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President Obama talks to bipartisan Congressional leaders in the Cabinet Room at the White House in Washington while discussing a military response to Syria, September 3, 2013. (REUTERS/ Larry Downing)
In an extraordinary development that reflected both the level of division regarding military intervention in Syria and the power of the popular outcry from Americans who want their Constitution to be respected, President Obama on Saturday indicated that he will ask Congress for authorization to use force against the Middle Eastern country.
Obama, who had seemed to be on track to launch missile strikes without the approval of the House and Senate, faced loud objections from House members. More than 150 Democratic and Republican members signed letters demanding that the president ask for the approval of Congress before taking any action. The White House took note when Democrats such as California Congressman John Garamendi pointedly declared that “the president has the responsibility to seek authorization from our nation’s elected leaders before initiating military action.”
On Saturday, in a White House Rose Garden announcement that shocked much of official Washington, the president agreed.
“We should have this debate,” Obama announced, just days after the British Parliament rejected Prime Minister David Cameron’s appeal for authority to join the United States in intervening in Syria.
Now Obama has set up a similar test. While the president continues to assert that he has the “the authority to carry out this military action without specific congressional authorization,” he acknowledged Saturday that “I’m also mindful that I’m the president of the world’s oldest constitutional democracy. I’ve long believed that our power is rooted not just in our military might but in our example as a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.”
With that expression of regard for the system of checks and balances, the president would be hard-pressed to go ahead with a military intervention that the House or Senate rejected.
Indeed, though he will lobby for the strike, Obama clung Saturday to his past association with antiwar sentiment. “A country faces few decisions as grave as using military force, even when that force is limited,” he said. “I respect the views of those who call for caution, particularly as our country emerges from a time of war that I was elected in part to end.”
Because Congress does not return from its current recess until September 9, the president’s decision appears to delay what had seemed to be an imminent strike. It has also created an opening for opponents of this military intervention to press members of the House and Senate to vote “no.”
Obama left no doubt that he wants to take action. He said Saturday that he is “prepared to strike” Syria, in response to reports of chemical weapons attacks in that war-torn country. “I have decided that the US should take military action against Syrian military targets,” said the president, who described the desired action as “limited in duration and scope.”
The key word in that statement was “should”—as opposed to “will.”
NBC News reported that most members of the president’s national security team wanted the president to act without Congress. But the growing demand for a vote—coming not just from Republicans who usually oppose the president but from Democrats who are often aligned with him—led the president on Saturday to acknowledge the objection to going to war without the constitutionally mandated authorization from Congress: “Over the last several days, we’ve heard from several members of Congress who want their voices to be heard. I absolutely agree.”
“While I believe I have the authority to carry out this military action without specific congressional authorization, I know the country will be stronger if we take this course and our actions will be even more effective,” said Obama. “We should have this debate, because the issues are too big for business as usual.”
How much of a break there will be from business as usual remains unclear.
The White House will ask for limited authority to take necessary steps “to prevent and deter the use of chemical weapons.” The actual language of the request is important, as will be the language of the proposal that is debated by the House and Senate.
There should be a difference between an “authorization of the use of force,” which ought to be limited, and a “declaration of war,” which is far more sweeping. But the lines were blurred by former President George W. Bush, who used an authorization for the use of force in Iraq to initiate a full-scale war.
Fears about mission creep are real, not just in Congress but among the American people—50 percent of those questioned in an NBC poll this week said they did not want a US attack on Syria even if there is confirmation of a chemical weapons attack by the Syrian government on civilians.
When it comes to military intervention, skepticism and questioning is valid—and potentially definitional. There are members of Congress, such as Michigan Republican Justin Amash, who say the House could well reject the president’s request.
Of course, the White House will lobby hard. And, if the past is any indication, the media coverage of the debate will err on the side of the White House.
But the president has now said that there is no need to rush to war.
The space that has been created allows for sorting through the facts, for debating the options and for House and Senate votes on whether to intervene militarily in the affairs of another distant land.
This is as the founders intended when they wrote a Constitution that gives the power to declare war not to an all-powerful commander-in-chief but to an unwieldy Congress.
As one of the essential figures in the development of the Constitution, George Mason, said: “I am for clogging rather than facilitating war.”
The president’s decision to delay action until he hears from Congress respects the Constitution’s language, and its intent.
Now, Congress must do the same by taking its responsibility seriously enough to demand facts, to consider whether acts of war are justified and to determine whether the United States—as opposed to the United Nations—should be the police officer of the world.
For his part, the president has shown respect for the role of Congress is a system of separated powers. He must be clear now that, like David Cameron, he will respect the decision of the legislators—even if it clogs rather than facilitates war,
To do so would move the United States toward a restoration of the rule of law that was disregarded under George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, and that has yet to be restored.
Katrina vanden Heuvel warns Congress to think carefully before intervening in Syria.
President Barack Obama talks on the phone with Nicole Hockley and families of the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, in the Oval Office, April 11, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
In the aftermath of the Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s immediate response was to appear before a joint session of Congress to ask for a declaration of war. Despite the fact that an attack on US soil had killed and wounded thousands of Americans, despite the clear threat of additional attacks, Roosevelt honored the separation of powers as defined by the Constitution, along with the clear requirement that “the Congress shall have power…to declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water.”
No president since Roosevelt has respected the Constitution sufficiently to seek a formal declaration of war.
They have had plenty of excuses: a United Nations Security Council resolution, a Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, a “consultation” with congressional leaders. They have interpreted the War Powers Act broadly. They have simply done as they chose.
But they have not obtained the formal declarations of war required by the Constitution.
It is easy to blame presidents for this.
