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John Nichols

John Nichols

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Impeach Alberto Gonzales? Why, yes!

California Congressman Darrell Issa is one of the most conservative Republican members of the House Judiciary Committee. So it should come as no surprise that he offered an appropriately cautious and responsible solution for the Constitutional conflict created when members of the Bush administration ordered federal agents to raid the Capitol Hill office of a sitting member of Congress.

"We have the power to impeach the attorney general," Issa told Tuesday's Judiciary Committee hearing titled: "Reckless Justice: Did the Saturday Night Raid of Congress Trample the Constitution?"

Much of the Washington press corps, which maintains a familiarity with the Constitution that is roughly equivalent to its acquaintance with the truth, dismissed Issa's suggestion that the committee might want to consider the ultimate political sanction for Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. The Washington Post's lamentable Dana Milbank, who stands ever ready to ridicule any defense of the Constitution, huffed that the California congressman was being "dramatic."

Dramatic? Let's hope so, because the times are dramatic, and the concerns that have been raised by the raid on Louisiana Congressman William Jefferson's office demand a response that is equal to them.

There is no question that Gonzales, a champion of executive overreach since his days as White House counsel, used the Constitution as a doormat when he ushered FBI agents into Jefferson's office. The investigation of Jefferson, a Tom DeLay-sleazy member of the House who conveniently for the ever-political Gonzales happens to be a Democrat, had already yielded more than enough evidence of wrongdoing. The raid was, as George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley described it: a "gratuitous insult" motivated not by necessity but by "raw arrogance."

The raid was, as well, what former Reagan Justice Department aide Bruce Fein said it to be during the Judiciary Committee hearing: "Unconstitutional."

The whole concept of a separation of powers between equal branches of government demands that Congress respond aggressively and appropriately to the raid – not in defense of William Jefferson, but in defense of the principle that the executive branch does not have the authority to send its foot soldiers into the offices of the legislative branch.

If the precedent of the raid on Jefferson's office stands, this administration – which has already signaled its intention to track down and prosecute whistleblowers and others who might dissent from its imperial impulses – will not stop in the office of one ethically-challenged congressman from Louisiana. And future administrations will retain, rather than return, the powers that have been seized.

When he denounced the raid at the hearing, Texas Republican Louie Gohmert said, with rather more flourish than has come to be expected from a member of this Congress: "I'm not defending any Jefferson except for Thomas Jefferson."

The fact is that Thomas Jefferson would have approved Issa's resort to talk of impeachment, the Constitutional remedy that the founders intended to be used to maintain the integrity of the federal government, especially at times when the executive branch began to mirror the regal excesses of the monarchy they had so recently been discarded.

To be sure, it was a bit absurd for Issa and other Republicans to be calling the administration to account on this particular abuse when there are so many others worthy of impeachment. As Maryland Democrat Chris Van Hollen reminded the committee on Tuesday, it is possible to point to a "number of examples of overreaching by the executive branch where there's been a total lack of oversight by this Congress: the torture memorandum, detainees, enemy combatants, signing statements, domestic surveillance, data-mining operations."

Fein, the former Reagan Justice Department official, echoed Van Hollen, suggesting to the committee that the raid on Jefferson's office was merely "an additional instrument of the Bush administration to cow Congress" – in keeping with what he described as the administration's regularly expressed "claim of inherent presidential authority to flout any statute that [the chief executive] thinks impedes his ability to gather foreign intelligence, whether opening mail, conducting electronic surveillance, breaking and entering, or committing torture."

Add to that bill of particulars clear evidence that the president, the vice president and administration aides employed deceit and chicanery to organize the invasion and occupation of two foreign countries without a Declaration of War – or a plan – and the outline for articles of impeachment begins to take shape.

But let us not get ahead of ourselves here. Most members of Congress are only beginning to recognize their oversight responsibilities – and the awesome powers that go with them.

As Gohmert of Texas told the committee: "I've been so much more concerned about the judiciary overreaching in power, and I really had not looked at the executive." Only since it was recently revealed that the president has ordered a massive program to monitor and review the phone calls made by Americans on American soil – what the congressman referred to as the "phone logs and things" – has he "become more concerned."

Yes, of course, that's an embarrassing admission for a member of the Judiciary Committee to make. But at least Gohmert and other Republicans are expressing concern. And, at long last, a Republican member of Congress has dared to suggest that a member of a lawless Republican administration might rightly be the subject of impeachment.

That is a small measure of progress. But it is progress that the founders would have celebrated and encouraged. Indeed, as George Mason reminded the Constitutional Convention 219 years ago this summer: "No point is of more importance than that the right of impeachment should be continued."

The New Cheerleader

The favorite spin of the Bush administration and its amen corner in the media in recent weeks has been the line that: Aside from quagmire in Iraq, things are going great -- especially with the economy.

Apart from the fact that Iraq is a mighty big "aside," the whole pitch about how "the economy is going gangbusters" is a ridiculous simplification of circumstances that are far more complicated and far less positive than the White House would have Americans believe.

As part of the administration's campaign to convince the American people that don't know how good they have it, the president announced last week that, "America's economy is on the fast track."

