Is Jack Abramoff the gift that will keep on giving? And will he destroy the Republican Party?
It's not a coincidence that Tom DeLay resigned his leadership post--which he was forced to temporarily abdicate once he was indicted in Texas on charges of laundering campaign funds--days after Abramoff, the corrupt-Republican-lobbyist-turned-snitch, cut a deal with the feds that will require him to tell all. That certainly will entail sharing whatever he knows about his intimate relationship with DeLay and DeLay's closest political associates, as well as what he knows about other GOP lawmakers, staffers and high-powered Republican operatives (such as Ralph Reed and Grover Norquist). News reports have already said that up to twenty lawmakers and aides are already in the crosshairs of federal prosecutors thanks to Abramoff and Michael Scanlon, his former partner in sleaze, who also has been cooperating with the feds.
With nervous Republicans angling to toss DeLay overboard, the indicted ex-House majority leader had not much choice but to jump before being unceremoniously shoved aside. But GOPers still have reason for fear for at least two reasons:
1. The Abramoff inquiry is big.
2. As big as the Abramoff probe is, it could extend far beyond the corrupt dealings of Jack Abramoff and his pals on Capitol HIll and K Street.
My friend Karen Tumulty reports in this week's Time that Justice Department prosecutors are running a decent-sized investigation:
Another official involved with the probe told Time that investigators are viewing Abramoff as "the middle guy"--suggesting there are bigger targets in their sights. The FBI has 13 field offices across the country working on the case, with two dozen agents assigned to it full time and roughly the same number working part time. "We are going to chase down every lead," Chris Swecker, head of the FBI's criminal division, told Time.
Nearly 50 agents chasing down Abramoff leads across the country? Republicans far and wide better watch out. (Recall the recent GOP scandal in Ohio, in which the allegedly illegal doings of a top Republican fundraiser stretched to the office of the Republican governor.) On Sunday, The New York Times reported that some of these agents are looking at Alexander Strategy, a leading Republican lobbying firm closely linked to DeLay. Unless the Bush White House dares to muscle the prosecutors, the odds are high that they will nab a bunch of legislators, aides and lobbyists who did shady business with Abramoff, "the middle guy."
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Abramoff probably possesses the keys to many different floodgates, several involving DeLay. (How about that deal in which Russian energy interests donated $1 million--via a British law firm--to a political outfit set up by DeLay and did so at a time when there was legislation in Congress to back lMF loan guarantees that would benefit these interests?) But here's why the Abramoff scandal might grow larger than Abramoff's wide-ranging dealings: Once prosecutors start to look for crimes, they often find them. Moreover, once they penetrate a corrupt organization (say, the mob) and begin nailing people, they frequently find sources who squeal on others and disclose crimes unrelated to what brought the investigators knocking.
Look at Sunday's Los Angles Times. As DeLay is sinking, sources are coming forward to tell of misdeeds heretofore unknown to the citizenry. The paper reports:
In a case that echoes the Jack Abramoff influence-peddling scandal, two Northern California Republican congressmen used their official positions to try to stop a federal investigation of a wealthy Texas businessman who provided them with political contributions.
Reps. John T. Doolittle and Richard W. Pombo joined forces with former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas to oppose an investigation by federal banking regulators into the affairs of Houston millionaire Charles Hurwitz, documents recently obtained by The Times show. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. was seeking $300 million from Hurwitz for his role in the collapse of a Texas savings and loan that cost taxpayers $1.6 billion.
The investigation was ultimately dropped.
The effort to help Hurwitz began in 1999 when DeLay wrote a letter to the chairman of the FDIC denouncing the investigation of Hurwitz as a "form of harassment and deceit on the part of government employees." When the FDIC persisted, Doolittle and Pombo--both considered proteges of DeLay--used their power as members of the House Resources Committee to subpoena the agency's confidential records on the case, including details of the evidence FDIC investigators had compiled on Hurwitz.
Then, in 2001, the two congressmen inserted many of the sensitive documents into the Congressional Record, making them public and accessible to Hurwitz's lawyers, a move that FDIC officials said damaged the government's ability to pursue the banker.
The FDIC's chief spokesman characterized what Doolittle and Pombo did as "a seamy abuse of the legislative process." But soon afterward, in 2002, the FDIC dropped its case against Hurwitz, who had owned a controlling interest in the United Savings Assn. of Texas. United Savings' failure was one of the worst of the S&L debacles in the 1980s.
Doolittle and Pombo did not respond to requests for interviews last week.
This may have nothing to do with the Abramoff mess or DeLay's troubles in Texas, but this story is no doubt emerging at this moment--and may be on interest to prosecutors now--because of these other difficulties.
