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What Culture of Corruption?

Jack Abramoff is singing to Vanity Fair and planning to "name names" when his trial begins in Florida later this month. Duke Cunningham will soon serve eight years in the slammer, the longest sentence ever given to a congressman for crimes in office. Tom DeLay, Bob Ney, Conrad Burns and others may share a similar fate.

But things are eerily business as usual on Capitol Hill, as the Senate takes up lobbying reform this week and the House plans a vote before Easter. Already the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee last week voted against one of the few good proposals--introduced by Senator Barack Obama--to create an independent ethics enforcement agency that would compliment and bolster the pathetically inactive ethics committee. The proposal went down 11-5, a telling precursor of things to come. Wrote Public Citizen's Craig Holman:

 

The committee hearing was extremely disheartening. Most members argued there simply is no Congressional ethics problem; that the public's perception of corruption on Capitol Hill is a myth. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) had to the gall to mock the public's concerns by offering several ridiculous amendments, including one that would prohibit government buildings from being named after living senators. Coburn said he was planning to introduce the amendments in "jest," as a way of snickering at our calls for reform.

 

Ha, ha, Coburn's quite the comedian. But he's not laughing alone. When the Senate Democrats offered their surprisingly strong "Honest Leadership Act" on the floor this week it too saw defeat, on a 55-44 party line vote. Instead the Senate unanimously passed a law forbidding lobbyists from buying lawmakers meals and drinks. The poor impoverished Senators, as Trent Lott sulked, will be forced to eat with their wives.

Other coming amendments, CQ reported, "are likely to be accepted without a roll call vote, thus avoiding a potentially harmful public record of positions taken on 'good government' legislation."

Silly me. I could've sworn I heard Senators boasting weeks ago that sunlight was supposed to be the best disinfectant.

Dems Punking On Border Debate

Let's extend the discussion we're having here on immigration reform another round or so. Below this post you can read of my colleague Sam Graham-Felsen's hopes for the much-needed DREAM act to come to fruition.

Frankly,just as the Senate starts marking up its immigration reform bill before a March 27 deadline, the lights on the whole border enhcilada are alarmingly dimming out. Dreams are more likely to end as nightmares. Yes, the Republican restrictionists on Capitol Hill are doing a fine job of sandtrapping more moderate reformers.

But let's stop for a moment and ponder what a piss-poor job the Democrats are also doing.

First there's the case of Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano picking Wednesday as the day to annouce she is ordering more National Guardsmen posted on the border. NO accident this comes on the very same day that the Senate debate begins. Even less doubt that this is the most numb-skulled sort of political demagogy. Napolitano knows very well that sending down a couple of hundred Guard members to simply ride along with Border Patrol agents and back them up on techincal and administrative affairs is gonna have a 0.0% effect on plugging up illegal immigration leaks. But the dispatch of the troops sure reads great in those headlines -- ain't that right Governor? On a day when when we need maximum clarity, we get cheap grandstanding and pandering to the other side.

More flummoxing are the political declarations today of Hillary Clinton. After a long studied silence on the immigration issue, Ms. Clinton finally spoke out today saying that some of the Republican border reform plans currently out there would set up a "police state." (My, my America is an accelerated decline -- moving from plantations to police states in barely a months time!)

The truly offensive part of Ms.Clinton's remarks derive not so much from her well-known cowardice on this issue, but more so from the ghastly border policies enacted by Mister Clinton last decade. In the mid-90's, President Clinton imposed draconian lockdowns on traditional urban crossing points from San Diego across to El Paso. The macabre result was to re-route the flow of the udocumented out into the most hostile and unpopulated deserts. The death toll of those trying to cross rose from 30-50 year in the first two years of Clinton to 300 and 400 where it remains today. Worse, in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing, Clinton passed a set of immigration regs that immediately led to the summary deportations of tens of thousands of immigrants, some of them legal residents. So you know what? I really don't want to hear a word out of Hillary on this issue except, mayb,e "I'm sorry."

