Breaking news and analysis of politics, the economy and activism.
US Rep. Nick Rahall's policy pronouncements tend toward announcements about extending water and sewer service in southern West Virginia, or the erection of safety barriers on dangerous stretches of Interstate 64. So much of official Washington was caught by surprise when the West Virginia Democrat appeared before the Iraqi Assembly Sunday "as a member of Congress concerned with peace" and declared, "Basically, I want America and Iraq to give peace a chance."
"Instead of assuming that war must come, let us find ways to discover how to prove that war is unnecessary," Rahall told the Iraqis. "It is time and, in my opinion, far past time that American andIraqi officials talk to each other without threats."
Rahall's trip to Baghdad, which followed President Bush's saber-rattling address to the United Nations General Assembly, drew international attention to a congressman who has spent most of his quarter century on Capitol Hill securing funding for road projects and mine safety initiatives. Unlike Bush, however, Rahall is no newcomer to Middle East affairs.
The grandson and namesake of a Lebanese immigrant who in 1903 settled in Beckley, West Virginia, Rahall approaches debates over Middle East policy from a unique perspective in a Congress with only a handful of Arab-American members. Proud of his ethnicity, Rahall frequently quotes a line from Lebanese-American entertainer Danny Thomas: "He who denies his heritage has no heritage."
Rahall has been a frequent visitor to Lebanon, Israel and other Middle Eastern nations -- traveling as a member of Congressional delegations and on his own to his grandfather's hometown of Kfier, Lebanon. A graduate of Duke University who earned his political spurs as an aide to legendary West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd, Rahall has quietly developed a level of expertise on Middle East issues that few members of Congress can rival.
Rahall has frequently parted company with the overwhelming majority of his colleagues on those issues. In 1993, for instance, the House considered a resolution declaring that "the Arab boycott of Israel is detrimental to the peace process in the Middle East and should be discontinued forthwith." It passed, by a margin of 425-1.
More recently, the West Virginia Democrat was one of 11 House members to oppose a December 2001, resolution expressing solidarity with Israel. In May, when the House voted on a resolution that praised Israel's fight against terrorism while placing blame for violence in the region on Palestinian leaders, Rahall cast one of just 21 "no" votes.
While Rahall's votes may look controversial to national observers, they have caused him little grief in West Virginia, where he is regularly reelected with little or no opposition. The congressman is known for maintaining good relations – and an open dialogue -- with both Arab-American and Jewish constituents. Additionally, Rahall's voting record on Middle East issues tends to parallel that of his old boss, Senator Byrd. And, like Byrd, he devotes so much time and energy to bringing infrastructure projects to southern West Virginia that foreign policy issues are rarely part of the homestate debate.
Rahall has won high marks even from those who disagree with him for his expertise and for his attention to humanitarian issues that are often lost in Middle East policy debates. A thoughtful critic of Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat, former Syrian President Hafez al-Assad and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's actions, Rahall voted in favor of the 1991 Congressional resolution supporting the Persian Gulf War. In the years since, however, he has been in the forefront of questioning the wisdom of US policies toward Iraq.
Rahall signed the letter, initiated by Representatives Tom Campbell (R-CA) and John Conyers (D-MI), that, for humanitarian reasons, called for the lifting of economic sanctions against Iraq. Last week, Rahall cited similar concerns, saying he has decided to travel to Baghdad to "help illuminate the plight of the Iraqi people."
"I'm not going as Secretary of State. I'm not going as a weapons inspector. I'm going as an individual who'd like to cool this rhetoric and act in a calm matter, and show the Iraqi people that the American people are not warmongers," he said on the eve of the trip to Iraq, which he took in the company of former South Dakota Senator James Abourezk. (Rahall and Abourezk made the trip as part of a delegation organized by the Institute for Public Accuracy.)
Rahall said he also was making the trip because of his doubts about whether the Bush administration has made a case for waging war against Iraq at this time.
"Why now, two months before an election? Why was the threat so serious now that it wasn't a year ago. I've seen certainly no link of Iraq to 9/11," Rahall said. "I just don't see a linkage there."
There was a huge outcry in France this summer over a move by allies of French President Jacques Chirac to narrow the character and quality of that country's political competition. Stung by recent shows of electoral strength by the nationalist right and the Green and Trotskyist left, France's political establishment is preparing to rewrite election rules in order to essentially assure that only traditional major parties of the center-right and center-left can prevail in elections for the domestic and European parliaments. Objections from across the political spectrum echo a similar theme: The changes proposed by the insiders in Paris would "Americanize" that country's politics.
