This was supposed to be a Sweet Victory post. That's the weekly feature Sam Graham-Felsen and I started last fall. In those grim days after the election, we believed that one antidote to the political darkness was to shed some light on progressive wins--from legislative and electoral victories to successful organizing efforts, protests and boycotts, to the launching of promising new organizations or initiatives. We hoped these stories would serve not only as a source of information but as inspiration.
We plan to continue tracking these victories. And we hope you Nation readers will continue to send us tips about what you think we should be covering. (Click here to send suggestions.) But I have to confess that it was really tough to come up with a sweet victory in this last week of July 2005.
As a friend from DC wrote me late last night: "So this is the week from hell: the AFL-CIO splits, the DLC unveils Hillary as head of its American Dream new ideas committee (god forbid), to be followed by confirmation of Christopher Cox to head the SEC without a fight, passage of a big oil energy bill with massive giveaways to industry, including Halliburton, passage of CAFTA, with 15 Dems on board. Bush declares triumph; hailed as effective. Country takes it in ear. No wonder breathing the air here in DC is officially bad for your health....And as Congress heads to recess, both parties show what they are. Rs are disciplined and utterly corrupt, willing to hijack democracy for their own agenda, and wrongheaded. And Ds still in disarray, divided with too little fight in them."
Infuriating, depressing, yes. But though it's probably healthy to mourn a bit, it's also more important then ever to keep organizing and agitating in the days and weeks ahead. In that spirit, we'll keep highlighting big and small--but always sweet--victories worth celebrating.
A couple of months ago, with the help of terrific song suggestions from Nation readers, I put together a playlist for Dubya's iPod. Radiohead's Hail to the Thief, Green Day's American Idiot, Kid Rock's Pimp of the Nation, and REM's The End of the World, As We Know It, all made the Top Ten. Masters like Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs and Frank Zappa (especially his The Torture Never Stops) were also at the top of many readers' lists.
The Rolling Stones' You Can't Always Get What You Want, made it to the top fifty. Now, it seems, the band may be gunning for the top slot with its new single. Britain's New Musical Express reported last week that the next Stones album, slated for release this September, will include a track critical of the Bush gang's foreign policy. Sweet Neo-Con, according to the weekly, "is believed to be an attack on the politics of George Bush and the Republican Administraton." Virgin Records has been telling people the song has "a political message about moralism in the White House."
Jagger giving Dubya morality lessons. I like it. Sympathy for the Devil.
The Central American Free Trade Agreement, which was such a high priority for the Bush administration that the president personally lobbied Congressional Republicans on the issue Wednesday, passed the House by two votes.
Those two votes came from members who can best be described as "Bush Democrats."
The final vote on CAFTA was 217-215 in favor of the deal, the closest margin possible -- as a tie vote would have prevented approval.
Of the 217 supporters of the bill, 202 were Republicans and 15 were Democrats.
Of the 215 opponents of the bill, 187 were Democrats, 27 were Republicans and one was an independent, Vermont's Bernie Sanders.
The Republicans who split with the president withstood immense pressure from the White House and corporate lobbyists in order to take a stand with the organized labor, environmental, farm and international human rights groups that opposed the agreement. They were so courageous and so consistent in their determination to block the president's agenda that, during the floor debate, Representative Sherrod Brown, the Ohio Democrat who led opposition to CAFTA, specifically praised Republicans such as Idaho's Butch Otter and North Carolina's Walter Jones for their efforts.
On the other hand, the Democrats who supported Bush's agenda faced little or no pressure from the White House. Nor did they show anything akin to courage or consistency. They simply voted with the White House because, either they agree with the president's misguided approach to global trade or they thought they could trade their votes for big contributions from the corporate interests that see the NAFTA/CAFTA model of free trade as an opportunity to improve business bottom lines at the expense of workers, the environment and communities in the U.S. and Latin America.
Let's give the Bush Democrats the benefit of the doubt and accept that they actually support the corporate model for trade that Bush backs. This puts them at odds with mainstream Democrats on what can only be described as the most fundamental of economic issues -- as trade deals get into the core questions of whether American workers will have jobs, whether communities can maintain their industrial bases, whether government has the power to protect the environment, and whether the U.S. government will be a willing co-conspirator in the exploitation of men, women and children in developing countries.
