Last month, President Bush and His Congress snuck a provision into a military authorization bill that would put an end to the good work of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction.
But on November 8, we awoke from the bad Bush dream, and now it looks like the Inspector General's work will not only continue, but perhaps be expanded.
James Glanz reports in the New York Times today that House and Senate Democrats have introduced bills – with bipartisan support – to reverse the Bush administration's most recent attempt to silence its critics. Sen. Russ Feingold said the proposals would stop the Inspector General's office "from being prematurely shut down and… ensure that U.S. taxpayer dollars for Iraq reconstruction efforts will not be vulnerable to even more waste, fraud and abuse."
While the Office of the Inspector General doesn't have the power and breadth of an independent war profiteering commission, it does represent a step in the right direction. And the Democrats' quick action on this front is welcome news indeed.
It's been so long since Democrats have won a sweeping Congressional election that many don't know quite how to feel. It might be instructive therefore to study the reaction of the Republican politicians and pundits.
The loss of the House and the Senate seems to have shaken them to their core. Blame is flying in all directions. Congressional Republicans who have to vacate their offices are blaming the White House, Rove, and, in particular President Bush's "misdirection" over his support of Rumsfeld before the election. Pointing the finger back, the Boy Genius accuses scandal-tainted Congressional members of failing to follow his "program."
Over at National Review, the deflated pundits are sounding like Nancy Pelosi, bravely willing to admit after the votes have been counted that the "culture of corruption" was in fact real. Meanwhile, conservative activists like Pat Toomey of the Club for Growth and Rep Mike Spence of the Republican Study Group blame conservatives for abandoning their small government principles.
What all these Johnny-come-lately prophets of sin and apostasy, who were cheering compassionate conservatism in 2000, 2002, and 2004, fail to accept is that the American people had six years to examine the policies and results of the Republican majority and overwhelming rejected them. The voters choose a new direction.
That's why Murtha sent out a press release today reaffirming his opposition to the Iraq war--and Hoyer's support for it.
"Of the critical issues we are faced with today, the war in Iraq is the most crucial," Murtha wrote. "The Pelosi-Murtha position on the war is the reason the Democrats are in the majority today. Congressman Hoyer's position has been to stay the course with President Bush from the very beginning and, like Senator John McCain, he advocates sending in more troops."
Hoyer's office vehemently disagreed with such a characterization.
"Congressman Hoyer and Congressman Murtha have joined other Democratic leaders from both the House and Senate in signing three letters to the President that outline the consensus among Democrats regarding Iraq," said Stacey Farnen Bernards, Hoyer's press secretary. "Any representation that Congressman Hoyer endorses a ‘stay-the-course' strategy or advocates sending more troops to Iraq is wrong."
In reality, Hoyer did disparage Murtha after the Pennsylvania Democrat broke with the Bush Administration's policy on the war last November. "I believe that a precipitous withdrawal of American forces in Iraq could lead to disaster," Hoyer wrote on November 30, "spawning a civil war, fostering a haven for terrorists and damaging our nation's security and credibility. I still believe that we can--and that we must--achieve success in Iraq."
Since then, Hoyer has edged away from his support of the war, emphasizing his unity with the Democratic caucus. And antiwar liberals have thus far split on who to support. Rep. Maxine Waters, head of the Out of Iraq Caucus, is backing Hoyer. In a letter sent yesterday, a group of progressive Democrats backing Hoyer cited his commitment to raising the minimum wage and support for civil rights, reproductive freedom and the environment as decisive factors.
Other Democrats who support a withdrawal from Iraq, however, are sticking with Murtha, including Pelosi. Said Washington Rep. Jim McDermott: "Jack was the first one in the center of the caucus who came out and said we, have to move. Guys like me who were against the war from the very start were waiting until somebody emerged...Without Jack, we would not be in power today."
The war in Iraq helped swing the midterm election toward the Democrats. The jury is still out on whether it will decide who leads the party as well.
On the darkest day for Republicans in decades, the GOP had one bright light: Arnold Schwarzenegger, who got more votes than any other candidate in his party on November 7 – and he did it in the bluest of blue states, a state dominated politically by Diane Feinstein, Barbara Boxer and Nancy Pelosi.