But the blame is shared with successive Congresses, which have lacked respect not only for the founding premises of the republic but for their own role in a system of checks and balances. And a growing number of House and Senate members, Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, are recognizing that, as Congresswoman Barbara Lee says, “Congress must assert our authority on this issue.”
The British Parliament did just that, voting "no" to intervention.
Does the British Parliament have more of a say when it comes to warmaking that the United States Congress?
The framers of the US Constitution certainly did not intend that this would be the circumstance. But in coming days we will learn whether the Constitution still applies.
As preparations are made for war with Syria—and, should anyone be confused on this point, missile strikes meet the definition of warmaking—Secretary of State John Kerry is making public pronouncements aimed at explaining and justifying what could be a unilateral response to reports that chemical weapons were deployed in the strife-torn country.
Kerry says that “the administration is actively consulting with members of Congress.”
But “actively consulting” is not the same as securing a clearly stated declaration of war. Indeed, Congressman Justin Amash, an antiwar Republican from Michigan, argues that striking Syria without a congressional authorization is “unquestionably unconstitutional.”
Amash flatly declares that, if a vote were held, “it would fail.”
Even if Amash is wrong, the reality is that Congress must be in session for a declaration to be made.
And at this point, the House and Senate are on recess.
But that cannot be an excuse for Congress to stand down.
Seventy-nine percent of Americans surveyed for the latest NBC News Poll say that President Obama should seek congressional approval before taking any military action. According to NBC: "nearly seven-in-10 Democrats and 90 percent of Republicans say the president should be required to receive congressional approval before taking any action."
More than 150 members of the House and Senate have formally expressed the same view: calling in letters to the White House for a debate and for a vote on whether to go forward with a military intervention.
“There is no greater decision for a country to make than the decision to go to war,” argues Congressman John Garamendi, D-California. “For that reason, the President has the responsibility to seek authorization from our nation’s elected leaders before initiating military action. Our leaders in Congress have a similar responsibility to the American people to demand this constitutionally-required authority and to evaluate any potential US military intervention abroad. The past decade has amply demonstrated the folly of military commitments poorly conceived. Our brave men and women in uniform deserve better. The American people deserve a full explanation of the situation, the pending action, the strategic goal, and the potential outcomes.”
Garamendi this week joined Congressman Walter Jones Jr., R-North Carolina, is penning a bipartisan letter specifically asking President Obama to seek congressional authorization before launching any military intervention into the Syrian conflict.
“As stated in the War Powers Resolution of 1973, absent a Congressional declaration of war or authorization for the use of military force, the President as Commander-in-Chief has constitutional power to engage the US armed forces in hostilities only in the case of a national emergency created by an attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces,” reads the letter. “As none of these criteria have been met, we believe it is Congress’s right and responsibility to be fully briefed on any potential plans to engage in military action in Syria, to assess whether such an intervention is in the national security interest of the United States and our allies, and to withhold or grant authorization for the use of military force based on this assessment.”
Another letter, authored by Congressman Scott Rigell, R-Virginia, and signed by 116 members (ninety-eight Republicans and eighteen Democrats) declares that “engaging our military in Syria when no direct threat to the United States exists and without prior congressional authorization would violate the separation of powers that is clearly delineated in the Constitution.”
Rigell has been one of the House’s most consistent critics of undeclared wars since his election in 2010 to represent a district with a large population of current and retired military personnel. And he is particularly pointed when it comes to the prospects of an assault on Syria, arguing that “Congress is not a potted plant in this process, and President Obama should call us back into emergency session before authorizing the use of any military force. We stand ready to share the burden of decisions made regarding US involvement.”
Rigell asserts that “proactive consultation with Congress and explicit, definitive authorization” is necessary. And like Garamendi and Jones, he rejects the premise that the president has the authority under the War Powers Resolution to intervene militarily in Syria as a response to the government’s reported use of chemical weapons against civilians.
The congressman told CQ Roll Call that, because a US intervention would have as its purpose a “humanitarian objective,” the War Powers Resolution does not apply. In the absence of an authorization from Congress, presidents are supposed to be able to initiate warfare only in a national emergency associated with a foreign attack on the United States. In the absence of a “national emergency,” the Armed Forces Committee member explained to the Capitol Hill paper, if the president proposes to intervene in Syria, “then, indeed, prior to—prior to!—not after the fact, he needs to call Congress into session.”
That premise has bipartisan and ideologically diverse support in the House. Among the signers of the Rigell letter are libertarian Republicans such as Amash and progressive Democrats such as Rush Holt of New Jersey and Pete DeFazio.
Other Democrats are stepping up to raise concerns about the rush to war.
Congressman Lee, the California Democrat who cast a lonely vote against the blanket authorization of the use of force after the September 11, 2001, has obtained 54 signers for her own letter asking the president to “seek an affirmative decision of Congress prior to committing any U.S. military engagement to this complex crisis,” and is more specific than most members in stating her opposition to intervention. Among the signers so far are Congressional Black Caucus chair Martha Fudge, D-Ohio, and the the co-chairs of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Minnesota Democrat Keith Ellison and Arizona Democrat Raul Grijalva, as well as key House Democrats such as Jan Schakowsky of Illinois and John Lewis of Georgia.
“While the use of chemical weapons is deeply troubling and unacceptable,” Lee says. “I believe there is no military solution to the complex Syrian crisis. Congress needs to have a full debate before the United States commits to any military force in Syria—or elsewhere.”
Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa, D-Hawaii, says: “The United States must remain cautious and pragmatic in our response. The last decade of conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrated what comes of war waged with poor planning. We cannot haphazardly enter another conflict with a sovereign nation. Questions still remain about the identity and intentions of the Syrian opposition to the Assad regime, and I believe we need clear answers before moving forward.”