That was an echo of recent comments from the man they call "Bush's Brain," Karl Rove, who has emerged as spin-doctor-in-chief for the administration's "It's the economy, stupid!" argument. ``The president's tax cuts, trade liberalization and spending restraint helped strengthen the economy's foundation and added fuel to our economic recovery,'' Rove declared in a recent speech. ``Not a bad record!''

Actually, the record is pretty bad. That's why Treasury Secretary John Snow is exiting.

The fine hands of Rove and new White House chief of staff Josh Bolten -- who shares the White House political czar's faith in the "big-lie" brand of politics -- are exceptionally evident in the administration's latest attempt to spin its way out of the approval-rating ditch in which the president has been sinking in recent months.

The abrupt conclusion of the long political death watch for Snow is a merely the lastest of many desperation moves for an administration that is longer on wishful thinking that actual accomplishments.

Snow, who campaigned harder and more visibly for the president's reelection than any other Cabinet member, has been on the way out almost since Bush's second term began. Why? The American people have not for some time been of the impression that the president and his aides are doing enough to "strength the economy's foundations." A Gallup Poll of 1,002 Americans, conducted May 8-11, found that that they were growing ever more ill-at-ease with the state of the economy. Seventy percent of those surveyed said the economy was in poor or only fair condition; that was up from 63 percent a month earlier.

Administration insiders are now trying to sell the line that the president's pick to replace Snow, Goldman Sachs Group CEO Henry Paulson, will be a better cheerleader. With Paulson, a Bush campaign fund-raising "pioneer," selling the White House's economic "success story," the line goes, the president's fortunes are sure to rise.

It's a bad bet.

Americans understand that Cabinet members don't quit when things are going great; and, certainly, treasury secretaries are not elbowed out of their positions when the economy is going gangbusters.

The fact is that Paulson's an able man, as was Snow, as was Snow's predecessor, Paul O'Neill. But it is absurd to think that this wizard of Wall Street will be able to relieve fears that the economy is headed in an unsettling direction.

Those fears are grounded in the reality that even those sectors of the economy that experienced the growth spurt so loudly trumpeted by Bush and Rove are now showing signs of a slowdown.

And much of the economy never really got going in the first place.

The "success story" the administration has been trying so hard to sell was always uneven -- benefiting some regions and industries far more than others. For instance, workers in the auto manufacturing and auto parts sectors are not enjoying their rides on the "fast track" as some of the biggest names of those industries spiral downward into bankruptcy or painful cycles of plant closings and "restructuring."

For Americans who are paying attention -- and the polls suggest that a lot of them are -- there is the even more troubling reality that the United States has in recent years been living far beyond her means.

The U.S. trade deficit is at a record level, as this country imports far more than it exports month after month. Federal deficits and debts are skyrocketing. Microsoft Corp. chairman Bill Gates regularly warns that the widening U.S. budget and trade deficits are undermining the dollar, saying in one recent interview, ``It is a bit scary. We're in uncharted territory when the world's reserve currency has so much outstanding debt.'' Investment guru Warren Buffett has been warning for the past several years that "unless we have a major change in trade policies," the U.S. economy is going to take a hit.But, of course, Bush is not betting on a change in trade policies. Nor is he embracing fiscal responsibility when it comes to federal budgeting.

All he is doing is hiring a new cheerleader. And cheerleading is not going to relieve the anxiety of Americans who are paying $3 a gallon for gas, facing the end of a period of artrificially-low interest rates and relatively easy money, trying to keep track of plant-closing notices, fretting about whether their pensions will survive the next corporate restructuring, and coming to recognize that record-high trade deficits and mounting federal debts are nothing to celebrate.

A Time to Mourn

The wisdom of wars can be debated on any day, and this column has not hesitated to question the thinking -- or, to be more precise, the lack of thinking -- that has led the United States to the current quagmire in Iraq.

But on Memorial Day, it is well to pause from the debate to remember those whose lives have been lost, not merely to the fool's mission of the contemporary moment but to all those battles – noble and ignoble – that have claimed the sons and daughters of this and every land.

After the bloodiest and most divisive of America's wars, the poet Walt Whitman offered a dirge for two soldiers of the opposing armies -- Civil War veterans, buried side by side. His poem is an apt reminder that, when the fighting is done, those who warred against one another often find themselves in the same place. It is appropriate that we should garland each grave, understanding on this day above all others that wars are conceived by presidents and prime ministers, not soldiers.

It is appropriate, as well, and perhaps a bit soothing, to recall Whitman's wise words:

The last sunbeam

Lightly falls from the finish'd Sabbath,

On the pavement here, and there beyond it is looking,

Down a new-made double grave.

.

Lo, the moon ascending,

Up from the east the silvery round moon,

Beautiful over the house-tops, ghastly, phantom moon,

Immense and silent moon.

.

I see a sad procession,

And I hear the sound of coming full-key'd bugles,

All the channels of the city streets they are flooding,

As with voices and with tears.

.

I hear the great drums pounding,

And the small drums steady whirring

And every blow of the great convulsive drums,

Strikes me through and through.

.

For the son is brought with the father,

(In the foremost ranks of the fierce assault they fell,

Two veterans son and father dropt together,

And the double grave awaits them.)

.

And nearer blow the bugles,

And the drums strike more convulsive,

And the daylight o'er the pavement quite has faded,

And the strong dead-march enwraps me.