So, unless they are crooks who trade their votes for campaign checks, the Bush Democrats are supporters of a corporate agenda that Representative Robert Menendez -- a New Jersey Democrat who has a long history of involvement with Latin American affairs -- explained during the CAFTA debate would harm U.S. workers and farmers while plunging Central American countries deeper into poverty and causing more Latin Americans to migrate to the U.S.
At the least, this suggests that the Bush Democrats -- Melissa Bean of Illinois, Jim Cooper of Tennessee, Henry Cuellar of Texas, Norm Dicks of Washington, Ruben Hinojosa of Texas, William Jefferson of Louisiana, Jim Matheson of Utah, Gregory Meeks of New York, Dennis Moore of Kansas, Jim Moran of Virginia, Solomon Ortiz of Texas, Ike Skelton of Missouri, Vic Snyder of Arkansas, John Tanner of Tennessee, and Edolphus Towns of New York -- are on the wrong side of history, and of humanity.
But does this one vote, necessarily, make them Bush Democrats?
Let's look at where they lined up on other economic issues that matter to the Bush White House?
When the so-called "bankruptcy reform" bill came up earlier this year, the White House and Wall Street favored a "yes" vote to make it harder for working Americans who get hit with a medical emergency or some other form of crisis to get back on their feet financially. Twelve of the pro-CAFTA Democrats -- Bean, Cooper, Cuellar, Hinojosa, Jefferson, Matheson, Meeks, Moore, Moran, Ortiz, Skelton and Tanner -- voted with the White House.
On the so-called "tort-reform" legislation that passed the House earlier this year, and which will make it dramatically harder for individuals who are wronged by corporations to hold them accountable, nine of pro-CAFTA Democrats voted with the White House and Wall Street: Bean, Cooper, Cuellar, Hinojosa, Matheson, Meeks, Moore, Moran and Tanner.
But what about other issues that are top White House priorities, such as the war in Iraq.
Of the pro-CAFTA Democrats, six backed the 2002 resolution authorizing Bush to go to war in Iraq: Dicks, Jefferson, Matheson, Moore, Skelton and Tanner, while another four were either not serving in the House or did not vote: Bean, Cooper, Cuellar and Ortiz.
When the House voted on California Democrat Lynn Woolsey's May, 2005 amendment that sought to begin taking steps to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq, only Hinojosa, Jefferson, Meeks, Moran and Towns voted in favor of seeking an exit strategy. (On the question of whether to hand the Bush administration another $82 billion for the war, only Meeks and Towns voted for holding the White House accountable with regards to the war.)
So where does this leave us:
On fundamental economic issues, Bean, Cooper, Cuellar, Hinojosa, Matheson, Meeks, Moore, Moran and Tanner are consistent Bush Democrats.
On a broader array of issues, Hinojosa, Meeks and Moran move off the list.
But it is safe to say that, whether the issue is peace or prosperity, Bean, Cooper, Cuellar, Matheson, Moore and Tanner take the side of a White House that has consistently been at odds with both those goals.
Progressives in the labor, environmental, human rights, consumer and peace movements will have to decide where to draw the line -- either by withdrawing active support or by aggressively promoting Democratic primary or third-party general election challenges -- with regards to the Bush Democrats. Some will decide, as key unions already have, to withhold backing of the 15 House Democrats who backed CAFTA.
Others will focus their anger on the nine who, using measures suggested by activist and writer David Sirota, are the most consistent backers of Bush's corporations-first economic agenda.
It is notable that, of the six members who are with Bush when it comes to the economy and the war, Bean, Matheson and Moore come from swing districts where they are likely to be extremely vulnerable in the fall of 2006. Cooper, Cuellar and Tanner come from more decidedly Democratic districts where they might well be more vulnerable to Democratic primary challenges.
Of the rest of the pro-CAFTA 15, Dicks, Hinojosa, Jefferson, Meeks, Moran, Ortiz, Skelton, Snyder and Towns come from districts that trend Democratic -- although Skelton's Missouri district and Snyder's Arkansas district, could be swing turf.