Congressman Jim McGovern, the Massachusetts Democrat who has worked closely with antiwar groups such as Progressive Democrats of America to dial down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, says that, while he is “deeply troubled by reports that the Assad regime may have used chemical weapons against their own people…. We must also remain very cautious about military intervention in light of the terrible price our soldiers and their families have already paid in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
A lack of caution on the part of Congress more than a decade ago haunts America to this day.
The need for a real consultation of Congress this time, for an honest debate and for clear House and Senate votes on whether to authorize the use of US military force against Syria, is confirmed by bitter experience. And by the Constitution.
Walter Jones is precisely right when he says, “For too long, the legislature’s responsibility to authorize military force has been overlooked. It is time that we uphold the Constitution, which makes it clear in Article 1, Section 8 that Congress alone holds the power to declare war.”
The media finally raise alarms about attacking Syria.
Then-Wisconsin State AFL-CIO President David Newby speaks at the Healthcare for America Now Launch in Madison, July 8, 2008. (Wikimedia Commons/Bernard Pollack)
The participants in the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom could be forgiven for resting on their laurels in this week of fiftieth-anniversary celebrations.
But David Newby is still marching.
The former member of the AFL-CIO’s national executive board and longtime president of the Wisconsin AFL-CIO was arrested Monday for singing labor and civil rights songs in the Wisconsin Capitol. Newby has been a regular participant in the Solidarity Sing Along, a noonday gathering of Wisconsinites that traces its roots to the pro-labor demonstrations that drew the attention of the world to Wisconsin in February and March 2011.
The sing alongs, loosely organized and good-spirited, went on each day in the capitol for more than two years with little trouble. But, this summer, Governor Scott Walker, who is positioning himself as a tough-talking conservative candidate for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, and his aides engineered a crackdown that has seen more than 300 tickets issued to singers.
The charge is that the singers have failed to get permits for their gatherings. But the permitting process—which assigns financial responsibility to the holder of the permit—is newly developed, and the singers argue that it was established not to maintain order but to silence dissent. They also note that, in addition to the right to assemble established by the US Constitution, the Wisconsin Constitution declares that “the right of the people peaceably to assemble, to consult for the common good, and to petition the government, or any department thereof, shall never be abridged.”
Newby knows a thing or two about official barriers to dissent.
After he rode a motor scooter 400 miles to join the March on Washington in 1963, he felt an overwhelming sense of “optimism that we were making history in the March and that we could continue to make history.”
Newby went south and took a teaching job at what is now Tuskegee University, a historically black college. From 1965 to 1968, he worked closely with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, often facing threats and violence. He joined protests and and participated in sit-ins, taking on not just the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan but police forces that were sympathetic to the Klan’s absolute opposition to the civil rights movement.
Newby committed as a young man to pursue the cause of social and economic justice as a labor organizer and union leader. He would eventually serve as secretary-treasurer and president of the Wisconsin AFL-CIO, and finish his career as the head of the national union grouping’s coalition of the state federations in the Midwest.
When he retired in 2010, then-Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin, now the junior senator from Wisconsin, honored Newby on the floor of the House of Representatives with a heartfelt call:
May his stalwart dedication, vision, and lifelong commitment to the highest ethical standards continue to serve as an inspiration for us. I join the greater Madison community, the entire state of Wisconsin, and those who continue to fight for their beliefs throughout our great nation in honoring Mr. David Newby’s achievements and thanking him for his lifetime of service.
As it happened, Newby was not done serving.
Like so many Americans who marched in Washington in August 1963, he’s still on the frontlines.
Rare is the week when Newby is not marching, as the head of the Wisconsin Fair Trade Coalition and a leading figure in national groups such as the Labor Campaign for Single Payer Healthcare and US Labor Against the War.
When he addressed a Veterans for Peace convention in early August, Newby concluded his remarks by declaring:
Together, we can transform our country into one which values human rights, civil rights, workers’ rights. It can be done, if we act in coalition and solidarity.
But Newby has always believed that the transformation will only come if activists push for it. “No gains are freely given,” he argues. “We have to seize the moment, focus our energies, and assure that the victory will indeed be ours.”
So, even as he travels the country to promote economic and social justice and peace, Newby has made time to sing We Shall Overcome, Which Side Are You On? and Solidarity Forever in his state capitol.
On Monday, two days before the anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington, Newby was among a number of singers who were arrested.
Newby is the first to point to the fact that veterans, grandmothers, teachers, firefighters, current and former elected officials, journalists and mothers with children have been arrested. And he is quick to argue that the arrests must be seen in the broader perspective of the current crackdown on civil liberties, not just in Wisconsin but across the country.
But the symmetry of Newby’s arrest five decades after he rode his motorbike into Washington and felt that “optimism that we were making history in the March and that we could continue to make history” cannot be lost.
Like so many who marched, he retains the faith that it matters to march, to protest and to sing.
Guess who cleans up the mess when America’s highest-paid CEOs do their jobs badly?
City Council Speaker and mayoral hopeful Christine Quinn speaks during an event in New York, Wednesday, August 14, 2013. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
The editors of The New York Times wanted everyone to read their endorsement of Christine Quinn for the Democratic nomination for mayor of the nation’s largest city.
They ran their endorsement of the current speaker of the New York City Council in the most-read Sunday editions of the paper.
But the candidates whom the Times passed over may not mind if voters read the Times endorsement of Quinn.
In a city that almost rejected Mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2009, in a city where the mayor’s policies (on issues ranging from sick leave to stop-and-frisk policing) have been overturned by the city council, in a city where there is good reason to believe that voters have grown weary of the outgoing mayor, the Times pegged Quinn as “a candidate who is ready to carry on at least as well as he did.”