Casual observers in the United States might object to the notion that there is something wrong with Americanizing the politics of France or any other country. But they should understand that the complaint is grounded in our own experience in the US. For all the frenzy and hype of the cable television commentators and the vast political industry that now operates inside the Washington beltway, our country's political processes have become so leaden and disengaged that they no longer are deemed worthy of attention by the majority of voters. Almost two-thirds of America's eligible voters (64 percent in 1994, 66 percent in 1998) no longer participate in Congressional elections, and the most hotly contested presidential election in a generation (the unsettling and unsettled 2000 contest between Democratic Al Gore and Republican George W. Bush) could barely draw half the electorate to the polls.
The range of opinion expressed at the upper levels of American political discourse have been narrowing for more than a decade, as marketing men and women have taken over the levels of power in both the Democratic and Republican parties. Even a misguided war and the threat of its expansion to dramatic new levels of folly, corporate scandals of epic economic consequence and the clear corruption of executive branch decision making musters little in the way of straight talk in a Congress where the calculation of campaign contributions takes precedence at every turn over Constitutional responsibilities and the public interest.
As bad as things may be in American politics, however, there are always those who would make things worse. And, in Georgia's recent Congressional primaries, they succeeded in doing just that. The defeats of US Representative Cynthia McKinney, perhaps the most radical member of the Democratic caucus, and of US Representative Bob Barr, perhaps the most radical member of the Republican caucus, in their respective party primaries will remove two of the few independent voices from a Congress that already suffers from a deficit of dissenters. As such, an already narrow national debate will, at least at the Congressional level, grow narrower still.
To be sure, both McKinney and Barr have been controversial figures. McKinney has been a fierce critic of the foreign and domestic policies of Democratic and Republican administrations since her election in 1992. Often echoing the Green Party's critique of the two major parties, she has not hesitated to accuse Bill Clinton, Al Gore, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney of racial and ethnic insensitivity, and she has been one of the House's loudest critics of the "Israel First" approach of Democratic and Republican congressional leaders to Middle East affairs.
Like McKinney, Barr has since his election to Congress in the "Republican Revolution" election of 1994, been a thorn in the side of both parties. Though he is a more consistent partisan than McKinney, the intensity of his passions has frightened his own party's leadership in the House -- especially when he has refused to trim his sails to match the dictates of GOP pollsters.
McKinney and Barr have both stretched the limits of the political discourse -- the Democrat with her suggestions that the Bush administration might have failed to counter terrorist threats in order to pump up profits for corporations to which members of the administration and their families were closely tied; the Republican with a sex, lies and videotape assault on Bill Clinton's morals that continued long after even Ken Starr had recognized that the nation's Puritan ethic was on the wane.
Yet, the willingness of McKinney and Barr to stretch political limits often put them in exactly the right place. That was certainly the case last fall when, barely a month after the September 11terrorist attacks, they were part of the Congressional minority that refused to support the draconian USA PATRIOT ACT. Remember that it was Barr, a man whose civil rights credentials could hardly be called impressive, who sided with members of the Congressional Black Caucus such as McKinney and California's Maxine Waters to sound the alarm about the threat John Ashcroft's legislative agenda posed to civil liberties.
When McKinney and Barr pushed at the barriers of our politics -- even when they pushed too far -- they gave voice in Congress to the conversations that really go on in America. Freed of the stifling constraints of poll-driven centrism, they made a representative democracy more genuinely representative of all the opinions seriously in play in the land. As such, they both developed national constituencies -- in July, for instance, McKinney was the only Democratic politician invited to address the Green Party's national convention, and she continues to be boomed by some in that party as a potential 2004 presidential candidate. But, even as they "went national," McKinney and Barr won reelection easily and consistently in Georgia.
So what changed this year? In the case of both McKinney and Barr, they fell victim to the structural pressures exerted mainly from Washington by political strategists in both parties who struggle mightily to neuter our political process and the rich and rigorous national debates that should arise from it.
In McKinney's case, much has been made of the funding of his primary challenger, former Georgia State Court Judge Denise Majette, by pro-Israel campaign contributors. After McKinney's defeat, the candidate's father, a veteran civil rights activist and Georgia legislator, bluntly declared that his daughter's reelection had been thwarted by "J-E-W-S." But, as in the June Alabama Democratic primary that saw the defeat of U.S. representative Earl Hilliard, another critic of U.S. policies regarding Israel, the story of McKinney's defeat in a more complex and concerning one.
