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A US soldier in Iraq, March 22, 2003. (AP Photo/John Moore)
Phil Donahue introduced me to the story of Iraq War vet Tomas Young a number of years ago, when Phil and Ellen Spiro were finishing what remains the most powerful of all documentaries on the war of whim into which George Bush and Dick Cheney led the United States a decade ago—and the consequences of that war.
That 2007 documentary, Body of War, followed the physical and emotional struggles of Young, a veteran paralyzed by a bullet wound to the spine, and juxtaposed them with the Congressional debate on whether to authorize President Bush to invade Iraq.
The most dramatic moment in the film comes when Young meets West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd, who argued so passionately against going to war—during the authorization debate, and in the final weeks before Bush ordered the invasion that would cost thousands of American lives, as many as a milloin Iraqi lives and trillions of dollars. In the film, the two men, one so old and one so young, read the names of the twenty-three senators who opposed authorizing Bush’s war. Then Byrd tells the young soldier, who was wounded just days after arriving in Iraq, that he wished that he could have done something more, anything more, to avert the war.
Byrd is now gone.
And Young’s story is coming to a close.
“Tomas Young has been fighting for the last nine years, fighting his government, fighting the Veterans Administration and fighting his own deteriorating body,” notes his local paper, The Kansas City Star. “But soon the struggle will be over. The Kansas City man who was paralyzed from the chest down by a sniper’s bullet during the Iraq war is now in hospice care and preparing to die.”
Young is not going quietly, however.
He has written a remarkable last letter, addressed to former President Bush and former Vice President Cheney, which first appeared on the TruthDig website.
“I write this letter, my last letter, to you, Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney. I write not because I think you grasp the terrible human and moral consequences of your lies, manipulation and thirst for wealth and power,” Young explains. “I write this letter because, before my own death, I want to make it clear that I, and hundreds of thousands of my fellow veterans, along with millions of my fellow citizens, along with hundreds of millions more in Iraq and the Middle East, know fully who you are and what you have done. You may evade justice but in our eyes you are each guilty of egregious war crimes, of plunder and, finally, of murder, including the murder of thousands of young Americans—my fellow veterans—whose future you stole.“
Young tells a part of his own story, but he makes a universal point—not just about war, but presidential, and vice-presidential, accountability:
I joined the Army two days after the 9/11 attacks. I joined the Army because our country had been attacked. I wanted to strike back at those who had killed some 3,000 of my fellow citizens. I did not join the Army to go to Iraq, a country that had no part in the September 2001 attacks and did not pose a threat to its neighbors, much less to the United States. I did not join the Army to “liberate” Iraqis or to shut down mythical weapons-of-mass-destruction facilities or to implant what you cynically called “democracy” in Baghdad and the Middle East. I did not join the Army to rebuild Iraq, which at the time you told us could be paid for by Iraq’s oil revenues. Instead, this war has cost the United States over $3 trillion. I especially did not join the Army to carry out pre-emptive war. Pre-emptive war is illegal under international law. And as a soldier in Iraq I was, I now know, abetting your idiocy and your crimes. The Iraq War is the largest strategic blunder in U.S. history. It obliterated the balance of power in the Middle East. It installed a corrupt and brutal pro-Iranian government in Baghdad, one cemented in power through the use of torture, death squads and terror. And it has left Iran as the dominant force in the region. On every level—moral, strategic, military and economic—Iraq was a failure. And it was you, Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney, who started this war. It is you who should pay the consequences.
Young’s letter closes on a moral note that goes beyond politics, and is vital for Americas to consider as we mark the tenth anniversary of the wrongheaded war that George Bush and Dick Cheney led us into.
“I believe in the Christian ideal. I believe that what you do to the least of your brothers you finally do to yourself, to your own soul,” he writes. “My day of reckoning is upon me. Yours will come. I hope you will be put on trial. But mostly I hope, for your sakes, that you find the moral courage to face what you have done to me and to many, many others who deserved to live. I hope that before your time on earth ends, as mine is now ending, you will find the strength of character to stand before the American public and the world, and in particular the Iraqi people, and beg for forgiveness.“
Eugene Richards devoted a four-page photo-and-word spread in the March 27, 2006, issue of The Nation to telling the story of Tomas Young. Read Richards' moving essay here.
Will Bush and Cheney be prosecuted for their crimes? As former Congresswoman Elizabeth Holtzman writes, time is running short.
Gay rights activists march on Washington, October 11, 2009. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
Hillary Clinton, who was the first lady of the United States when President Bill Clinton signed the “Defense of Marriage Act,” has recorded a warm and thoughtful endorsement of marriage equality. With the release Monday of her statement, the Democratic Party is completing an evolution on the issue of same-sex marriage. Never again will a serious contender for the party’s presidential nomination—whether Clinton runs in 2016 or not—oppose the right of lesbian couples and gay couples to marry.
But the Democratic Party is not alone in evolving.
Republicans are moving more slowly on the issue. But they are moving. And in many senses this movement provides the most dramatic evidence of the rapid progress being made by proponents of LGBT rights.
When Ohio Senator Rob Portman announced last week that he is now a supporter of marriage equality, he became the latest prominent Republican to abandon the official position of a party that just a few years ago was rigidly—and almost universally—opposed to same-sex marriage.
“I have come to believe that if two people are prepared to make a lifetime commitment to love and care for each other in good times and in bad, the government shouldn’t deny them the opportunity to get married,” said the Ohio senator, who was high on Mitt Romney’s list of vice presidential prospects.
The senator was inspired to abandon his embrace of discrimination at least in part because his son is gay. Other Republicans have been influenced by family connections and friendships. And still others are shifting their stances because they know the Republican Party needs to change.
The Grand Old Party is in a process of transformation that is notable in its scope and character. Less than a decade ago, when states were voting to amend constitutions to formally bar same-sex couples from marrying, leading Republicans were overwhelmingly supportive of discrimination. Now, a growing number of leading Republicans are explicitly rejecting discrimination and taking the position that a new Washington Post/ABC News Poll says 58 percent of all Americans now embrace: “It should be legal for gay and lesbian couples to get married.”
