The Nation

Constitutional Contrarianism

I don't profess to be an expert on constitutional law. But it doesn't take a genius to note that the outrage coming from both parties over the FBI's raid of Rep. William Jefferson's office has less to do with principle and more to do with self-preservation. At a time when corruption probes are intensifying on Capitol Hill, no one wants his or her office to be the next one searched.

The one person who seems to get this is Barney Frank, the eccentric 13-term Democrat from Massachusetts who's regarded as one of the smartest, and funniest, members of the House. Frank first broke with his colleagues over the raid during a one minute speech on the House floor on May 25.

"What we now have is a Congressional leadership, the Republican part of which has said it is okay for law enforcement to engage in warrantless searches of the average citizen, now objecting when a search, pursuant to a validly issued warrant, is conducted of a Member of Congress," Frank said.

Last night, he sharpened that message on the always-superb MSNBC show, Countdown with Keith Olbermann. As Frank told guest host Brian Unger, "There's more irony here than in the collected works of George Bernard Shaw."

Here you have a Republican Congress which has been enthusiastic about the disregard of any kind of reasonable strength on law enforcement for almost everybody in the country, and now they overreact when it‘s a member of Congress.

To put it very tersely, they have generally, the Republicans in particular, approved of warrantless intrusions into the privacy of average citizens. That is, they‘ve said it‘s OK to go in and get into what people read in the libraries or what they‘ve said on the phone without a warrant.

Here, a warrant issued. So we ought to be very clear, this is not a unilateral executive decision to do it. A judge issued a warrant. And I must say, having seen the evidence, I don‘t know what the ultimate answer is, guilt or innocence, and that‘s to be decided later, if, in fact, there‘s a trial. And there hasn‘t even been an indictment.

But it does seem to me that based on what we saw, there was sufficient basis for a warrant. This was not an imprudently granted warrant. And the notion that we would object when a search is conducted of one of our officers pursuant to a warrant, when people don‘t conduct when there are searches without warrants of average citizens, yes, that‘s pretty ironic.

Impeach Alberto Gonzales? Why, yes!

California Congressman Darrell Issa is one of the most conservative Republican members of the House Judiciary Committee. So it should come as no surprise that he offered an appropriately cautious and responsible solution for the Constitutional conflict created when members of the Bush administration ordered federal agents to raid the Capitol Hill office of a sitting member of Congress.

"We have the power to impeach the attorney general," Issa told Tuesday's Judiciary Committee hearing titled: "Reckless Justice: Did the Saturday Night Raid of Congress Trample the Constitution?"

Much of the Washington press corps, which maintains a familiarity with the Constitution that is roughly equivalent to its acquaintance with the truth, dismissed Issa's suggestion that the committee might want to consider the ultimate political sanction for Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. The Washington Post's lamentable Dana Milbank, who stands ever ready to ridicule any defense of the Constitution, huffed that the California congressman was being "dramatic."

Dramatic? Let's hope so, because the times are dramatic, and the concerns that have been raised by the raid on Louisiana Congressman William Jefferson's office demand a response that is equal to them.

There is no question that Gonzales, a champion of executive overreach since his days as White House counsel, used the Constitution as a doormat when he ushered FBI agents into Jefferson's office. The investigation of Jefferson, a Tom DeLay-sleazy member of the House who conveniently for the ever-political Gonzales happens to be a Democrat, had already yielded more than enough evidence of wrongdoing. The raid was, as George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley described it: a "gratuitous insult" motivated not by necessity but by "raw arrogance."

The raid was, as well, what former Reagan Justice Department aide Bruce Fein said it to be during the Judiciary Committee hearing: "Unconstitutional."

The whole concept of a separation of powers between equal branches of government demands that Congress respond aggressively and appropriately to the raid – not in defense of William Jefferson, but in defense of the principle that the executive branch does not have the authority to send its foot soldiers into the offices of the legislative branch.

If the precedent of the raid on Jefferson's office stands, this administration – which has already signaled its intention to track down and prosecute whistleblowers and others who might dissent from its imperial impulses – will not stop in the office of one ethically-challenged congressman from Louisiana. And future administrations will retain, rather than return, the powers that have been seized.

When he denounced the raid at the hearing, Texas Republican Louie Gohmert said, with rather more flourish than has come to be expected from a member of this Congress: "I'm not defending any Jefferson except for Thomas Jefferson."