Majette took advantage of a corrupt campaign finance system that allows a candidate who is unable to garner support at the grassroots in her home district to collect money nationally. And a good deal of Majette's national money did indeed come from supporters of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's hardline policies -- just as a portion of McKinney's money came from supporters of Palestinian rights. But Majette's fund raising success -- she dramatically out-raised McKinney as the election approached -- also benefited from the determination of Democratic Leadership Council types, good-old-boy southern conservatives such as U.S. Senator Zell Miller, D-Ga., and the business interests they represent to cleanse the Democratic party of outspoken critics of corporate abuses and free trade policies such as McKinney and Hilliard.
Majette, who like McKinney is an African-American woman, also took advantage of political processes designed by southern segregationist politicians to insure that all white voters could coalesce to defeat progressive candidates in Democratic primaries. Georgia law allows Republicans to vote in Democratic primaries, and they did so in droves in the McKinney-Majette race. While African-American Democrats turned out in tepid numbers, the Atlanta Journal Constitution noted that "a swarm of Republicans" took Democratic primary ballots. "The Republicans made a difference (in defeating McKinney)," explained the Rev. Joseph Lowery, the longtime Southern Christian Leadership Council leader who now heads the Georgia Coalition for the People's Agenda, a civil rights group. "They provided the margin (for Majette), which is unethical." Lowery is right; had Georgia primary voting been limited to party members -- as is the case in most American states -- McKinney might well have won. That one of the House's most outspoken supporters of civil rights may have gone down to defeat because of a political system rigged decades ago to undermine African-American political advancement is less ironic than it is a measure of the poor job progressives in Georgia and nationally have done when it comes to eliminating the structural vestiges of segregationist politics. As in the disputed Florida presidential vote of 2000, the old segregationist laws are consistently turned to the advantage of corporate and conservative interests that have mastered their use and abuse. To their credit, Lowery and other civil rights activists in Georgia are advancing legislation to limit so-called crossover voting. But their uphill battle will only succeed if they renew the grassroots political energy that put McKinney in Congress a decade ago but failed her reelection effort this year.
Interestingly, Barr claims that he was defeated in his Republican primary because Democrats crossed over to defeat him. In Barr's case, however, his defeat was predictable from the start. He was a victim of the most corrupt of all political games in America: Congressional redistricting. Every ten years, after the new Census figures are released, state politicians redraw Congressional district lines to gain partisan advantage. It is a process into which political players at the federal and state levels pour tens of millions of dollars and tens of thousands of hours of strategic plotting. And it is where political parties in both parties eliminate dissenting voices. That was the case with Barr, whose district was drawn out of existence. When he sought to follow a portion of his voters into a new district, Barr found himself out positioned on turf designed to favor a more mainstream conservative Republican, Representative John Linder. Even if Barr was the more dynamic contender, Linder ran with the implicit blessing of a party establishment that was frustrated by its inability to control an often renegade Republican. "Linder is an inside politician. Barr is an outside politician," explained Merle Black, the Emory University political scientist who is one of the wisest commentators on southern politics. And nothing does more to assure the victories of insiders over outsiders than redistricting schemes hatched behind closed doors by party insiders.
Combine redistricting with free-flowing campaigning money and political structures designed to be abused and you have a recipe for the triumph of the connected over the controversial.
In the Georgia primaries that defeated Barr and McKinney, Republican and Democratic insiders took full advantage of political structures and processes designed to favor their interests, and their ousted two of the House' few dissenters. In so doing, they made the Congress a little less representative of the real debates that are going on in the land, and continued the ugly "Americanization" of American politics.
In barely 18 months, the identity of the Democratic challenger to President George W. Bush's 2004 re-election will have been determined. Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe's front-loading of the nominating process all but assures that the fight will be over before activists within the party and on its fringes have a chance to consider the candidates.
Thus, Americans who believe that the Democratic Party ought to offer a choice rather than an echo of the Bush administration's voodoo economics are already beginning to examine their options. Fortunately, the recent congressional votes on granting the Bush administration "fast track" authority to enter into secret negotiations toward the development of a sweeping Free Trade Area of the Americas offer a good place to begin the analysis.
This summer's fast track votes in the House and Senate presented congressional Democrats - a staggering number of whom are pondering presidential candidacies - with some stark choices. They could side with the Bush administration, multinational business interests and the Washington "think tanks" that are willing to go to war to defend American democracy and values - unless, of course, that democracy and those values pose a hindrance to nation-hopping corporations. Or they could side with the trade unions, environmental groups, farm organizations, consumer groups, churches and international human rights campaigners that represent the activist base not just of the Democratic Party but of the nation as a whole.
In the House, where fast track passed by an agonizingly narrow 215-212 margin, Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., did not merely oppose fast track, he helped coordinate the opposition. Of the 212 votes against fast track, 183 came from the Democratic caucus.
