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With due respect to congressional Republicans who want to hold President Obama to account for supposedly exceeding his executive authority, and to congressional Democrats who want to hold House Republicans to account for failing to live up to their legislative responsibilities, members of both parties should be focusing now on the question of how to hold the Central Intelligence Agency to account.
CIA officials on Thursday acknowledged that agency operatives spied on computers that were being used by Senate Select Committee on Intelligence staffers who were using to prepare report on an investigation of “enhanced interrogation” techniques and related detention issues. An inquiry by CIA Inspector General David Buckley determined that five CIA employees, two lawyers and three information technology specialists obtained access to what was supposed to be a secure network for the Senate staffers.
The CIA says agency employees “acted in a manner inconsistent with the common understanding” of how the agency and the Senate are supposed to communicate.
The translation from Colorado Senator Mark Udall adds clarity: “The CIA unconstitutionally spied on Congress by hacking into Senate Intelligence Committee computers.”
CIA director John Brennan has apologized to Intelligence Committee chair Dianne Feinstein, D-California, and the ranking Republican on the committee, Georgia Senator Saxby Chambliss.
But if Congress is to maintain meaningful oversight over the federal intelligence agencies, the need for a meaningful response to what Senator Patrick Leahy describes as “a very dark chapter in our nation’s history” cannot be lost amid the usual flurry of internal inquiries, official apologies and “expressions of concern.” As Senator Angus King, an independent from Maine, says, “We’re the only people watching these organizations, and if we can’t rely on the information that we’re given as being accurate, then it makes a mockery of the entire oversight function.”
King is right. But what, then, is the appropriate response?
Udall argues that Brennan should resign. “This grave misconduct not only is illegal, but it violates the U.S. Constitution’s requirement of separation of powers,” says the Colorado Democrat. “These offenses, along with other errors in judgment by some at the CIA, demonstrate a tremendous failure of leadership, and there must be consequences.”
Holding the head of the agency to account is one element of accountability. But the shuffling of those in leadership positions is only a part of a reassertion of the oversight function outlined in the Constitution. As Senator Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, says, there must be a signal that it is “absolutely unacceptable in a democracy” for an intelligence agency to break into Senate computer files and to try to point fingers of blame at innocent Senate staffers.
Christopher Anders, the senior legislative counsel in the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington Legislative Office, says the matter should be referred to the Justice Department for investigation.
“It is hard to imagine a greater threat to the Constitution’s system of checks and balances than having the CIA spy on the computers used by the very Senate staff carrying out the Senate’s constitutional duty of oversight over the executive branch. It was made worse by CIA Director John Brennan’s misleading the American people in denying any wrongdoing,” explains Anders. “These latest developments are only the most recent manifestations of a CIA that seems to believe that it is above and beyond the law. An uncontrolled—and seemingly uncontrollable—CIA threatens the very foundations of our Constitution.”
A Justice Department inquiry is appropriate.
Ultimately, however, it becomes vital for the Senate to reassert its own authority.
That’s what happened in the 1970s. As the Senate’s own history recalls, “In 1973 the Senate Watergate committee investigation revealed that the executive branch had used national intelligence agencies to carry out constitutionally questionable domestic security operations. In 1974 investigative journalist Seymour Hersh published an exposé in The New York Times uncovering a CIA domestic spy operation in violation of the agency’s charter that had been ongoing for more than a decade. Former CIA officials and some lawmakers, including Senators William Proxmire and Stuart Symington, called for a congressional inquiry.”
Senate leaders tapped Idaho Democrat Frank Church to lead an investigation that would—after “holding 126 full committee meetings, 40 subcommittee hearings, interviewing some 800 witnesses in public and closed sessions, and combing through 110,000 documents”—produce a 1976 report that concluded, “Intelligence agencies have undermined the constitutional rights of citizens, primarily because checks and balances designed by the framers of the Constitution to assure accountability have not been applied.”
Acting on a Church Committee’s recommendation, the Senate in 1976 approved the establishment of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. It’s responsibility was to provide “vigilant legislative oversight over the intelligence activities of the United States to assure that such activities are in conformity with the Constitution and laws of the United States.”
The Intelligence Committee should do just that.
As the senior member of the Senate, Judiciary Committee chairman Leahy says, “Congressional oversight of the executive branch, without fear of interference or intimidation, is fundamental to our Nation’s founding principle of the separation of powers. The CIA’s misconduct threatens the institution of the Senate and its role in ensuring the proper oversight of our government.”
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Election seasons are supposed to provide an opportunity for sitting officials to explain their records, and for challengers to question them. And when a top official is facing intense scrutiny based on recent revelations—as New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is in the aftermath of reports regarding his administration’s handling of a corruption inquiry—the need for election season accountability is that much greater.
So it only makes sense that Cuomo should accept the debate challenge posed by his Democratic primary foe, Fordham University Law School professor Zephyr Teachout.
Cuomo took a hard hit when The New York Times reported on July 23 that a high-powered commission he established to root out corruption “was hobbled almost from the outset by demands from the governor’s office.” That followed an earlier report in the New York Daily News that “New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s anti-corruption commission killed a subpoena to the state Democratic Party that he controls.”
Cuomo says it is “false” to suggest that the Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption had its independence “trumped” by his aides. But the Daily News says, “Cuomo insisted Monday that the commission operated independently—a rather stunning statement, given his past gyrations.” And the Times says, “Gov. Andrew Cuomo ran for office four years ago promising first and foremost to clean up Albany. Not only has he not done that, but now he is looking as bad as the forces he likes to attack.”
No matter how hard Cuomo and his allies may try to defuse the issue, it’s going to stick with him through this election year. And the governor will only make things worse for himself if he is seen as avoiding public forums for addressing the issues that have arisen.
That’s one of the reasons Cuomo should accept Teachout’s proposal for at least three debates before the September 9 Democratic primary.
