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Harry Reid speaks at a press conference in Washington on June 5, 2009. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
Harry Reid threatened to employ the “nuclear option” to end filibuster abuses, and the world did not end.
In fact, despite all the absurd rhetoric that flew around as the Senate majority leader prepared to implement a majority-rule standard regarding presidential appointments, Reid’s gambit yielded some positive results. Under an agreement reached Tuesday morning, Republicans would stop blocking votes on five key nominations, including those of Richard Cordray to head the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Gina McCarthy to serve as EPA administrator, Fred Hochberg to serve as president of the Export-Import Bank and Thomas Perez to serve as secretary of labor.
By midday Tuesday, the Senate had already voted to allow formal consideration of Cordray, with seventy-one senators agreeing to schedule a confirmation vote.
But the path to making the Senate a fully functional legislative chamber is less clear than the inside-the-Beltway celebrants—some in the Senate, most in the media—would have Americans believe.
As part of the compromise, Republicans appear to have secured veto power over the nominations of two qualified nominees for the National Labor Relations Board, Sharon Block and Richard Griffin. Republicans have been determined to keep Block and Griffin off the board since President Obama’s decision to use his recess-appointment power to put them there provoked a bitter court fight. Under Tuesday’s deal in the Senate, Obama would withdraw the nominations of Block and Griffin and send two nominees to the Senate for quick consideration and votes. (Under the agreement, Republicans will allow a third NLRB nominee, Mark Pearce, to get a straight up-or-down confirmation vote.)
What this means is that virulently anti-labor Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, R-KY, is still calling some shots when it comes to the NLRB, and that’s absurdly unfair to Block and Griffin. Labor leaders, such as Communications Workers of America union President Larry Cohen,were angered by the move. Cohen complained that Block and Griffin were “definitely tossed under the bus.”
“There is not one intellectual argument…[for] why those nominations shouldn’t go forward. It’s just [that Republicans] want their pound of flesh from working people in this country, and this is where they’re going to get it because they were able to convince four or five Democrats to go with them,” griped Cohen.
The determination of McConnell to continue meddling with NLRB nominations should be cause for caution, and strategic common sense.
Reid should not back away from the “nuclear option”—using the Democratic majority to rewrite Senate rules to allow for majority-rule votes on confirmation of presidential nominees—anytime soon.
If the agreement on the NLRB nominees advances, the White House must nominate two new candidates immediately. The Senate Committee on Heath, Education, Labor and Pensions must hold hearings and a full Senate vote must be scheduled and completed before the Senate begins its August recess. A failure to complete the process in a timely manner threatens the functionality of the board, which would be a huge victory for McConnell and a huge defeat for the tens of millions of American workers who look to the agency not merely to make decisions regarding the role of unions in the workplace but also to decide whether corporations are using unfair labor practices to threaten the rights of workers.
As the Communication Workers of America have explained as part of their “Give Us Five” campaign to get a full NLRB confirmed by the Senate, “If the Senate does not move forward with a majority vote on President Obama’s bipartisan nominees to the National Labor Relations Board, we’ll soon be celebrating Labor Day without any labor law. And that means no protections for 80 million American workers in the private sector.”
It is that prospect that Reid must avert by keeping all options for Senate rules reform on the table.
The bottom line is that filibuster reform is necessary, not just to renew the confirmation process but for the purpose of legislating. As Senator Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, said after details of Tuesday’s agreement took shape, “This trend to abuse and misuse the filibuster clearly should be addressed by an effort to change the rules. I’m hopeful that we will push ahead, that in fact the effort will not end here,”
Blumenthal is right.
Unfortunately, Reid has continually attempted to avert the reality of reform by cutting deals with McConnell and other Republican senators. The majority leader’s compromises on the issue have—as Reid now acknowledges—frequently fumbled.
In an ideal circumstance, Reid and his Democratic colleagues—as well as some responsible Republicans—would understand the value of meaningful rules reforms, which would restore the traditional filibuster along lines that Americans know best from the film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
The point of filibuster reform is not partisan or ideological positioning. It is to restore functional processes for legislating and governing.
At this point, like it or not, Reid is holding to the view that he can cobble together agreements to achieve that goal. Savvy senators such as Vermont independent Bernie Sanders and Oregon Democrat Jeff Merkley are highly dubious, as they have indicated.
But one thing that Reid and every member of his caucus should be able to agree on is this: the option of a quick vote to reform Senate rules in order to advance nominations should not be taken off the table during the coming wrangle over the future of the NLRB.
In fact, it should not be taken off the table for so long as Mitch McConnell, whose regard for the president and the legislative process is almost as low as the approval ratings for Congress, continues to seek what Sanders refers to as “the tyranny of the minority.”
“While [Tuesday’s deal addresses] an immediate need for the president of the United States to have his Cabinet and other senior officials confirmed, we should be clear that the agreement only addresses one symptom of a seriously dysfunctional U.S. Senate,” explained Sanders on Tuesday afternoon. “The issue that now must be addressed is how we create a process in the Senate which allows us to respond to the very serious needs of the American people in a timely and effective way. The United States Senate cannot function with any degree of effectiveness if a super-majority of 60 votes is needed to pass virtually any piece of legislation and huge amounts of time are wasted eating up the clock with parliamentary tactics meant only to delay for delay’s sake. Now is the time for real Senate rules reform.”
John Nichols and Robert W. McChesney are the authors of the new book Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America (The Nation). Author Thomas Frank says: “This is the black book of politics-as-industry, an encyclopedic account of money’s crimes against democracy. The billionaires have hijacked our government, and anyone feeling complacent after the 2012 election should take sober note of Nichols’ and McChesney’s astonishing finding: It’s only going to get worse. Dollarocracy is an impressive achievement.
How long can Mitch McConnell’s “tyranny of the minority” last?
Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell speaks with reporters on July 26, 2011, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Mitch McConnell has since 2007 been maintaining a rogue branch of government.
Though the Republican leader in the Senate lacks any constitutional grounding, though he has no popular mandate and though he leads only a minority of senators, McConnell has defined the range of debate and steered the direction of the federal government by engaging in the most aggressive abuse of the rules in the history of the chamber.
That abuse involves a redefinition of the traditional filibuster power as a veto that the minority can use to undermine not just legislation and presidential appointments but the very functioning of the federal government.
