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US Rep. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont Independent who has for years been one of the Congress' most consistent critic of corporate excess, is worried about the current controversy about corporate governance. Don't get Sanders wrong: He's delighted that revelations about wrongdoing by executives of Enron, Global Crossing, WorldCom and other corporations -- not to mention the whole Martha Stewart insider-trading scandal-- has forced everyone from President Bush to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-SD, to recognize that government must reassert itself as a regulator of business behavior.
The problem, says Sanders, is that, while today's corporations are just as bad as the trusts that needed busting at the start of the last century, Bush is no Teddy Roosevelt and Daschle is no William Jennings Bryan. Instead of real reform, Republican and Democratic leaders are proposing half-steps aimed at requiring accountants to produce better balance sheets. While Democrats and Republicans frequently stop Sanders in the halls of Congress these days to tell him they should have listened to his complaints about corporate misdeeds, most refuse to recognize that the corporate crisis is about a lot more than accounting.
"The American people have a much better understanding that members of the Bush administration or members of Congress that this is not just about a few bad rules or a few bad apples. This is about how corporations do business in America today, and about what members of Congress who take immense amounts of corporate money to finance their campaigns allow those corporations to get away with," says Sanders. "Sure, corporations and their accountants have taken advantage of loopholes and lax regulations to inflate their earnings statements, and sure they have used their campaign contributions to make sure that the loopholes stay open and that the regulators let them get away with murder. But if you close the loopholes and increase the level of oversight, that is not going to usher in a new era of corporate responsibility. If all that comes out of this are a few accounting reforms -- necessary as they may be -- most Americans are going to say, rightly, that the corporations were let off the hook again."
Sanders is frustrated with the refusal of top Congressional Democrats to show even the level of leadership that some Republicans have displayed. It is notable that, while Daschle has pulled the brakes on some reform proposals, Arizona Senator John McCain is busy denouncing "crony capitalism," calling for the resignation of Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Harvey Pitt, and saying, "A range of proposals to reform corporate governance and government oversight are now before Congress. Others will be considered in the weeks ahead. Many of their provisions are commendable. Some fall short of doing all that is necessary."
Sanders is not the only House member expressing frustration over the caution of some Democratic leaders. "The good news is that there is a ripening suspicion about corporate ties to the Bush administration. There is a growing sense that when George W. Bush proposes to allow more arsenic in the drinking water, it may have something to do with his relationship with his corporate campaign contributors. The field is fertile to really make a difference on a whole host of issues," says US Rep. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio. "The bad news is that not everyone on our side recognizes what a remarkable opening has been created in the past few weeks."
Sanders argues that the opening for reform could be as wide as members of Congress are willing to make it. Yes, the Vermont socialist says, corporations have used their lobbying muscle to warp accounting and corporate governance regulations. But if Democrats think those are the only places where corporations have overstepped their boundaries, they are destined to squander an opportunity to open a great debate about corporate influence over government. "These (corporate executives and their representatives) are the same people who lobbied against having corporations pay their fair share of taxes. These are the same people who have done everything in their power to reshape regulations so they can steal the money from employee pension plans. These are the same people who pressure Congress to grant them the ‘freedom' to close factories in America, send our jobs to China and then ship back products made using prison labor," says Sanders.
Democratic strategists say they want to make corporate abuses an issue in this fall's election. But that won't happen if the debate remains focused on accounting rules. "We have to broaden the debate," says Sanders. "We have to tie the debate into the trade issue. We have to tie the debate into the estate tax issue. We have to tie the debate into pension issues. What we should be saying is that this whole debate is about a culture of corporate greed that has wrecked our communities, robbed our retirees and lowered the standards for ethical business behavior to a level that disgusts average Americans."
Anyone searching for hypocrites on issues of prayer and patriotism would be well advised to begin the hunt on Capitol Hill.
On most days when Congress is in session, the overwhelming majority of members cannot be bothered to show up for the morning prayers and patriotic pronouncements that open the House and Senate. However, after a pair of senior jurists on the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals questioned the Constitutionality of laws requiring schools to organize recitations of the Pledge of Allegiance -- with its "one nation under God" line -- it became clear that political points could be scored with shows of national pride and piety. So Congress' sunshine patriots and preachers came rushing into the Capitol.
All but a handful of members of Senate crowded the Senate floor Thursday to listen to the usually neglected prayer and to join in a fumbling recitation of the Pledge. Over in the House chamber, members gathered to chant the Pledge -- with many shouting the phrase "under God!" The lawmakers gave themselves a two-minute standing ovation before breaking into an off-key rendering of the song "God Bless America."
This was all for show. The real action came in the form of votes on legislation condemning the appeals court ruling. The Senate voted 99-0 in favor of a long-winded resolution that started by recalling the embarkation of the Pilgrims and ended up by declaring, "The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals erroneously held, in Newdow v. U.S. Congress, (9th Cir. June 26, 2002) that the Pledge of Allegiance's use of the express religious reference `under God' violates the First Amendment to the Constitution, and that, therefore, a school district's policy and practice of teacher-led voluntary recitations of the Pledge of Allegiance is unconstitutional." Only ailing Senator Jesse Helms, R-North Carolina, missed the vote.
In the House, where the "emergency" legislation was introduced by Judiciary Committee chair F. James Sensenbrenner, Jr., a conservative Republican from Wisconsin, the vote was 416-3 in favor of a differently worded but similarly intended condemnation of the court's decision. (Ironically, the House bill, which was passed amid much over-the-top speechifying about the role of the Almightly in all things American, included the line: "Whereas the Pledge of Allegiance is not a prayer or a religious practice, the recitation of the pledge is not a religious exercise...")