Teachout lacks Cuomo’s name identification and campaign treasury. But she is a uniquely credible challenger in this race, and for this debate. As the first national director of the Sunlight Foundation, which has been in the forefront of advocacy for increased transparency and accountability government and politics, she’s an actual expert on corruption issues—and on how to address them. She has written widely on, spoken about and debated issues of money in politics at the local, state and national levels for years. And she has earned national acclaim as a lawyer, an academic and an author on numerous books, including the upcoming Corruption in America, which will be published this fall by Harvard University Press.
And Teachout has made a uniquely credible case for why debates are needed.
“The Cuomo administration’s handling of the Moreland Commission distills what plagues our democracy: a special class of insiders in Albany, connected through financial and political clout, have immunized themselves from the law,” she says. “Governor Cuomo has taken this corruption and elevated it to new levels.”
The governor would, undoubtedly, disagree with that assessment, as he would with Teachout’s argument that “[t]he corruption in our Government is threatening the very basis of our democracy. Albany is working for big money, instead of the people of the state.”
But when a credible challenger, with background and expertise on a central issue, makes such a charge, that is precisely the point at which an incumbent officeholder should be expected to respond.
What makes Teachout’s invitation even more worthy of a response is the fact that she makes it not as a partisan who has always been at odds with Cuomo but as someone who once backed the governor. “I supported Andrew Cuomo in 2010 because I believed he would follow through on his promises to clean up Albany. In his campaign booklet of 2010, Andrew Cuomo said that State government was plagued by scandal,” says Teachout. “I believed him when he said, ‘In many cases the dysfunction has metastasized into corruption that would make Boss Tweed blush.’ I believed him when he said we must restore honor and integrity to Government.”
Now, argues the challenger, Cuomo has become an example of what he said he would address. “Shutting down your own anti-corruption commission when it gets too close to power,” explains Teachout, “ is something that would make Boss Tweed blush.”
Incumbents and front-runners don’t like to debate primary challengers.
But primary debates have a great history in New York Democratic politics. When Mario Cuomo and Ed Koch were running against each other for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 1982, they debated close to a dozen times—taking their sometimes intense discourse to every corner of the state. Mario Cuomo won the primary and the governorship.
Twenty years later, when Andrew Cuomo first bid for New York’s governorship in 2002, he participated in a series of debates with his Democratic primary foe, State Comptroller Carl McCall. Cuomo lost that year, but he came back eight years later. In 2010, he secured the Democratic nod without a serious fight, but Cuomo willingly participated in a wild fall debate that included not just Republican nominee Carl Paladino but five candidates representing smaller parties. (Primary and general election debates should include all the candidates who have qualified for the ballot.) Stressing his determination to root out fraud, abuse and corruption, Cuomo was generally seen as having won the debate—as he did the ensuing election.
Debates are good for democracy. But they are not merely exercises in civil duty. Debates allow for the airing of complex issues of personal and political integrity that can never be adequately addressed in thirty-second attack ads on television.
A debate -- preferably, multiple debates -- before the Democratic gubernatorial primary in New York would allow capable candidates an opportunity to wrestle not just with questions about the Moreland Commission and money in politics but with a range of pressing issues.
Teachout wants debates on education, immigration and hydrofracking.
“But,” she adds, well aware of the turn New York’s 2014 campaign has taken, “all three would end up in a debate about corruption.”
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Paul Ryan’s fellow Republicans are quick to dismiss Elizabeth Warren as too radical, too progressive, too populist.
But Ryan is trying—a bit clumsily, but trying all the same—to borrow a page from the Massachusetts senator as he seeks to remake himself in anticipation of a potential 2016 run for the Republican presidential nomination. He’s talking about poverty, about inequality, about shifting the focus away from meeting the demands of corporations and toward meeting the needs of Americans.
Mitt Romney’s running mate is abandoning Romneyism for populism—or what former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich has referred to as “Paul Ryan’s Faux Populism.”
Instead of repeating the Mittnomers of 2012—“Corporations are people, my friend”—Ryan is suddenly informing fellow conservatives, “There’s another fallacy popular among our ranks. Just as some think anything government does is wrong, others think anything business does is right. But in fact they’re two sides of the same coin. Both big government and big business like to stack the deck in their favor. And though they are sometimes adversaries, they are far too often allies.”
True enough. Populists and progressives have warned for more than a century that corporations are “boldly marching, not for economic conquests only, but for political power.” The author of those words, former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Edward Ryan , asked in 1873: “Which shall rule—wealth or man; which shall lead—money or intellect; who shall fill public stations—educated and patriotic free men, or the feudal serfs of corporate capital?” Edward Ryan’s worst fears have been confirmed, as Elizabeth Warren noted when she told Netroots Nation activists, “The game is rigged and the rich and the powerful have lobbyists and lawyers and plenty of friends in Congress. Everybody else, not so much.”
Cue Paul Ryan, announcing as only a career politician can, that “our country has had enough of politics.” He’s proposing to “reconceive the federal government’s role in the fight against poverty.” And he is even ripping corporations, decrying the way in which big government has become “a willing accomplice” of big business.
Ryan explained last week at Hillsdale College’s Center for Constitutional Studies and Citizenship session that “crony capitalism isn’t a side effect; it’s a direct result of big government.”
Grab the pitchforks!
But don’t look for Paul Ryan on the front lines of actual fights to reduce inequality or address injustice.
The House Budget Committee chairman, who on Thursday released an “anti-poverty proposal” that rehashed decades-old schemes to scale back safety-net programs and regulatory protections for low-income Americans, offers scant evidence of a serious determination to solve the problems that have got Americans up in arms. If Ryan was serious, he wouldn’t be proposing, as his “Opportunity Grant” plan does, to “consolidate” existing federal programs to aid the poor into block grants to the states—an approach that would give Republican governors, who have already shown a penchant for undermining healthcare, food-stamp and education initiatives, the “flexibility” to do even more harm.
Congressman Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat who serves with Ryan on the Budget Committee, nails it when he warns about a proposal that “uses the sunny language of ‘reform’ as a guise to cut vital safety-net programs.”
Marian Wright Edelman was even blunter.