.

In the eastern sky up-buoying,

The sorrowful vast phantom moves illumin'd,

('Tis some mother's large transparent face,

In heaven brighter growing.)

.

O strong dead-march you please me!

O moon immense with your silvery face you soothe me!

O my soldiers twain! O my veterans passing to burial!

What I have I also give you.

.

The moon gives you light,

And the bugles and the drums give you music,

And my heart, O my soldiers, my veterans,

My heart gives you love.

Ken Lay--Guilty. George Bush--Guilty.

The man who paid many of the biggest bills for George Bush's political ascent, Enron founder Kenneth Lay, has been found guilty of conspiracy and fraud almost five years after his dirty dealings created the greatest corporate scandal in what will be remembered as an era of corporate crime.

On the sixth day of deliberations following the conclusion of a long-delayed federal trial, a Houston jury found Lay guilty on six counts of fraud and conspiracy. In a separate decision, US District Judge Sim Lake ruled that Lay was guilty of four counts of fraud and making false statements.

The same jury that convicted Lay found Enron's former chief executive, Jeffrey Skilling, guilty on 19 counts of fraud, conspiracy, making false statements and engaging in insider trading.

Lay, who President Bush affectionately referred to as "Kenny-boy" when the two forged an alliance in the 1990s to advance Bush's political ambitions and Lay's business prospects, contributed $122,500 to Bush's gubernatorial campaigns in Texas. Lay would later explain to a PBS "Frontline" interviewer that, though he had worked closely with former Texas Governor Ann Richards, the Democrat incumbent who Bush challenged in 1994, he backed the Republican because "I was very close to George W."

Needless to say, once Bush became governor, Lay got his phone calls returned. A report issued by Public Citizen in February, 2001, months before the Enron scandal broke, identified Lay as "a long-time Bush family friend and an architect of Bush's policies on electricity deregulation, taxes and tort reform while Bush was Texas governor."

No wonder Lay had Enron give $50,000 to pay for Bush's second inaugural party in Austin in 1999 -- a showcase event that was organized by Karl Rove and others to help the Texas governor step onto the national political stage.

After Bush gave Enron exactly what it wanted in 1999, by signing legislation that deregulated the state's electrical markets, Lay knew he had found his candidate for president.

When Bush opened his campaign, Lay opened the cash spigots.

As a "Bush Pioneer" in the run-up to the 2000 presidential election, Lay was a key member of the Bush campaign's fund-raising inner circle.Under Lay's leadership, Enron ultimately gave Bush $550,025, making the corporation the Texan's No. 1 career patron at the time the 2000 election campaign began, according to the Center for Public Integrity. Lay personally pumped almost $400,000 into Republican hard- and soft-money funds, while Enron slipped another $1.5 million into the GOP's soft-money cesspool.

But that was just the beginning. Lay sent a letter to Enron executives urging them to contribute to Bush's campaign. More than 100 of them -- including Skilling, a major Bush giver since 1993, when he cut his first $5,000 check to GW's gubernatorial campaign -- did just that. Dozens of spouses wrote, including "homemaker" and frequent $10,000 donor Linda Lay, gave as well, making the Enron "family" a prime source of the money that gave Bush his early advantage over Republican rivals such as Arizona Senator John McCain.

All told, it is estimated that, over the years prior the company's bankruptcy, Lay, his company and its employees contributed close to $2 million to fund George W. Bush's political rise.

Lay found other ways to help, as well. He put Enron's corporate jets at the disposal of the Bush campaign in 2000. He kicked in $5,000 to pay for the Florida recount fight, while a top Enron "consultant," former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, ran the Republican's recount effort. He even paid for his own bookkeeping, chipping in $1,000 to help the Bush-Cheney campaign comply with campaign-finance laws. And Lay and Enron gave $300,000 to underwrite the Bush-Cheney inauguration festivities in 2001.

Did all that giving pay off? You bet!

Lay cashed in even before Bush was sworn in as president, entering into the inner circles of the new administration and using the access he had paid for to craft its agenda on the issues that mattered most to Enron.

Bush took good care of his contributor-in-chief, appointing the Enron founder as one of five members of the elite "Energy Department Transition Team," which set the stage for the Vice President Dick Cheney's energy task force and administration policies designed to benefit corporations such as Enron. A report on "Bush Administration Contacts with Enron," compiled at the request of Congressman Henry Waxman, D-California, by the minority staff of the Special Investigations Division of the House Committee on Government Reform, U.S. House of Representatives, found evidence of at least 112 contacts between Enron and White House or other Administration officials during the month prior to the corporation's very-public collapse in late 2001. At least 40 of those contacts involved top White House officials, including Vice President Dick Cheney, presidential advisor Karl Rove, White House economic advisor Lawrence Lindsey, White House personnel director Clay Johnson III, and White House energy task force director Andrew D. Lundquist.

As Waxman explained in a 2001 interview, "The fact of the matter is that Enron and Ken Lay, who was the Chief Executive Officer of Enron, had an extraordinary amount of influence and access to the Bush Administration. Lay was called a close friend by both the President and the Vice President. When the Vice President chaired an Energy Task Force, Ken Lay had an opportunity to meet privately with the Vice President and to have a great deal of influence in their recommendations."