The three House members who voted "no" were veteran California Democrat Fortney "Pete" Stark, five-term Virginia Democrat Bobby Scott and first-term California Democrat Mike Honda.
Stark, one of the most outspoken members of the House, was blunt about why he opposed the bill. "While I don't oppose anyone reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, I think it was wrong to add the words 'under God' to the original pledge in 1954," he said. "I believe the phrase does not accommodate the diversity of religious and personal beliefs in our nation as the Constitution requires." Like Scott, a member of the House Judiciary Committee who has in recent years emerged as one the House's most consistent defenders of civil liberties, Stark has frequently cast lonely votes against the Congressional consensus.
Honda, a freshman lawmaker, explained his opposition in terms of his concern for religious minorities and his sense that the "one nation under God" line makes a law mandating recitation of the Pledge an unconstitutional endorsement of religion. "Everyone should be able to practice their religion without a lot of interference from the state," explained Honda. "If it's patriotic, then we should be pledging allegiance just to our country. But our country is based on pluralism. It's based on freedom of religion and not having religion imposed on other folks."
Like Scott, an African-American who grew up in the segregated south, Honda's concern for protecting religious, racial and ethnic minorities is rooted in personal experience. A California native of Japanese-American descent, he spent some of his childhood in an internment camp in Colorado during World War II.
The eleven members of the House who voted "present" were all Democrats: Gary Ackerman (New York), Earl Blumenauer (Oregon), Michael Capuano (Massachusetts), Barney Frank (Massachusetts), Luis Gutierrez (Illinois), Alcee Hastings (Florida), Jim McDermott (Washington), Jerrold Nadler (New York), James Oberstar (Minnesota), Nydia Velazquez (New York) and Mel Watt (North Carolina). Nadler is the ranking Democrat on the House Judicary Committee's subcommittee on the Constitution. Frank and Watt also sit on that subcommittee.
It is not often that a Democratic primary for a US House seat representing rural Alabama is big news in the United States -- let alone abroad. But the defeat of US Rep. Earl Hilliard, D-Alabama, in Tuesday's primary election runoff made headlines around the world. While voters in Selma and Tuscaloosa may have thought they were simply choosing between an aging veteran of the civil rights movement and an energetic challenger born the same year that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, analysts around the world were reading the results for signals about the character and scope of the debate over US policy regarding the Middle East.
"Mideast Was Issue In Democratic Race," read the Washington Post headline. "Mideast Fires Up Alabama Runoff," declared the Washington Times. "Mideast Conflict Comes To 'Bama," reported CBS. A National Review editor went so far as to declare the primary contest "a sideline skirmish in the war on terror." Overseas, Al-Jazeera's website described "The Middle East Conflict in Alabama's Seventh." The mass-circulation Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz thought enough of the story of Hilliard's defeat to publish an analysis that cited the result as one explanation for why President Bush's recent stances regarding the Middle East peace process have been so sympathetic to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
"To understand the political background to Bush's speech, it's worth taking a look at the Web site of the US Federal Election Commission," noted an analysis by Akiva Eldar for Ha'aretz. "Look for contributors to Artur Davis, a black lawyer who won the Democratic primaries in the 7th Congressional District in Alabama on the day of the speech. Davis beat his rival, the 60-year-old, five-term Earl Hilliard, who is also black, by a 56-44 percent vote. Here are some of the names from the first pages of the list of his contributors: there were 10 Cohens from New York and New Jersey, but before one gets to the Cohens, there were Abrams, Ackerman, Adler, Amir, Asher, Baruch, Basok, Berger, Berman, Bergman, Bernstein and Blumenthal. All from the east coast, Chicago and Los Angeles. It's highly unlikely any of them have ever visited Alabama, let alone the 7th Congressional District.
"What do the Adlers and Bergmans have to do with an unknown lawyer running for a Congressional seat from Alabama. Why should Jews from all over the United States send hundreds of thousands of dollars to his campaign coffers, which reached $781,000 - compared to the $85,000 he had in his coffers the last time he ran, and lost? The answer can be found in the AIPAC index of pro-Israel congressmen. Hilliard, who once visited Libya, is paying (with) his Congressional seat for a number of votes the Jewish lobbyists didn't like. The most recent vote was when he did not vote with the overwhelming majority of congressmen who passed a resolution in support of Israel's war on terrorism. A little while later, his opponent, Davis, discovered that a shower of checks was pouring into his campaign chest. Most of the signatures on the checks had Jewish names. The message was clear -this is what happens to politicians who upset Israel's friends."
There is always a danger when analysts attempt to read political tea leaves from afar. But, in the case of the Hilliard-Davis runoff, it is fair to say that this remarkable race cast some doubt on Tip O'Neil's "all-politics-is-local" mantra. The twist is that the infusion of out-of-district money into Davis' campaign was not merely motivated by Mideast politics.
Let's start be recognizing that there is no question that Arthur Davis, the Harvard-educated lawyer whose 2000 primary challenge to Hilliard was a fund-raising and vote-getting failure, benefited tremendously from 2002's changed -- and charged -- debate over the US role in the Mideast.
Hilliard has long argued for a shift in US foreign policy that would make this country more friendly to the Arab world in general and the Palestinian cause in particular. In May, the congressman cast one of 21 votes opposing a House resolution expressing solidarity with Israel. Citing Hilliard's history of support for Palestinians, Davis went on the attack -- portraying the five-term congressman's vote on the Israel resolution, various other votes and a 1987 visit by Hilliard to Libya as evidence that the incumbent was "out of step" with the Bush administration's "war on terrorism." The issue does not appear to have had much traction in rural Alabama, where voters are occupied with the loss of family farms, crumbling schools and health care affordability. But it went over well on the out-of-state fund-raising circuit.
