Quantcast

John Nichols | The Nation

  •  
John Nichols

John Nichols

Breaking news and analysis of politics, the economy and activism.

Lebanon In Crisis; Bush, Most Democrats In Denial

A little more than a week of Israeli bombing and American neglect has created a humanitarian crisis in Lebanon. In a country that just months ago was being written up in travel magazines as one of the world's next great tourist destinations, and where a fragile democracy was beginning finally to define itself as something real, hundreds of civilians now lay dead; thousands have been injured; airports, ports, bridges and roads have been destroyed; and an estimated 500,000 men, women and children have been forced to flee their homes.

Officials of the International Committee of the Red Cross say they are "extremely concerned" that the situation in Lebanon is degenerating into chaos and dysfunction.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, is expressing horror at what is becoming of Lebanon.

"The distress felt at the destruction not only of life but also the infrastructure so painstakingly rebuilt after years of conflict will, I know, be acute and reinforce the sense of helplessness at being caught up in a wider regional struggle," writes the archbishop in a letter to Lebanese churches. "My condemnation of this resort to violence is unequivocal."

Unfortunately, neither the International Committee of the Red Cross, nor the Archbishop of Canterbury, nor the Israeli anti-war community, which rallied several thousand critics of Prime Minister Ehud Ohlmert's policies in Tel Aviv last Sunday, has sufficient international presence or authority to demand a halt to the destruction of Lebanon and of northern Israel – where the rockets of Hezbollah, which has so cynically and successfully provoked Israel, have killed civilians and done lesser but not insignificant damage to infrastructure.

President Bush, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other U.S. leaders who have that presence and authority have chosen a hands-off approach that effectively encourages the expansion of violence in the region. Their neglect of the crisis is the foreign-policy equivalent of the White House's initial response to the Katrina catastrophe of last year in New Orleans. By failing to move quickly or responsibly, they make a bad situation worse.

Most Congressional Democrats have been the president's willing accomplices in this neglect of duty. But a handful of House members, led by Ohio Democrat Dennis Kucinich, have stepped up. A House resolution, sponsored by Kucinich and cosponsored by close to two dozen other representatives urges "the President to appeal to all sides in the current crisis in the Middle East for an immediate cessation of violence and to commit the United States diplomats to multi-party negotiations with no preconditions."

"The continuing violence in the Middle East is spiraling out of control and is on the verge of being full-out regional war in which there will be no winners," says Kucinich. "The US has a moral obligation to become immediately engaged and to try to seek a peaceful resolution to the situation. This Administration must seek an immediate cease-fire and return all sides to the negotiating table."

"The region urgently needs diplomatic assistance," the congressman adds. "The only way the US can reclaim its role, as a mediator is to speak and act like a mediator. Unfortunately, the Administration is making statements that only will contribute to escalation."

Kucinich is right. This is a testing time for members of Congress. Those who join Kucinich in calling for action to ease the conflict will be remembered as leaders – and as the true friends of Lebanon, Israel, Palestine and a battered peace process. Those who fail to do so will deserve to be remembered – and vilified -- for their failure to act when a humanitarian crisis unfolded before the eyes of the world.

Republicans Reject Ralph Reed's Hypocrisy

For those who still claim that the Jack Abramoff scandal will not "play" politically, the Republican voters of Georgia beg to differ.

Christian right leader Ralph Reed's plan to begin his climb of the American political ladder as lieutenant governor of Georgia was thwarted in Tuesday's Republican primary.

Links to convicted influence-peddler Abramoff did Reed in.

Horrified by the hypocrisy of Reed, who parlayed his association with the Christian Coalition into a lucrative political consulting gig that saw him wrapping a "moral values" cloak around the lobbyist's sleaziest clients, Georgia Republicans gave the nomination for the state's No. 2 job to Casey Cagle, a state senator who shared Reed's conservatism but not his crookedness.

With most of the votes counted, Cagle was ahead by a solid 56-44 margin.

Reed had entered the race as the clear frontrunner. His years of close association with the Christian Coalition and other religious right groups had earned him a reputation as a virtuous Republican – a reputation he hoped to ride into the lieutenant governorship, the governorship and the Republican nomination for president in 2012 or 2016.

