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Confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominees should always be about more than the abortion debate. And the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on the nomination of Judge Samuel Alito to serve on the high court have touched on a broad variety of issues -- including the essential question of whether the court will address the Bush administration's abuses of authority by enforcing the Constitutional balance of powers.
But, as has been the case in confirmation hearings for the better part of three decades, the search for signals with regard to the nominee's stance on reproductive rights matters has played a dominant role in the advice and consent process that has played out in Washington this week.
In something of a deviation from many past confirmation hearings, however, and dialogue about choice has provided useful insights into Alito's activist approach to judging. And those insights have led an influential moderate Republican group to come out against the nominee.
Confirming fears that he intends to join the court with an activist agenda, Alito distanced himself from the language used by Chief Justice John Roberts during confirmation hearings last year, when Roberts sought to ease fears about whether he wanted to join the court with the purpose of constraining or eliminating abortion rights. In answering questions from senators, Roberts expressed the mainstream view that the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, which established that a woman's right to privacy gives her control of decisions about whether or not terminate a pregnancy, is "settled law."
While U.S. Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-Illinois, pressed Alito on the point, asking whether the nominee believes that the ruling in Roe is "the settled law of the land," the current nominee steadfastly refused to echo Roberts.
Suggesting that the meaning of "settled" is open to interpretation -- "If 'settled' means that it can't be reexamined, then that's one thing. If 'settled' means that it is a precedent that is entitled to respect . . . then it is a precedent that is protected, entitled to respect under the doctrine of stare decisis" -- Alito went out of his way to maintain the option of revisiting Roe and, potentially, reversing it.
Earlier in the hearings, Alito told Judiciary Committee chair Arlen Specter, R-Pennyslvania, that, if he is confirmed, he will "approach the (choice) question with an open mind."
But Alito, who as a member of the Reagan administration in the 1980s asserted that there was no Constitutional protected right to choose, refused to distance himself from the statement that seems to indicate his mind is anything but open on the issue. "That was a true expression of my views at the time," said Alito, when asked about 1985 memos he wrote disputing the argument that the Constitution guarantees women control over their own bodies. At no point, though he was given numerous opportunities to do so, did Alito suggest that his opinion had evolved since 1985.
Notably, after Alito testified before the committee, the group Republican Majority for Choice (RMC), issued a statement that said, "There is no crystal ball to predict how a Justice Alito would rule in future cases; therefore we have closely monitored the confirmation hearings with the hope that Judge Alito would offer some clarifying statements that would allay our concerns about his record. Instead, he side-stepped the issue of whether or not the right to privacy in the Constitution extends to reproductive choice. He avoided answering whether Roe was settled law and existing precedent required a health exception to statutes limiting a woman's access to abortion."
"Without such assurances, we can only calculate his judicial philosophy on reproductive rights through the prism of his past actions and statements," the RMC statement continued. Referring to retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, the critical swing vote on the court with regard to reproductive rights and other issues, the group added, "As the replacement for the architect of the 'undue burden' standard, the stakes are too high for RMC to support an appointee who outlined a blueprint to dismantle that very standard."
Accordingly, the organization announced its opposition to Alito's nomination. The opposition to Alito contrasts with the groups stance regarding Roberts, about whom RMC declared, "Liberal and reactionary opposition based on a circumstantial review of Justice Roberts' limited public record reflect an agenda predisposed to oppose all Republican nominees."
RMC is the largest pro-choice group in the Republican Party and has more influence than most moderate groups with GOP senators. In addition to Specter, three other Republican senators -- Rhode Island's Lincoln Chafee, and Mainers Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe -- serve on the Republican Majority for Choice advisory council. The question now is whether those senators were paying as close attention to Alito's testimony as the group they advise.
Needless to say, the same goes for other senators, Republicans and Democrats, who claim to support a right to choose.
After all, as the Republican Majority for Choice noted, "The reality is that Judge Alito would not have to vote to overrule Roe in order to be the architect of the denial of a woman's right to choose. He could give lip service to respecting Roe while upholding the numerous legislative efforts to chip away at reproductive freedom. The cumulative result is that Roe v. Wade and its progeny are rendered meaningless."
Best response to the Abramoff Scandal? That's easy.
As just about everyone else in Congress is rushing to dispose of campaign contributions received from GOP super-lobbyist and convicted criminal Jack Abramoff, California Congressman John Doolittle says he's keeping his Abramoff-linked money. Doolittle, a Republican whose various campaign committees collected close $50,000 from Abramoff and the disgraced lobbyist's associates and clients, has been identified as a top target of the Justice Department investigation of Congressional corruption.
But, his office says, it wouldn't look right for the congressman to rid his campaign of Abramoff's dirty dollars. "Congressman Doolittle refuses to give even the slightest appearance of something wrong by returning money that was accepted legally and ethically," says Doolitte aide Laura Blackann. Keeping the money, explains Blackann, "is a matter of principle to the congressman." Suggested slogan for the congressman's reelection campaign: Doolittle's Got the Courage to be Corrupt.