By most measures, however, Dicks, Hinojosa, Jefferson, Meeks, Moran, Ortiz and Towns represent districts where an economic populist challenge in a Democrat primary could be significant.
The safe bet is that, in the next Congress, most of these members will still be present. But if even one or two Bush Democrats fall, either because of their CAFTA vote or because of a broader pattern of backing the White House on economic and foreign affairs issues, the president will have to look deeper into his own Republican caucus for support. He won't be able to rely on the Bush Democrats, as was the case with CAFTA.
Another part of the save-Rove cover story is not holding.
Once the Plame/CIA leak became big (mainstream-media) news in September 2003--when word hit that the CIA had asked the Justice Department to investigate the leak, which had appeared in a Bob Novak column two months earlier--friends of the White House, including Novak, started saying that Valerie Wilson wasn't really under cover at the CIA and, thus, the disclosure of her employment at the CIA wasn't worth a federal case (or investigation). They claimed that no big wrong had occurred, and this argument also conveniently offered any leaker a legal defense. Under the Intelligence Identities Protection Act, a government official can only be prosecuted for disclosing information identifying a "covert agent" whose cover the United States government was taking steps to protect. White House allies asserted that while Valerie Wilson may have technically been a clandestine CIA official, in practice she wasn't. So all this bother over the leak was much ado about nothing.
Novak, for example, downplayed Valerie Wilson's covert status in an October 1, 2003 column, in which he vaguely described how he had originally learned of her connection to the CIA. He noted that after a senior administration official told him that Joseph Wilson's wife worked at the CIA, he called the CIA:
At the CIA, the official designated to talk to me denied that Wilson's wife had inspired his selection but said she was delegated to request his help. He asked me not to use her name, saying she probably never again will be given a foreign assignment but that exposure of her name might cause "difficulties" if she travels abroad. He never suggested to me that Wilson's wife or anybody else would be endangered. If he had, I would not have used her name. I used it in the sixth paragraph of my column because it looked like the missing explanation of an otherwise incredible choice by the CIA for its mission.
Bush-backers have cited this paragraph to argue that the CIA didn't do much to protect Valerie Wilson's cover. I've heard GOP lawyer Victoria Toensing, who helped draft the Intelligence Identities Act, claim that Novak's exchange with the CIA is proof that the CIA was not taking serious measures to preserve Wilson's cover--which means the law she helped concoct does not apply in the case of this leak.
Should Novak be taken at his word on this point? Until now, the public only knew of his side of his conversation with the CIA. But The Washington Post published a piece on Wednesday that provides the CIA's version of this exchange. And it is significantly different from Novak's account. The paper reports,
[Bill] Harlow, the former CIA spokesman, said in an interview yesterday that he testified last year before a grand jury about conversations he had with Novak at least three days before the column was published. He said he warned Novak, in the strongest terms he was permitted to use without revealing classified information, that Wilson's wife had not authorized the mission [to Niger taken by former Ambassador Joseph Wilson] and that if he did write about it, her name should not be revealed.
Harlow said that after Novak's call, he checked Plame's status and confirmed that she was an undercover operative. He said he called Novak back to repeat that the story Novak had related to him was wrong and that Plame's name should not be used. But he did not tell Novak directly that she was undercover because that was classified.
So how many contradictions can you find? Novak indicated he had one substantive conversation with a CIA official about Valerie Wilson and he received no clear signal that revealing her name would cause any significant trouble. Harlow said there were two conversations and that in each one he warned Novak about using her name. (Harlow also said he told Novak that Valerie Wilson had not authorized her husband's trip. Remember, several Rove defenders have maintained that when Rove spoke to Time's Matt Cooper--and told Cooper that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA and had authorized his trip to Niger--he was merely trying to make sure that Cooper published an accurate account of what happened. Yet the CIA says she did not authorize this trip. Rove was feeding Cooper misleading information.)
Don't forget about DAVID CORN's BLOG at www.davidcorn.com. Read recent postings on Rove and the Plame/CIA leak, Bill Frist's latest bone-headed move, and Oliver Stone.