But Reed didn't count on the lobbying career of Jack Abramoff -- his buddy from College Republican days – blowing up into one of the seediest political scandals in decades. Nor did he think that his emails to Abramoff – including one in which "Mr. Moral Values" declared, ``I need to start humping in corporate accounts. I'm counting on you to help me with some contacts." – would be made public.

Abramoff did, indeed, help Reed get the big accounts. And Reed returned the favor, aiding Abramoff by exploiting his reputation as Christian conservative to help the lobbyist defend casino gambling interests and corporations exploiting sweatshop labor.

All the sordid details came out during a primary campaign capped by the announcement that a Texas Indian tribe had filed a civil fraud lawsuit against Reed and others, claiming that Reed conspired with Abramoff to shut down the tribe's casino while hiding the fact that they were in the pay of another tribe and competing casinos.

Cagle did not hesitate to exploit those details. One television ad from the Cagle campaign detailed Reed's involvement with Abramoff's efforts to prevent passage of federal legislation that would have extended labor-law protections to women and children working in garment factories in the Mariana Islands, a U.S. territory in the Pacific. "Reed worked with Abramoff to deny women and children legal protection from sweat shops in the Mariana Islands, a U.S. territory -- even though our government warned that women on the Islands were subjected to forced abortions and children were coerced into prostitution," the ad charged. As the words "Forced Abortions" and "Prostitution" flashed on the screen, and announcer declared: "Ralph Reed, his values are for sale."

Cagle ads, with their emphasis on the delicious irony of Reed's flexible morality, propelled the little-known state senator into a victory few would have imagined possible at the start of the campaign.

They also made Reed the first prominent political victim of the Abramoff scandal.

Reeds political ambitions are now on hold, perhaps permanently.

But the man who led the Christian Coalition and then went on to promote casino gambling and sweatshops is not without accomplishment. While he is certainly not without competition for the title, Ralph Reed is, arguably, the most prominent hypocrite in America.

Ralph Reed Runs For President, er, Lt. Governor

Tuesday's primary election in Georgia will decide whether former Christian Coalition commander Ralph Reed has fooled enough home-state Republicans to win the party's nomination for lieutenant governor.

Reed, who made millions of dollars exploiting his reputation as "Mr. Moral Values" to help GOP influence peddler Jack Abramoff defend casino gambling interests and corporations exploiting sweatshop labor, is so compromised that some Democrats hope he wins the nomination, since they think they can beat him in November. The Democratic desire to run against Reed in November was heightened by the primary-eve announcement that a Texas Indian tribe had filed a civil fraud lawsuit against Reed and others, claiming that Reed conspired with Abramoff to shut down the tribe's casino while hiding the fact that they were in the pay of another tribe and competing casinos.

But, as Atlanta's smart alternative weekly newspaper, Creative Loafing, noted in its endorsement of Reed's primary rival, state Senator Casey Cagle: "Careful what you wish for."

It is not just Georgians who should be worried about this race.

With all the flack he's taking, the politically-savvy Reed would have backed out of this race if he was just running for the not-particularly-exciting office of lieutenant governor. He would not have risked the defeat that polls suggest could be handed him by Cagle.

But Reed is not just running for lieutenant governor.

Tuesday's primary is the first step on a campaign trail that the hyper-ambitious candidate hopes will take him to the governorship of Georgia in four years and then to a presidential run in 2012 or 2016.

Reed's betting that, if he can overcome all the talk about his Abramoff ties now, he'll be able to put the scandal behind him by the time he enters the national spotlight.

A crazy notion? Hardly. Republican strategists generally agree that, if Reed wins the primary and prevails in November, he will instantaneously emerge as the most prominent Christian conservative politician in the country. Based on his track record, Reed will parlay that prominence into a fund-raising campaign that will fill his campaign treasury with more than enough money to advance his state and national ambitions.

If Reed takes the governorship in four years, as a slew of Georgia lieutenant governors have in the past and as pundits suggests is certainly within the realm of possibility, he will be positioned to begin making the moves that are necessary to launch the presidential bid that has always been the end goal of the man who built the Christian Coalition from the remnants of Pat Robertson's failed 1988 campaign for the Republican nomination.