Two other House members who are considering Democratic presidential runs, Dennis Kucinich and Marcy Kaptur, both of Ohio, were in the forefront of opposition to the legislation.
Kucinich, the Congressional Progressive Caucus chairman who is perhaps best known among progressives around the country for his outspoken criticism of the Bush administration's military policies, combined hometown concern for factory workers in the Cleveland area with a sophisticated analysis of international human rights and development issues to offer some of the most thoughtful criticism of the corporate free trade agenda. (Kucinich's "Action Center" on his congressional home page at www.house.gov/kucinich/action/trade.htm explains fast track and related issues and provides links to Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch, Friends of the Earth, the Economic Policy Institute and unions that have battled the corporate agenda on trade policy.)
Kaptur delivered the best speech during the House's fast track debate. An expert on trade policy who has battled the corporate agenda for two decades, Kaptur spoke with the confidence of someone who knew that what the Bush administration was asking for was wrong. Yes, of course, she said, passing fast track would begin a process that would cost Americans jobs and farms. But the damage to the developing world would be worse, she explained, describing a future for the poorest of the poor that would be defined by "corporate slums and global plantations with penny-wage jobs."
What of the Senate, where fast track won a 64-34 endorsement? Though that chamber is thick with Democratic presidential timber, few of Bush's prospective challengers stood tall. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota conspired with corporate Democrat Max Baucus of Montana to spring a surprise vote on the eve of Congress' summer break. Daschle whipped Democrats to back the Bush agenda on trade, voted for fast track and then joined in a grotesque celebration of the victory with Baucus.
Connecticut's Joe Lieberman, the party's 2000 vice presidential nominee, was an outspoken supporter of the legislation. Joining Lieberman and Daschle in backing fast track was Massachusetts' John Kerry. Delaware's Joe Biden voted against fast track, but cast procedural votes that aided Daschle's push for the legislation.
Indeed, of Senate Democrats who have been mentioned as potential presidential contenders, only three stood consistently in opposition to the Bush trade agenda: Wisconsin's Russ Feingold, the Senate's most thoughtful foe of the corporate free-trade agenda; Connecticut's Chris Dodd, a friend of labor with a long interest in human rights issues, North Carolina's John Edwards, whose homestate faces the threat of significant job losses in the textile industry; and, to the surprise of many who recall her role in a previous administration that fought for fast track, New York's Hillary Clinton.
As for the man who fancies himself the front-runner for the 2004 nomination: On the Sunday after the Senate vote, Al Gore wrote a New York Times op-ed piece in which he condemned the Bush administration's failings and called for Democrats to stand tough against corporate power. Amazingly, however, Gore's article made no mention of fast track or the trade debate.
After an often bitter, intensely ideological Michigan primary contest that pitted two of the most politically and personally distinct Democrats in Congress, U.S. Rep. John Dingell defeated U.S. Rep. Lynn Rivers Tuesday.
The result was a heartbreaker for women's groups, which poured time and money into the Rivers' campaign in an effort to maintain representation for women in the House. Rivers is one of just 60 women in a 435-member chamber.
The support from women's organizations such as Emily's List was not nearly enough, however, to overcome Dingell's fund-raising clout and powerful connections.
Dingell, the dean of the House, met Franklin Roosevelt as a child and was elected to Congress during Dwight D. Eisenhower's first term. Rivers, who was born after Dingell's Congressional career began, was elected in 1994 as a young mother with liberal views that matched those of her Ann Arbor base.
While Dingell, 76, and Rivers, 45, both maintained consistent pro-labor records, Rivers was a decidely more progressive member on issues of military spending, gun control, environmental protection, women's rights and gay rights.
The two Democratic House members were forced into the same district by a Republican redistricting plan that was designed to insure the defeat of one of them. From the start, it was assumed Rivers would be the loser -- since she lacked the legislative connections and fund-raising prowess of the House's senior member. Rivers was still outspent, at least $2.5 million to $1.6 million.
But Rivers made a race of it, mounting a campaign that pegged Dingell -- a longtime National Rifle Association member and close ally of the auto industry -- as too conservative on issues of gun control, environmental protection and abortion rights. With a strong assist from Emily's List, the national donor group that assists pro-choice Democratic women, Rivers was able to mount a campaign that combined heavy grassroots activism and savvy media. And some polls suggested it brought her into a tie with Dingell late in the race. Ultimately, however, Dingell won by a 59-41 margin.