The founders of the American experiment imagined no such veto. In fact, the US Constitution imagines a system under which the legislative branch provides advice and consent to the executive branch.
But McConnell has so exaggerated the filibuster power that it has effectively allowed him to thwart not just Senate votes but the operations of federal agencies such as the National Labor Relations Board. He and his allies have gone so far as to block the confirmation of nominees for cabinet posts, such as Department of Labor nominee Tom Perez.
McConnell’s crew has done this with a consistency that extends far beyond specific issues or individuals. They have created systematic obstruction, which allows the minority leader to “govern,” even though he lacks any authority to do so.
When Lyndon Baines Johnson was the Senate majority leader in the contentious 1950s—an era of Cold War, segregation, recession and debates over everything from space travel to statehood for Alaska—he only had to file one cloture motion to end a filibuster.
Since Harry Reid became Senate minority leader in 2007, he has had to file 420 cloture motions to end filibusters. And while he usually has majority support for acting on a bill or an appointment, he rarely has the sixty-vote super-majority required by McConnell.
“The Senate is not the House and the minority party must be treated with respect and given the opportunity to offer amendments and make their case in opposition,” says Senator Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont. “A minority must not, however, be allowed to permanently obstruct the wishes of the majority. That is not democracy. That is a perversion of democracy.”
The question of whether McConnell will be able to maintain his fourth branch of government, and with it what Sanders describes as “the tyranny of the minority,” may well come to a head Tuesday.
Reid has scheduled confirmation votes on seven presidential picks: National Labor Relations Board members, as well as nominees to head the Labor Department, the Export-Import Bank, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
If McConnell and his caucus abuse the filibuster in order to block those votes, Reid says he will ask the Democratic majority—and any Republicans who might favor majority rule—to end the tyranny of the minority when it comes to the appointment process.
The majority leader, who has blinked in previous wrangling over rules reforms to end the abuse of the filibuster, seems finally to be prepared to take the small step of changing Senate rules—with the approval of a majority of senators—to allow a majority of senators to demand simple up-or-down votes on whether to confirm presidential appointments.
“This is really a moment in history that circumstances dictate a change,” says the majority leader.
Reid notes that a mere twenty nominees were filibustered during the history of the republic up to the election of President Obama.
Now, says the majority leader, Republicans have filibustered fifteen of Obama’s executive-branch nominees.
“The changes we’re making are very, very minimal,” says Reid. “What we’re doing is saying, ‘Look American people, shouldn’t President Obama have somebody working for him that he wants?’ The 15 people that we’ve filed cloture on that are pending they’ve been waiting an average of nine months.”
McConnell is already crying foul, and Washington is ablaze with “Reid-McConnell Relationship Hits New Low” headlines. If Reid moves on Tuesday to restrict the Kentucky Republican’s obstructionism, McConnell says the Nevada Democrat will go down “as the worst leader here ever.”
McConnell knows better. But he is furious about the prospect that his rogue operations might be restricted.
So be it.
America needs a functioning Senate, and a functioning federal government, not Mitch McConnell’s “tyranny of the minority.”
As Sanders says, “This country faces major crises. The American people want us to act to address unemployment and the economy. They want us to deal with the global warming, health care, campaign finance reform, education, crumbling infrastructure and the deficit. But in my view, none of these problems will be effectively addressed so long as a single senator may demand 60 votes to pass legislation (or approve nominees).”
John Nichols and Bob McChesney are the authors of Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America (Nation Books), a groundbreaking examination of how” the money power” warps government. Naomi Klein says: “John Nichols and Bob McChesney make a compelling, and terrifying, case that American democracy is becoming American dollarocracy. Even more compelling, and hopeful, is their case for a radical reform agenda to take power back from the corporations and give it to the people.”
Anti-immigration reform activists protested on Capitol Hill today, complete with nativist signs and racist speeches.
Protesters hold a sign at a rally on March 25, 2012, in Seattle, Washington. (Courtesy of Flickr.)
The nation’s oldest and largest civil rights group responded to the acquittal of George Zimmerman with shock, anguish and a call to action.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is petitioning the United States Department of Justice to seek justice for slain teenager Trayvon Martin by filing civil rights charges against Zimmerman.
On Sunday afternoon, the Department of Justice announced that the case was under review. "Experienced federal prosecutors will determine whether the evidence reveals a prosecutable violation of any of the limited federal criminal civil rights statutes within our jurisdiction,’’ read a department statement that added that the review would determine ‘‘whether federal prosecution is appropriate in accordance with the department’s policy governing successive federal prosecution following a state trial.’’
The formal language describes a first step that, while it is encouraging for civil rights organizations, does not assure that a federal case will be initiated.
But the NAACP and other groups are arguing that there are clear grounds for an intervention by the department.
In a message posted on the group’s website and circulated nationally within hours of the announcement of the verdict, the group’s president, Ben Jealous, declared, “We are not done demanding justice for Trayvon Martin.”
As part of the NAACP campaign to get the Justice Department to open a civil rights case against Zimmerman, Jealous urged Americans to sign a petition to Attorney General Eric Holder that reads,
The Department of Justice has closely monitored the State of Florida’s prosecution of the case against George Zimmerman in the Trayvon Martin murder since it began. Today, with the acquittal of George Zimmerman, it is time for the Department of Justice to act.
The most fundamental of civil rights—the right to life—was violated the night George Zimmerman stalked and then took the life of Trayvon Martin. We ask that the Department of Justice file civil rights charges against Mr. Zimmerman for this egregious violation.
Please address the travesties of the tragic death of Trayvon Martin by acting today.
Within three hours of the online posting of the petition late Saturday evening, more than 350,000 Americans had signed it. The response was so intense that the group’s website crashed Sunday morning. But the #JusticeForTrayvon petition drive continued at the MoveOn.org petition site and a refreshed NAACP site.
Other civil rights groups echoed the demand for Justice Department action, with the Rev. C.D. Witherspoon of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Baltimore telling reporters, “We will be calling on the federal government to file criminal charges on the basis of civil rights violations. This was done immediately after the Rodney King verdict, and should be done if justice is not rendered by the Florida courts.”
Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law president Barbara Arnwine said that while the verdict “represents a tragic miscarriage of justice,” she believes “there is still the potential for justice to be served through a civil suit brought about by Trayvon Martin’s surviving family members, and also through civil rights charges being brought against Mr. Zimmerman by the Department of Justice.”
