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Dwight Eisenhower was right when he warned at the close of his presidency about the development of an American military-industrial complex, as most everyone in the United States and around the world is now well aware.
Eisenhower was also right when he warned at the opening of his presidency about the danger posed by the bloating of military budgets.
“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed,” the newly inaugurated commander-in-chief told the American Society of Newspaper Editors convention in April 1953.
“This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some fifty miles of concrete pavement. We pay for a single fighter with a half-million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people,” Eisenhower explained, as a president who also happened to be a retired general. “This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.”
The cross of iron has grown a good deal heavier with the passage of time, as a United States Congress that argues about whether the country can afford to pay for Food Stamps and nutrition programs just approved a Department of Defense bill that authorizes $585 billion in Pentagon spending for the 2015 fiscal year. If history is any indication, the actual spending total will turn out to be a good deal more than that once all the supplemental appropriations have been added.
“The United States spends more on its military in absolute terms than any other nation on earth,” notes Germany’s Deutsche Welle. “In 2013, the US spent $640 billion on defense, followed by China with $188 billion and Russia with $88 billion, according to figures from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.”
The US spending tends to be approved with very little of the questioning that Eisenhower encouraged. In the House the vote to approve the latest Pentagon plan was 300-119. In the Senate, it was an even more lopsided 85-11.
And a number of the latest “no” votes came from Republicans—such as Texas Senator Ted Cruz—who were griping about a provision that designated new national parks and wilderness areas,
But Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders cast a “no” vote on what might reasonably be described as “Eisenhower principles.”
“I am voting no because I have very serious concerns about our nation’s bloated military budget and the misplaced national priorities this bill reflects,” explained Sanders. “At a time when our national debt is more than $18 trillion and we spend nearly as much on defense as the rest of the world combined, the time is long overdue to end the waste and financial mismanagement that have plagued the Pentagon for years.”
Sanders, who is set to take over as the ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee, is making an argument for cracking down on budgeting abuses that the Pentagon that liberals and conservatives ought to be able to respect.
“The situation is so absurd that the military is unable to even account for how it spends all of its money,” says the senator. “The non-partisan watchdog agency, the Government Accountability Office, said ‘serious financial management problems at the Department of Defense made its financial statements un-auditable.’ ”
That does not make Sanders anti-defense. It makes him a senator who is willing to call out waste, fraud and abuse—and to apply the standards that Eisenhower proposed.
“I support a strong defense system for our country and a robust National Guard and Reserve that can meet our domestic and foreign challenges,” argues Sanders. “At a time when the country is struggling with huge unmet needs, however, it is unacceptable that the Defense Department continues to waste massive amounts of money.”
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Elizabeth Warren delivered a “Cross of Gold” speech for the twenty-first century as the Senate wrangled over the $1.1 trillion “Cromnibus” spending bill that keeps the government open in return for putting taxpayers on the hook for the next bailout of the nation’s biggest and most irresponsible banks.
While the Senate ultimately said “yes,” it is Warren’s loud “no” that can and should serve as an echo of the past in the future;
“The American people are disgusted by Wall Street bailouts,” thundered the senator from Massachusetts, who spoke with bluntness rarely heard on the Senate floor—or in modern American politics.
Ripping Citigroup by name for its practicesand for its influence on Democratic administrations and the Democratic Party—and by extension addressing all of the banking behemoths that have whined about even the mild regulations contained in the Dodd-Frank legislation enacted after the Wall Street meltdown of 2008—Warren announced: “I agree with you Dodd-Frank isn’t perfect. It should have broken you into pieces!”
Warren’s words were not enough to prevent passage of the combined Continuing Resolution and omnibus spending bill that Washington dubbed “Cromnibus.” After the House narrowly approved it Thursday night, the Senate on Saturday gave a 56-40 authorization to the measure that guts bank regulations in a way Warren says will “let derivatives traders on Wall Street gamble with taxpayer money and get bailed out by the government when their risky bets threaten to blow up our financial system.”
But the measure of a Cross of Gold speech is never made in the moment.
The original Cross of Gold speech by William Jennings Bryan at the Democratic National Convention of 1896 secured the party’s nomination for the Nebraska populist who upset the political calculus of his day by arguing that the party must stand against economic elites and declare, “You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.” But Bryan’s words did not win him the presidency in that year’s campaign or in the succeeding campaigns of 1900 and 1908.
Bryan’s accomplishment was the transformation of a Democratic Party that had been in the service of the elites into a populist force that gave the United States a new politics. That new politics turned even Republicans—like Bryan’s 1900 foe Teddy Roosevelt—into trust-busting regulators. And out of that new politics would eventually come an economically- and societally transforming New Deal.
This is the big ticket.
This is what really matters.
One speech is never enough. One candidate is never enough. Before real change comes, politics must matter—clearly and unequivocally for all Americans. And before politics can matter, parties must define themselves as more than mere treasuries for corporate campaign donations.
Warren’s speech has already renewed speculation about the prospect that she might reconsider her decision to refuse a run for the presidency in 2016. If she were to run, it is not unreasonable to suggest that she could scramble every expectation. In these times, when change comes dramatically faster than in the past—for worse and for better—perhaps she could win the nomination. Perhaps she could win the presidency; against most of the potential Republican nominees in 2016, she would be widely recognized as the voice of reason.
But what matters most for the future is that prospect of the broader transformation of a party and a politics. That is what we remember William Jennings Bryan for today—when we forget so many other Democratic and Republican nominees of the ancient electoral past. Only by remaking parties and politics does it become possible for a president, any president, to remake government policies.
Principles, passion, populist fury when it is called for: this is what sets the stage for real change. And this is what Warren was offering Democrats and American when stormed the Senate to declare,
Enough is enough.
Enough is enough with Wall Street insiders getting key position after key position and the kind of cronyism that we have seen in the executive branch. Enough is enough with Citigroup passing 11th hour deregulatory provisions that nobody takes ownership over but everybody will come to regret. Enough is enough.
