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Should Democrats Nuke Washington?

It was not so long ago that Republicans threatened to "nuke" the Senate if Democrats employed the filibuster to block President Bush's judicial nominees, particularly those to the Supreme Court (which in light of recent decisions, they clearly should have).

Fast forward two years later, with Democrats narrowly in control, and the Senate is in a state of permanent filibuster. It takes 60 votes to get "cloture" and pass just about anything.

As a result, pieces of legislation that won a majority but failed to garner 60 votes, such as the Employee Free Choice Act, a minimum wage increase without tax breaks for business, major investments in renewable energy and mandates for clean-energy sources, the importation of cheap prescription drugs from Canada, allowing the government to negotiate lower drug prices under Medicare, countless amendments to the immigration bill and on and on.

We are told this is just the way the Senate works. Fine. But there is a clear double standard in terms of media coverage. No one reported that Republicans "filibustered" the Employee Free Choice Act. And no Democrat is vowing to nuke the Senate as a consequence.

During the debate over the "nuclear option" Matthew Yglesias and a handful of other liberal dissidents urged Republicans to proceed, arguing that in the long run the filibuster was a major impediment to progressive change. Perhaps they were right.

Contempt of Congress

No one was all that surprised when the Bush administration announced Thursday that it would not cooperate with congressional demands for documents and testimony by prominent former officials that would likely confirm this White House's reckless disregard for the rule of law.

What was surprising, and encouraging, was the decisiveness with which key players in Congress responded.

After the White House asserted executive privilege in rejecting subpoenas issued by the House and Senate Judiciary committees as part of the ongoing probe of abuses within the Department of Justice, House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers wasted no time expressing his sense that a Contempt of Congress citation is in order.

"The President's response to our subpoena shows an appalling disregard for the right of the people to know what is going on in their government," explained Conyers, a Michigan Democrat who is the only Judiciary Committee to have participated in the fight between Congress and the Nixon White House for Watergate-related documents. "At this point, I see only one choice in moving forward, and that is to enforce the rule of law set forth in these subpoenas."

The best way to enforce the rule of law is by issuing a Contempt of Congress citation. The rules of Congress permit standing committees, such as the House and Senate Judiciary panels, to compel witnesses to produce documents and testimony required to complete inquiries. Committee chairs are permitted to issue subpoenas seeking documents and testimony. And, when the targets of those subpoenas refuse to cooperate, a Contempt of Congress citation -- outlining a criminal offense against the legislative branch of the federal government -- can be drawn up.

The issuance of a Contempt of Congress citation would provoke the sort of Constitutional showdown that it now appears will be required if this administration is to be held to account for its abuses of power. In such a showdown between the legislative and executive branches, the third branch of the federal government, the judiciary, would be asked to decide whether the White House has a right to assert, as White House counsel Fred Fielding did in a letter telling the committee chairs that their demands would not be met.

The "fear of being commanded to Capitol Hill to testify or having their documents produced to Congress" would prevent presidential advisers from communicating "openly and honestly" with the president," wrote Fielding.

Senate Judiciary Committee chair Patrick Leahy suggests, there is another sort of fear in play: the fear of having improper and potentially illegal schemes exposed.

Fielding's assertion of executive privilege came in response to subpoenas for documents and testimony relating to the firing of nine federal prosecutors in 2006. Leahy and members of his committee have explored the question of whether those U.S. Attorneys were dismissed for improper political reasons as part of a broad move by the White House to politicize federal investigations and prosecutions.

"This White House cannot have it both ways," says Leahy. "They cannot stonewall Congressional investigations by refusing to provide documents and witnesses, while claiming nothing improper occurred."

The Vermont Democrat described assertion of executive privilege in an investigation of official misconduct as a "further shift by the Bush administration into Nixonian stonewalling."

"Increasingly," says Leahy, "the president and vice president feel they are above the law -- in America no one is above law."

The senator is right, at least in theory.