Finally, the wire reports inform us that on this, the first crucial day of Senate Judiciary Committee mark-up on the proposed reform, the Dems were basically AWOL. The San Jose Mercury News reports that:

No more than eight of the 18 members on the Senate panel were ever in the meeting room at one time Wednesday. Under the committee rules, it takes eight members to vote on amendments and 10 to actually vote on the total bill. And at least two members from each party have to be there.

For much of the time, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., was the lone Democrat although Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., came and went as did a few others.

Specter, R-Pa., repeatedly asked the staff of the absent senators to summon them and said if this continues he will start asking those not showing up if they "really" want to be a member of the usually coveted panel.

A DREAM act? More like Deam On! The growing consensus of expert immigration watchers is that this whole process -- years in the making-- seems headed for a crash and burn over the next few weeks. There just aren't enough Republicans who will fend off the wackos from their right fringe. And the President, who once had honroable positions on this issue, has retreated back into his bubble. And there aren't enough Democrats out there ready to make common cause with the likes of McCain or even Bush to get something done that might be actually good for the country.

Here's the early line from the consulting oddsmakers I keep retained on my mammoth staff: They'll offer you today about 6 to 1 that there will be no comprehensive reform and that within a few months we will be back to where we were a year ago -- nowhere.Said one smarty pants immigration lawyer I know: The Republicans are on the verge of doing to immigration what Hillary Clinton did last decade to Health Care -- Set it back several decades!

Pork & Molasses

"If we say we need it, the American people can afford it," a high-ranking Pentagon official once told Vice Admiral John Shanahan years ago.

By "it" he meant weapon system after weapon system. Today America can't afford it. But still the Pentagon wants it all and what Shanahan terms the "Military-Industrial Congressional Complex" happily says yes, under the guise of appearing "strong on defense."

Congress is close to passing another $50 billion for the war in Iraq, on top of the $251 billion previously allocated. This funding isn't even part of the Pentagon's $439.3 budget for next year, the highest level since World War II.

Fifteen percent of that budget will go toward obsolete, ineffective or unusable Cold War-era weapons that costs Americans billions of dollars and provides no security in return. Today former Reagan Administration Assistant Secretary of Defense Lawrence Korb, in conjunction with the Congressional Progressive Caucus and Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities, unveiled a blueprint to curb this madness.

The "Common Sense Budget Act" would eliminate $60 billion in waste and fraud from the Pentagon's budget and redirect the money toward homeland security, deficit reduction, energy independence, children's health, school modernization, job training, medical research and humanitarian assistance. Polls show that two-thirds of the public want these changes to occur.

The Act, introduced by Rep. Lynn Woolsey with fifteen cosponsors, has virtually no chance of passing this Congress. But hopefully it'll be the beginning of a badly-needed debate. Business leaders plan to kickstart the discussion by running ads in two disproportionally important states: Iowa and New Hampshire.

Messing With DeLay

Well, maybe you can mess with Texas. Scandal-plagued former House Minority Leader Tom DeLay, whose career in Congress imploded after he was indicted for scheming to warp homestate political maps and campaigns, won a clear victory in his Republican primary Tuesday night.

DeLay took 62 percent of the vote to 30 percent for his most credible challenger, Tom Campbell, a lawyer who served as general counsel for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration during the George H.W. Bush administration. Lawyer Mike Fjetland, a frequent candidate, took 5 percent, while Pat Baig, a retired credit manager, got 3 percent.

Those numbers look good on paper for DeLay. But, on the ground in Texas, the refrain is: "Tom's in trouble."

What's wrong with 62 percent? That's the smallest share of the Republican primary vote DeLay has secured in any of his re-election campaigns.

GOP strategists know that, when a still-powerful player in the majority party in the House, who has 100 percent name recognition, a huge campaign bankroll and across-the-board support from party leaders can't even get two-thirds of the vote in a Republican primary, he's standing on shaky ground.

And this particular incumbent was already looking vulnerable going into the fall contest.

In November, 2004, before he was indicted and before the name of his friend Jack Abramoff became the new shorthand for corruption in the Capitol, DeLay was reelection against a weak Democratic challenger with a mere 55 percent of the vote.