Washington already works really well for the billionaires and the big corporations and the lawyers and the lobbyists.
But what about the families who lost their homes or their jobs or their retirement savings the last time Citigroup bet big on derivatives and lost? What about the families who are living paycheck to paycheck and saw their tax dollars go to bail out Citi just six years ago?
We were sent here to fight for those families. It is time, it is past time, for Washington to start working for them!
There is every good reason for members of Congress to vote against the continuing resolution that has evolved into a $1.1 trillion, nine-month omnibus spending bill—“Cromnibus” is Washington-speak.
As it currently stands, the measure includes a rewrite of rules for derivatives trading that Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren says “would let derivatives traders on Wall Street gamble with taxpayer money and get bailed out by the government when their risky bets threaten to blow up our financial system.”
It includes another provision that rewrites campaign-finance rules so radically that Democracy 21’s Fred Wertheimer says would, if enacted, be “the most destructive and corrupting campaign-finance provisions ever enacted by Congress.”
It reworks pension rules in a way that Teamsters President James Hoffa says could “slash the pensions of thousands of retirees who worked years for a pension that they thought would provide them financial security in their retirement years.”
But even if this measure did not include that fiercely wrongheaded provisions, it would still deserve a “no” vote because of its direct assault on democracy.
In November, the District of Columbia voters chose by a 70-30 margin to permit marijuana to be consumed and grown in Washington.
That was hardly a radical move. The proposal had broad support from legalization advocates, criminal-justice reformers and local officials. And, of course, Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Alaska have all backed similar measures.
Unfortunately, because the District of Columbia is not a state, and because some members of Congress are determined to oversee it with all the flexibility of King George III’s oversight of the colonies, the omnibus bill will, if passed, overrule the will of the people of Washington.
A provision added the hastily cobbled together and minimally debated measure would, according to The Washington Post, “[prohibit] the District from using any of its own funds or federal funds to enact or implement drug laws that are weaker than federal ones, which still classify marijuana in the most dangerous class.”
In other words, because of congressional meddling, the voters of the District of Columbia could be denied the ability to govern their own affairs in a way that voters in every state are allowed to do.
This is, as The New York Times notes, an example of “the ‘plantation’ oversight powers long exploited by Congress to checkmate home rule in Washington.”
The District of Columbia should be a state. If it was, Congress could not meddle quite so crudely as it has with local democracy.
But, until that statehood step is taken, responsible members of Congress must recognize and respect that an omnibus spending bill that overrules the will of the people of America’s capital city is entirely unacceptable.
This is not a local issue.
This is an American democracy issue with national consequences—especially at a time when so many popular initiatives are being threatened with pre-emption by right-wing and corporate interests operating at the state and national levels.
DC council member David Grosso and other local officials are precisely right to urge Americans to tell their representatives to take a stand for democracy and refuse to back an omnibus bill that thwarts the will of DC voters.
“Members of Congress of both parties are willing to sell us down the river to get some of their priorities through,” says Grosso. “Hopefully, people will stand up this time and say, ‘Enough is enough.’ ”
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The Senate Intelligence Committee had to release details on its multi-year investigation into how, under George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, the Central Intelligence Agency employed tactics that the world understands as torture. A decision to sit on the findings of what the 500-plus-page summary of the report begins by describing as a “brutal” and “flawed” program that was “in violation of U.S. law, treaty obligations, and our values” would have put senators who are elected to serve and advance the public interest at odds with a basic American premise: the idea that a government acting in the name of the American people must regularly seek and obtain their informed consent.
This premise does not deny the necessity of action in an emergency. Nor does it require consultation so constant or picayune that all flexibility would be lost. But it does expect that officials can and shall be honest with the American people about long-term initiatives, about accepted tactics and about the values that guide this country as it engages domestically and internationally. In particular, it expects frankness and cooperation in interactions with the Congress that the people elect to check and balance the executive branch.
The Bush-Cheney administration did more than simply abandon this premise.
As Arizona Senator John McCain said, in defending the release of the report, the CIA interrogation program as it operated during the Bush-Cheney years "stained our national honor, did much harm, and little practical good."
With Cheney taking the lead, the former administration aggressively and repeatedly rejected the principles of transparency and accountability that are essential to maintaining not just national honor but meaningful democracy. And the assault continues, as Cheney, in particular, maintains the pattern of denial and defense that characterized his tenure as the most powerful—and secretive—vice president in American history.
Without reading the Senate Intelligence Committee’s lengthy summary, or the broader 6,000-page study that has not been made public because of what’s been described as “a prolonged tussle between the CIA and the committee over how much of the material should be classified,” Cheney was already attacking it. With his typical combination of bombastic aggression and refusal to face the facts—especially when those facts reveal the extent to which his own statements have been untrue—Cheney on the eve of the summary’s release decried the study as “a bunch of hooey.”
Cheney rejects what CNN describes as “the central conclusion” of the study: “that CIA employees exceeded the guidelines set by Justice Department memos that authorized the use of ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ and that the agency misrepresented to Congress and the White House what it was doing.”
“The program was authorized. The agency did not want to proceed without authorization, and it was also reviewed legally by the Justice Department before they undertook the program,” claims Cheney, choosing, as he did throughout his vice presidency, to dismiss actual information in favor of a personal narrative where he is always right.
Doubling down in defense of what can only be described as “Cheneyism,” the former vice president is justifying waterboarding and other tactics as “absolutely, totally justified” and claiming that those who engaged in tactics that have long been identified as torture “ought to be decorated, not criticized.”
Presumably, Cheney includes himself on a longer list of those deserving decoration, as he boldly declares, “If I had to do it over again, I would do it.”
It is this overarching arrogance that has consistently put Cheney at odds with American ideals and American values regarding transparency and accountability. Even with the passage of time, even in the face of carefully gathered and carefully examined facts that suggest his own past statements were not just wrong but deliberately deceptive, the former vice president will not accept, let alone respect, any questioning of his absolute authority.
When he left office in January, 2009, Cheney’s approval rating was just 13 percent.
