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Wal-Mart Helps Defeat Minimum Wage

The great American tragicomedy that is Wal-Mart continues. Last fall, a diverse crew of suckers, ranging from the far-right editorialists at the Wall Street Journal editorial page to yours truly , took seriously CEO Lee Scott's call for a higher federal minimum wage. We speculated on why he was doing that, and whether it was in his company's interests. But there was another possibility we should have considered: that Scott's statement was absolutely meaningless and devoid of content. According to Wake Up Wal-Mart, of the 46 Senators who yesterday voted against raising the minimum wage (all of them Republicans), 42 have received campaign contributions from Wal-Mart. And the Retail Industry Leaders Association, an industry group of which Wal-Mart is the most powerful member, aggressively lobbied to defeat the minimum wage increase.

Then there's the news this morning, from the New York Times, that the company has hired one of its critics, former Sierra Club president Adam Werbach, who has in the past likened Wal-Mart to a "virus" and a "toxin." Perhaps I should send my resume.

"The Single Most Important [Media] Policy Debate"

"This innocuous-looking document initiates the single most important public policy debate that the FCC will tackle this year," Federal Communications Commissioner Michael Copps explained Wednesday, as the commission issued the "Notice of Proposed Rulemaking" that initiates the next big fight over media ownership rules in the United States.

"Don't let its slimness fool you," added Copps. "It means that this Commission has begun to decide on behalf of the American people the future of our media. It means deciding whether or not to accelerate media concentration, step up the loss of local news and change forever the critical role independent newspapers perform for our country."

The commission's decision to issue the notice marks the beginning of an epic battle in the long struggle over whether to loosen ownership rules in a manner that would allow individual media companies to effectively take control of mass communications in cities across the country. But the precise nature of the fight was left unclear by FCC chairman Kevin Martin, who is guiding the rulemaking process.

Martin, a Bush administration appointee who is closely tied to a White House that wants to rewrite media ownership rules in a manner that will allow for a dramatic new wave of consolidation of ownership at the local level, is expected to use the process that began Wednesday to try and advance the agenda of the media conglomerates that in 2003 sought unsuccessfully to eliminate long-standing barriers to media monopoly. In a strategic shift, Martin is not proposing specifics rule changes at the start of the process. Rather, he is inviting comment on the broad issue of media ownership with the goal of then proposing and implementing specific rule changes after the public comment period is finished.

Martin hopes to avoid the public outcry that greeted the last attempt by the FCC to rewrite ownership rules -- and that, ultimately, thwarted the implementation of changes that would have allowed for massive new consolidation of ownership at the local and national levels.

Martin's attempt to confuse the rulemaking process by refusing to outline the rule changes he hopes to implement by the end of the year generated criticism even before Wednesday's FCC meeting finished. "The manner in which the Commission is launching this critical proceeding is totally inadequate," said Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein. "It is like submitting a high-school term paper for a Ph.D. thesis. The large media companies wanted, and today they get, a blank check to permit further media consolidation."

Copps and Adelstein, the FCC's stalwart defenders of media diversity, competition and localism, made their concerns known by dissenting in part against Martin's rulemaking initiative. Martin had the votes on the five-member commission -- on which Democrats Copps and Adelstein are outnumbered by the chair and two other Republicans -- to create a process that satisfies the media conglomerates. But he may not be able to deliver the changes that the corporations want.

At the top of the corporate wish list is the elimination of the "cross-ownership" rule that prevents a single company from buying buy up all the daily and weekly newspapers, as many as three television stations, as many as eight radio stations, the cable system and primary internet sites in the same metropolitan area. This "company town" scenario -- known in FCC parlance as "cross-ownership" -- was agreed to by the commission three years ago, despite broad public opposition. Only when Congress and then the courts intervened did the scheme get tripped up.