That was far short of the 64 percent of the vote given by DeLay's 22nd District to President Bush in 2004.

In this November's contests against an aggressive and reasonably well-funded Democrat, former U.S. Representative Nick Lampson, DeLay cannot afford to lose 38 percent of Republicans, as he did in Tuesday's primary.

Indeed, any significant slippage from his Republican base will spell big trouble for the incumbent.

So, while DeLay cleared the Republican primary hurdle, Texas might still mess him in November.

Vermont Towns Vote to Impeach -- UPDATED

A single Vermont community's call for the impeachment of President Bush turned into a chorus Tuesday night, with town meetings across southern Vermont echoing the demand that Congress act to remove the president.

Voters in the town of Newfane, where the movement began, endorsed impeachment by a resounding margin. The paper ballot vote was 121-29 for a slightly amended version of the resolution that had been submitted by Dan DeWalt, an elected member of the town's select board. DeWalt's initial resolution declared:

Whereas George W. Bush has:

1. Misled the nation about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction;

2. Misled the nation about ties between Iraq and Al Quaeda;

3. Used these falsehoods to lead our nation into war unsupported by international law;

4. Not told the truth about American policy with respect to the use of torture; and

5. Has directed the government to engage in domestic spying, in direct contravention of U.S. law.

Therefore, the voters of the town of Newfane ask that our representative to the U.S. House of Representatives file articles of impeachment to remove him from office.

The key amendment involved the addition of a call for the Vermont House and Senate to take up the issue. Though it is a little-known and even less-used power, state legislatures can officially forward impeachment resolutions to Congress.

The Newfane vote was expected. The surprise on Tuesday night came from neighboring communities where, inspired by Newfane's example, citizens demanded that their town meetings address the issue. At least four other Vermont towns -- Brookfield, Dummerston, Marlboro and Putney – voted for impeachment resolutions Tuesday night. Most of the additional resolutions passed by voice votes, but in Marlboro a show of hands produced a 60-10 vote for impeachment.

DeWalt, the Newfane official who started the process when he drafted an impeachment article and placed it on the official agenda for the annual town meeting, celebrated the grassroots revolt against George Bush and his administration as a healthy sign that democracy is still alive – at least in Vermont.

"In the U.S. presently there are only a few places where citizens can act in this fashion and have a say in our nation,'' explained DeWalt.

U.S. Representative Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent who has been a fierce critic of the Bush administration, responded to the call from the towns with an acknowledgement that Bush "has been a disaster for our country, and a number of actions that he has taken may very well not have been legal." Yet, despite the fact that more than two dozen House members have cosponsored a resolution calling for the establishment of a select committee that would make recommendations regarding impeachment, Sanders said that Republican control of the House and Senate makes it "impractical to talk about impeachment" at this point.

Vermont Republicans and conservative commentators were dismissive, suggesting that town meetings ought to focus on local issues rather than attempts to check and balance executive excess.

But Newfane's DeWalt said impeachment was an appropriate item for town meeting consideration. While he noted that the resolution cited a number of issues, the select board member used the example of the continuing occupation of Iraq. "The war affects us here in Newfane," he said. "It affects us when our mothers and fathers and sons and daughters are sent off to war, and it affects us in our tax dollars to pay for that war."

Looking for Votes in All The Wrong Places (continued)

Two weeks after I wrote about the North Carolina Republican Party's dubious effort to collect church membership directories, the IRS issued a report revealing that 37 of 47 churches investigated nationwide during the 2004 campaign were found to have participated in prohibited political activities.

According to the New York Times, "The infractions included distributing materials that encouraged people to vote for particular candidates and giving cash to campaigns."

And it's not just Republicans who were attempting to blur these constitutional lines. The Baltimore Sun reports that Del. Emmet Burns Jr., a democrat from Baltimore County, has received approximately $16,000 from churches since 2000. In all, over 100 churches in Maryland donated money to 40 candidates since 2000.