Now Cheney expects his fellow Republicans to embrace not just his sweeping rejection of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s majority report, but to his broader approach. Some are already following the former vice president’s lead—despite the irony of having complained so loudly (and sometimes appropriately) about a lack of transparency and accountability on the part of the Obama administration. They are wrong to do so.
It needs to be understood, by people of all partisanships, that Cheney really is the outlier here. As difficult and challenging as a moment like this may be for Republicans and for some Democrats, Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill is correct when she says, “This is a gut-check moment for our democracy.”
“The world knows we tortured,” explains McCaskill. “But does the world know yet that we’ll hold up our values and hold our government accountable?”
Going back to his days in the Nixon White House, and certainly during his time as the Reagan administration’s chief defender during the Iran/Contra inquiry, Cheney has rejected accountability and transparency. Indeed, he has for so long been so over-the-top in this regard that the opposite of the set of values mentioned by McCaskill is best understood as “Cheneyism.”
There are Republicans who have rejected “Cheneyism”— not least McCain, who on Tuesday, announced "the truth is a hard pill to swallow (but) the American people are entitled to it."
More Republicans need to step up in defense of transparency and accountability, recognizing the wisdom of the Republican leader who best explained the necessity of transparency and accountability.
It was not a liberal Democrat, but rather a retired general, Dwight Eisenhower, who counseled the American people to always remember that “only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.”
The problem with bipartisanship as it is currently understood is that, for the most part, cooperation in Congress serves the elites that already are living large thanks to federal tax policies that redistribute wealth upward.
Hailed by politicians and pundits as an example of Congress coming together to get something done, the measure—which still must be considered by a somewhat skeptical Senate—is better understood as a glaring example of what it wrong with Washington.
“There are a lot of things that Congress didn’t get done in the last two years,” explains Congressman Mark Pocan, a Wisconsin Democrat who cast one of the lonely “no” voters in the House. “The fact that this was a priority of this leadership at this point shows just how broken this Congress is.”
The measure seeks to extend many of the most absurd tax breaks enjoyed by multinational corporations in a way that Congressman Keith Ellison says “gives away too much to big business, while doing little to help working families make ends meet.”
“The bill is full of deficit-financed corporate giveaways that won’t stimulate the economy or help working Americans,” notes Ellison, the co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. “The bill retroactively restores the bonus depreciation tax break, which doesn’t increase economic growth because it helps companies pay for equipment they’ve already purchased. It also costs $1.49 billion. The active financing exemption allows companies to keep a huge amount of profits overseas and costs $5 billion. The bill also provides tax breaks for motorsports tracks such as NASCAR ($33 million) and racehorses ($45 million).”
The “bonus depreciation” merits special attention.
Georgetown University law professor David A. Super refers to that particular corporate tax break as a “license to steal”—because it “allows a business to pretend that its buildings and equipment wear out far faster than they actually do.”
“As economic stimulus, bonus depreciation does not work. Studies of a similar measure enacted to combat the 2001 recession found that only a tiny minority of businesses even considered the new tax benefit as an important factor in making investment decisions,” explains Super. Yet, he adds, “The cost [of bonus depreciation is] staggering: nearly $300 billion over the next decade, more than three times what we spend on nutrition supplements for pregnant women, infants and young children. That would wipe out roughly one-third of the deficit reduction from higher tax collections from the wealthy as a result of last year’s ’fiscal cliff’ deal.”
Only the most sold-out, corporate-hack Republican could back such a fundamentally flawed scheme, right?
Of the 378 “yes” votes for the House measure, 202 did come from John Boehner’s Republicans. But the remaining 176 “yes” votes came from Nancy Pelosi and her fellow Democrats.
Of the forty-six “no” votes, twenty-sixwere cast by Republicans—some libertarian-leaning foes of crony capitalism, others trickle-down zealots who would do even more for corporations and mega-rich CEOs. The twenty Democrats who opposed the measure pretty much make up the caucus of House members who actually get that something is very wrong with an economic calculus that says the richest individuals and corporations in America should be first in line for government assistance.
Compromise-prone Democrats tried to argue that they had to back the measure because it extended some programs that benefit working Americans. However, Pocan explains, “almost all of the significant tax extenders were going to corporations, not to working people. And they were retroactive. You couldn’t even argue that they would create jobs—except in the last two weeks of the year.”
Ellison’s assessment was that “the bad clearly outweighs the good in this bill.”
“The bill passed [December 3] does little for working families, but lots for corporations already booking big profits,” added Ellison. “Too many Americans are working in jobs that don’t sustain their families. Nearly 75% of the tax breaks in the package will make their struggle to attain the American Dream even tougher.”
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Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders will “make a decision within the first few months of 2015” on whether to bid for the presidency of the United States. It is not certain that he will run. And, if the independent senator from Vermont does decide to run, he says he has yet to determine precisely how he might do so: as a challenger to presumed front-runner Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination or as an insurgent independent taking on both major parties. Sanders has in recent months spent a good deal of time in the first caucus state of Iowa and the first primary state of New Hampshire, and he acknowledges that this has stoked speculation that he is likely to go the Democratic route. He also declares, “I will not play the role of a spoiler”—tipping a fall 2016 race to a right-wing Republican. Yet, the senator expresses deep frustration with the failure of the Democratic Party to adopt positions that are sufficiently progressive and populist to build a movement to change the debate and the direction of the country.
Sanders explained in an interview with The Nation that he is convinced, after visiting not just Iowa and New Hampshire but Wisconsin, Minnesota, South Carolina, Mississippi, California and other states, that “there is a real hunger in grassroots America for a fight against the greed of the billionaire class, which is wrecking havoc on our economic and political system.”
At the same time, like many progressives, he is unsettled by the inability of Democratic leaders and the party establishment to channel that anger into political action—as Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman once did.