Bush and his aides have worked hard since the Enron scandal broke to suggest that Lay was just another generous Texan. But the attempts to deny linkages to the now-convicted corporate criminal never cut water with Lone Star-state watchdog Craig McDonald, the director of Texans for Public Justice.

"President Bush's explanation of his relationship with Enron is at best a half truth," McDonald said after Bush first tried to distance himself from Lay and other Enron executives. "He was in bed with Enron before he ever held a political office."

As governor and president, Bush maintained that intimate relationship.

Now that his strange bedmate have been convicted of fraud, isn't it time for the president to end the fraud of claiming that he was ever anything less than a political partner of Lay and the Enron team?

Hayden Hijinks

If there actually was an opposition party in Washington, the nomination of Air Force General Michael Hayden to serve as director of the Central Intelligence Agency would have been doomed from the start.

Hayden's involvement as head of the National Security Agency with the illegal warrantless wiretapping program initiated by the Bush administration, his role in the secret accumulation of the phone records of tens of millions of Americans for surveillance purposes, his unapologetic rejection of the rule of law and his limited acquaintance with the Constitution would surely have stalled his nomination. And the fact that a member of the military should not head the civilian intelligence agency that is charged with provided unbiased information to elected officials – as opposed to the Pentagon line – would have finished Hayden off.

In the face of a united Democratic opposition, a sufficient number of Senate Republicans, ill at ease with the administration's reckless approach and increasingly concerned about the damage President Bush and his aides are doing to their party's credibility and political prospects, would have abandoned Hayden.

Unfortunately, there is no opposition party in Washington.

There is, instead, a Democratic Party that, when push comes to shove regularly allows itself to be shoved.

So it come as little surprise that Hayden's nomination has sailed through the Senate, winning approval Friday by a 78-15 vote. Most Democrats, including Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, joined the vast majority of Republicans in rubberstamping George W. Bush's poke-in-the-eye pick to head the CIA.

The die was cast when the Hayden nomination was considered by the Senate Intelligence Committee. Four Democrats who should know better – California's Dianne Feinstein, West Virginia's Jay Rockefeller, Michigan's Carl Levin and Maryland's Barbara Mikulski -- voted with the united Republican majority to approve the appointment. Then, the Senate Armed Committee casually voted to reappoint Hayden as a four-star general, a move that effectively signaled surrender in the debate over whether the CIA should be headed by a military man.

In this disappointing scenario, it should be noted that a handful of Democrats did attempt to check and balance a lawless president by refusing to support his equally lawless nominee. Voting against Hayden's nomination were Democrats Evan Bayh of Indiana, Maria Cantwell of Washington, Hillary Clinton of New York, Mark Dayton of Minnesota, Chris Dodd of Connecticut, Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, Dick Durbin and Barack Obama of Illinois, Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, Tom Harkin of Iowa, Ted Kennedy and John Kerry of Massachusetts, Bob Menendez of New Jersey and Ron Wyden of Oregon.

Intriguingly, the dissident Democrats were joined in their opposition to Hayden by Senate Judiciary Committee chair Arlen Specter, R-Pennsylvania, who has been increasingly restive regarding the administration's assault on basic freedoms.

Predictably, the Senate's most diligent critic of the administration's reckless disregard for the rule of law was the most outspoken objector to Hayden's nomination.

"I voted against the nomination of General Michael Hayden to be Director of the CIA because I am not convinced that the nominee respects the rule of law and Congress's oversight responsibilities," explained Wisconsin Democrat Russ Feingold, who bluntly declared that, "as Director of the NSA, General Hayden directed an illegal program that put Americans on American soil under surveillance without the legally required approval of a judge."

"Our country needs a CIA Director who is committed to fighting terrorism aggressively without breaking the law or infringing on the rights of Americans. General Hayden's role in implementing and publicly defending the warrantless surveillance program does not give me confidence that he is capable of fulfilling this important responsibility," explained Feingold, who cast one of the three dissenting votes when the Hayden nomination was considered by the intelligence committee.

Noting that Hayden had failed in his testimony before the Intelligence Committee to express any reservations about the administration past misdeeds, that the general had evidenced little respect for congressional oversight and that he gave misleading testimony to the Intelligence Committee in 2002, Feingold concluded that, "The stakes are high. Al Qaeda and its affiliates seek to destroy us. We must fight back and we must join this fight together, as a nation. But when Administration officials ignore the law and ignore the other branches of government, it distracts us from fighting our enemies. I am disappointed that the President decided to make such a controversial nomination at this time. While I defer to Presidents in considering nominations to positions in the executive branch, I cannot vote for a nominee whose conduct raises such troubling questions about his adherence to the rule of law."

If there actually was an opposition party in Washington, Feingold's position would be its official stance. Instead, the man who has fought a lonely battle to censure the president for initiating and maintaining an illegal domestic surveillance program, is still dismissed by most of his fellow Democrats as too aggressive, too principled, too committed to the Constitution. So it goes, as the majority of Feingold's Democratic colleagues continue to promote the nominations and the policies of a failed president who polls tell us now has the approval of less than one-third of Americans.

House Vote Harms Palestine, Israel, US

Jimmy Carter has been blunt: Despite the fact of a Palestinian election result that was not to their liking, the former president says, "it is unconscionable for Israel, the United States and others under their influence to continue punishing the innocent and already persecuted people of Palestine."