Solid support for the senior member from the powerful United Auto Workers union and Democratic insiders -- Tipper Gore was among the last-minute campaigners on his behalf --allowed Dingell to prevail. The biggest assist he got may well have come from the NRA, which launched an aggressive campaign to get Republican voters to cast ballots in the Democratic primary on Dingell's behalf.
When all was said and done, Dingell offered his younger challenger a grudging compliment, saying of Rivers on election night: "She did make us work, I want to say. The primary this year was extremely difficult."
As for Rivers, she told Ann Arbor supporters: I am not going away. Our commitments will endure on our issues... There was nothing I would've done differently. Every decision was based on our principles and the ethics of how I wanted to operate."
GOVERNORSHIPS: The argument that 2004 could be another "year of the woman" politically picked up steam Tuesday night, as two more Democratic women were nominated for governorships. There are currently five women serving in governorships -- three Republicans (Arizona's Jane Dee Hull, Montana's Judy Martz, Massachusetts' Jane Swift) and two Democrats (New Hampshire's Jeanne Shaheen and Delaware's Ruth Minner.)
On Tuesday, Michigan Attorney General Jennifer Granholm easily defeated long-time U.S. House Minority Whip David Bonior and former Michigan Governor James Blanchard in a hard-fought Democratic primary in that state. Kansas primary voters chose Insurance Commissioner Kathleen Sebelius as the Democratic nominee for governor of that state. Other Democratic women who have a chance of winning this year include Arizona Attorney General Janet Napolitano, veteran environmental lawyer and local government official Kathleen Falk in Wisconsin, former state senator Myrth York in Rhode Island, former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno in Florida and Massachusetts' Shannon O'Brien.
O'Brien and Falk face tough September primary contests. Most of the other contenders are already positioned -- as Granholm and Sebelius now are -- for November races that could transform the face of state leadership in the U.S. "In 1992, the year of the woman was largely about increasing representation in Congress," says Ellen R. Malcolm, president of EMILY's List. "This year, there's excitement about the governors' races. That's where you could see some real breakthoughs"
If there is a point to having a Congress in a time of war, it has been made this week by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings on whether the United States could, should or would want to launch a military attack on Iraq with the purpose of deposing Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
Though this Congress has done a miserable job of overseeing the ill-defined "war on terrorism" that continues to cost an unconscionable number of Afghan lives and an unconscionable portion of US tax dollars, the hearings on Iraq actually saw senators approaching the prospect of an all-out assault on Iraq with at least a measure of respect for their constitutionally mandated responsibility to offer the executive branch advice and consent with regard to war-making.
Organized by Foreign Relations Committee Chair Joseph Biden, D-Del., a cautious player when it comes to challenging presidential war-making, the hearings were not nearly so revealing as the moment demanded. (Biden did not, for instance, demand that squabbling members of the Bush foreign policy, military and political teams appear to explain themselves. Nor did he call Scott Ritter, the former UN weapons inspector in Iraq who, as a self-proclaimed "card-carrying Republican," says of Bush administration sabre rattling regarding Iraq: "This is not about the security of the United States. This is about domestic American politics. The national security of the United States of America has been hijacked by a handful of neo-conservatives who are using their position of authority to pursue their own ideologically-driven political ambitions.The day we go to war for that reason is the day we have failed collectively as a nation.")
Yet the testimony from foreign policy specialists, Iraqi dissidents, retired generals and United Nations aides offered senators something more than the sum of its parts.
While many of the witnesses were supportive of a US-led attempt to remove Saddam, they could not agree on the threat - if any - that the Iraqi president poses to the United States, how to counter that threat, the dangers to Iraqi civilians and US troops, the prospects for success, or the prospects for stability in a post-Saddam Iraq or the Middle East.
As an alternative to war, Richard Butler, the former chief UN arms inspector in Iraq, argued for diplomacy, suggesting that the United States and Russia attempt to get Iraq to accept serious weapons inspections. The Council on Foreign Relations' Morton Halperin called for a tighter economic embargo. Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney made the pitch for a 72-hour air, land and sea assault. Other military experts counseled against the Dr. Strangelove approach, and Gen. Tommy Franks, the US Central Command chief who oversees the US presence in Afghanistan and would command any invasion of Iraq, complained: "I think all of the speculation (about attacking Iraq) ... is not helpful with respect to Afghanistan or any of the other issues."
If there was any agreement, it was on the point that removing Saddam would saddle the United States with the more difficult tasks of uniting opposition forces, protecting the Kurds and maintaining stability. There was also agreement that these duties would require a multi-year commitment of billions of US dollars that Washington may not be prepared to make. The speculation that the United States might win the war but lose the peace had Biden declaring, "It would be a tragedy if we removed a tyrant in Iraq, only to leave chaos in his wake."