“This country faces more serious problems today than at any time since the Great Depression,” says the senator. “We have already, in the midterms, gone through an election where there was no substantive debate about the most important issues, which is why you have, I think, the lowest voter turnout since 1942. The idea that we could go through a presidential election, where you have all these right-wing Republicans on one side talking about their issues and then, within the progressive community, not to discuss issues like the collapse of the middle class, the growth in poverty, the fact that we’re the only country in the industrialized world without a national healthcare program…not to discuss climate change when the scientific community tells of that we have a short window in which to address it; not to discuss these and other issues would, I think, be horrendous for this country. Absolutely horrendous.”
Always uncomfortable with political discussions that get bogged down by process and personalities, Sanders does not spend time bashing Clinton or other prospective contenders. He rejects the narrow constraints of horserace politics and asks the essential question: “Do we have a desperate need for a candidate, or candidates, to be representing the middle class and the working class of this country, standing up to the billionaire class, raising issues that are never talked about here in Congress, or in the media? The answer is absolutely, absolutely yes. But the other side of the equation is, if you do have that candidate—myself or anybody else—doing that, you have to figure out and be certain that you can run a strong and effective campaign.”
Such a campaign cannot be built around traditional fundraising or name recognition calculations, says the senator, who argues that, “We are in a new order right now, new territory, in terms of Citizens United [and money in politics]. It is my full expectation that, within a few months, the barrage we saw during the  campaign will return. No one should think that these ads are going to be on three months before an election anymore. I suspect they will be on eleven months or a year before [the 2016 election]. That’s the new politics. And these people [billionaire donors who fund the ads] have—and I use the word advisedly—unlimited sums of money. They will do everything they can [to determine what] the issues are; they will make horrendous attacks against anybody who stands up to them.”
And Sanders does not believe that the media will effectively check and balance what progressives of another era referred to as “the money power.”
“I can tell you from personal experience: I get on TV a lot. It is very hard for me to fight through the questioning and to actually talk about policy issues,” he says. “There is a real prejudice and a desire not to talk about the collapse of the middle class, about the level of poverty in this country, about income and wealth inequality. They don’t want to talk about that; they want to talk about anything else—to make it into a personality match: ‘What do you think about Hillary Clinton?’—rather than ‘How do we help the middle class? How do we deal with income and wealth inequality?’ ”
In the new money and media order, Sanders acknowledges, “there are some people who are arguing that it can’t be done anymore, that you cannot defeat the billionaire class. What you have is a situation where the Koch brothers and others will be supporting a set of candidates, and then the opponents of them—in order to get half the money that the Koch brothers have—are going to have to reach out to if not the billionaire class, then the multimillionaire class. And what’s left for working people?”
What’s left, Sanders suggests, are the ideas, the issues that have in the past and might again inspire mass movements. If there is a prospect for galvanizing a movement to change the politics and the governance of America, it rests not in the processes of petty politics but in the process of framing agendas that are bold enough to make working people believe again in the necessity of voting.
So Sanders is getting the discussion going. Whether he runs for the presidency or not, he is getting specific about the issues that the senator says need to be at the center of the debate in the new Congress and on the 2016 campaign trail.
This week, Sanders took to the Senate floor to outline a twelve-point economic program that challenges both major political parties and the process itself. No one who has followed the senator’s career doubts that he would prefer to begin implementing the agenda now. But no one who knows the math of the incoming Congress, and the current disconnect between debates in Washington and the real issues facing America, doubts that a lot about our politics must change before a progressive populist economic agenda is approved by the House and Senate.
So, when Sanders talks about his program, he is really talking to the American people—as a senator and as a prospective presidential contender, but perhaps most of all as an old-school organizer—about what voters can and should demand from their government
To that end, Sanders argues that the United States ought to
* Invest in our crumbling infrastructure with a major program to create jobs by rebuilding roads, bridges, water systems, waste water plants, airports, railroads and schools.
* Transform energy systems away from fossil fuels to create jobs while beginning to reverse global warming and make the planet habitable for future generations.
* Develop new economic models to support workers in the United States instead of giving tax breaks to corporations which ship jobs to low-wage countries overseas.
* Make it easier for workers to join unions and bargain for higher wages and benefits.
* Raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 an hour so no one who works forty hours a week will live in poverty.
* Provide equal pay for women workers who now make 78 percent of what male counterparts make.
* Reform trade policies that have shuttered more than 60,000 factories and cost more than 4.9 million decent-paying manufacturing jobs.
* Make college affordable and provide affordable childcare to restore America’s competitive edge compared to other nations.
* Break up big banks. The six largest banks now have assets equivalent to 61 percent of our gross domestic product, over $9.8 trillion. They underwrite more than half the mortgages in the country and issue more than two-thirds of all credit cards.
* Join the rest of the industrialized world with a Medicare-for-all healthcare system that provides better care at less cost.
* Expand Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and nutrition programs.
* Reform the tax code based on wage earners’ ability to pay and eliminate loopholes that let profitable corporations stash profits overseas and pay no US federal income taxes.
Sanders does not suggest that this is the whole of a progressive agenda. What matters, he argues, is framing a deeper and more serious debate. The senator believes that speaking clearly and boldly on core economic issues—in a way that most politicians no longer do—has the potential to excite and engage the tens of millions of Americans who have grown increasingly frustrated with an empty and dysfunctional politics.
“[The] goal is to, number one, make people aware that decisions made here in Washington, DC—whether it is trade policy, whether it is environmental policy, whether it is a jobs program or raising the minimum wage—are enormously important to people’s lives,” says Sanders. “And, second, the goal is to figure out—though it is very difficult—a way for them to become actively engaged in the political process.”
Sanders does not argue that presidential campaigns are the only vehicles for fostering that engagement, nor even the best vehicles. But he recognizes that the obsession of the media with presidential politics creates a “venue” for raising and advancing issues. So the senator continues to wrestle with the prospect of a candidacy. If he runs, he says, it will be to win. But what he seeks to win in more than just a nomination or an office. It is a different and better politics.
Sanders says he is looking beyond the specific question of what a campaign by him or another progressive populist might entail to the broader question of whether there is sufficient interest, sufficient excitement and sufficient commitment to mount a campaign that transforms politics so that economic issues are seriously discussed and addressed.
