Some ideas are just so good that once you hear them explained, you wonder, Why hasn't anyone done this already? Avaaz is just such an idea, a new MoveOn-style group that will mobilize members all over the world to take action on global issues. Avaaz -- the word means "voice" in Urdu, Hindi, Farsi and several other languages -- launches its first campaign today, with a petition and TV adon climate change. The TV spot -- the first genuinely global political TV ad -- shows world leaders snoozing in their bedrooms, while climate disaster rages outside; it begins airing in Washington, D.C. today, and over the next few weeks will show in Paris, Berlin and Delhi. Avaaz begins with 900,000 members (combining the international lists of its two founding organizations, MoveOn and Res Publica, another global citizens' group), and will operate on four continents. The petition urges the global leaders to "set binding global targets" for carbon emissions.
Today I met two of the creative minds behind this project, executive director Ricken Patel and campaign director Tom Perriello (the only American on the team). Patel explains that Avaaz emerged out of "a sense that a real global consciousness is emerging." Founders are also excited by the idea of using technology to mobilize a global citizenry, with not only the Internet, but text-messaging proving to be a startlingly effective means of political communication, especially in the Third World. Of the team behind Avaaz, Perriello observes, "Most of us have policy or diplomacy backgrounds, as well as activist, so the hope is that we will be doing these things at key diplomatic moments." For instance, the climate change campaign is launching just in time for the G8 meeting.
Avaaz also expects to take up Middle East politics (war in Iraq, the need for an Israel-Palestine peace process, potential war with Iran, and Guantanamo), and global poverty. Like climate change, these are issues on which world leaders seem way out of step with most citizens, who are craving sensible solutions. "There is such a huge gap," says Patel, "between the world most people want, and the world we've got." Avaaz ambitiously aspires to narrow that gap.
Now everything's a little upside down, as a matter of fact the wheels have stopped,
What's good is bad, what's bad is good, you'll find out when you reach the top
You're on the bottom. --Bob Dylan, "Idiot Wind"
Something is wrong with this picture: pharmaceutical giant Pfizer made nearly $15 billion last year. It recently gave a $180 million payout to former CEO Hank McKinnell. But in the last two months the company has announced it will lay off 10,000 workers in manufacturing, research, and sales.
"Incremental change is not enough," new CEO Jeffrey Kindler told the New York Times. "Fundamental change is imperative, and it must happen now."
And so the Brooklyn plant where Pfizer was born will be closed--600 jobs gone. Research sites in Michigan will be closed--2,400 jobs gone. Twenty percent of American sales positions--2,200 jobs. But if I were a betting woman--and I am – I'd bet "fundamental change" won't touch the lobbying operation which is dedicated to preventing fundamental change to the untenable way we do health care in America.
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, in 2005 there were 2,326 registered pharmaceutical lobbyists. That amounts to 4.3 lobbyists for every member of Congress, and the drug companies spent $146,783,853 on their efforts. And the Center for Public Integrity reports that between 1998-2005 the industry spent over $675 million on federal lobbying with the top twenty corporations and trade groups accounting for 70 percent of that spending.
Throw in another $133 million in federal and state campaign contributions during that time period (nearly 69 percent went to Republicans) and some key jobs offered to members and their staffs, and it's easy to see how Big Pharma gets such a stellar return on its lobbying investment (i.e. tens of billions of dollars in additional profits; a ban on the reimportation of cheaper drugs from Canada; and barring Medicare from negotiating bulk drug prices for seniors.) This is great news for them, and god-awful news for the rest of us who'd like to see a sane drug policy… and the Pfizer workers in Brooklyn, Michigan, and Omaha who might like a stake in the wealth they helped to create rather than becoming just another statistic in another round of brutal layoffs.
Here's some more upside-down thinking in an industry supposedly devoted to our health and well--being, as well as the bottom line: according to the Center for Public Integrity, the industry annually spends nearly twice as much on marketing as it does on research and development. In 2004, for example, eleven major companies reported spending close to $100 billion on marketing and $50 billion on R&D (Pfizer spent nearly $17 billion on advertising and under $8 billion on R&D). Meanwhile, the US government (taxpayers) supports R&D more than any other western industrialized government through tax breaks and subsidies. But drug prices here remain higher than any where else in the world. Go figure.