When the Senate Judiciary Committee begins questioning Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito this week, Americans will again be reminded of the limitations of the confirmation process for presidential picks to serve on the federal bench.
Alito will lie to the committee, intentionally and repeatedly.
In keeping with the standard set by all recent high court nominees, he will treat the hearings, and by extension the American people, who the confirmation process is intended to serve, with utter and complete contempt.
Alito will be asked direct questions and he will claim that he cannot answer them for two reasons.
First, in order to avoid broad questions about his legal philosophy, he will claim that he is not able to comment on cases that might come before the court. This is a deliberate dodge, designed not to protect Alito's ability to judge impartially but to avoid revealing whether his ideas are within the mainstream of constitutional interpretation and judicial responsibility.
Second, despite the fact that his proponents would have the Senate and the American people believe that he is a brilliant man with broad executive branch and judicial experience, Alito will claim that he has not seriously considered fundamental questions of law, politics and public policy. This, too, is a deliberate dodge, designed to prevent an examination of how he approaches issues.
If the recent past offers any indication, Alito's refusal to cooperate with the committee will be extensive. When Chief Justice John Roberts faced the committee during his confirmation hearings last fall, he refused to answer more than 60 questions in a single day.
As members of the Judiciary Committee approach what should be their most solemn duty--since they are being called upon to accept or reject a nominee who could serve on the high court long after they have left politics--senators of both parties should be looking for a way to crack the facade of deceit and disrespect that Alito will erect.
Here's one suggestion for how to do that:
Ask the nominee how he would have ruled in the case of Bush v. Gore. Does he agree that the court was right to intervene, for the first time in history, to stop the counting of the ballots that could have determined the result of a presidential contest? Or does he believe, as University of Virginia professor and Supreme Court scholar A.E. Howard has suggested, "Prudence would call for letting the political process run its course"?
Does Alito believe it is possible to reconcile the high court's intervention in an electotal battle with a strict constructionist reading of the Constitution that says Congress, not the court, is charged with settling disputed contests at the federal level?
Does he believe that Justices Antonin Scalia, whose sons were associated with firms that represented George W. Bush's campaign, and Clarence Thomas, whose wife was working with Bush's transition team, should have recused themselves from the deliberations? Does he worry that the decision to intervene in the case might have damaged the court's reputation as an independent body that stands apart from the partisan politics associated with the executive branch?
Of course, Alito will try to avoid such questions, just as Roberts did when Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wisconsin, made a tepid attempt to raise the issue last year. But Alito has no excuse for refusing to answer.
The case of Bush v. Gore will never come before the court again. And the court itself has ruled that the decision should not be interpreted as setting a precedent. Thus, it is one of the few court decisions that is entirely, and appropriately, open to discussion by a nominee.
And what if Alito claims he hasn't taken the time to consider the case or its issues?
Considering the fact that the case involved the question of who would be the most powerful person on the planet, if Alito claims he wasn't paying attention, there really would not be any question that he is too disengaged to be confirmed to so substantial a position.
Note: If you were a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, what would youask Samuel Alito about his record and judicial philosophy? Send us your questions, and as the hearingsunfold, TheNation.com will publish the best of them.
John Nichols is the author of Jews For Buchanan (The New Press), an examination of the 2000 recount debacle in Florida and the Supreme Court intervention that settled the dispute for George W. Bush. Jews for Buchanan can be found at indpendent bookstores nationwide and at www.amazon.com
No member of the Senate who takes seriously the oath they have sworn to defend the Constitution will vote to confirm judicial activist Samuel Alito's nomination to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court.
To a greater extent than any nominee for the high court in recent memory, and very possibly in the long history of the country, Alito has placed himself clearly and unequivocally at odds with the original intent of the authors of the Constitution and the incontrovertible language of the document.
Alito is consistently on record as favoring steps by the White House to -- in his words -- ''increase the power of the executive to shape the law." Twenty years ago, as a member of the Reagan administration, Alito was in the forefront of efforts to legitimize executive power grabs designed to allow presidents to take dramatic actions, sometimes in secret, without the advice and consent of Congress.
In a 1986 draft memo that advised Reagan and his aides on how to assure that their interpretations of official actions trumped those of the legislative branch, Alito acknowledged that his approach would put the White House at odds with the Congress. "The novelty of the procedure and the potential increase of presidential power are two factors that may account for this anticipated reaction," Alito argued. "In addition, and perhaps most important, Congress is likely to resent the fact that the president will get in the last word on questions of interpretation."
The Reagan administration never fully embraced Alito's proposals, but the Bush administration has. And Alito has been cheering the process of executive power enhancement on, telling the Federalist Society in an address five years ago that, "The president has not just some executive powers, but the executive power -- the whole thing."
The "whole-thing" approach adopted by George Bush and Dick Cheney has placed the current administration on a collision course with the Constitution. And it will be the Supreme Court that must sort through the wreckage.