“These issues have got to be discussed. A massive effort has got to be undertaken to demand that working people and low-income people begin to stand up and fight for their rights—and that we take on the billionaire class for the sake of our kids and grandkids—that is a given. That is exactly what has got to happen,” says Sanders. “What I simply have to decide is whether there is the kind of political infrastructure that exists in this country—and I’m talking about rallying millions of people—so that the campaign that I run is either a winning campaign or at least is a campaign where at the end of the day people say, ‘Whoa, I didn’t know that there was so much anger out there at what’s going on in America. Wow!’ ”
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Now that the Thanksgiving holiday is done, the discussion about forcing people to work on holidays should be ramping up—not dying down. There is no question that thousands of retail workers were placed in untenable and abusive circumstances by retailers and restaurants that opened on Thanksgiving or at absurdly early hours on “Black Friday.” But the untenable and abusive circumstances will continue throughout December, a month of multiple religious and community holidays and immense pressure by corporate retailers on their employees.
So, instead of simply celebrating the firms that did treat their workers well or condemning the firms that did not, it is time to turn up the volume on demands for workplace standards—and to recognize them as essential complements to demands for living-wage pay. “Erratic, constantly changing schedules aren’t just a nightmare for workers, they’re bad for business,” says national Jobs With Justice Executive Director Sarita Gupta, who argues that there is a crying need to “adopt 21st-century policies that keep up with the changing nature of today’s workplace.”
San Francisco—where voters in November approved a series of increases that will result in a city minimum wage of $15 an hour—is in the process of establishing needed protections for workers in chain stores and restautants. Last week, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors unanimously backed a “Retail Workers Bill of Rights” which combined several pieces of legislation with an eye toward
* Promoting Full-Time Work and Access to Hours
To encourage full-time employment, employers must offer more hours to existing part-time employees before hiring additional part-time workers.
* Encouraging Fair, Predictable Schedules
To discourage erratic, unpredictable scheduling practices, employers will be required to post schedules at least two weeks in advance. Employees will receive one hour of pay at their regular rate of pay for schedule changes made with less than a week’s notice and two to four hours of pay for schedule changes made with less than 24 hours’ notice.
* Discouraging Abusive On-Call Scheduling Practices
Employers will be required to provide two to four hours of pay to an employee at his/her regular rate of pay when she/he is required to be “on-call” for a specified shift but the employer cancels the shift with less than 24 hours’ notice.
* Equal Treatment for Part-Time Workers
Employers will be prohibited from discriminating against an employee with respect to their starting rate of pay, access to employer-provided paid and unpaid time off, or access to promotion opportunities.
* Encouraging Worker Retention and Job Security
If an employer’s company is bought or sold, the workers must keep on at their jobs for at least a 90-day trial period.
“All families need strong wages, stable hours and sane schedules to build a good life,” explained Jobs With Justice San Francisco Executive Director Gordon Mar, whose group played a critical role in promoting the bill or rights. “But too many of our neighbors who serve our food, stock our shelves and sweep our floors have jobs that grant too few hours on too short notice and require them to be at the beck and call of their employers.”
The San Francisco model for “Jobs With Just Hours” needs to go national. There has already been progress at the federal level, where Congressman George Miller, D-California, and Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro, D-Connecticut, have introduced the “Schedules That Work Act” (HR 5159). A parallel measure has been introduced in the Senate by Iowa Democrat Tom Harkin.
The federal initiative has attracted significant support from the AFL-CIO and major unions, as well as the National Organization for Women and dozens of activist groups working on equal pay and workplace issues. The House measure has more than 40 cosponsors, while Democrats Tammy Baldwin (Wisconsin), Sherrod Brown (Ohio), Edward Markey (Massachusetts), Chris Murphy (Connecticut) and Elizabeth Warren (Massachusetts) have cosponsored the Senate measure, (One of them will have to pick it up in the next Senate, as Harkin is retiring, as is Miller in the House.)
The unfortunate reality is that action on workplace issues, like action on a meaningful increase in the minimum wage, will be hard to come by in the next Congress. But states and communities can pick up on the San Francisco initiative.
And the federal government can send the right signal.
Before the Thanksgiving holiday, Congressman Steve Israel, D-New York, asked Secretary of Labor Tom Perez to “encourage companies to: 1) first ask for volunteers to work on Thanksgiving Day; and 2) provide overtime or holiday pay for those who work. At your earliest convenience, please advise how you will work on these efforts.”
That encouragement should be extended, especially in the coming weeks—a time when retail workers will be under immense pressure.
Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison, the co-chair of the Congressional Black Caucus who has signed on to Israel’s letter, is right when he says retail workers should be properly compensated for working on holidays.
Ellison makes an important point when he explains that “we can give thanks to working Americans by paying them fairly.”
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St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch’s handling of the Michael Brown shooting case has inspired a storm of controversy.
After a grand jury refused to bring charges against Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson in the August 9 shooting death of the African-American teenager, an attorney for the Brown family told the Associated Press, “We said from the very beginning that the decision of this grand jury was going to be the direct reflection of the presentation of the evidence by the prosecutor’s office.”
Long criticized for failing to adequately investigate complaints about the police, and for failing to demand accountability in cases of officer-involved shootings, McCulloch’s approach to the grand jury inquiry was the subject of concern from the start. And the prosecutor sparked anger at the finish by delaying the announcement of the grand jury’s decision deep into Monday evening. The prosecutor seized his prime-time platform to delivera rambling and frequently defensive forty-five-minute speech. He went on and on about aspects of the case. Yet he failed to mention that Brown was unarmed when he was killed.
“Robert McCulloch, who is widely viewed in the minority community as being in the pockets of the police, made matters infinitely worse by handling this sensitive investigation in the worst possible way,” argued a New York Times editorial, which concluded:
Under ordinary circumstances, grand jury hearings can be concluded within days. The proceeding in this case lasted an astonishing three months. And since grand jury proceedings are held in secret, the drawn-out process fanned suspicions that Mr. McCulloch was deliberately carrying on a trial out of public view, for the express purpose of exonerating Officer Wilson.