In addition to pressing for action at the federal level, the NAACP and other groups were turning attention to state capitols in the aftermath of the Zimmerman acquittal.
Jealous, who said civil rights supporters were “outraged and heartbroken” by the jury verdict, coupled his announcement of the petition with a call for the outlawing of racial profiling and a renewed commitment to “fight for the removal of Stand Your Ground laws in every state.”
Florida passed its “stand your ground” law in 2005. Since then, at the behest of the National Rifle Association and the American Legislative Exchange Council, variations on the legislation—which allows individuals who say they believe themselves to be in imminent danger to use deadly force—have been enacted by state legislatures across the country. After the killing of Trayvon Martin on February 26, 2012, as media outlets in Florida and nationally have reported, “Police initially did not charge Zimmerman with a crime, citing Florida’s ‘Stand Your Ground’ law.”
Zimmerman, who faced charges only after a national outcry forced a review of the case, did not mount a specific “stand your ground” defense. But the issue remained a bone of contention before and during his trial; notably, the jury heard from a witness who recalled teaching about Florida’s law in a college course that the defendant completed in 2010. And when jury instructions were made in the case, the judge said: "If George Zimmerman was not engaged in an unlawful activity and was attacked in any place where he had a right to be, he had no duty to retreat and had the right to stand his ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he reasonably believed that it was necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony."
Brendan Fischer, a lawyer with the Center for Media and Democracy, notes that: "This language is nearly identical to that in the Florida Stand Your Ground law and the ALEC "model" legislation. We cannot know if the outcome would have been different had the six jurors been instructed differently -- but we do know that Stand Your Ground played a role in the case, even after Zimmerman's arrest."
The sustained outcry over the February 26, 2012, shooting of Martin appears to have led the NRA and ALEC to halt advocacy on behalf of “stand your ground” laws. But the laws continue to influence criminal justice nationwide, as the Center for Media and Democracy has documented.
The NAACP, the Urban League, Color of Change, Common Cause, People for the American Way and MoveOn.org were among many groups that pressed ALEC on the “stand your ground” issue in 2012. Several of these same groups have taken the next step and are urging legislators to strike the laws from state statute books.
“Florida’s dangerous ‘Shoot First’ law allowed Trayvon’s killer to walk free without charges for more than a month. Shoot First legalizes vigilante homicide, has demonstrated racial bias in its application, and has led to an increase in gun-related deaths in the more than two dozen states where it has been passed into law,” argues Color of Change, as part of its campaign to strike down “stand your ground” laws. “These laws give individual gun owners a greater right to shoot and kill than the rules of engagement for our military during times of war grant to soldiers in war zones. ‘Shoot First’ must be repealed now to protect families and communities and prevent senseless deaths.”
Referencing a Texas A&M University study that revealed how “stand your ground” and “castle doctrine” laws do not deter crime but have been linked to increased rates of homicide, Jealous has said that “stand-your-ground legislation does more harm than good.”
“Too often these laws provide cover for vigilantes and hate groups who choose to take the law into their own hand,” argued the NAACP president in 2012. “They have led to an increase in homicides, and people of color seem to always get caught in the crossfire.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. (AP Photo/Haraz N. Ghanbari)
For the first time since the New Deal era, the United States could, by the time Labor Day 2013 rolls around, find itself entering into an extended period without either a secretary of labor or a functioning National Labor Relations Board.
The prospects are dire for working people and for the unions that represent them.
But Senate majority leader Harry Reid and his Democratic colleagues have the power to avert the crisis created by Mitch McConnell’s obstructionism. To that end, on Thursday, they took what have been identified as the first steps to adopt a rules change specifying that only 51 votes are required to end a filibuster that has been initiated to block votes on presidential nominees. “We’re headed to changing the rules,” New Mexico Democrat Tom Udall said after a Senate Democratic Caucus meeting where Reid raised the issue. “I didn’t hear anybody speak against it.”
This is not a step that Reid wanted to take. But it the majority leader was left with little choice after McConnell, the Republican minority leader, made it clear that he and his allies would continue to employ an abusive definition of the filibuster to block President Obama's nominees in general -- and to labor-related posts in particular.
Obama has selected a well-qualified nominee for secretary of labor: Tom Perez, a former Maryland Department of Labor secretary who has served in the Obama administration as the assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division of the United States Department of Justice. But the Perez nomination has languished without Senate action since May, when it was approved on a 12-10 vote of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
The president has, as well, made necessary nominations to fill open positions on the five-member National Labor Relations Board.
One of Obama’s nominees, Mark Gaston Pearce, is a current NLRB board member whose term expires in August. If the Senate does not confirm Pearce and the others, Communications Workers of America union president Larry Cohen argues that the board will be rendered ineffectual.
“The protections that workers fought and died for, already diminished by subsequent legislation and court decisions, will soon disappear if the Senate fails to confirm the president’s nominees before its summer recess,” explains Cohen. “There are only three current members sitting on the five-seat NLRB. The constitutionality of the three recess appointments has been voided by the DC Circuit Court of Appeals, and Chairman Mark Pearce’s term will expire in August. If the Senate does not act, we’ll soon be celebrating Labor Day without any labor law. Zero enforcement and no protections for 80 million American workers in the private sector.”
But the Senate cannot act under its current rules, which allow a minority of senators to abuse the filibuster power in order to block votes not just on legislation but on presidential nominations.
Senate minority leader McConnell, who has made no secret of his disdain for unions and the federal laws that have for seventy-eight years provided a measure of fairness for working people and the organizations that represent them, practices his most militant obstructionism when it comes to labor rights.
It is hard to imagine that nominations for labor secretary or for the NLRB will get Senate votes if the existing filibuster rules are not changed—at least when it comes to the confirmation of nominees. So Reid will on Thursday gathered the Senate Democratic Caucus to again ponder the modest filibuster reforms that senators such as Udall and Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon, have been proposing for several years.
The reform efforts of Merkley and Udall have been thwarted repeatedly, creating great frustration on the part of the Democratic base. But this time it appears to be different.
Reid announced Thursday that: “Confirmation of Cabinet nominees used to be free of obstruction. But under President Obama, Cabinet nominees have encountered unprecedented obstruction.”