With the high court widely expected to rule on multiple cases involving questions about presidential warmaking, the War Powers Act and domestic manifestations of the Bush administration's so-called "war on terror," the position of every justice on issues of executive authority becomes more significant. And potential changes in the court that might make it more deferrent to an executive branch that appears to be bent on eliminating all checks and balances -- as the confirmation of Alito would surely do -- are, necessarily, the most consequential of matters.
What is at issue here is not a grey area of the legal interpretation.
The authors of the Constitution were absolutely determined to prevent presidents from making war without the consent of Congress, and from abusing a state of war to curtail domestic liberties.
James Madison, the essential drafter of the Constitution who would go on to serve as the nation's fourth president, expressed the concern of the founders when he wrote: "Of all the enemies of true liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few. In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended; its influence in dealing out offices, honors and emoluments is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds, are added to those of subduing the force, of the people. The same malignant aspect in republicanism may be traced in the inequality of fortunes, and the opportunities of fraud, growing out of a state of war, and in the degeneracy of manner and of morals, engendered in both. No nation can preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare."
Madison added that, "War is in fact the true nurse of executive aggrandizement. In war, a physical force is to be created; and it is the executive will, which is to direct it. In war, the public treasuries are to be unlocked; and it is the executive hand which is to dispense them. In war, the honors and emoluments of office are to be multiplied; and it is the executive patronage under which they are to be enjoyed; and it is the executive brow they are to encircle. The strongest passions and most dangerous weaknesses of the human breast; ambition, avarice, vanity, the honorable or venal love of fame, are all in conspiracy against the desire and duty of peace."Madison's view was confirmed by the Constitutional Convention of 1787, when delegates overwhelmingly approved a motion to deny presidents the power to "make war." That resolution was introduced by Connecticut delegate Roger Sherman, another key player in the shaping of the document, who explained that, "The executive should be able to repel and not to commence war."
George Mason, the Virginia delegate to the Constitutional Convention who is often remembered as "the Father of the Bill of Rights," said at the time, "I am for clogging rather than facilitating war."
John Marshall, a participant in the Virginia ratifying convention that approved the Constitution, would go on to serve as Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. In that capacity, he would be called upon to interpret the Constitution with regard to the exercise of war powers by the executive. Writing for a unanimous court in 1801, Marshall asserted that, "The whole powers of war being, by the Constitution of the United States, vested in Congress, the acts of that body alone can be resorted to as our guides."
Much has been done to undermine the system of checks and balances that the founders wrote into the Constitution to control against executive excess. But, as recently as 2004, the court reaffirmed the basic principle that the president must operate within strict constraints in a time of war. Ruling that the Executive Branch does not have the power to hold indefinitely a U.S. citizen without basic due process protections, the court rebuked the Bush administration's actions with an opinion that declared, "A state of war is not a blank check for the president when it comes to the rights of the nation's citizens."
The author of that statement was Sandra Day O'Connor, the retiring justice who Alito has been nominated to replace.
Justice O'Connor, who could hardly be referred to as a strict constuctionist, was not merely expressing an opinion with her defense of checks and balances on the executive. She was affirming the Constitution, and she was doing so in a manner that respected the intentions of the founders -- something Samuel Alito's record suggests that he is entirely incapable of doing.
John Nichols's new book, Against the Beast: A Documentary History of American Opposition to Empire (Nation Books) examines the long record of Congressional checks and balances upon presidential abuses in times of war. Howard Zinn says, "At exactly the when we need it most, John Nichols gives us a special gift--a collection of writings, speeches, poems and songs from thoughout American history--that reminds us that our revulsion to war and empire has a long and noble tradition in this country." Frances Moore Lappe calls Against the Beast, "Brilliant! A perfect book for an empire in denial." Against the Beast can be found at independent bookstores nationwide and can be obtained online by tapping the above reference or at www.amazon.com
By any serious definition of the word, Republican super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff is a rat. His decision to enter guilty pleas Tuesday to three felony counts of defrauding his own clients merely added a personal acknowledgement of the fact to the official record. Frank Clemente, the director of Public Citizen's Congress Watch, summed things up succinctly, and accurately, when he said Tuesday: "Make no mistake about it: Abramoff is a crook."
In Washington, more so than in most places, it remains true that there is no honor among thieves -- nor among rats.
So the notion that Abramoff will now rat out his former associates, including Republican members of the House and Senate, is not a particularly difficult one to comprehend -- even for conservatives commentators who are generally unwilling to admit even the slightest signs of shakiness in the Republican infrastructure. Radio ranter Rush Limbaugh was already warning his listeners on Tuesday about the "A-bomb" that is expected to explode when Abramoff starts cooperating with Justice Department investigations of members of Congress. Limbaugh suggested that the scandal will become "a modern-day version of term limits" that potentially could do more damage to Republicans than the increasingly widespread public discontent with the unwavering support most GOP members of Congress have given to the Bush administration's failed Iraq policies.
