote earlier, most Democrats--and voters--would prefer that Democrats adopt a strong, unified message on the war. But until that happens, debate is better than blind loyalty.

Rumsfeld Must Go

Amid the Generals Revolt against Rumsfeld; union officials representing 200,000 civilian defense workers calling for his resignation; and scores of Democrats as well as a good number of Republicans demanding his ouster…Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's role in a $30 billion Pentagon procurement scandal --"The largest defense procurement scandal in recent decades," according to the Washington Post--nearly slipped through the cracks.

As the Post reports, it seems the Pentagon nearly squandered "$30 billion leasing several hundred new tanker aircraft that its own experts had decided were not needed." The purchase was stopped in 2004 by a Senate investigation that revealed it was "viewed inside the Pentagon as a politically tinged bailout for Boeing."

Although procurement makes up one-fifth of the Defense Department's $410 billion budget (not including Iraq and Afghanistan); and the $30 billion tanker deal was rife with "widespread violations of Pentagon and government-wide procurement rules"…. Rumsfeld told investigators, "I don't remember approving it. But I certainly don't remember not approving it, if you will."

This from a man who published Rumsfeld's Rules, which included this admonition: "Be precise – a lack of precision is dangerous."

Dangerous indeed. Especially when the rebuilding of Iraq and Afghanistan requires an unprecedented commitment of resources and a GOP Congress is doing nothing but cutting taxes on the richest, and shafting an increasingly squeezed middle class.

But what's $30 billion here or there (aside from being enough to provide health care to seven million people, according to the National Priorities Project)? Rumsfeld made it clear to investigators that he "does wars, not defense procurement."

William D. Hartung, senior fellow at the World Policy Institute, has a decidedly different take: "Under Donald Rumsfeld's tenure, weapons costs have skyrocketed, and one Pentagon official has been convicted for favoring Boeing in a major weapons deal. Rumsfeld claims he can't recall if he approved the actions that have led to this state of affairs. For his failure to hold weapons contractors accountable as military spending tops $500 billion per year, Rumsfeld should resign."

And so, five years into the Bush Administration, with the Pentagon's own inspector general and the Government Accountability Office characterizing the Defense Department's procurement system as "broken and dysfunctional," we have arrived at yet another reason Rumsfeld Must Go.

We might not be able to divine souls in an instant as George Bush boasts of being able to do, but we have had ample opportunity to discover what Donald Rumsfeld is all about. To say the American people deserve better is as understated as saying the rationale to invade Iraq was somewhat flawed.

Get him out.

Dirty Money

The New York Times devoted a lot of ink to the BushAdministration's practice of secretly rummaging through internationalbanking transactions in pursuit of terrorists. But, frankly, I had ahard time grasping the scandal.

After all, the Treasury announced it was going to do something likethis after 9/ll -- a legitimate, legal method of discovering thenetworks financing terrorist cells.

So I called an old friend and source for elucidation. Jack Blum is alegendary investigator and lawyer in Washington, who for decades hastenaciously uncovered the global flows of dirty money. Jack confirmedmy hunch. He was outraged, but not by the Times revelations.

The scandal here is not government over-reach, he tells me. Thescandal is the pitiful reluctance of this administration (and othersbefore it) to get serious about the problem.

Bankers, Blum explained, "have fended off every conceivable rule thatwould really be effective. Why are we pandering to them if we say weare in such a desperate situation?"

The political influence of bankers tops all other sectors, I learned asa young reporter. Regardless of party or ideology, politicians seektheir friendship. So the United States has created a truly bizarrebanking code that legalizes--and keeps secret--vast flows ofill-gotten gains. For what purpose? Terrorist financing, yes, butthat business is dwarfed by the drug trade profits, insider looting ofcorporations, offshore tax evasion, securities fraud, plain-vanillafraud and other uses.

The American dollar is lingua fria for illegal commerce andCongress protects the sanctity of its privacy, even allows it thecriminal proceeds to flow freely through government-chartered andregulated financial institutions. This shady business is not aninconsequential profit center for banks (a bit like pornography forMicrosoft).

The monitoring system described by the Times seems unexceptional toBlum. Indeed, his complaint is that it's so narrowly focused that itmostly harvests empty information. "Meanwhile, the biggest purveyorof terrorist money, as everyone knows, are accounts in Saudi Arabia,"Blum observes. "Nobody will deal with it because the Saudis own half ofAmerica." An exaggeration, but you get his point.

Blum knows the offshore outposts where US corporations and wealthyAmericans dodge taxes or US regulatory laws. Congress could shut themtomorrow if it chose. Instead, it keeps elaborating new loopholes thatenable the invention of exotic new tax shelters for tainted fortunes. The latest to flourish, he says, are shell corporations-- freelychartered by states.

"The GAO says this device is being used for money laundering byeveryone else in the world," Blum says. "Congress ought to startthere." He is not holding his breath.

My point is, individual privacy deserves vigorous defense against thegovernment. But who is the victim when the government itself shieldsthe criminals and their bankerly accomplices from exposure?.