As he geared up for his challenge to Hilliard, Davis visited pro-Israel donors around the country with the message that their contributions could help him dispatch a critic of Israel from Congress. Davis even traveled to Washington to attend this year's American Israel Public Affairs Committee convention. By May 10, the Forward newspaper was reporting that, "The Democratic primary in Alabama's Seventh Congressional district is being closely watched by Israel's supporters, who view it as a chance to unseat an incumbent with ties to Arab countries and a spotty record of support for the Jewish state."
When Hilliard and Davis essentially tied in an early June primary, which forced the runoff, Arab-American groups began to raise money for the incumbent. But Davis had already emerged as the rare challenger with a financial advantage over a sitting member of the House. (The latest figures from the Center for Responsive Politics show that Davis raised $879,368 to Hilliard's $516,658.)
With Hilliard's defeat came broad speculation that pro-Israel donors would find in Hilliard's defeat an encouragement to target their contributions to defeat Congressional Black Caucus members who have been critical of Israel. Seventeen members of the Black Caucus failed to vote for the "Solidarity with Israel" resolution in the House. Among the "no" voters was US Rep. Cynthia McKinney, D-Georgia., who faces an August primary challenge from a retired judge who has been busily raising funds from contributors who object to McKinney's frequent criticism of US policy in the Mideast.
The Hilliard defeat and the upcoming challenge to McKinney have raised concerns among some members of the Congressional Black Caucus and the Arab-American community. Black Caucus members have already engaged in intense closed-door meetings with House Democratic leaders, Jewish Democrats in the House and AIPAC officials. "The fear is that this is not just about Earl Hilliard," says James Zogby, executive director of the Arab American Institute. "The fear is that this is about an effort to take out African-American members who have tried to adopt a balanced stance on these issues."
The tension resulting from the Hilliard defeat is real enough.But the full reality of what happened is more complex.
Hilliard was defeated by outside money. But it was not just "pro-Israel" or "Jewish" money that took him down. And it was not just spending by an opponent that led to the congressman's first defeat in a political career that stretched back to the mid-1970s.
To understand the full story of what happened to Hilliard, it is important to begin with the recognition that his stance on Mideast issues is a much bigger issue outside than inside Alabama. A far bigger issue at home was the reprimand Hilliard received in 2001 from the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct for alleged campaign finance abuses. Even supporters of the incumbent acknowledge that the incumbent went into the 2002 race looking more vulnerable than in the past. "Hilliard's troubles had to do with perceptions about his performance in office," explains David Bositis, the senior political analyst for the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, who is one of the country's ablest analyst of African-American politics. "Nobody was voting on the Middle East in Selma, Alabama."
But what about the money Davis raised from pro-Israel donors? "It certainly helped Davis to mount his campaign at the start. For a challenger, getting money early is hard -- and Davis had that," says Bositis. "In general, however, you have to remember that Davis was not just attractive to people who didn't like Hilliard's stance on the Mideast. He was more attractive to business people than Hilliard. For a lot of business interests, the issue is whether a candidate they like has a credible chance of winning. When Davis started to look strong, the money started flowing. It wasn't just the Jewish money. As the race started turning, the money began to flow in -- and a lot of it was business money coming from individuals and groups with no interest in Israel."
Industry groups, such as the National Association of Real Estate Investment Trusts, inked checks to Davis, as did big corporations, such as Viacom.
Why did business like Davis?
Bernadette Budde, a senior vice president of the Business-Industry Political Action Committee, was blunt. Business was not pleased with Hilliard's vote to protect the rights of workers, farmers and the environment in a rapidly globalizing economy.
Hilliard, one of the most progressive members of the House, has been a consistent critic of corporate excesses and a solid vote against free trade agreements that harm workers, farmers and the environment in the US and abroad. In the current fight over granting the White House permission to put negotiation of a sweeping Free Trade Agreement of the Americas on a "Fast Track" schedule that limits congressional input, Hilliard has been a solid "no" vote. That makes sense, as free trade agreements have done dramatic damage to the economic prospects of rural areas and mid-sized manufacturing districts like those of Alabama's Seventh District.
Davis, on the other hand, indicated during the campaign that he would be willing to support granting the Bush White House greater freedom to negotiate trade deals. That's what Budde wanted to hear. So her group inked a check for $1,000 to Davis' campaign -- and urged other business donors to do the same.
Notably, McKinney has also been one of the House's most consistent foes of the Bush administration's free-trade agenda. As her August primary nears, it is a safe bet that most media reports will try to spin her race as another "sideline skirmish in the war on terror." Rarer, no doubt, will be the reports of the "stealth campaign" of business interests seeking to buy a Congress that backs the corporate free trade agenda no matter what the cost to their home districts.
The Senate Ethics Committee has denied US Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wi., permission to join a lawsuit that asks the federal courts to clarify whether it was appropriate for President Bush to unilaterally end participation by the United States in the thirty-year-old Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.
But that does not mean that Feingold is giving up on the suit brought by 31 member of the House of Representatives, or the cause of pushing the Senate to assert its Constitutionally-defined authority role in deciding whether the US enters and exits international treaties.
"I wanted to be a part of the lawsuit because I think this is a fundamental issue for anyone who cares about the separation of powers. The fact that I am not going to be allowed to be a plaintiff does not make the lawsuit, or the issue, any less important," says Feingold, a lawyer who says he is considering filing an amicus brief in support of the legal action. "I am going to continue to do everything I can to help the members of Congress that are bringing the suit."