That's why Reed is running so hard this week. The critical first rung on the ladder of electoral politics he has been preparing to climb for more than two decades is within reach. The only question is whether Georgia Republicans will overlook his scandalous behavior and help him grasp it.

Friends Don't Let Friends Ruin Lebanon

Congressional "Friends of Israel" are busy making noises about the "need" for the United States to provide that Middle Eastern land with full support as it assaults its neighbors.

But no genuine friend of Israel can be happy with what is being done in that country's name by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his misguided followers.

Israel's attack on Lebanon, which has already killed and wounded hundreds and destroyed much of that fragile democracy's infrastructure--including airports, seaports, bridges and roads--has done nothing to make Israel safer or more secure from threats posed by the militant Islamic organization Hezbollah. Indeed, the terrorist group's attacks on targets in northern Israel have become more brazen--and deadly--since Israel began striking Lebanon.

No serious participant in the contemporary discourse would deny that Israel has a right to protect itself. But no one in their right mind thinks Israel is going about the mission in a smart manner.

As Henry Siegman, the former head of the American Jewish Congress explains, "In Lebanon as in Gaza, it is not Israel's right to protect its civilian population from terrorist aggression that is at issue. It is the way Israel goes about exercising that right."

"Despite bitter lessons from the past, Israel's political and military leaders remain addicted to the notion that, whatever they have a right to do, they have a right to overdo, to the point where they lose what international support they had when they began their retaliatory measures," adds Seigman. "Israel's response to the terrorist assault in Gaza and the outrageous and unprovoked Hizbollah assault across its northern border in Lebanon, far from providing protection to its citizens, may well further undermine their security by destabilizing the wider region."

Seigman's right. Israel's assault on Lebanon won't bring stability to the Middle East. Instead, it makes a bad situation worse.

Unfortunately, President Bush has chosen to direct his anger over the crisis toward Syria, a largely disempowered player, and Iran, an increasingly powerful player but not one that listens to the U.S. By failing to express blunt concern about Israel's over-the-top response to a genuine problem, Bush has encouraged Olmert to continue on a course that has already proven devastating for Lebanon and that, ultimately, will threaten Israel's stability.

Bush should start listening to wise voices from Israel, voices that are saying Olmert is wrong.

Both Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Public Security Minister Avi Dichter opposed last week's bombings of Hezbollah headquarters and other facilities in Beirut, a move by Olmert and his allies that dramatically increased tensions and violence.

In the Israeli Knesset there is a good deal of opposition to the current strategy.

Writing in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, former Israeli Cabinet member Yossi Sarid, a well-regarded veteran of the Israeli Defense Forces, argues that Israel -- and the United States -- need to recognize that they are going about things the wrong way. Instead of destroying the economic and physical infrastructure of Lebanon and Palestine, Sarid argues that efforts must be made to improve economies and opportunities for those who now see violence as the only way to demand fairness and opportunity.

"Iraq is destroyed, Afghanistan is destroyed, the Gaza Strip is destroyed and soon Beirut will be destroyed for the umpteenth time, and hundreds of billions of dollars are being invested solely in the vain war against the side that always loses and therefore has nothing more to lose. And hundreds of billions more go down the tubes of corruption," wrote Sarid.

"Maybe the time has come to put the pistol into safety mode for a moment, back into the holster, and at high noon declare a worldwide Marshall Plan, so that the eternal losers will finally have something to lose," Sarid added. "Only then will it be possible to isolate the viruses of violence and terrorism, for which quiet is quagmire and which in our eyes are themselves quagmire. And once isolated, it will be possible to eradicate them one day."

The Last of the "Sewer Socialists"

"There is always a charge that socialism does not fit human nature. We've encountered that for a long time. Maybe that's true. But can't people be educated? Can't people learn to cooperate with each other? Surely that must be our goal, because the alternative is redolent with war and poverty and all the ills of the world."

-- Frank Zeidler

.

One of my favorite political artifacts is a "Frank Zeidler for President" campaign pin.

Zeidler, an old-school American socialist who served three terms as the mayor of Milwaukee from 1948 to 1960, and who died last Friday at age 93, never got very far as a presidential candidate. In fact, like so many of the great civic gestures he engaged in over nearly eight decades of activism, Zeidler's 1976 campaign for the nation's top job was more about "keeping the red flag flying" than actually winning.