But, in practice, this administration has operated above, or more precisely outside the law for more than six years. Without proper congressional and judicial oversight, the White House has expanded the reach and authority of the executive branch far beyond the limits imagined by the founders. And it will continue to do so until Congress reasserts itself as a coequal branch of government.

That process begins with the issuance of Contempt of Congress citations.

For the sake of the Republic, those citation cannot be dispatched quickly enough.

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John Nichols's book The Rise and Rise of Richard B. Cheney: Unlocking the Mysteries of the Most Powerful Vice President in American History (The New Press) is available nationwide at independent bookstores and at www.amazon.com. Publisher's Weekly describes it as "a Fahrenheit 9/11 for Cheney" and Esquire magazine says it "reveals the inner Cheney." The London Review of Books says The Rise and Rise of Richard B. Cheney "makes a persuasive case…that the vice-presidency is the real locus of power in the current administration: Cheney runs the show."

Acting Locally

It's a frustrating time for those Americans who are fighting to end this war. There is gridlock in Washington. This White House continues to hang on to the argument that the US must stay in Iraq -- possibly for decades. And the new Democratic-controlled Congress--working with razor-thin majorities--couldn't stop a supplemental that gave Bush 100 billion dollars more for the war.

This in spite of the fact that the country, the troops, the Iraqi people and Iraqi lawmakers oppose the open-ended continuation of this war.

But citizens across the country have continued to demonstrate their opposition to this disastrous war through local channels. In California, as Nation contributing editor Marc Cooper, recently noted, a resolution to place a referendum on troop withdrawal on the February 5 primary ballot was passed by a wide margin by the state senate.

"That war is costing California dearly," said Senate President Pro Tem Tom Perata. "We have contributed the lives and blood of more than 340 Californians. Not a week goes by on this (Senate) floor when a member, Republican or Democrat, stands up to memorialize a fallen soldier, sometimes as young as 18 years old." And California is not alone. Every state is reeling from the lost lives and the wasted funds of this costly and bloody war. The National Priorities Project performs an important service--rigorously documenting how local communities are bearing the burden of this misadventure. For example, with the amount of money that the citizens of Alabama have spent on the war, they could have provided health insurance to 4,377,655 children.

Similar actions are being taken all over the US, where states, towns and cities are pushing and passing resolutions that call for an end to the War in Iraq. California is one of five States that have "peace resolutions." The others are Iowa, Maryland, Massachusetts and Vermont. There is also a tremendous level of activity at the municipal level. According to Karen Dolan, executive director of Cities for Progress "256 city and towns who have either passed some kind of bring the troop home resolutions, or have been covered by state wide ballot initiatives that pass encompassing all of these cities and towns."

"From our experience it is a direct form of democracy where people feel their voice matters," said Dolan. "It also localizes effects of the war and erases the myth that it is simply a foreign policy issue"

The importance of these public steps cannot be understated. Politicians are usually reluctant to act unless it becomes a political liability for them not to do so. And the best way for citizens to fight to end this war is to make their opposition to the US occupation of Iraq known to their representatives. Recall that a year ago, only six Senators voted for a bill that included a mandatory date for troop withdrawal. Now, thanks to Americans making their voice heard, virtually all Democrats supported recent legislation with timetable for withdrawal.

The louder the opposition to the war and occupation is the more likely elected officials will work to end it, lest they find themselves out of a job come re-election time. And that's why these cities and states, in proclaiming their desire for peace, may indeed make a real difference nationally.


This post was co-written by Michael Corcoran, a former Nation intern and freelance journalist residing in Boston. His work has appeared in The Nation, the Boston Globe and Campus Progress. he can be reached at www.michaelcorcoran.blogspot.com. Please send us your own ideas for "sweet victories" by emailing to nationvictories@gmail.com

Academic Freedom? What's That?