States have begun to push back on the skyrocketing drug prices and sweetheart deals for Big Pharma, with legislative proposals that include negotiating for bulk purchasing prices, mandating rebates for residents who don't have prescription drug coverage, and promoting use of generics. Maybe that explains why the industry is amping up its state lobbying efforts. The Center for Public Integrity reports $44 million in spending on lobbying state governments in 2003 and 2004, as well as $8 million in campaign contributions during that time. (Because some states have minimal disclosure requirements the actual figures might be significantly higher.)
And the state lobbying effort is working. "We are being backed up and squashed by the pharmaceutical industry money," said Massachusetts state Senator Mark Montigny, who chaired the National Legislative Association on Prescription Drug Prices in 2005. "They have killed lots and lots and lots of legislation in Massachusetts and across the country."
Connecticut state Senator Edith Prague added, "They kill everything when it comes to the bottom line…. We can't get anything done because of [lobbying by] Pfizer, Squibb and Bayer."
As Big Pharma continues to reap huge profits, pay lobbyists lavishly, and discard workers who have helped it reach the top, it's clear the health care business has hit bottom when it comes to striking a balance between concern for the bottom line and concern for human health and well being. That's one of the reasons why over 75 percent of Americans want universal coverage and an army of lobbyists is primed to preserve the status quo.
Need proof that George W. Bush is not planning to withdraw US troops from Iraq on his watch? Just look at his latest budget.
The Bush Administration will ask Congress for $100 billion for Iraq and Afghanistan this year--on top of the $70 billion already allocated--and $145 billion for 2008. Why ask for the money if you're not planning to use it?
Administration officials, according to the Washington Post, "warned that even more money will probably will be needed." The Los Angeles Times says the military wants "even larger defense budgets."
Are you kidding me?
The costs of Iraq and Afghanistan aren't even included in the $481 billion the Pentagon demands for 2008, a 10 percent raise over this year. Total these figures up and Bush is asking for roughly $745 billion in defense spending, a higher number, when adjusted for inflation, than the entire cost of the Vietnam War.
Just pause and consider the size of that number. Three-quarters of a trillion dollars and Osama bin Laden is still at large, the Taliban are regrouping in Afghanistan and the US military is stuck in a civil war in Iraq.
"We have the largest Pentagon budget since World War II, but we are losing to an opponent in Iraq that spends less over an entire year than what we spend in one day," says Winslow Wheeler, a longtime defense expert at the Center for Defense Information.
Four defense analysts at the Security Policy Working Group recently awarded the government low or failing grades on virtually every aspect of the budget--use of nation's resources (D), affordability (D), realism (D) and transparency (F). On only one criteria, advertising, did they award at A+, "for the Pentagon managing to convince Congress that the world's largest defense budget is too small."
The question now is whether this Congress will take the bait?
As the Senate struggles even to open debate on a non-binding – translation: meaningless – resolution expressing frustration with President Bush's plan to surge 21,500 more U.S. troops into Iraq, state legislators across the country are telling Congress to embrace its constitutionally-defined duty to check and balance an out-of-control executive.
With encouragement from the Progressive States Network and activists across the country, members of at least 22 state legislatures have introduced resolutions urging Congress to use its authority to prevent the escalation of a war that should not have been fought in the first place. The resolutions that have been introduced generally declare that: "the Congress should pass legislation prohibiting the President from spending taxpayer dollars on an escalation in Iraq unless he first seeks Congressional approval."
This is a relatively mild intervention at a time when most Americans oppose not just the president's "surge" proposal but the war itself. What the legislators are suggesting, however, is that a divided Congress must, at the very least, act to prevent the escalation of a war that has killed thousands of Americans and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, that has made Americans at home and abroad less safe and that has emptied the US treasury of funds that could pay for health care, education and other needed programs in the states.