Reid confirmed that he was moving to "file cloture on a bunch of nominees."
While the majority leader has not declared that he is invoking the "nuclear option" — which would restore majority rule when it comes to scheduling and carrying out votes on executive branch nominations -- Senate sources told Politico on Thursday that Reid was taking steps that "could set the stage for a vote on the nuclear option as early as Tuesday."
If McConnell and his allies do not allow votes on nominations, Reid will be positioned to ask the Democratic majority to enact a rules change that reforms the filibuster so that -- while members could still conduct traditional "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" speaking filibusters -- they could no longer use secretive threats and backroom maneuvers to prevent votes.
Savvy activists have come to understand that the debate is no longer merely about filibuster reform or arcane Senate rules. McConnell’s obstructionism now threatens to render the NLRB dysfunctional—and to make the enforcement of rules protecting American workers dramatically more difficult.
This is about a lot more than politics. It is about whether the government will function as it has under Democratic and Republican presidents, under liberals like Franklin Delano Roosevelt and conservatives like Ronald Reagan. It is about whether the constitutionally defined responsibility of the Senate to provide advice and consent, to approve or disapprove presidential appointments, is respected. And it is about whether working Americans will have a government that watches out for them—as opposed to Mitch McConnell’s corporate campaign contributors.
“The Senate majority has all the tools it needs to make sure that workers’ rights are protected and labor law is fairly enforced,” says CWA’s Cohen. “The Senate Democratic majority must adopt rules that allow for an up or down vote for these nominees. That’s what democracy looks like, not obstructionism, not games playing, not valuing Senate ‘decorum’ over the responsibility to constituents to get the people’s business done.”
Christopher Hayes takes a quick tour through the filibuster's history and the options for its removal or amendment.
John Nichols and Robert W. McChesney are authors of the new book on reforming politics and government, Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America (Nation Books). Thom Hartmann says: “Dollarocracy is the most important political book of the year, maybe of our times. Nichols and McChesney provide an original and painstakingly researched account of how corporations and billionaires have come to dominate the political process, as well as the contours of what they term the ‘money-and-media election complex.’ Although I study politics for a living, I learned more about how political advertising works, the crucial role of media corporations and dreadful election journalism than I would have ever imagined possible. In the smartest treatment I have seen, Dollarocracy also details how the Internet is being incorporated into the system; its fantastic potential to empower citizens to battle big money has been effectively neutered. Most important, Nichols and McChesney provide a roadmap to a better and more just election system, built on the foundation of establishing the right to vote. It is an optimistic response to a disturbing analysis. This is exactly the book every concerned American needs to read, because the process of understanding what exactly is going on and taking America back from the corporations starts here.”
The former governor walks through Union Square to collect signatures for his run for New York City comptroller on Monday, July 8, 2013. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
Eliot Spitzer is a walking, talking political contradiction.
As the crusading New York State Attorney General during the Bush-Cheney years, he filled the regulatory void created by the most business-friendly administration in modern American history and renewed our understanding of the power of state officials to check and balance Wall Street.
Then, as New York’s governor, he crashed and burned his own career—and an opportunity to redefine states as the liberal “laboratories of democracy” that they were in the Progressive Era.
Spitzer’s brilliance and arrogance were in complete conflict as he took the actions that would lead to a 2008 resignation that was described as “career-ending.”
But prostitution, adultery and Twitter scandals don’t end political careers anymore. Just ask Louisiana Senator David Vitter, South Carolina Congressman Mark Sanford or New York mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner.
So Spitzer is back—just as brilliant, and just as arrogant, as ever.
First the smart part: the former governor’s decision to make a last-minute leap into the race for New York City Comptroller is a savvy political move.
It’s the right race: A comeback bid by a political figure who has been involved in so high-profile a scandal as Spitzer’s needs to start in the right place on the ballot. A run for governor or mayor would have demanded more forgiveness than voters were prepared to extend. Spitzer needed to find a post that was prominent, but not too prominent. Seeking a city-wide post in New York is a comedown from the state posts Spitzer held. But the comptroller’s office is an important post in itself and it has produced mayoral candidates and mayors, statewide officials and members of Congress.
It’s the right office: the comptroller’s job has real responsibilities, and they are very much in line with Spitzer’s skills and focus. The comptroller audits the books and the performance of city agencies. The auditor plays a critical role in reviewing and initiating economic activity, especially when it comes to marketing and selling municipal bonds. And most importantly, the comptroller is the managing trustee for massive public employee pension funds; as such, the person who holds the post can carve out a defining position in a host of debates about investment policy and how Wall Street and big banks operate. Spitzer speaks of “using the equity stake that we control as a means of control of corporate governance.” And he talks about using pension funds to apply pressure to corporations on issues ranging from gun control to civil rights. The comptroller’s office has real power, and real resources. Spitzer knows that, and he says, “I want to do to the comptroller’s office what I did to the AG’s office: re-energize it, re-envision it, and hopefully, the public will give me that opportunity.”
It’s the right year: everything is up for grabs in New York this year, and everyone’s running for something. There are crowded races up and down the city ballot. Spitzer will get his share of attention—the New York Post headline Monday: “Here We Ho Again”—but there’s so much else going on that the attention is more likely to help than hurt. Because he’s running for a down-ballot job, he brings “star power” to a race that would otherwise get limited attention. His existing name recognition, in combination with the wealthy Spitzer’s ability to spend what it takes to shape the race, counts for a lot in this sort of contest.
Unfortunately, it is on the question of campaign funding that Spitzer’s arrogance—and irresponsibility—are very much on display.
Spitzer’s most prominent foe in the Democratic primary for comptroller is Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, an able and well-regarded progressive with substantial union support. Stringer’s campaign hit Spitzer immediately for opting out of New York City’s public-financing scheme for municipal election campaigns. “Eliot Spitzer is going to spurn the campaign finance program to try and buy personal redemption with his family fortune,” griped the Stringer camp.
Spitzer’s response on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show was to say, “The reality is that we’re going to end up spending probably about the same amount of money. He’ll be spending your money. I’ll be spending my own money.”
The problem, of course, is that not everyone is able to buy their way into a race at the last minute. Spitzer’s dismissal of New York’s system of providing matching funds for candidates with the worst-of-all “your money” versus “my own money” rhetoric is not just arrogant. It’s wrong.