As FBI agents zero in on suspects--whether they be lawmakers, aides, lobbyists, consultants or fundraisers--the only way out for many of these well-connected and influential people will be tell the investigators something they do not know already. So if you're a chief of staff to a House member and you're faced with the prospect of doing several years at a different sort of federal institution than the one you're used to, what are you going to do? Say whatever it takes to cut a deal. And if you know about untoward and possibly criminal activity that is not connected to already-wide Abramoff scandal, that may well be your stay-out-of-jail card. Imagine if a dozen or more Washington insiders--and we are talking predominantly about Republicans--find themselves in this sort of situation. It could be Christmas every day for the anti-corruption squad at the Justice Department. That is, if the lawyers there are prepared to mount an investigation that pursues serious leads that take them beyond Abramoff terrain. (And don't forget the recent news that Representative Duke Cunningham, the Republican who recently resigned from the House after being caught accepting bribes from a military contractor, wore a wire for the feds before leaving the House. Whom did prosecutors ask him to talk to?)
I'm not predicting all this will occur. But any member of Congress, congressional aide or executive branch official who has engaged in criminal activity ought to be really enjoying their freedom and position at this time. Who knows who will be selling out whom? Yuppies in blazers and khakis usually don't practice omerta very well. If prosecutors play this right, they could end up with an ever-lengthening to-do--and to-get--list.
Pat Robertson's God sure has been angry of late, smiting on a scale not seen since Sodom and Gomorrah. First, the Lord collapsed the Twin Towers because of homosexuals, then drowned New Orleans because of abortions, and now He has apparently, according to the kindly Reverend Robertson, blocked a blood vessel in Ariel Sharon's brain as punishment for "dividing God's land."
Excuse me? If divisiveness is such a sin in God's eyes, why is Pat Robertson at 75-years-of-spit-and-vinegar still with us? But perhaps he is onto something. Certainly a surprising number of divisivefigures have been brought low of late.
First, there was Harriet Miers, who divided the GOP (God's Own Party) and had her nomination to the Supreme Court struck down. Then Bill O'Reilly was slapped down on Letterman for dividing America, the promised land, over the holiday season.
And finally just this weekend, Tom DeLay, who re-divided political districts in Texas and lobbyists on K-Street, was permanently removed from his post as majority leader.
Who might be next? While I'm not as confident as Robertson when it comes to interpreting God's will, if dividing not uniting a land is cause for divine retribution, then Karl Rove better start polishing his resignation letter.
Try as it might, no amount of spin from Wal-Mart's multimillion-dollar war room in Bentonville, Arkansas can undo the latest bit of bad news for the world's largest corporation.
On December 22, a California jury ordered Wal-Mart to pay MNG1RGC5F437.DTL">$172 million in damages to more than 100,000 current and former Wal-Mart workers, who had been unjustly and routinely denied meal breaks.
According to Fred Furth, the plaintiffs' lawyer, the retail behemoth violated California's strict mandatory meal break law 8 million times between January of 2001 and May of 2005.
"Sam Walton established a mantra: the store manager must every year increase sales and reduce labor costs. But that is an oxymoron--they're lowering the prices on the backs of the people who work for them," said Furth. "That is why I spent four months of my life at 71 years old making the point to corporate America that we are not in industrial England anymore. We're in the 21st century and these are good workplace rules, and you've got to obey them."
The California verdict could have a staggering impact on Wal-Mart, which is facing forty similar lawsuits in other states nationwide. "It absolutely sends a message to other juries," said Furth, "that even the biggest company in the world can be brought to task."
Shares of Wal-Mart are already down 8 percent this year. (Even hard-nosed investment analysts now see that Wal-Mart is no longer invincible.) As public support for the retailer continues to plummet, it's become abundantly clear that Wal-Mart better start evolving.
More good news in the fight to reform Wal-Mart: the New York Times reports that the AFL-CIO is launching a new initiative to introduce Fair Share Health Care acts in 31 states across the country.
The laws will mirror Maryland's legislation that would require Wal-Mart and other large corporations to devote a significant share of their profits to health care for employees. Note: Republican Governor Robert Ehrlich vetoed the Maryland measure, but an overturn is extremely likely due to overwhelming support in the legislature. If you're from Maryland, click here to email your lawmakers and ask them to support the bill.
We also want to hear from you. Please let us know if you have a sweet victory you think we should cover by e-mailing email@example.com.
Co-written by Sam Graham-Felsen, a freelance journalist, documentary filmmaker and blogger (www.boldprint.net) living in Brooklyn.
No member of the Senate who takes seriously the oath they have sworn to defend the Constitution will vote to confirm judicial activist Samuel Alito's nomination to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court.
To a greater extent than any nominee for the high court in recent memory, and very possibly in the long history of the country, Alito has placed himself clearly and unequivocally at odds with the original intent of the authors of the Constitution and the incontrovertible language of the document.
Alito is consistently on record as favoring steps by the White House to -- in his words -- ''increase the power of the executive to shape the law." Twenty years ago, as a member of the Reagan administration, Alito was in the forefront of efforts to legitimize executive power grabs designed to allow presidents to take dramatic actions, sometimes in secret, without the advice and consent of Congress.