“House Budget Chair Paul Ryan’s draft is a small, mean and worn idea that picks on poor children and families while not asking for one cent of sacrifice from rich corporations and rich individuals. His proposal would dismantle the safety net that is working,” said the president of the Children’s Defense Fund, who ticked off federal programs that would be threatened by Ryan’s scheme. “Head Start works, it gets poor children ready for school. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) works, it keeps the wolves of hunger at bay. Title I works, the funds are going to help our most disadvantaged schools and students, but the funds need to be increased and accountability tightened. I look forward to the next draft from Chairman Ryan that is fair to poor children and families and asks the rich corporations and individuals to pay their fair share.”
Edelman could end up waiting for a long time, as the congressman has not coupled his momentarily populist rhetoric with anything akin to a call for corporate responsibility or fair taxation.
So if Ryan is not really worried about holding corporations to account, and if he is not evidencing a serious intent address the problem of inequality, what is on his mind?
The answer, of course, is that Ryan is worried about addressing his own problem: an association in the public’s mind with the failed messages of the 2012 Romney-Ryan campaign.
Last week’s populist speech at the Center for Constitutional Studies and Citizenship and this week’s poverty speech at the American Enterprise Institute begin the roll-out of Paul Ryan Version 2.0. Next comes the August publication of Ryan’s 2016 campaign book, The Way Forward: Renewing the American Idea, complete with its epic cover shot of Americans reaching out to touch a triumphal Ryan. Then there’s the bus tour.
Yes, the bus tour.
So Ryan is campaigning. To the extent that it is possible he will do so in populist style and with populist rhetoric about crony capitalism and fighting poverty.
But don’t be confused.
This is still the same Paul Ryan who went to the floor of the House in 2008 and rallied Republicans to support the Wall Street bailout. This is still the same Paul Ryan who opposed regulation of the big banks. This is still the same Paul Ryan who supported and continues to support) the free trade deals demanded by multinational corporations. This is still the same Paul Ryan who has peddled Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare “reforms” that would turn sound programs into vehicles for steering federal funds into the accounts of Wall Street speculators and health-insurance corporations.
This is still the same Paul Ryan who during the current election cycle has padded his campaign committee and “leadership PAC” accounts with almost $9 million in donations—with Wall Street securities and investment interests and the health-insurance industry giving most generously. And this is the same Paul Ryan who, when Congress took its August break in 2013 jetted home to Wisconsin via Arizona—where he was a featured speaker at the annual retreat for billionaire donors organized by the Koch brothers.
The other featured speaker was then–House majority leader Eric Cantor, for whom the ensuing months did not go well. Cantor’s Republican primary defeat—at the hands of a critic of “crony capitalism”—provided an indication that the American people are increasingly agitated. And increasingly disinclined toward the sort of insider politics practiced by career politicians such as Ryan.
Ryan got the signal.
He is rebranding himself.
He has downloaded some populist rhetoric to go with his “kinder, gentler” talk about poverty.
But Paul Ryan’s populism is not the real thing. It’s the Koch-tested, Koch-approved version.
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The austerity agenda as it plays out on the ground in American cities is often so relentless in demanding cuts in public services that it is easy to imagine that it cannot be upended. And that goes double for Detroit, where Michigan Governor Rick Snyder has given his appointed “emergency manager”—rather than local elected officials—control over critical decisions regarding city operations.
But that does not mean that austerity always wins.
Last week, protests by Detroiters and allies from across the country focused local, national and international attention on the Detroit Water and Sewage Department’s program of shutting off water service for thousands of low-income families that have fallen behind in paying bills. On Friday, religious leaders and community activists were arrested after blocking trucks operated by the private contractor that was responsible for the shutoffs. At the same time, a mass march filled the streets of downtown Detroit with protesters arguing that the most vulnerable citizens of a city hard hit by deindustrialization ought not be further harmed by the loss of a basic necessity that the United Nations deems a human right.
Members of National Nurses United and the Michigan Nurses Association declared the city to be “a public health emergency zone.” And Congressman John Conyers, D-Detroit, told the crowd, “Water should be available to everybody. It shouldn’t be something that only people who can afford it can get.”
On Monday, the Water and Sewerage Department announced that it was suspending water shutoffs for fifteen days. The department says it is merely “pausing” to do more education about what it refers to as a “collection campaign” to get payment for unpaid bills from residents of a city that is itself in the midst of a bankruptcy process. Activists with the People’s Water Board coalition say, “We have a little over two weeks to make [the halt to shutoffs] permanent.”
There is actually a great deal that must be done. “The city of Detroit’s fifteen-day moratorium on water shut-offs, announced [Monday] nearly four months after the shut-offs began, is welcomed but inadequate relief for a city in which thousands of residents either have lost or face the continuing threat of losing access to water,” announced the ACLU of Michigan and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, both of which have argued that the water shutoffs violate both civil and human rights.
That focus on civil and human rights has been central to what has developed into a powerful challenge to to a specific manifestation of austerity in Detroit—a challenge that could serve as a model for other fights on the local, state and national levels.
The decision to suspend shutoffs came just three days after the arrests and the mass march brought the issues into clear focus—as was duly noted in local media. “The decision comes after the city has put into national spotlight for a policy that has been framed as a human rights issue for low-income residents who can’t afford to pay their bills,” the Detroit Free Press explained Monday. “It also was announced on the same day that a group of Detroit residents filed a lawsuit in the city’s bankruptcy case asking U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes to restore water service to residential customers.”
Last week, Judge Rhodes told a representative of the Water and Sewage Department at a hearing, “Your residential shutoff program has caused not only a lot of anger in the city and also a lot of hardship”— adding, “It’s caused a lot of bad publicity for the city it doesn’t need right now.”
Those statements came before Friday’s march and rally, which garnered significant media attention and featured an appearance by actor and water rights activist Mark Ruffalo, who said, “The American people have got to know that this is wrong, and that it’s happening here and that it should be stopped.”
At Friday’s rally, Jean Ross, RN, co-president of National Nurses United, read an NNU declaration that warned, “We need clean water for proper sanitation to combat the growth and spread of multiple infectious diseases and pandemics. We need clean water for a safe and healthy environment. We demand the guarantee that all Detroit residents have immediate and full access to clean water.”