While there is no federal law preventing candidates from accepting the money, there are prohibitions against tax-exempt groups making contributions of this kind. So, naturally, Burns and some other politicians want the IRS to change the laws so that religious institutions can support candidates however they desire.

But IRS Commissioner Mark Everson says his agency is determined to stop the "staggering increase in money flowing into campaigns…." The agency's new education and enforcement guidelines state clearly, "...all section 501(c)(3) organizations are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office."

Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, believes the IRS is now committed to enforcement.

"It's no longer possible for critics to say the IRS is blind or toothless," Lynn says, "because this announcement is a pretty major indication that they are serious."And as Frederick Clarkson point out in Talk to Action, "this is certainly bad news for the Christian Right, which has encouraged churches to bend if not break the rules proscribing electoral activities by non-profit, tax-exempt groups."

"It's important for people of faith to be engaged in the political arena," Rev. Robert Chase, Director of Communication for the United Church of Christ notes, "but it is another thing altogether to use religious institutions to register only certain types of voters or support specific candidates for office. This endangers the historic separation of church and state, an important guarantor of democracy."

Let's hope the IRS takes the advice of Rev. Chase to heart and follows through. In these times when so many of our historical rights and freedoms are threatened, it's chilling to contemplate a further deterioration of the separation between church and state.

"America Could Lose Its Army in Iraq"

Imagine this scenario, as described last week in Washington by defense expert and former Senator Gary Hart.

Overnight, Iraq has descended into a full-scale civil war. Shiites and Sunnis are viciously killing each other. Vying for supremacy, both groups come after American troops--who are unable to take sides or quell the violence. Stuck in urban centers, US soldiers are unable to safely flee in time. A bloodbath ensues.

"America could lose its Army in Iraq," Hart told a crowd of journalists and foreign policy junkies at the New America Foundation last Thursday, repeating the warning twice. "See Black Hawk Down and multiply it to the tenth power. Read the history of 1812. Think of the image of US soldiers on helicopters [exiting] Saigon and multiply it to the tenth power."

Remember, Hart's January 2001 report with former Senator Warren Rudman famously predicted a 9/11-style attack on US soil. Where is the Pentagon's contingency plan for such a nightmare Iraq scenario, Hart wonders? Does it even have one?

"I know that sounds apocalyptic, but it's not out of the question," Hart remarked at another event in DC that day. "We need an exit strategy. We have no choice."

What, Then, From Newfane?

It is appropriate indeed that the first time voters will be offered an opportunity to weigh in on the question of whether to impeach President George W. Bush for high crimes and misdemeanors is at a New England town meeting in a community chartered two years before the Declaration of Independence was drafted.

After all, in a country founded on the principle that executives -- be they kings or presidents -- must be accountable to the people, patriots have always known that, as George Mason, the father of the Bill of Rights, told the Constitutional Convention of 1787: "No point is of more importance than that the right of impeachment should be continued. Shall any man be above Justice?"

In Newfane, Vermont, Dan DeWalt, who serves as an elected member of the town's Select Board, has answered that question as Mason intended. "We have an immoral government operating illegally," DeWalt explained, when he proposed that today's annual town meeting vote on articles of impeachment.

DeWalt gathered the necessary signatures to qualify the measure for consideration by the residents of Newfane, who were set to gather today in the southeast Vermont community's 174-year-old Union Hall to consider more than two dozen issues, most of which involve local taxes.

It is Article 29, proposed by DeWalt, that will draw national attention for the first time to the town meetings that have been held each march since 1774 in Newfane.

That article declares:

We the voters of Newfane would like Town Meeting, March 2006, to consider the following resolution:

Whereas George W. Bush has:

1. Misled the nation about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction;

2. Misled the nation about ties between Iraq and Al Quaeda;

3. Used these falsehoods to lead our nation into war unsupported by international law;

4. Not told the truth about American policy with respect to the use of torture; and

5. Has directed the government to engage in domestic spying, in direct contravention of U.S. law.

Therefore, the voters of the town of Newfane ask that our representative to the U.S. House of Representatives file articles of impeachment to remove him from office.