A 2012 presidential contender who was among the top finishers in the New Hampshire primary, former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, says: “There is nothing conservative about denying other Americans the ability to forge that same relationship with the person they love.”
Huntsman is sometimes accused of harboring moderate tendencies. But no one would dare call former Vice President Dick Cheney anything but a conservative, and Cheney says: “I think people ought to be free to enter into any kind of union they wish.” Cheney has reportedly joined former Republican National Committeeman Ken Mehlman in lobbying Republican legislators around the country to support marriage-equality measures such as the one that was enacted in 2012 in Maryland.
It is true that Cheney’s daughter is an out lesbian, and that Mehlman’s an out gay man. But Americans of all partisan and ideological backgrounds have come to support LGBT rights because of personal connections and experiences. That does not detract from the significance of their commitment to marriage equality. As Cheney says with his regard to his support for same-sex unions: “Freedom means freedom for everyone.”
There are plenty of Republicans, plenty of conservative Republicans, who are coming out for marriage equality on principle. Republicans like former United Nations ambassador John Bolton and former Solicitor General Ted Olson. “We’re talking about an effect upon millions of people and the way they live their everyday life and the way they’re treated in their neighborhood, in their schools, in their jobs,” says Olson. “If you are a conservative, how could you be against a relationship in which people who love one another want to publicly state their vows… and engage in a household in which they are committed to one another and become part of the community and accepted like other people?”
Olson is one of the lawyers aiding the suit that seeks to overturn California’s Proposition 8 ban on same-sex marriage, along with discriminatory laws in other states.
More than eighty prominent conservatives—including former GOP cabinet members and presidential aides, ex-governors and sitting members of Congress—have signed a legal brief arguing that lesbians and gays have a constitutional right to marry.
Of course, there are still throwbacks in the GOP. At the Conservative Political Action Conference last weekend, Florida Senator Marco Rubio drew cheers when he declared to the cardinals, “Just because I believe that states should have the right to define marriage in a traditional way does not make me a bigot.”
Rubio may genuinely reject the argument that his support for discriminatory laws makes him a bigot. But his stance, while it mirrors that of many older Republicans, is not in tune with the young men and women who will shape the party’s future. Among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents under the age of 50, the Washington Post/ABC News Poll found that 52 percent favor marriage equality.
A recognition of that reality underpins at least some of the rethinking within the GOP. “The die is cast on this issue when you look at the percentage of younger voters who support gay marriage,” says Steve Schmidt, who served as a senior adviser to Arizona Senator John McCain’s Republican presidential run.
Schmidt signed the legal brief on behalf of marriage equality.
“I believe Republicans should re-examine the extent to which we are being defined by positions on issues that I don’t believe are among our core values, and that put us at odds with what I expect will become over time, if not a consensus view, then the view of a substantial majority of voters,” Schmidt has been arguing for some time now.
The veteran Republican strategist argues that “denying two consenting adults of the same sex the right to form a lawful union that is protected and respected by the state denies them two of the most basic natural rights affirmed in the preamble of our Declaration of Independence—liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That, I believe, gives the argument of same sex marriage proponents its moral force.”
That’s an old-school Republican position, one that Schmidt explains is rooted in “the national creed, what Lincoln called the inestimable jewel of American history.” This, says Schmidt, is why he and so many other conservatives have decided to urge fellow Republicans “to respect every human being’s rights to liberty and the pursuit of happiness as much as they cherish their own.”
Schmidt and his fellow Republican supporters of marriage equality are making a big leap away from the right-wing social conservatism that has defined the Republican Party in recent decades. But groups such as the Log Cabin Republicans argue that the move reconnects Republicans with a part of their past. More and more, those who would move the party away from rigid social conservatism argue, Republicans are coming to recognize that the party’s first president was right when he wrote in 1859: “Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves.”
The Republican Party remains almost completely at odds with its original values on economic issues and a host of other concerns. It is far from the “Party of Lincoln” that it once was. But just as it has been proper to note the Republican devolution away from the best of its historic values, so it is reasonable to note any evidence of an evolution back toward the party’s former self—not merely because of what that suggests about the party’s progress but because of what it says about the broader and better shifting of our national politics.
Republican positioning on voting rights is another story. Read Ari Berman's update on challenges to the Voting Rights Act.
Sister Simone Campbell addresses the Democratic National Convention, September 5, 2012. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Ryan’s rehash of failed ideas for ending Medicare, gutting Medicaid and lowering taxes for the rich puts the defeated Republican vice presidential candidate back in the limelight.
And that means the “Nuns on the Bus” are back, as well.
Last year, after Ryan tried to make a case that his austerity agenda was in keeping with Catholic social justice teaching, the nuns begged to differ.
NETWORK, the Catholic social justice lobby, decided to focus attention on moral objections to Ryan’s budget schemes. They did so with the “Nuns on the Bus” tour, which brought NETWORK executive director Sister Simone Campbell and other Catholic Sisters to the congressman’s hometown of Janesville, Wisconsin.
There, and in communities across the country, Sister Simone and the nuns challenged Ryan’s economic extremism.
Unfortunately, Ryan didn’t get the message—just as he didn’t get the signal sent by voters who rejected the Romney-Ryan ticket by almost 5 million votes.
So the NETWORK nuns are again seeking to right the wayward congressman’s course.
Here’s the statement on the Ryan budget from NETWORK:
On Tuesday, March 12, Rep. Paul Ryan released the Republican FY14 Budget proposal: The Path to Prosperity, A Responsible Balanced Budget. It is difficult to see how it is either balanced or responsible.
As the New York Times noted in today’s editorial, this budget is nothing more than “a retread of ideas that voters soundly rejected, made even worse, if possible, by sharper cuts to vital services and more dishonest tax provisions.”