That message echoed the demands of local groups such as Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, People’s Water Board and the Michigan chapter of the National Action Network and Moratorium Now!—all of which are supporting the lawsuit—for an end to the shutoffs that have left some families without water while forcing others to sacrifice other necessities in order to pay what critics decry as excessive water fees.
Friday’s protests in Detroit also addressed the broader question of how cities, states and the nation should respond to financial turbulence. At several Detroit events over the weekend (when Netroots Nation met in Detroit) this writer joined Congressman Keith Ellison, D-Minnesota, in discussions that focused attention on the unfairness of austerity responses that put too much pressure on low-income families while paying too little attention to the role of financial speculators. This continues to be the case, despite the fact that a recent Demos study concluded, “Detroit’s financial expenses have increased significantly, and that is a direct result of the complex financial deals Wall Street banks urged on the city over the last several years, even though its precarious cash flow position meant these deals posed a great threat to the city.”
Ellison, the author of legislation to create a “Robin Hood Tax” on financial speculation, asked Friday’s rally, “Instead of shutting peoples water off why don’t we raise the taxes on these corporations? We have a bill that would tax the transactions on stocks, bonds and derivatives so people can meet their basic needs like water.”
Making that connection is important. What is happening in Detroit is part of a much broader scenario, in which decisions about how to pay bills and cover costs are too frequently made with little attention to human needs.
That’s the bad news.
The good news is that when those human needs are brought into focus, the policymakers start to pay attention—and sometimes, they start to change the policies.
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Detroit—Elizabeth Warren says she is not running for president in 2016—despite the enthusiastic “Run, Liz, Run” chanting that erupted when the senator from Massachusetts took the stage at this year’s Netroots Nation conference. But Warren came to Detroit with the platform on which Democrats should be running in 2016.
And in 2014.
Warren is frequently described as a populist. And she can certainly frame her message in populist terms, as was well illustrated by the strongest statement of her Friday Netroots Nation address: “A kid gets caught with a few ounces of pot and goes to jail, but a big bank launders drug money and no one gets arrested. The game is rigged.”
But as the Rev. William Barber, of North Carolina’s “Moral Mondays” movement, reminded the conference in a Thursday evening keynote address, populism is not an ideology or a program unto itself. Populism can go left or go right. Populism can be cogent or crude. What matters is the vision that underpins a populist appeal.
What Elizabeth Warren brought to the Netroots Nation gathering was a progressive vision that is of the moment—a vision rooted in the understandings that have been established in the years since the “Republican wave” election of 2010. As Republicans in Congress practiced obstructionism, and as an increasingly activist Supreme Court knocked down historic democratic protections, Republican governors aggressively attacked labor rights, voting rights and women’s rights. Citizens responded with rallies, marches and movements—in state capitals, on Wall Street, across the country. They developed a new progressive vision that is more aggressive and more precisely focused on economic and social justice demands, and on challenging the power of corporations and their political allies.
Warren’s Netroots Nation speech incorporated what has been learned, and what has been demanded. She made a connection between the movements and the political process that has tremendous significance for the coming election cycles.
Warren’s Democratic Party has not fully recognized that connection—not by a long shot—but Warren gets it. And the response of the thousands of activists, organizers and communicators gathered at the Netroots conference suggests that “the base” is ready to rally around it.
So what is it?
“This is a fight over economics, a fight over privilege, a fight over power,” says Warren. “But deep down it’s a fight over values. These are progressive ideas; these are progressive values. These are America’s values. And these are the values we are willing to fight for.”
They are specific ideas, rooted in recent struggles and using the language of those struggles to form an agenda:
1. “We believe that Wall Street needs stronger rules and tougher enforcement, and we’re willing to fight for it.”
2. “We believe in science, and that means that we have a responsibility to protect this Earth. And we will fight for it.”
3. “We believe that the Internet shouldn’t be rigged to benefit big corporations, and that means real net neutrality. And we will fight for it.”
4. “We believe that no one should work full-time and still live in poverty. That means raising the minimum wage. And we will fight for it. We will fight for it. And let me add to that: We believe that fast-food workers deserve a livable wage, and that means that when they take to the picket line, we are proud to fight alongside them.”
5. “We believe that students are entitled to get an education without being crushed by debt. And we are willing to fight for it. We are willing.”
6. “We believe that after a lifetime of work, people are entitled to retire with dignity, and that means protecting Social Security, Medicare, and pensions. And we will fight for them. We will fight.”
7. “We believe— only I can’t believe I have to say this in 2014—we believe in equal pay for equal work. And we’re willing to fight for it."
8. “We believe that equal means equal, and that’s true in marriage, it’s true in the workplace, it’s true in all of America. And we’re willing to fight for it.”
9. “We believe that immigration has made this country strong and vibrant, and that means reform. And we are willing to fight for it.”
10. “And we believe that corporations are not people, that women have a right to their bodies. We will overturn Hobby Lobby and we will fight for it."
The specificity of the agenda matters as much as the promise to fight.
Unlike too many prominent Democrats—including Vice President Joe Biden, who spoke the day before Warren at Netroots Nation—the senator from Massachusetts is both passionate and precise.
“I think the views she expresses are not necessarily accepted Washington views on things. There are different ways of being a fighter,” says Erica Sagrans, a key organizer of the “Ready for Warren” movement that was a huge presence at Netroots Nation. “There are some people talking about similar policy positions, but the difference is the way she’s doing it.”
Warren does not get personal. She does not mention other Democrats—except the Senate candidates she campaigns for, including progressive populists such as South Dakota’s Rick Weiland, who hailed Warren as “a tremendous supporter, a tremendous help” to his determined run.
Warren's focus is on a set of essential issues and on bold responses to them. She says things that need to be said—about the agenda and about the attitude that might get Americans excited about not just a particular campaign (for president in 2016 or for US Senate seats in 2014) but about a political agenda that extends beyond individual elections.
“The game is rigged. And the rich and the powerful have lobbyists and lawyers and plenty of friends in Congress. Everybody else, not so much. So the way I see this is we can whine about it, we can whimper about it or we can fight back. I’m fighting back!”