That chaos would extend beyond the borders of Iraq, warned University of Maryland Professor Shibley Telhami, who said a US invasion of Iraq could destabilize friendly Arab governments. "Even if the Iraqi people have a happy outcome, I believe that most people in the region will see this as American imperialism," he explained.
Though it may not have been the purpose of these hearings, they have provided a clear signal for the Senate and America: For all the Bush administration's election-year rhetoric about ill-defined threats from a man few others in the world fear, there is no agreement on the need, the value, the purpose or the prospects for a full-scale US military attack on Iraq. Except, perhaps, among George W. Bush's political advisers.
At 3:28 a.m. Saturday, with senior members of Congress decrying the legislation before them as a "fraud" and a "hoax," the United States House of Representatives voted by a razor-thin margin of three votes to grant the Bush administration authority to secretly negotiate a sweeping Free Trade Area of the Americas agreement.
"This night will be remembered as one of the largest surrenders of Constitutional authority in American history," said US Rep. David Bonior, D-Michigan, as the House voted by a 215-212 to allow the president to engage in Fast Track negotiations to create a North American Free Trade Agreement-style corporate trading zone that would include virtually every country in the western Hemisphere.
The 215 supporters of the bill included 190 Republicans and 25 Democrats; while 183 Democrats, 27 Republicans and two Independents opposed it. Seven members did not participate in the vote.
Though organized labor has fought for years to block Fast Track legislation – and passionately opposed this bill – several of the members who cast critical votes in its favor were Democrats who had been elected with strong labor support, including California's Susan Davis, Washington state's Richard Larsen and Utah's Jim Matheson.
The House vote was seen as the critical test for the current bill, since an earlier version of Fast Track passed the House in December by a one-vote margin. The Senate passed an alternative version of the legislation this year by a wide margin. The differences in the House and Senate bills required a Conference Committee headed by free-trade enthusiasts from both parties – House Ways and Means Committee chair Bill Thomas, R-California, and Senate Finance Committee chair Max Baucus, D-Montana – to craft a so-called "compromise." With House consideration now done, the Senate is expected to pass the compromise bill next week, clearing the way for President Bush to become the first president in almost a decade to possess Fast Track authority.
Going into Saturday morning's vote in the House, both sides knew the margin would be exceptionally close. This raised the intensity of the debate to a level rarely seen in Congress.
A particular bone of contention was the fact that most members had not had time to read the measure they were voting on.
The most important trade and economic vote by the current Congress came just hours after members received emails telling them they could review the 304-page bill on a Congressional web site. The House had to employ the so-called "Martial Law" rule in order to waive the requirement that members get at least one day to review legislation.
Even members who often support free trade measures complained that they were being asked to pass omnibus legislation without sufficient consideration.
Rep. James McDermott, D-Washington, bitterly accused the bill's chief House sponsor, Ways and Means Committee Thomas, of hiding the legislation from members until it was too late for a serious review of its contents. Rep. Robert Matsui, D-California, a 12-term veteran of the House with many years experience on the Ways and Means Committee, decried the fact that most members would vote on the dramatic piece of legislation "sight unseen."
However, Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, who for two decades has battled the corporate free-trade agenda with a consistency unrivaled in the Congress, told the House the rush to judgement on the part of Fast Track supporters was no surprise. Condemning the legislation as a move to make it easier to create "corporate slums and global plantations with penny-wage jobs," Kaptur said: "They want to (debate) it in the middle of the night while most people are sleeping."
And so they did.
The debate, which came after a day that saw President Bush take the extraordinary step of personally coming to the Capitol to lobby for the legislation, may have played out in the middle of the night. But it did not lack for energy or passion.
"Fast Track essentially extends our current trade policies, and why in God's name would anyone want to do that?" demanded Rep. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont. "When you have a bad policy, why would you want to extend it?
Noting that the United States now has a $346 billion trade deficit and that ten percent of the nation's manufacturing base has eroded in the past four years, Sanders asked supporters of the legislation: "When will you catch on? When all of our kids are flipping hamburgers?"
Georgia Republican Charles Norwood described the Fast Track legislation as "the last nail in the coffin of America's textile industries," while other foes detailed the damage expansion of the current free-trade model would do to automotive, steel and agricultural industries in the US. Other members noted that the legislation did not include protections for workers who lose their jobs when a corporation closes a US factory and moves operations to China, that it creates a slush fund so that the administration can pay trade-related fines without Congressional approval, and that it removes the ability of Congress to defend protections for US workers and farmers. New York's Charles Rangel, the ranking Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee, complained that the bill undermined even "minimum standards" for defending the rights of workers and the environment.