Since the political wing of the militant group Hamas swept parliamentary elections in Palestine, the U.S. and Israel have been trying to use economic pressure to force a change of course. Disregarding the democracy that President Bush says he wants to promote in the Middle East, the U.S. has sanctioned policies that have fostered chaos on the Gaza Strip and the West Bank and created increasingly harsh conditions for people who have known more than their share of suffering.

"Innocent Palestinian people are being treated like animals, with the presumption that they are guilty of some crime," argues Carter, a Nobel Peace Prize winner whose involvement in the Middle East peace process has extended across three decades. "Because they voted for candidates who are members of Hamas, the United States government has become the driving force behind an apparently effective scheme of depriving the general public of income, access to the outside world and the necessities of life."

Instead of checking and balancing the president's misguided approach to an election result that displeased him, Congress has added fuel to the fire.

By a lopsided vote of 361 to 37, the House voted Tuesday for the so-called "Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act," a measure so draconian that even the Bush administration has opposed it.

The legislation, which still must be reconciled with a similar measure passed by the Senate, would cut off all assistance to the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority, and place conditions on humanitarian assistance delivered directly to the Palestinians by non-government organizations. Presidential spokesman Tony Snow, in restating the White House's opposition to the measure says that it "unnecessarily constrains" the flow of essential assistance – food, fresh water, medicine – in a manner that does, indeed, "tie the president's hand" when it comes to providing humanitarian aid.

It also has the potential to encourage, rather than restrain, violence.

Representative Earl Blumenauer, an Oregon Democrat who was one of the few members of the House to argue against the legislation, correctly explained that the approach endorsed by most of his colleagues will strengthen the hand of Palestinian extremists.

"It does little to prioritize on the basis of our strategic interests, and provides no prospect for Palestinian reform coming through the process of negotiations," Blumenauer said of the legislation. "In so doing, it weakens the hands of those who advocate for peace negotiations, and supports those extremists who believe in violence."

Debra DeLee, President and CEO of Americans for Peace Now, which works closely with Israeli groups seeking a peaceful settlement of tensions with the Palestinians, calls the bill "an exercise in overreaching that will undercut American national security needs, Israeli interests, and hope for the Palestinian people, if it's ever signed into law."

"We urged the House to craft legislation that was focused and flexible enough to allow the U.S. to respond to Hamas' election victory in a firm, yet responsible, manner," explained a frustrated DeLee. "But by failing to provide the president with a real national security waiver, by failing to include a sunset clause for draconian performance requirements that will stay on the books regardless of who is running the Palestinian Authority, and by failing to distinguish between Hamas and Palestinians who support a two-state solution, the supporters of this bill have missed that opportunity for now."

Despite its dramatic flaws, the bill drew bipartisan support, with House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Illinois, and Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California, lining up their respective caucuses behind it.

Of the 37 "no" votes, 31 came from Democrats, including senior members such as Michigan's John Conyers and John Dingell, Californians George Miller and Pete Stark and Wisconsin's David Obey. Ohio's Dennis Kucinich, a contender for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination, also opposed the measure, as did California's Barbara Lee, a co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus

The six Republican "no" votes came from Maryland's Wayne Gilchrest, North Carolina's Walter Jones, Arizona's Jim Kolbe, Illinois' Ray LaHood and Texans Ron Paul and Mac Thornberry.

As is frequently the case on votes involving Israel and Palestine, dozens of members did not participate. Nine House members, all of them Democrats, voted "present" Tuesday. Twenty-five members, eleven of them Democrats, fourteen of them Republicans, registered no vote.

Americans for Peace Now's DeLee says that, as the House and Senate seek to reconcile differing bills, her group will continue to work to alter the legislation so that it will not encourage extremism or worsen a humanitarian crisis. But there is no question that the task has been made more difficult by the overwhelming House vote in favor of this misguided measure.

Checks, Balances & an FBI Raid on Congress

No one seriously believes that William Jefferson is going to survive the political train wreck he has made of his congressional career. Even the notoriously forgiving voters of New Orleans – who just reelected gaffe-prone Mayor Ray Nagin – are not going to be comfortable with a congressman who hid $90,000 in cash in his refrigerator and got caught on an FBI tape talking about taking bribes.

The question now is whether the system of checks and balances established by the founders in 1787 will be another victim of the train wreck.

When Federal Bureau of Investigation agents raided Jefferson's suite of offices in the Rayburn House Office Building, they committed an act unheard of even in the darkest days of the Republic. On orders from the executive branch, federal agents entered the office of a member of the legislative branch and spent hours going through that office and removing materials they deemed necessary to an investigation.

Even House Speaker Dennis Hastert, the Illinois Republican who has been no great friend of the Constitution, awakened from the comatose state that has usually characterized his response to White House assaults on the system of checks and balances.

Hastert boldly defended the founding document and the Congress he is charged with maintaining as a separate and equal branch of government. The Speaker reportedly telling the president that the raid on Jefferson's office was a direct violation of the Constitution – in general, of the principle of separation of powers, and in particular of the protections afforded the legislative branch by the "Speech and Debate" clause of the Constitution.