Times editors, who give every indication that they would endorse Bloomberg for a fourth term if they could, hail Quinn as “a forceful counterpart to Mr. Bloomberg.”
“Mr. Bloomberg has raised expectations that hard decisions should be made on the merits—that the city needs a mayor who is willing to say no,” argues the Times. “More than with the other candidates, that description fits Ms. Quinn.”
So, in a Democratic primary, the Times encourages voters to back the candidate who is most like a term-limited former Republican who was last re-elected as an independent.
Translation: for New York Democrats who are satisfied with the status quo, there’s a way to keep on keeping on.
The Times admits that “two opponents—Bill de Blasio, the public advocate, and William Thompson Jr., former comptroller—offer powerful arguments on their own behalf.” But, the paper adds, “Ms. Quinn inspires the most confidence that she would be the right mayor for the inevitable times when hope and idealism collide with the challenge of getting something done.”
The argument against de Blasio (who received The Nation’s endorsement) is that he is just a bit too noble.
“Mr. de Blasio has been the most forceful and eloquent of the Democrats in arguing that New York needs to reset its priorities in favor of the middle class, the struggling and the poor,” writes the Times. “His stature has grown as his message has taken root—voters leery of stark and growing inequalities have embraced his message of ‘two cities.’ He has ennobled the campaign conversation by insisting, correctly, that expanding early education is vital to securing the city’s future.”
That reads like the opening of a ringing endorsement.
But then, the Times offers a corrective: “Mr. de Blasio’s most ambitious plans—like a powerful new state-city partnership to make forever-failing city hospitals financially viable, or to pay for universal prekindergarten and after-school programs through a new tax on the richest New Yorkers—need support in the State Capitol, and look like legislative long shots. Once a Mayor de Blasio saw his boldest ideas smashed on the rocks of Albany, then what?”
So, by the reasoning of the Times, if it is difficult to do the right thing, the candidate who proposes to do the right thing must be rejected.
But the calculus regarding Thompson has its own oddness.
“Mr. Thompson, meanwhile, who nearly defeated Mr. Bloomberg four years ago, has run a thoughtful campaign grounded on the insights he gained in important elective and appointed posts in New York City,” writes the Times. “A former president of the old Board of Education, Mr. Thompson argues that he is the best candidate to fix the city schools, but his close ties to the United Federation of Teachers, not always a friend of needed reforms, give us pause. The teachers’ union is one of the municipal unions itching for retroactive pay raises in contracts that expired under Mr. Bloomberg and need renegotiating.”
So candidates with “close ties” to education unions are out, as are those who might be a tad too inclined to maintain respectful relations with municipal unions.
But Democratic primary voters are generally fans of teachers and unions.
They have a soft spot for proposals, like the one de Blasio’s been advancing, to make the wealthiest New Yorkers pay more taxes.
New York Democrats have even been known to display a taste for hope and idealism.
Does this mean that the Times endorsement is irrelevant—like all those newspaper endorsements of John Huntsman in the 2012 Republican presidential race?
Newspapers are in dramatic decline; a decline so serious that even the Koch brothers are declining to buy them. But that does not mean that still reasonably well-circulated urban dailies cannot influence the political processes of the communities from which they take their names. And nowhere is this more true than in crowded contests where candidates may not be entirely distinct from one another.
There is little evidence to suggest that voters follow the dictates of daily papers in high-profile races featuring clear partisan or ideological choices. It’s hard to imagine, for instance, that there were all that many Americans who needed editorial counsel on how to choose between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. But when there is a multi-candidate field in a partisan primary—as there is with this year’s seven-candidate race for the Democratic nod in New York—candidates covet the endorsements of papers that are generally trusted and broadly read by potential primary voters.
That’s certainly the case with the Times endorsement.
Times readers tend to vote. And even if they don’t take the advice of the paper in every contest, there is every reason to expect that they will at least review the paper’s endorsements in major contests.
So an endorsement from the Times matters.
The paper has provided a boost for Quinn at a point when it was starting to look like the advantages that made the council speaker the race’s initial front-runner might not be sufficient to assure that she would be one of the two top finishers in the city’s September 10 Democratic primary. (If no candidate wins 40 percent of the vote that day, the top two finishers compete in an October 1 Democratic runoff, after which the winner faces partisan competition in the November 5 general election.)
The Times has backed plenty of losers for mayor. But when it backs a credible contender with a solid campaign organization, it usually benefits the chosen candidate. As such, Quinn’s chances of getting into the runoff, which were reasonably good, are stronger now.
Quinn, as the candidate identified with Bloomberg and the outgoing mayor’s policies, is not necessarily in the best position in a one-on-one Democratic test that pits her against a contender more clearly identified as supportive of teachers, unions and progressive ideals.
The Times may, unintentionally, have framed the fall contest. The paper’s editors are right that there will be “inevitable times when hope and idealism collide with the challenge of getting something done.” Quinn is identified by the paper that backs her as the choice for voters who are willing to surrender some hope and idealism. It is likely that she will face a runoff opponent who is more clearly identified with the progressive faith that appeals to grassroots Democrats.
Almost fifty years ago, the great New York newspaper columnist Murray Kempton surveyed a crowded field of mayoral contenders and wrote of a young liberal Republican named John Lindsay: ”He is fresh and everyone else is tired.” the Times shared Kempton’s view and enthusiastically backed Lindsay as an “authentic progressive” and “the only candidate who offers a convincing prospect for change for the better.”
The voters agreed, electing Lindsay as a change agent.
After all these years, the assessments of Lindsay remain mixed.
But there is no debating the reality that there are elections when New Yorkers opt for candidates who ennoble races by proposing ambitious plans and bold ideas, and by offering the convincing prospect of change for the better. If this is such a year, the Times may well have made the best argument for nominating someone other than Christine Quinn as the Democratic standard bearer.