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Detroit—As Michigan Governor Rick Snyder and his appointed “emergency manager” were steering Detroit into bankruptcy last fall, the public-policy think tank Demos released a groundbreaking report on the city’s financial circumstance—and how to address it.
Demos recognized that deindustrialization, high unemployment and an exodus of residents had left Detroit uniquely vulnerable: “the current bankruptcy filing is the result of a severe decline in revenue, caused by the 2008 financial crisis, and cuts in annual state revenue sharing starting in 2011. Risky Wall Street deals further jeopardized the city’s public finances by threatening immediate payments that the city could not afford.”
Now, as the Detroit Water and Sewage Department is drawing international criticism for shutting off water service for low-income families, activists are asking why the people are being forced to pay while the Wall Street banks live large. On Friday, members of the National Nurses United union and local, state and national groups will march and rally in downtown Detroit to say the priorities are out of whack.
Their message is direct: “Let’s Tax Wall Street, Get Our Money Back, and Turn on the Water!”
As a writer who has covered the debate about Detroit for several years now, I welcome and embrace this recognition that what’s happening in this city has a lot to do with the warped priorities of our current age of austerity.
It really is time to put things in perspective.
While politicians and pundits have tried to blame pensions, public servants and public services for the city’s financial challenges, the Demos report noted that “Detroit’s financial expenses have increased significantly, and that is a direct result of the complex financial deals Wall Street banks urged on the city over the last several years, even though its precarious cash flow position meant these deals posed a great threat to the city.”
The author of the report, Wallace Turbeville, a former Goldman Sachs investment banker, founder of the Kensington Group and well-regarded expert on infrastructure finance and public-private partnerships, was blunt in his assessment of the sources of the city’s challenges and the proper response.
“Misguided and irresponsible decisions by politicians over the years, often at the urging of Wall Street, have funneled wealth out of Detroit’s neighborhoods, and enriched financial institutions and corporations in the process,” said Turbeville, a Demos fellow. “If Detroit wants to come back from this and rebuild a strong economy, it needs to reverse that trend and start prioritizing the people who live here over the interests of Wall Street bankers.”
Unfortunately, under an emergency-management scheme that puts political appointees rather than elected officials in charge, Detroit has not been very good at “prioritizing the people who live here.”
This reality has been highlighted by the Water and Sewage Department’s mass water shutoffs.
The Detroit Water Brigade, a local activist group that is striving to assure families do not suffer for lack of water, reports that the shut-off strategy “will effect over 120,000 account holders over a three-month period (June-September 2014) at a rate of 3,000 per week. This accounts for over 40 percent of customers who are using the Detroit Water system and has been dubbed a violation of human rights by various organizations. 70,000 of those accounts are residential accounts which could amount to anywhere from 200,000-300,000 people directly effected.”
Food and Water Watch, the national nonprofit health and safety watchdog group, says, “This is not sanitary and violates the human right to water and sanitation. In fact, with improper disposal of waste, these shut-offs pose serious health concerns.” The international Blue Planet Project complains that “in order to make the utility attractive to investors, lower-income households are being forced to pay exorbitant rates for their water and sewer services or see their access cut. Water rates have risen in Detroit by 119 percent in the last decade. With unemployment rates at a record high, and the poverty rate at about 40 percent, Detroit water bills are unaffordable to a significant portion of the population.”
Sorting out Detroit’s financial troubles will not be easy, and the process will not go quickly. But there should be an understanding that the people who live in Detroit need protection, not pressure from bill collectors and proponents of privatization. As Turbeville notes, “This program [of shutting off access to water] is morally indefensible and contrary to basic principles of shared responsibility. It punishes Detroit’s citizens for a complex set of circumstances that have interacted to produce an economic crisis much more intense than the effects of the Great Recession in other cities. It also reinforces the myth that the people of Detroit cannot govern themselves without discipline from the rest of the state.”
Detroit residents do not need punishment and discipline. They need resources.
Congressman John Conyers, D-Detroit, has pointed to ways in which the federal and state governments could ease the pressure in the short term. But in the long term, there will be a need for real revenues to aid the people not just of Detroit but for all Americans.
Those revenues can and should come from Wall Street speculators.
NNU and its allies are arguing that a “Robin Hood Tax”—a small fee on financial transactions—should be enacted as a vehicle to “tax hedge funds and (to assert that) the rest of the financial sector should pay their fair share to clear up the mess they helped create.”
Specifically, they are backing the “Inclusive Prosperity Act” (HR 1579), a measure proposed by Representative Keith Ellison, D-Minnesota, to use a tax on Wall Street transactions and to gain revenue needed to meet human needs.
The list of backers for the march is long. In addition to NNU, it now includes the International Union United Automobile, Aerospace & Agricultural Implement Workers of America (UAW AFL-CIO), the Michigan Sierra Club, Food and Water Watch, Netroots Nation, the Metropolitan Detroit AFL-CIO, the Michigan Nurses Association, the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions, We the People of Detroit, Moratorium Now!, the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, the People’s Water Board, the Detroit Water Brigade and dozens of additional labor, religious and community groups.
People are coming to recognize that it is indeed time to start prioritizing the people who live in Detroit over the interests of Wall Street bankers.
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Martin O’Malley is speaking about immigration policy in smart, reasonable and moral terms. This distinguishes the two-term governor of Maryland and potential 2016 presidential contender from most politicians these days.
O’Malley’s approach is not a radical one. But his emphasis on fairness and human dignity, as opposed to predictable political positioning, is refreshing. And the governor’s fellow Democrats would be wise to consider the wisdom not just of his words but of the tone in which he is speaking.
O’Malley does not deny the serious practical and political challenges that have arisen as thousands of children from Central America have crossed into the United States in recent months. He know that there are a lot of issues to be resolved with regard to the particular circumstances of these children—and with regard to broader need to reform an ill-defined and frequently dysfunctional approach by the United States to immigration policy. But the children who have entered the United States are children. They come, in many instances, as desperate refugees fleeing extreme violence, poverty and dislocation in countries where the social fabric is rapidly fraying because of destructive globalization schemes, corruption and a horrific maldistribution of wealth.