In a 1986 draft memo that advised Reagan and his aides on how to assure that their interpretations of official actions trumped those of the legislative branch, Alito acknowledged that his approach would put the White House at odds with the Congress. "The novelty of the procedure and the potential increase of presidential power are two factors that may account for this anticipated reaction," Alito argued. "In addition, and perhaps most important, Congress is likely to resent the fact that the president will get in the last word on questions of interpretation."
The Reagan administration never fully embraced Alito's proposals, but the Bush administration has. And Alito has been cheering the process of executive power enhancement on, telling the Federalist Society in an address five years ago that, "The president has not just some executive powers, but the executive power -- the whole thing."
The "whole-thing" approach adopted by George Bush and Dick Cheney has placed the current administration on a collision course with the Constitution. And it will be the Supreme Court that must sort through the wreckage.
With the high court widely expected to rule on multiple cases involving questions about presidential warmaking, the War Powers Act and domestic manifestations of the Bush administration's so-called "war on terror," the position of every justice on issues of executive authority becomes more significant. And potential changes in the court that might make it more deferrent to an executive branch that appears to be bent on eliminating all checks and balances -- as the confirmation of Alito would surely do -- are, necessarily, the most consequential of matters.
What is at issue here is not a grey area of the legal interpretation.
The authors of the Constitution were absolutely determined to prevent presidents from making war without the consent of Congress, and from abusing a state of war to curtail domestic liberties.
James Madison, the essential drafter of the Constitution who would go on to serve as the nation's fourth president, expressed the concern of the founders when he wrote: "Of all the enemies of true liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few. In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended; its influence in dealing out offices, honors and emoluments is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds, are added to those of subduing the force, of the people. The same malignant aspect in republicanism may be traced in the inequality of fortunes, and the opportunities of fraud, growing out of a state of war, and in the degeneracy of manner and of morals, engendered in both. No nation can preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare."
Madison added that, "War is in fact the true nurse of executive aggrandizement. In war, a physical force is to be created; and it is the executive will, which is to direct it. In war, the public treasuries are to be unlocked; and it is the executive hand which is to dispense them. In war, the honors and emoluments of office are to be multiplied; and it is the executive patronage under which they are to be enjoyed; and it is the executive brow they are to encircle. The strongest passions and most dangerous weaknesses of the human breast; ambition, avarice, vanity, the honorable or venal love of fame, are all in conspiracy against the desire and duty of peace."Madison's view was confirmed by the Constitutional Convention of 1787, when delegates overwhelmingly approved a motion to deny presidents the power to "make war." That resolution was introduced by Connecticut delegate Roger Sherman, another key player in the shaping of the document, who explained that, "The executive should be able to repel and not to commence war."
George Mason, the Virginia delegate to the Constitutional Convention who is often remembered as "the Father of the Bill of Rights," said at the time, "I am for clogging rather than facilitating war."
John Marshall, a participant in the Virginia ratifying convention that approved the Constitution, would go on to serve as Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. In that capacity, he would be called upon to interpret the Constitution with regard to the exercise of war powers by the executive. Writing for a unanimous court in 1801, Marshall asserted that, "The whole powers of war being, by the Constitution of the United States, vested in Congress, the acts of that body alone can be resorted to as our guides."
Much has been done to undermine the system of checks and balances that the founders wrote into the Constitution to control against executive excess. But, as recently as 2004, the court reaffirmed the basic principle that the president must operate within strict constraints in a time of war. Ruling that the Executive Branch does not have the power to hold indefinitely a U.S. citizen without basic due process protections, the court rebuked the Bush administration's actions with an opinion that declared, "A state of war is not a blank check for the president when it comes to the rights of the nation's citizens."
The author of that statement was Sandra Day O'Connor, the retiring justice who Alito has been nominated to replace.
Justice O'Connor, who could hardly be referred to as a strict constuctionist, was not merely expressing an opinion with her defense of checks and balances on the executive. She was affirming the Constitution, and she was doing so in a manner that respected the intentions of the founders -- something Samuel Alito's record suggests that he is entirely incapable of doing.
John Nichols's new book, Against the Beast: A Documentary History of American Opposition to Empire (Nation Books) examines the long record of Congressional checks and balances upon presidential abuses in times of war. Howard Zinn says, "At exactly the when we need it most, John Nichols gives us a special gift--a collection of writings, speeches, poems and songs from thoughout American history--that reminds us that our revulsion to war and empire has a long and noble tradition in this country." Frances Moore Lappe calls Against the Beast, "Brilliant! A perfect book for an empire in denial." Against the Beast can be found at independent bookstores nationwide and can be obtained online by tapping the above reference or at www.amazon.com
Attacks by suicide bombers killed as many as 130 people in Iraq yesterday, rekindling fears of a return to mass sectarian killings after a relative lull. At the same general time yesterday afternoon, a roadside bomb killed at least five American soldiers near Karbala, Iraq.