Is Harlow telling the truth? Who, besides Novak and him, can know? But I do know that when I spoke to Harlow a year later and asked about the identity of another covert officer, Harlow would not confirm the person's covert status. How could he? That would be sharing classified information with a reporter. When Novak called, Harlow was in no position to say, "Hey, Bob, you're right, and she's an undercover officer. So please don't reveal her name." All he could have done was to toss out a no-comment (which Harlow was good at doing) or offer a vague warning.
Harlow's account--in which he tried to protect Valerie Wilson from the quick-to-out-her columnist--is as self-serving as Novak's. But it rings true. Am I saying this because of my own bias? Perhaps. But the key thing is that Novak's defense--the CIA didn't give me a strong enough signal--is now in dispute. No one can use Novak's October 1, 2003, column as evidence that Valerie Wilson was not truly a "covert agent."
In that article, Novak also declared that Valerie Wilson's position at the CIA was an open secret throughout the nation's capital. His source for this? Journalist-turned-Republican-operative Clifford May. Novak wrote:
How big a secret was it? It was well known around Washington that Wilson's wife worked for the CIA. Republican activist Clifford May wrote Monday, in National Review Online, that he had been told of her identity by a non-government source before my column appeared and that it was common knowledge.
Indeed, May had written:
On July 14, Robert Novak wrote a column in the Post and other newspapers naming Mr. Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, as a CIA operative.
That wasn't news to me. I had been told that--but not by anyone working in the White House. Rather, I learned it from someone who formerly worked in the government and he mentioned it in an offhanded manner, leading me to infer it was something that insiders were well aware of.
Appearing on Fox News Channel, May amplified this assertion:
"I knew this, and a lot of other people knew it...So I think it may be something of an open secret."
"Insiders" were well aware of Valerie Wilson's job at the CIA? "A lot of other people" knew it, too? In the time since May boasted of his access to this "inside" information, what other evidence has emerged that Valerie Wilson's CIA identity was widely know to "insiders" (whatever that means)? I'll answer that rhetorical question: none. Her neighbors have been quoted saying they did not realize she was a CIA employee. (Maybe these neighbors are not "insiders.") And in recent weeks, attorneys for Karl Rove and Scooter Libby have put out the story that neither one of them knew her name. So these "insiders" were not truly in the know. (Oddly--but, then again, perhaps not--May recently tried to turn tables and argue that I am the one who actually outed Valerie Wilson as an undercover CIA officer. First, he said everyone knew. Now he says only I did. It's hard to keep up.)
Novak and May's claim that Valerie Wilson's CIA position was an open secret known throughout Washington has not held up. Novak's claim that the CIA did not wave him off now stands contested. Will either one of them run a correction?
IT REMAINS RELEVANT, ALAS. SO DON'T FORGET ABOUT DAVID CORN'S BOOK, The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception (Crown Publishers). A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER! An UPDATED and EXPANDED EDITION is AVAILABLE in PAPERBACK. The Washington Post says, "This is a fierce polemic, but it is based on an immense amount of research.... [I]t does present a serious case for the president's partisans to answer.... Readers can hardly avoid drawing...troubling conclusions from Corn's painstaking indictment." The Los Angeles Times says, "David Corn's The Lies of George W. Bush is as hard-hitting an attack as has been leveled against the current president. He compares what Bush said with the known facts of a given situation and ends up making a persuasive case." The Library Journal says, "Corn chronicles to devastating effect the lies, falsehoods, and misrepresentations.... Corn has painstakingly unearthed a bill of particulars against the president that is as damaging as it is thorough." And GEORGE W. BUSH SAYS, "I'd like to tell you I've read [ The Lies of George W. Bush], but that'd be a lie."
For more information and a sample, go to www.davidcorn.com. And see his WEBLOG there.
Last night, President Bush eked out a very narrow victory on his top trade priority, with the House of Representatives approving a free-trade agreement with Central American countries by just two votes. The House vote was held open for more than one hour to ensure passage. The final tally was 217 to 215.
