Nation editor-at-large and host of MSNBC’s All In with Chris Hayes.
He links to a hit piece up over at Commentary, which made me think: Commentary still exists?
Since this week marks my first time filing taxes while living here in DC, today seems an especially appropriate moment to shout out to the good work of groups like DC Vote. Over the past year, thanks to such advocates' efforts, attempts to gain House voting rights for DC residents have neared ever closer to victory. Last April for the first time in a generation, the House passed a DC voting-rights bill, though Senate Republicans--backed by the White House--blocked the proposal by a narrow three-vote margin in September.
As the license plates around here read, "Taxation without representation." It's too bad President Bush doesn't appreciate the reference (perhaps not coincidentally, given that 85% of DC voters backed Al Gore). After taking office in 2001, Bush promptly had the Clinton-installed license plates on all presidential limousines replaced with ones that read more simply, "Washington DC."
Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) sat alone at an otherwise empty dais during today's Senate hearing on Immokalee tomato pickers, asking questions he already knew the answers to.
For months, Sanders has campaigned alongside workers to expose exploitation in Florida's tomato fields, where migrant laborers toil for a meager 45 cents for every 32-pound bucket of tomatoes they harvest and haul--a wage rate that, adjusted for inflation, has decreased by 75% over the past 30 years. Yet today even Sanders, once again hearing the extent of abuses in the fields, seemed hard-pressed to keep an expression of incredulity off his face. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers' Lucas Benitez testified about seven-day workweeks, debt bondage, and armed crew bosses that beat workers who attempt to leave. Eric Schlosser--who's written extensively about farm-labor sweatshops but describes conditions as such that nevertheless "defy words"--spoke of a culture of exploitation that allowed Abel Cuello, a man convicted in 1999 for enslaving at least 30 migrants in Florida and South Carolina, to readily find work again upon leaving prison with Ag-Mart Produce, one of Florida's largest tomato growers.
After listening to the witnesses, Sanders continued to duly interrogate them. But what questions could he really ask? The issue the hearing highlighted--tomato pickers' wages--could hardly be more unambiguous.
The back story is simple: In 2005, Taco Bell--dogged by a four-year consumer boycott led by CIW--agreed to pay an extra penny per pound for tomatoes it purchased. A small pittance for Taco Bell to give up, but the victory was real, granting workers their first significant pay raise in decades. And last year, those gains were solidified when McDonald's signed onto the agreement as well, alongside Pizza Hut and KFC.
But in November, the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange--which represents 90 percent of the state's growers--stepped in. Not only did they reject the agreement, but they also threatened a $100,000 fine against any grower who accepted extra payment for migrant wages. There's no reason for this, since the agreement doesn't actually cost growers. But as one grower explained his opposition to such worker concessions (and Benitez shared before the committee), "A tractor doesn't tell the farmer how to run the farm." Likewise in questioning today, FTGE's Reggie Brown maintained the tomato growers' line, declaring that he'd never heard of abuses like those his co-panelists (including a detective from the local county sheriff's office) described.
There were few cameras at today's hearing, and few of Sanders' colleagues, either. But of course, the real action Sanders and the Immokalee workers hope for couldn't happen in the hearing. Rather, theirs is the hope that the Southern Poverty Law Center's Mary Bauer expressed in her testimony: "I do not believe American people would be silent if they knew how their food was being produced." Or members of Congress, either.
Join Sanders and the CIW here.
Shortly after we unveiled our new blog here at the Washington bureau, I got a panicked call from Jeremy Ben-Ami, who was in the midst of organizing a new, pro-Israel, pro-peace organization. The group had gone through a long branding process and come up with the name...J Street! Being strong believers in free culture we told him we thought Washington was big enough for two J streets.
Today J Street (the other one) got its official launch. J Street will consist of a 501(c)4 that will lobby congress and a PAC that will raise money and support candidates who share the organization's viewpoint: that the only way to ensure a secure future for Israel is by reaching a negotiated, political solution with the Palestinians.
In my six months in Washington, I've come to view most issue battles here as essentially games of fusbol. Opposing forces wildly flap and spin their little figurines to try to keep the ball in the opponent's part of the field, hoping for an error or a bit of luck to aid them in scoring a goal and getting a piece of legislation through. Like fusbol, it's not even a necessarily highly skilled enterprise; it relies chiefly on energy and persistence. The worst policy and legislative outcomes -- farm subsidies, the Cuba embargo, copyright extensions -- are produced when only one side is working the handles.
Israel policy is, of course, the area in which this dynamic has been most destructively evident. It's really remarkable that for the last two decades AIPAC has been allowed to arrogate to itself the role of speaking for American Jews on the topic of Israel, despite the fact its actual positions and staff are far, far to the right of your average Jewish American. Now J Street has, thankfully, joined the scene. As former NYC Corporate council Victor Kovner just put in on a press call introducing the organization, "It's long overdue."
This week, the House votes on a tax-filing simplification act, a bill to increase student access to federal loans (USSA evaluation here), whether to allow up to 24 developing countries to qualify for new debt relief under the Jubilee Act, and a beaches bill that was postponed from last week. The beach legislation enjoys wide support, but a series of GOP-proposed amendments--including possible attempts to expand offshore natural gas leasing and insert the text of the Senate-passed Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act legislation--is expected to provoke debate. The House also votes on the Contracting and Tax Accountability Act, which would deny certain government contracts to firms with seriously delinquent tax debts.