Fast Track critics explained that, while the legislation was bad news for America workers and farmers, it represented worse news for the people who live in developing countries that could become US trading partners in a Free Trade Area of the Americas governed by corporate-dictated "trade promotion" rules as opposed to democracy. Kaptur, who has traveled extensively to examine the impact of unrestricted free trade schemes, explained that, under NAFTA, conditions for Mexican workers and farmers had dramatically worsened. Rep. David Wu, D-Oregon, bitterly criticized a provision in the Fast Track bill that limits the ability of the US to use the threat of trade sanctions to promote human rights.
At every turn, Ways and Means Committee chair Thomas and a coterie of Fast Track backers mocked concerns expressed by opponents, gleefully suggesting that they were slow readers because they had not read the bill – which weighed six pounds when printed out – in the several hours that it had been available to them.
But the supporters of the legislation did not choose to confront the most stinging criticism to come from the opposition – the charge that it represented a capitulation by Congress to the very corporations that members are supposedly cracking down on in the wake of the Enron, Global Crossing and WorldCom scandals.
"This Fast Track shifts power from democratic governance to corporations," boomed Rep. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, who correctly described the legislation as "corporate America's top priority."
At precisely the same time that members of the Bush administration and Congress are scrambling to publicly declare their willingness to crack down on corporate wrongdoing, they are working behind the scenes to reward corporate lobbyists with a dramatic victory.
Key members of Congress reached an agreement late Thursday night to give President Bush Fast Track authority to secretly negotiate a sweeping Free Trade Area of the Americas agreement. The deal was necessary because, earlier this year, the House and Senate passed different Fast Track resolutions. Last night, representatives of the two chambers cobbled together a "compromise" plan that now faces final votes in the House and Senate.
If the legislation passes, Fast Track authority will be granted to Bush and a new era of trade liberalization will open the door to a dramatic expansion of corporate power in the US and abroad.
Under mounting pressure from the White House and the corporate lobbyists who continue to dominate the Congressional discourse, House Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas, R-California, who is chairing the conference committee negotiations, and Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus, D-Montana, jumped into action this week on behalf of the very same corporations that Congress is supposedly moving to regulate.
Thomas and Baucus now want to spring a surprise Fast Track vote in the House within days. Thomas is reportedly pushing for a vote as early as Friday (July 26). "It has got to happen," said Thomas, as he and Baucus frantically finalized a deal that guts protections for American workers and farmers that had been added to the Senate version of the legislation.
Why the rush? Not because workers, farmers, consumers, environmentalists or human rights campaigners are demanding it. The Fast Track legislation that has been presented to Congress has been opposed by labor, farm, church and community groups representing virtually every sector of civil society. The push to negotiate a compromise and then force a vote before most members of Congress have read the fine print is coming from multinational corporations that have long seen free-trade agreements as vehicles to undermine regulations of corporate behavior -- including rules protecting workers, farmers and the environment.
Corporate lobbyists see quick passage of a Fast Track as essential because:
* Enactment of the legislation would jumpstart secret negotiations for a hemispheric trade agreement that allows multinational corporations to eliminate regulations, rewrite rules and shed responsibilities.
* The legislation makes it easier for corporations to use global trade groupings, such as the World Trade Organization, to eliminate existing public interest safeguards regulating accounting, energy, food safety, insurance, pensions and public utilities.
* The legislation will make it easier to continue weakening international accounting standards, a move that could make it impossible for the US to control the sort of abuses exposed in the Enron, Global Crossing and WorldCom scandals.
It should come as no surprise, then, that the list of corporations contributing in recent years to the multi-million dollar lobbying effort for free-trade legislation -- including Fast Track -- includes the names of Enron and other firms now embroiled in controversies over accounting abuses and the use of campaign money to influence regulatory policies.
If this Fast Track "compromise" is approved by the full House and Senate, corporate lobbyists will be able to say that, even as Congress talks of controlling corporate abuses, corporations can still buy the legislation they want.
Corporate lobbyists are swarming Capitol Hill in anticipation of a quick Fast Track vote. Citizens can counter the corporate campaign with telephone calls to their House and Senate representatives. Use the AFL-CIO's toll-free number to tell members of Congress to reject trade legislation that has not been adequately debated and that puts the interests of corporations ahead of those of workers, farmers, consumers and the environment. The number is 1-877-611-0063.
A crack in the façade of Congressional congeniality was discovered last week, as Senate Democrats gathered to discuss particulars of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill.