There is no question that the potential for damage to GOP political prospects from the Abramoff scandal -- with its deliciously detailed evidence of bribery, influence peddling, pay-to-play politics and sweeping abuses of the public trust -- is great. Between 2001 and 2004, close to 220 members of Congress collected more than $1.7 million in political contributions from Abramoff and the lobbyist's associates and clients. More than 200 of those members still serve in the House, and the vast majority of them are Republicans.
But the difference between the potential that fallout from the scandal could loosen the GOP's grip on the House and Senate and the reality of a transforming "throw-the-bums-out" vote in 2006 remains significant. While Clemente says that the scandal "is likely to take down a number of members of Congress and members of their staffs," the precise number has yet to be established. And if it is limited merely to those members of Congress that Abramoff's testimony places in the prosecutorial crosshairs, then both chambers could well remain in Republican hands.
To be sure, some of the members of Congress who have been most closely linked with Abramoff, a former elected chairman of the College Republicans who counts among his longtime associates people like Americans for Tax Reform founder Grover Norquist and former Christian Coalition chief Ralph Reed, will have a very hard time getting reelected -- if they even choose to run.
That list is topped by former Majority Leader Tom DeLay, whose onetime aide, Michael Scanlon, was Abramoff's primary partner in crime. Like Abramoff, Scanlon is cooperating with the investigation and it is hard to imagine that DeLay's name won't be among the first to come up. Already under indictment for campaign abuses in Texas, DeLay faces a serious challenge from former Democratic Representative Nick Lampson, who this week filed the necessary paperwork to make the race. Lampson's campaigning as a bipartisan reformer in a district that is now one of the more competitive in Texas, and the Abramoff scandal will give him a great deal of ammunition.
Even more vulnerable than DeLay at this point is Ohio Republican Bob Ney, who for some time has been identified as "Representative No. 1" in the Abramoff investigation. Ney is in big trouble. The chairman of the House Administration Committee, he already stands accused of accepting overseas trips, gifts and hefty campaign donations from Abramoff, allegedly in exchange for using his position to advance the interests of the Indian tribes and casinos that were among the lobbyist's big-ticket clients. If Abramoff lays out the dirty details of his relationship with Ney, Republicans will start pushing for the congressman to drop his reelection bid.
Montana Senator Conrad Burns, who accepted $150,000 in campaign contributions from the lobbyist's operation and helped an Abramoff client score a $3 million federal grant, is the most vulnerable senator. Burns has just announced that he will return the money he took from Abramoff and the lobbyist's clients and associates, but that's not going to be enough to get the senator off the hook legally -- or politically. Up for reelection this year, he has suffered a damaging drop in the polls since details of the scandal have begun to dominate media in Montana, which was already trending in a Democratic direction before the scandal surfaced.
Several other prominent Republicans are now likely, because of their associations with Abramoff, to face more serious challenges in 2006 than had previously been expected. They include: House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Illinois, who collected more than $100,000 in campaign contributions from Abramoff's firm and clients between 2001 and 2004 and in 2003 urged Interior Secretary Gail Norton to favor the lobbyist's clients in an Indian-gaming dispute; House Majority Leader Roy Blunt, R-Missouri, who accepted more than $10,000 from Abramoff's firm and clients between 2001 and 2004, and who intervened at least three times in matters involving those clients; and California Representative Dana Rohrabacher, who accepted thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from Abramoff and turned up as a financial reference for the lobbyist's purchase of a casino cruise line. Dozens of Republican House members, including vulnerable incumbents such as Connecticut's Bob Simmons, have banked direct contributions from Abramoff.
The extent to which the Abramoff scandal is of political significance in 2006 will depend on just how many of those members who accepted contributions from the lobbyist and his associates and clients are implicated in the Justice Department investigation. If the numbers move into the double digits, this scandal could pose a genuine threat to GOP control of the House. But it is important to remember that there are Democrats who have Abramoff problems, as well, including Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, who appears to have collected more than $65,000 in Abramoff-linked contributions between 2001 and 2004.
If a desire to protect Reid and other Democratic recipients of the lobbyist's largesse causes the opposition party to pull its punches, Democrats will gain no more ground as a result of this scandal than it did from the Enron imbroglio. Thus, the ultimate question does not boil down to what Abramoff will reveal. Rather, it is this: Will Democrats hold every member of Congress who has been implicated to account. If Democrats are smart, they will recognize that this is, at its core, a Republican scandal. And they will say: Throw all the bums out -- just as Republican Newt Gingrich did in the early 1990s when several Republican House members were linked with scandals that generally involved Democrats. Only by being genuine in their commitment to clean up Congress will Democrats turn the Abramoff scandal fully to their advantage. And, as everyone in Washington knows, it has been a long time since Democrats were that genuine -- or that smart politically.
Sometimes, only The Onion gets it right.
The satirical weekly, which does for print journalism what Comedy Central's "The Daily Show" does for cable news, finished off 2005 with a headline that summed up the unspoken reality of last year's media coverage of the debate about the Iraq War.
The headline read: "U.S. troops draw up own exit strategy."