There will be those who suggest that state and local officials have no place in federal debates. But PSN leaders, citing past moves by states to add their voices to debates over trade policy, argue that the legislative resolutions on the "surge" issue can and should play a vital role on convincing Congress to act.
"States have the power and authority to speak out on issues that will impact them and their citizens," says PSN executive director Joel Barkin. "An escalation in Iraq would cripple our already over-extended guard units, threatening readiness at home."
Barkin's found plenty of agreement for that view in state capitols around the country. So far, PSN is tracking resolutions in Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, New Jersey, New York, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, Texas, Vermont, Washington and West Virginia.
The moves by state legislators come as city officials across the country are stepping into the debate over the diversion of precious resources to an unwise and unnecessary war. Two weeks ago, the Minneapolis, Minnesota, city council passed a Bring the Troops Home Resolution, making it the 274th community to endorse an exit strategy as part of the Cities for Peace campaign organized by the Institute for Policy Studies' Cities for Progress initiative.
The Cities for Peace campaign, an outgrowth of a pre-war push to get local governments to weigh in on Iraq, began long before the president made his "surge" proposal in January.
The new effort to get state legislators to pass anti-escalation resolutions began several weeks ago. In a PSN-organized conference call with legislators and activists, Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy, who had just proposed legislation that would require the president to attain congressional approval for any move to send more troops to Iraq, said that states should weigh in on the "surge" issue.
Kennedy suggested that members of Congress can be prodded by the states, noting that moves by states to increase the minimum wage has played a role in forcing the US House and Senate to address the issue.
States can do the same on the war, explained Kennedy.
PSN answered the call, using its website to encourage citizens to contact state legislators and urge them to speak out against the surge. More than 10,000 did. And the numbers are expected to rise quickly, as PSN will join MoveOn, True Majority and the Women Legislators' Lobby are preparing to launch a national drive to build citizen support for the state-based anti-escalation resolutions.
The anti-war surge from below comes in conjunction with a broader Americans against Escalation in Iraq campaign, which has won backing the Service Employers International Union (SEIU), US Action, Move On, Win Without War, Vote Vets, Center for American Progress, Campaign for America's Future and United States Student Association.
Americans Against Escalation plans to launch a multi-million-dollar campaign in up to two dozen states with the stated purpose of creating "a firestorm of grass-roots mobilization (to insist that Congress stand up to the President and insist on a policy which responsibly brings our troops home."
The point, explains former Congressman Tom Andrews, the Maine Democrat who serves as Win Without War's national director, is to prevent George Bush from steering the United States deeper into the Iraq quagmire.
"From the outset, the Bush administration's Iraq policy has been rooted in denial and deception and carried out with a lethal combination of arrogance, ignorance and incompetence," says Andrews. "When you find yourself in a hole, the first principle is to stop digging."
John Nichols' latest book is THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders' Cure forRoyalism.
Within the highly wired world of the urban Middle East, the latest and most potent means of political communication are short videos that are disseminated either via YouTube or from cellphone to cellphone.
I'm writing this from Egypt. Everyone here agrees that the video images of the hanging of Saddam Hussein played a huge role in stirring up anti-US and also anti-Shiite feelings among many of the Sunni Muslims who make up the majority of the Arab world's people.
Now, a well-known Kuwaiti singer called Shams has come out with a new 5-minute video called Ahlan! Ezayek? ("Hi! How are you"), which is a hard-hitting anti-Bush satire. She energetically sings and performs a well-known Egyptian popular song of romantic repudiation. "Hi! How are you... You think you're so great? I never want to see you again!" while hamming it up with a dizzying array of props representing aspects of Bush's policy in the Middle East. And yes, that includes Washington's "information" policies, too, with repeated visual references to newspaper stories and to round-table type TV talk-shows...
I've remarked before on the complex relationship between pornography and war. In this video-- which was apparently shot in Cairo and used remarkably high production values-- Shams does her own mocking (and I would say, extremely feminist) riff on that relationship... She sashays provocatively up to a cardboard image of Bush at the "presidential" podium before she takes over the podium herself... She stands dancing and primping in a sand desert in front of huge letters spelling out "DEMOCRACY" before hitting into the sand various heavily armed US soldiers undertaking operations all around her... She wanders with a "lovelorn" look around a sound-studio full of (male) talking heads hung from puppets' strings around a table, and being manipulated by members of the Bush administration before, with a wicked smile, she snips the string of one of the puppets. (The string/rope left swinging there at the end is an eery visual reminder -- same lighting and all-- of the videos of the Saddam execution.)