Spitzer has a broad vision of the comptroller’s office—a vision that could have national significance when it comes to using state and local pension funds to establish what he refers to as “structural” checks and balances on corporate America, and when it comes to conducting “policy audits” to determine whether public programs are delivering for Americans. Those audits will, invariably, reveal that the flooding of our politics with private money plays a huge role in warping the workings of government. What the progressives of another time referred to as “the money power” is toxic, and the toxicity infects government at every level.
Even those who support Eliot Spitzer will recognize that he is not the only wealthy contender—or the only contender who might use big money to win a big election. If Spitzer is serious about using the New York City comptroller’s office to audit our public policies—and to propose real fixes—he should not be so arrogant as to casually dismiss attempts to address and constrain the money power.
John Nichols and Bob McChesney are the authors of Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America (Nation Books). John Bonifaz, co-founder and executive director of Free Speech for People, says, “John Nichols and Bob McChesney reveal that the 2012 election cycle had a price tag of $10 billion. They show us who the money came from and how it was spent. But, most important, they explain why this cannot go on if we are to have fair elections and honest government. With its breakthrough reporting and incisive analysis, Dollarocracy gives us the foundation we need to make the case for fundamental change like a constitutional amendment to overturn our system of unlimited campaign spending and restore democracy to the people.”
While Eliot Spitzer is bringing attention to the comptroller race, the race for mayor has long been in the media, thanks in large part to stop-and-frisk’s undecided and controversial future.
The most under-covered political movement in the United States—and there are a lot of under-covered political movements in the United States—is the broad-based national campaign to enact a constitutional amendment to overturn the Supreme Court rulings that ushered in a new era of big-money politics.
On the eve of the nation’s Fourth of July celebrations, Oregon became the sixteenth state to formally call for an amendment. With bipartisan support, the state House and Senate requested that Congress take necessary steps to re-establish the basic American premise that “money is property and not speech, and [that] the Congress of the United States, state legislatures and local legislative bodies should have the authority to regulate political contributions and expenditures…”
Oregon is the fifth state to make the call for corporate accountability in three months, making 2013 a banner year for a movement that began with little attention and little in the way of institutional support after the US Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling, in the case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, that corporations could spend as freely as they like to buy favorable election results.
Support for an amendment now stretches from coast to coast, with backing (in the form of legislative resolutions or statewide referendum results) from California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Montana New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and West Virginia. The District of Columbia is also supportive of the move to amend, as are roughly 500 municipalities, from Liberty, Maine, to Los Angeles, California—where 77 percent of voters backed a May referendum instructing elected representatives to seek an amendment establishing that “there should be limits on political campaign spending and that corporations should not have the constitutional rights of human beings.”
“Why does it matter how many states call for an amendment? Ultimately, an amendment will have to be ratified by three-fourths of the states. That’s thirty-eight. Four more and we’re halfway there,” says Rob Weissman, the president of Public Citizen, which is working with a burgeoning Corporate Reform Coalition of more than seventy groups nationwide. “But before that, an amendment must be passed by a two-thirds vote in both chambers of the US Congress. And one of the most effective ways to show a state’s representatives and senators in Washington, DC, that there is popular demand for an amendment is to pass a resolution back home.”
The successful work by national groups such as Public Citizen, Common Cause, Free Speech for People and Move to Amend, in conjunction with grassroots coalitions that are now active from northern Alaska to the tip of the Florida Keys, is far more dramatic than most of the initiatives you’ll see from the Democratic or Republican parties—which don’t do much but fund-raise—and various and sundry groupings on the right and left. Yet, for the most part, news of reform victories are afforded scant attention even from supposedly sympathetic media.
As such, the fantasy that says reform is impossible persists.
Just imagine if the movement to amend big money out of politics got as much attention, say, as the wrangling over IRS “targeting”—a classic money-in-politics controversy.
Just imagine if all Americans knew that calls for an amendment are coming not just from traditional progressive reformers but from Republican legislators and honest conservatives at the state and national levels.
Free Speech for People highlights the dozens of Republican legislators who have backed calls for an amendment to overturn not just the Citizens United ruling but other barriers to the regulation of money in politics. With backing from third-party and independent legislators, as well, the passage of the state resolutions highlights what the group refers to as “a growing trans-partisan movement…calling for the US Supreme Court’s misguided decision in Citizens United v. FEC (2010) to be overturned, through one or more amendments to the US Constitution.”
North Carolina Congressman Walter Jones Jr., who maintains one of the most conservative voting records in the House has signed on as a co-sponsor of one of several proposed amendments. Why? “If we want to change Washington and return power to the citizens of this nation, we have to change the way campaigns are financed,” says the congressman. “The status quo is dominated by deep-pocketed special interests, and that’s simply unacceptable to the American people.”
Congressman Jones is noting something that too many DC insiders, be they members of Congress or pundits commenting on Congress, fail to recognize: millions of Americans are already engaged on this issue. They are organizing for, marching for, writing letters for, sending e-mails for, testifying for and voting for the fundamental reform that is an essential building block in any movement to restore faith in the political process and renew American democracy: a constitutional amendment declaring, as the Oregon legislature just did, that “based on the American value of fair play, leveling the playing field and ensuring that all citizens, regardless of wealth, have an opportunity to have their political views heard, there is a valid rationale for regulating political spending.”
John Nichols and Robert W. McChesney are the authors of Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America (Nation Books). Author Thomas Frank says, “This is the black book of politics-as-industry, an encyclopedic account of money’s crimes against democracy. The billionaires have hijacked our government, and anyone feeling complacent after the 2012 election should take sober note of Nichols’s and McChesney’s astonishing finding: It’s only going to get worse. Dollarocracy is an impressive achievement.”
During the decades of his imprisonment by South Africa’s apartheid regime, Nelson Mandela read widely and deeply from the historical and philosophical texts of the ages.
Mandela sampled from the global canon. Yet he took a special interest in the record of American revolt against empire.
The events of July 4, 1776, have across the long arc of history captured the imaginations of men and women who would build nations far beyond the borders of the United States. And that was certainly the case with Mandela. When I covered him on his 1990 tour of the United States and during his 1994 campaign for the presidency of South Africa, it quickly became clear that Mandela had developed a rich understanding of the revolutionary history of the United States—and of the individuals and ideas that shaped it.