It appeared above an article that began: "BAGHDAD -- Citing the Bush administration's ongoing refusal to provide a timetable for withdrawal, the U.S. troops stationed in Iraq have devised their own exit strategy."
A fictitious Staff Sgt. Cornelius Woods tells the newspaper, "My Marines are the best-trained, best-equipped, most homesick fighting force in the world. Just give us the order, and we will commandeer every available vehicle to execute a flanking maneuver on the airstrips of Mosul. By this time tomorrow, we will have retaken our positions at our families' dinner tables in full force."
At the end of a year that saw the U.S. death toll in the war rising toward 2,200, and the toll of wounded go to more than ten times that number, there is still an assumption on the part of much of the media that the U.S. military is enthusiastic about this war. There is also an assumption that the withdrawal of U.S. forces would be difficult.
Both assumptions are wrong, as any serious examination of recent events will confirm.
When Vice President Dick Cheney, perhaps the most ridiculous cheerleader for the war, visited Iraq just before Christmas, he was confronted by the reality of frustrated troops. Even in the highly controlled context of a meeting between carefully selected soldiers and the vice president, the first comment to Cheney came from Marine Cpl. Bradley Warren, who said, "From our perspective, we don't see much as far as gains. We're looking at small-picture stuff, not many gains."
Of course, Cheney was not listening, as his over-the-top attempt at delivering an applause line to the troops indicated. When he growled, "We're in this fight to win. These colors don't run," not one of the troops clapped, not one of the troops cheered.
While Bush and Cheney are unlikely ever to wake up to the full reality of the mess they have made, some other officials did begin listening in 2005. And when they did they quickly recognized the reality on the ground.
One of the few members of Congress who actually has a history of paying attention to what soldiers say went to Iraq and spent serious time -- as opposed to the "photo-op" time devoted to the task by members of the administration -- with commanders and their troops. As a result, that members, U.S. Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., changed his position from one of supporting the war to one of supporting a quick withdrawal.
So The Onion was not far off the mark with its imagining that U.S. troops in Iraq would want to devise an exit strategy.
Nor was The Onion's imagining of a plan to get the troops out of Iraq at a rapid rate unrealistic. Indeed, one of the worst failings of most major media in the United States has been the acceptance of the Bush-Cheney line that there is no easy nor smart way out of the mess they got our troops into.
Murtha's call for withdrawal was met with cries of complaint from arm-chair warriors in Washington who said it would be impossible not to mention "disastrous" to exit the quagmire. Yet Murtha, a decorated Vietnam veteran with close ties to the Pentagon, has devised a plan to get all the troops out of Iraq in six months. He echoes the view of many military strategists who say that the faster U.S. forces and their allies leave, the faster Iraqis will step up to their policing responsibilities and the country will begin to stabilize.
So, as we bid something less than a fond farewell to a year in which the media generally got the story of the war in Iraq wrong, it seems only appropriate to begin the new year by tipping the hat to The Onion for imagining dramatically more accurate coverage of the conflict than what we have gotten -- and what we can expect to get -- from most of the major broadcast and cable television networks, talk radio and all too many newspapers.
John Nichols covered the first Gulf War and has reported on conflicts in Central America, Africa and southern Asia. His book on American wars of conquest, Against the Beast: A Documentary History of American Opposition to Empire (Nation Books) was published in 2005.
It is hard to complain about a year that began with George Bush bragging about spending the "political capital" he felt he had earned with his dubious reelection and ended with the president drowning in the Nixonian depths of public disapproval.
But the circumstance didn't just get better.
A handful of elected officials, activist groups and courageous citizens bent the arc of history toward justice.
Here are this one columnist's picks for the Most Valuable Progressives of 2005:
* MVP -- U.S. Senate:
This is an easy category. While California Democrat Barbara Boxer deserves credit for refusing to go along with the certification of the dubious presidential election results from Ohio, and Arizona Republican John McCain merits praise for forcing the administration to back down from its pro-torture stance, there's no question that Wisconsin Democrat Russ Feingold was the essential senator of 2005. He was the first member of the chamber to call for a timetable to withdraw troops from Iraq -- a stance that initially was ridiculed but ultimately drew support from many of Feingold's fellow Democrats and even a few Republicans. And he ended the year by forging a bipartisan coalition that beat back the Bush administration's demand for the long-term extension of the Patriot Act, scoring one of the most significant wins for civil liberties that Congress has seen in years.
* MVP -- U.S. House:
There are plenty of members of the House who deserve credit for standing up to the administration on critical issues -- from Ohio Democrat Sherrod Brown, who led the fight against Central American Free Trade Agreement, to Vermont Independent Bernie Sanders, who was the point man in the battle to fix the Patriot Act, to North Carolina Republican Walter Jones, who courageously broke with the administration to oppose the war. And, of course, there was Pennsylvania Democrat John Murtha, the decorated Vietnam veteran who forced the House to get serious about the war he called for a speedy withdrawal. But the essential member of the House in 2005 was Michigan Democrat John Conyers, the ranking member of his party on the Judiciary Committee. No one used their bully pulpit better in 2005 than Conyers, who gathered damning information about electoral irregularities in the 2004 Ohio presidential voting and then led the challenge to the certification of the results, held hearings on the Downing Street Memo's revelations regarding the Bush administration's doctoring of pre-war intelligence, and ended the year by moving resolutions to censure President Bush and Vice President Cheney for lying to Congress and the American people -- and to set up a committee to examine the issue of impeachment.