Also, as Ezra Klein points out in today’s Washington Post: “Here is Paul Ryan’s path to a balanced budget in three sentences: He cuts deep into spending on health care for the poor and some combination of education, infrastructure, research, public-safety, and low-income programs. The Affordable Care Act’s Medicare cuts remain, but the military is spared, as is Social Security.
There’s a vague individual tax reform plan that leaves only two tax brackets—10 percent and 25 percent—and will require either huge, deficit-busting tax cuts or increasing taxes on poor and middle-class households, as well as a vague corporate tax reform plan that lowers the rate from 35 percent to 25 percent.”
Rep. Ryan claims to balance the budget within 10 years while lowering tax rates. He admits that some of this is due to the already-in-place tax increases on those earning more than $400,000 per year, which he STRONGLY opposed, and more of it is due to repealing (not reducing) the Affordable Care Act. Medicaid would become a capped block grant program—which would result in denying healthcare to at least hundreds of thousands of persons who have no access to insurance, thus increasing the real costs of healthcare by their use of emergency rooms for common ailments. Medicare would have means-tested premiums for high-income seniors, and workers born in 1959 or later would enter a private Medicare Exchange with a premium support provided beginning in 2024. Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps) would be given over to the states in a block grant, and a federal mandate would call for time limits and work requirements.
In his totals, spending would be about $50 billion less than under sequestration! Discretionary spending would total $966 billion, which is $92 billion below the $1.058 trillion cap established by the 2011 Budget Control Act. There are no stated provisions to accommodate the needs of children, the elderly and those with physical or emotional restrictions on their ability to work.
NETWORK strongly opposes each of the above proposals as they create untenable situations for those struggling to survive economically.
Paul Ryan may have convinced his fellow Republicans to go along with austerity.
But the nuns are not on board with Ryan.
What would a Ryan-written budget mean for women? Read Bryce Covert's analysis.
Paul Ryan speaks in Fayetteville, North Carolina, August 23, 2012. (AP Photo/Sara D. Davis)
Reasonable people might ask: What is Paul Ryan thinking?
The new budget “plan” from the guy Republicans think of as their “numbers guy” is little more than an assemblage of bumper-sticker slogans. And they aren’t even popular slogans: They’re rehashes of the proposals American voters—including Ryan’s own constituents—rejected in 2012.
So what is Paul Ryan up to?
Well, if you don’t know by now, you haven’t been paying attention.
What Paul Ryan is up to is not balancing budgets or reforming “entitlement” programs. He knows that “the plan” he unveiled on Wednesday—with its $5.7 trillion in spending cuts and fantastical assertion that austerity will balance the budget in a decade—will not be the plan going forward for the United States. A man of Washington with more than a quarter-century of insider experience, he well understands that it may not even be part of the plan.
That is not the point.
The point, as Ryan watchers will recognize, is to make conservatives believe that Paul Ryan is the one prominent Republican who can see straight when it comes to budget matters.
So it is that the House Budget Committee chairman is launching his budget proposal on the Wednesday before the start of the Conservative Political Action Conference, which will bring thousands of the Republican Party’s most determined right-wing advocates to Washington. And who will be kicking things off on Friday morning? In the prime spot to set up coverage of conference? That would be Paul Ryan.
Yes, of course, he will have some limelight competition. Sarah Palin is back after going missing for most of 2012. Marco Rubio will drop by for a glass of water. And Rand Paul will deliver a shortened version of his recent filibuster. They’re all pictured on the front of the CPAC promotional materials. But there in the montage, just a little bit more prominent than the other three “stars,” is Paul Ryan.
Ryan’s running mate on the 2012 Republican ticket, Mitt Romney, does not get the “star” treatment.
Yes, it may be true that Ryan is the rare major-party vice presidential candidate whose image was damaged by taking a place on a national ticket. Yes, it may be true that, once Americans got to know Paul Ryan, the Republican ticket on which he was running began to lose steam. Yes, it may be true that the Romney-Ryan ticket lost Ryan’s home precinct, his hometown, his home county and his home state.
But at CPAC, Ryan can still be a winner.
The key word is “can.” He’ll need to do some damage control. He is not quite the wunderkind he was a year ago.
So Ryan will go “home” again to repurpose himself as the conservative with all the answers—at least for conservatives.
That’s important to Paul Ryan.
He is a true believer—or, at the very least, a true believer in the importance of getting the true believers on your side. A product of conservative congressional offices and conservative think tanks, Ryan has been attending Conservative Political Action Conferences for more than two decades. And he is, first and foremost, interested in preaching to the base that has always sustained him. So the congressman will show up at CPAC with a budget “plan” that tells conservatives they are still right.
The old dreams live.
Repeal Obamacare? You bet!
Bend, fold and mutilate Medicare into a voucher scheme? Well, of course.
Cut taxes for the rich? Oh yeah!
But above all, Ryan will, once more and with gusto this time, tell conservatives that they can keep embracing their favorite fantasy: that it is possible to impose austerity, making massive cuts in spending on needed programs, without causing chaos or harm; that the United States can provide billionaires with more tax benefits than they already enjoy, maintain a social safety net, run up military spending to record levels and, somehow, avoid the sort of deficits that Ronald Reagan ran up.
The great mass of American voters has seen through the fiscal fantasy. They just rejected Ryanism—by almost 5 million votes in the 2012 presidential race.
The voters knew what Ryan was offering—and what he is offering once more—and they voted “no.”
But the CPAC crowd still says “yes.”
And that’s enough for Paul Ryan this week.
He may still want to be president—although he might have to get in line behind an even more ambitious Wisconsinite, Governor Scott Walker, for that fight.
At a minimum, Ryan would like to be considered for speaker of the House.
But, above all, Paul Ryan wants to be the king of the conservatives. Because only if he is the king of the conservatives can Paul Ryan imagine becoming anything more.