The White House's victory on CAFTA was achieved through a combination of intense pressure and outright bribery to secure support for the measure, which fostered strong opposition from Democrats and Republicans. As Republican Representative C.L. "Butch" Otter, Republican of Idaho, told the Boston Globe today, GOP leaders promised pork-barrel spending and future legislation to undecided members, with a massive highway spending bill scheduled to be completed this week as a prime location for pet projects. "They're pulling out all the stops," Otter said. "They're either promising or threatening. They've done everything they could." (The Idaho rep. said he opposed CAFTA, despite personal lobbying from Bush at the White House.)
At least the GOP legislators were able to wrest unrelated bribes for their districts in return for their votes. That much cannot be said for the 15 so-called Democrats who voted for the pact and made passage possible.
As Jonathan Tasini writes in his excellent blog, The Working Life, "If we ever want to make politicians take us seriously when it comes to important laws touching the lives of workers, we must punish the 15 so-called Democrats who voted for the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA)--and punish them hard."
Click here to see who these 15 are and what to do to make clear to them your anger over their pro-CAFTA votes.
Let's be clear: Any member of Congress who votes for the Central American Free Trade Agreement has signaled their disregard for labor, environmental, farm, consumer and human rights groups that have spent the better part of a year actively opposing the Bush administration's attempt to create trade policies that favor only the interests of multinational corporations.
That goes for Republicans, for independents and, especially, for Democrats.
The Democratic party has relied heavily on labor support to win and hold competitive seats in the House, and its Democratic representatives cannot hide behind the excuses of White House pressure or political necessity that Republicans employ.
Yet, as a House vote on CAFTA approaches this week, at least six Democrats have announced their support for the deal and as many as a dozen others could still end up supporting it. With broad opposition from textile-state Republicans to the trade deal, Democratic unity against CAFTA can kill the deal. But if just a handful of Democrats side with the Bush agenda on trade, the deal could win approval by a narrow margin.
One of the Democrats who has endorsed CAFTA is Illinois Representative Melissa Bean, who last year took the seat of Republican veteran Phil Crane.
Bean could come to regret her decision. She won her 2004 race with strong support from unions, which contributed $235,000 to the effort. And she will been courting labor support for her reelection bid in 2006, when she will face a strong GOP challenge in a traditionally Republican district. Bean's fund-raising efforts have been assisted by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) -- headed by Illinois Representative Rahm Emanuel, a militant advocate for the North American Free Trade Agreement when he served as an aide to then-President Bill Clinton. The DCCC has designated her as one of its so-called "Frontline" candidates. The "Frontline" initiative seeks to fill the campaign coffers of the ten House incumbents who are likely to face the toughest challenges from Republicans next year.
This week, however, leaders of some of the largest unions in the country have indicated that they will not be backing Frontline candidates who vote for CAFTA, and they are urging the DCCC to drop Frontline efforts for members who support the deal. Bean is identified by name in the letter, along with Representatives Jim Matheson, D-Utah, and Dennis Moore, D-Kansas, both of whom have voted for free-trade pacts in the past and are seen as potential CAFTA backers.
The letter, which was sent to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Emanuel and other House Democratic leaders, declares that, "We recognize that the party and House Democrats are not homogeneous, that every member has a right to vote his or her conscience on all issues, including CAFTA. But this letter is to make it clear that we find it both objectionable and unacceptable that Leadership and the DCCC are pushing the Federation and individual affiliates to support vulnerable incumbents -- the so-called 'Frontline Candidates,' and some of these members are poised to desert labor on this core issue."
"This week," the letter continues, "three of those members who benefited from labor's substantial support, Melissa Bean, Jim Matheson and Dennis Moore, are either undecided on how they will vote on CAFTA or are leaning in the direction of supporting it. We expect that House Democratic Leadership will convey very strongly to all wavering Democrats, and particularly to Frontline Candidates, that voting for CAFTA against our strong, clear, and loud objections, would signal to the labor movement that those Frontline Candidates do not want our support."