It's days like these that inspired grassroots organizers to plan more than 130 "Out of Iraq" events around the country to take place on January 7th. Most of the events are town hall forums featuring peace movement leaders, congressional staff, congressional and senatorial candidates, local elected officials and members of Congress, including Bobby Scott, Diane Watson, Jim McDermott, Adam Smith, Bob Filner, Martin Sabo, Jim Moran, Marty Meehan, and John Murtha.
Click here to find an event near you.
Click here for info on organizing an event yourself.
Download and pass out a flier.
Then, on January 9th, it's easy to take part in the National Call-In Day on Accountability. Progressive Democrats of America and the After Downing Street Coalition are asking concerned citizens to phone their members of Congress in their district offices on Monday urging them to join Cong. John Conyers and cosponsor three bills: H.Res.635 to create a select committee to investigate and to make recommendations on grounds for impeachment, H.Res.636 to censure Bush, and H.Res.637 to censure Cheney.
If you agree with Conyers that "there is substantial evidence the President, the Vice President and other high-ranking members of the Bush Administration misled Congress and the American people regarding the decision to go to war in Iraq; misstated and manipulated intelligence information regarding the justification for such war; countenanced torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment in Iraq; and permitted inappropriate retaliation against critics of their Administration," then click here to call and email your elected reps.
Watch this space for continuing coverage of antiwar activities and use the comments field below to let us know about any antiwar events in your area.
It didn't take Republican super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff's guilty plea to three felony counts of conspiracy, mail fraud and tax evasion to understand that the scale of corruption in the GOP-dominated Congress had risen to obscene heights. But it sure helps expose the cesspool of corruption in that GOP-dominated Congress.
"When this is all over, this will be bigger than [any government scandal] in the last 50 years, both in the amount of people involved and the breadth to it," Stan Brand , a former U.S. House counsel who specializes in representing public officials accused of wrongdoing, told Bloomberg News. "It will include high-ranking members of Congress and executive branch officials."
But what is to be done? Take a lesson from the good Senator from Wisconsin, Russ Feingold who, last July, launched a crackdown on government corruption.
In July, the tough-minded reformer, who with John McCain led the fight for passage of campaign finance reform, introduced the Lobbying and Ethics Reform Act in the Senate (Representative Martin Meehan (D, MA) has similar legislation pending in the House).
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 even hardcore DC cynics may want to give it a better chance of passage after the Abramoff scandal winds its way through DC---would arrive just barely in the nick of time. The Center for Public Integrity published a must-read study last April showing that lobbyists have spent almost $13 billion since 1998seeking 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.
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.
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."
In recent months, Abramoff and now- indicted 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 like 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.)
And, in one more link in the growing Abramoff-DeLay money trail, a recent Washington Post story documented how Abramoff funneled some of the money he had skimmed from Indian casino operators through the Orwellian-named U.S. Family Network--a shell organization with a multi-million dollar budget which was termed by some of DeLay's staffers--Delay's "safe house." (If one needs another reason as to why DeLay must immediately step down as House Majority leader, the Post story also reveals that this organization, organized by DeLay associates, has been largely financed by Russian energy interests.)
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 last year 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.
Democrats are likely to pick up seats just by continuing to hammer at GOP failures and corruption, and exposing the DeLay-Abramoff-K Street triangle for the corrupting force it truly is. But to engineer a landmark, "change election" that dislodges incumbents and marks a real shift, they will have to make themselves the party of change, championing a genuine crack down on corruption.
As our Washington correspondent John Nichols wrote yesterday in The Online Beat, "Only by being genuine in their commitment to clean up Congress will Democrats turn the Abramoff scandal fully to their advantage." Feingold's legislation is an essential step in reclaiming our democracy from these pay- to-play, immoral scam artists.
By any serious definition of the word, Republican super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff is a rat. His decision to enter guilty pleas Tuesday to three felony counts of defrauding his own clients merely added a personal acknowledgement of the fact to the official record. Frank Clemente, the director of Public Citizen's Congress Watch, summed things up succinctly, and accurately, when he said Tuesday: "Make no mistake about it: Abramoff is a crook."
In Washington, more so than in most places, it remains true that there is no honor among thieves -- nor among rats.
So the notion that Abramoff will now rat out his former associates, including Republican members of the House and Senate, is not a particularly difficult one to comprehend -- even for conservatives commentators who are generally unwilling to admit even the slightest signs of shakiness in the Republican infrastructure. Radio ranter Rush Limbaugh was already warning his listeners on Tuesday about the "A-bomb" that is expected to explode when Abramoff starts cooperating with Justice Department investigations of members of Congress. Limbaugh suggested that the scandal will become "a modern-day version of term limits" that potentially could do more damage to Republicans than the increasingly widespread public discontent with the unwavering support most GOP members of Congress have given to the Bush administration's failed Iraq policies.
There is no question that the potential for damage to GOP political prospects from the Abramoff scandal -- with its deliciously detailed evidence of bribery, influence peddling, pay-to-play politics and sweeping abuses of the public trust -- is great. Between 2001 and 2004, close to 220 members of Congress collected more than $1.7 million in political contributions from Abramoff and the lobbyist's associates and clients. More than 200 of those members still serve in the House, and the vast majority of them are Republicans.