The fact is that Thomas Jefferson would have approved Issa's resort to talk of impeachment, the Constitutional remedy that the founders intended to be used to maintain the integrity of the federal government, especially at times when the executive branch began to mirror the regal excesses of the monarchy they had so recently been discarded.

To be sure, it was a bit absurd for Issa and other Republicans to be calling the administration to account on this particular abuse when there are so many others worthy of impeachment. As Maryland Democrat Chris Van Hollen reminded the committee on Tuesday, it is possible to point to a "number of examples of overreaching by the executive branch where there's been a total lack of oversight by this Congress: the torture memorandum, detainees, enemy combatants, signing statements, domestic surveillance, data-mining operations."

Fein, the former Reagan Justice Department official, echoed Van Hollen, suggesting to the committee that the raid on Jefferson's office was merely "an additional instrument of the Bush administration to cow Congress" – in keeping with what he described as the administration's regularly expressed "claim of inherent presidential authority to flout any statute that [the chief executive] thinks impedes his ability to gather foreign intelligence, whether opening mail, conducting electronic surveillance, breaking and entering, or committing torture."

Add to that bill of particulars clear evidence that the president, the vice president and administration aides employed deceit and chicanery to organize the invasion and occupation of two foreign countries without a Declaration of War – or a plan – and the outline for articles of impeachment begins to take shape.

But let us not get ahead of ourselves here. Most members of Congress are only beginning to recognize their oversight responsibilities – and the awesome powers that go with them.

As Gohmert of Texas told the committee: "I've been so much more concerned about the judiciary overreaching in power, and I really had not looked at the executive." Only since it was recently revealed that the president has ordered a massive program to monitor and review the phone calls made by Americans on American soil – what the congressman referred to as the "phone logs and things" – has he "become more concerned."

Yes, of course, that's an embarrassing admission for a member of the Judiciary Committee to make. But at least Gohmert and other Republicans are expressing concern. And, at long last, a Republican member of Congress has dared to suggest that a member of a lawless Republican administration might rightly be the subject of impeachment.

That is a small measure of progress. But it is progress that the founders would have celebrated and encouraged. Indeed, as George Mason reminded the Constitutional Convention 219 years ago this summer: "No point is of more importance than that the right of impeachment should be continued."

Act Up Against AIDS

It's been 25 years since the first diagnosed cases of HIV/AIDS, and as world leaders gather at the UN to assess the state of the epidemic, people will be taking to the streets to demand action. Don't let the overly optimistic article in today's New York Times fool you, the epidemic is still very much a crisis. If you're in the area, take your lunch hour to call for universal access to treatment, more funding for HIV/AIDS and an end to ideologically driven campaigns against condoms, sex workers and IV drug users.

I'll post more on the march later, but hope to see you there.

RALLY AND MARCH at the UN General Assembly Special Session on AIDS (UNGASS)

On Wednesday, May 31, demand that the leaders of rich countries and the most affected countries listen to people most directly affected by HIV and fulfill their commitments to fighting AIDS.

12:30pm: Gather at Dag Hammerskjöld Plaza(47th Street between 1st and 2nd Aves)

1 pm: Rally with Emcees Rosie Perez and Amos Hough

2:00pm: March stopping at the UN missions of Uganda, India, Nigeria and the U.S.

Speakers at the rally and march will include:Vineeta Gupta (India) - Stop HIV/AIDS in India Initiative; Sipho Mthathi (South Africa) - Treatment Action Campaign; Violetta Ross (Bolivia) - Bolivian Network of People Living with AIDS; Waheedah Shabazz (U.S.) - ACT UP Philadelphia; Raminta Stuikyte (Central/Eastern Europe) - Harm Reduction Network; Beatrice Were (Uganda) - ActionAid.

Empire State For Peace

If you're a New Yorker angry about the war and the Democratic Party leadership's failure to make the case for a quick withdrawal, then add your name to a petition appealing to New York State's Democratic delegates to pass a resolution calling for an immediate end to the war in Iraq.

The petition is being circulated by Jonathan Tasini, a primary challenger to Hillary Clinton, who has been on a 600-mile bike Ride For Peace through the state since May 11 leading up to this week's New York State Democratic Party convention in Buffalo. He's been visiting communities talking about the human and economic costs of the Iraq war and gathering signatures for the petition. (The petition mirrors legislation proposed by Rep. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts.) Tasini has already submitted more than 2,500 names and a resolution to the state party, and he's still collecting signatures.