Does Schwarzenegger Republicanism provide a model for his party's recovery from Karl Rove? Arnold suggested as much in his election night victory speech at the Beverly Hilton, where he said the Republicans should follow what he modestly called "the California way."
At a time when the shrunken GOP is rapidly becoming the party of white southern evangelicals obsessed with homosexuality and abortion, Arnold poses a sunny alternative, with a progressive-looking program as strong and cheerful as he seems to be. In the last year he approved Democratic proposals for an increase in the state's minimum wage, along with a dramatic step to fight global warming. And he's not afraid to be a big spender – along with Democratic leaders, he sponsored a series of ballot propositions to undertake a massive rebuilding of the state's infrastructure, to construct new schools and freeways, and to repair levees so that Sacramento doesn't become the next New Orleans.
Schwarzenegger Republicanism shows how to win elections by co-opting a few key Democratic issues, not worrying about gay marriage or abortion rights, and appealing to the center. He ended up with 56 percent of the vote. CNN's exit poll showed that Arnold was the choice of almost 60 percent of California's independent voters and 58 percent of moderates. He got 22 percent of Democratic voters to vote for him. And his propositions all passed easily. If this works in California, where Diane Feinstein got 60 per cent of the vote in the same election, it could work even better in swing states and border states, where the Democrats are weaker to begin with.
Now that George Bush is finished, Arnold himself could lead in transforming the party – his star power draws huge enthusiastic crowds wherever he goes. "He could be the Republican's Bill Clinton," says Amy Wilentz, author of "I Feel Earthquakes More Often Than They Happen," a bestseller about California in the Age of Arnold.
But will the Republican Party learn the lessons of Arnold's appeal? It seems unlikely. Even in California, the rest of the statewide Republican ticket on election day consisted of the old style right-wing politicos – and despite Arnold's charisma at the head of the ticket, virtually all of them lost. Partly that's because the state is so gerrymandered that most Republican office holders never needed to appeal to Democratic voters and have no experience doing so.
On the national scene the situation is similar. The surviving Republicans in office owe their existence to their base – those same white southern evangelicals obsessed with prayer in school and guns everywhere else -- and those Republicans are not about to betray their base.
There's one other big reason why Schwarzenegger doesn't represent the Republican future: Arnold himself has shown little interest in leading the party's transformation. It's true that he said in his election night speech that his victory was "proving to the nation that there is another way to go, a better path to solve problems." But in California he has done nothing to develop candidates in his image – which is one reason why the rest of the statewide Republican ticket lost.
On the national scene, he did speak at the party's 2004 convention in Madison Square Garden, but barely campaigned for Bush that year, and this year he didn't campaign for any Republican candidates in other states. Arnold campaigns for himself.
Finally, his image as a sunny strongman comes from his career as a movie star. That kind of charisma is missing from the rest of the Republicans, who dismiss Arnold's triumph as Hollywood glitz that can't be transferred to others in the GOP. They may be right about that.
So it appears that the Democrats don't need to worry. There's only one Schwarzenegger Republican in American politics. California is the exception that proves the rule; in the rest of the country, the Democrats have the center all to themselves.
This morning, I called Melanie Sloan, the executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a watchdog group, to ask about the potential congressional reforms House Speaker-To-Be Nancy Pelosi is expected to push on Day One. But before we got to that, Sloan teed off on Pelosi for having endorsed Representative Jack Murtha, the hawk turned Iraq war critic, in his fight against Representative Steny Hoyer to be the House Democratic majority leader, the powerful number-two job in the body. "Murtha has lots of ethics issues," Sloan exclaimed. "What the hell is she thinking? Corruption turns out to be a major issue in the campaign, and you endorse the guy with the more ethics problems?"
Sloan was referring to exit polls that noted that 42 percent of voters considered corruption and congressional scandals critical to their voting decisions. And she pointed to her outfit's Beyond DeLay site that lists the "20 Most Corrupt Members of Congress." Murtha was not on that roster, but he garnered one of five "Dishonorable Mentions" (along with Republican Representatives Dennis Hastert, the outgoing speaker, J.D. Hayworth, who was defeated in Arizona last week, and Don Sherwood, who was accused by his mistress of choking her and who also lost his bid for reelection).