The defenders of the current regime have already ridiculed DeWalt for his audacious proposal, just as they have ridiculed the voters of Newfane for considering it -- and the state of Vermont for being home to so rebellious a community. "Why should the most powerful man in the world worry about what Vermont voters say at a town meeting?" they ask, in mocking tones. "Who do these profaners from Newfane think they are?"

But mockey and condemnation have always been the portion served up to those patriots who dare to challenge the corruptions of empire.

It was not easy to challenge a King George 230.

It is not easy to challenge a King George today.

But even the most conservative of the founders, Gouverneur Morris, told the Constitutional Convention during the debate on impeachment that a president must always be conscious of his secondary role in the scheme of the new Republic.

"This Magistrate is not the King," explained Morris. "The people are the King."

Today, the people of Newfane are King. As such, they are well suited to judge the high crimes and misdemeanors of George Bush, and to propose his prosecution by the authorities who were charged by the founders with the task of checking and balancing the executive branch of governnment and its excesses.

Needed: A New Direction for US-Russian Relations

This past Sunday, on Meet the Press, would-be-Democratic Presidential candidate John Edwards and one-time-Republican presidential candidate Jack Kemp, used the fiftieth anniversary of Winston Churchill's Fulton speech to promote their new Council on Foreign Relations' Task Force Report, Russia's Wrong Direction: What the US Can and Should Do.

Edwards and Kemp didn't use Churchill's rhetoric of 1946. Neither spoke of "an iron curtain" descending across Europe. Yet in 2006, there are whiffs of a new-fangled Cold War. This new chapter in US-Russian relations already has its own codewords, checkpoints and nuances. (Underlying the rhetoric is an American triumphalism, as represented by John Lewis Gaddis's new history of the Cold War.) There is a hectoring tone and a familiar double standard, for example, when it comes to condemning Moscow for seeking allies and military bases abroad just as the Bush Administration is doing. As Russia expert and New York University Professor Stephen Cohen ( as well as longtime Nation contributing editor and, full disclosure, my husband) lamented at a conference on the Cold War held at the Gorbachev Foundation in Moscow last week, US-Russian relations are being remilitarized.

Talking before a group of nearly 200 Russian and Western scholars, journalists, and diplomats, Cohen observed that "most alarming, negotiations for reducing nuclear weapons have, in effect, been terminated by the Bush Administrations' unilateral withdrawal from the ABM treaty, and by the essentially meaningless nuclear reductions agreement it imposed on Moscow in 2002. And all this, including new buildups on both sides, while Russia's means of fully controlling its existing nuclear devices are less reliable than they were under the Soviet system."

No one can claim that these are hopeful times in Russia. Twenty one years after Gorbachev came to power, little is left of the historic opportunities his reforms opened up for his country and for the world. Instead, as The Nation pointed out in a June 2000 editorial, (at a time when the US government cautiously welcomed Vladimir Putin as a man committed to "democratic" reform), the new President was more accurately described as "instinctively authoritarian." And as The Nation also understood at that time--unlike so much of the American press--Putin's rise to power was an outgrowth of Yeltsinism, which Washington had so assiduously supported through the 1990s.

It reflected "the emergence of an iron-handed leader who, by exploiting Russians' desire for law and order, has struck a sympathetic chord among millions sick of the corruption" of the Yeltsin years. The anti-democratic consequences of Yeltsinism are still evident. Last month, a survey conducted by the Russian Center for Public Opinion Research, revealed that nearly 60 percent of Russians polled believe the country needs an authoritarian ruler. (Not all of these were older people, as the conventional wisdom has it; a substantial number were young.)

There is no question that the US needs a new policy toward Russia--one that is neither triumphalist, Cold War-like, or ignorant of the fact that the pro-Western liberal groups in Russia today--so called "democrats" who were chiefly responsible for Yeltsin's policies of the 1990s--are in fact supported by a tiny fraction of the Russian electorate. What is needed is a policy that understands why Russia has become a semi-authoritarian state--or what some call a "managed democracy." But understanding usually requires a sense of history--something missing from too much of media coverage of Russia today. It means placing Putin in historical perspective, never forgetting that he was put in the Kremlin to be Yeltsin's loyal praetorian successor. (Indeed, one of Putin's first acts was to issue a decree protecting Yeltsin from future prosecution for corruption.)