You have to see how she blows the blond toupee off the head of an ageing Arab male journo, provocatively fans herself with the card holding her "detainee number" as she stands in a police line-up, or disports herself langorously along the top of the large letters "GUANTANAMO" laid out in front of (an image of) the White House...
In the fast-paced denouement of the video a cowboy-hatted Bush propositions her on top of a castle built in the sand in the form of an economist's graph showing, I think, oil-price rises. She swats Bush off the castle (more Saddam hanging imagery here), then throws down on top of him a stone block that turns out to be an "E" that is rapidly joined by all the other letters of the word "LIBERTY"... which is then itself immediately placed behind iron bars... Finally, from a fortune-teller Shams learns that her future is to walk happily off into the sunset with... Naji al-Ali's iconic, Kuwaiti-born child, Handala. (And if you don't know who Handala is, or what he represents, then you probably need to find out. Hint: "old-fashioned" pan-Arab nationalism... )
Anyway, if you have a fast internet connection, check out the video and see what you think.
Afghanistan remains the forgotten war and yet, in an eerie lockstep with Iraq, it seems to be following a distinctly Bush administration-style path toward "the gates of hell." While almost all attention in Washington and the U.S. media has been focused on the President's new "surge" plan in Iraq -- is it for 21,000 or 50,000 American troops? Just how astronomical will the bills be? Just how strong will Congressional opposition prove? Just how bad, according to American intelligence, is the situation? -- Afghanistan is experiencing its own quiet surge plan: more U.S. (and NATO) troops, more military aid, more reconstruction funds, more fighting, more casualties, heavier weaponry, more air power, more bad news, and predictions of worse to come.
The repetitive and dismal headlines, often tucked away in back pages, tell the tale:
On the fighting:
"Group: Over 1,000 Afghan civilians killed" ("More than 1,000 civilians were killed in Afghanistan in 2006, most of them as a result of attacks by the Taliban and other anti-government forces in the country's unstable south, a rights group said Tuesday…")
"No foreseeable end to assaults facing Royal Marines in Helmand" ("Another day, another attack. Yesterday the barrage of mortars, rockets and rifle fire began raining down on the British base at Kajaki at just after six in the morning…")
"Taleban forces retake town" ("Taleban forces in southern Afghanistan have taken control of a town which British troops had pulled out of after a peace deal with local elders…")
On calls for intensification of the military struggle:
On the repetitively dismal tale of "reconstructing" Afghanistan and on drugs:
"Afghan rebuilding hit by ‘violence and waste'" ("The international body established to co-ordinate Afghanistan's reconstruction effort marked its one-year anniversary on Wednesday by admitting it was struggling to make progress in the face of rising violence, waste and poor administration.")
"AFGHANISTAN: Girls and women traded for opium debts" ("On 4 November 2006, Nasima, 25, a member of a local women's council, grabbed the AK-47 from the policeman guarding the council meeting in the Grishk district of southern Helmand province and killed herself. She had had enough of the daily beatings by her husband. Like many other women in Helmand, Nasima was given away by her family in 2005. Her father owed a huge amount to an opium dealer…")
On predictions of more and worse to come (with faint hopes of better sooner or later):
"New U.S. commander in Afghanistan expects rise in suicide attacks in 2007" ("The incoming commander of U.S. troops in Afghanistan said Monday he expects Taliban militants to launch more suicide attacks this year than in 2006, when militants set off a record 139 such bombings…")
"NATO general expects offensive, says Taliban beaten" ("The Taliban will launch an offensive within months once the snows melt, but they are effectively a beaten force, according to the outgoing head of NATO forces in Afghanistan...")