But the difference between the potential that fallout from the scandal could loosen the GOP's grip on the House and Senate and the reality of a transforming "throw-the-bums-out" vote in 2006 remains significant. While Clemente says that the scandal "is likely to take down a number of members of Congress and members of their staffs," the precise number has yet to be established. And if it is limited merely to those members of Congress that Abramoff's testimony places in the prosecutorial crosshairs, then both chambers could well remain in Republican hands.
To be sure, some of the members of Congress who have been most closely linked with Abramoff, a former elected chairman of the College Republicans who counts among his longtime associates people like Americans for Tax Reform founder Grover Norquist and former Christian Coalition chief Ralph Reed, will have a very hard time getting reelected -- if they even choose to run.
That list is topped by former Majority Leader Tom DeLay, whose onetime aide, Michael Scanlon, was Abramoff's primary partner in crime. Like Abramoff, Scanlon is cooperating with the investigation and it is hard to imagine that DeLay's name won't be among the first to come up. Already under indictment for campaign abuses in Texas, DeLay faces a serious challenge from former Democratic Representative Nick Lampson, who this week filed the necessary paperwork to make the race. Lampson's campaigning as a bipartisan reformer in a district that is now one of the more competitive in Texas, and the Abramoff scandal will give him a great deal of ammunition.
Even more vulnerable than DeLay at this point is Ohio Republican Bob Ney, who for some time has been identified as "Representative No. 1" in the Abramoff investigation. Ney is in big trouble. The chairman of the House Administration Committee, he already stands accused of accepting overseas trips, gifts and hefty campaign donations from Abramoff, allegedly in exchange for using his position to advance the interests of the Indian tribes and casinos that were among the lobbyist's big-ticket clients. If Abramoff lays out the dirty details of his relationship with Ney, Republicans will start pushing for the congressman to drop his reelection bid.
Montana Senator Conrad Burns, who accepted $150,000 in campaign contributions from the lobbyist's operation and helped an Abramoff client score a $3 million federal grant, is the most vulnerable senator. Burns has just announced that he will return the money he took from Abramoff and the lobbyist's clients and associates, but that's not going to be enough to get the senator off the hook legally -- or politically. Up for reelection this year, he has suffered a damaging drop in the polls since details of the scandal have begun to dominate media in Montana, which was already trending in a Democratic direction before the scandal surfaced.
Several other prominent Republicans are now likely, because of their associations with Abramoff, to face more serious challenges in 2006 than had previously been expected. They include: House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Illinois, who collected more than $100,000 in campaign contributions from Abramoff's firm and clients between 2001 and 2004 and in 2003 urged Interior Secretary Gail Norton to favor the lobbyist's clients in an Indian-gaming dispute; House Majority Leader Roy Blunt, R-Missouri, who accepted more than $10,000 from Abramoff's firm and clients between 2001 and 2004, and who intervened at least three times in matters involving those clients; and California Representative Dana Rohrabacher, who accepted thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from Abramoff and turned up as a financial reference for the lobbyist's purchase of a casino cruise line. Dozens of Republican House members, including vulnerable incumbents such as Connecticut's Bob Simmons, have banked direct contributions from Abramoff.
The extent to which the Abramoff scandal is of political significance in 2006 will depend on just how many of those members who accepted contributions from the lobbyist and his associates and clients are implicated in the Justice Department investigation. If the numbers move into the double digits, this scandal could pose a genuine threat to GOP control of the House. But it is important to remember that there are Democrats who have Abramoff problems, as well, including Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, who appears to have collected more than $65,000 in Abramoff-linked contributions between 2001 and 2004.
If a desire to protect Reid and other Democratic recipients of the lobbyist's largesse causes the opposition party to pull its punches, Democrats will gain no more ground as a result of this scandal than it did from the Enron imbroglio. Thus, the ultimate question does not boil down to what Abramoff will reveal. Rather, it is this: Will Democrats hold every member of Congress who has been implicated to account. If Democrats are smart, they will recognize that this is, at its core, a Republican scandal. And they will say: Throw all the bums out -- just as Republican Newt Gingrich did in the early 1990s when several Republican House members were linked with scandals that generally involved Democrats. Only by being genuine in their commitment to clean up Congress will Democrats turn the Abramoff scandal fully to their advantage. And, as everyone in Washington knows, it has been a long time since Democrats were that genuine -- or that smart politically.
Sometimes, only The Onion gets it right.
The satirical weekly, which does for print journalism what Comedy Central's "The Daily Show" does for cable news, finished off 2005 with a headline that summed up the unspoken reality of last year's media coverage of the debate about the Iraq War.
The headline read: "U.S. troops draw up own exit strategy."
It appeared above an article that began: "BAGHDAD -- Citing the Bush administration's ongoing refusal to provide a timetable for withdrawal, the U.S. troops stationed in Iraq have devised their own exit strategy."