A longtime labor activist, author and former president of the National Writer's Union, Tasini has been campaigning largely on his opposition to the war (though his positions on the rest of the issues are very coincident with many Nation readers.) He supports a complete troop withdrawal ASAP. Moreover, as Bob Herbert wrote in a New York Times column about Tasini's campaign, "What is more important than whether his timetable is feasible is his insistence that the Democratic Party needs to come to grips with this war."

Click here to add your name to the petition if you're a New York state resident, click here to find out about Tasini's campaign no matter where you live, and listen online to Tasini make the case for his campaign on this morning's Brian Lehrer Show on radio station WNYC.

The New Cheerleader

The favorite spin of the Bush administration and its amen corner in the media in recent weeks has been the line that: Aside from quagmire in Iraq, things are going great -- especially with the economy.

Apart from the fact that Iraq is a mighty big "aside," the whole pitch about how "the economy is going gangbusters" is a ridiculous simplification of circumstances that are far more complicated and far less positive than the White House would have Americans believe.

As part of the administration's campaign to convince the American people that don't know how good they have it, the president announced last week that, "America's economy is on the fast track."

That was an echo of recent comments from the man they call "Bush's Brain," Karl Rove, who has emerged as spin-doctor-in-chief for the administration's "It's the economy, stupid!" argument. ``The president's tax cuts, trade liberalization and spending restraint helped strengthen the economy's foundation and added fuel to our economic recovery,'' Rove declared in a recent speech. ``Not a bad record!''

Actually, the record is pretty bad. That's why Treasury Secretary John Snow is exiting.

The fine hands of Rove and new White House chief of staff Josh Bolten -- who shares the White House political czar's faith in the "big-lie" brand of politics -- are exceptionally evident in the administration's latest attempt to spin its way out of the approval-rating ditch in which the president has been sinking in recent months.

The abrupt conclusion of the long political death watch for Snow is a merely the lastest of many desperation moves for an administration that is longer on wishful thinking that actual accomplishments.

Snow, who campaigned harder and more visibly for the president's reelection than any other Cabinet member, has been on the way out almost since Bush's second term began. Why? The American people have not for some time been of the impression that the president and his aides are doing enough to "strength the economy's foundations." A Gallup Poll of 1,002 Americans, conducted May 8-11, found that that they were growing ever more ill-at-ease with the state of the economy. Seventy percent of those surveyed said the economy was in poor or only fair condition; that was up from 63 percent a month earlier.

Administration insiders are now trying to sell the line that the president's pick to replace Snow, Goldman Sachs Group CEO Henry Paulson, will be a better cheerleader. With Paulson, a Bush campaign fund-raising "pioneer," selling the White House's economic "success story," the line goes, the president's fortunes are sure to rise.

It's a bad bet.

Americans understand that Cabinet members don't quit when things are going great; and, certainly, treasury secretaries are not elbowed out of their positions when the economy is going gangbusters.

The fact is that Paulson's an able man, as was Snow, as was Snow's predecessor, Paul O'Neill. But it is absurd to think that this wizard of Wall Street will be able to relieve fears that the economy is headed in an unsettling direction.

Those fears are grounded in the reality that even those sectors of the economy that experienced the growth spurt so loudly trumpeted by Bush and Rove are now showing signs of a slowdown.

And much of the economy never really got going in the first place.

The "success story" the administration has been trying so hard to sell was always uneven -- benefiting some regions and industries far more than others. For instance, workers in the auto manufacturing and auto parts sectors are not enjoying their rides on the "fast track" as some of the biggest names of those industries spiral downward into bankruptcy or painful cycles of plant closings and "restructuring."

For Americans who are paying attention -- and the polls suggest that a lot of them are -- there is the even more troubling reality that the United States has in recent years been living far beyond her means.

The U.S. trade deficit is at a record level, as this country imports far more than it exports month after month. Federal deficits and debts are skyrocketing. Microsoft Corp. chairman Bill Gates regularly warns that the widening U.S. budget and trade deficits are undermining the dollar, saying in one recent interview, ``It is a bit scary. We're in uncharted territory when the world's reserve currency has so much outstanding debt.'' Investment guru Warren Buffett has been warning for the past several years that "unless we have a major change in trade policies," the U.S. economy is going to take a hit.But, of course, Bush is not betting on a change in trade policies. Nor is he embracing fiscal responsibility when it comes to federal budgeting.