Martin's new rulemaking process is another attempt to get rid of the FCC's bar on cross-ownership. Yet, even with Martin's attempt to obscure the debate, the likelihood is that opposition to this specific rule change will come through loud and clear during the 120-day public comment period that and in the "half a dozen" public hearings that the chairman anticipates.

"The prohibition against owning a local broadcaster and a local newspaper in the same market is critical to preserving what the Supreme Court called ‘antagonistic sources of news' at the local level," says Linda Foley, president of the Newspaper Guild-CWA, the union that represents newspaper reporters and editors. "While some argue that the onset of digital communications provides many sources for national and international news, the vast majority of Americans get local news from either their local TV stations or their local newspaper. Our members know firsthand that the goal of media consolidation is to gain economic efficiencies. The result is merged news operations and reduced numbers of reporters covering local stories."

Foley's message will be amplified by a broad national campaign to assure that the FCC gets the message that Americans want to maintain media competition in their hometowns.

Unlike in 2003, when opposition to the rule changes proposed by the FCC majority built slowly over a number of months, this time the opposition is already organized. With the announcement of the rulemaking process came the debut of a new StopBigMedia.com coalition that includes Consumers Union, the Consumer Federation of America, the National Council of Churches, the Leadership Council on Civil Rights, Public Citizen, the National Federation of Community Broadcasters, the Future of Music Coalition, Free Press and other church, labor, consumer, community and media reform groups.

In addition to challenging moves to rewrite ownership rules to benefit big media companies, the coalition will police the rulemaking process. If Martin continues to manipulate it in a manner that confuses issues and undermines debate, coalition members say that any rule changes the chairman might get approved by the FCC will be challenged in the Congress and the courts.

"The essence of democratic government is to give the people a chance to effectively participate in writing the rules under which they live," says Mark Cooper, the director of research for the Consumer Federation of America, a veteran observer of the regulatory process. "This Notice denies the public the opportunity to comment on the actual rules that will govern the media in America, since no rules are proposed. If the Commission does not allow further comment, the courts should reject this sham."

The likelihood of Congressional intervention remains real, as well. Moments after rulemaking notice was issued, Congressman Maurice Hinchey, the New York Democrat who chairs the Future of Media Caucus, declared that, "In 2003-2004, the FCC ignored the hundreds of thousands of Americans who expressed their opposition to the proposed rules during the public comment period, and only held one public hearing outside of Washington to hear what the public had to say. This was a grave mistake, and one that the Commission should not repeat. The American public has a right to know the full implications of these proposals and they have a right to be heard by the FCC. I will continue using the power of my office to ensure that this is a lengthy, open and transparent process."

Ideally, of course, the FCC will hear enough from the American people during the four-month comment period to recognize that there is no public support for regulatory shifts that help big media to get even bigger. That recognition might make even Kevin Martin -- an ambitious Republican who would like to run for the governorship in his home state of North Carolina -- think twice before using his position of public trust to do the bidding of the communications conglomerates.

Shafting the Working Poor

The GOP just shafted the working people of America. By rejecting an attempt to raise the minimum wage, the Republican-controlled Senate showed that it is far more interested in lining the pockets of its campaign contributors than--as Paul Krugman wrote in a New York Times op-ed on Monday--arriving at a "new New Deal" and working to "rebuild our middle class." The 52-46 vote was eight short of the 60 needed for approval. (The measure drew the support of eight Republicans --four of these are up for re-election in the fall.)

Sen. Edward Kennedy's amendment would have raised the wage from the current $5.15 an hour to $7.25 – the first raise in a decade. "The minimum wage," as economist Gwendolyn Mink, makes clear, is supposed to guarantee an income floor to keep full-time wage-earners out of poverty. But today, the federal minimum wage guarantees abject poverty for workers... nearly $6,000 per year below the federal poverty line for a family of three."

But the vast majority of Republican Senators, several of them millionaires several times over, don't care about poverty or the well-being of their working class constituents, What they really care about is that they're sitting pretty, having voted themselves another raise --to $168,500 --on January 1.