In case there was any confusion about the letter's message, it closes with a declaration that, "Our work to help elect at-risk members, at your urging, will not extend to those who vote against us on this issue. As such, we hope that you will also convey to them that we believe those who receive our support have an obligation to vote with us on CAFTA. Further, we ask that the DCCC remove from Frontline status any member who votes wrong on CAFTA. Simply put, there must be real and measurable consequences for opposing labor on this issue. The stakes are too high for the workers of America. We cannot and we will not give any Democrat a pass on CAFTA."
The signers of the letter, which was organized by Fire Fighters union president Harold A. Schaitberger, included the presidents of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the American Federation of Teachers, the Building and Construction Trades Department, the Iron Workers, the Machinists, the Boilermakers; the Electrical Workers, the Teamsters, the Painters, the Seafarers, the Service Employees, the Sheet Metal Workers, the Transportation-Communications International Union, UNITE-HERE, the United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing and Pipe Fitting Industry, the Auto Workers, the Food and Commercial Workers, the Steelworkers and the Laborer's.
What is striking about that list is that it includes unions that have remained loyal to the AFL-CIO and unions allied with the dissident Change to Win coalition. The Change to Win unions have made it clear that they want to hold Democrats to a higher standard of accountability on issues such as CAFTA. And it seems the AFL-CIO is moving in that direction. Delegates to the federation's convention in Chicago this week adopted a resolution submitted by the Fire Fighters, which commits the AFL-CIO to "a non-partisan political and legislative strategy that bases labors' support on union issues and worker issues, not political parties."
After more than two years of campaigning, the CAFTA fight has come down to the wire with a vote scheduled to take place this week. NAFTA led to the loss of almost one million US jobs, the displacement of 1.5 million Mexican campesinos and an environmentally toxic border, all while multinational corporations gained huge profits. The passage of CAFTA is sure to presage more of the same.
As Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch argues, the passage of CAFTA "would serve to push ahead the corporate globalization model that has caused the ‘race to the bottom' in labor and environmental standards and would promote privatization and deregulation of key public services."
Indeed, many NGOs working in Central America contend that the pact, while delivering substantial profits to multinational corporations, would do little for the poor of that region. Organized labor, progressive farm groups, environmental groups, civil rights groups and human rights groups are all opposed to the trade agreement.
Click here today to implore your elected reps to vote no on CAFTA, click here to check out GTW's four quick steps to help stop CAFTA, and click here to read John Nichols's Top Ten list of the lies and deceptions put out by CAFTA's corporate spinners.
So, with the heaving sound of an old tree suddenly splitting apart in a storm, the labor movement is finally breaking up.
On Sunday, leaders of four of the country's largest labor unions announced they would boycott this week's AFL-CIO convention, and officials from two of those unions, SEIU and the Teamsters, withdrew from the Federation on Monday.
The five unions now comprising the Change To Win Coalition (CTWC)--along with SEIU, the Teamsters, United Food and Commercial Workers, Laborers, and UNITE HERE--have formed what amounts to a rival federation--whether they all formally leave the AFL-CIO or not, which now seems likely. These unions' collective 5 million membership represents 40 percent of the AFL-CIO's 13 million total. If the mammoth 2.7 million member National Education Association aligns with the effort, CTWC will hold exactly half of all union members in the United States.
The break is the biggest rift in labor since the 1930s, when the CIO split off from the AFL.
The avowed basis of the break is a fundamental disagreement on strategy, often depicted as a choice by the insurgents of organizing over politics. This is misleading. Many of the unions remaining in the federation are every bit as committed as the CTWC group to organizing new union members. And some CTWC unions, particularly SEIU, are keenly aware of the importance of politics in increasing union membership. The fight is really about consolidation and political focus.
SEIU has argued that the current practice of having several unions competing in single industrial sectors--"15 separate organizations in transportation, 15 in construction, 13 in public employment, nine in manufacturing, and so on"--defeats the scaled effort needed to take on business in today's climate. It wants to compel fewer, bigger, more clearly sectorally-based unions, as in northern Europe. And it has argued that labor must find ways to mobilize support outside itself, chiefly through more engagement in state and local politics.