The Edwards-Kemp report also fails to make clear that after the looting and plundering of Russia's natural resources by a handful of oligarchs in the 1990s, abetted by Yeltsin and also endorsed by the US as "reform," it was virtually inevitable that Putin, or any post-Yeltsin leader, would reassert state control over the country's essential resources, particularly oil and gas.(This does not mean that the oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky should be in a prison camp today, but it does mean that some financial retribution for the oligarchical looting was unavoidable.)

Yes, there is much to condemn in Putin's handling of the brutal war in Chechnya. Yes, democratization--which was launched by Gorbachev in the late 1990s--has been rolled back. (It should be pointed out, however, that while the Kremlin has reasserted state control over television, few in the US media seem to be aware that Russia's print press is still politically diverse. On a typical day in Moscow, you can read a fuller range of political views in the many newspapers published in that city than in New York.)

But what is rarely, if ever, acknowledged in the American media is that--as Cohen forcibly argues in his book Failed Crusade--de-democratization began not under Putin but under Yeltsin. (Yeltsin's use of tanks against an elected parliament in 1993 was a grievous blow against democracy.) And at a time when anti-Americanism has reached all-time highs, US government and media lectures to the Russians about democracy may well do more harm than good. (Indeed to hear the Bush Administration lecturing others on democracy--in Russia or anywhere in the world--seems surreal.)

Instead of counter-productive lecturing, we should be developing a cooperative relationship with a Russia that is reengaging pragmatically in the Middle East--by testing Hamas's willingness to moderate its anti-Israel militancy, or controlling Iran's nuclear weapons ambitions. And as essential is the need to restart negotiations on reducing each countries' bloated nuclear arsenals. (Indeed, we'd all be instantly safer if Moscow and Washington took their nuclear warheads off of hair-trigger alert.)

In short, those looking for a measured and knowledgeable understanding of Russia today will not find it in the Edwards-Kemp Council on Foreign Relations report. (Though it can hardly be considered a compliment, it should be said that the Report is sane when compared to the Washington Post's hectoring, Cold War-style editorials about Russia.)

Instead, I recommend recent articles by New America Foundation Fellow Anatol Lieven, especially his Financial Times op-ed of last month. Also, Tony Judt's meticulous critique of John Lewis Gaddis's "The Cold War," in which Judt exposes the historian as a key representative of the unapolegetic triumphalism that afflicts our political class. And there is also Cohen's book, Failed Crusade, which is both a critique of US policy toward Russia and a blueprint for a new policy.

Finally, in regard to the indignant braying about whether Russia deserves to be in the G8--a major topic of the new CFR report--I suggest reading former securities' analyst Eric Kraus's amusing, insightful web article, Does America Deserve to be in the G8? After all, as Kraus writes, if democratization is a litmus test for membership in the G8, "over the past six years, the US has seen a substantial erosion of her old but still-fragile democracy, along with an increasingly aggressive foreign policy and growing tendency to ignore the will of the international community. Indeed, any international law whatsoever. This clearly poses a growing threat to regional security and to world peace."


A personal coda: When I met John Edwards last year, I suggested that if he focused on Russian-American relations, as he said he might, he should consider addressing the poverty ravaging that beleaguered country. (According to official Russian statistics, 18 percent of Russians live in poverty; but, according to many eminent Russian economists and other scholars, the figure is certainly closer to 50 percent.) After all, there seemed a natural coherence to that focus--since Edwards has made American poverty a central issue of his political campaigning.

I also suggested to Edwards that he avoid seeking the Council on Foreign Relations's seal of approval to shore up his national security credentials. Why not take a less predictable, more populist route? Why not turn to other, alternative, perhaps less established thinkers on Russian -American relations whose ideas have not already failed and who are more suited to the new realities of the post-Cold War world?