The reality of why immigrants flee their own lands must, by legal and ethical standards, be taken into consideration.
So O’Malley has broken with prominent members of his own party—and with Republicans who, like Arizona Senator John McCain, propose to deport “planeloads of these young people”—to say that the response to the plight of the children must be a humane and knowing one.
“We are not a country that should send children away and send them back to certain death,” O’Malley told reporters at last week’s National Governors Association meeting in Nashville. “I believe that we should be guided by the greatest power we have as a people, and that is the power of our principles. Through all of our great world religions, we are told that hospitality to strangers is an essential human dignity.”
The governor remarks drew immediate criticism from conservatives who make little secret of their determination to politicize border issues. The Republican-linked group America Rising portrayed O’Malley’s position as a left-wing stance—a “hit from the left” at former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the leader in 2016 Democratic presidential polls.
But O’Malley’s response is grounded not in the language of left or right, or even of predictable political positioning. Instead, he is placing the debate in a moral, and American historical, context. In media interviews over the weekend, the governor calmly explained, “I believe that it is contrary to everything that we stand for as a people to try to summarily send [refugees] back to death, whether it’s in famine; death whether it’s in the middle of the ocean; death whether it’s in a war torn area or death in a place where gangs are the greatest threat to stability and the rule of law and democratic institutions in this hemisphere."
Media outlets were quick to suggest that O’Malley’s position places him at odds with the Obama administration—which is seeking $3.7 billion in funding to respond to the challenges posed by the arrival of tens of thousands of children in the region along the United States border with Mexico. The Huffington Post noted that “much of that money will be spent on carrying out deportations.”
O’Malley argues that legal representatives of the children and family members should be afforded an opportunity to challenge the threat of deportation. “They should have their ability to make their case for protection and asylum in the United States,” explains the governor.
O’Malley’s remarks provoked a response from White House press secretary Josh Earnest, who on Monday told reporters that, under the president’s plan, children facing credible threats would likely be “granted humanitarian relief.”
The back-and-forth provided a reminder that any serious immigration debate is more nuanced than the headlines suggest. But the broader point ought not be missed. By speaking in humanitarian terms, O’Malley is helping to reframe the discussion, and forcing fellow Democrats to clarify their positions.
The governor’s focus and tone is significant. And it is distinct from that of his potential 2016 rival, Hillary Clinton, who in a recent interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour said the United States must “send a clear message: just because your child gets across the border doesn’t mean your child gets to stay.”
“They should be sent back as soon as it can be determined who responsible adults in their families are,” added the woman who leads in polls that ask Democrats who they would like to have as their next presidential nominee. While she acknowledged that “there are concerns whether all of them should be sent back,” Clinton added, “I think all of them who can be should be reunited with their families.”
The problem with Clinton’s calculus, of course, is that many of the children were sent to the United States from countries such as Guatemala and Honduras, by families that have legitimate fears for the safety of the youngsters. That’s what O’Malley means when he expresses concern about a policy that would “send children away [from safety in the States] and send them back to certain death.”
This is not the first time that O’Malley has spoken up for immigrants. Indeed, his record provides an indication that when a Democrat offers a humane and thoughtful response to immigration issues, voters respond positively.
When he was running for re-election in 2010, O’Malley defended immigrants as “new Americans”—a reference that was seized on by his Republican opponent. But even in that “Republican wave” year, the governor was easily re-elected. Against a popular and well-financed Republican, former Governor Robert Ehrlich, the Democrat won 56 percent of the vote.
In 2011, O’Malley signed state “DREAM Act” legislation, opening access to in-state tuition at state colleges for many children of immigrants who has arrived in the United States without documentation. That created an outcry and a Republican legislator led a drive to force a statewide referendum vote on the issue in 2012.
O’Malley campaigned for the DREAM Act, raising money for an Educating Maryland Kids coalition that supported the legislation. “The DREAM Act says that students can be eligible for in-state tuition, regardless of their parents’ immigration status, provided they pay state taxes, graduate from a Maryland high school and commit to legalizing their status as soon as they are eligible,” the governor declared. “This issue is about fairness and basic human dignity for all.”
The emphasis on “fairness and basic human dignity” was spot on. The pro–DREAM Act campaign adopted the slogan “It’s Right and It’s Fair.” Maryland voters agreed. On November 6, 2012, they decided by a 59-41 margin to keep the DREAM Act that O’Malley and the coalition had championed.
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Water is a human right.
The United Nations formally “recognizes the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right that is essential for the full enjoyment of life and all human rights.”
A new European Citizens Initiative declares, “Water is a public good, not a commodity.”
Former President Jimmy Carter writes, “Clean water is a basic human right. Without it, the other rights may not even matter. Human societies cannot be healthy, prosperous and just without adequate supplies of clean water. What could be a more basic right than clean water?”
So why are children in Detroit marching through that battered city’s downtown with signs reminding officials that “Kids Need Water to be Healthy” and “Kids Without Water Can’t Brush Their Teeth”?
Why are religious leaders being arrested when they seek to prevent the shutoff of water services to families who cannot afford to pay bloated bills?
The answer is that, thanks to Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, Detroit is again providing a stark example of what happens when right-wing officials implement an unthinking and inhumane austerity agenda. Since Snyder imposed “emergency manager” control on Detroit last year— effectively disempowering local elected officials and putting the governor and his appointees in charge—the city’s residents have faced plenty of threats from unelected “managers” who are determined to balance the books of a financially strapped city on the backs of its hardest-hit residents.
But none of those threats has been so extreme, or so dramatic in their illustration of the crisis created by austerity policies, as the rush by the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) and its for-profit contractors to shut off water to some of the poorest families in America.
Under pressure from the governor’s emergency manager, the DWSD has so far this year shut off the water for approximately 17,000 households and small businesses that owed on their bills. And that’s just the start. In a city that has been brutalized by deindustrialization— where the official unemployment rate is 14.5 percent and where the real rate is dramatically higher; where 44 percent of residents live below the poverty line—water rates have spiked by almost 120 percent over the decade. Even as the city has gone through a bankruptcy crisis, rates have continued to rise at a dramatic rate.