Mandela has always displayed a high regard for the histories and ideas of nations that dispatched colonial overlords. His speeches and essays on Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru are remarkable documents, as are his reflections on leading figures from the anti-colonial struggles of central Africa and the Caribbean.
Mandela recognized that the United States has a distinct anti-colonial history. And he has often employed that recognition to remind Americans and others of ideals and values that are too frequently forgotten.
In his address to the US Congress twenty-three years ago, Mandela spoke of “the struggle for democracy and human rights, not only in our country, but throughout the world.”
“We could not have made an acquaintance through literature with human giants such as George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson and not been moved to act, as they were moved to act. We could not have heard of and admired John Brown, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, Marcus Garvey, Martin Luther King Jr. and others,” declared Mandela. “We could not have heard of these and not be moved to act as they were moved to act. We could not have known of your Declaration of Independence and not elected to join in the struggle to guarantee the people’s life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Already engaged with the work of shaping the new South Africa, Mandela delivered this message to the US Congress: “The day may not be far when we will borrow the words of Thomas Jefferson and speak of the will of the South African nation in the exercise of that will by this united nation of black and white people—it must surely be that there will be born a country on the southern tip of Africa which you will be proud to call a friend and an ally because of its contribution to the universal striving toward liberty, human rights, prosperity and peace among the people.”
Like so many who have struggled for democracy over the past two centuries, Mandela has taken his cues not merely from presidents and the crafters of official documents. He has honored Tom Paine, the radical pamphleteer who wrote not just of the specifics of the American experiment but of the prospect that a nation and its people might inspire the world.
The speeches Mandela gave in the critical transition period from apartheid oppression to multiracial democracy were laced with homages to Paine—especially the pamphleteer’s Common Sense promise: “We have every opportunity and every encouragement before us, to form the noblest purest constitution on the face of the earth. We have it in our power to begin the world over again. A situation, similar to the present, hath not happened since the days of Noah until now. The birthday of a new world is at hand.”
When Mandela was inaugurated as his country’s president, he announced that South Africa was striving not merely for the birth of a new nation but “for the birth of a new world.”
Mandela served one term and then stepped down, refusing—as George Washington had in the early years of the American experiment—to cling to power that the people had willingly given him. Speaking on Sunday in South Africa, where vigils were being kept for an ailing Mandela, President Obama said the South African leader “showed us that one man’s courage can move the world.”
Inspiration is passed across borders and oceans, across generations and centuries. There is an arc of history. It was bent toward justice by Paine in the eighteenth century. It has been bent toward justice by Mandela in our time. And one of the gifts Mandela has given to America, one of the gifts he continues to give this country and the world, is a reminder of our revolutionary roots and our highest aspirations.
In arguing that Britain’s colonial subjects should engage in the bold and dangerous work of seeking independence, Paine wrote: “The cause of America is in a great measure the cause of all mankind. Many circumstances hath, and will arise, which are not local, but universal, and through which the principles of all lovers of mankind are affected, and in the event of which, their affections are interested. The laying a country desolate with fire and sword, declaring war against the natural rights of all mankind, and extirpating the defenders thereof from the face of the Earth, is the concern of every man to whom nature hath given the power of feeling; of which class, regardless of party censure, is the AUTHOR.”
It was Mandela who, two centuries later, became the face of a broad anti-apartheid movement that would speak the same language, and imagine the same role, for an African nation.
“We live with the hope that as she battles to remake herself, South Africa will be like a microcosm of the new world that is striving to be born,” Mandela declared in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech. “This must be a world of democracy and respect for human rights, a world freed from the horrors of poverty, hunger, deprivation and ignorance, relieved of the threat and the scourge of civil wars and external aggression and unburdened of the great tragedy of millions forced to become refugees.”
Every nation is engaged in an endless process of defining itself. Great thinkers, great leaders ask their nations to go further. They believe—as Paine did—that a country might seek “to begin the world over again,” and they imagine—as Mandela has—that their nation might inspire and inform “the birth of a new world.”
John Nichols is the author, with Robert W. McChesney, of Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex Is Destroying America (Nation Books). Thomas E. Patterson, the Bradlee Professor of Government and the Press at Harvard University, says: “As Nichols and McChesney’s new book shows, the robber barons of the late nineteenth century were pikers compared with today’s moneyed interests. They have hijacked our elections at all levels, and nothing short of the sweeping reforms called for in Dollarocracy can fix the problem. The book is a must read for anyone who cares about the integrity of our democratic system.”
Attendees line up for an interview with a prospective employer at a job fair in Washington, August 6, 2009. (REUTERS/Jason Reed)
There’s a great deal of talk these days about how the US economy is improving. And there is certainly a great deal of attention being paid to the reported preparation of the Federal Reserve Board to ease up on the “easy money” policies implemented after George Bush steered the economy into an economic meltdown. But Jared Bernstein, the former chief economist and economic adviser to Vice President Joe Biden who is now a senior fellow with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, warns that “they’re doing so too soon.”
Bernstein titled a recent article on the economy “Don’t give up on the jobs crisis yet!”
The United States still has an official unemployment rate of 7.6 percent. But the real unemployment rate—if people who are underemployed and people who have given up on the search for work are included—is roughly double that. And for some groups of Americans, the numbers are dramatically higher: African Americans aged 16 to 24 experienced an unemployment rate of 28.2 percent in May. Latinos in that same age group had an unemployment rate of 16.6 percent. In general, young people are having a hard time finding jobs, and that is especially true in urban centers that have been hard hit by long-term deindustrialization that’s linked not just to an absent industrial policy but also to wrongheaded “free-trade” agreements such as NAFTA and the extension of permanent most-favored-nation trading status to China.
These are crisis numbers. The research that in the 1970s formed the basis for the Full Employment and Balanced Growth Act—the Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment Act—argued that, to maintain a sound economy and society, unemployment rates should not go above 3 percent for persons aged 20 and over, or above 4 percent for persons aged 16 or over.
The United States is nowhere near that goal. And this means that the jobs crisis should be a front-and-center concern of official Washington.
There is no need to neglect vital debates about voting rights, marriage equality, immigration reform, Syria, Egypt and a host of other pressing concerns. But it is vital that members of Congress pay serious attention to the jobs crisis that is so real and so overwhelming for so many young Americans.