It's irresistible to beat up on rich, elite universities like Harvard, Yale and Stanford when they disregard the rights of low-wage workers. (I myself enjoyed beating up on Stanford just last month.) But workers who toil on lesser-known campuses deserve justice, too. At Nova Southeastern University in Broward County, Florida, janitors have been attempting to join the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). The workers, mostly Haitians, have been enduring terrible wages, no benefits and no potable water. Many have lost their jobs for trying to organize, according to a National Labor Relations Board complaint filed by the workers. Often, when august institutions of higher learning find their inner Wal-Mart – as they frequently do, when their workers try to organize -- students and professors rally in support of the workers. Nearby University of Miami is a good example – there, workers were able to organize thanks to aggressive action from the campus community. Nova has taken some extreme steps to make sure this doesn't happen.

Earlier this year, it appeared that the university was not only violating workers' freedom of association, but also the free speech rights of faculty and students. For a few weeks in February, the university blocked emails with "seiu" in the address, according to Tanya Aquino, a spokeswoman for SEIU Local 11. (This way, the only updates professors and students received on the labor situation came from Nova's president.) University officials have also discouraged students – most of whom are commuters, and therefore rely on email for information about campus life -- from sending each other updates on the workers' struggle. Some students have been admonished in threatening ways, with officials implying that they might be disciplined for participating in the campaign. (Nova officials did not respond to a request for comment.) The result of all this, according to Aquino, is that few faculty and students are willing to stand up up for the rights of the Nova workers. It's a dreadful example of how, in suppressing workers' rights, a university can diminish itself as a place of higher learning. How much could one learn at a school that forbids the expression of views on such critical human rights questions?

The Real ANWR

A Canadian mining corporation, Northern Dynasty Minerals, is trying to create one of North America's largest open pit gold and copper mines in the heart of Alaska's Bristol Bay - a wonderland of fish-filled lakes, rivers and streams - home to some of the last great wild salmon runs and rainbow trout.

Most Americans who keep up on the news are familiar with the fight over drilling for oil exploration in the ANWR preserve but the real threat to Alaska's fishing and hunting ecological systems is not ANWR, but rather the proposed development of an open pit mining district at the headwaters of the two most famous salmon producing river drainages in Alaska.

At the core of Pebble Mine, covering some 15 square miles, would be an open pit measuring about two miles long, a mile and a half wide and 1,700 feet deep. Over its period of operation, the mine is estimated to produce three billion tons of waste. Moreover, the proposed Pebble Mine, would just be the first of many, and include the largest dam in the world, larger than the oft-criticized Three Gorges Dam in China, and would be made of earth not concrete, which is less effective in holding back the toxic waste created in the mining process.

The rivers and creeks of Bristol Bay provide pristine spawning grounds for all five species of Pacific Salmon. The freshwater lakes offer abundant habitat for Rainbow Trout. What's more, Lake Iliamna, just south of the pebble mining claim, is the largest body of freshwater in Alaska.

Bristol Bay is also home to the world's largest commercial wild salmon fishery. The harvest and processing of Bristol Bay fish generates nearly $320 million a year and employs about 12,500 people, which could be endangered by Northern Dynasty's project.

So this project is bad news for the environment, bad news for the local culture and, at best, a questionable economic proposition. The only certain benefit would be a rise in Northern Dynasty's bottom-line. That's why local opposition to the proposed open pit Pebble Mine, and the related 1000 square mile mining district around it, has been registered at more than 75 percent by one recent poll by Hellenthal and Associates.

Support the community by asking the US Bureau of Land Management to retain its prohibition of rock mining in Bristol Bay, help spread the word about this under-reported issue and write your local newspaper asking them to take a stand on the issue. And if you're a resident of Alaska, ask Governor Sarah Palin to maintain the current prohibition on hard rock mine prospecting and development on the publicly owned land it manages in Bristol Bay.

Thanks to the Care2 network for the tip on this campaign.

Death Penalty Gets New Airing

Written and reported by Matthew Blake:

The death penalty is finally beginning to remerge as an issue inside the halls of Congress--and it only took the second Congressional power shift in 50 years and the unprecedented Department of Justice dismissal of 8 or 9 US attorneys to make it happen.