It is hard to argue with any of these claims, though whether CTWC can realize its promise is an open question. Even unions without competition in their declared industries are showing declines in density, as indeed are the new Coalition's own members. And outside SEIU itself, and UNITE HERE in a few cities, few of CTWC's members show much commitment to the community links and coalition work needed to gain greater influence over state and local politics. In all the shifting of positions over the past seven months, as this "coalition of the willing" has been constructed, the present result sometimes seems less the principled conclusion to a principled debate than the final triumph of testosterone over inertia. The latter is largely produced by the fragmented governing structure of the AFL-CIO, which makes it very difficult to undertake bold initiatives.
But so be it. Labor is now split more or less in half. We can look forward to a long and ugly period of dissension in America's most important single progressive movement, facing a ruthless anti-worker Administration intent on its complete destruction.
I don't think this split was necessary, and still think it would have been best for the state of progressive politics if both sides could have worked out a deal on federation reform and leadership transition. (Why didn't the insurgents run a candidate to contest John Sweeney? Why didn't they try to move an agenda from within?)
But I also recognize that in the areas of greatest need for labor--organizing, and political engagement and programs in the states and cities--more effective work needs to be done.
So, while I believe that solidarity in the face of an onslaught is preferable, I respect those who argue that standing together may not make sense if they aren't standing in the right place. And I appreciate the difficulty of changing a troubled organization from within. So I wish the insurgents luck. This country desperately needs a labor movement that is again "the collection of many that speaks for all," that can provide an organized and intelligent moral center to a majoritarian progressive politics--the folks who brought you the weekend, the eight-hour day, and so much else that makes this country (almost) civilized. I just wish we weren't starting this way in reclaiming that.
At a time when the scale of corruption in Congress has risen to obscene heights, the fight to achieve a clean government has heated up–and the good Senator from Wisconsin, Russell Feingold, is admirably spearheading the campaign to usher in a new era.
Feingold, who with John McCain led the fight for passage of campaign finance reform, understands the importance of this fight better than anyone. So, this month, the tough-minded reformer introduced the Lobbying and Ethics Reform Act in the Senate (Martin Meehan has similar legislation pending in the House). Once again, Feingold is doing good service to his nation by pushing into the next frontier of reforming lobbying corruption in Washington.
The bill's key provisions are designed to reduce the power of special interests by forcing lobbyists to file disclosure reports quarterly instead of twice a year, prohibiting lobbyists from taking trips with members of Congress and their staffs, and requiring former members of Congress and some senior executive branch officials to wait two years after leaving government service before working as a lobbyist. And, as Feingold told The Hill, the bill would prohibit "lobbyists from giving gifts to members" or staff and require "members and campaigns to reimburse the owners of corporate jets at the charter rate when they use those planes for their official or political travel."
Such a law--and, sadly, in these political times, its chances of passage aren't great--would arrive just barely in the nick of time. The Center for Public Integrity published a must-read study in April showing that lobbyists have spent almost $13 billion since 1998 seeking to influence federal legislation and federal regulations. "Our report reveals that each year since 1998 the amount spent to influence federal lawmakers is double the amount of money spent to elect them," the Center's executive director, Roberta Baskin, pointed out.
Other findings are equally heart-stopping. More than 2,000 lobbyists in Washington had previously held senior government jobs, and in the past six years, "49 out of the 50 top lobbying firms failed to file one or more required forms." According to other reports that the Center recently put out, some 650 foreign companies are lobbying the federal government on issues important to them, and spent more than an estimated $3 billion to influence decision-making at the federal level in 2004.
On the home front, pharmaceutical companies have made their corporate jets available to the likes of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and House Speaker Dennis Hastert--and the entire industry has spent more than $750 million on lobbying since 1998, outpacing every other industry. According to USA Today, Big Pharma has 1,274 lobbyists, "more than two for every member of Congress."
But we need to look beyond the numbers, and understand what happened in 1995 when the GOP launched its infamous K Street Project, to really understand why the corruption has metastasized with such velocity. That was the beginning of the push to put "conservative activist Republicans on K Street," as Americans for Tax Reform president Grover Norquist told journalist Elizabeth Drew--a concerted effort to install ideological comrades-in-arms who could steer money to the GOP, promote conservative causes in Washington and keep Republicans in power for years to come. (To learn more about the K Street Project, read my colleague Ari Berman's good piece.)