In a lengthy statement of concern, Hastert argued that, "The actions of the Justice Department in seeking and executing this warrant raise important Constitutional issues that go well beyond the specifics of this case. Insofar as I am aware, since the founding of our Republic 219 years ago, the Justice Department has never found it necessary to do what it did Saturday night, crossing this Separation of Powers line, in order to successfully prosecute corruption by Members of Congress. Nothing I have learned in the last 48 hours leads me to believe that there was any necessity to change the precedent established over those 219 years."

Is this just a tempest in Teapot Dome that is our corrupt Capitol? No. Not even the most Constitutionally-abusive administrations dared go so far as to raid congressional offices. It is true that John Adams, in his push to narrowly define the Constitution at the outset of the American experiment, did jail a congressional critic, Vermont Representative Matthew Lyon, for suggesting that the second president had displayed "a continual grasp for power [and] unbounded thirst for ridiculous pomp, foolish adulation and selfish avarice." But Adams, who would be voted out of office for his disregard Constitution, never dared dispatch armed officers to the Capitol.

Stung by the criticism of its overreach, the Bush administration has scrambled to suggest that what is at issue is merely the wrongdoing of one congressman. But they conveniently neglect to address the precedent that will be established if Congress fails to challenge the White House and the Department of Justice.

If this was just about Jefferson, the raid would not have stirred an outcry. Every indication is that the Louisianan congressman has betrayed his oath of office and abused the privileges of his position in ways that would make Tom DeLay blush.

But this is not just about Jefferson, who would be in plenty of trouble even without whatever information might have been garnered from the raid on his office. Remember, the FBI has the congressman on tape making classically incriminating comments.

This is about an executive branch that has already pushed the limits of its power on issues ranging from invading and occupying countries without a declaration of war to spying on Americans without a warrant and is now undermining whatever remains of the Constitutionally-mandated separation of powers between the White House and the Congress.

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, the former White House counsel who never encountered a law he wasn't willing to break in order to extend the powers of the president he has served far more diligently than he has ever served his country, can described the search as "a unique step in response to a unique set of circumstances."

With all due respect to Gonzales, the attorney general has a troubling track record of repeatedly responding to "unique sets of circumstances" in a manner that shreds the Constitution. And he has surely done so in this case.

Instead of working with congressional authorities, Gonzales got a judge to authorize the raid and, for the first time in the American history sending agents of the executive branch into action against a member of the legislative branch.

To their credit, Republican leaders of the House have reacted with appropriate fury.

Speculating about "whether people at the Justice Department have looked at the Constitution" lately, House Majority Leader Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, declared that "Congress will clearly speak to the issue of the Justice Department invasion of the legislative branch."In explaining the character of that defense, Boehner said, "I've got to believe at the end of the day it's going to end up across the street at the Supreme Court. I don't see anything short of that."Hastert left no doubt that he saw the need to address the issues raised by the raid as essential to the maintenance of the provisions of the Constitution written to protect the independence of the Congress.

"The Founding Fathers were very careful to establish in the Constitution a Separation of Powers to protect Americans against the tyranny of any one branch of government. They were particularly concerned about limiting the power of the Executive Branch," explained the speaker. "Every Congressional Office contains certain Legislative Branch documents that are protected by the Constitution. This protection-as the Supreme Court has repeatedly held-is essential to guarantee the independence of the Legislative Branch. No matter how routine and non-controversial any individual Legislative Branch document might be, the principles of Separation of Powers, the independence of the Legislative Branch, and the protections afforded by the Speech or Debate clause of the Constitution must be respected in order to prevent overreaching and abuse of power by the Executive Branch."

Hastert needs to wage this battle. And he ought not be mocked for the seriousness with which he has approached it.

This is an essential fight over whether a president and his minions can do as they please. To be sure, in this dark interregnum, it is not the only fight, as has been well noted by Senator Russ Feingold, D-Wisconsin, Congressman Maurice Hinchey, D-New York, and others in their struggle to hold this administration to account for its illegal domestic surveillance program. But if the legislative branch does not push back at the point when agents of the executive branch are raiding the offices of congressmen without the ascent of the Congress, then surely there is no chance that the separation of powers protection will be asserted with regard to the many other Constitutional abuses committed by this administration.

William Jefferson, D-Wall Street

Nancy Pelosi has shown little interest in holding George Bush to account, as evidenced by House Minority Leader's determination to distance herself from discussions of censuring – let alone impeaching – the president for the high crimes and misdemeanors that have characterized his tenure.

So it not all that surprising that Pelosi, despite her promise to "clean up" Congressional corruption, has been slow to demand genuine accountability from a member of the House Democratic Caucus. The minority leader has backed an ethics committee inquiry into charges against Congressman William Jefferson, D-Louisiana, the "star" of a Federal Bureau of Investigation tape in which what sounds like a bribe of $100,000 is accepted. But she so far has refrained from suggesting the obvious: that it is time for the severely scandal-plagued Jefferson to resign.

Let's be clear, if Tom DeLay needed to go, so does Bill Jefferson.

What makes Pelosi's refusal to cut Jefferson loose so disappointing is the fact that Democrats owes the congressan from New Orleans no loyalty. Indeed, if ever there was a member of Congress who merited abandonment by his party, official censure and a hasty exit from the legislative branch, it is William Jefferson.