Wisconsin Democrat Russ Feingold on Wednesday held a hearing of the Senate Judiciary's Subcommittee on the Constitution that drew attention to the lack of information available about when the Justice Department seeks capital punishment and the financial and social costs involved when it does. Fired US Attorney Paul Charlton testified that even he did not know death penalty protocol under Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, and told the committee that he was fired after refusing to authorize the death penalty for a case with no corroborating forensic evidence.

"It is fitting that we will hear from some of the same organizations that testified at that last hearing in June 2001," Feingold said, in reference to the last time the Senate held a hearing on the subject. "That is because in some respects, we know little more today than we did six years ago."

The US is the only Western democracy that still employs the death penalty. Yet since 2000 the Justice Department has not released any data on how many capital cases it has decided to prosecute, the success rate of its prosecution, the race and ethnicity of the defendants and the cost of pursuing a death penalty case. This is not merely another instance of the Bush administration keeping the public in the dark--the department itself apparently does not keep track.

"A lot of resources go into prosecuting a death penalty case," Feingold said to Deputy Assistant Attorney General Barry Sabin, who represented embattled Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. "Now, does the department track monetary cost in any way?"

"I don't believe we do that," Sabin said.

"Do you have any sense of what it costs for the US attorney's office to pursue a death penalty case?" Feingold asked.

Sabin replied he did not and when Feingold requested the Department look into the matter, Sabin said he could not promise that such information is readily obtainable. In preparation for the hearing, Feingold had learned from DOJ that in one-third of all cases where the Department sought the death penalty the Attorney General overruled a prior decision from a US Attorney that capital punishment should not be pursued.

One such overruling has played a starring role in the scandal surrounding Gonzales's dismissal of Arizona prosecutor Paul Charlton. Charlton concisely told the committee that in United States v. Ricos Rio, he defied the Justice Department's authorization of the death penalty in a murder case after the Department declined to fund exhumation of the victim's body, which likely would have determined the defendant's guilt. Charlton had requested to meet with the Attorney General about Ricos Rio and was denied. He was told by former Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty's staff that "McNulty had spent a significant amount of time on this issue with the Attorney General, perhaps as much as 5 to 10 minutes."

Stunningly, that's more time than Congress spent on the issue over the past six years.

 

The Power of the Dark Side

Stop me if you've heard this one. Last week the Vice President's lawyer, David Addington, argued that the VP didn't have to catalogue his secret documents because his role as President of the Senate means he's not really a part of the executive branch and therefore doesn't have to abide by the laws governing it. After this led to late night mockery, Addington argued instead that Cheney doesn't have to comply because both the president and the vice president are exempt from their own executive order.

In other words, Dick is saying to the Constitution what he said to Senator Leahy. (Hint: It begins with an "f.")

Normally, this would be the point where tragedy becomes farce and the entire country leans back and takes a bong hit for Jesus if it weren't for the four-part Washington Post series on Cheney. The article tells the story of the leader of the Senate, who starts an unnecessary war for the purpose of consolidating unconstitutional powers and turning the republic into an empire, while at the same time seducing a vain younger man with anger issues to the dark side.

The details are captivating, chilling, and too numerous to go into now, but here's the big surprise: [Spoiler Alert] Dick Cheney isn't really Senator Palpatine; he's actually the Emperor.

Not Quite Knocked Out by Knocked Up

Last night I finally saw Knocked Up, Judd Apatow's hilarious new movie, a raunchfest with a family-values core --- carrying on with accidental pregnancies, marriage as responsible adulthood, staying together for the sake of the kids. I'm not going to get into that here, except to second Dana Stevens' great piece in Slate on Hollywood and TV's cowardice about abortion (referred to in Knocked Up by the hero's slacker roommate as "rhymes with shmashmortion" and, by the heroine's ice-cold mother, as "taking care of it").