In 1976, when the Socialist Party of Eugene Victor Debs and Norman Thomas was struggling to get its bearings after a series of internal struggles, splits and resignations, Zeidler presented himself as its standard-bearer. Campaigning on a platform that promised a shift of national priorities from bloated defense spending to fighting poverty, rebuilding cities and creating a national health care program, Zeidler won only a portion of the respect that was due this kind and decent man and the values to which he has devoted a lifetime.

The Socialist ticket won only 6,038 votes in 1976 4,298 of them from Wisconsin, where Zeidler retained a substantial personal following. Despite the paucity of support, Zeidler's candidacy renewed interest in a great old political party, which once was a key player in the politics of his native state of Wisconsin and, to a lesser extent, of the nation.

Had Zeidler been born in another land -- perhaps Germany, where the roots of his family tree were firmly planted -- his national campaign at the head of the ticket of the Socialist Party would have been a much bigger deal. Indeed, he might well have been elected.

After all, in most of the world, the social-democratic values that Zeidler has advanced throughout his long life hold great sway. Latin America has been experiencing a revival of socialist fervor in recent years. And virtually every European country has elected a socialist government in the past decade. Indeed, the current leaders of Spain, Italy and Britain head political parties that are associated with the Socialist International, of which Zeidler's Socialist Party is a U.S. affiliate.

Yet, outside of Milwaukee, New York City, Reading, Pennsylvania, and a few other outposts, America never took to socialism with the same energy that Europe and much of the rest of the world did. And by the time of his death, even Zeidler, the last Socialist Party activist to lead a major city in the U.S., was deemed worthy of only a wire-service "brief" in the obituary section of the New York Times.

So my "Zeidler for President" pin, presented to me by the candidate himself, is more a rare artifact than a record of consequential electioneering.

Like the man whose name it heralds, the pin is a reminder of a politics of principle that has mostly existed on the periphery of postwar America's stilted economic and political discourse.

Beyond the borders of the United States, Zeidler's contribution -- a humane, duty-driven, economically responsible version of socialism that is reflective of the man as much as the philosophy -- has always been better recognized by foreigners than by Americans.

Zeidler was the repository of a Milwaukee Socialist tradition with German radical roots and a record of accomplishment -- grand parks along that city's lakefront, nationally recognized public health programs, pioneering open housing initiatives, and an unrivaled reputation for clean government -- that to his death filled the circumspect former mayor with an uncharacteristic measure of pride.

With its emphasis on providing quality services, the politics that Zeidler practiced was sometimes referred to as "sewer socialism." But, to the mayor, it was much more than that. The Milwaukee Socialists, who governed the city for much of the 20th century, led a remarkably successful experiment in human nature rooted in their faith that cooperation could deliver more than competition.

"Socialism as we attempted to practice it here believes that people working together for a common good can produce a greater benefit both for society and for the individual than can a society in which everyone is shrewdly seeking their own self-interest," Zeidler told me in an interview several years ago. "And I think our record remains one of many more successes than failures."

On a Friday afternoon in the spring of 1999, the contribution that Zeidler made to Milwaukee and to the world was honored by people who well understood the significance of what this American socialist did and what he continued to do as someone whose activism slowed only slightly as he passed through his 80s and into his 90s.

At a gathering at the main branch of the Milwaukee Public Library, a favorite haunt of the man who as mayor battled to expand it, the Friedrich Ebert Foundation recognized Zeidler for his many years of public service and his unique contributions to the socialist cause.

Based in Bonn, Germany, the foundation was established in 1925 as a political legacy of Friedrich Ebert, Germany's first democratically elected president. A socialist, Ebert became president of a devastated Germany in the years after World War I, and he struggled to rebuild it as a free and responsible nation.

Banned by the Nazis in 1933, the Friedrich Ebert Foundation began its work anew in 1947 and today operates educational programs and other activities in more than 100 countries. It awards thousands of scholarships in Germany and around the world and maintains an internationally recognized library on the history of labor.

Dieter Dettke, executive director of the foundation's Washington office, came to Milwaukee to present Frank Zeidler with a bound volume of German constitutions -- a text that the former mayor, whose facility with languages was one of his many political assets, could read without the assistance of a translator.