All he is doing is hiring a new cheerleader. And cheerleading is not going to relieve the anxiety of Americans who are paying $3 a gallon for gas, facing the end of a period of artrificially-low interest rates and relatively easy money, trying to keep track of plant-closing notices, fretting about whether their pensions will survive the next corporate restructuring, and coming to recognize that record-high trade deficits and mounting federal debts are nothing to celebrate.

All About Paris

Senator Bill Frist has promised a vote to repeal the estate tax soon after Memorial Day and the spin on this issue is as egregious as it is outrageous. So let's get one thing straight: it's not a "Death Tax" and it has absolutely nothing to do with the Family Farm.

Here are the facts: the estate tax is levied only on estates worth over $2 million ($4 million for couples), which means approximately one-fourth of one percent of all estates on America will pay it in 2006. Over 99 percent of all Americans will pass their estates on to their heirs completely tax free – and there is no tax whatsoever on assets left to a spouse no matter the amount.

The anti-estate tax American Farm Bureau Federation could not find a single case of a family farm lost due to the tax. (Moreover, if there were any evidence of such problems down the road one could easily protect family farms and small businesses by raising the exemption level.)

This is simply not a tax on death. If anything, it is a tax on Paris Hilton.

And let's not fall for the argument that Paris will be the victim of "double-taxation" either. First of all, everyone pays taxes any number of times as money cycles through the economy. Workers pay income, payroll and sales tax. The truth is that more than half of the value of large estates consists of unrealized capital gains that would never be taxed without the estate tax.

What about the costs of repealing this tax? How about $1 trillion in lost revenues and increased interest payments on the national debt over the first 10 years. And the Congressional Budget Office estimates an annual loss of $13 to $25 billion in the charitable sector – where donations are encouraged through their estate tax-exempt status.

So why all of this confusion about what the estate tax really is and whom it impacts?

One reason is a 10-year, multimillion dollar lobbying and public relations campaign led by 18 families worth a total of $185.5 billion. A repeal would net them $71.6 billion, and supporters of the PR effort include the families behind Wal-Mart, Gallo wine, Campbell's Soup, and Mars Inc.; the richest family in Alabama; and the world's largest retailer.

But Americans are beginning to see through the lies and deceit. A recent national poll shows that 57 percent of American voters prefer keeping the tax or reforming it to abolishing it outright. And when respondents receive the facts about the tax, that number rises to 68 percent. Only 23 percent favor a repeal.

United for a Fair Economy and its Responsible Wealth project offer a just proposal for estate tax reform, including: indexing the $2 million individual exemption and the $4 million exemption for couples to account for inflation; simplifying and liberalizing provisions to ease the transfer of the few closely held businesses subject to the tax; and retaining the ability of businesses and farms to pay the tax over a 14 year period.

It should also be noted that while the Bush Budget looks to repeal the estate tax, it would concurrently end the $255 social security death benefit that many impoverished citizens rely on for funeral arrangements. Seriously. One can't make this stuff up – Mike Meyers could have used this material for his portrayal of Dr. Evil.

Perhaps Sheldon Cohen, former Commissioner of the IRS put it best when he said, "The estate tax has been with us for 90 years, brings in fairly large amounts of revenue at fairly low cost, and affects less than one-third of one percent of the population. Why would we change this?"

Why, indeed. Add to that the lunacy that the Bush administration has already played fast and loose with our fiscal future by cutting taxes for millionaires and billionaires at a time of war for the first time in our nation's history.

The United States is now the most unequal society in the industrialized world. Don't be bamboozled into making things worse through an estate tax repeal. Click here to let your senators know how you feel today: forget about the family farm – this is all about Paris.

A Failing Policy's Last Argument

Having lost all positive reasons for the Iraq War, the Bush administration and its allies have fallen back on the last argument of a failing policy: We can't afford to lose in Iraq. But as the stories about U.S. troops executing innocent Iraqi children emerge other questions come to mind: What if we have already failed? What if our continued presence only makes the situation worse not better?

According to recent reports, what's happening in Iraq is worse than a civil war; it's sectarian cleansing. And not only are American troops training the soldiers who are executing innocent civilians, but they are actually participating. They were given an impossible mission and this is the result.

And for what? The Iraqi Parliament can't decide who should run the Defense or Interior ministries but they want to spend $50 million to buy themselves armored cars.