Families and small business owners have struggled to keep up, but today an estimated 138,000 accountsare past due— including those of roughly 90,000 low-income families. Many families have paid their bills by cutting back on other necessities, but many others are struggling— while, at the same time,Snyder’s managers are pocketing hefty checks and toying with privatization schemes that have the potential to enrich private, out-of-town interests.
The Detroit officials who have ordered the shutoffs say they are simply creating pressure to get bills paid, and argue that they are trying to do so in a responsible manner. But environmental writer Martin Lukacs counters:
The official rationale for the water shut-downs—the Detroit Water Department’s need to recoup millions collapses on inspection. Detroit’s high-end golf club, the Red Wing’s hockey arena, the Ford football stadium, and more than half of the city’s commercial and industrial users are also owing—a sum totalling $30 million. But no contractors have showed up on their doorstep.
The targeting of Detroit families is about something else. It is a ruthless case of the shock doctrine—the exploitation of natural or unnatural shocks of crisis to push through pro-corporate policies that couldn’t happen in any other circumstance.
Congressman John Conyers, D-Detroit, has called on the DWSD to stop the shutoffs, making the case that “in the 21st Century, in the wealthiest nation on earth, no one should ever go without safe, clean water.”
The congressman has aligned with the Detroit Water Brigade, a grassroots movement that is organizing to stop the shutoffs and to get water to families. They’ve drawn international support. Canadians living across the river in Windsor have been organizing to deliver water to Detroiters.
Catarina de Albuquerque, the UN special rapporteur on the right to safe drinking water and sanitation, has made it plain that “[d]isconnections due to non-payment are only permissible if it can be shown that the resident is able to pay but is not paying. In other words, when there is genuine inability to pay, human rights simply forbids disconnections.” And the Blue Planet Project, a global movement to promote water justice is petitioning President Obama (and Governor Snyder) with a message that “[t]he U.S. government is obligated to respect the human right to water and sanitation, yet the thousands of water cut-offs currently taking place in Detroit, Michigan, is a violation of this basic right.”
Conyers says the Obama administration and federal officials have options to act. In particular, he is “calling on President Obama to make available some of the $200 million still apportioned for Michigan from the Hardest Hit Fund, a reserve made available for relief from impacts of the Great Recession, for water service relief.” Additionally, the senior congressman is “requesting that US Secretary of Health and Human Services Sylvia Mathews Burwell formally designate the water crisis a public health emergency eligible for federal relief.”
But Detroiters have over the past several years come to be recognize that the plight of their city, even as it is assaulted by the governor’s austerity measures, is often neglected by federal officials.
It will be harder to neglect Detroit in coming days, however, as Netroots Nation brings its ninth annual gathering (and Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Elizabeth Warren) to the city. And National Nurses United, the activist union that has been promoting a “Robin Hood” tax on financial speculators as an alternative to austerity cuts, is working with dozens of local, state and national groups to organize a July 18 “Turn on the Water! Tax Wall Street!” march and rally.
The registered nurses plan to “declare a public health emergency and demand a moratorium on the unprecedented water shutoffs in Detroit.”
Their message is a blunt challenge to austerity:
Gov. Snyder is allowing the tragedy to continue with an endgame of privatizing the public water department—the latest in a string of gifts to Wall Street. The historic transfer of public wealth to private hands overseen by Snyder has cost the public jobs, pensions, vital public safety services, and civic jewels like Olmstead Island Park.
Now they have come for our water.
Let’s Tax Wall Street, Get Our Money Back, and Turn on the Water!
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Constitutional amendments are often proposed but rarely advanced to the stage of serious debate. What moves any meaningful amendment from mere paperwork to serious consideration is the popular will of the great mass of Americans. And the popular will of the great mass of Americans have been abundantly clear since the United States Supreme Court struck down barriers to corporate control of democracy with its 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling.
Sixteen American states and roughly 600 communities have formally told Congress that the Constitution must be amended to make it clear that corporations are not people, money is not speech and citizens and their elected representatives have a right to organize elections that are defined by votes rather than dollars.
Once dismissed even by many reformers as an appropriate yet impossible initiative, the movement for a “Money Out/Voters In” amendment to the Constitution has grown so strong—and been proven to be so necessary—that it has now achieved what most organizers of amendment movements only imagine.
On Thursday, the US Senate Judiciary Committee voted 10-8 to endorse an amendment that would undo the damage done to democracy by a series of High Court decisions—and to restore reasonable limits on financial contributions and expenditures intended to influence elections.
Judiciary Committee chair Patrick Leahy, a former prosecutor and the senior member of the Senate, framed the vote with a declaration that “I have served in the Senate for nearly 40 years and as Chairman of the Judiciary Committee for nearly ten. I have always believed that amending our Constitution must be subject to the highest measure of scrutiny. It is something that should only be done as a last resort. But when the voices of hardworking Americans continue to be drowned out by the moneyed few, and when legislative efforts to right this wrong are repeatedly filibustered by Republicans, more serious action must be taken.”
Leahy’s position was echoed by committee Democrats who joined him in backing an amendment that declares:
SECTION 1: To advance democratic self-government and political equality, and to protect the integrity of government and the electoral process, Congress and the States may regulate and set reasonable limits on the raising and spending of money by candidates and others to influence elections.
SECTION 2. Congress and the States shall have power to implement and enforce this article by appropriate legislation, and may distinguish between natural persons and corporations or other artificial entities created by law, including by prohibiting such entities from spending money to influence elections.
SECTION 3. Nothing in this article shall be construed to grant Congress or the States the power to abridge the freedom of the press.
That’s more cautious language than many activists would like to see. And it may be that, as the amendment movement grows in strength, and as the congressional debate evolves, a final amendment will feature more specific language regarding all the issues that arise when the courts and Congress extend special rights to corporations.