So goes the repetitive, if ever deepening, tragedy of our other war- and under such headlines lie massive tragedies that seldom make the headlines anywhere like the plight of Afghanistan's "liberated" women (as recently vividly described by former humanitarian aid worker and author of Kabul in Winter, Ann Jones), who remain "by custom and practice, the property of men," capable of being "traded and sold like any commodity," despite all the hoopla about their improved status offered by the Bush administration.
In the case of Afghanistan, the question remains: What ever made the top officials of the Bush administration think that they could succeed in conquering and occupying Afghanistan, when so many others from Alexander the Great to the imperial British and the imperial Russians failed so dismally at the same task?
If there was ever a time to embrace Robert M. "Fighting Bob" La Follette's theory that compromise undermines progress it is now.
The pioneering progressive reformer of the first decades of the twentieth century never fell for the calculus that said taking half a loaf was better than nothing. "I believe that half a loaf is fatal whenever it is accepted at the sacrifice of the basic principle sought to be attained," argued the senator who led the dissents against Woodrow Wilson's world war, to great complaint at the time but to such eventual praise that he would be ranked by the Senate itself as one of its five greatest members. "Half a loaf, as a rule, dulls the appetite, and destroys the keenness of interest in attaining the full loaf. A halfway measure never fairly tests the principle and may utterly discredit it. It is certain to weaken, disappoint, and dissipate public interest. Concession and compromise are almost always necessary in legislation, but they call for the most thorough and complete mastery of the principles involved, in order to fix the limit beyond which not one hair's breadth can be yielded."
In the Senate where La Follette served so honorably and so effectively for two decades, his successors are not even peddling half a loaf today. They are holding up a piece of crust and trying to convince us that they are serving a feast.
Almost four years into a war that should never have been fought in the first place, with all the evidence that anyone could ask for pointing to the fact that things are getting worse rather than better, senators are trying to muster the will to support a non-binding expression of mild distaste for President Bush's troop surge fantasy.
Non-binding resolutions are the political equivalent of room-temperature tap water served up for toasts at a wedding reception. They beg the question: "What the hell are these people thinking?"
If senators wanted to tell Bush he was wrong, they should have moved a non-binding resolution the day he announced his scheme to surge 21,5OO additional troops into a quagmire of his own creation. Then, they should have gotten down to the serious business of obeying their sworn oaths to uphold a Constitution that requires them to check and balance an errant executive.
Instead, the Senate has dithered for the best part of a month and come up with something worse than a simple objection.
In order to forge a bipartisan alliance, Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Carl Levin, D-Michigan, and the ranking Republican on the committee, Virginia's John Warner, have written a resolution that, in order to allow a few scared solons to place some rhetorical distance between themselves and a failed president, threatens to put the Senate on record as favoring more aggressive fighting in some parts of Iraq and opposing any effort to use the power of the purse to constrain the madness of our current King George.
One senator has objected to the Levin-Warner resolution for precisely the right reasons.
That senator, perhaps not surprisingly, represents not only La Follette's home state of Wisconsin but La Follette's progressive tradition.
"I oppose the weak Warner-Levin resolution as currently written because it misunderstands the situation in Iraq and shortchanges our national security interests," says Russ Feingold, the Wisconsin Democrat who has emerged as the chamber's most consistent critic of the war. "The resolution rejects redeploying U.S. troops and supports moving a misguided military strategy from one part of Iraq to another. The American people have rejected the President's Iraq strategy and it's time for Congress to end our military involvement in this war. We must redeploy our troops from Iraq so that we can focus on the global threats that face us."
Feingold, who has fought an essential struggle to get the Congress to recognize its responsibility as a coequal branch of government to check the president, says that the Senate can and should force the President to safely redeploy U.S. troops out of Iraq by enacting legislation that would prohibit further funding of military operations in that country six months after its passage.
Bob La Follette would warn today's senators not to let the crusty Levin-Warner compromise dull the appetite and destroy the keenness of interest in attaining the full loaf that is Feingold's Iraq Redeployment Act of 2OO7. La Follette would, as well, tell today's citizens not to forget or forgive those senators who, when the need to bring the troops home was so evident, chose to engage in non-binding theatrics rather than to act as defenders of the Constitution and the republic for which it was written.