* MVP -- Executive Branch:
Yes, there was one. It's Lawrence B. Wilkerson, the retired U.S. Army colonel who served as chief of staff for Secretary of State Colin L. Powell until Powell exited the State Department in January, 2005. After leaving his position, Wilkerson began revealing the dark secrets of the Bush-Cheney interregnum, telling a New America Foundation gathering in October that during his years in the administration: "What I saw was a cabal between the vice president of the United States, Richard Cheney, and the secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, on critical issues that made decisions that the bureaucracy did not know were being made." Wilkerson warned that, with "a president who is not versed in international relations and not too much interested in them either," the country is headed in an exceptionally dangerous direction. "I would say that we have courted disaster, in Iraq, in North Korea, in Iran, generally with regard to domestic crises like Katrina, Rita and I could go on back, we haven't done very well on anything like that in a long time," Wilkerson explained. "And if something comes along that is truly serious, truly serious, something like a nuclear weapon going off in a major American city, or something like a major pandemic, you are going to see the ineptitude of this government in a way that will take you back to the Declaration of Independence." That is truth telling of a quality and a scope all too rarely witnessed in the Washington of Bush and Cheney.
* MVP -- Law Enforcement Branch:
While Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald deserved all the headlines and the credit he got for indicting I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, the now former chief-of-staff for Vice President Dick Cheney and a key player in faking up the "case" for war with Iraq, Fitzgerald's work is just beginning. His most important indictments are yet to come. The prosecutor who took the greatest risks and who secured the most consequential indictment of 2005 was Travis County, Texas, District Attorney Ronnie Earle, who brought down House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. The man who ran Congress for most of the Bush years has not been convicted -- yet -- but DeLay was forced to step down as majority leader and no one who watches Washington thinks he will ever regain that position. Earle got his man, and began the long process of cleansing a Congress that, after all these years of being run by a pest-control specialist, is in serious need of fumigation.
* MVP -- Citizen Branch:
In August, when Democrats leaders in Washington were still talking about working with the Bush administration on Iraq -- effectively leaving Americans who were growing increasingly ill-at-ease about the war without a voice in the chambers of power -- the mother of a slain soldier followed Bush to his Crawford, Texas, ranchette and asked him to take a few minutes away from his month-long vacation to talk about the quagmire. Cindy Sheehan put the issue of the war back at the forefront of the national agenda, forcing even the dysfunctional White House press corps to start covering dissenters and getting D.C. Democrats to wake up to the reality that the American people had lost faith in the president and his military misadventure.
* MVP -- Watchdog Branch:
The media did a slightly better job of monitoring political wrongdoing in 2005 than it did during the first four years of the Bush-Cheney presidency -- when it actually would have mattered. But the real work of exposing the misdeeds of the administration is still being done by activist groups. And the most inspired of these in 2005 was After Downing Street, the coalition of groups that describes itself as "working to expose the lies that launched the war and to hold accountable its architects, including through censure and impeachment." In conjunction with Progressive Democrats of America, the able activist group that seeks to create an actual opposition party in America, After Downing Street is pushing the political envelope in exactly the direction it needs to go. Check out their website at www.afterdowningstreet.org website and keep ahead of the action in 2006.
Alfred Anderson died last month at the very ripe old age of 109.
But it was not the Scotsman's many years that made him remarkable at the end of his long life. It was that, to his last days, he well recalled participating in the Christmas Truce of 1914 -- that brief respite from the carnage of World War I that saw soldiers of both sides in the conflict lay down their arms, climb out of their trenches and celebrate together along the 500-mile Western Front.
Anderson was the last surviving old soldier known to have participated in what he would refer to in his later years as "a short peace in a terrible war."
That peace, which was initiated not by presidents or prime ministers, but by the soldiers themselves, serves to this day as a reminder that war is seldom so necessary -- nor so unstoppable -- as politicians would have us believe.
So it comes as no surprise that the Christmas Truce of 1914 is a bit of history that many in power have neglected over the past 90 years.
But Anderson's long survival, and his clear memory, made it impossible to write this chapter out of history.
On December 25, 1914, Anderson was an 18-year-old soldier serving with 5th Battalion, Black Watch, of the British Army, one of the first to engage in the bloody trench warfare that was the ugliest manifestation of a war that claimed 31 million lives. But on that day, there was no violence.
Rather, Anderson recalled in an interview on the 90th anniversary of the truce, "there was a dead silence that morning, right across the land as far as you could see. We shouted 'Merry Christmas,' even though nobody felt merry."
The calls of "Merry Christmas" from the Brits were answered by Germans singing: "Stille Nacht. Heilige Nacht. Alles Schlaft, einsam wacht."