CREW's low-down on Murtha charges that he abused his position as the senior member of the defense appropriations subcommittee to steer contracts to military firms represented by his brother, a registered lobbyist. The report also notes that Murtha routinely inserted funding earmarks into defense spending bills for contractors that funded his campaigns and hired a lobbying firm run by a former aide on the defense appropriations subcommittee.
Murtha, according to Sloan, was also instrumental in undermining the House ethics committee. In the late 1990s, he successfully pushed (with other legislators) to change the committee's rules to prevent it from accepting ethics complaints from parties outside Congress. He also pressed Democratic leaders to name Representative Alan Mollohan of West Virginia the senior Democrat of the ethics committee. Mollohan has had his own ethics troubles--which have forced him off the ethics committee--and is a member of CREW's Top (or Bottom) 20. (See here.) "Murtha really doesn't like the ethics committee," says Sloan, speculating this may be due to Murtha's involvement in the Abscam bribery scandal of the late 1970s and early 1980s. (The ethics committee chose not to file charges against Murtha, after which the panel's special counsel resigned in protest.) "Murtha seems like a bad choice from our perspective," Sloan said.
The fight to be Pelosi's No. 2 has its odd dynamics. Hoyer is regarded as a centrist sort of Democrat. He's no virgin when it comes to the institutional corruptions of House, readily hitting up corporate interests for campaign cash. But Hoyer has not been accused of ethical violations. Though Murtha advocates a get-out-of-Iraq-now position, he is a hawkish conservative who has attacked Hoyer for being too liberal.
By publicly endorsing Murtha--who has voted more with the Republicans than almost every other House Democrat--Pelosi has backed the fellow who has been less loyal to the party, who has engaged in liberal-baiting, and who is widely considered to be the underdog in the race. Murtha is indeed the Democrats' leading critic of the war, and he and Pelosi, another war opponent, have found themselves in the same foxhole. (Hoyer, like Murtha, voted to give Bush the authority to attack Iraq, but he has not turned on the war and has criticized Democratic calls for withdrawal.) Perhaps Pelosi figured that with the Iraq war likely to be the major source of dispute between her and the White House (and congressional Republicans), she needed an antiwar hawk right by her side. But much of this present tussle might be more personal than policy. Pelosi and Hoyer have long been rivals; she defeated Hoyer to become the Democratic minority leader.
In the Murtha-Hoyer face-off, is the choice ethics versus opposition to the war? Conservative versus centrist? A Pelosi ally versus a Pelosi rival? Whatever it is, siding publicly with Murtha is risky for Pelosi. Should Murtha lose, Pelosi will look like a weak leader--at the start. This is a contest between two imperfect candidates, each carrying different baggage. It might have been wise for her to duck.
DON"T FORGET ABOUT HUBRIS: THE INSIDE STORY OF SPIN, SCANDAL, AND THE SELLING OF THE IRAQ WAR, the best-selling book by David Corn and Michael Isikoff. Click here for information on the book. The New York Times calls Hubris "the most comprehensive account of the White House's political machinations" and "fascinating reading." The Washington Post says, "There have been many books about the Iraq war....This one, however, pulls together with unusually shocking clarity the multiple failures of process and statecraft." Tom Brokaw notes Hubris "is a bold and provocative book that will quickly become an explosive part of the national debate on how we got involved in Iraq." Hendrik Hertzberg, senior editor of The New Yorker notes, "The selling of Bush's Iraq debacle is one of the most important--and appalling--stories of the last half-century, and Michael Isikoff and David Corn have reported the hell out of it." For highlights from Hubris, click here.
Recently I wrote of the need for an expansive agenda of Democracy promotion here at home to strengthen and repair our broken electoral system. The urgency of one critical element of that agenda was evident last week when 18,382 votes were lost by paperless voting machines in a Florida House race – a race won by just 368 votes.