On the Senate side, members will consider technical corrections to the 2005 surface transportation law, and may additionally take up an act to ban discrimination based on genetic information and an omnibus veterans' benefits measure.
Meanwhile, Congress holds appropriations hearings, as well as hearings on the impact of the credit market on student loans, abuses of tomato workers, nuclear terrorism, shortfalls in ground force readiness, how to prevent a nuclear Iran, detecting contract fraud and federal contracts awarded to AEY, Inc. With the latest extension of the farm bill expiring this Friday, both chambers' conferees will continue negotiations on the bill, which have sputtered for months over how to finance a $10-billion spending increase and $2.5 billion in Senate-added tax breaks under current pay-go rules.
Rahm Emmanuel on those lazy Iraqis:
"We've put about $45 billion into Iraq's reconstruction . . . and they have not spent their own resources...They have got to have some skin in the game."
In the wake of Petraeus hearing, I'm quickly despairing that the Democrats' newest line on Iraq is: blame the wogs. I mean, really.
In the Senate...On Thursday, members passed the Foreclosure Prevention Act by an 84-12 vote, though the bill -- as Sen. Dodd gently put it -- "does not quite live up to the title." The bill faces considerable criticism (its funding goes principally toward $25.5 billion in business tax relief) and is expected to undergo substantial House revisions. The Senate also voted to back extension of wilderness protection and heritage areas, and additionally end the Abramoff-backed "guest worker" program in the Northern Mariana Islands.
In the House...Following the White House's decision to send the Colombia free-trade agreement to Congress (triggering a 90-day timeline for consideration), members countered Bush's move with a vote to eliminate the timetable altogether. In light of White House resistance to extending greater food stamp, unemployment and housing assistance, Pelosi declared the House was "pleased" to consider the agreement, but couldn't without first addressing the "economic insecurity of America's working families." The House also voted to expand traumatic brain injury research and recognize the National Landscape Conservation System.
In high-profile hearings, flanked by the presidential candidates' accompanying press phalanx, Petraeus declared progress in Iraq "fragile and reversible" and recommended against consideration of any new troop withdrawals before fall. On Thursday, Bush responded by declaring Petraeus will have "all the time" he needs to evaluate further decreases. In a volte-face from last year, Gates testified there was no possibility that the number of Iraq-based troops could drop to 100,000 by the start of 2009. Meanwhile, Dems pressed Crocker and Petraeus for a clearer definition of success in Iraq and highlighted the war's economic and military strains, while Admiral Mullen described the distressed state of Afghanistan and argued troop commitments in Iraq continue to hamstring efforts in the region.
On Thursday, in an attempt to preempt Democratic plans to use this year's must-pass war spending bill to fund emergency social spending, Bush vowed to veto any bill that exceeds his $108-billion request. In his war speech that same day, he called for reducing troop deployments from 15 to 12 months (though the policy change doesn't affect troops currently stationed in Iraq).
Amid the focus on Iraq and Afghanistan, this week the revised GI Bill sponsored by Sen. Webb (D-Va.) gained new backers, bringing the total number of sponsors up to 54, including 10 Republicans. Neither McCain or the White House have endorsed the legislation. (The latter cites cost issues and fear that better education benefits might drive more troops to leave the service early.)
Also this week, the latest woman to come forward with KBR-related allegations of rape testified before Congress. Both chambers passed resolutions condemning Chinese crackdowns in Tibet. Rep. Conyers (D-MI.) threatened to subpoena John Yoo to appear before Congress this May. House lawyers filed a motion for summary judgement against Miers and Bolten (both who continue to dodge House subpoenas), while Attorney General Mukasey refused to declare whether a 2001 memo--which argued the Fourth Amendment doesn't apply to domestic military operations--remains in force.
The ACLU animates an amusing (and by amusing I mean eerily disquieting) vision of what a national ID database could mean, here.
Fortunately however, this month in the state-federal game of chicken over the REAL ID Act, the feds swerved first. While the bill required states to comply or file for an extension by this month, to date, at least six states have simply refused to adhere to the law--and when the deadline passed a week and a half ago, many didn't bother applying for extensions, either.
A chagrined DHS went ahead and issued them anyway. The new deadline is now 2010. By then, a new presidency and Congress will hopefully make the whole mangled plan--passed in 2005 as a rider on a defense bill--moot.
Here's the Times excellent Michael Cooper on McCain's reversal on federal intervention in the mortgage crisis:
Senator John McCain, who drew criticism last month after he warned against broad government intervention to solve the deepening mortgage crisis, pivoted Thursday and called for the federal government to aid some homeowners in danger of losing their homes, by helping them to refinance and get federally guaranteed 30-year mortgages.
"Pivoted" is perfectly accurate, but I think there's another term that comes to mind.
Kevin Drum wonders: "Which is more important to the cause of free trade: (a) passage of the Colombian trade pact or (b) reining in the monstrosity that is U.S. farm policy?"
"The answer is (b) by several light years. So why do we hear so much about the dire consequences of failing to pass a piddling bilateral trade deal with a ruthless Latin American regime but almost nothing about the dire consequences of the hideous $300 billion distortion caused by the latest round of farm subsidies -- most of which goes to big agribusiness, not struggling family farms?"
Heartily seconded. To compound the inanity still further, food prices have catapulted by 40% since last year alone.