The Senate requires that members receive a Ethics Committee waiver from rules regulating gifts before accepting free legal assistance. Senators who are forced to defend themselves against lawsuits are routinely granted waivers. But committee staffers said the rules were read narrowly in regard to Feingold's request because he sought to become a plaintiff in a legal action.
Noting that the suit he sought to join raises an important Constitutional question, Feingold told The Nation, "I really was surprised that the waiver was denied in this case. It seems to me that this was a reasonable request for a waiver, which they should have granted."
The decision to prevent Feingold from joining the suit means that no senator is officially a party to the legal action. Since it is the Senate that approves treaties -- and that Thomas Jefferson and other founders of the nation said should decide when to exit treaties -- some legal observers say the suit's prospects will suffer because there is not a senator among the plaintiffs.
But Feingold says the suit remains vital and necessary.
"This is all very frustrating because none of this should be happening," the senator said of the conflict over the president's withdrawal from the ABM Treaty. "The White House shouldn't be undoing treaties without the permission of Congress. This is shifting a fundamental aspect of our system. If presidents are allowed to withdraw from treaties whenever they want, then we really are changing the relationship between the legislative and the executive branches. That makes this a very sad moment for the Constitution and the country. If this change is allowed to be made, without objection from Congress or the courts, then we will have a very hard time getting back to the proper separation of powers."
Feingold, who heads the Senate Judiciary Committee's subcommittee on the Constitution, has frequently expressed concern about the failure of Senate leaders to defend the role of Congress as it relates to oversight of the White House. In addition to making an unsuccessful attempt in early June to open a Senate debate over Bush's decision to withdraw from the ABM Treaty on June 13, the Wisconsin senator has in recent weeks been saying that the administration should seek Congressional approval before declaring war on Iraq.
Feingold says his concern about Bush's withdrawal from the ABM Treaty extends beyond the Constitutional question.
"I'm very concerned about where this administration is moving in terms of arms control. For thirty years, the ABM Treaty has been the foundation for our strategic relations with the Soviet Union and Russia, and for much of the progress we've made on arms control," says Feingold, who is also a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. In a written statement detailing those concerns, Feingold argues, "At a time when our global strategic relationships are of paramount importance, withdrawing from the ABM Treaty risks undermining the strength and staying power of the global coalition against terrorism. Instead of withdrawing from the ABM Treaty, we should be taking further steps to combat the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and to thwart the attempts of terrorists to acquire nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons and the means to deliver them."
Similar sentiments motivate US Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, who has spearheaded the lawsuit challenging the legality of the administration's decision to withdraw from the ABM Treaty. Kucinich plans to continue to work closely with Feingold on the issue.
Even without a senator's name on the plaintiff list, Kucinich says, the suit remains appropriate and necessary. Noting that the House played a critical role in debates over presidential attempts to scrap treaties in the 19th century, Kucinich says there is plenty of precedent for objections from both chambers of the Congress.
"Look at the Declaration of Independence itself. In that document, the Continental Congress challenged King George for suspending legislatures and simply declaring that his word was law. This country was founded by people who objected to a ruler named George who thought he had the authority to roll over the legislative branch," says Kucinich, the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. "We have to reassert that founding spirit. The Constitution charges Congress with establishing laws, just as it empowers the president to carry out laws. Congress approved the ABM Treaty overwhelmingly, and it was George Bush's responsibility to carry out that law. Instead, what Bush has done is unilaterally throw out a law -- in this case the ABM Treaty."
To hear Texas populist Jim Hightower and U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. tell it, one of them should be running for president in 2004. Trouble is that each one says the other guy would be the best candidate.
Hightower and Jackson have been star speakers on the Rolling Thunder Down Home Democracy Tour, which rolled into Chicago last weekend. The Chicago event -- the second on a national tour that began in Hightower's hometown of Austin -- drew 5,000 people for workshops of food, agriculture and democracy issues, speeches by the likes of Studs Terkel and Patch Adams, and music from artists such as Grammy Award winning singer Erykah Badu.
At this county fair of the left, where progressives played TrueMajority carnival games ("Knock-a-Nuke/Build-a-School") and downed Organic Valley toasted cheese sandwiches and Ben & Jerry's ice cream, talk of a two-years-off presidential race ranked surprisingly high on the agenda. For the most part, supporters of the 2000 campaigns of Democrat Al Gore and Green Ralph Nader put old arguments behind them and focused on the task of beating Republican George Bush in 2004. While Gore and the predictable crowd of Democratic insiders are already hustling for the next nomination, however, there was no consensus about the identity of the best standard bearer for progressives? There was talk about U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus who has won high marks for his challenges to the Bush administration on military issues.
On the main stage, however, Jackson and Hightower amused the crowd by trading pitches for another pair of candidates.
After Hightower introduced Jackson, the Illinois congressman asked the crowd: "Wouldn't you like to see Jim Hightower on a presidential ticket?"
That remark drew loud cheers from a crowd in which "Jim Hightower -- Progressive for President" bumper stickers were circulating. The stickers are being distributed by a group that has set up a website (www.drafthightower.com), and that argues only Hightower -- a former Texas agriculture commissioner with a long history of battling the Bush family in the Lone Star state -- understands how to undo the popular president with a populist appeal. Their slogan: "Fight Texans With Texans!"
But Hightower turned the tables on Jackson. "Speaking of presidential tickets..." he told the crowd after the Chicago representative finished speaking. "I'd like to see Congressman Jackson on a presidential ticket. Who's for that?"
The hometown crowd cheered just as loud for Jackson, whose rousing speech updated the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr's "I Have a Dream" address with proposals for Constitution amendments guaranteeing equal rights for women, access to health care and education, and -- in the light of the contested 2000 presidential election result -- the right to vote and have that vote counted.