Even the not-exactly-populist Wall Street Journal points out, "While the minimum wage has remained frozen, lawmakers' salaries have risen with annual cost-of-living increases keyed to what is given federal employees. And last week's vote in the House Appropriations Committee followed a floor vote days before in which the House cleared the way for members to get another increase valued at thousands of dollars annually." So, while Congress will soon make close to $170,000 a year, hardworking full-time minimum wage workers make just $10,700 annually.

One group that did important work to end this inequity is the Let Justice Roll coalition--a fast-growing program of more than 70 faith and community groups. The coalition labored mightily to target senators who were critical to passing this legislation and preventing it from being weakened by Republican's bogus charges of "class warfare." (For the true definition of class warfare, check out my Dictionary of Republicanisms. "Class warfare, n.: any attempt to raise the minimum wage").

For millions of families, this callous vote means another day of choosing between rent and health care, putting food in the refrigerator or gas in the car. Meanwhile, a Big Oil CEO makes $37,000 an hour. Want to talk about class warfare?

Prisoners of Uncertainty

The debate over the war in Iraq has from day one been marked by the disingenuousness of GOP talking points.

Al Qaeda is controlling the insurgency.

We're fighting them over there so we don't have to fight them over here.

We're steadily making progress.

Now that we're there we need to finish the job. Etc, etc.

Each assertion false. But perhaps the most repeated bit of conventional wisdom is that Americans are divided about how the US should proceed.

"The American people have mixed feelings about Iraq--where we are, where we're going there," Sen. Mark Pryor, a Democratic supporter of the war, told the Washington Post yesterday. "The American people really understand that it's a complicated question."

It may be complicated, but the American people are not all that conflicted. For months, a clear majority of Americans have advocated that the US set a timetable for the withdrawal of US troops. Why is this so hard for elected pols to understand?

As I wrote yesterday, 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 what about the troops? Well, 72 percent of American forces serving in Iraq said last February that the US should leave within a year.

A similar number of Iraqis feel the same way. Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, a prominent Sunni, personally asked President Bush to set a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign forces when W swooped into the Green Zone last week. Al-Hashimi was acting on the orders of President Jalal Talibani, a close ally of the US.

Maybe it's time for US politicians to listen to the people that elected them and the country they're supposedly fighting to help. Virtually all Republicans and too many Democrats, as former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski said this Spring, have become "prisoners of uncertainty."

Kudos to John Murtha, John Kerry and Russ Feingold. How many more years will we be in Iraq before all of our elected leaders decide to lead?

Not Exactly Supporting the Troops

Here's an interesting political position: Keep U.S. troops in Iraq and signal to the Iraqi government that its O.K. to pardon insurgents who kill Americans.

Even in the frequently surreal debate over this absurd war, that sounds like too warped a position for anyone in Congress to take.

Yet, that's the stance 19 senators took Tuesday.

Florida Senator Bill Nelson proposed a simple amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2007. It sought: "To express the sense of Congress that the Government of Iraq should not grant amnesty to persons known to have attacked, killed, or wounded members of the Armed Forces of the United States."

Seventy-nine senators -- all the Democrats who participated in the vote, as well as most of the Republicans -- backed the Nelson amendment.

But 19 senators opposed it. All are Republican supporters of the war, who have voted to keep U.S. troops in Iraq. Yet they voted against a measure putting the Congress on record in opposition to granting amnesty to Iraqis who kill U.S. soldiers.

It would be unfair to suggest that the 19 "no" voters want Americans to die in Iraq, or that they want those deaths to go unpunished. It's just that they are unwilling to provoke an unstable Iraqi government by having the U.S. Congress send such a blunt message.

In other words, the 19 are so committed to making a success of the Iraq imbroglio that they don't want to say or do anything to upset the puppets, er, politicians in Baghdad.