This is a point that the AFL-CIO makes: “Today’s young workers are part of the largest generation to enter the workforce since the baby boomers. People born between the late 1970s and 2000 also make up the most diverse and technologically savvy generation in America’s history. But they suffer the nation’s highest unemployment—about twice the national average—and the fewest job opportunities in today’s economy.”
This is a point that the National Council of La Raza has made as it has advocated for immigration reform while at the same time campaigning against sequestration cuts that have been especially hard on job-training and job-placement programs in high-unemployment neighborhoods. “Reducing the deficit should not increase the ranks of the unemployed. The automatic cuts that started in March are projected to reduce job creation by 750,000 this year according to the Congressional Budget Office,” explains the council. “This is bad news for Latinos, who still face a 9.6% unemployment rate in 2013. The deficit will decline naturally as the economy improves and more people get jobs, resume paying taxes, and reduce their need for safety-net programs. If further deficit reduction is needed, this should occur when unemployment is low, not beforehand.”
This is a point that US Senator Bernie Sanders made after corporations started cutting deals with regard to visa and travel programs that were advantageous to them, as part of the wrangling over the immigration reform legislation.
Sanders, a steady supporter of immigrant rights, wanted to assure that attention was also paid to the needs of unemployed youth in the United States. He did so by getting Senate leaders to agree to add a provision to the immigration reform legislation that would provide $1.5 billion over two years for states and local communities to help find jobs for more than 400,000 jobs for 16- to 24-year-old.
“At a time when real unemployment is close to 14 percent and even higher among young people and minorities, it is absolutely imperative that we create millions of decent-paying jobs in our country,” says Sanders. “The establishment of a youth employment program for 400,000 young people is a good step forward but in the months to come we must do even more.”
It is possible to do more.
Congress has to deal with a wide range of issues. It should never be an either/or circumstance. The calculus when it comes to job creation should be and/and. The federal government has tremendous resources and tremendous capacity to stimulate job growth. And it ought to focus especially on the communities and regions where deindustrialization and the Bush-Cheney financial meltdown have created unemployment levels that are too high—especially for young Americans.
John Nichols and Robert W. McChesney are the authors of Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America (Nation Books). Center for Media and Democracy executive director Lisa Graves says: “The billionaires are buying our media and our elections. They’re spinning our democracy into a dollarocracy. John Nichols and Bob McChesney expose the culprits who steered America into the quagmire of big money and provide us with the tools to free ourselves and our republic from the corporate kleptocrats.”
While many Americans are struggling to find work, those with jobs are struggling for better wages and working conditions—yesterday, BART workers in San Francisco went on strike after contract negotiations stalled.
Senator Wendy Davis speaks as she begins a filibuster in an effort to kill an abortion bill, Tuesday, June 25, 2013, in Austin, Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
Texas State Senator Wendy Davis, who electrified her state and the nation with last week’s thirteen-hour filibuster to block a sweeping assault on reproductive rights, and who promises to keep up the fight this week as the legislature is called into special session, is suddenly the most interesting prospective gubernatorial candidate in the nation.
When she appeared last week on the MSNBC show All In with Chris Hayes, the Democratic legislator was asked if she might run in 2014 against Republican Governor Rick Perry. Her reply? “You know, I would be lying if I told you that I hadn’t had aspirations to run for a statewide office.”
A close political ally went even further, acknowledging that the veteran local official and legislator is “looking very closely” at the 2014 race. “Certainly, the events over the last week or so show a groundswell in Texas,” says Davis associate Matt Angle, who directs the Democratic political firm Lone Star Project. “We have to see if it all adds up to a statewide campaign.”
As a matter of fact, it does add up.
The woman who so shook Perry that he started taking personal shots at her has the necessary name recognition, thousands of enthusiastic supporters and the potential to raise significant campaign cash from small donors across Texas and nationwide.
Davis has also got a brash, no-apologies-for-being-right approach that has historically played well in the Lone Star State. Long before she was filibustering for reproductive rights, Davis was filibustering for education funding. And her heavy lifting as a progressive legislator has won her a slew of awards like the one from the Texas Office of Public Citizen, which named her the state’s “Outstanding Public Servant.”
Davis is fighting Perry again this week, celebrating the determination of Texas pro-choice activists and declaring to a huge crowd in front of state Capitol Monday that their courage and commitment had made her "believe in Texas more than ever!"
Decrying not just assaults on the rights of women but on public education and public services, Davis pulled the threads of resistance together into a broad call for a fairer and more just Texas, telling the crowd: "That's what we're fighting for."
Indeed, she declared, if Perry wants a special session, then she and "responsible" legislators will use it to promote pay equity for women.
"Let's remind Governor Perry that fairness is and always will be a fundamental Texas value," announced the Democratic senator to a crowd that chanted "Wendy! Wendy! Wendy!"
Davis shouted above the cheers: "Texans deserve someone who will stand up for them and their values."
But, on Monday in Austin, there was a good deal of talk about how Davis might be the right woman at the right time.
If Davis decides to run, she will not be the first brave, bold woman to seek the governorship of Texas.
Texas Governor Ann Richards, the last Democrat to win the state’s top job, was the star of the 1988 Democratic National Convention—where she famously made a case for equal rights that included the line: “After all, Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did. She just did it backwards and in high heels.”
Before Richards, there was the remarkable Frances “Sissy” Farenthold, who was the only woman in the Texas House of Representatives at the same time that Barbara Jordan was the only women in the Texas Senate. Farenthold made a pair of remarkable bids for the Democratic nomination for governor in the early 1970s. She was such an inspiring figure that her surprise nomination for vice president at the 1972 Democratic National Convention drew more than 400 votes.
And, of course, Miriam Amanda Wallace “Ma” Ferguson was elected to one term as governor of Texas in the 1920s, and to another in the 1930s.
Texas actually has a better track record of seriously considering and frequently electing women governors, senators and statewide office holders than many American states.
Yet the Texas Democratic Party has not always shined in its selection of contenders for the gubernatorial post it last won in 1990. Placing Davis at the top of its 2014 ticket could well reap benefits for the party. That’s not to say that Davis would have an easy time of it. Mounting a challenge to Perry, the failed 2012 Republican presidential candidate who makes no secret of his interest in the 2016 race, would be an uphill run in a state that gave Republican Mitt Romney 57 percent of the vote in 2012.