American politics being what they are, Zeidler was never accorded the full measure of honor due him in his own land. But the rest of the world will continue to take inspiration from the recollection of the white-haired Milwaukee socialist whose faith in the possibility of a better world withstood the batterings of depression, war, McCarthyism, the Cold War, and the Nixon, Reagan and Bush eras,

"The concept that motivates us is a community good as opposed to the concept of an individual pursuing their own self-interest and that somehow the public good comes out of that," Zeidler told me not long before his death, still raising the red flag he carried across the 20th century and into the 21st. "Our concept is that a pursuit of the good of the whole produces the best condition for the good of the individual."

Joe Lieberman's Connecticut Problem

What was the "soundbite line" from the press conference where Senator Joe Lieberman announced that he may cut and run to an "unaffiliated" ballot line if Connecticut Democrats don't renominate him in August? That's easy:

"I have loyalties that are greater than those to my party."

That is an honorable-sounding line.

But to whom are the 2000 Democratic vice presidential nominee's loyalties directed?

That, of course, is the senator's problem.

Were Lieberman merely a predictable centrist Democrat, willing to mumble mild criticisms of the Bush administration's foreign policies but unwilling to make a serious break with the administration, he would not be worrying about the increasingly-viable Democratic primary challenge he faces from anti-war progressive Ned Lamont.

But Lieberman is not a predictable centrist. He is an in-the-pocket Bush man -- at least as far as the war in Iraq goes.

Lieberman called for war with Iraq before Bush did -- in a 2001 letter to the president that was also signed by Arizona Senator John McCain -- and he has been such an enthusiastic booster of the occupation that Bush actually kissed the Connecticut senator at the 2005 State of the Union.

Nothing, not realities on the ground in Iraq, nor realities on the ground in Connecticut, has caused Lieberman's loyalties to waver.

Principled? Perhaps.

But it is possible to be principled and wrong. And, in the case of both Lieberman and Bush, it is certainly possible to mistake principle for a stubborn refusal to admit fundamental errors.

Whatever the explanation for the Connecticut senator's "my-president-right-or-wrong" positioning, one thing remains certain: Lieberman's principles are, indeed, Bush's.

Last month, Lieberman cast an expected vote against the proposal by Wisconsin Democrat Russ Feingold and Massachusetts Democrat John Kerry to get U.S. troops out of Iraq by next year. But he also went a long step further, refusing to support a vaguely-worded proposal by Rhode Island Democrat Jack Reed and Michigan Democrat Carl Levin that urged the Bush administration to start thinking about an exit strategy.

That stance isolated Lieberman in a group of Democratic senators, mostly from Republican-leaning states, who refuse to put an inch of distance between themselves and George Bush's warmaking. (Even Hillary Clinton -- no war critic she -- voted for the Levin-Reed resolution, as did plenty of other centrist Dems.)

But Lieberman's not from a Republican-leaning state. In fact, a June Survey USA poll found that Connecticut was the sixth most anti-Bush state in the nation -- after Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New York and New Jersey.

Only 30 percent of Connecticut voters surveyed last month approved of the president's performance.

Few states register higher anti-war sentiment than does Connecticut, and the distaste for the occupation extends far beyond the Democratic base to include independents and quite a few Republicans.

Some pundits still suggest that, running as an independent in November, Lieberman might prevail against Democratic-nominee Lamont and Republican Alan Schlesinger. They believe, as Lieberman has suggested, that the senator's problem is merely with the Democratic partisans who will turn out for the August 8 primary.

But if Lamont, who has turned out to be a much more attractive and effective candidate than even his proponents in the blogosphere initially expected, beats Lieberman in August he might well beat him again in November.

Indeed, if Ned Lamont runs against Bush and Lieberman, he will be a lot closer to the Connecticut mainstream than the incumbent.

Jefferson’s 4th of July

On the eve of the 50th anniversary of the approval and signing of theDeclaration of Independence, the document's author was an 83-year-old formergovernor, vice president and president. Yet, what Thomas Jefferson was mostknown for in 1826 was his role in crafting the founding vision of the UnitedStates.