A fictitious Staff Sgt. Cornelius Woods tells the newspaper, "My Marines are the best-trained, best-equipped, most homesick fighting force in the world. Just give us the order, and we will commandeer every available vehicle to execute a flanking maneuver on the airstrips of Mosul. By this time tomorrow, we will have retaken our positions at our families' dinner tables in full force."
At the end of a year that saw the U.S. death toll in the war rising toward 2,200, and the toll of wounded go to more than ten times that number, there is still an assumption on the part of much of the media that the U.S. military is enthusiastic about this war. There is also an assumption that the withdrawal of U.S. forces would be difficult.
Both assumptions are wrong, as any serious examination of recent events will confirm.
When Vice President Dick Cheney, perhaps the most ridiculous cheerleader for the war, visited Iraq just before Christmas, he was confronted by the reality of frustrated troops. Even in the highly controlled context of a meeting between carefully selected soldiers and the vice president, the first comment to Cheney came from Marine Cpl. Bradley Warren, who said, "From our perspective, we don't see much as far as gains. We're looking at small-picture stuff, not many gains."
Of course, Cheney was not listening, as his over-the-top attempt at delivering an applause line to the troops indicated. When he growled, "We're in this fight to win. These colors don't run," not one of the troops clapped, not one of the troops cheered.
While Bush and Cheney are unlikely ever to wake up to the full reality of the mess they have made, some other officials did begin listening in 2005. And when they did they quickly recognized the reality on the ground.
One of the few members of Congress who actually has a history of paying attention to what soldiers say went to Iraq and spent serious time -- as opposed to the "photo-op" time devoted to the task by members of the administration -- with commanders and their troops. As a result, that members, U.S. Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., changed his position from one of supporting the war to one of supporting a quick withdrawal.
So The Onion was not far off the mark with its imagining that U.S. troops in Iraq would want to devise an exit strategy.
Nor was The Onion's imagining of a plan to get the troops out of Iraq at a rapid rate unrealistic. Indeed, one of the worst failings of most major media in the United States has been the acceptance of the Bush-Cheney line that there is no easy nor smart way out of the mess they got our troops into.
Murtha's call for withdrawal was met with cries of complaint from arm-chair warriors in Washington who said it would be impossible not to mention "disastrous" to exit the quagmire. Yet Murtha, a decorated Vietnam veteran with close ties to the Pentagon, has devised a plan to get all the troops out of Iraq in six months. He echoes the view of many military strategists who say that the faster U.S. forces and their allies leave, the faster Iraqis will step up to their policing responsibilities and the country will begin to stabilize.
So, as we bid something less than a fond farewell to a year in which the media generally got the story of the war in Iraq wrong, it seems only appropriate to begin the new year by tipping the hat to The Onion for imagining dramatically more accurate coverage of the conflict than what we have gotten -- and what we can expect to get -- from most of the major broadcast and cable television networks, talk radio and all too many newspapers.
John Nichols covered the first Gulf War and has reported on conflicts in Central America, Africa and southern Asia. His book on American wars of conquest, Against the Beast: A Documentary History of American Opposition to Empire (Nation Books) was published in 2005.
In the dark days after the election of 2004, the mainstream media was touting the making of a permanent rightward shift, and the progressive community was deeply deflated. It was difficult, in those times, to maintain a sense of hope--as corruption, war, lies and injustices large and small loomed all around, and outrage about the Right's assault on our democracy threatened to overwhelm us.
A year later, the dark and menacing clouds that hovered over The Nation's November 2, 2004 cover ("Four More Years") seem to be slowly lifting. Millions of us are organizing, agitating, mobilizing--and there are many hard-fought victories to celebrate.The attempt to destroy Social Security has been successfully blocked, the movement for withdrawal has captured the majority of the public's support, the mainstream media is slowly rousing from its slumbers, the White House's surveillance state is being revealed, there is talk of impeachment in the air, Vice President for Torture Cheney suffered a stinging rebuke when John McCain's torture ban passed, the GOP is mired in corruption and cronyism ( "Jack Abramoff seems to have the whole party on his payroll,"Katha Pollitt writes in her end of year review for The Nation), and scores of local, statewide, and national victories have been won.Here are some of my favorite "sweet victories" of '05--to savor as we head into 2006.
Portland, Oregon becomes the first city in the country to approve full public financing of elections.
Connecticut passes the strongest campaign finance reform bill in the country, banning contributions from lobbyists and state contractors. Additionally, the legislation creates a publicly funded election system encompassing all statewide races, including House and Senate seats (also a first).
Civil Rights and Civil Liberties
Maine becomes the sixth and final New England state to outlaw discrimination against homosexuals in employment, housing, credit, public accommodations, and education.
Residents of Topeka, Kansas rejected Fred "Got Hates Fags" Phelps' attempt to overturn the city's ordinance banning discrimination of gays in municipal hiring. And in the city council primary, Phelps' granddaughter and fellow anti-gay activist, Jael Phelps, lost big to Topeka's first and only openly gay council member, Tiffany Muller.