The Brits responded by singing "Silent Night" in English. Then, from the trenches opposite them, climbed a German soldier who held a small tree lit with candles and shouted in broken English, "Merry Christmas. We not shoot. You not shoot."
Thus, began the Christmas Truce. Soldiers of both armies -- more than a million in all -- climbed from the trenches along the Western Front to exchange cigarettes and military badges. They even played soccer, using the helmets they had taken off as goalposts. And they did not rush to again take up arms. Along some stretches of the Front, the truce lasted into January of 1915.
Finally, distant commanders forced the fighting to begin anew.
Thus, it has ever been with war. As George McGovern, the decorated World War II veteran who would become one of America's greatest champions of peace, "old men (are always) thinking up wars for young men to die in."
But Alfred Anderson remembered, well beyond the century of two world wars and too many lesser conflicts, that the young men of opposing armies often have more in common with one another than they do with the old men who send them into battle.
Once, on a Christmas Day that ought not be forgotten, the young men decided to make a short peace in a terrible war.
The memory of the courage of those who chose, however briefly, to see the humanity in one another, and to lay down the arms of one of the most brutal wars this planet has ever seen, offers hope this weekend, as Christians mark the birth of the Nazarene who was called Prince of Peace. Perhaps, someday, we will make a Christmas truce that lasts not merely through the hours of good cheer on this Holiday but the whole year long.
U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold, who four years ago stood alone in the Senate to defend the Bill of Rights, finished this year by scoring a dramatic win in his fight to preserve civil liberties.
The Senate's decision to block a Bush administration push for long-term reauthorization of the Patriot Act -- which would have enshrined in law for years, and in some cases permanently, assaults on basic rights contained in the measure -- came after Feingold threatened a filibuster and then organized a bipartisan coalition of senators to back him up.
The fight grew increasingly intense last week, after Senate Republican leaders fell seven votes short of the total they needed to thwart a filibuster.
As the December 31 deadline for reauthorization of the act approached. Feingold and his allies offered to accept a short-term extension, so that the Patriot Act could remain in force while senators of both parties address Constitutional concerns.
But President Bush was not in the mood to compromise.
To the very end, the president -- doing his best King George immitation -- attacked Democratic and Republican senators for seeking to reform the act, which was hastily approved after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. Dismissing attempts to reconcile the need for security with the requirements of the Constitution, Bush attacked the Senate's refusal to reauthorize the act in the form he demanded as "inexcusable" and said that Feingold and his allies were endangering America.
"The senators who are filibustering the Patriot Act must stop their delaying tactics, and the Senate must vote to reauthorize the Patriot Act. In the war on terror, we cannot afford to be without this law for a single moment," grumbled Bush in one of a series of public rejections of any talk of a temporary renewal.
But, for all his bluster, Bush had to back down.
The Senate deal that ended the filibuster threat extends the act only for six months and provides critics with clear openings to debate contentious provisions, particularly those that permit the FBI to conduct "sneak-and-peak" searches of private homes and businesses, to wiretap telephones and examine of emails, and to obtain secret warrants for library, medical, business and personal records of Americans who are not suspected of committing crimes. (On Thursday, the House voted for an even shorter extension of one month, a move Feingold applauded. The two chambers must now reconcile their different measures before the end of the year.)
The opportunity that has now been created to debate components of the act -- rather than merely pass the law in its entirety -- is what Feingold has been demanding since 2001, when he cast the sole Senate vote against enactment of the Patriot Act. And so it came as no great surprise that the senator was celebrating a win Wednesday -- not just for his own political crusade of the past four years, but for the Constitution that he and his fellow senators have sworn to uphold.
"Today is a victory for the American people and the bipartisan group of Senators who have been fighting against efforts to extend the Patriot Act permanently without protecting the rights of law-abiding citizens," Feingold announced Wednesday evening, after the Senate Republican leadership abandoned Bush's line."I am pleased that the Republican leadership backed down from their irresponsible threat to let the Patriot Act expire and agreed to a six-month extension of the provisions that would have sunset at the end of this year," the senator said. "This will allow more time to finally agree on a bill that protects our rights and freedoms while preserving important tools for fighting terrorism. Those of us who stood up to demand modest and reasonable protections of our liberties never wanted to stop Patriot Act reauthorization. We just want to get it right this time around."
Feingold also took an appropriate swipe at Bush and his allies for creating a false crisis as the deadline for reauthorization approached.
"We could have avoided these last-minute negotiations if the House had just adopted the Senate version of the Patriot Act that passed unanimously earlier this year," explained the Democrat. "As we move forward, I hope that the Republican leadership in the Senate and the administration will continue down the path they started on tonight so that we don't find ourselves in this same situation six months from now. One thing is clear - what happened in the Senate over the past few weeks shows that (long-term reauthorization of the Patriot Act in the version favored by Bush) is dead."
And the Bill of Rights is alive and kicking.