This was the recognition that Jefferson welcomed. Indeed, when he diedon that 50th anniversary, he was buried on the grounds of his Monticelloestate beneath a stone that made no mention of the political offices he hadheld. Rather, it read:

HERE WAS BURIED THOMAS JEFFERSON

AUTHOR OF THE DECLARATION OF AMERICAN INDEPENDENCE

OF THE STATUTE OF VIRGINIA FOR RELIGIOUS FREEDOM

AND FATHER OF THE UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA

Jefferson has little faith in presidents and their Cabinets. He was no greatfan of the Congress.

What he believed in were the ideals of the America experiment. He was proudto have shaped the documents that defined those ideals. And he wanted hislegacy to be that not of a holder of office, but of a champion of therevolutionary promise of liberation from the tyranny of warrior kings andtheir oppressions.

Today, there are those who attempt to remake Jefferson and the otherfounders as religious zealots, as essentially conservative men who happenedto have a slight squabble with King George III, or, worst of all, asimperialists who would want the United States to dominate the affairs ofother lands.

The founders were imperfect men, to be sure. Few were so radical, or sofar ahead of their times, as Tom Paine, the wisest of their number. But theywere, proudly and unquestionably, revolutionaries against the old order ofinherited monarchy, state churches, empires and the authority of the fewover the fate of the many.

We know this to be true of Jefferson because, as July 4, 1826, approached,he was invited to appear in Washington for a celebration of the Declarationof Independence. Age and infirmity prevented Jefferson from attending theevent, but he sent a message – his last political statement – which read:

May (July 4) be to the world, what I believe it will be -- to some partssooner, to others later, but finally to all -- the signal of arousing men toburst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition hadpersuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and securityof self-government. That form (of government) which we have substituted,restores the free right to the unbounded exercise of reason and freedom ofopinion. All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man. The generalspread of the light of science has already laid open to every view thepalpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles ontheir backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride themlegitimately, by the grace of God. These are grounds of hope for others. Forourselves, let the annual return of this day forever refresh ourrecollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them.

On this Fourth of July, we Americans would do well to embrace Jefferson's last words and the Americanideals that, though battered by the current tyranny, will outlast the KingGeorge of the moment.

Democracy Demands Freedom of Information

Forty years ago this week, on July 4, 1966, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Freedom of Information Act.

The choice of July 4 for the signing ceremony was no coincidence.

The signing of the Freedom of Information Act represented the realization of the promise of self governance that may have been born on July 4, 1776, butthat was never fully realized until 190 years later.

Why is the Freedom of Information Act such a big deal?

Because, as James Madison, the father of the Constitution, explained, ""Apopular Government without popular information or the means of acquiring it,is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy or perhaps both. Knowledge willforever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own Governors,must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives."

Until the enactment of the Freedom of Information Act, Americans were deniedaccess to information that should rightfully have been available to them,and without which they could not be their own governors. As John Moss, thecrusading California congressman who secured its passage, frequently noted,the Freedom of Information Act was the first law in the long history of theRepublic that gave Americans the right to access the records of federalagencies that are funded with their tax dollars and that are, supposedly, attheir service.

That is a right that, Moss argued, was every bit as essential to realizingthe full potential of America democracy as the protections contained in theBill of Rights. And, of course, he was correct. What good is freedom ofspeech if that speech is not informed by knowledge of what the government isdoing in our name but without our informed consent? What good is freedom ofthe press if reporters are unable to find out what government agencies areup to?

The American people well recognize the value of the Freedom of InformationAct. Millions of citizens have made FOIA requests over the past fourdecades.

Unfortunately, the hyper-sensitive and hyper-secretive Bush administrationis now at war with the Freedom of Information Act -- just as the New York Times-bashing president and his allies are battling Freedom of the Press.

In the first year of hispresidency, Bush's then attorney general, John Ashcroft, dispatched a memoto federal agencies that told their administrators to use delaying tacticsto thwart the intent of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Ashcroft'sorder directed federal agencies to stall the release of requestedinformation until the completion of a painstakingly slow "full anddeliberate consideration" of the implications of releasing any particulardocument.The response by federal agencies to FOIA requests slowed to a crawl,creating an outcry that finally led Bush to issue an order last year thatappeared to endorse the values contained in the Freedom of Information Act.In fact, that was not the case.