As she points out, legions of single women in their twenties who get pregnant accidentally like Alison (Katherine Heigl) or Jenna (Keri Russell) in Waitress, have abortions; on the big or small screen, they have miscarriages or babies. In the movies, I might add, accidental babies solve the very issues (men, work, money, dreams) that, in real life, they often worsen. Jenna gives birth, dumps her abusive ox of a husband, wins the baking contest he'd barred her from entering and opens her own pie diner. Alison falls in love with Ben (Seth Rogen), her one-night drunken stand, and, after spending the whole movie hiding her pregnancy to keep her celebrity-reporting job at E!, gets outed -- and promoted. Pregnancy polls really well-- who knew?

Actually, though, the real subject of Knocked Up is the immaturity of men: only under the most desperate circumstances will they put aside their bongs, or their porn, or their even more idiotic friends. If a woman had made this movie she'd be labelled a total man-hater: there isn't one man in it who isn't basically a teenager. But a woman never would have made this movie, because women don't have the fantasy in which willowy creamy world-class beauties like Alison, with brains, great clothes, and tons of self-confidence in bed and out of it, go for men like Ben (Seth Rogen), who is not only an unemployed and underbathed stoner with no ambitions and no visible means of support, but physically unattractive to an alarming degree. A real-life Alison wouldn't have spent one night in his filthy teenage-boy lair of a bedroom, or hung out for one evening with his uber-slacker friends . I'll give you that she might have called him when she discovered she was pregnant-- but offer to entwine herself in coparenting for life with a one-night stand she couldn't even get through breakfast with the next morning? Invite this virtual stranger to all her prenatal checkups? I didn't even invite my husband!

No, this is a male rescue fantasy, like Sideways, in which Paul Giamatti, an bitter, mean, alcoholic, very unattractive failed writer is saved by Virginia Madsen, a gorgeous kindhearted waitress. And like The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Apatow's previous movie, in which Steve Carell, the nerdy obsessive-compulsive loner, is saved by the delightfully easy-going hottie Catherine Keener. The family-values morality of Knocked Up is just window dressing, in my view. It isn't marriage, per se, that makes Ben grow up and get real -- it's Allison, who besides being lovely, is warm, good-hearted, down-to-earth, mature, doesn't ask for marriage or money, and -- this is important -- laughs at his jokes, which are indeed funny.

I'm trying to think of a romantic comedy where these roles are reversed. A clever, screwed up, ugly woman gets the gorgeous hunk who sees her inner beauty. My Big Fat Greek Wedding is the closest I can think of (made by a woman, naturally), but Nia Vardalos's character is actually great looking once she gets out from under her father's thumb--her mousiness in the early scenes is just a reflection of her downtroddenness. By the end of the movie she looks like, well, a movie star. A Greek movie star. Mostly in films the supposedly ugly-duckling heroine is actually pretty and in great shape, she just needs a makeover and a social life, like Cinderella.

The guys, though, remain their unprepossessing selves. Instead, they grow up just enough to make it to the altar with a hot babe. After that? It's clear that their wives will be the sergeants in the boot camp of married life. They'll be versions of Allison's married sister, who spends her life mourning her declining hotness and reminding her husband of errands and chores he denies having promised to do. This man is so childish that he sneaks out of the house on pretext of work not to have an affair, as his wife fears -- but to play fantasy baseball with the guys.

That's marriage in today's family-values Hollywood-- dysfunctional schlub meets hottie with a heart of gold. Boy meets Mom.

Senate Subpoenas Cheney, White House Documents on Spying

After putting up with months of stonewalling by President Bush, Vice President Cheney and their aides, the Senate Judiciary Committee has issued subpoenas seeking information about internal debates regarding the legality of warrantless wiretapping programs that were promoted by the vice president and authorized by the president.

Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy today issued subpoenas to the White House and, in particular, to Cheney's office demanding documents relating to the National Security Agency's spying program.