Bush claims the only mistakes he can think of were rhetorical, but this whole war was a mistake. It's time to stop asking our young men and women to continue to die for a mistake.

A Time to Mourn

The wisdom of wars can be debated on any day, and this column has not hesitated to question the thinking -- or, to be more precise, the lack of thinking -- that has led the United States to the current quagmire in Iraq.

But on Memorial Day, it is well to pause from the debate to remember those whose lives have been lost, not merely to the fool's mission of the contemporary moment but to all those battles – noble and ignoble – that have claimed the sons and daughters of this and every land.

After the bloodiest and most divisive of America's wars, the poet Walt Whitman offered a dirge for two soldiers of the opposing armies -- Civil War veterans, buried side by side. His poem is an apt reminder that, when the fighting is done, those who warred against one another often find themselves in the same place. It is appropriate that we should garland each grave, understanding on this day above all others that wars are conceived by presidents and prime ministers, not soldiers.

It is appropriate, as well, and perhaps a bit soothing, to recall Whitman's wise words:

The last sunbeam

Lightly falls from the finish'd Sabbath,

On the pavement here, and there beyond it is looking,

Down a new-made double grave.


Lo, the moon ascending,

Up from the east the silvery round moon,

Beautiful over the house-tops, ghastly, phantom moon,

Immense and silent moon.


I see a sad procession,

And I hear the sound of coming full-key'd bugles,

All the channels of the city streets they are flooding,

As with voices and with tears.


I hear the great drums pounding,

And the small drums steady whirring

And every blow of the great convulsive drums,

Strikes me through and through.


For the son is brought with the father,

(In the foremost ranks of the fierce assault they fell,

Two veterans son and father dropt together,

And the double grave awaits them.)


And nearer blow the bugles,

And the drums strike more convulsive,

And the daylight o'er the pavement quite has faded,

And the strong dead-march enwraps me.


In the eastern sky up-buoying,

The sorrowful vast phantom moves illumin'd,

('Tis some mother's large transparent face,

In heaven brighter growing.)


O strong dead-march you please me!

O moon immense with your silvery face you soothe me!

O my soldiers twain! O my veterans passing to burial!

What I have I also give you.


The moon gives you light,

And the bugles and the drums give you music,

And my heart, O my soldiers, my veterans,

My heart gives you love.

Suffering in Haditha

Just over a week ago, Rep. John Murtha stated that a military investigation will confirm that over a dozen Iraqi civilians were murdered in Haditha by U.S.Marines.

Today, a New York Times cover story reveals far worse: the military report finds that 24 Iraqi civilians were "killed during a sustained sweep by a small group of marines that lasted three to five hours…." Murder charges are a possible outcome.

The victims include women and children killed in two houses, as well as 5 men standing near a taxi at a checkpoint.

A separate military investigation is determining whether a deliberate cover-up led to initial false reports that the victims were killed by a makeshift bomb or caught in the crossfire between marines and insurgents.

Congressional, military, and Pentagon officials all spoke under the condition of anonymity.

John Sifton of Human Rights Watch put it plainly, "Here we have two dozen civilians being killed--apparently intentionally. This isn't a gray area. This is a massacre."

According to the Times, the Commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. Michael Hagee, flew to Iraq to lecture the troops on adhering to the Geneva Conventions and rules of engagement.

But why would the troops respect the rules of engagement when the President, Vice President, and Secretary of Defense are hell-bent on reserving the right to torture? When the Attorney General refers to the Geneva Conventions as "quaint"? When the Administration recklessly asserts that it can do whatever it wants to do so long as--in its opinion--it is acting to protect the American people?

What we see unfolding before our eyes, sadly, is exactly what Nation Institute Fellow Chris Hedges writes happens all too often in war: "One of the frustrating things for those of us who have spent so much time in war zones is to come back and see how those who are guiltiest – those who pushed the country into war, who told the lies that perpetuated the war – are never held accountable. And those who suffer the most, those who endure the trauma and have to live with the memories for the rest of their lives, are blamed unjustly."

The New York Times called those allegedly involved in the killings "a small number of marines." But just because those who sit-on high didn't pull the trigger, it doesn't make them any less guilty. In fact, they aren't the ones facing the unfathomable stress of war made worse by their own poor planning and poor allocation of resources.

They just sit in judgment of the soldiers who will end up paying the price for it. And tell the families of slain Iraqis that we are bettering their lives.