While Bush's language seemed to support openness – "Agencies shall processrequests under the FOIA in an efficient and appropriate manner and achievetangible, measurable improvements in FOIA processing" – his order wasactually a vague statement that was issued not to get agencies jumping onFOIA requests but to head off Congressional action on the bipartisan OpenGovernment Act.

Written to strengthen the Freedom of Information Act, the Open GovernmentAct seeks to end stonewalling by establishing a deadline – 20 days after thefiling of an FOIA request -- by which agencies must respond.

It's a timely and necessary reform.

Yet, at this point, both the House and Senate versions of the OpenGovernment Act are languishing in the Judiciary Committees of the respectivechambers.

If Americans want on this 4th of July Holiday to honor the democratic values that arethis country's greatest strength, perhaps of the best way to do so is bymaking a resolution to contact our representatives in the House and Senateand tell them to support the Open Government Act. This enactment of thissimple reform will renew the promise not just of the Freedom of InformationAct but of the Declaration of Independence and the American experiment.

House Tally: Tyranny 227, Freedom 183

There is no small measure of irony in the fact that the final vote by the U.S. House of Representatives before leaving for an extended Fourth of July break involved a basic question of American freedom – and there is no small measure of tragedy in the fact that the majority of House members took a position closer to that of King George III than the American revolutions who will be celebrated next Tuesday.

The question so basic that it should not have produced a division at all: Should the United States have a free press that challenges and exposes government wrongdoing, or should the United States have a subservient press that "cooperates" with government to report the "news" in a manner that pleases those in power?

Yet, in a flurry of last-minute procedural votes on House resolutions rebuking the news media for reporting leaks about Bush administration schemes to spy on Americans produced a variety of results, the Congress consistently came down on the side of a subservient press that performs stenography to power.

The final measure of authoritarian sentiment came in the vote Thursday evening on the measure introduced by Ohio Republican Mike Oxley: House Resolution 896. And the result was even worse than on some of the earlier votes: Only 183 of the House's 435 members voted to uphold the Constitution.

The Oxley resolution, written as part of the Bush administration's push to punish the New York Times for reporting on a secret program that monitors millions of bank transfers was fairly draconian in its language – despite the efforts of some House Republicans to temper their caucus' vitriolic response to recent leaks and news stories about Bush-backed domestic and international spying programs.

Among other things, it declares that the House "expects the cooperation of all news media organizations" in keeping secret spying programs that the Bush administration claims are part of a war on terrorism but that could easily be used to invade the privacy of Americans.

No member of Congress who took seriously his or her oath to "defend the constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic" could vote for legislation that is so clearly at odds with the Freedom of the Press protections contained in the First Amendment to that document, and with the clear intention of founders such as Thomas Jefferson, who famously declared, "were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.

Yet, the final tally on the Oxley resolution was 227 in favor, 183 against.

The party breakdown was murkier than on some of the earlier votes, which pretty much divided along partisan lines.

Two hundred and ten Republicans endorsed the "expects the cooperation of all news media organizations" language, as did 17 Democrats.

The anti-First Amendment Democrats were John Barrow of Georgia, Melissa Bean of Illinois, Dan Boren of Oklahoma, Leonard Boswell of Iowa, Henry Cuellar of Texas, Pete DeFazio of Oregon, Chet Edwards of Texas, Bart Gordon of Tennessee, Brian Higgins of New York, Jim Marshall of Georgia, Jim Matheson of Utah, Charles Melancon of Louisiana, Collin Peterson of Minnesota, Mike Ross of Arkansas, John Salazar of Colorado, Ike Skelton of Missouri and Gene Taylor of Mississippi.

The 183 voted for a free press came from 174 Democrats, 8 Republicans and Vermont Independent Bernie Sanders.

The pro-First Amendment Republicans were Roscoe Bartlett of Maryland, Scott Garrett of New Jersey, Walter Jones of North Carolina, Donald Manzullo of Illinois, Butch Otter of Idaho, Ron Paul of Texas, Chris Shays of Connecticut and Jim Walsh of New York.

Through the various procedural votes, Shays was the most consistent backer of Freedom of the Press. But all the Republicans who voted against the resolution deserve praise. They provided a faint signal that there is still bipartisan support for the First Amendment in Congress – even if that there was not enough of it to carry the day for the Constitution.