If all this weren’t bad enough, Mr. McCulloch took a reckless approach to announcing the grand jury’s finding. After delaying the announcement all day, he finally made it late in the evening, when darkness had placed law enforcement agencies at a serious disadvantage as they tried to control the angry crowds that had been drawn into the streets by news that the verdict was coming. Mr. McCulloch’s announcement sounded more like a defense of Officer Wilson than a neutral summary of the facts that had led the grand jury to its conclusion.
This is appropriate criticism.
Now let’s add some political context.
What has not been much discussed is the fact that McCulloch is a Democrat—a member of the same party as President Obama, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon and Congressional Black Caucus chair Marcia Fudge, the Ohioan who on Monday evening referred to the failure to bring charges against Wilson as “a slap in the face to Americans nationwide who continue to hope and believe that justice will prevail.”
Across America, counties elect top law-enforcement officials as state’s attorneys, district attorneys and prosecuting attorneys. Hundreds of them are Democrats. Some, like Kings County (Brooklyn) District Attorney Ken Thompson and Bronx County District Attorney Robert T. Johnson, have impressed progressives by taking bold stands and developing innovative policies on everything from the drug war to the death penalty to gun violence and domestic abuse. Former San Francisco District Attorney Terence Hallinan, a “wild Irish rogue” who was arrested sixteen times as a civil rights campaigner before his election to the DA post, often clashed with the police on accountability issues during his tenure.
But there are plenty of Democratic prosecutors who are indistinguishable from the Republican counterparts. Placing a “D” next to the name of a prosecutor does not make that prosecutor a progressive, or even a moderate. Some of the most controversial prosecutors in the country are Democrats. For instance, Brooklyn’s Thompson won his post in 2013 by beating incumbent DA Charles Hynes in a Democratic primary campaign, during which The New York Times noted that Thompson accused Hynes “of remaining passive on issues important to minority communities, like stop-and-frisk policing.”
As the elected prosecutor in suburban St. Louis County since 1991, McCulloch is a powerful player in Missouri Democratic politics. He has delivered sought-after endorsements to prominent figures such as Claire McCaskill, who had the prosecutor’s support when she challenged a sitting Democratic governor in 2004 and who is now Missouri’s senior senator. In August of this year, McCulloch helped a white challenger mount a successful Democratic primary challenge to St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley, the first African-American to hold the position. On the same day, McCulloch, who is white, easily saw off a Democratic primary challenge from Leslie Broadnax, an African-American attorney and municipal judge.
The primary came just before the killing of Michael Brown. As protests filled the streets of Ferguson, community leaders argued that McCulloch—because of his close ties to the police in suburban St. Louis County—should hand off the case. “Many community members don’t believe he can be fair and impartial,” said state Senator Jamilah Nasheed, a St. Louis Democrat who led a drive that collected tens of thousands of signatures on petitions calling for the appointment of a special prosecutor.
McCulloch balked at that request, as did Democratic Governor Nixon. There was no real chance to defeat McCulloch at the polls in the fall, as he ran without Republican opposition. But thousands of St. Louis County voters refused to vote for the incumbent. In Ferguson, for instance, 10,645 voters went to the polls on November 4. Almost all of them cast ballots in races for county executive and county assessor. Yet, rather than vote for the unopposed McCulloch, Ferguson voters cast more than 1,000 write-in ballots and another 3,000 voters simply skipped the race.
In the contest for county executive, a number of leading African-American political figures rejected the Democratic nominee backed by McCulloch and endorsed the Republican, who attracted substantial African-American support and lost by just 1 percent of the vote. The Republican, veteran state legislator Rick Stream, was not a progressive by any means. But he reached out to the African-American community in suburban St. Louis, listened and made commitments. In return, he was backed by a number of African-American Democrats, led by State Senator Maria Chapelle-Nadal, St. Louis County Council Chair Hazel Erby and the Fannie Lou Hamer Democratic Coalition.
In announcing the endorsement, Erby specifically criticized Democrat Steve Stenger’s “unbreakable alignment with Bob McCulloch.”
For his part, Republican Stream declared, “Mr. McCulloch had a chance to step aside and frankly it would have removed all doubt about having a fair and independent investigation.” The Republican went further, endorsing a proposal to name special prosecutors to handle all cases of officer-involved shootings. He also campaigned in the African-American community and promised to promote diversity in his appointments.
That wasn’t enough to reverse voting patterns altogether. But it shook the process up; for instance, the Democratic vote for county executive in Ferguson dropped twenty points, from 2010 to 2014. “There was a significant falling off of Democratic performance at the top of the ticket,” said Mike Jones, an ally of the coalition effort. “And you have to argue that didn’t happen by accident.”
Elections for local positions should not happen by accident. And that goes double for key law-enforcement posts.
It is good that prosecutors are elected. Prosecutors have immense authority over the lives of citizens, and citizens should be able to hold prosecutors to account. But for that political process to work, it is important to move beyond simplistic assumptions about Democrats and Republicans, and to make demands of candidates from both parties.
It is vital to take primary elections seriously. And it is important to recognize the value of independent and third-party challenges to the two-party status quo.
There is a good argument to be made for electing prosecutors on a nonpartisan basis. But there is an even better argument to be made that elections for prosecutor positions— be they partisan or nonpartisan, be their primaries or general elections—must be recognized as some of the most vital contests on our ballots.
Media and political elites tend to focus on top-of-the-ballot races for president and governor and senator. But, if the experience of Ferguson and St. Louis County teach us anything, it is that at the bottom of the ballot, in races for local law-enforcement posts, the most fundamental choices are made.
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Rand Paul may not fully recognize it, but he has outlined an important challenge to the selective outrage of his fellow Republicans when it comes to executive actions by American presidents.