Massachusetts General Hospital announced the creation of the Disparities Solution Center--the first institution specifically dedicated to bridging the racial gap in health care service.
Iowa's Governor Tom Vilsack restored voting rights to thousands of Iowans, reversing an unjust state law that imposes lifetime disenfranchisement for anyone convicted of a felony. Reform was badly needed in Iowa, where, despite the state's two percent black population, 25 percent of those affected by the disenfranchisement law were African-American--the highest percentage in the country. In March, Nebraska also overturned its lifetime disenfranchisement law for convicted felons, and currently only four states--Alabama, Florida, Kentucky, and Virginia--continue to uphold this absurdly punitive law.
Montana became the fifth state to officially condemn the USA Patriot Act. Joining Alaska, Hawaii, Maine, and Vermont--not to mention more than 375 local governments--Montana's state legislature passed the strongest statewide resolution against the Patriot Act yet.
Environment and Health
California's Safe Cosmetics Bill is signed into law. The bill--which requires manufacturers to disclose to the California's Department of Health Services any product ingredients linked to cancer, mutations, or birth defects--is the first of its kind in America.
Six new Democratic governors--Rod Blagojevich (IL), Jim Doyle (WI), Christine Gregoire (WA), Ted Kulongoski (OR), Janet Napolitano (AZ), and Brian Schweitzer (MT)--joined an earlier three--Jennifer Granholm (MI), Ed Rendel (PA), and Bill Richardson (NM)--in embracing the Apollo Alliance's goal of achieving sustainable American energy independence within a decade.
Colorado passes the Renewable Energy Initiative. A precedent-setting victory for renewable energy, the bill requires the state's largest electric companies to increase their use of renewable sources such as wind, solar, biomass, geothermal, and small hydro from less than two percent today to 10 percent by 2015. Amendment 37 is expected to save Coloradans $236 million by 2025, create 2,000 jobs, and significantly reduce gas prices in the state.
New York City agrees to issue taxi medallions for hybrid cars, the latest in a string of victories for the "Green Fleets" movement. Earlier, legislators in Charlotte, NC voted to hybridize the city's municipal fleet, and Denver, Seattle, and Madison have also made strides in converting their fleets to green.
Labor and Economic Rights
Vermont, New Jersey, Hawaii, Connecticut, Minnesota, and Wisconsin vote to raise state minimum wages. Meanwhile, the national minimum wage has remained stagnant for nine years, the second longest period in U.S. history.
In California, an Alameda County judge ordered uniform giant Cintas to pay 219 workers more than $1 million of back wages in what is being hailed as a landmark decision. Paul Sonn of NYU's Brennan Center for Justice, called it "the first large scale enforcement effort involving a large group of workers in a class action suit."
Students at Georgetown University in Washington D.C. and Washington University of St. Louis stage protests and convince administrators to provide a living wage for university employees.
After a massive three-year boycott against Taco Bell, Yum Brands Inc.--the world's largest fast-food corporation and the chain's parent company--agrees to improve working conditions for its tomato pickers in Florida, increasing their wages by paying an extra penny per pound of tomatoes picked.
Maryland passes the Fair Share Health Care Act, requiring Wal-Mart and other large companies in the state to provide health benefits for employees. Throughout the year, Wal-Mart Watch and Wake Up Wal-Mart--who helped get the bill passed--wage a tireless campaign to reform Wal-Mart, forcing the retail behemoth into P.R. crisis mode.
Antiwar & Peace Movement
Chicago's City Council votes 29 to 9 to become the largest US city to pass the "Bring Them Home Now" resolution. The Windy City joins Philadelphia, San Francisco, Sacramento and more than fifty other municipalities that have called for withdrawal.
The Congressional Progressive Caucus--comprised of the strongest anti-war voices in Washington--gets in gear, hiring Hill veteran Bill Gould as its first full-time staffer.
The United Methodist Church and the Union for Reform Judaism pass resolutions calling for withdrawal.
Let's dance, sing and laugh on New Year's eve-and celebrate these victories and the organized efforts behind them. But let's also admit that there's little time for pause. Much important work remains to be done and many critical battles loom ahead for all those who wish to rebuild America into a country we can be proud of once again. (As of January 2006, The Nation will chronicle "Sweet Victories" as a regular feature in the magazine. If you have a victory you'd like to share with us, please write to firstname.lastname@example.org. And with many thanks to my co-conspirator on this project--writer and documentary filmmaker Sam Graham-Felsen.)
It is hard to complain about a year that began with George Bush bragging about spending the "political capital" he felt he had earned with his dubious reelection and ended with the president drowning in the Nixonian depths of public disapproval.
But the circumstance didn't just get better.
A handful of elected officials, activist groups and courageous citizens bent the arc of history toward justice.
