John Nichols | The Nation

John Nichols

John Nichols

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House Approves Fast Track

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."

Fast Tracking Fast Track

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.

Rockin' in the Real World

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.

Bernie Sanders: It's About A Lot More Than Accounting

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."

Lonely Votes for Church-State Separation

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.

An Alabama Primary That Went Global

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.

Denied Permission to Sue, Feingold Still Pushes ABM Treaty Fight

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."

Hightower for President, er, no, Jackson for President

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?

Responsible Wealth Trumps Irresponsible Estate Tax Repeal

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.

What Would Bobby Say? Karl Rove Spins RFK to the Right

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.

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