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The Nation

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?.

A Healthy Debate?

Dear Ari,

I was provoked enough by the title of your last post and your recent critiques of the Democrats to read onward, expecting some jabs at the hopelessly hobbled party that couldn't even achieve unity on the feeble Levin-Reed amendment yesterday. Instead, I was surprised to find sanguine tributes to the party you recently accused of ducking and covering on the war. Now you applaud them for "openly struggl[ing] to find the right policy," and you describe the rhetorical dodge ball the Democrats played this week as a "healthy debate." Did I miss something?

As you yourself have argued, Democrats have hidden under the false pretense that the American public is divided on the war in order to avoid even broaching an anti-war platform. Yet as you note "voters in the country's top 68 swing districts prefer a Democrat who supports bringing the troops home within a year over one who does not" and "72 percent of American forces serving in Iraq said last February that the US should leave within a year." Never mind Bush's dismal approval ratings and the consistent anti-war sentiment within the party's rank and file, swing voters and our own troops want out of Iraq! Just how wide of an opening do the Democrats need?

That the party has now, apparently, dipped its toe into anti-war waters is hardly cause for cheerleading. Your post echoed The Nation's lead editorial this week applauding Nancy Pelosi's newfound "outspoken opposition" to the war and the Democratic Party's "election-year shift in the right direction." Such praise strikes me as premature and unfounded. Can anyone actually make the case that the Democrats, as a party, have embraced an anti-war position? More the point -- whatever this week's votes symbolized -- it is too little, too late.

In particular, I'm mystified by your characterization of the recent Democratic turn as an honest struggle towards the "right policy" prompted by a "healthy debate." Are we watching and reading the same folks?

Here's Hillary Clinton (who voted for Levin-Reed but against Kerry-Feingold) on withdrawal: "I do not think it is a smart strategy, either, for the President to continue with his open-ended commitment, which I think does not put enough pressure on the new Iraqi government...Nor do I think it is smart strategy to set a date certain. I do not agree that that is in the best interests." As Bob Scheer points out, "this is pure gibberish designed to sound reasonable."

Or take Carl Levin, the designated party spokesman on the war: "Three and a half years into the conflict, we should tell the Iraqis that the American security blanket is not permanent." Impending civil war. Mass violence. Lawlessness. Unemployment. Some "security blanket" the occupation has been.

Or re-read John Kerry's famous op-ed in the NYT: "We want democracy in Iraq, but Iraqis must want it as much as we do. Our valiant soldiers can't bring democracy to Iraq if Iraq's leaders are unwilling themselves to make the compromises that democracy requires." "No American soldier should be sacrificed because Iraqi politicians refuse to resolve their ethnic and political differences."

Kerry and Levin's calls for withdrawal (whatever their differences on a timeline) essentially repeat the administration's line that the war was motivated by salutary intentions, and in the final analysis they lay the blame for the "failure" in Iraq not on U.S. intervention -- but on the Iraqi people. Even Pelosi's framing of the war as a "mistake" and a "failure" dodges the real motives and effects of the occupation (and begs the question, if the US were winning the war, would it still be a mistake?) As Robert Dreyfuss points out today in a provocative article, the Iraq war is neither a mistake nor a failure. It is a deliberate and intended expansion of US hegemony that has largely succeeded. You may quibble with Dreyfuss' analysis of the situation in Iraq, but his argument that the "mistake" and "failure" rhetoric "plays into the notion...that, although the war itself was a 'mistake,' the only rational option for the United States now is to win it anyway" certainly seems an apt description of the ultimate significance of this week's so-called debate.

I'm not naive enough to suggest that a genuine anti-war, anti-imperialist platform from the Democrats would win elections. Indeed given how Republicans have closed ranks on the war, such honesty may result in a spectacular disaster come November (but so may so much dissembling). But let's get real about what the party's saying and hand over the pom-poms to the DNC.

Lieberman Stays the Course With Bush

Senator Joe Lieberman has maintained his status as the Bush administration's favorite Democrat.