John Nichols' latest book is THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders' Cure forRoyalism.
Last weekend's peace march in Washington was short a few bodies. A plane-load of potential marchers was held up by British Airways on our way back from the World Social Forum in Nairobi. No, we weren't detained, just delayed, by an engine failure discovered late at night on the runway.
There we were, packed, pumped up, and eager for action after a week of talk when the pilot came on the sound system and announced that one of the jumbo jet's four engines had failed and our departure was put off for a day.
We missed the marching, but I've been thinking about our engine failure as I've read the coverage of the demonstration. Turnout wasn't bad. Organizers estimate the crowd at half a million. But after ten days in Kenya, the contrast in priorities between the peace agenda in DC and that in Nairobi couldn't be starker. Dig as I might into the reporting on Saturday's event, I can't find any serious mention of the US intervention in Somalia. While many US activists are quoted talking about the threat of a US operation against Iran (and I think the Iran threat is serious) the US is already engaged in a military intervention in the Horn of Africa, yet it's barely mentioned. It's enough to make you wonder if the US peace movement is firing on all cylinders.
It is the stuff of daily concern and discussion in much of Africa, but here's an update for US readers: American gunships stationed at the US base in Dijbouti carried out two deadly air strikes on Somalia this January. The Pentagon delayed confirming the January 8 attack for more than twenty-four hours but Oxfam claims that US bombs killed seventy nomads as they searched for water near the Kenya border. Two weeks later, a second strike claimed more lives, but still not the supposed targets--suspects wanted for their alleged role in the 1998 attacks on US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam.
Speaking to the East African newspaper January 22, Michael Ranneberger, the US Ambassador to Kenya, cast the US intervention as pro-peace, pro-democracy move. "We want to ensure security on the ground and that includes trying to interdict these foreign terrorists connected with Al-Quaeda that have been operating in Somalia," Rannenberger told the East African. "Second, we want to promote stability in Somalia." The Somalia operation will take a while, the ambassador admitted. "It would be a mistake to put an artificial time line and say it will take four months or six months." All of this sounds dreadfully familiar.
Air strikes are just one face of the US intervention. The US is also backing Ethiopian forces which last month invaded in an effort to drive forces loyal to the Islamic Courts Union out of the Somali capital, Mogadishu. (The operation is said to have been in the planning since the Courts Union took control over the city the last summer.) The Somali political picture is complex--the Courts Union is the closest thing much of Somalia has had to an effective government in more than 16 years--but a few things are clear: the country is situated in a strategic region, with the continent's longest coastline, rich mineral and oil reserves and several deep sea ports. It's no surprise the US wants a client regime there. With US troops stretched thin, the next best way for the administration to fight its wars is with a mobile force (like the one stationed at Djibouti) and proxy ground forces that may not be popular on the ground but will do their paymaster's bidding (like the Ethiopians' and local warlords.)
So far, so bad. While most of us haven't been paying much attention, the US action in the Horn has stirred up Somalia's civil war, sent an armory of new weapons to local warlords and sparked a new refugee crisis. (Last month, the Kenyan government closed its borders those fleeing the bombing.) According to local reports, Courts Union Islamists gain favor with every assault, as they cast themselves as victims of US imperialism.
Welcome to the next war now. The US engagement in Somalia is what the new generation of US wars is likely to look like and it would behoove the US peace movement to pay attention.
The Iraq war is currently costing American taxpayers $8.4 billion a month. Expect that number to rise when President Bush's escalation fully kicks into effect.
According to the Congressional Budget Office, deploying 20,000 combat forces for four months will cost $5 billion. Keeping the troops there for a year pushes the price tag to $11 billion.
The CBO report, however, suggests that the number of troops needed for the mission--and the cost of deploying them--is even larger than what the Bush Administration is letting on.
In the past few years, a normal combat brigade deployed to Iraq has consisted of 4,000 combat troops and 5,500 support personnel to assist them. The Bush Administration's plan calls for an increase of 21,500 combat troops--but makes no mention of the support personnel needed.