Here are this one columnist's picks for the Most Valuable Progressives of 2005:
* MVP -- U.S. Senate:
This is an easy category. While California Democrat Barbara Boxer deserves credit for refusing to go along with the certification of the dubious presidential election results from Ohio, and Arizona Republican John McCain merits praise for forcing the administration to back down from its pro-torture stance, there's no question that Wisconsin Democrat Russ Feingold was the essential senator of 2005. He was the first member of the chamber to call for a timetable to withdraw troops from Iraq -- a stance that initially was ridiculed but ultimately drew support from many of Feingold's fellow Democrats and even a few Republicans. And he ended the year by forging a bipartisan coalition that beat back the Bush administration's demand for the long-term extension of the Patriot Act, scoring one of the most significant wins for civil liberties that Congress has seen in years.
* MVP -- U.S. House:
There are plenty of members of the House who deserve credit for standing up to the administration on critical issues -- from Ohio Democrat Sherrod Brown, who led the fight against Central American Free Trade Agreement, to Vermont Independent Bernie Sanders, who was the point man in the battle to fix the Patriot Act, to North Carolina Republican Walter Jones, who courageously broke with the administration to oppose the war. And, of course, there was Pennsylvania Democrat John Murtha, the decorated Vietnam veteran who forced the House to get serious about the war he called for a speedy withdrawal. But the essential member of the House in 2005 was Michigan Democrat John Conyers, the ranking member of his party on the Judiciary Committee. No one used their bully pulpit better in 2005 than Conyers, who gathered damning information about electoral irregularities in the 2004 Ohio presidential voting and then led the challenge to the certification of the results, held hearings on the Downing Street Memo's revelations regarding the Bush administration's doctoring of pre-war intelligence, and ended the year by moving resolutions to censure President Bush and Vice President Cheney for lying to Congress and the American people -- and to set up a committee to examine the issue of impeachment.
* MVP -- Executive Branch:
Yes, there was one. It's Lawrence B. Wilkerson, the retired U.S. Army colonel who served as chief of staff for Secretary of State Colin L. Powell until Powell exited the State Department in January, 2005. After leaving his position, Wilkerson began revealing the dark secrets of the Bush-Cheney interregnum, telling a New America Foundation gathering in October that during his years in the administration: "What I saw was a cabal between the vice president of the United States, Richard Cheney, and the secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, on critical issues that made decisions that the bureaucracy did not know were being made." Wilkerson warned that, with "a president who is not versed in international relations and not too much interested in them either," the country is headed in an exceptionally dangerous direction. "I would say that we have courted disaster, in Iraq, in North Korea, in Iran, generally with regard to domestic crises like Katrina, Rita and I could go on back, we haven't done very well on anything like that in a long time," Wilkerson explained. "And if something comes along that is truly serious, truly serious, something like a nuclear weapon going off in a major American city, or something like a major pandemic, you are going to see the ineptitude of this government in a way that will take you back to the Declaration of Independence." That is truth telling of a quality and a scope all too rarely witnessed in the Washington of Bush and Cheney.
* MVP -- Law Enforcement Branch:
While Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald deserved all the headlines and the credit he got for indicting I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, the now former chief-of-staff for Vice President Dick Cheney and a key player in faking up the "case" for war with Iraq, Fitzgerald's work is just beginning. His most important indictments are yet to come. The prosecutor who took the greatest risks and who secured the most consequential indictment of 2005 was Travis County, Texas, District Attorney Ronnie Earle, who brought down House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. The man who ran Congress for most of the Bush years has not been convicted -- yet -- but DeLay was forced to step down as majority leader and no one who watches Washington thinks he will ever regain that position. Earle got his man, and began the long process of cleansing a Congress that, after all these years of being run by a pest-control specialist, is in serious need of fumigation.
* MVP -- Citizen Branch:
In August, when Democrats leaders in Washington were still talking about working with the Bush administration on Iraq -- effectively leaving Americans who were growing increasingly ill-at-ease about the war without a voice in the chambers of power -- the mother of a slain soldier followed Bush to his Crawford, Texas, ranchette and asked him to take a few minutes away from his month-long vacation to talk about the quagmire. Cindy Sheehan put the issue of the war back at the forefront of the national agenda, forcing even the dysfunctional White House press corps to start covering dissenters and getting D.C. Democrats to wake up to the reality that the American people had lost faith in the president and his military misadventure.
* MVP -- Watchdog Branch:
The media did a slightly better job of monitoring political wrongdoing in 2005 than it did during the first four years of the Bush-Cheney presidency -- when it actually would have mattered. But the real work of exposing the misdeeds of the administration is still being done by activist groups. And the most inspired of these in 2005 was After Downing Street, the coalition of groups that describes itself as "working to expose the lies that launched the war and to hold accountable its architects, including through censure and impeachment." In conjunction with Progressive Democrats of America, the able activist group that seeks to create an actual opposition party in America, After Downing Street is pushing the political envelope in exactly the direction it needs to go. Check out their website at www.afterdowningstreet.org website and keep ahead of the action in 2006.