Rep. Rush Holt has reintroduced H.R. 550 with 220 bipartisan co-sponsors to require that all electronic voting machines produce a voter-verified paper record. It would be nice, after all, to be able to count the votes in the event of mechanical failure.
While the Republican Congress held the bill up in committee, there is reason to hope that the new House will act aggressively to pass it. Common Cause is organizing an effort to urge the passage of similar legislation in the Senate. Act now to let your Senators know that you want a paper trail and voting machines that can be audited. With two years until the next national election, let's not wait or leave this vital reform to chance.
Republicans are drawing an odd lesson from Tuesday's defeat: they weren't conservative enough.
Conservatives abandoned their small-government principles, a growing consensus alleges, and got trounced as a result.
Now a fight is brewing inside Congress to claim the mantle of "reform" that supposedly elevated the GOP to power in 1994. Rep. Mike Pence, a devout Christian and former radio host from Indiana who heads the right-wing Republican Study Group, is challenging Rep. John Boehner for House Minority Leader.
"I believe we did not just lose our Majority, we lost our way," Pence wrote in a letter outlining his candidacy. "I believe this happened to us because somewhere along the way we lost our willingness to fight for limited government, fiscal discipline, traditional values and reform."
Pence has tried to portray Boehner as out of step with the new conservative caucus, while Boehner is quietly suggesting that Pence is too inexperienced to be effective. A third candidate for Minority Leader, Rep. Joe Barton, a crony of Big Oil who recently chaired the House Energy and Commerce Committee, offered a similarly full-throated defense of right-wing conservatism. "Republicans cannot simply be Democrats-lite," Barton wrote.
Barton may swing a few votes, but the race is between Boehner and Pence, with Boehner the favorite. Pence may be extreme, but he's also principled--and thus may be a tougher challenge for Nancy Pelosi. Boehner is a classic old-school pol who'll probably be more likely to cut deals with the Democrats. Elections are scheduled for Friday. The new majority party will be watching closely.
Last Wednesday, the President held a news conference in the wake of that election thumpin' in which he announced the sacking of Donald Rumsfeld, made (strained) jokes, pledged himself to bipartisan good feelings, and even volunteered to recommend some "Republican interior decorators" to help Nancy Pelosi pick out drapes for her new office. He spoke of his openness to new ideas on Iraq, even while swearing a somewhat contradictory fealty to "victory" in that country. ("And so, I'm committed to victory. I'm committed to helping this country so that we can come home").
Oh yes, and one more thing--that no one seemed to notice--he also swore his undying fealty to torture. Maybe reporters are so used to the President taking on the role of torturer-in-chief that no one even blinks; maybe the coded language fooled everyone; maybe--what with the Democrats sweepin' into Washington and Daddy's guys, Baker and Gates, makin' their return from the inside-the-Beltway wilderness--too much else was going on. Whatever the explanation, the President's plunkin' for a torture regime went unreported.
So you read it here first. The torture moment came after the President had praised the new Democratic (or "Democrat" as he likes to say slurringly) leadership for caring for America's security almost as much as he did. A reporter pointed out that on the campaign trail--where he had all but equated their position with welcoming terrorists into the country--he had given a somewhat different impression. In the exchange that followed, he highlighted the one issue on which he clearly felt, even in the new bipartisan Washington, he and the Democrats differed when it came to national security. Here was his response:
"Richard, I do believe [the Democratic leaders] care about the security. I don't--I thought they were wrong not making sure our professionals had the tools, and I still believe that. I don't see how you can protect the country unless you give these professionals tools. They just have a different point of view. That doesn't mean they don't want America to get attacked [sic]. That's why I said what I said."
(That "sic," by the way, isn't mine. It's up at the White House website. However, like so many mangled presidential sentences, this one probably represents a deep belief, not a mistake.)
Now, for those who don't know it, making sure "our professionals have the tools" is just a slightly coded way to say: torture (as well, undoubtedly, as the unbridled right to secretly conduct surveillance on Americans). Sometimes, the administration calls these "alternative interrogation techniques," as in court recently where it claimed such "techniques" were "among the nation's most sensitive national security secrets"--so much so, in fact, that it was trying to get a federal judge to bar "terrorism suspects held in secret CIA prisons" from even revealing to their own lawyers details about what was done to them by American interrogators. However painless or bland the language, though, it's the infliction of pain that's at stake.