The fact that a primary target of the subpoenas is Cheney's office confirms that the focus of the committee's investigation of White House collaboration with embattled Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has expanded to include a sharp focus on the role that the vice president played in promoting lawless actions and in pressuring others in the administration to go along with him.

Subpoenas have also been dispatched to the Justice Department and the National Security Council.

All must be answered by July 18, according to Leahy, who wrote in the cover letters for the subpoenas, "Our attempts to obtain information through testimony of administration witnesses have been met with a consistent pattern of evasion and misdirection. There is no legitimate argument for withholding the requested materials from this committee."

If Cheney's office and the other targeted agencies do not comply by the 18th, Leahy can take the matter to the courts -- provoking a conflict like that seen when the Nixon administration when it refused to comply in the 1970s with Congressional investigators of the Watergate scandal.

By expanding the Gonzales inquiry to include consideration of the warrantless wiretapping program, Leahy has brought to a head a simmering conflict between the executive and legislative branches that is more than a year old.

Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold, who last year proposed censuring President Bush for authorizing the illegal spying program, hailed the move.

"It has been more than a year and a half since it was first disclosed that the President authorized an illegal warrantless wiretapping program," he said. "After a year and a half of stonewalling by the Administration, the Judiciary Committee is finally taking appropriate action by issuing subpoenas for information that will tell us how and why high-ranking officials authorized this illegal program."

Specifically, the Judiciary Committee is seeking information about when high-ranking members of the administration were made aware of the fact that even their own appointees and allies believed the warrantless wiretapping program was in conflict both with specific laws and privacy protections outlined in the Constitution.

The decision to issue the subpoenas has bipartisan support, as the committee voted 13-3 to authorize Leahy to dispatch them. The ranking Republican on the committee, Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter, has consistently sided with Leahy on this issue.

"The bipartisan support for issuing these subpoenas demonstrates that both Democrats and Republicans are fed up with the misleading statements from the Attorney General and the Administration about this illegal program," explained Feingold, who chairs the Judiciary Committee's subcommittee on the Constitution.

And the committee has a good sense of what it wants. The authoritative Center on Democracy & Technology has prepared a list of the seven "most wanted surveillance documents."

They include:

1. Memorandum prepared by former Deputy Attorney General James Comey which, according to Comey, was sent to the White House shortly after March 10, 2004. The memorandum followed a review of the classified surveillance program (to which Comey referred in his May 15, 2007 testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee) and it apparently explained why the Department of Justice in 2004 would not certify the surveillance program as lawful.

2. Memorandum from Department of Justice former Assistant Attorney General Jack Goldsmith, who participated in the DOJ's review of the classified surveillance program. This memorandum was attached to the Comey memorandum and was prepared in the same time frame as that document.

3. Department of Justice Office of Intelligence Policy and Review legal memorandum discussing the classified surveillance program, and drafts of that document. The final document was probably prepared in early March, 2004.

4. Department of Justice Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) memorandum prepared in early 2004 -- by Comey's account -- laying out OLC's legal concerns about the classified program.

5. Memorandum from then-White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales received by Comey shortly after March 10, 2004 that responded to the determination by the Department of Justice not to certify the lawfulness of the classified surveillance program.

6. January 10, 2007 orders of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court authorizing what the warrantless surveillance program the Administration calls the Terrorist Surveillance Program.

7. Court order applications related to the FISC authorization of the Terrorist Surveillance Program.

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John Nichols's book The Rise and Rise of Richard B. Cheney: Unlocking the Mysteries of the Most Powerful Vice President in American History (The New Press) is available nationwide at independent bookstores and at www.amazon.com. Publisher's Weekly describes it as "a Fahrenheit 9/11 for Cheney" and Esquire magazine says it "reveals the inner Cheney." The London Review of Books says The Rise and Rise of Richard B. Cheney "makes a persuasive case…that the vice-presidency is the real locus of power in the current administration: Cheney runs the show."