Lieberman did not merely vote against the proposal by Wisconsin Democrat Russ Feingold and Massachusetts Democrat John Kerry to get U.S. troops out of Iraq by next year, the Connecticut Democrat also voted against a vaguely-worded proposal by Rhode Island Democrat Jack Reed and Michigan Democrat Carl Levin that urged the Bush administration to start thinking about an exit strategy.

Lieberman was one of just six Democrats who backed the administration's position on both measures. The others were Minnesota's Mark Dayton, who is not seeking reelection this year, and four Democrats who represent Republican-leaning southern and western states: Louisiana's Mary Landrieu, Arkansas's Mark Pryor, Florida's Bill Nelson and Nebraska's Ben Nelson.

Even Republican Lincoln Chafee, who faces an aggressive challenge from a conservative is his party's primary this summer, voted for the Levin-Reed proposal, which called on the president to begin a phased redeployment of U.S. forces from Iraq and to submit a long-term exit strategy to Congress.

There was no expectation that Lieberman would back the Kerry-Feingold proposal, which drew just 13 votes -- from its sponsors and Senators Dan Araka and Dan Inouye of Hawaii. Barbara Boxer of California, Dick Durbin of Illinois, Tom Harkin of Iowa, Jim Jeffords and Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, Bob Menendez of New Jersey and Ron Wyden of Oregon.

But there had been speculation that Lieberman would join the vast majority of his fellow Democrats -- including Connecticut colleague Chris Dodd -- in backing the Reed-Levin amendment. During Wednesday's debate on the measures, Lieberman, long the most outspoken Democratic advocate for the invasion and occupation of Iraq, admitted that Iraqis need to be given real responsibility for defending and governing their country.

But, when it came time to vote, the senator was not willing to break with the Bush administration. Instead, saying that he did not want to tie the president's hands, Lieberman joined most Senate Republicans in refusing to provide any check or balance on the administration's warmaking.

There is no mistaking the position that Lieberman has put himself in. Though he represents a state that voted against Bush's election in 2000 and against the president's reelection in 2004, and though Connecticut voters express higher levels of opposition to Bush and his war than voters in most other states, Lieberman has signaled that he will continue to give the administration a blank check to wage exactly the war it wants in Iraq.

Lieberman has wedged himself so firmly in the administration's corner that, during the Senate debate on whether to push for any sort of exit strategy, the Connecticut Democrat was not given floor time by the his own party's leadership. Rather, he was introduced by Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John W. Warner, R-Va., who served as the White House's floor manager on the issue. When he spoke Wednesday, Lieberman was the first Democrat to back the president's position.

Warner heaped praise on the Connecticut Democrat, as did right-wing Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, perhaps the most enthusiastic supporter of the war in the Senate.

Having Lieberman on board is important for the Bush administration and its Republican allies, who like to suggest that there is broad support for the president's failed approach to Iraq. It's no small thing, when criticizing Democrats who express sensible concerns about the war, to be able to say: "Even the man Democrats nominated for vice president in 2000 says the president is right to stay the course."

There is no question that Lieberman's stance undercuts attempts -- hapless as they may be -- by Democrats to send clear signals regarding their concerns about a war that a clear majority of Americans now describe as "a mistake."

So who were the "winners" in Thursday's votes? The Bush administration may have gotten a boost from Lieberman, but so too will Ned Lamont, the businessman who is mounting an increasingly powerful anti-war challenge to the senator in Connecticut's August 8 Democratic primary. Before the Senate votes this week, Lamont urged Lieberman to break with the administration, saying that it was time to "build a Democratic coalition to establish and stick to a plan to end the war."

"‘Stay the course' is not a strategy for any real victory, and it is time that the President and Congress recognize that fact and take the steps needed to ensure true safety and security for the region and for America," the challenger argued.

Lamont, who has begun to garner support not just from the netroots but from prominent Democrats in Connecticut -- such as former state party chair George Jepsen -- is over 40 percent in the polls and rising rapidly. And this week's pro-administration votes by Lieberman will only serve to reinforce Lamont's message that Connecticut needs a senator who "stand up for our progressive democratic values."