If that means Ryan has to propose a budget “plan” that will only make sense to the crowd at CPAC, so be it.
As Republican leaders push for deeper retrenchment, people around the world are hitting the streets to resist austerity. Read Allison Kilkenny’s report.
Protesters rally at the Wisconsin State Capitol, March 12, 2011. (Reuters/Allen Fredrickson)
The makers of We Are Wisconsin—the critically acclaimed documentary about the 2011 Wisconsin Uprising and its aftermath—are sponsoring screenings of the film Monday in communities across the country as part of a National Day of Recommitment to labor rights.
“The day is the second anniversary of the signing by Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin Act 10, which ended 60 years of progress for Wisconsin workers,” note the filmmakers. “The Walker assault led to battles all over America, challenging us all to stand up for working families, and to organize to put our country back on the right track.”
“Recommitment” is a well-chosen word.
Despite the battering that unions have taken in recent years—not just in Wisconsin but nationally—a recommitment to labor rights is really a renewal of ideas and values that America once exported to the world.
There was a time, within the living memory of millions of Americans, when this country championed democracy, freedom of speech, freedom of the press and the rights of labor in the same breath.
When the United States occupied Japan after World War II, General Douglas MacArthur and his aides worked with Japanese citizens to write a Constitution that would assure Hideki Tojo’s militarized autocracy was replaced with democracy. Fully aware that workers would need to have a voice in the new Japan, they included language that explicitly recognized that “the right of workers to organize and to bargain and act collectively is guaranteed.”
When the United States occupied Germany after World War II, General Dwight David Eisenhower and his aides urged German citizens to write a Constitution that would assure that Adolf Hitler’s fascism was replaced with a democracy. Recognizing that workers would need to have a voice in the new Germany, they included a provision that explicitly declared: “The right to form associations to safeguard and improve working and economic conditions shall be guaranteed to every individual and to every occupation or profession. Agreements that restrict or seek to impair this right shall be null and void; measures directed to this end shall be unlawful.”
When former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt chaired the International Commission on Human Rights, which drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that would in 1948 be adopted by the United Nations as a global covenant, Roosevelt and the drafters included a guarantee that “everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.”
For generations, Americans accepted the basic premise that labor rights are human rights. When this country counseled other countries on how to forge civil and democratic societies, Americans recognized that the right to organize a trade union—and to have that trade union engage in collective bargaining as an equal partner with corporations and government agencies—must be protected.
Now, with those rights under assault, it is wise, indeed, to recommit to the American ideal that working people must have a right to organize and to make their voices heard in a free and open society. As the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., said fifty years ago:
History is a great teacher. Now everyone knows that the labor movement did not diminish the strength of the nation but enlarged it. By raising the living standards of millions, labor miraculously created a market for industry and lifted the whole nation to undreamed of levels of production. Those who attack labor forget these simple truths, but history remembers them.
History remembers, as should we. A recommitment to labor rights is a recommitment to ideals that enlarged America and made real the promise of democracy.
(As part of the National Day of Recommitment, We Are Wisconsin showings will be held across the United States. For more information on National Day of Recommitment events, go to: wearewisconsinthefilm.com/.)
Rand Paul appears on screen at the US Capitol as he filibusters on the Senate floor against CIA nominee John Brennan. (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)
When the Senate organizes itself every two years, the members set the rules for the coming term. This year, a number of senators—along with citizens and commentators from across the country—argued unsuccessfully for filibuster reform. Frustrated by delays in consideration of policies and nominations, supporters of the reform argued that the rules had to change in order to get a dysfunctional Senate functioning.
But it is important to note that reformers did not seek an end to the filibuster.
Rather, the goal was the restoration of the filibuster as it was historically known—as a “talking filibuster” that requires a dissenting senator to speak his objections, hour after hour, into the congressional record.
That’s what Kentucky Senator Rand Paul did Wednesday, after announcing to the Senate, “I rise today to begin to filibuster John Brennan’s nomination for the CIA. I will speak until I can no longer speak. I will speak as long as it takes, until the alarm is sounded from coast to coast that our Constitution is important, that your rights to trial by jury are precious, that no American should be killed by a drone on American soil without first being charged with a crime, without first being found to be guilty by a court,”
The freshman Republican’s filibuster of the Brennan nomination lasted from 11:47 Wednesday morning until 12:39 Thursday morning, clocking in at just under thirteen hours.
It wasn’t quite a reprise of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, the 1939 film in which Senator Jefferson Smith took on the political bosses with what a radio announcer described as “democracy’s finest show.”
Yet, this was a genuine filibuster, not merely in style but in content.
Of course, as is often the case with talking filibusters, there was a measure of grandstanding and over-the-top speechifying -- not to mention assertions that have already drawn disagreement from not just Democrats but Republicans such as Arizona Senator John McCain. And there can be no question that some of the Republicans who were cheering Paul on undoubtedly cared more about griping generally with regard to the Obama administration than restoring a pristine separation of powers.
Paul's no progressive hero. He's wrong on plenty of issues, he's often combative and he seems to be positioning for a presidential run that could well see him steer away from the libertarianism he once espoused and toward conservative orthodoxy.
But it is not necessary to agree with Paul to respect the fact that he was raising serious issues, and doing so with an eye toward getting both his fellow senators and Americans who watched the speech on C-Span engaged with those issues.
It was for this reason that Oregon Senator Ron Wyden, a Democrat who has been focusing with increasing frequency on constitutional issues, was among those who helped Paul by coming to the floor to ask questions—often in the form of extended expressions of concern about executive overreach in general and targeted killings in particular.
Joining Paul on the Senate floor, Wyden argued that “the executive branch should not be allowed to conduct such a serious and far-reaching program by themselves without any scrutiny, because that’s not how American democracy works. That’s not what our system is about.”