Rev. Martin Luther King joins hundreds of thousands during March on Washington, 1963. (American Jewish Historical Society via Wikimedia Commons)
As the anniversary of the March on Washington approached, Senator Bernie Sanders returned to the Lincoln Memorial where hundreds of thousands of Americans gathered on August 28, 1963. “I remember that very well, not by simply seeing it on TV or reading about it,” explained Sanders. “I was one of the several hundred thousand people who was here. I came in on a bus from the University of Chicago, where I was then going to school.”
The independent senator from Vermont heard Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. address the crowd that day. And he heard the message that the organizers of the March intended.
“What King was talking about was not only racial justice,” recalled Sanders. “He was talking about economic justice.”
Those economic themes were central to King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, in which the civil rights leader declared:
Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of captivity.
But one hundred years later, we must face the tragic fact that the Negro is still not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. So we have come here today to dramatize an appalling condition.
In a sense we have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’ But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check—a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.
The Americans who converged on the National Mall on that August day in 1963 came to challenge racial injustice.
But they also came to challenge economic injustice.
It was the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.”
That reference to jobs was not a casual one.
The 1963 march was called by a labor leader, A. Philip Randolph, the head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and the first African-American to serve on the executive council of the American Federation of Labor. Along with allies like King and the great organizer Bayard Rustin, Randolph framed the message of the March.
One of the nation’s most prominent socialists and longest-serving labor leaders, Randolph recognized the March on Washington as a pivot point—not the culmination of journey but a place at which to define the demands of that struggle. Yes, there would be a call for voting rights in the South. And for civil rights in the whole of the republic. But there would also be a clear call for economic rights.
“We will need to continue demonstrations,” declared Randolph on the day following the March. And in the months and years afterward, Randolph, Rustin and King worked together to develop and promote a groundbreaking “Freedom Budget,” which proposed:
1. The abolition of poverty.
2. Guaranteed full employment.
3. Full production and high economic growth.
4. Adequate minimum wages.
5. Farm income parity.
6. Guaranteed incomes for all unable to work.
7. A decent home for every American family.
8. Modern health services for all.
9. Full educational opportunity for all.
10. Updated (and expanded) Social Security and welfare programs.
11. Equitable tax and money policies.
It was the fight for the Freedom Budget, which began with White House meetings but eventually moved to the streets, that led King to propose a radical intervention in the status-quo politics of the late 1960s: the Poor People’s Campaign.
In arguing for protests by the poor and working people, King said: “Timid supplication for justice will not solve the problem. We have got to confront the power structure massively.”
No one imagined that confrontation would be won with one march, or with one campaign. That is why so many Americans who marched in Washington in August 1963 are still marching today.
For those who marched, and who went on to become champions of economic justice, the understanding of that necessity extends beyond a mere sense of duty to address inequity. There is a sense that by addressing that inequity, it might eventually be possible to achieve the full transformation that A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. imagined.
David Newby, who marched in Washington in 1963, went on to teach at Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute and work with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Then he joined the union movement, serving for sixteen years as president of the Wisconsin AFL-CIO and joining the same national labor executive board on which A. Philip Randolph sat. Newby is still marching— as the head of the Wisconsin Fair Trade Coalition and a leading figure in national groups such as the Labor Campaign for Single Payer Healthcare and U.S. Labor Against the War.
The other day, I heard Newby at a Veterans for Peace convention, telling the crowd: “Together, we can transform our country into one which values human rights, civil rights, workers’ rights. It can be done, if we act in coalition and solidarity.”
Fifty years changes a lot of things.
But some visions transcend time.
It was right to believe in not just the necessity but the possibiliy of transforming the America of 1963.
It is right to believe in not just the necessity but the possibility of transforming the America of 2013.
“We have come a long, long way in a lot of areas in fulfilling some of the visions that this great man had,” Bernie Sanders said as he reflected on Dr. King and the march he attended fifty years ago. “But, on the other hand, let us not forget for one second that a lot of what he talked about, a lot of his dreams, still have not been fulfilled. So we have got a lot of work that remains in front of us if, in fact, we are going to fully honor and give respect to this very, very great man.”
John Nichols is the author of The S Word (Verso), which recounts the role played by A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin and other radicals in organizing the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and in advancing the Freedom Budget.
House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan pauses during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, April 13, 2011. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
How’s this for irony:
When the City of Kenosha, Wisconsin, was preparing to formally petition Congress to take the necessary actions to get corporate money out of politics and to restore grassroots democracy, the congressman who represents the community was meeting secretly with the Koch brothers to plot election strategies and policy agendas.
Kenosha is the largest city in Wisconsin’s first congressional district, which Congressman Paul Ryan has represented since 1999—thanks to gerrymandered district lines and heavy infusions of cash from out-of-state special interests. With Congress out of session for the August recess and Ryan expected to head home to meet with constituents, members of the Kenosha City Council decided to deliver a message. They voted overwhelmingly to ask Ryan and other Wisconsin representatives “to amend the Constitution to bar corporate wealth from unduly influencing elections.”
That’s not a particularly radical request.
Sixteen states and roughly 500 communities have petitioned Congress to support a constitutional amendment to restore the power of the people—through their federal, state and local representatives—to place limits on the influence of big money, especially corporate money, in American politics. The official calls from states across the country, and from cities such as Kenosha, come in response to the High Court’s decision to remove restrictions on corporate spending to buy elections, which capped a series of rulings that undermined limits on the power of wealthy Americans to dominate the political and governing processes of the nation with unprecedented infusions of campaign money.