For the record, both Hightower and Jackson say they are not running. But if the Rolling Thunder event in Chicago had been a nominating convention, the Hightower-Jackson ticket might well have won by acclamation. Or would that be the Jackson-Hightower ticket?
Outgoing US Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, was furious when the Senate failed this week to enact his pet project: permanent repeal of the federal estate tax.
"This will be a campaign issue," grumbled Gramm, who decided not to seek reelection as it became clear that his ties to Enron and other crumbling energy concerns were no longer a political asset.
Despite his lame-duck status, Gramm still likes to offer political advice, especially when it comes to lowering taxes for wealthy campaign contributors. And he is not alone. White House political strategist Karl Rove -- who is paid with taxpayer dollars to run George W. Bush's continuous campaign -- told business owners after the vote: "Don't look at it as a defeat. This is a war, and we need to make an ongoing commitment to winning the effort to repeal the death tax."
Progressives can only hope that conservative candidates will, on the advice of Texans Gramm and Rove, try to make an issue of the Senate's failure to shift even more of the federal tax burden onto the shoulders of working Americans. Cutting the estate tax is neither smart policy, nor smart politics. (A Greenberg/Quinlan/Rosner survey found in May that of all possible tax "reforms," repeal of inheritance taxes is the one least favored by voters -- the most popular, a tax cut targeted to low- and moderate-income Americans, was favored by a 6-1 margin over estate tax repeal. If Congress must tinker with the estate tax, the survey found that, by a 58-37 margin, voters favor reform over repeal.)
That may explain why three Democrats who are up for reelection this year shifted from support last year for Bush's tax cut plan -- which included a temporary repeal of the estate tax -- to opposition this week to permanent repeal of the tax.
Yet, it was not just political realism that caused the Senate to stop a high-profile bid by the Bush White House and Republican leaders in the House and Senate to dramatically cut taxes for the richest 2 percent of Americans. Nor did the vote go the way it did because the majority of Senate Democrats got a sudden jolt of courage in the face of pressure from business groups -- and wealthy families, including the heirs to the Mars candy and Gallo wine fortunes -- that have lobbied hard for a decade to eliminate what conservatives dub "the death tax."
The bid to permanently repeal the estate tax was undone over many months by activists who effectively delivered the message that permanent repeal would cost an already strained US treasury billions of dollars, causing a revenue gap that would have to be addressed either by cutting necessary programs or raising taxes on low- and middle-income Americans. (Permanent repeal would have cost $55 billion in tax revenues in 2011 -- the first year of a long-term repeal -- and $800 billion over the years 2012 to 2021.)
Dozens of progressive labor, religious and social-justice groups joined an anti-repeal coalition, Americans for a Fair Estate Tax, that hit on all fronts. It is fair to say that many of the most effective blows were struck by a member of that coalition that most Americans have never heard of: the group Responsible Wealth.
A project of Boston-based United For a Fair Economy -- the people who brought America the satirical Billionaires for Bush (and Gore) campaign of 2000 -- Responsible Wealth came up with the usual rational arguments against eliminating the estate tax: "Nearly half of all estate taxes are paid by the wealthiest 0.1% of the American population -- a few thousand families each year. Repealing the estate tax would result in multi-million dollar tax cuts to this tiny sliver of Americans. The estate tax is our most progressive tax and an important source of revenue, as well as an incentive to recycle wealth through the non-profit sector."
But they delivered the message in a language that Congress could understand: That of the very rich people that most members of the House and Senate strive so zealously to serve.
William H. Gates, Sr., Steven C. Rockefeller, David Rockefeller, Jr., George Soros, Paul Newman, Ted Turner, Norman Lear, Ben Cohen and more than 900 VIRPs -- Very Identifiable Rich Persons -- signed a letter to Congress that began: "We believe that permanent repeal of the estate tax would be bad for our democracy, our economy, and our society. Repealing the estate tax, a constructive part of our tax structure for 85 years, would leave an unfortunate legacy for America's future generations.
"Only the richest 2 percent of our nation's families currently pay any estate tax at all. Repealing the estate tax would enrich the heirs of America's millionaires and billionaires while hurting families who struggle to make ends meet.
The billions of dollars in state and federal revenues lost will inevitably be made up either by increasing taxes on those less able to pay or by cutting Social Security, Medicare, environmental protection, and many other government programs so important to our nation's continued well-being..."
The Responsible Wealth letter, which was released in May and widely circulated on Capitol Hill, did a lot to undermine the argument of Republicans like Gramm, who claimed that repeal of the estate tax was necessary for economic growth. That was critical because, with the Republican-controlled House solidly on board, it was hard work to prevent Senate Democrats in the Senate from embracing the Bush tax agenda. (Last year, 12 Democrats sided with Republicans to back a Bush tax cut plan and its temporary repeal of the estate tax.)
Responsible Wealth provided details on how permanent elimination of the tax would only serve the very richest Americans -- not the family farmers and small-business owners often portrayed as the likely beneficiaries of this radical shift in tax policy. And Responsible Wealth bluntly reminded the constituents of members of wavering Congress what the elimination of the tax would mean: "If the estate tax is eliminated, someone else will pay. YOU," read full-page newspaper advertisement placed by Responsible Wealth.
Did the aggressive campaigning by Responsible Wealth have an impact? Like the man bites dog story, the "news" that not all rich people favored cutting estate taxes played big. Media outlets from The New York Times to the Washington Post to Newsweek and Business Week covered the story of the billionaires revolt against tax cuts. Citing the Responsible Wealth letter, Business Week even editorialized against repeal, declaring that: "The founding fathers were right to worry about an aristocracy of wealth."