Wyden has, with Paul, formed a Checks and Balances Caucus, along with Senators Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Mark Udall, D-Colorado. The senators come not just from separate parties but from separate ends of the ideological spectrum. They are united in raising questions and concerns about the extension of executive power, especially when it comes to espionage and domestic manifestations of the war on terror.
This is not the first time right and left have come together on civil liberties issues. Rand Paul’s father, former Congressman Ron Paul, R-Texas, was one of several House Republicans who voted with Democrats such as Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold against the Patriot Act and who joined Democrats in objecting to domestic surveillance initiatives that critics recognized as threats to civil liberties.
Even now, at a rancorous moment in American history, Paul and Wyden suggest that there are places where senators can come together in defense of civil liberties.
“The issue of American security and American freedom really doesn’t get enough discussion here in the United States Senate and it’s my view that the senator from Kentucky has made a number of important points this day,” Wyden said Wednesday.
Those points went beyond the wrangling over the Brennan nomination, which will go forward with the support of Wyden and, presumably, most senators.
This is where we see the difference between the abuses of the filibuster by senators who quietly submit vague objections and the talking filibuster.
Threatening to filibuster a bill or an appointment for the purpose of obstructing the majority is just that: obstruction.
Going to the floor and arguing on behalf of a position or an ideal is something more. At its best, a talking filibuster seeks to focus the attention of the Senate and the nation on an issue that might otherwise be neglected. And to the extent that he succeeded, Paul confirmed the point of Brookings Institution senior fellow Sarah Binder, when she asked rhetorically, “What’s not to like about a mini demonstration of a real live filibuster?!”
Talking filibusters may frustrate senators and citizens. And they are not always noble in intent or practice.
But they serve a purpose. That’s why filibuster reformers argued not for the elimination of the filibuster but for the restoration of the talking filibuster as it was employed by Jefferson Smith.
Peter Van Buren argues that the Iraq invasion was the single worst foreign policy decision in American history.
Michigan Governor Rick Snyder presents his third state budget before the state Legislature, Thursday, February 7, 2013. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)
Recalling the partial meltdown of a nearby nuclear power plant a decade earlier, and a book that revealed the extent of the crisis, Gil Scott Heron sang in 1977, “We Almost Lost Detroit.”
The city survived, and remains home to 700,000 Americans and the symbolic center of the nation’s auto industry. But after decades of neglect by federal and state officials, and a meltdown of American manufacturing, Detroit is facing hard economic times.
Detroit is up against plenty of threats. But the most pressing one today is political.
If Michigan Governor Rick Snyder gets his way, Detroit runs the risk of losing democracy.
Snyder, a Republican who led the charge for Michigan’s enactment of an anti-labor “right-to-work” law last year, is targeting Detroit for a state takeover that will disempower the elected mayor and city council and give authority over the city’s finances, service delivery and direction to an appointed “emergency manager.”
The dramatic move, which is opposed by local officials and community activists, seems all but certain to be made within days. Snyder signals that he is determined to go ahead, employing the authority that he has taken up for himself to disempower local elected officials and replace them with an appointee who can impose cuts to public services, toss out policies established by the voters and their elected representatives and trash contracts with unions representing municipal employees.
As significantly, the emergency manager has the power to begin bartering off Detroit’s assets in a frenzy that could privatize waterfront recreation facilities, museums and public utilities.
The Reverend D. Alexander Bullock, a prominent local pastor who serves as president of the Detroit chapter of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, tells local reporters that Snyder’s intended move is nothing less than “the death of democracy in Detroit.”
His point is well taken. Detroit City Council member Ken Cockrel Jr. says “strong, independent-minded [citizens] want to help the city” by seeking and holding local elected positions have every reason to ask: “Why should I run for public office in the city of Detroit if the only thing I’m going to have the authority to do is pass out resolutions and kiss babies because an [emergency manager] is the one calling all the shots?”
Snyder is preparing to do by fiat what he and his political allies could not do at the polls: take charge of local government in Michigan’s largest city. In the 2012 election, Democrat Barack Obama received 98 percent of the almost 300,000 votes cast in Detroit, while Republican Mitt Romney took just over 2 percent. No Republican contender for federal, state or local office won more than 6 percent of the vote in the city.
Yet, now, a Republican governor will set the city’s agenda as part of a statewide power grab. If the Detroit takeover is implemented, it is estimated that almost 50 percent of Michigan’s African-American population will live in communities that are run not be local elected officials but by gubernatorial appointees.
Michigan voters rejected Snyder’s approach last fall, voting in a statewide referendum to scrap the emergency-manager law. But Snyder and the Republican legislature turned around and wrote new legislation that gives the governor authority to—in the words of state Representative Rose Mary Robinson, a Detroit Democrat—make moves “without debate, without democratic involvement, without the people’s involvement.”
Detroit is Michigan’s largest city, and the governor’s plan has drawn national notice.
“In this particular case, you have to in some degree look at it as a hostile takeover,” explains David Bositis of the Joint Center for Political Studies. A veteran scholar of urban affairs who has tracked the rise of African-American elected officials in America, Bositis argues that “Detroit is a very Democratic city and it’s being taken over by a very Republican and conservative state government.”
Snyder says the move is necessary because—like many great industrial cities that have lost the factories that provided employment and tax revenues—Detroit’s finances are in rough shape. That’s true enough. And it is true that local officials have had a very hard time dealing with the issues that arise when a city’s tax base is disappearing.
But what Snyder does not mention is that the state he runs has played a role in Detroit’s decline by withholding financial assistance that is due to the city.
The Detroit News notes that the city’s elected representatives are angry with the state for failing to provide over $220 million in revenue-sharing payments.
The money was supposed to be paid the city after it capped income tax rates. But even as Detroit’s economic circumstance worsened, Snyder refused to provide the needed assistance.
“Why not give the city its revenue sharing?” asks State Representative Brian Banks, a Democrat whose district takes in a portion of Detroit’s northeast side. “Why not start giving a portion of it?”