Reform DeLayed

O.K., so can we just admit that when it comes to redistricting – the processby which politicians define the legislative branch of the federal government– there are few if any limits on partisan power grabs?

That certainly seems to be the signal from the U.S. Supreme Court, which hasruled that disgraced former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and his henchmenin the Texas legislature were fully within their rights to radically alterthe maps of the state's U.S. House districts in order to solidify Republicancontrol of the U.S. House of Representatives.

The redistricting of congressional districts – a process traditionallycarried out once every ten years by state legislators, who are supposed touse fresh Census data to assure that all of state's districts have similarpopulations – is the single most powerful tool by which the make up of theU.S. House of Representatives is determined. By gerrymandering districts togive advantages to incumbents from one party or another, legislators haveover the years made most House elections irrelevant. Even a well-fundedchallenger with the issues on his or her side cannot upset an incumbent whohas been given a district with favorable lines. As a result, in any givenelection year, only a few dozen of the nation's 435 House districts seecompetitive contests.

As bad as the circumstance was, in 2003, DeLay made things dramaticallyworse. After using his national contacts to raise the money to putRepublicans in charge of the state legislature in 2002, he had his allies inAustin radically redraw the state's congressional map with the expresspurpose of defeating Democratic incumbents and electing more Republicans.

It worked. Republicans picked up six Texas congressional seats in 2004.

Democrats challenged the redistricting, but the court's ruling has placed astamp of approval on DeLay's map – with one minor objection – and assuredthat the gains Republican gains engineered by DeLay will be retained.

But the importance of the 7-2 Supreme Court decision issued Wednesday goes far beyond Texas.

Three dangerous precedents have been set:

• The court has stated that the map DeLay's produced did not represent an"unconstitutional political gerrymander" of the state's district lines.Since it would be difficult to imagine a more politically-motivated map, thecourt has effectively said that partisans can draw maps that suit theirpolitical purposes without fear of intervention or objection by the courts.While some analysts interpret a line from a previous court ruling assuggesting that critics of a redistricting map could come up with a"reliable standard" for challenging a map, if such a standard could not beapplied to the DeLay map it is hard to say where it would ever be viable.

• The court has upheld the right of states to change their congressionaldistrict boundaries more frequently than once every ten years -- followingthe completion of a U.S. Census. – which is the traditional standard. Whatthis means is that, when control of a state legislature shifts, so too couldthe state's congressional district lines.

• The court has held that there is "nothing inherently suspect about alegislature's decision to replace mid-decade a court-ordered plan with oneof its own." Thus, court-ordered plans – which are usually the fairest tovoters, in that they tend to set up more competitive districts – can bereplaced by legislators who don't like them. This is a hugely significantdevelopment, in that it effectively removes the fall-back position that goodgovernment groups have used when challenging legislative gerrymandering.Foes of a particular map might get it thrown out by the courts, and theymight even get a panel of judges to draw a new map, but there is no longerany certainty that the new map will stand.

The court did rule that the lines of one Texas district will need to be redrawn because DeLay and his minions moved 100,000 Hispanic voters out of the southwest Texas 23rd District in order to protect a Republican incumbent, Henry Bonilla, politically. The court determined that move to undercut the influence of Hispanic voters was a violation of the Voting Rights Act. But, notably, the four most conservative justices on the court opposed even that determination.

Anyone who was looking to the Supreme Court to clean up the redistricting process and to provide for competitive elections is making a mistake. As Rob Richie, executive director of the Center for Voting and Democracy says, "If we're really concerned about fair elections, we have stop counting on the courts and start looking for political solutions."

In the short-term, Richie says, Congress should set national standards for redistricting. "Congress could establish standards for transparency -- sunshine-on-the-process standards that could be defined so that redistricting can't be done behind closed doors. A second step could be to set guidelines for when you can and cannot do redistricting. That would address some of the concerns about the court's ruling."

In the long-term, Richie says that reformers should begin pushing from a proportional representation system that might see three members of Congress elected from larger, more competitive districts using an instant-runoff voting model.

"If you are concerned about what the court ruling has done, there are immediate steps that can be taken," says Richie. "But what we need to do is dig in to really reform how elections for Congress are conducted."

Syndicate content