In moving to force Congress to formally decide whether to declare war on the Islamic State militants that the United States is already fighting, the senator from Kentucky is highlighting the failure of Republican congressional leaders (or, for the most part, their Democratic counterparts) to take seriously what should always be the most concerning example of executive overreach. This is the executive action that troubled the founders above all others: warmaking by presidents in the absence of a declaration of war by the Congress.
“Conservatives are mad at (Obama) about immigration. And they’re mad about him using executive authority on Obamacare,” says Paul. “But this is another example where he doesn’t have much respect for Congress, and some conservatives don’t quite get that.”
Paul should acknowledge that warmaking without the authorization of Congress is not “another example” of executive authority being extended into troubling territory. It is, by far, the most significant example.
Paul should also acknowledge that the disrespect shown by presidents for Congress with regard to declarations of war did not begin with Obama. It extends back decades and has been evidenced by Republican and Democratic presidents.
Paul’s proposal to have Congress declare that “a state of war exists between the organization identifying itself as the Islamic State and the government and the people of the United States” is flawed on many levels. For instance, despite the senator’s protestations to the contrary, it opens too much space for the assignment of ground troops to a fight in a region where most Americans are exceptionally disinclined to engage in another full-scale war.
Yet what Paul is doing is important, in that he is challenging the “parlor game” wherein leaders of Congress “consult” with presidents and then allow them to wage war with anything akin to the congressional oversight required by the Constitution.
This “parlor game” has been going on for a long time. The United States has not formally declared war since World War II. And many of the same Republicans who are now screaming about the president issuing an executive order with regard to immigration—as Republican Presidents Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Bush did before him—have engaged in the war-and-peace parlor game quite willingly. Indeed, interventionist Republicans such as Arizona Senator John McCain and South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham are frequently heard urging presidents to be more aggressive and unilaterally inclined in their executive warmaking.
The war hawks have been aided and abetted by Republican congressional leaders—along with Democrats—who have declined to take even the most minimal steps to check and balance presidential warmaking since the days when George W. Bush began overreaching.
When President Obama began ramping up the current fight with Islamic State militants in September, a CNN poll found that, while Americans were “alarmed” and “concerned” about reports of conflict in Iraq and Syria, they were also skeptical about getting too deeply engaged in that conflict. Specifically the poll found that:
1. Americans want limits placed on the US military response to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant and to the broader political challenges that have developed in those countries. For instance, a majority of Americans, 61 percent of Americans oppose placing US troops on the ground in Iraq and Syria.
2. More than 70 percent of Americans believe that President Obama should seek congressional authorization for military strikes against ISIL.
Amid all the examples of “alarm” and “concern,” the American people remain wary about any rush to war. They believe that Congress—not just the president—should have a say with regard to expansion of military action. And, make no mistake, what President Obama has embarked upon involves a dramatic expansion of US military involvement and action in Iraq and Syria.
As Congresswoman Barbara Lee, D-California, said in a statement in September, “The facts are clear. We are no longer talking about limited strikes to prevent genocide and protect US personnel. We are talking about sustained bombing and the use of military force.”
The US troop presence in the region has risen steadily since September. Yet even now, House Speaker John Boehner, who so noisily objects to executive initiatives on the domestic front, remains cautious about challenging executive warmaking.
As such Obama simply says, “I have the authority to address the threat from ISIL. But I believe we are strongest as a nation when the President and Congress work together. So I welcome congressional support for this effort in order to show the world that Americans are united in confronting this danger.”
Translation: While the president is happy to accept endorsements of his actions—and may, in fact, get from this Congress or the next—he is in no rush to seek the congressional advice and consent on matters of war and peace that is imagined and intended by the Constitution.
Congressman Jim McDermott, D-Washington, has described the president’s “I welcome congressional support” line as “really kind of condescending.”
Yet, Congress has been absurdly slow in asserting its clear authority as a co-equal branch of government to debate and vote on plans for war and, through the power of the purse, to define the scope and character of warmaking.
While Republican and Democratic leaders have been derelict in their duty, there are members of the House and Senate who continue to voice concerns about the lack of clear congressional authorization for military action in Iraq and Syria.
Congresswoman Lee has long championed the view that “the Constitution requires Congress to vote on the use of military force. This is not about this President. This is about any President and any Congress. We must re-establish the checks and balances laid out by the Constitution.”
She’s right. And she has allies.
Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chairs Raul Grijalva, D-Arizona, and Keith Ellison, D-Minnesota, have joined Lee in asking for immediate and genuine debate. “The voices of the American people must be heard during a full and robust debate in Congress on the use of military force,” they have said. “Speaker Boehner should put legislation authorizing military action on the floor of the House of Representatives before Congress leaves for the upcoming district work period.”
House Armed Services Committee member John Garamendi, D-California, has for months been specific in arguing that “the U.S. Constitution and War Powers Resolution are clear: Congress is obligated to weigh in on extended U.S. military actions. No matter how noble the cause, no matter how just the engagement, Congress’ voice and vote are required within a 60-90 day window.”
The sixty-to-ninety-day window that Garamendi spoke of in that September statement has passed. For months, Speaker Boehner and other congressional leaders have ignored what the California congressman correctly describes as “our Constitutionally-required duty.”
Now, it appears that Congress may finally send a signal regarding its sentiments. But, as The New York Times notes:
Some (Republican) conservatives may balk at setting up a narrow set of parameters for the president. Senator James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, the senior Republican on the Armed Services Committee, has introduced a resolution that would give the president “all necessary and appropriate force” to defend the country against the Islamic State but would require him to report back to Congress on the effort every 90 days.
The debate will probably continue into the next Congress. Republicans will then control both chambers, which is likely to make it more difficult to pass a resolution that sets major limits.
Congress has ceded to successive presidents immense authority to act on domestic and foreign-policy concerns. This has created a confusing circumstance that favors the executive. The White House has broad authority to act when emergencies arise, and when crises go unaddressed by obstructionist or dysfunctional congresses.