Ryan has been among the prime beneficiaries of the money-in-politics moment ushered in by the High Court. As the House Budget Committee chairman, he has collected millions of dollars from individuals and groups that stand to benefit from initiatives such as Social Security privatization and the development of voucher schemes to “reform” Medicaid and Medicare. The congressman has become a favorite of many of the biggest donors in the country, including billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch.
The Koch brothers, prime funders of conservative causes and Republican politicians, were enthusiastic backers of placing Ryan on the 2012 Republican ticket. That move entered in a fiasco that saw Ryan fail to deliver Wisconsin for the ticket led by Mitt Romney. Ryan not only lost his hometown of Janesville but many of the other communities in his district, including Kenosha.
Casual observers might guess that Ryan would be listening a little more to his district, especially to the voters in cities such as Kenosha.
But they would guess wrong.
As Kenosha was petitioning for the redress of money-in-politics grievances, the congressman was at a posh resort near Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he had flown as soon as Congress went on recess. The Koch brothers had rented the entire Hyatt Regency Tamaya Resort and set up a private security perimeter so that no media—and certainly no citizens—could get near the elite retreat. And they invited Paul Ryan to spend several days with them as their guest of honor. Along with House majority leader Eric Cantor, American Enterprise Institute president Arthur Brooks and a few other worthies, the Kochs and their wealthy friends wined and dined with Ryan.
A source that spoke to Politico reported that Ryan was “well-received by donors.” According to the Politico report, “Ryan has developed deep ties to Koch World”—the vast network of political operations controlled by the billionaire brothers.
The question is whether the congressman retains deep ties to Kenosha.
In case the congressman missed the message, the Kenosha City Council was joined in mid-August by the Kenosha County Board—the governing body of the populous southeastern Wisconsin county that is entirely within Ryan’s district—in calling for an amendment to overturn Citizens United. And constituents like Jennifer Franco, of Kenosha, are saying it’s time for their elected representatives to “stand with the people to proclaim that money is not speech, that artificial entities are not persons, and that every person’s voice carries the same weight.”
The juxtaposition of events in New Mexico and Wisconsin leaves Ryan with a clear choice to make: he can either stick with the Koch brothers or he can respond to the call from Kenosha for a meaningful response to the threat posed to democracy by the buying of elections and the policymaking process.
John Nichols and Robert McChesney are the authors of Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America (Nation Books). Thom Hartmann says: “Dollarocracy is the most important political book of the year, maybe of our times. Nichols and McChesney provide an original and painstakingly researched account of how corporations and billionaires have come to dominate the political process, as well as the contours of what they term the ‘money-and-media election complex.’ Although I study politics for a living, I learned more about how political advertising works, the crucial role of media corporations and dreadful election journalism than I would have ever imagined possible. In the smartest treatment I have seen, Dollarocracy also details how the Internet is being incorporated into the system; its fantastic potential to empower citizens to battle big money has been effectively neutered.”
Why are North Carolina Republicans escalating attacks on student voting?
Senator Ted Cruz during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on what lawmakers should do to curb gun violence on January 30, 2013, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
“He’s a Canadian.”
So says Toronto lawyer Stephen Green, the past chairman of the Canadian Bar Association’s Citizenship and Immigration Section, of Texas Senator Ted Cruz.
Cruz, the in-a-very-big-hurry Republican who started making noises about running for president before the ink on his Senate stationery had dried, was born in Canada.
He has a Canadian birth certificate.
He spent his formative years in Canada.
But he says it never occurred to him that he was a Canadian until The Dallas Morning News reported that the senator is indeed a true son of America’s neighbor to the north.
“If a child was born in the territory, he is Canadian, period,” France Houle, a law professor at the University of Montreal, told the Texas paper. “He can ask for a passport. He can vote.”
Indeed, since the requirements to gain election to the Canadian House of Commons hold that the candidate be a citizen and of voting age, and since prime ministers are invariably parliamentarians, Cruz could be excused for imagining himself not just as a potential US presidential prospect but a potential prime minister of Canada. (Former Canadian Prime Minister John Turner was born in Britain and arrived in Canada at the age of 3.)
Cruz is not just Canadian. He is also American. His mother was a US citizen outside the country at the time of his birth, and that makes her son a dual citizen.
Just to assure that there are no questions about his loyalties, however, Cruz says he’ll renounce his Canadian citizenship. As he puts it, “I believe I should be only an American.”
The whole “Canadian Ted” thing is tiresome.
In fact, the whole discussion about candidate citizenship and birth certificates and the Americanism of potential presidents is tiresome.
It should be put to rest.
The US Constitution should be amended to remove the section that reads, “No person except a natural born citizen, or a citizen of the United States, at the time of the adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the office of President.”
Anyone who is a citizen and who meets the other requirements for seeking and holding the presidency should be able to lead the country. The “natural-born citizen” language does not merely limit the ability of otherwise qualified candidates to seek the presidency or vice-presidency—former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm, who was born in Canada, or former Vermont Governor Madeleine Kunin, who was born in Switzerland. It also limits the ability of voters to choose from candidates who would be credible contenders except for an accident of birth.
A decade ago, when there was a brief enthusiasm among Republicans for a presidential run by Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Austrian-born movie star who had recently been elected governor of California, one of the leading Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Utah’s Orrin Hatch, proposed “The Equal Opportunity to Govern Amendment.”
The measure would have repealed the “natural-born citizen” clause and allowed anyone who has been a US citizen for twenty years to seek the presidency or vice-presidency. The language Hatch wanted to add to the Constitution declared, “A person who is a citizen of the United States, who has been for 20 years a citizen of the United States, and who is otherwise eligible to the Office of President, is not ineligible to that Office by reason of not being a native born citizen of the United States.”