Members of Congress took notice. When Gates, the father of Microsoft chairman Bill Gates and head the Gates family's foundation, testified before the Senate Finance Committee in March, Republican Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Arizona, attacked the Responsible Wealth position. But a number of key senators embraced it as part of their own advocacy against the Bush administration's tax agenda. U.S. Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-North Dakota, a sharp-tongued populist who led the fight against repeal of the estate tax, delighted in noting that even the Rockefellers said the shift would be bad for America.
And six Democratic senators who last year backed the Bush tax plan voted this week against Bush's plan to permanently repeal the estate tax. Among the switchers were Louisiana's John Breaux, California's Dianne Feinstein, Wisconsin's Herb Kohl, New Jersey's Robert Torricelli, South Dakota's Tim Johnson and Missouri's Jean Carnahan. (Torricelli, Johnson and Carnahan are all up for reelection this year, and all have been pegged as vulnerable by political pundits.)
Those six anti-repeal votes mattered. The estate tax repeal needed the votes of 60 senators to be approved. It fell six votes short.
That's a close margin. "We know the forces committed to repeal aren't going to take our victory lying down," says Responsible Wealth organizer Chuck Collins. "That's why we are ready to advance our (own) reform agenda. In the coming months, we will work to advance proactive reform proposal and win co-sponsors in the House and Senate. We will wage a multi-year effort to win reform - with research, media, grassroots advocacy and popular education. This includes efforts to educate the public and key constituencies about the negative aspects of complete estate tax repeal."
In addition to making "the moral case for preserving the estate tax," Collins says, "Working with our coalition partners, we plan to change the terms of the debate on this issue."
This week's Senate victory over the Bush tax agenda offers powerful evidence that they have already begun to do just that.
In Texas, where he managed George W. Bush's political rise, Karl Rove was often referred to as "Bush's brain."
In fact, Austin reporters used to note that crazy notions Rove expounded upon at the bar on Saturday night had a funny way of popping out of his candidate's mouth on Monday morning.
The Bush White House has gone to great pains since George W. assumed the presidency to downplay the influence that Rove has over the administration's political and policy agendas. But the Republican faithful know the real story, and they have made Rove a star of the Grand Old Party's national fund-raising circuit. Rove regularly appears at $500-a-head, closed-door "VIP receptions" around the country. Republican operatives say he rates a bit above Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Mississippi, and far above House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Illinois, on the list of most desired after-dinner speakers at gatherings of the faithful.
Rove's message in recent weeks has been an interesting one. He is telling Republicans that, as the party gears up for 2002 congressional and gubernatorial elections, its candidates must stop sounding so mean and greedy. At a May appearance before Republicans in Wisconsin, he explained that Republicans must "raise our sights and lower our voices."
Astute political observers will recognize this as a return to the "compassionate conservatism" that Rove used in 2000 to make Bush's right-wing stances more palatable to a country that stands well to the left of the GOP on most issues. With mid-term elections posing challenges and opportunities for the Bush White House, Rove is buffing up the mantra, suggesting that "compassionate conservatism" is now about shaping "a different kind of politics" that eschews the "blame culture" for a "responsible culture."
The message is that Republicans aren't about cutting needed programs in order to give tax breaks to the rich, said Rove. Rather, he explained, the point is "not to spend more or spend less, but to spend on what works."
If it wasn't Rove talking, that would be dismissed as the incomprehensible gobbledygook of pop psychology and political spin that it is. Because Rove was saying it, however, there was some demand for a translation into something more akin to a political slogan.
And so, in what must be recorded as a great moment in the history of spin, Rove declared of the new-model "compassionate conservatism": "It's Ronald Reagan meets Bobby Kennedy."
Now this is a twist. Reagan was, indeed, a conservative. But Bobby Kennedy?
Isn't Bobby Kennedy the guy who, shortly before his death 34 years ago, on June 6,1968, said:
"Too much and too long, we seem to have surrendered community excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our gross national product - if we should judge America by that - counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for those who break them.
"It counts the destruction of our redwoods and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and the cost of a nuclear warhead, and armored cars for police who fight riots in our streets. It counts Whitman's rifle and Speck's knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children.
"Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it tells us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans."
Rove is a political pro, no doubt about that. But he is going to have a hard time selling the American people on the notion that the Republican Party of today is equal parts Ronald Reagan and Bobby Kennedy. And he certainly will not want to be reminded that, when Kennedy spoke in his 1968 campaign "forging a new politics," he embraced compassion not as a companion to conservatism but as a necessary alternative to it.
There are those who wrongly believe that the debate over civil liberties in this country breaks along ideological grounds. It's an easy mistake to make: Especially when Attorney General John Ashcroft, a certified -- and, arguably, certifiable -- conservative is treating the Constitution like it was a threat to America.
The important thing to remember is that Ashcroft's misguided war on individual rights has been supported at key turns by top Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-SD, and House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo. Both Democrats backed the draconian USA PATRIOT ACT last fall, as did the overwhelming majority of their fellow Congressional Democrats. And both Daschle and Gephardt have been troublingly mild in their criticism of Ashcroft's recent attempt to interpret that legislation in a manner guaranteed to undermine Constitutional protections.
To be sure, criticism of Ashcroft's excesses has not fit into the easy stereotypes that are often used to analyze Congress. US Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., who broke with Democrats to back Ashcroft's nomination for attorney general, cast the sole Senate vote against Ashcroft's anti-terrorism legislation. Georgia conservative Bob Barr and California liberal Maxine Waters, bitter foes during the Clinton impeachment fight of 1998, held a joint press conference to condemn the Bush administration's disregard for civil liberties.