As President Bush and his aides scramble to explain new revelations regarding Bush's authorization of spying on the international telephone calls and emails of Americans, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, has begun a process that could lead to the censure, and perhaps the impeachment, of the president and vice president.
U.S. Representative John Conyers, the Michigan Democrat who was a critical player in the Watergate and Iran-Contra investigations into presidential wrongdoing, has introduced a package of resolutions that would censure President Bush and Vice President Cheney and create a select committee to investigate the Administration's possible crimes and make recommendations regarding grounds for impeachment.
The Conyers resolutions add a significant new twist to the debate about how to hold the administration to account. Members of Congress have become increasingly aggressive in the criticism of the White House, with U.S. Senator Robert Byrd, D-West Virginia, saying Monday, "Americans have been stunned at the recent news of the abuses of power by an overzealous President. It has become apparent that this Administration has engaged in a consistent and unrelenting pattern of abuse against our Country's law-abiding citizens, and against our Constitution." Even Republicans, including Senate Judiciary Committee chair Arlen Specter, R-Pennsylvania, are talking for the first time about mounting potentially serious investigations into abuses of power by the president.
But Conyers is seeking to do much more than schedule a committee hearing, or even launch a formal inquiry. He is proposing that the Congress use all of the powers that are available to it to hold the president and vice president to account – up to and including the power to impeach the holders of the nation's most powerful positions and to remove them from office.
The first of the three resolutions introduced by Conyers, H.Res.635, asks that the Congress establish a select committee to investigate whether members of the administration made moves to invade Iraq before receiving congressional authorization, manipulated pre-war intelligence, encouraged the use of torture in Iraq and elsewhere, and used their positions to retaliate against critics of the war.
The select committee would be asked to make recommendations regarding grounds for possible impeachment of Bush and Cheney.
The second resolution, H.Res.636, asks that the Congress to censure the president "for failing to respond to requests for information concerning allegations that he and others in his Administration misled Congress and the American people regarding the decision to go to war in Iraq, misstated and manipulated intelligence information regarding the justification for the war, countenanced torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment of persons in Iraq, and permitted inappropriate retaliation against critics of his Administration, for failing to adequately account for specific misstatements he made regarding the war, and for failing to comply with Executive Order 12958." (Executive Order 12958, issued in 1995 by former President Bill Clinton, seeks to promote openness in government by prescribing a uniform system for classifying, safeguarding, and declassifying national security information.)
A third resolution, H.Res.637, would censure Cheney for a similar set of complaints.
"The people of this country are waking up to the severity of the lies, crimes, and abuses of power committed by this president and his administration," says Jon Bonifaz, a co-founder of the AfterDowningStreet.org coalition, an alliance of more than100 grassroots groups that has detailed Bush administration wrongdoing and encouraged a Congressional response. Bonifaz, an attorney and the author of the book, Warrior King: The Case for Impeaching George Bush (Nation Books), argues that, "Now is the time to return to the rule of law and to hold those who have defied the Constitution accountable for their actions."
Bonifaz is right. But it is unlikely that the effort to censure Bush and Cheney, let alone impeach them, will get far without significant organizing around the country. After all, the House is controlled by allies of the president who have displayed no inclination to hold him to account. Indeed, only a few Democrats, such as Conyers, have taken seriously the Constitutional issues raised by the administration's misdeeds.
Members of Congress in both parties will need to feel a lot of heat if these improtant measures are going to get much traction in this Congress.
The grassroots group Progressive Democrats of America (PDA), which has had a good deal of success organizing activists who want the Democrats to take a more aggressive stance in challenging the administration, will play a critical role in the effort to mobilize support for the Conyers resolutions, as part of a new Censure Bush Coalition campaign. (The campaign's website can be found at www.censurebush.org)
PDA director Tim Carpenter says his group plans to "mobilize and organize a broad base coalition that will demand action from Congress to investigate the lies of the Bush administration and their conduct related to the war in Iraq."
Getting this Congress to get serious about maintaining checks and balances on the Bush administration will be a daunting task. But the recent revelations regarding domestic spying will make it easier. There are a lot of Americans who share the view of U.S. Senator Russ Feingold, D-Wisconsin, that Bush and Cheney have exceeded their authority. As Feingold says of Bush, "He is the president, not a king."
It was the bitter experience of dealing with King George III led the founders of this country to write a Constitution that empowers Congress to hold presidents and vice accountable for their actions.
It is this power that John Conyers, the senior member of the House committee charged with maintaining the system of checks and balances established by those founders, is now asking the Congress to employ in the service of the nation that Constitution still governs.
An expanded paperback edition of John Nichols' biography of Vice President Dick Cheney, The Rise and Rise of Richard B. Cheney: Unlocking the Mysteries of the Most Powerful Vice President in American History (The New Press: 2005), is available nationwide at independent bookstores and at www.amazon.com. The book features an exclusive interview with Joe Wilson and a chapter on the vice president's use and misuse of intelligence. Publisher's Weekly describes the book as "a Fahrenheit 9/11 for Cheney" and Esquire magazine says it "reveals the inner Cheney."