“The governor won’t admit that the state is culpable in why and how Detroit has got here,” State Senator Bert Johnson, a Highland Park Democrat, told the News. “If you cut revenue sharing, you cut money for the Police Department that has to manage the 139 square miles that is Detroit.”
The concern on the ground in Detroit is that Snyder is not really interested in stabilizing Detroit’s finances.
For all the hits it takes in the media, Detroit is a city with tremendous public assets, including Belle Isle, a 982-acre island park in the Detroit River, which is managed by the Detroit Recreation Department. It’s got public utilities, such as the Detroit Department of Water and Sewerage. Even the Detroit Institute of the Arts, which has an art collection valued at more than $1 billion, could be up for grabs.
As the Metropolitan AFL-CIO noted, the governor’s move “will benefit out of town creditors and make our communities less livable.”
And it will all happen without the approval of the voters or their elected representatives.
That’s the fundamental challenge.
In tough times, under pressure from lenders and taxpayers, cities often make cuts. They even privatize services and sell off public facilities.
But under Snyder’s emergency manager law, Detroit’s elected officials won’t be making any of those calls.
An appointee of a Republican governor will be doing do.
This is not what the voters of Detroit asked for. Last fall, they had an opportunity to vote on whether the state should maintain the emergency manager law. Eighty-two percent of Detroit residents voted “no.”
“When times are tough,” local union officials said in a statement released after the governor’s announcement, “it is especially important that decisions are made democratically and locally.”
That’s an essential American principle that Governor Snyder seeks to abandon with a power grab that should unsettle Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives. What’s happening in Detroit is not what democracy looks like.
Who’s to blame for debt and economic disarray? As Allison Kilkenny writes, Occupy activists are shifting the debate—while also helping people recoup their losses.
Paul Ryan speaks about the budget on Capitol Hill, March 20, 2012. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
Remember when, in the 2012 vice presidential debate, Paul Ryan was asked about his plans for Medicare?
Ryan said that, yes, he “absolutely” wanted to “reform” Medicare.
He was less specific about the fact that his favored reform, a so-called “premium support” scheme, rejects basic premises of the popular program and restructures it as a voucher experiment.
Ryan kept that part vague because it scares not just Americans who rely on Medicare but Americans who are nearing retirement age. (In fact, polling suggests, it scares Americans who are a long way from retirement age.)
The fear is legitimate. The reforms Ryan has proposed in various forms over the past several years represent a radical abandonment of the commitment made in 1965 when President Lyndon Johnson signed the bill establishing Medicare with the promise that
No longer will older Americans be denied the healing miracle of modern medicine. No longer will illness crush and destroy the savings that they have so carefully put away over a lifetime so that they might enjoy dignity in their later years. No longer will young families see their own incomes, and their own hopes, eaten away simply because they are carrying out their deep moral obligations to their parents, and to their uncles, and their aunts. And no longer will this Nation refuse the hand of justice to those who have given a lifetime of service and wisdom and labor to the progress of this progressive country.
When he was his party’s nominee for vice president, Paul Ryan sought to address voter concerns about that abandonment by promising not to mess with retired Americans or with Americans who are near retirement age.
At the critical point in the debate, the House Budget Committee nominee explained: “You see, if you reform these programs for my generation, people 54 and below, you can guarantee they don’t change for people in or near retirement, which is precisely what Mitt Romney and I are proposing.”
Well, never mind.
Now, Ryan is working up a new budget plan. And instead of only targeting “people 54 and below,” he has, according to published reports, “privately been floating the idea of allowing his changes to Medicare to kick in for Americans younger than 56.”
Indeed, says a House Republican who attended a closed-door meeting with Ryan Monday, the Budget Committee chairman has told colleagues that, in order to balance the budget over the next decade (as his new plan will propose), he might have to adjust the age as high as 59.
“Paul Ryan was pretty clear that that could happen. You could have to take it up to a higher number like 56, 57, 59… it could be higher than 55, but he also said, ‘We don’t have any numbers yet,’ ” the Republican lawmaker told The Hill.
What this suggests is that, in order to initiate the European-style austerity agenda that Ryan and many top Republicans now appear to be determined to bring to America, they are entertaining proposals that could upset the retirement plans of millions of Americans who had been planning to rely on traditional Medicare coverage in their retirement.
That’s a radical change, and a daunting one, especially for workers in the 55–59 age range, who are already well into planning for retirement—which on average occurs around age 62. Those workers, battered by the economic meltdown of 2008 and in many cases struggling to pay for the education of children and the care of elderly parents, are already squeezed.
And Paul Ryan appears to be interested in squeezing them more.
Not because Medicare is inefficient, ineffective or unpopular. Indeed, the program is well-regarded both for the access to care it provides and for the cost-effectiveness with which it is provided. As Congressman Keith Ellison, D-Minnesota, notes:
Medicare alone provides health care to 40 million American seniors and more than 8 million Americans with disabilities—and does so at a fraction of the cost of private insurance. Inevitably, we are going to be asked about the rising cost of health care. We should welcome this conversation. Allowing Medicare Part D to negotiate lower drug prices for seniors—just like the Veterans Administration already does—will save more than $150 billion over 10 years. But cutting benefits has nothing to do with cutting health care costs, and actually increases costs for seniors. Raising the retirement age for Medicare would cost our own family members over $2,000 and increase health care costs by over $11 trillion.
So what’s Ryan thinking? Actually, he’s not thinking about saving Medicare. He’s thinking about advancing the austerity agenda of the “Fix the Debt” crowd that keeps proposing to “reform entitlements” at the same time that it is seeking to lower top marginal tax rates for the wealthiest Americans and the largest corporations.
That’s an easy sell on Wall Street. But a tough one on Main Street.
House Republicans in vulnerable districts are already crying foul, noting that they sought election on a promise not to mess with the plans of Americans nearing retirement—the same promise Ryan made in the debate. Their concerns could cause Ryan to temper some of his plans—at least publicly—as he rolls out his latest budget proposal.