That opposition to Ashcroft's assault on the Constitution does not follow predictable patterns became evident last week, when House Judiciary Committee Chair James Sensenbrenner, R-Wi., emerged as one of the most outspoken critics of the administration's latest initiatives in the ever-expanding domestic "war on terrorism."
Sensenbrenner, an old-fashioned conservative Republican who has represented a suburban Milwaukee district since 1979, has forged a remarkably solid working relationship with the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, Michigan's John Conyers. Sensenbrenner and Conyers attempted to temper the anti-terrorism legislation when it came before their committee last fall, only to have some of their most important efforts thwarted by Republican and Democratic leaders in the House and Senate.
In his recent condemnations of Ashcroft's scheming, Sensenbrenner was sounding a lot like the liberal Conyers.
After Ashcroft issued new surveillance guidelines that would permit FBI monitoring of Internet sites, libraries, churches and political groups, Sensenbrenner said: "I believe that the Justice Department has gone too far."
While the Republican attorney general said new surveillance powers were needed to fight terrorism, the Republican House Judiciary Committee chair said those powers could return the United States to the "bad old days" of civil liberties abuses by the FBI.
Sensenbrenner has gone out of his way to remind the current Republican administration that the protections against FBI abuses of civil liberties that Ashcroft is now seeking to override were written under a Republican president, Gerald Ford. Arguing that the existing surveillance guidelines have served the country well, Sensenbrenner says he wants Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert Mueller to appear before the Judiciary Committee to justify proposed shifts.
"(The) question that I ask, and which I believe that Mr. Ashcroft and Mr. Mueller have to answer, is, Why do we need to change (the guidelines) now?" insists the conservative congressman.
"We want to make sure that the FBI, which hasn't had a good track record lately, doesn't go on the other side of the line," adds Sensenbrenner, who recently told CNN it was absurd "to throw respect for civil liberties into the trash heap" in order to strengthen the hand of the FBI.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., is currently holding FBI oversight hearings. To his credit, Leahy says, "There is no institution of our government that should be above question."
But it would be nice if Leahy and other Democrats were as blunt as Sensenbrenner, who recalls former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover's surveillance of civil rights leaders and says, "I get very, very queasy when federal law enforcement is effectively saying (they are interested in) going back to the bad old days when the FBI was spying on people like Martin Luther King."
It is no secret that grassroots Democrats around the country oppose the free-trade regimen advocated by the Bush administration and the corporate lobbyists who have shaped the debate on trade issues inside the beltway.
The Democratic party's core constituencies well understand that the North American Free Trade Agreement, the normalization of trade relations with China and other corporate free-trade initiatives have led to the shuttering of American factories, depressed prices for family farmers and the use of trade policy to assault laws protecting the environment in the U.S. and abroad. Even the most conservative estimates suggest that NAFTA has cost at least 360,000 Americans their jobs -- and that is merely the easiest measure of the impact of free-trade agreements that allow multinational corporations, as opposed to citizens and their elected officials, to write the rules for protection of workers, farmers and the environment.
Recognizing the flaws in a corporate-dictated free-trade system, groups with a history of good relations with the Democratic party have been among the loudest foes of the Bush administration's attempts to gain Fast Track authority to negotiate a sweeping Free Trade Area of the Americas agreement that critics refer to as "NAFTA on steroids."
The AFL-CIO and its affiliate unions have actively opposed Fast Track, as have the Sierra Club and other major environmental groups, and the National Farmers Union and organizations that represent family farmers as opposed to corporate agribusiness interests. So too have human rights and religious groups concerned about poverty and social justice in the U.S. and internationally.
In the House of Representatives, where Fast Track passed by a 215-214 margin in December, 194 Democrats opposed the legislation while just 23 backed it.
In the Senate, however, where Democrats are in charge, a marginally modified version of the Fast Track legislation won passage Thursday by a 66-30 margin. While 25 Democrats opposed Fast Track, 24 Democrats and one Independent who caucuses with the Democrats -- Vermont's Jim Jeffords -- backed the legislation. (The last Democrat, Hawaii's Daniel Inouye missed the vote.)
So who were the free-trade Democrats in the Senate? Many were southern conservatives such as Georgia's Zell Miller, but many more were Democrats who portray themselves as friends of labor, family farmers, environmental groups and other Democratic constituencies that lobbied against Fast Track. Indeed, several of the Fast Track-backing Democrats are potential contenders for the party's 2004 presidential nomination.
Among those voting for Fast Track was Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D- South Dakota. Joining Daschle in voting for the measure was Connecticut's Joseph Lieberman, who in recent weeks has stepped up efforts to position himself as a 2004 contender, North Carolina's John Edwards and Delaware's Joe Biden. Even Massachusetts' John Kerry, who sought to add a good amendment to the legislation, ultimately joined the vast majority of Senate Republicans in backing Fast Track.
Among senators whose names have been floated as potential 2004 Democratic presidential contenders, only Connecticut's Chris Dodd and Wisconsin's Russ Feingold voted against Fast Track. They were joined by another senator whose name is often mentioned but who regularly takes herself out of contention -- Hillary Clinton.
Fast Track was amended sufficiently in the Senate to mean that it will go to a House-Senate conference committee, where a compromise version of the legislation is expected to be be crafted and then sent back for votes in both chambers. Fast Track could yet get beat in the House, where opposition could actually grow in an election year.
Most of the Democratic senators who harbor presidential ambitions are no doubt hoping that the House will clean up the Fast Track mess. Then they will be able to continue to collect contributions from corporate interests that want unregulated free trade, while publicly presenting themselves as contenders who are in touch with the party's base.
The Democratic party's base would do well to remember how the voting went when the Senate could have derailed Fast Track, however. It is a good measure of how reliable a Democratic president might be the issues that workers, farmers, environmentalists and supporters of international human rights take a lot more seriously than do many Democratic senators.