But no one should doubt the significance of the fact that, in four short years, a grassroots movement has changed the calculus of the money-in-politics debate. With little money and almost no major media coverage, the movement started by groups such as Move to Amend and Free Speech for People, and advanced by People for the American Way, Common Cause and Public Citizen has staked out bold positions and made overly cautious Democratic officials and even a few Republicans move toward them.
“This vote is an important step forward for the movement to take back our democracy from billionaires and corporations,” declared Marge Baker, the executive vice president of People for the American Way, which was part of a broad coalition of groups that delivered petitions signed by two million Americans asking the committee to back a Twenty-Eighth Amendment proposal based on an approach initially advanced by Senator Tom Udall, D-New Mexico.
“In the wake of cases like Citizens United and McCutcheon, the voices of everyday Americans are being overpowered by the money of special interests,” said Baker. “That’s not how democracy is supposed to work. People understand that. Americans have made it clear that all of our voices should be heard. We look forward to a full Senate vote on this important piece of legislation.”
With Judiciary Committee backing and forty-five cosponsors, the Udall amendment as it currently stands has traction in the Senate. There is a dawning recognition that, as Udall says, “the Supreme Court has left us one option for real reform. We must pass an amendment that will restore integrity to our elections, so that a billionaire in one state cannot have more influence than working families in the other forty-nine. That is not the equality envisioned by our founders, and is in direct contradiction to the kind of democracy they intended to create.”
“The amendment is crucial to strengthening and restoring the First Amendment, which has been weakened and distorted by a series of U.S. Supreme Court rulings,” explained Weissman. “Specifically, the amendment would overturn Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (FEC) and its misguided holding that corporations have the same First Amendment rights as real, live, breathing human beings to influence election outcomes. It will overturn McCutcheon v. FEC, with its holding that the only justification for limits on campaign donations is to prevent criminal bribery. And it will overturn Buckley v. Valeo—the case holding that ‘money equals speech’ and imposing Supreme Court-made constitutional obstacles to imposing limits on what can be spent on elections.”
But that does not mean that the amendment will move easily through Congress. Senate Republican leaders, led by Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, have grown increasingly militant in their opposition to efforts to reduce the overwhelming political influence of corporations and billionaire donors such as the Koch brothers. During Thursday’s Judiciary Committee session, Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley and his fellow Republicans trotted out all the talking points that have been developed as part of a cynical campaign to prevent limits of election spending focusing especially on the fantasy that corporations and wealthy Americans have a right to shout down everyone else.
Because sixty-seven votes are required to secure Senate approval of an amendment, majority support—even if it is bipartisan—will not be sufficient. So the organizing work that got the proposal this far will have to continue. That work is likely to face growing opposition from powerful interests. “We’ve now seen the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Koch Brothers take notice of the overwhelming public demand for far-reaching action to restore our democracy. In the coming weeks, we’ll see those defenders and advocates of the 21st Century Gilded Age leverage their power and money to oppose a constitutional amendment that threatens their grip on American politics,” argues Weissman.
But, he adds, “The tide of history is against them, however. The day is not long away when Americans will celebrate the 28th Amendment and the return of control over our elections and our country to We the People.”
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Given the choice between Republicans who are explicitly committed to doing away with collective bargaining rights and Democrats, public-sector labor unions tend to back Democrats at election time.
But that does not mean that unions are always satisfied with Democratic Party policies—or with Democratic policymakers.
This is especially true with regard to education debates. There are certainly Democrats who have been strong advocates for public schools. But there are also Democratic mayors, governors, members of Congress and cabinet members such as Secretary of Education Arne Duncan who have embraced and advanced “reforms” that supporters of public schools identify as destructive.
Duncan’s policies were so appealing to 2012 Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney—who explicitly praised the “good things” the education secretary was doing—that education writer Dave Murray wrote a 2012 article headlined, “Could a Romney Administration include Arne Duncan, President Obama’s education secretary?”
Former US Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch, who has emerged as a leading champion of public education, refers to Duncan as “one of the worst Secretaries of Education”— arguing that “Duncan’s policies demean the teaching profession by treating student test scores as a proxy for teacher quality.
Teachers are pushing back against Duncan and those policies.
The NEA Representative Assembly joins other educators and parents in calling for the resignation of U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan for the Department’s failed education agenda focused on more high-stakes testing, grading and pitting public school students against each other based on test scores, and for continuing to promote policies and decisions that undermine public schools and colleges, the teaching education professionals, and education unions.
Duncan is not about to resign. Instead, he dismisses the resolution with a typically glib DC-insider dig about how he is “trying to stay out of local union politics.”
But the NEA statement is not a “local” resolution.
This is a call for the resignation of a Democratic secretary of education from the nation’s largest professional employee organization—a union with 3 million members working from the pre-school to university graduate program levels of public education in 14,000 communities across the United States.
Past resolutions urging Duncan’s resignation failed to gain traction with NEA representative assemblies. But this year, the delegates determined that it was time for the education secretary to go.
Even if Duncan does not seem to take the call seriously, the Obama administration and Democrats in Congress should.
For a number of years now, teachers, parents and students have expressed mounting frustration—and appropriate anger—with the focus of Duncan and other education policymakers on standardized testing that they say makes evaluation a bigger priority than actual education.
“For us, one thing is clear: before anything is going to get better: It’s the Testing, Stupid,” the incoming president of the NEA, Utah teacher Lily Eskelsen García, told delegates to the representative assembly. “Better yet, it’s the stupid testing.”
In her speech, Eskelsen García decried what she referred to as a “phony” accountability system that she said hurts students and demeans the teaching profession.
Members of the California Teachers Association, who submitted the resolution urging Duncan to quit, have been especially blunt in their calls for Duncan to exit the cabinet.
Upset both with the education secretary’s emphasis on standardized testing and with Duncan’s response to a recent court ruling that eliminated workplaces protections for teachers, the CTA says:
Authentic education change only comes when all stakeholders— teachers, parents, administrators and the community—work together to best meet the needs of the students in their school or college. Teachers are not the problem. Teachers are part of the solution. And it’s time we have a Secretary of Education who understands and believes that.
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