Sweet Victory: Waging War on Emissions

Co-written by Sam Graham-Felsen.

If trends continue, 2006 may be remembered as the year the world woke up to the global climate crisis. And Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth--which recently opened nationwide at over 400 theaters--may be credited with the wake-up call. The film continues to soar at the box office, and is projected to eclipse Bowling for Columbine as the third highest grossing documentary of all time (excluding IMAX and concert docs). The tremendous buzz caused by the film has jolted the public consciousness, propelling concerned citizens and Congress into concrete action.

Last week, Representative Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) introduced the Safe Climate Act, a landmark environmental bill that would dramatically reduce heat-trapping emissions directly responsible for global warming. HR 5642 would freeze emissions in 2010 at the 2009 levels and then cut emissions by 2 percent each year beginning in 2011. By 2020, emissions would be lowered by 5 percent per year, making emissions 80 percent lower than 1990 levels by the year 2050. Senators James Jefforts (I-Vt.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) are expected to introduce a similar bill in the Senate in coming weeks.

This far-reaching and forward-thinking bill comes at a critical time. On the same day the Safe Climate Act was announced, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) released a study of government data, revealing showed that C02 emissions jumped from 2.9 billion metric tons in 1960 to 5.7 billion in 2001--an increase of 95 percent. The analysis, titled "The Carbon Boom," showed that twenty-eight states more than doubled their carbon dioxide emissions between 1960 and 2001. Texas currently ranks first in emissions, contributing 12 percent of the nation's total. Shocked?

The Safe Climate Act is the latest in a flurry of legislative actions to curb global warming. Nine governors--all leaders in state-based efforts at energy efficiency and increased use of renewables--have embraced the Apollo Alliance's goal of achieving sustainable American energy independence within a decade. Over 200 mayors across the country have created Kyoto-complying standards, investing in cleaner vehicles, cutting dependence on oil and promoting efficient and renewable energy projects. And Maryland recently became the eighth state to join a pact mandating limits on C02 emissions.

"The idea that we would commit to cutting emissions is an important new idea that has not been present in previous climate bills. I think in the last year, there has been a major change in how the public and politicians are looking at global warming. It's much more real than it used to be," says David Doniger, policy director for the Climate Center at the National Resources Defense Counsel (NRDC). "Katrina and Wilma really changed the way people think, and the drumbeat of news and cultural events, culminating in Al Gore's movie, has come at just the right time. It's manifesting itself in the way that political, civic and business leaders are talking about global warming. They see that it can only be stopped if we act soon."

Enough About Division

As an author of numerous articles about Democratic division on Iraq, I have a confession to make. My ears and eyes can only take so much.

Over and over for the past two weeks, as the House and Senate debated the war, we've heard that "Democrats are divided."

So what?

Obviously it would be better politically and substantively if Democrats could unite behind one policy--and that policy specified that we should leave, preferably within a year. But I'd prefer a party that openly struggles to find the right policy over one that blindly follows the President over a cliff.

Take one example: Senator Rick Santorum. In August, Senate challenger Bob Casey accused Santorum of failing to ask "tough questions" about the war. Santorum responded that he had raised concerns, "public and privately." When asked to find an example, Santorum's office admitted "that it cannot locate public statements of the senator questioning the Iraq war." Now Santorum is saying we found WMD's in Iraq!

Such situations are all-too frequent. Only three Republicans in the House voted against their party's rigged resolution expressing the sense that "it is not in the national security interest of the United States to set an arbitrary date for the withdrawal or redeployment of United States Armed Forces from Iraq."

When the Senate votes today on an amendment by Carl Levin and Jack Reed calling on the President to submit a plan for redeployment, expect few, if any, Republicans to jump ship.

So maybe the story should be why so many Republicans continue to mindlessly follow this President and his never-ending war?

The Levin-Reed amendment for the first time unites most Democrats around a call for the phased redeployment of US forces, to begin by the end of the year. Senators John Kerry, Barbara Boxer and Russ Feingold believe the US should leave sooner, with a timetable. It's healthy debate.

A lot healthier than what is happening on the other side.