In April, U.S. Rep. Cynthia McKinney, D-Ga., got in a whole heap of trouble after she called for a thorough investigation of what George W. Bush knew before September 11 about the potential for the sort of terrorist attacks that would shake the nation and the world on that fateful day.
McKinney is one of the most outspoken members of the current Congress and her statements were typically blunt. "We know there were numerous warnings of the events to come on September 11th," she told a radio interviewer. "What did this administration know and when did it know it, about the events of September 11th? Who else knew, and why did they not warn the innocent people of New York who were needlessly murdered? . . . What do they have to hide?"
McKinney's call for a real investigation of what Bush knew -- along with her parallel suggestion that it was necessary to conduct a review of possible war profiteering by members of the Bush administration and corporations with close ties to the president -- drew a firestorm from pundits and partisans.
"The American people know the facts, and they dismiss such ludicrous, baseless views," grumbled White House spokesman Scott McLellan. "The fact that she questions the president's legitimacy shows a partisan mind-set beyond all reason." The Washington Post declared in a news story that McKinney "seems to have tapped into a web of conspiracy theories." National Review Online editor Jonah Goldberg, in a piece headlined "Representative Awful: Cynthia McKinney?s insanity and hypocrisy" went on at length about how the five-term representative was spouting "paranoid, America-hating, crypto-Marxist conspiratorial delusions" -- and Goldberg's jabs were restrained compared to the hits the congresswoman took hour after hour after hour from the Fox News Channel punditocracy.
McKinney was even accused by her hometown newspaper, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, of buying into a "wacko left-wing version of paranoid hatred of the president." For good measure, Journal-Constitution editorial page editor Cynthia Tucker added, "McKinney has made herself too easy a target for mockery. She no longer deserves serious analysis."
Barely one month after McKinney was so condemned, the headline of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution read: "Bush warned by U.S. intelligence before 9/11 of possible bin Laden plot to hijack planes." The Washington Post front page announced: "Bush Was Told of Hijacking Dangers." The Fox News Channel was repeating the big story of the day: "Bush Was Warned of Hijack Plot."
McKinney clearly feels a measure of vindication. "Today's revelations that the administration, and President Bush, were given months of notice that a terrorist attack was a distinct possibility points out the critical need for a full and complete congressional investigation," she said in a statement issued Thursday morning. "It now becomes clear why the Bush Administration has been vigorously opposing congressional hearings. The Bush Administration has been engaged in a conspiracy of silence. If committed and patriotic people had not been pushing for disclosure today's revelations would have been hidden by the White House."
The news that President Bush was told a month before September 11 that Osama bin Laden's terrorist network might hijack American airplanes does not confirm each and every concern expressed by McKinney in April. For instance, White House aides were quick to assert on Wednesday that the president and U.S. intelligence agencies were not aware of the precise plans of the suicide hijackers to use commercial jetliners as missiles in attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
That assertion is significant, as it argues Bush did not know that a specific terrorist attack was coming on September 11 or the form that such an attack might take. Thus, there will continue to be serious -- and legitimate -- debate about whether the "numerous warnings of the events to come on September 11" could actually have been read so specifically. Additionally, the recent revelations to not point to a conclusion that the Bush administration intentionally failed to warn "the innocent people of New York." America is, at most, only at the beginning of what could well be a very long examination of the question of whether the president, his aides and the intelligence community could have put the pieces of information together in a way that might have prevented the September 11 attacks.
So Bush has not exactly been caught holding a smoking gun. And it is still quite reasonable for McKinney's political critics -- as well as her allies -- to suggest that much of the speculation in which McKinney engaged in April will not pan out. In fairness to the representative, however, she can claim to have acknowledged as much at the time. It is notable that McKinney expressed many of her concerns in the form of questions, rather than the sort of over-the-top statements that Republican representatives made when they used to call for investigations of Bill Clinton.
What is equally notable is that, two months after McKinney was subjected to one of the most withering attacks ever directed at a sitting member of Congress, a lot of people who official Washington treats with respect are echoing her call "for transparency and a thorough investigation."
House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Missouri, said Wednesday that Congress needs to hold public hearings that examine "what the president and what the White House knew about the events leading up to 9-11, when they knew it and, most importantly, what was done about it at that time."
Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Bob Graham, a Florida Democrat who has worked closely with the Bush administration on intelligence and domestic security issues, was asked whether a more engaged response to the threat of hijackings might have averted the September 11 attack. "Well, it might have been if this had been seen in the context of other information, which indicated that there was a potential conspiracy to use commercial airliners as weapons of mass destruction. That could have started a chain of events, which would have disrupted September 11..." the senator said.
Sen. Richard Shelby, an Alabama Republican who serves as vice chairman of the Intelligence Committee, echoed Graham. "There was a lot of information," Shelby said Thursday. "I believe, and others believe, if it had been acted on properly, we may have had a different situation on September 11."
Is official Washington beginning to suffer from "paranoid, America-hating, crypto-Marxist conspiratorial delusions"? Have top members of Congress "tapped into a web of conspiracy theories"? Are the White House aides who confirmed that Bush knew of the hijacking threat before September 11 expressing a "wacko left-wing version of paranoid hatred of the president"?
Or are they, perhaps, beginning to recognize that, at the very least, McKinney was making a reasonable point when she argued in April that: "We deserve to know what went wrong on September 11 and why. After all, we hold thorough public inquiries into rail disasters, plane crashes, and even natural disasters in order to understand what happened and to prevent them from happening again or minimizing the tragic effects when they do. Why then does the Administration remain steadfast in its opposition to an investigation into the biggest terrorism attack upon our nation?"