Hatch’s amendment did not get very far after its introduction in 2003. A Judiciary Committee hearing was held in 2004, but the full Senate never took up the proposal. It should now—not for the sake of Ted Cruz or any other candidate but for the sake of the American experiment in democracy.
Despite the fact that seven of the thirty-nine men who signed the US Constitution in 1787 did not meet the “natural-born citizen” standard, there was just enough fear at the time that a foreign-born monarch would take charge of the newly formed United States to cause the clause to be added.
The line’s inclusion was at odds with the Enlightenment vision of the best of the founders (including British-born Thomas Paine) and, as constitutional scholar Akhil Reed Amar noted at the 2004 Judiciary Committee hearing, the rest of the Constitution “repudiated this [English] tradition across the board, opening the House, Senate, Cabinet and federal judiciary to naturalized and native alike.”
It is time to get over the fears of 226 years ago and embrace the Enlightenment vision, recognizing that Amar was right when he told the Judiciary Committee that “modern Americans can best honor the Founders’ generally egalitarian vision by repealing the specific natural-born rule that has outlived its original purpose.”
John Nichols and Bob McChesney are the authors of Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America (Nation Books), which outlines an agenda of constitutional reforms to extend American democracy.
Why did Chris Christie back down on gun control?
In this January 3, 2011, photo, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker speaks at an inauguration ceremony at the state Capitol in Madison, Wisconsin. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)
The first great test of the American Constitution came in 1798, when President John Adams became so agitated with his critics that he disregarded the Bill of Rights and the rule of law and arranged for the arrest of dissenting elected officials and editors.
Adams was so lawless that his own vice president, Thomas Jefferson, organized the opposition. Two years later, Adams was the first American president to be removed from office by the electorate. And rightly so.
James Madison, the essential drafter of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, referred to the “Alien and Sedition Acts” that Adams and his associates used to justify their assault on the First Amendment as “a monster that must forever disgrace its parents.”
Unfortunately, the monster still breaks loose. And not just in Washington.
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker is no John Adams. But prospective Republican presidential candidate’s delusions of imperial grandeur have led him to cobble together a set of rules that he is using to have dozens of dissenters (including veterans, grandmothers and grandfathers, mothers with children and top teachers) arrested for assembling in the rotunda of the state capitol and singing labor songs.
Never mind that the “Solidarity Sing Alongs” were held peacefully, and without significant incident, before the governor’s crackdown began this summer.
The arrests escalated on Thursday. And, though Walker plays on a small stage, those familiar with the basic outlines of American constitutional history will note a certain historical irony in the drama the governor has scripted.
First, an elected official, Madison Alder Mark Clear, the former president of the city council, was arrested for joining in the singing of “This Land Is Your Land.”
Then, just a few minutes later, Progressive magazine editor Matt Rothschild was detained when he attempted to record what was happening. Rothschild informed the arresting officers that he was a journalist and that he had every right to cover the story.
Clear and his fellow singers can point to a US Constitution that guarantees that Americans may assemble and petition for the redress of grievances—and to a Wisconsin Constitution that is even more explicit, declaring, “The right of the people peaceably to assemble, to consult for the common good, and to petition the government, or any department thereof, shall never be abridged.”
Rothschild can point to a US Constitution that guards against any abridging of the freedom of the press—and to a Wisconsin Constitution that is even more explicit, declaring that “no laws shall be passed to restrain or abridge the liberty of speech or of the press.”
Yet, both men were arrested. The governor and his allies argue that a federal court ruling that allows officials to establish permit requirements has cleared the way for a wholesale rejection of constitutional values. They will find they are wrong, just as Adams and his associates did when they had Vermont Congressman Matthew Lyon and editor Benjamin Franklin Bache arrested. But the fact that judges and juries will eventually reject Walker’s flawed premises does not clean up the mess that the governor has made. When local elected officials and magazine editors are being arrested, real damage is done to the rule of law and to the broad understanding of basic liberties.
But the damage will eventually be undone. Walker is going too far, just as Adams did. And, as Jefferson explained in the darkest days of his struggle, “A little patience, and we shall see the reign of witches pass over, their spells dissolve, and the people, recovering their true sight, restore their government to its true principles.”
John Nichols and Robert W. McChesney are the authors of the new book Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America (Nation Books).
Does gun ownership make people more Republican?
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie answers a question during a campaign event in Manville, New Jersey, Monday, May 13, 2013. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)
Scheduling matters—especially when it comes to manipulating election dates.
Just ask Chris Christie. He’s choreographing a confusing series of statewide elections in New Jersey this fall—all with the goal of benefiting Chris Christie.
And what benefits Chris Christie most is diminished democracy. So the governor—and potential 2016 Republican presidential contender—has managed his election schedule with an eye toward keeping voter turnout low.
Very, very low.
The first step in the process went according to plan. On Tuesday, New Jersey held US Senate special election primaries to choose candidates to finish the term of the late Frank Lautenberg.
From a crowded and competitive field of Democrats, Newark Mayor Cory Booker was nominated with almost 60 percent of the vote.
In a two-person Republican race, former Bogota, New Jersey, mayor and Americans for Prosperity operative Steve Lonegan prevailed.
But almost no one voted. One New Jersey newspaper summed things up when it described voter participation as “little to none.”
When all the ballots were counted, the turnout figure was around 9 percent.
So 91 percent of eligible voters did not participate, despite the fact that these definitional primaries featured a celebrity contender (Booker), two sitting members of Congress (Rush Holt and Frank Pallone), a prominent legislator (Sheila Oliver) and one of the state’s most outspoken conservative leaders (Lonegan).
The primaries were a small-“d” democratic disaster and the October 16 general election, in which Booker is a favorite, could be even worse.
In other words, everything is going as Chris Christie prefers.