That bill was passed with overwhelming support from Senate Democrats and general opposition from Senate Republicans. But that does not mean that Democrats really favor reform; for most of them, backing McCain-Feingold was an act of political positioning, as became obvious at last week's closed-door gathering of the Senate Democratic Caucus.
At the session, senators heard from Democratic campaign lawyer Bob Bauer, a favorite of those senators for whom reform is less progress than threat. Bauer delivered dire warnings about the dangers of the McCain-Feingold law -- and of moves by US Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wi., to toughen Federal Election Commission regulations and enforcement procedures.
Feingold disagreed. Arguing that Democratic senators ought to embrace reforms aimed at driving the influence of big-money out of politics, Feingold dismissed claims that law-abiding senators could be overwhelmed by legal threats from the FEC and Republican operatives.
Feingold's remarks rubbed US Sen. Hillary Clinton the wrong way. "Russ, live in the real world," yelled Clinton, one of the Senate's most aggressive fund raisers. Recalling the struggles of her husband's presidency and her own Senate race, sources say Clinton told Feingold he should be wary of "political adversaries." "They will be all over you like a June bug," counseled Clinton.
Clinton's outburst stunned the 20 senators who were present into silence. Finally, Feingold replied, "I also live in the real world, senator, and I function quite well in it."
Feingold was being modest. For someone who had no prominent name or big bankroll to get him started, the senator has done a remarkably good job of mastering the real-world politics. He has prevailed in ten primary and general election battles since 1982 -- winning every single contest where his name has been on the ballot. He has defeated better-known and better-funded Democrats in primaries and dispatched entrenched Republican incumbents in a swing state.
In 1998, despite being targeted for defeat by the entire Republican establishment and their allies in the anti-abortion movement, Feingold refused to accept corrupt campaign money through the Democratic party's sleazy backdoor channels. As a result, the man whose net worth statements regularly get him listed as the Senate's poorest member was dramatically outspent in that hard-fought contest. He won the election narrowly, but the significance of that victory proved to be overwhelming -- as it proved that it remains possible to practice honest politics in Wisconsin and America.
Feingold's refusal to play politics according to the rule book distributed by Democratic party insiders -- as well as his attempts to reduce the influence of corporate special interests on party policies -- has frequently put him at odds with fellow senators. Of late, he battled what he calls a "core group" of half dozen Democrats who want to find ways to get around the McCain-Feingold bill's ban on soft money -- large, unregulated donations to political parties from corporations and powerful interest groups. Feingold identifies Clinton as a member of that group, although Clinton aides challenge the characterization.
After his clash with Clinton last Thursday, Feingold said, "It was a troubling display for a party that claims to be for trying to clean up the system." It was also a reminder of the dramatic differences between the worlds -- real or otherwise -- in which Russ Feingold and Hillary Clinton travel.
Where Clinton has, since her election in 2000, proven to be a cautious, predictably centrist Democrat on most issues, Feingold has a record of rocking the boat. A defender of civil liberties who cast the only vote in the Senate to block the USA Patriot Act's assault on Constitutional protections, Feingold has also been the Senate's most consistent foe of corporate-sponsored free trade schemes, its loudest critic of the death penalty and its most unyielding proponent of government ethics and reform.
Feingold is a maverick whose votes sometimes offend Democrats; for instance, he backed the continuation of the Senate's impeachment trial of Bill Clinton, and he cast a lonely Judiciary Committee vote for the confirmation of the loathsome John Ashcroft as Attorney General. (At the same time, he has opposed more Bush judicial nominees than Clinton and most other Committee Democrats.)
This year, Feingold waged a solo Senate battle to prevent George W. Bush from eliminating the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, and the Wisconsinite has recently challenged Bush administration attempts to launch a war on Iraq without consulting the Senate.
Feingold relishes pushing his party to stand up for progressive principles. He openly condemns the conservative Democratic Leadership Council and that group's attempts to make the Democratic party more appealing to corporate America. On issues of corporate power and politics, Feingold can be a scold -- not to mention a purist. Yet, it is worth noting that his own ethics have led him to eschew the Senate's business-can-do-no-wrong line with a regularity that illustrates the freedom that comes from rejecting the bundles of "soft money" that invariably come wrapped in corporate strings.
Feingold does live in a very different world from Hillary Clinton, Democratic National Committee chair Terry McAuliffe and other Democrats who have chosen to go the big-money route. Democrats can debate whether the Clinton or Feingold is more closely associated with real world. But, for those who take seriously the issues of corporate power and corruption with which the Congress is currently wrestling, there should be little doubt that Russ Feingold's worldview is superior.
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.