Putting aside the bribery probe, Jefferson has a horrific record of breaking with his Democratic colleagues to sell out his constituents, his country and the poorest people in the world. He may be a Democrat, but on the issues that really matter Jefferson has served the Bush administration and Wall Street more diligently than a number of Republicans.

Jefferson's has been one of the steadiest Democratic votes for the president's foreign policy agenda. The Louisianan voted to authorize Bush to use force against Iraq, consistently supports emergency "supplemental" spending to maintain the occupation of that country, and favors deployment of the "Star Wars" Strategic Defense Initiative. He voted for the USA Patriot Act when it was rushed through Congress in 2001, and was a big backer of Vice President Cheney's national energy policy. And, though his record on social issues is mixed, Jefferson has on a number of occasions cast his lot with the White House and its social-conservative allies to help enact restrictions on abortion, school prayer initiatives and a Constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.

But Jefferson's deepest loyalty is not to the Bush administration. Rather, it is to big business. In a Congress where there are plenty of Democrats who are friendly to the legislative agenda of corporate America, Jefferson is devoted to it. This Democrat puts more than a few responsible Republicans to shame when it comes to doing the bidding of Wall Street.

After a key export tax break for U.S. manufacturers was identified as an illegal trade subsidy by the World Trade Organization, Jefferson and most -- though not all -- House Republicans voted to provide $140 billion in new corporate tax cuts for impacted businesses. He has voted again and again for bankruptcy law "reforms" that favor the interests of banks and credit card companies over those of working families. And he is the king of the dwindling circle of free-trade Democrats.

Jefferson was not just one of "The CAFTA 15" – the group of Democrats who cast critical votes to save the Central American Free Trade Agreement after the administration was abandoned by 27 Republicans when the agreement came up for House approval in July, 2005 -- he was the chief Democratic cheerleader for that bad deal. When the corporate-funded Democratic Leadership Council sponsored a pro-CAFTA teleconference before the vote, there was Jefferson proclaiming: "I'm supporting CAFTA because I believe it's in the best interests of our country."

The Louisiana Democrat, who is a senior member of the House Ways and Means Committee's powerful subcommittee on Trade, did similar service during debates over trade deals with Chile, Singapore and Australia. And he was an essential Democratic supporter of normalizing trade relations with China in 2000, arguably the most devastating trade deal since the North American Free Trade Agreement of six years earlier, which Jefferson also backed.

But Jefferson's most unsettling advocacy on behalf of corporate-friendly trade agreements that have undermined job security and wages, environmental protection and human rights in the U.S. and abroad came in 1998, when the congressman was an outspoken advocate for the African Growth and Opportunity Act. AGOA, as that deal was known, was dubbed "NAFTA for Africa" by the business press. Condemned by South African President Nelson Mandela and Africa trade unions that saw it as a move to make it even easier for multinational corporations to exploit the continent's workers and resources, AGOA was described by a leading foe, Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr., D-Illinois, as the "Africa Recolonization Act."

During the House debate on the issue, Jackson pointed out that, "The AGOA extends short-lived trade "benefits" for the nations of sub-Sahara Africa. In exchange for these crumbs from globalization's table, the African nations must pay a huge price: adherence to economic policies that serve the interests of foreign creditors, multinational corporations and financial speculators at the expense of the majority of Africans."

The Illinois Democrat asked, "Whose interests will the AGOA advance? Look at the coalition promoting it -- a corporate who's who of oil giants, banking and insurance interests, as well as apparel firms seeking one more place to locate their low-paying sweatshops. Some of these corporations are already infamous in Africa for their disregard for the environment and human rights."

The coalition promoting African Growth and Opportunity Act was able to counter the criticisms from Mandela, Jackson and others by highlighting the enthusiastic support for the deal by a prominent member of the Congressional Black Caucus. That member, William Jefferson, gleefully declared that, "Africa is a reservoir of opportunities for American businesses."

(Among the bribes Jefferson is alleged to have accepted are more than $400,000 in payments to help telecommunications firms do business in Nigeria and other West African nations.)

The split in the black caucus back in 1998 helped secure passage of AGOA in a form that was much worse than might have been the case if Jefferson and others had echoed the honest concerns expressed by Jackson.

No wonder that, in his latest campaign finance filing, Jefferson reported that almost 79 percent of the political action committee contributions to his reelection campaign -- $340,912 -- came from business interests, while just 19 percent came from organized labor.

Even in his campaign coffers, William Jefferson has the profile of a Republican – and an unsavory Republican at that.

"An Affront to the Constitution"

It's an election year, so, quick, let's amend the Constitution.

Absurd as it sounds, that is the thinking of the Senate Republican leadership, which is rushing to draft, debate and endorse a whole new section of the Constitution by the week of June 5.

Why the hurry to tinker with the 219-year-old document?

Poll numbers for Congressional Republicans are in a bad place, so bad that there is serious talk about the prospect that the party could lose the House or Senate, or perhaps both chambers, in November. And the approval ratings for President Bush, the party's campaigner-in-chief, are trolling in Nixon-during-Watergate depths that suggest he may not be able to rally the conservative base as he did so effectively in 2002 and 2004.