If the Department of Defense follows standard protocol for the escalation, 28,000 support troops will need to reinforce the 21,500 combat troops. Even a smaller footprint could require 15,000 support troops. The real size of the escalation, then, more closely resembles 35,000 to 48,000 American soldiers, at a cost of $9 to $13 billion for four months and $20 to $27 billion for a year.
Naturally, such a scenario has members of Congress concerned. "The cost of the troop increase could be significantly higher than what the Administration has been saying in the press," said Ike Skelton, Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. " We will want to carefully investigate just how big the President's troop increase really is."
Could this be yet another case of the Bush Administration's "fuzzy math?"
On Wednesday, the Congressional Progressive Caucus – now the largest caucus in Congress with 69 members – co-hosted a panel discussion along with The Nation and the Institute for Policy Studies on its new Progressive Promise for America. The event took place in the Rayburn House Office Building, a long way from the Capitol basement where the Caucus was founded fifteen years ago by then-Congressman Bernie Sanders and four colleagues. Even in the last few years when Caucus Co-Chair, Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey, held hearings on Iraq, the Republicans relegated those hearings to the basement.
But now Caucus members chair the majority of committees and subcommittees in the House, and thirteen members participated in the panel even as they came and went to oversee their respective committee hearings. In attendance were: Representatives Barbara Lee, Lynn Woolsey, John Conyers, Dennis Kucinich, Charles Rangel, Sheila Jackson-Lee, Bob Filner, Diane Watson, Barney Frank, Maxine Waters, Maurice Hinchey, Keith Ellison, and Steve Cohen. The Nation's own John Nichols served as a nimble, historically astute, and diplomatic moderator.
Panelists were joined in the conference room by allies from the NAACP, Progressive Democrats of America, Code Pink, Hip Hop Caucus, Peace Action, Campaign for America's Future, Association of Farm Workers Opportunity Program and other progressive groups and people. The room was filled with energy and idealism, and it reflected the Caucus' understanding that the Democratic party's finest hours have come when it has worked alongside popular movements… that democracy works when citizens are inspired to claim it as their own. One of the caucus members set the tone for the gathering, saying we should all have smiles on our faces – we are kindred spirits who helped to change the course of our country and win the last election. It's a new day for a new way.
It was clear from the discussion that caucus members are under no illusions about the struggles ahead – to end the war in Iraq (which Caucus co-Chair Rep. Lee called "the number one marching order" from the people); to bring economic fairness and justice to our nation; and to safeguard our constitution from a Bush administration and its Republican accomplices, who continue to trample upon it. But members are also clearly determined to seize the moment. These strong and decent representatives intend to provide a marker of opposition to the perilous policies of the Bush administration, and also offer alternatives that have the support of the majority of Americans and will inspire a sense of a new direction and new priorities. From ending the war and promoting peace, to fighting for universal health care, to demanding real energy independence and environmental protection… this Caucus and its members will offer bold initiatives.
Rep. Conyers, Chair of the Judiciary Committee, promised to look into the Bush doctrine of preemptive, unilateral action; treatment of detainees at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo; and the rendition of suspects to nations that practice torture. Conyers highlighted the importance of such investigations, saying, "We are living under an administration that has taken unto itself more Executive powers than anyone in history… Much of it under the radar and deliberately avoided by the media."
Lee offered an important perspective shared by other Caucus members on how they will conduct hearings. "We have to go where the people are," she said. "Not everyone can get to D.C." Caucus members understand the importance of directly connecting with the people – that the people are ahead of the politicians and the pundits. That same commitment to the grassroots was evident in most committee chairs pledging to go to New Orleans with their members.
Rep. Frank repeated his charge that the administration's Katrina-response (or lack thereof) was "ethnic cleansing by inaction." Frank will invite members of the Financial Services Committee, which he chairs, to join him in visiting New Orleans during the February recess – a visit which will in part inform hearings on affordable housing that he will hold with Rep. Waters. Frank will also challenge the Bush administration's trade agenda. He had just returned from Davos, where elite circles believed the next (Doha) round of WTO negotiations would move smoothly along – further illustration, Frank told the room, of not only this administration's denial but also US and global corporate myopia when it comes to recognizing the shift represented by the recent election.