As it happens, a radical Egyptian cleric, Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, kidnapped in Milan by a notoriously high-living group of CIA agents (five-star hotels and restaurants, Tuscan and Venetian vacation spots, all on the taxpayer dole) and shipped to Egypt evidently to be turned into a double agent, just smuggled an 11-page letter out of imprisonment. In it, he details some of the "tools" that were applied by "professionals" once he had been "rendered" to the Egyptians and put into their system of torture. According to Craig Whitlock of the Washington Post, the Iman
"also gave a graphic account of Egyptian interrogation practices, including how he would be strapped to an iron rack nicknamed ‘the Bride' and zapped with electric stun guns. On other occasions, he wrote, he was tied to a wet mattress on the floor. While one interrogator sat on a wooden chair perched on the prisoner's shoulders, another interrogator would flip a switch, sending jolts of electricity into the mattress coils."
In our secret CIA prisons, as well as our Afghan and Iraqi detention centers, American pros have done similar things along with the well-known practice, never rejected by the President, of waterboarding or simulated drowning ("dunking" as the Vice President was recently happy to call it). This, then, is what George W. Bush buried like a little IED in his bipartisan, set-a-new-tone, post-election news conference.
When Nancy Pelosi becomes Speaker of the House, Democrats will have to fill the position of majority leader. The complex contest pits Pennsylvania Democrat John Murtha, who has become one of the chamber's most outspoken advocates for getting U.S. troops out of Iraq, against Maryland Democrat Steny Hoyer, the current Democratic whip in the House and a much more cautious critic of the Bush administration's handling of the war.
Most House Democrats tend toward Murtha's position on the war. But, by and large, they tend to be more socially liberal than Murtha on issues such as abortion rights and gun control, a circumstance that has led some war foes -- including "Out of Iraq Caucus" founder Maxine Waters, D-California -- to back Hoyer.
How to sort the choice out? Pelosi wants to help. In a rare move for someone in her position -- earlier this year, House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, R-Illois, sat out the contest to replace disgraced House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, after DeLay resigned -- the top Democrat has made an endorsement.
Despite previously expressing frustration with Murtha's decision to challenge Hoyer, Pelosi on Sunday weighed in for her longtime ally from Pennsylvania. Sending a signal that she thinks the Iraq debate is going to be central to the new Congress, Pelosi wrote Murtha an endorsement message that read: "I salute your courageous leadership that changed the national debate and helped make Iraq the central issue of this historic election. It was surely a dark day for the Bush Administration when you spoke truth to power. Your strong voice for national security, the war on terror and Iraq provides genuine leadership for our party, and I count on you to lead on these vital issues."
The letter was circulated late Sunday by Murtha's office. It had to sting Hoyer, who jousted with Pelosi in a previous leadership contest and who has generally been seen as the leader in this race.
The vote by the full House Democratic Caucus is expected to take place Thursday.
In an interview with Truthdig.com last week, Congressman Dennis Kucinich--in line to be Chair of the Government Reform Subcommittee on National Security, Emerging Threats and International Relations--used an unusual phrase to describe the importance of holding hearings into how and why America invaded Iraq.
"America needs a new approach of truth and reconciliation," Kucinich told interviewer Joshua Scheer, He added, "we'll never be able to bring closure to this Iraq matter unless we tell the truth about what happened." Truth and reconciliation isn't a phrase--or process--usually applied to American political life. But I think Kucinich is right. There is a need for truth and reconciliation--US-style. Some may prefer to call it an accountability moment--one that has eluded this country, with damaging consequences, for several years.
"This is a matter that relates to the conscience of this country," Kucinich explains. "This is a matter of the heart--the heart of democracy itself. This is a matter of whether we're going to have a sober reflection about the events that have transpired since 9/11, with respect to Iraq. And until we do this, we will be trapped not only physically in Iraq, we'll be trapped emotionally and spiritually in Iraq. We may never get out of Iraq if we don't tell the truth."