In many areas of domestic policy, the courts and Congress have helped to define for presidents a good deal of flexibility. Yet when it comes to matters of war and peace, there has been little in the war of responsible defintion. Instead, the power of presidents has expanded to a point where Congress now tends to be a spectator—rather than separate-but-equal branch of government.
This is an imbalance that the founders feared, as it opens up the prospect of perpetual war, which James Madison well and wisely recognized. “Of all the enemies to public liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other,” Madison, the essential author of the US Constitution, warned more than two centuries ago. “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 manners and of morals engendered by both. No nation could reserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.”
Only 36 percent of Americans participated in the November 4 elections that determined the political makeup of the legislative branch of the federal government. That’s a dismal measure of political engagement in the United States, a nation where voter turnout rates have in recent years fallen far below the levels seen in Germany and other European countries.
The Economist’s 2012 “Democracy Index” dropped the US ranking on the list of the most democratic countries to number twenty-one—with particularly low marks for popular participation in the political process.
How has the American circumstance so decayed in a nation that once so well understood the wisdom of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s observation that “democracy alone, of all forms of government, enlists the full force of men’s [and women’s] enlightened will”?
There’s plenty of blame to go around. But let’s start with broadcast media that are so indefensibly irresponsible that television networks cannot take time away from their relentless profiteering to present a short address by the president of the United States—an address announcing an executive order on an issue that is universally recognized as consequential and controversial.
ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox—four major broadcast networks—all declined to interrupt prime-time programming to air President Obama’s Thursday evening address on immigration policy. Though cable news channels, public television stations and Spanish-language stations cleared time for the president’s speech, the big broadcast networks stuck with fare such as The Biggest Loser.
The absurdity of the choice made by the networks was only heightened by the fact that the network-aligned local television stations that were set to broadcast entertainment programs rather than the president’s address just pocketed hundreds of millions of dollars for airing the slurry of negative campaign commercials that have become the crude lingua franca of our politics. A good many of those commercials focused on the issue of immigration. And the stations that aired those ads would gladly accept more cash from groups seeking to attack or embrace the president’s position.
The result is a democratically dysfunctional imbalance where viewers of the major broadcast networks and of local television stations that carry their programming can get more information from paid political advertisements about a policy than from the policymaker himself. And forget about honest debate, even in the constrained form of a presidential address followed by a response from the leader of the opposition.
This is not how a great democracy is supposed to work. And the refusal of major media outlets to take seriously their role in the democratic discourse is one important part of why this great democracy is not working as well as it could—or should. When a major presidential address is not taken seriously by the networks, Americans get another signal that the political process is something separate and distant from their lives.
Former Federal Communications Commission member Michael Copps has repeatedly warned in recent years of the threat posed to democracy by the “diminished and too often dumbed-down civic dialogue” that emerges when those who broadcast on the people’s airwaves fail to serve the people’s interest.
Copps explains, “Our country confronts challenges to its viability in some ways reminiscent of the 1930s, making it a national imperative that every American be empowered with the news and information essential for knowledgeable decision-making. Without that, the challenges go misunderstood, untended, unresolved. When our media, our press and our journalism catch cold, democracy catches pneumonia.”
Senator Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, sees the network neglect of a particular presidential address as just one measure of a broader crisis for democracy that results when media are no longer “educating the American people so that we’re debating the real issues.”
That broader crisis is evident all around us. Journalism is declining rapidly (in print and broadcast formats), creating an information void that has not been filled for the great mass of Americans by emerging cable and digital media. Increasingly, the void is filled by paid political commercials and siloed spin. This denies the vast majority of eligible voters the information they need to engage with the political process, to form their own opinions and to act effectively as their own governors.
Too frequently, pundits blame citizens for not sifting and winnowing the information that is available to them. But isn’t the point of a free press—as it was understood by the founders, and as it should be understood today—to provide direct access to that information, especially when presidents are launching major new initiatives? Shouldn’t broadcast networks and stations be expected to pause their entertainment programming long enough for a president to explain what he is doing in his own words—and for an opposition leader to challenge that explanation?
The first televised address by an American president was a 1947 request by Harry Truman that Americans consume one less slice of bread each day in order to free up grain for post-war Europe. Since then, presidents have used primetime access to explain nuclear policy, announce invasions, advance civil rights, promote energy conservation, ponder the ramifications of stem cell research and warn about the threat posed by the military-industrial complex. Not every address has been dramatic, and some have been self-serving. Most would have benefited from a response by an opposition leader. But all were aired by the broadcast networks as part of the duty to the American people that goes with surfing the public airwaves.
So, too, was a 2006 address by then-President George W. Bush on immigration policy.
“In 2006, Bush gave a 17 minute speech that was televised by all three networks that was about deploying 6,000 national guard troops to the border,” a senior Obama administration aide griped to Politico. “Obama is making a 10 minute speech that will have a vastly greater impact on the issue. And none of the networks are doing it.”
The counter from the networks was reportedly that Obama’s 2014 speech is more “overtly political” than Bush’s 2006 speech.
That’s debatable, as the Bush speech drew criticism from a number of corners. But, whether they are political or not, the executive actions that Obama is taking are real—they will have consequences for millions of people, they will face political and legal challenges, and they could lead to more policy shifts. Americans ought to hear their president’s explanation for why he is acting as he is at this time. And they ought to hear what the leader of the congressional opposition, House Speaker John Boehner, says he is going to do in response.
This very open, very public, prime-time give and take is vital. It invites Americans into the debate as informed citizens—not the targets of negative ads and spin. And there is every good reason to believe that genuine engagement with policy, as opposed to the politics of personalities, has the potential to maintain and enhance voter turnout over the long term.
Former FCC Commissioner Copps is exactly right. If we do not “ensure that each and every citizen of this nation has available the news and information they need in order to be contributing participants in the affairs of the nation,” then, “It means a crippled and stunted small ‘d’ democratic dialogue.”
John Nichols is the co-author with Robert W. McChesney of The Death and Life of American Journalism: The Media Revolution That Will Begin the World Again (Nation Books).
Editor’s note: Though the national networks declined to run the address, many local affiliate stations did air it.
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