But smart politics is not merely about crunching numbers from past contests. Smart politics takes into account personal and situational intangibles, with an eye toward mounting a campaign that takes the great leap forward.
The intangible for Wendy Davis is that she has already proven herself to a substantial number of Texas voters, especially but certainly not exclusively women.
Davis has never lost an election, winning three terms on the Fort Worth City Council before she beat a Republican incumbent to win a state Senate seat in 2008 and retained that seat in 2012. Davis is not a milquetoast mandarin. She’s a quick-witted political natural who clearly knows the issues and who is ready to wage fights—including filibusters—on behalf of a socially and economically progressive agenda.
It is not unreasonable to suggest that Davis could build a statewide movement that would include women, African-Americans, Asians and Latinos—as well as trade unionists—in a coalition that could speed up the process of transformation that most political analysts say will change Texas voting patterns sometime in the reasonably near future.
Demographics are destiny in American politics. And the demographics of the Lone Star state are trending toward the Democrats. But there’s always been a question about whether 2014, 2016, 2018—or some more distant year—will see Texas reach the tipping point.
Political strategists in both parties know that one of the best ways to speed up the process is with a dynamic candidate who has the potential to raise enough campaign cash to give Rick Perry—a particularly prodigious fund-raiser—a run for his money.
When the Democratic Party picks safe and predictable candidates in red states like Texas, it gets a safe and predictable result: defeat.
Wendy Davis is not safe and predictable. She’s energetic and engaged, Harvard-Law-School smart and broadly experienced at the local and state levels of government.
Rick Perry knows that adds up to a serious challenge. That’s why he is on the attack. That’s also why Davis could well turn out to be the most viable Texas Democratic gubernatorial prospect since Ann Richards won the job back in 1990.
John Nichols is the co-author of Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America (Nation Books), which examines the new state-based politics that links protests and electoral bids. Jim Hightower says: “Nichols and McChesney strike again! And, as usual, these two experienced and effective fighters for common sense and the common good are right on target with Dollarocracy. The truth might not ‘make you free,’ but it can make you move into action to free our great nation from the political stranglehold of big money. So read… and let’s get moving!”
Was Wendy Davis’s filibuster heroic? Katha Pollitt argues that the state senator is not merely a hero but a superhero.
A Syrian soldier, who has defected to join the Free Syrian Army, holds up his rifle and waves a Syrian independence flag in the Damascus suburb of Saqba, January 27, 2012. (REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah)
Congressman Peter Welch does not want the United States to “Americanize” the civil war in Syria.
To that end, Welch says, Congress must renew its commitment to the Constitution, which gives the legislative branch of the federal government not just the power to declare war but the authority to check and balance military interventions and alliances that might lead to war.
“Congress must accept its responsibility, not abdicate it,” says the Vermont Democrat, who is a key player on the House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs.
To that end, Welch has this week taken a leadership role—along with New York Republican Chris Murphy—in a bipartisan push for Congress to restrict direct military aid to Syrian rebels.
Welch is not naïve, nor is he neglectful of realities on the ground in the Middle East. He traveled to the region last month as part of a congressional oversight mission, visiting an enormous refugee camp along the long the Turkish-Syrian border where he says he witnessed “enormous heartache and suffering in a humanitarian disaster on a vast scale.”
Yet, while the Democrat is quick to condemn the brutality of the Syrian government and its military, he notes that divisions between the various opposition factions means “there is no good choice when it comes to US interventions in the region.” And that includes the Obama administration’s decision to provide military aid to rebel forces.
“There’s an enormous risk that we ‘Americanize’ what is a civil war,” the congressman has argued. “So anyone, politicians foremost among them, who likes to suggest as an armchair general that there’s easy and definitive way to provide a military solution to this festering civil war I think is mistaken.”
On Thursday, Welch and Gibson, with the support of a bipartisan coalition of their colleagues, announced plans to introduce a House version of a Senate measure—sponsored by Democrats Tom Udall of New Mexico and Chris Murphy of Connecticut, as well as Republicans Rand Paul of Kentucky and Mike Lee of Utah—that would block any military aid to Syrian rebel groups and US support of military operations in Syria until authorized by a joint resolution of Congress. While the bill does allow for non-lethal humanitarian assistance for the Syrian people, it would require the administration to report to Congress every ninety days detailing precisely what assistance is being provided to specific groups, organizations, movements and individuals in Syria.
“It’s vitally important that we recognize the lessons learned from Iraq and Afghanistan. Syria is in a brutal and tragic civil war,” says Welch. “To the extent we can help, we should help. But sending direct military assistance to Syrian rebels—some of whom we support, others we don’t—raises the real risk of Americanizing a Sunni-Shia civil war. If America is to walk down this path, Congress should be involved in the decision to do so. This bill ensures that Congress will be a part of the decision making process.”
For too long, Congress has been a bystander as successive administrations have involved the United States in conflicts that should be carefully considered. Welch, who came to Congress as an outspoken critic of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, has for a number of years argued that “it is time for the United States to return to a responsible foreign policy.”
The use of the term “return” is important.
As Welch notes, the Syrian conflict is heartbreaking and compelling. It demands diplomatic and humanitarian interventions.
But direct military aid is something else altogether.
The distinction is one that was well understood at the founding of the republic, and over the ensuing years when the United States established itself on the international stage. One-hundred-and-ninety-two years ago next week, on July 4, 1821, then–Secretary of State John Quincy Adams outlined the foreign policy of the still young nation by telling Congress, “Wherever the standard of freedom and Independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will [America’s] heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy.”
Adams who would four years later assume the role of commander-in-chief, as the nation’s sixth president, said of his country:
She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own. She will commend the general cause by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example. She well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own, were they even the banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom. The fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force… She might become the dictatress of the world. She would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit.
Those were wise words in 1821 and, as Peter Welch notes, they are, as well, wise words for 2013.
The new book by John Nichols and Robert W. McChesney, Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America (The Nation), exposes how super-charged lobbying is breaking down government oversight and the system of checks and balances on vital domestic and international-policy issues.
While Congress has not yet acted on its right to check and balance military interventions, the CIA has already begun shipping weapons into Syria.