Yet, every evidence is that Ryan is determined to mess with Medicare—even if the move is politically charged. Tea Party “deficit hawks” want to do so.
And so does Ryan’s core constituency.
No, not the voters back home in Wisconsin. Nor even the Republicans who might entertain a “Ryan for president” run in 2016.
Ryan’s campaign-donor constituency.
Insurance companies that certainly have an interest in those “premium support” vouchers provide a lot of campaign contributions to Paul Ryan. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, donors with insurance company ties were number three on the list of top contributor’s to Ryan’s 2012 congressional campaign, right after donors from the securities and investment industry.
Perhaps the theory is that, with enough campaign money, it will be possible to convince members of one of America’s highest-voting age demographics that they don’t mind having their retirement plans sacrificed on the altar of austerity.
If that’s the gamble, Ryan would do well to remember that when the voters who had elected and re-elected him to the US House by wide margins in elections from 1998 to 2010 got a sense of his plans for Medicare in 2012, they weren’t impressed. Not only did Ryan and Mitt Romney lose nationally, they lost in Ryan’s home state of Wisconsin, and Ryan the congressional candidate recorded the worst finish of his career. Even after he sugar-coated his proposals for election audiences, Ryan lost his home precinct, his hometown and his home county to a candidate who promised not to mangle Medicare.
Far from stiffing seniors, it’s time to tax financial transactions, Katrina vanden Heuvel writes.
The Federal Palace of Switzerland, which houses parliament and other government offices. (Wikimedia Commons)
Does anyone seriously doubt that, if America had the same national referendum system that Switzerland does, voters in the United States would vote just as aggressively as the Swiss have to curb CEO abuses?
Actually, the 68 percent support for Sunday’s Swiss referendum that gives shareholders broad new powers to curb excessive pay for bankers and corporate executives might well be shy of the mark that the US could hit.
Polls of American voters have regularly shown that over 70 percent favor restrictions on executive compensation, with even self-identified conservatives registering majority support for clamping down on CEOs.
And rightly so. It is not jealousy that motivates concerns about CEO pay. As the AFL-CIO’s Executive Paywatch campaign notes, when CEO pay rises so too does income inequality. In 2010, as the United States emerged from the depths of the Bush recession, a study by University of California economist Emmanuel Saez found that the top 1 percent of Americans captured 93 percent of the growth in income.
Worse yet, CEOs use their money to game the system so that they get richer while the great mass of Americans are squeezed. More than 120 CEOs are currently supporting billionaire Pete Peterson’s “Fix the Debt” campaign, which is chaired by Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson. A deficit-reduction plan proposed by Bowles and Simpson last month would slash cost-of-living increases for Social Security recipients while at the same time reducing the top marginal tax rate for corporations and the wealthy.
In Switzerland, anger at “golden handshake” and “golden parachute” deals for executives who ran corporations poorly and seemed to be more concerned for their own good than for the long-term economic prosperity of their country, led by small businessman and parliamentarian Thomas Minder to mount a populist campaign to increase the authority of shareholders to regulate errant CEOs.
As in the United States, that’s the sort of proposal that gets a lot of talk but that was not likely to go far in the corridors of political power in Switzerland. Luckily, Switzerland has a long history of allowing citizens to initiate and implement legislative changes. Under Swiss law, any issue can be put to a national referendum if supporters of a vote attain 100,000 petition signatures seeking the test. In recent years, the Swiss have voted on people’s initiatives to guarantee “six weeks of vacation for everyone,” to put an “end to the limitless construction of second homes” that crowd Alpine villages, to expand the ability of tax-supported building society savings to finance energy saving and environmental measures, and to require money gained from maintaining casinos be used for the public interest.
Minder, who has been campaigning for years to address excessive pay for executives he refers to as “losers of the century” and “studs in pinstripes,” was elected to the Swiss Senate as an independent (who has since sided with conservatives on some issues and the Greens on others) in 2011. He agitated on the inside of government for moves to empower shareholders, but quickly turned to the referendum route. Condemned as a “loner” and criticized for being uncompromising, Minder went up against the political and economic establishment in Switzerland, a country that has long been a haven for multinational corporations and banks. His “Minder Initiative” drew aggressive opposition from prominent business and political leaders. But it made sense to voters, especially as Minder explained: “I never said that my goal was the reduction of salaries. I just want shareholders to take responsibility for the levels of remuneration. If the shareholders want to waste company money by paying exorbitant amounts, that’s their problem.”
At the very least, the sweeping victory for reform in Switzerland has sent a signal. One of the leading newspapers in the banking center of Zurich, Tages-Anzeiger, observed Monday morning that the decision was “a vote in favour of decency and fair salaries.” The vote “does not above all express envy,” the newspaper’s editorial continued, “but a feeling that company managers have been ransacking the coffers at the expenses of society.”
The Minder Initiative serves as an important model for US discussions about increasing shareholder rights. And that discussion can and should go well beyond the question of CEO pay.
In 2010, the US Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling removed barriers to unlimited corporate spending on US political campaigns. At the same time, highly compensated CEOs are among the biggest direct donors not just to individual campaigns but to so-called “Super PACs” that flood the airwaves with negative advertising.
The Citizens United ruling will ultimately need to be addressed either by a reversal of the court’s decision or by a constitutional amendment. But of the immediate fixes that have been proposed, one of the best is the suggestion that shareholders be given the right to vote on corporate political expenditures. Britain has such a law. But the United States does not. As a result, notes the Brennan Center, the “Citizens United decision opened a loophole in which one group of Americans—shareholders in publicly traded companies—must routinely support political goals that they may reject. Under Citizens United, corporations can spend directly from their treasuries to influence elections. When shareholders’ invested money is spent on politics, millions of Americans are stuck unknowingly contributing to political causes they may not themselves support.”