The governor created a schedule designed to downplay the Senate race—primaries in the middle of August vacation season, general election in October rather than November—because it was expected to generate higher interest among Democrats than Republicans. He didn’t want it to conflict in any way with his own November 5 re-election run.
True, the schedule hurts his fellow Republican Lonegan, who would have benefited from being on the same ballot as Christie.
But is also hurts Christie’s Democratic challenger, State Senator Barbara Buono, who would have benefited from being on the same ballot as Booker.
By using his authority as governor to establish a separate election schedule for the Senate race, Christie insulated his re-election run against unexpected electoral developments. He also assured that voter turnout would be, as The Jersey Journal reported Tuesday, “very poor.”
So what’s bad for democracy is good for Chris Christie.
That’s how the governor rolls.
Christie’s entire political career has benefited from election scheduling that favors Republicans in a Democratic state. New Jersey elects its governors in odd-numbered years when there are no federal elections. Since federal elections, especially presidential elections, tend to attract a lot of Democrats to the polls, Christie has enjoyed a dream scenario for a Republican seeking statewide office in a state that has not backed a Republican for president since it picked George H.W. Bush over Michael Dukakis in 1988.
Christie is not alone in benefiting from Republican-friendly scheduling.
The vast majority of states hold gubernatorial elections at the “midterm” point in the tenure of presidents, rather than on a schedule aligned with presidential voting. This means that most governors are elected when most eligible voters don’t cast ballots. This explains why states that vote solidly Democratic in presidential election years—such as Wisconsin, which has not backed a Republican for president since 1984; or Maine, which has not backed a Republican for president since 1988—have right-wing governors like Scott Walker and Paul LePage.
As former US Senator Russ Feingold has noted, if all major elections were scheduled with an eye toward getting the clearest reflection of popular sentiments, America would have a dramatically different politics—and governance.
Politicians know this.
And politicians who are not quite so honorable as Feingold are more than willing to game the process to assure that they get the electorate they want, even if that means creating circumstances where turnout is atrociously low.
That’s what Christie did when he scheduled the special election to fill the US Senate seat to assure the lowest possible level of participation.
The scheduling stunt will cost New Jersey $25 million that it did not need to spend and it has created a good deal of confusion.
But Christie’s fine with the cost, and the confusion.
Her campaign accuses the governor of using “a cynical and arrogant” scheduling scheme to “needlessly disenfranchise voters.”
But, as New Jersey Working Families Alliance executive director Bill Holland notes, the disenfranchisement will undoubtedly be most severe for voters who are most likely to disagree with Chris Christie.
That, of course, is the point.
As Holland explains, Christie’s approach “guarantees that turnout will be low, and that those whose voices are not being heard in Washington will be heard even less.”
John Nichols is the author with Robert W. McChesney of Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America (Nation Books). It explores the many vehicles by which powerful interests manipulate election processes, including the gaming of election schedules.
What are the three questions that will decide the fate of voting rights in North Carolina?
Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Advisor Elizabeth Warren speaks at the Reuters Future Face of Finance Summit in Washington, March 1, 2011. (REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque)
No presidential appointment, no Senate confirmation, matters more than the one that will soon come for the post of chairman of the Federal Reserve.
If ever there was a time to ask for more—and better—this is it.
Yet, for the most part, official Washington is on autopilot, preparing for the replacement of outgoing Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke with another predictable insider—perhaps even the ultimate predictable insider: former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers.
President Obama, who says he will make his selection this fall, has defended Summers. A number of prominent Democratic senators have suggested that the president consider a more appealing prospect: Janet Yellen, the vice chair of the board of governors of the Fed.
But not everyone is satisfied with predictable prospects, or politics as usual.
Senators Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, and Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, keep making the right demands and asking the right questions.
Several weeks ago, Sanders suggested that, instead of narrowing the choice to Summers—and Yellen—Obama should be considering a wider range of contenders, including Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz or former Labor Secretary Robert Reich.
There’s every reason to talk up Stiglitz and Reich.
But, no matter who the nominee is, Sanders and Warren argue this week in a Huffington Post column that “the next Fed chair will have an opportunity to get our economy back on track and to help rebuild America’s middle class. But that will require the right temperament and a willingness to take on Wall Street CEOs when necessary. It is critical that the next Fed chair make a genuine, long-term commitment to supporting those who don’t have armies of lobbyists and lawyers to advance their interests in Washington—working and middle-class families.”
To that end, the senators have developed a set of questions that need to be answered by whomever is chosen to replace Bernanke.
1. Do you believe that the Fed’s top priority should be to fulfill its full employment mandate?
2. If you were to be confirmed as chair of the Fed, would you work to break up “too-big-to-fail” financial institutions so that they could no longer pose a catastrophic risk to the economy?
3. Do you believe that the deregulation of Wall Street, including the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act and exempting derivatives from regulation, significantly contributed to the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression?
4. What would you do to divert the $2 trillion in excess reserves that financial institutions have parked at the Fed into more productive purposes, such as helping small- and medium-sized businesses create jobs?
These are telling questions, especially for Summers who, for instance, played a critical role in “the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act” that is mentioned in Question 3.
So be it.
No one should head the Fed if they cannot provide the right answers—"yes” to the first three queries, and specifics for number 4—to all the questions being asked by the senators who have refused to bow to the bankers.
John Nichols is the author, with Robert W. McChesney, of Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America (Nation Books). Author Naomi Klein says: “John Nichols and Bob McChesney make a compelling, and terrifying, case that American democracy is becoming American dollarocracy. Even more compelling, and hopeful, is their case for a radical reform agenda to take power back from the corporations and give it to the people.'
North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory signed a voter suppression law yesterday and it is already being challenged by two different lawsuits.