Hence the hurry to dig up the next big-bang issue for the GOP.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tennessee, thinks he has struck political paydirt. He wants to amend the Constitution to declare that, along with freedom of speech, assembly and worship, Americans also have the right to discriminate against gays and lesbians. Frist wants the Constitution to declare not just that "Marriage in the United States shall consist only of the union of a man and a woman" but that "Neither this Constitution, nor the constitution of any State, shall be construed to require that marriage or the legal incidents thereof be conferred upon any union other than the union of a man and a woman."

So much for state's rights. And you can forget about that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness business.

The Grand Old Party's in trouble, so someone is going to have to pay, and in this case it's same-sex couples who dare to fall in love and then seek the same basic protections for their relationships that everyone else expects.

The rush to amend the Constitution in time to bring the marriage debate front and center for the fall campaign – now that the immigration issue has blown up on the party – had Senate Republicans so preoccupied Thursday that they bent the rules to the breaking point.

Senate Judiciary Committee chair Arlen Specter, R-Pennsylvania, scheduled the session where the committee voted 10-8 to approve the amendment in a room where access by the press and the general public was restricted. When Senator Russ Feingold, the Wisconsin Democrat who ardently opposes the amendment, suggested that perhaps the work of amending the Constitution ought to be conducted in a more open manner, Specter growled, I don't need to be lectured by you. You are no more a protector of the Constitution than am I."

For good measure, the chairman added, "If you want to leave, good riddance."

Feingold thanked the senior Republican for the lecture and departed, explaining that, "Today's markup of the constitutional amendment concerning marriage, in a small room off the Senate floor with only a handful of people other than Senators and their staffs present, was an affront to the Constitution. I objected to its consideration in such an inappropriate setting and refused to help make a quorum. I am deeply disappointed that the Chairman of the Judiciary Committee went forward with the markup over my objection. Unfortunately, the Majority Leader has set a politically motivated schedule for floor consideration of this measure that the Chairman felt compelled to follow, even though he says he opposes the amendment."

Feingold added, "Constitutional amendments deserve the most careful and deliberate consideration of any matter that comes before the Senate. In addition to hearings and a subcommittee markup, such a measure should be considered by the Judiciary Committee in the light of day, open to the press and the public, with cameras present so that the whole country can see what is done. Open and deliberate debate on such an important matter cannot take place in a setting such as the one chosen by the Chairman of the Committee today.

"The Constitution of the United States is an historic guarantee of individual freedom. It has served as a beacon of hope, an example to people around the world who yearn to be free and to live their lives without government interference in their most basic human decisions. I took an oath when I joined this body to support and defend the Constitution. I will continue to fight this mean-spirited, divisive, poorly drafted, and misguided amendment when it comes to the Senate floor."

Pelosi's Stumble

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California, inspired a lot of enthusiasm among progressives when she moved into a leadership position among Congressional Democrats three years ago. She was a solid liberal who had voted against authorizing President Bush to attack Iraq in 2002 and seemed to get the point that Democrats needed to become an opposition party. As minority leader, however, she's stumbled repeatedly on the issues and generally failed to function as a leader.

Pelosi is personally progressive on many issues. But she has not done much to develop a progressive image -- or message -- for Congressional Democrats. Rather, she has embraced the same caution that has undermined the party's appeal in the past two election cycles.

Pelosi was all over the place with regard to Representative John Murtha's call the development of an Iraq exit strategy. Even now, she's sort of for the Pennsylvania Democrat's proposal, but she's not moving the caucus in a coherent direction with regard to the war in particular or foreign policy in general.

And just watch Pelosi scramble away from discussions about presidential accountability because of her misread of public sentiment regarding censure and impeachment initiatives and you can tell that she is still buying into the discredited theory that Democrats will achieve meaningful power without standing for much of anything.

Sure, Bush's poll numbers are poor, and more than a few House Republicans are being fitted for prison uniforms. But if Pelosi thinks that the GOP grip on the House is going to be released without a fight, she is headed for a November result that parallels those of 2002 and 2004.

While many national Democrats continue to see something of value in Pelosi's leadership, her hometown paper, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, has lost faith.

The Guardian, one of the most progressive of the country's alternative weekly newspapers, issued it influential endorsements for California's June 6 primaries this week.

The widely-circulated paper gave warm endorsements to a number of House Democrats seeking reelection in Bay Area districts -- including Barbara Lee, Lynn Woolsey and Pete Stark, all outspoken foes of the war and cosponsors of John Conyers' bill seeking to establish a select committee to make recommendations regarding impeachment. [Nine members of the California delegation are cosponsors of the Conyers resolution, but Pelosi has gone out of her way to distance herself from the proposal.]

The minority leader did not get any support, however.

Even though Pelosi does not face a primary challenge, the Bay Guardian's editors pointedly refused to endorse the minority leader.

Here's what they wrote:

Congress, District 8

Democrat

NO ENDORSEMENT

If the Democrats retake the House, Rep. Nancy Pelosi will almost certainly become the first female Speaker, and that's something noteworthy. (And she'd be a far better Speaker than the incumbent.) Pelosi, however, has tried so hard to promote her own career that she's ignored her constituents and become too much of a moderate Democrat, late in opposing the war, weak on same-sex marriage, and obsessed with raising money. She's also responsible for privatizing the Presidio. Whatever happens this year, she needs a challenger next time around.

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