The 19 senators who have given new meaning to the term "pro-war" are:

Wayne Allard of Colorado

Kit Bond of Missouri

Jim Bunning of Kentucky

Conrad Burns of Montana

Tom Coburn of Oklahoma

Thad Cochran of Mississippi

John Cornyn of Texas

Jim DeMint of South Carolina

Mike Enzi of Wyoming

Lindsey Graham of South Carolina

Chuck Hagel of Nebraska

Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma

Jon Kyl of Arizona

Trent Lott of Mississippi

John McCain of Arizona

Jeff Sessions of Alabama

Ted Stevens of Alaska

Craig Thomas of Wyoming

John Warner of Virginia

Notably, Kyl and Burns face serious reelection challenges this year. It will be interesting to watch them try to explain this vote on the campaign trail.

What's the Matter With Ohio?

Well, for starters, there's that stolen election people are finally talking about. But now the far right is attempting an additional travesty on the good people of Ohio. A bill being pushed by a gang of American Taliban in the state's House of Representatives would criminalize all abortions, with no exceptions, even to save the mother's life. (Go to Planned Parenthood's website to help fight this ).

Not all today's Ohio news is bad, though. An excellent article in this morning's Wall Street Journal chronicled, through ample data, the dramatic successes of a Cincinnati-area program (optimistically dubbed Every Child Succeeds) in reducing infant mortality among the city's very poor. Of course, this is wonderful, and the folks doing this work are to be commended. As the sometimes sleep-deprived mother of an infant, however, there was one detail in the story I found disturbing. The social workers call young mothers and wake them up at 6:30 AM. I'm surprised they haven't increased the city's murder rate by doing that. If anyone, other than my baby, woke me up at that hour, I would definitely have to kill them. As slowly and painfully as possible. But that's what being poor in America is all about: either you're ignored, or the nosy nanny state is all up in your grill.

Walk the Walk

I was on a panel this morning about the 2006 elections with twoconsultants--Republican Ed Rollins and Democrat Doug Schoen--andTime magazine columnist Joe Klein. The conversation was fairlycivil. After all, the early morning event at the tony Regency Hotel inmidtown Manhattan was sponsored by The Common Good, a group dedicatedto civil discourse on current affairs.

So, I'm not sure why Joe Klein turned on me with such ferocity halfwaythrough the panel, virtually grilling me like the drill sergeant henever was: "Do you even know what counterinsurgency is?" (This afterKlein argued that we were making real progress in Iraq because Iraqiand US forces were embarking on a door-to-door sweep to secureBaghdad.) Klein is certainly entitled to his views about Iraq and thenature of occupations--however uninformed. But for a man who preachesabout the need to restore civility in American political life, he isa hypocrite.

Put aside my morning encounter with the man, but in these last weeksKlein has been all too quick to label those who disagree with his viewsabout national security and Iraq as people with a "hate Americatendency" His favorites are "many writers at The Nation andMichael Moore." As Paul Krugman wrote last week, " That's a grosslyunfair characterization."

Klein seems to have a desire to depict all of the American left, andtoo many good liberals, as crazy, malign or unpatriotic. Consider howKlein recently assailed John Conyers, the courageous and distinguishedCongressman who will be chair of the Judiciary Committee if theDemocrats win control of the House in November. Klein wrote of Conyers,"...in addition to being foolishly incendiary, he is an AfricanAmerican of a certain age and ideology, easily stereotyped byRepublicans. He is one of the ancient band of left-liberals who grew upin the angry hothouse of inner-city, racial-preference politics..." Klein is certainly making Karl Rove's job easier.