By 2003, the Republicans had achieved the goal of seizing control of K Street. That year, the Washington Post reported that the GOP had seized "a significant number of the most influential positions at trade associations and government affairs offices and reap[ed] big financial rewards." The Post added that "several top officials at trade associations and corporate offices said privately that Republicans have created a culture in Washington in which companies fear hiring Democrats for top jobs, even if they are the most qualified."
We know that in recent months, lobbyist Jack Abramoff and House Leader Tom DeLay have grabbed the headlines--Abramoff, in part, because he paid for Tom DeLay's trip to London and Scotland in 2000 and stole millions of dollars in fees from his clients; and DeLay, in part, because he repeatedly violated House ethics rules. In fact, from April 1 to June 30, DeLay accepted almost $800,000 in contributions from corporate lobbies ike the telecommunications and real estate industries--a sure sign that the corruption continues unchecked, as the progressive group The Campaign for America's Future has argued.
But it's equally important to remember that the corruption comes not only from DeLay, Abramoff and cronies but also at virtually every level of the Republican-dominated Congress. The Hill, for example, reported a couple weeks ago that congressional staff have become so brazen that they "actively solicit lunches, drinks and other favors from K Street"--acting as if lobbyists are providing them with "their personal expense account." When one Senate aide ran into a lobbyist at the Capital Grille restaurant, he asked the lobbyist to foot the bill.
"The arrogance that brought Republicans into power is arrogance that will take them out of power, and that's what you see more of on the Hill," a Republican corporate lobbyist told The Hill.
Feingold's legislation is an essential step on the road to clean government. Citizens who care about their country's democracy need to fight for organized people against organized money, fighting for a transparent democracy while exposing the DeLay-Abramoff-K Street triangle for the corrupting force it truly is.
Congressman Maurice Hinchey had the crowd of more than 900--packed into New York's Ethical Culture Society's sweltering auditorium this beautiful summer Saturday--on its feet.
Hinchey was the second of three speakers at a Town Hall event this afternoon co-sponsored by The Nation and Democrats.com. (He joined former Congresswoman Liz Holtzman--who was brilliant in laying out the legal process available to hold administration officials responsible for torture at Abu Ghraib, as she wrote about in her recent Nation article--and Air America's Randi Rhodes--who alternately made the crowd laugh and wince with her scathing and funny debunking of Administration spin and lies. Bob Fertik, president of Democrats.Com skillfully moderated.)
"Torture and Lies: Who is Accountable?" was the question. Hinchey, who has represented a largely conservative district in upstate New York since 1993, answered unflinchingly. "Never have I seen such an unlawful Administration, one with such arrogance toward the rule of law. Their activities are criminal."
Hinchey spoke passionately and eloquently about the significance of the Downing Street minutes and the need to hold this President and Administration accountable for taking the country to war on the basis of lies.
"We have a monolithic government in Washington," Hinchey told the hushed crowd. "It is a government whose policies have failed, and made the world much more dangerous and made us less secure...It is the responsibility of Congress to oversee the executive branch and when this Administration lied and deceived us, Congress should have held hearings....Therefore, the election of 2006 is one of the most important in our country's history if we're going to maintain this Democratic republic. We need a new Congress and we need to carry out a full and thorough investigation of the Administration....It is up to each of us, every one of us in this hall today to do everything we can, to mobilize all our resources, our friends, our organizations, to to make sure our democracy stands."
The crowd was on its feet, stomping; there were shouts of "Hinchey for President." Like other political leaders who have shown courage and decency in these last months--I think particularly of John Conyers who launched the Downing St. hearings--Hinchey is someone who gives hope that we will take back our country from a Administration which has defiled our democracy.
This NYC Town Hall was just one of 350 events held today, around the country, on the third anniversary of the Downing Street Memo meeting in London. To learn more about what you can do, click here to check out AfterDowningStreet.org and work to take back the Congress from those who refuse to hold hearings into this criminal administration.