Threading through almost all of the caucus members' talk was a commitment to rebuilding a city the Bush administration has virtually forgotten – in words and deeds. Rep. Filner, chair of the Committee on Veterans Affairs, pledged that he would also visit New Orleans. Filner cited that there are 200,000 homeless veterans on any given night – half of whom are Vietnam vets – and how this speaks to the importance of getting the Veterans Administration to treat post traumatic stress disorder and other forms of mental illness. He spoke eloquently about why we cannot expect our soldiers to watch their friends get blown up, or mistakenly shoot an innocent, and come home without emotional struggles and challenges. Filner pointed to several hundred cases of suicide committed by soldiers returning home, and he has tried unsuccessfully to obtain the corresponding documentation. His message to soldiers in Iraq is this: "We're against the policy that sent you to war but we're going to give you every bit of care we can." Part of Filner's caring for soldiers is through his co-sponsorship of the Bring Our Troops Home and Sovereignty of Iraq Restoration Act, which – in addition to funding a 6-month orderly withdrawal – would guarantee full health care funding, including mental health, for U.S. veterans of the Iraq war and other conflicts.
Indeed that piece of legislation now has 29 co-sponsors, and legislation has also been introduced by Rep. Kucinich, and Representatives Jerrold Nadler and James McGovern – also Caucus members. These legislators have provided the alternative that the Bush administration and its dwindling allies still claim doesn't exist, including: funding for a 6-month orderly withdrawal of troops and contractors; no permanent bases in Iraq; Iraqi control over their own oil; and participation in international peacekeeping and diplomatic efforts. Caucus members are also fighting the myth that voting to bring the troops home and funding a withdrawal is tantamount to not supporting the troops. As Conyers said, the power of the purse exists for times such as now – to rein in an Executive who is out of control.
Freshman Rep. Cohen, from Memphis, spoke of how ending the war was a key issue in his election and for his district. The caucus, he said, plays a key role in recognizing the urgency of ending this war and not backing off. Cohen cited the lyrics of Jackson Browne's Lives in the Balance (Where a government lies to a people/And a country is drifting to war/… There are lives in the balance/There are people under fire/There are children at the cannons/And there is blood on the wire).
Another freshman, Rep. Ellison of Minneapolis (the first Muslim elected to Congress), closed the panel discussion with a brevity and a clarity that I hope captures the ascendant new progressive spirit. He recounted that during his campaign he told the voters that he wanted to "go to DC to end the war and hold those who took us to war to account. But we also need to stop the next war." He said that the United States must use its power to promote justice and peace.
Perhaps the most personal perspective on the gathering was offered by Rep. Rangel. 76 years old and referred to as "one of the old bulls," Rangel said that he had considered leaving Congress because he actually feared that his grandchildren in the future might say, "You were there. Why didn't you do anything?" But he stayed, in hopes that a Democratic majority would soon come to power, and that he would, in fact, be able to do something about "the most dangerous presidency in my lifetime." Rangel drew a parallel between recent years and a civil rights march that he participated in when he was a boy. He said he complained every step of the way that his feet hurt but then, afterwards, he was glad that he had done it. The last few years have indeed been tough ones for progressives. But brighter days now lie ahead as good elected representatives offer alternatives for a more decent country.
At the end of the evening, tribute was paid to Molly Ivins. I know that she would have loved the gathering – though she might have infused it with a bit more humor. I figure she would have told that room--full of agitators and organizers-- something John Nichols in his spirited tribute to Molly tells us she delighted in telling local ACLU groups across this country: "So keep fightin' for freedom and justice, beloveds, but don't you forget to have fun doin' it. Lord, let your laughter ring forth. Be outrageous, ridicule the fraidy-cats, rejoice in all the oddities that freedom can produce. And when you get through kickin' ass and celebratin' the sheer joy of a good fight, be sure to tell those who come after how much fun it was."
A podcast of this event will be posted on TheNation.com on Monday.