After the panel, I pulled out something I'd written a few weeks ago,replying to Klein's ugly charge that "many writers at TheNation" were examples of people with a "hate America tendency":

I am not sure exactly who Joe Klein has in mind when he says 'many writers at The Nation.' We have a range of scholars, public policy analysts and writers who cover US foreign policy but none of them would fit that ugly label. Since when it is anti-American to believe that American foreign policy ought to be consistent with international law, that the use of military force should be limited to legitimate self-defense or sanctioned by international organizations, that American foreign policy should be democratically accountable and guided by American republican principles, that the United States should not only oppose empires but eschew imperial policies, that wherever possible the United States should act like a good neighborhood in trying to work with other nations to solve common problems, and that the United States should promote the advancement of human rights, shared prosperity, and ecological sustainability.

"Many of the writers at The Nation opposed the Iraq war not because they hate America because they understood that Iraq posed no threat to the United States or to regional security and that a crusade to remake the Middle East would be resisted by the great majority of people in the Middle East and would more likely create chaos and more terrorism that it would advance the cause of democracy. Klein is either lazy in that he has not read the Nation writers he seeks to smear or is trying to score cheap political points by dismissing the left so as to establish his own hawkish centrist credentials. Or perhaps he understands America less than he would like his readers to believe because he is uncomfortable with the American tradition of principled dissent and with The Nation's faith in the common sense of the American public as a source of democratic accountability.

If you're going to talk the talk, walk the walk. If you're going to preach political civility, the very least you could do, Joe, is be civil--even to those you disagree with.

Oversight? No Thanks

After all the reports of corporate crimes and contract abuses in Iraq and Afghanistan -- including the recent revelation by Halliburton Watch that Halliburton and its KBR subsidiary knowingly exposed thousands of U.S. troops in Iraq to hazardous levels of unhealthy water from the Euphrates River, including human fecal matter -- the Senate was offered an opportunity on Tuesday to restore a measure of Congressional oversight to the process by which tax dollars are distributed to private corporations and the activities of those corporations in regions of the world that are supposed to be of critical importance to the United States.

As part of the Senate debate over the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2007 -- the Pentagon budget -- North Dakota Democrat Byron Dorgan proposed a simple amendment "to establish a special committee of the Senate to investigate the awarding and carrying out of contracts to conduct activities in Afghanistan and Iraq and to fight the war on terrorism."

The amendment was rejected.

Fifty-two senators voted "no" -- all of them Republicans, including supposed "straight-shooters" such as Arizona's John McCain and Nebraska's Chuck Hagel.

Forty-four senators voted "yes" -- all of them Democrats, except Rhode Island Republican Lincoln Chafee.

Arguably, it was Chafee who cast the most courageous vote. He faces a September primary by a conservative foe who charges the Rhode Island moderate with failing to follow the party line. Of course, Chafee can counter by explaining that he did not know that, to be a good Republican, a senator must defend the freedom of corporations to provide U.S. troops with water containing fecal matter.

The Next Big Fight Over Media Ownership

The Federal Communications Commission will again attempt to do the bidding of big media this year, with a scheme to rewrite ownership rules in much the same manner as it did in 2003. FCC chairman Kevin Martin is expected to announce Wednesday that the commission will embark upon a rulemaking initiative that will seek to make it possible for one company to own all daily and weekly newspapers, as many as three television stations, as many as eight radio stations, the cable system and primary internet sites in the same community. This "company town" scenario -- known in FCC parlance as "cross-ownership" -- was agreed to by the commission three years ago, despite broad public opposition. Only when Congress and then the courts intervened did the scheme get tripped up.

But big media companies, which hope to reap massive profits by creating one-newsroom towns where a handful of "content providers" produce all the local print, broadcast and digital coverage of government, culture, sports and community affairs, did not accept defeat graciously. In collaboration with friendly FCC commissioners, they kept looking for an opening that would allow them to renew their demands. And they think they have found one now that the five-member commission -- which had a GOP vacancy for months -- has a newly-minted 3-2 Republican majority. [Republican commissioners, now led by Martin, have generally sided with big media companies in recent years, while Democrats Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein have been stalwart defenders of divisity and competition.]