In 2011, Congressman Michael Capuano (D-MA) introduced an American Shareholder Protection Act to empower shareholders to vote on whether to allow CEOs and corporate boards to spend company money on political campaigns. “Shareholders—not the CEO and not the board of directors—are the real owners of any publicly traded corporation, and the decision should be theirs,” argued Public Citizen in campaigning for the measure, which attracted forty-nine co-sponsors.
Public Citizen has also led the campaign to get the Obama administration to crackdown on federal contractors that use corporate money—from accounts padded with taxpayer dollars—to fund campaigns. Which raises an interesting question: Could the president issue an executive order giving shareholders of companies that contract with the government the authority to decide whether those firms should play politics with corporate money?
The Swiss vote for the Minder Initiative is drawing a lot of attention in the United States.
That’s good. Hopefully, it will lead to greater pressure for reducing excessive CEO pay.But it is essential to recognize that simply regulating CEOs is not enough.
Shareholders should be empowered in the US, as they have been in Switzerland. “The shareholders are the owners of the company,” explains Julie Goodridge, CEO of NorthStar Asset Management of Boston, a socially active investment firm. “They need to be voting on these kinds of contributions.”
As Public Citizen notes, “Anyone with a 401(k) invested in stocks or mutual funds—nearly half of all households today—has a stake in how the corporate money in those funds is spent. Passage of a Shareholder Protection Act would help the public hold corporations accountable for their political behavior.”
And, make no mistake, if the United States had a national referendum model like Switzerland, we would not have to wait for Congress to act. The voters would pass a Shareholder Protection Act. And probably by a wider margin than Switzerland’s 68 percent.
The Obama administration has been a revolving door for corporate leaders. Read Josh Eidelson and Lee Fang’s analysis of Obama’s nominee to head the Office of Management and Budget—the president of the Walmart Foundation.
Former Vice President Dick Cheney lurks in the Old Senate Chamber on Capitol Hill. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
After the Republicans gained control of the US Senate in the 2002 election, giving them across-the-board dominance of the legislative and executive branches of the federal government, the key players in the administration of President George W. Bush gathered to discuss fiscal policy.
Vice President Dick Cheney wanted to cut taxes for the rich.
Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill was skeptical. According to his recounting of the incident in Ron Suskind’s brilliant book, The Price of Loyalty, O’Neill expressed concern that a trillion dollars worth of tax cuts had already been enacted. O’Neill was no liberal. He liked tax cuts. But with the country rebuilding from the economic slowdown after the 9/11 attacks, and with a war being fought in Afghanistan and another on the horizon in Iraq, O’Neill noted that the budget deficit was increasing. And he argued against Cheney’s position, suggesting that another tax cut was unnecessary and unwise.
“You know, Paul, Reagan proved that deficits don’t matter,” said the vice president. “We won the mid-term elections, this is our due.”
O’Neill was, according to Suskind, left speechless.
But Cheney wasn’t done. He and the Bush-Cheney administration that he served as CEO piled up deficits and debts. Indeed, as The New York Times has well noted, “Under Mr. Bush, tax cuts and war spending were the biggest policy drivers of the swing from projected surpluses to deficits from 2002 to 2009. Budget estimates that didn’t foresee the recessions in 2001 and in 2008 and 2009 also contributed to deficits. Mr. Obama’s policies, taken out to 2017, add to deficits, but not by nearly as much.”
Now, a decade later, Cheney’s party is arguing that deficits matter. A lot. House Republicans are so fretful that they are willing to steer the country toward chaos by refusing the compromises that would avert across-the-board sequester cuts. Other Republicans uncomfortable with sequestration are pushing an austerity agenda that’s better organized than the sequester, but potentially even more painful.
The fact is that deficits are relevant.
So are debts.
Nations must treat them seriously.
But nations do not have to fear deficits, any more than Dick Cheney did on that day in the fall of 2002. And in that sense Cheney was right: deficits don’t matter if they are employed for a purpose. Cheney’s purpose—cutting taxes for the rich—was dubious. But stimulating the economy, expanding access to healthcare, funding state and local governments and protecting seniors on Social Security… these are good, and necessary, purposes.
Spending has value, especially when it is needed. As Bob Borosage of the Campaign for America’s Future reminds us: “The U.S. has witnessed slow growth since coming out of the Great Recession in 2009. The result has been a deficit that has come down from over 10 percent of gross domestic product to a projected 5.3 percent of GDP this year (slightly higher if Congress is sensible enough to repeal the sequester) and a projected 2.4 percent in 2015 (if congressional austerity bombs don’t blow up the weak recovery).”
For Cheney’s political heirs to claim now that the United States is in crisis, or at a “tipping point,” is absurd. For them to refuse to govern until they get their way, throwing one tantrum after another, is irresponsible. For them to see value in sequester cuts that impose real pain on real people is not just crude, it’s economically senseless—and dangerous to the long-term prospects for economic renewal and growth.
President Obama needs to push back against the deficit fabulists. He does not have to echo Cheney’s glib “deficits don’t matter” talk. But he should explain, as economist Dean Baker does, that the ranting and raving about deficits and debts by groups such as Pete Peterson’s Fix the Debt campaign and its co-chairs, Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, is “the great distraction.”
America should be focused on the economic challenges that have slowed our economy, and that have caused our government to run up deficits and debts. We need to be focused on putting people to work and growing the economy, not playing sequester games that result in real job losses and create an equally real threat of recession.
When the Fix the Debt crew gather, as Baker has noted, “many of the people most responsible for the current downturn come together to tell us why we should be worried about the deficit at a time when 25 million people are unemployed, underemployed or have given up looking for work altogether and millions face the prospect of losing their homes.”
Our concern as a country should be with shaping the policies and making the investments that find work for the jobless and create the robust economic growth that creates surpluses. That’s far more vital than the focus on fiscal issues and the deficits that Dick Cheney explained—back when he was in power—“don’t matter.”
What is Fix the Debt? And who’s behind it? Watch John Nichols’s take.