Martin, a Bush appointee with extremely close ties to a White House that has long wanted to implement rule changes favored by the generous campaign donors who own the nation's largest communications firms, has calculated that in an election year when the country's attention is focused on issues such as the war in Iraq, immigrations and mounting trade deficits, it will be possible to slip significant rule changes past an American public that is passionately opposed to them.

The FCC chair is a smarter politician than his predecessor, Colin Powell's son Michael. But Martin may have miscalculated.

Even before tomorrow's announcement of that the commission will attempt again to rewrite the rules in a manner that allows for greater concentration of ownership of local and national media by fewer companies, Martin was being challenged by members of Congress.Led by New York Democrat Maurice Hinchey, who chairs the Future of American Media (FAM) Caucus that was organized after the last fight over ownership rules, sixteen House members launched a preemptive strike in a letter to Martin.

The House members wrote:

We have noted with interest recent reports that you intend to revisit the issue of media ownership... If the FCC does in fact consider this issue, then we hope that the Commission will strengthen existing rules, and not further damage an already weak structure intended to protect diversity in American broadcasting. Put simply, we believe that any action on media ownership similar to what was proposed by the FCC in 2003 would be an unmitigated disaster.

Since their enactment in the 1940s, our media ownership rules have been a vital safeguard, ensuring that the power to inform the public is not inappropriately concentrated among a relative few. But since the 1996 Telecommunications Act, we have seen a significant relaxation of the media ownership caps limiting the number of outlets that one company may own in a single market. The unfortunate effect has been consolidation of newspapers, television channels, radio stations, and other media under the control of a handful of giant media conglomerates. The resulting monopoly situations have forced independent broadcasters out of business, limited minority ownership, and denied the American public the wide array of content they deserve.

The FCC's 2003 proposal to weaken the local TV ownership limits, national TV ownership caps, and newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership rules would have delivered a fatal blow to our media ownership infrastructure. For example, if these rules had been enacted, a single corporation would have been.allowed to acquire as many as threetelevision stations, eight radio stations, and the only daily newspaper -- all within a single city. While such action would not have caused a media blackout per se, it would have essentially reduced content to a single source, rather than providing communities with the full array of information that should truly be available. As you know, millions of Americans and dozens of Senators and Representatives have contacted the FCC to express their concern about the proposed rules. The Third Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals echoed these concerns by remanding the issue back to the Commission in June 2004.

As Members of Congress who are deeply concerned about the impact that further media consolidation would have upon our democracy, we believe that the Federal Communications Commission should fulfill its intended role as a strong defender of diversity in broadcasting. We hope that the FCC will move to strengthen existing ownership rules to guarantee an array of content and wide variety of viewpoints for everyone seeking news, information, and culture across our country.

In addition to Hinchey, House members signing the letter included: California's Anna Eshoo, Barbara Lee, Diane Watson, Henry Waxman and Lynn Woolsey, Hawaii's Ed Case, Illinois' Jan Schakowsky, New York's Louise Slaughter, North Carolina's David Price, Ohio's Sherrod Brown and Marcy Kaptur, Oregon's Peter DeFazio, Vermont's Bernie Sanders, Washington's Jim McDermott and Wisconsin's Tammy Baldwin.

Both Sanders and Brown are ahead in the polls in contests for Senate seats from their respective states, while most of the other signers are ranking minority members on key committees and subcommittees.

Translation: This time, the FCC is going to be watched by thoughful members of Congress from the start, just as it will be dogged by a media reform movement that is dramatically bigger and better organized than in 2003. To be sure, the fight will be a serious one. And determination of Martin -- whose long-term political ambitions are no secret -- to deliver for the White House and the big-media companies it favors should not be underestimated. But if the letter from Hinchey and his colleagues is any indication, the FCC chair's not going to be able to sneak new ownership rules past anyone. In deed, Martin might find that he has created an issue that -- instead of being obscured by the 2006 election campaign -- will be central to it.