Politics, current affairs and riffs and reflections on the news.
The administration should seize on the recent departure of Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, above, as an opportunity get tougher on overgrown financial institutions. (AP Photos/Jonathan Ernst.)
Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.
George Will and I don’t agree on much. We’ve shared many a spirited debate over the years on ABC’s This Week. But on one of the key issues of our time—how to save our economy and our democracy from the reign of the big banks—it’s time for the Obama administration to listen to George Will.
In his Sunday column, “A badly needed breakup,” Will makes the conservative case for a common-sense principle: financial institutions that are Too Big to Fail are also Too Big to Exist. Will’s full-throated call to arms is welcome, and his conclusion echoes that of countless occupiers, Tea Partiers and Americans of all stripes. Here’s hoping, for the sake of the republic, that Will can bring more of his fellow conservatives along with him.
As Will notes, over two-thirds of the banking industry’s assets are now in a dozen banks with between $250 billion and $2.3 trillion to their names. Just five institutions have fully half of the industry’s assets. “There is no convincing consensus about a correlation between a bank’s size and supposed efficiencies of scale,” writes Will, “and any efficiencies must be weighed against management inefficiencies associated with complexity and opacity.”
Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.
While many media outlets have attributed the financial struggles of the United States Postal Service to inefficiency and a decline in mail volume in the digital age, The Nation has regularly reported on the real factors behind the USPS‘s decision to eliminate Saturday mail delivery—and why it’s bad for workers and bad for our democracy.
Washington correspondent John Nichols has covered the Postal Service since well before the default this past summer, writing how Congress manufactured a crisis where one didn’t exist. “In 2006, a Republican Congress—acting at the behest of the Bush-Cheney administration—enacted a law that required the postal service to ‘pre-fund’ retiree health benefits seventy-five years into the future,” writes Nichols. “No major private-sector corporation or public-sector agency could do that. It’s an untenable demand.”
This week Nichols called the postal cuts “austerity on steroids,” explaining why the decision to cut service should be seen as equivalent to a deep cut to Social Security. “The damage associated with the curtailing of Saturday delivery will be most severe in rural areas and inner cities, where small businesses and working families rely on post offices that are already targeted for shuttering,” he writes. “It will, as well, be particularly harmful to the elderly, the disabled and others who rely on regular delivery and the human connection provided by letter carriers and rural delivery drivers.”
With 20 percent of Americans now casting ballots by mail, this is about more than the convenience of Saturday delivery—it’s also about access to voting. “Taking Saturdays out of the rotation deals a serious blow to existing absentee and vote-by-mail operations, and reduces the likelihood that this voter-friendly approach will be expanded,” writes Nichols.
But Congress can stop these cuts. In fact, the USPS is prohibited from unilaterally suspending Saturday delivery. And members of Congress on both sides of the aisle have come out in opposition to the USPS’s decision. Republican Susan Collins called the move “inconsistent with current law” and said it “threatens to jeopardize its customer base.” Meanwhile, Senator Bernie Sanders released a statement calling on the GOP leadership in the House to work with the Senate and bring meaningful reform to the Postal Service.
Find out how you can take action and implore Congress to say “no” to the end of Saturday delivery. Sign this Nation petition calling on your representatives to act. Get educated on why these cuts threaten to undermine this vital public service. And check back as we continue to cover this story at The Nation.
Even Republicans will sometimes support progressive taxes. Representative Dave Camp is considering legislation that would increase taxes on the largest banks. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais.)
While the New Year’s deficit deal divided congressional Republicans, there’s one point on which they’re all reading from the same hymnal: No more tax talk! The revenues under the deal are relatively modest—they leave rich people’s taxes well short of Clinton era rates. But Republicans, while claiming to care deeply about the deficit, have locked arms to take further tax increases off the table. We can’t let them.
The truth is, we could do our economy a world of good with some smart and fair tax hikes. While the current deficit hysteria is unmoored from reality, the right tax hikes could improve economic incentives, reduce obscene inequality and fund much-needed programs. Rather than the usual dust-ups over competing flavors of austerity, our budget debate should have healthy tax hikes front and center.
To start with, Congress should listen to Sarah Anderson, who directs the Global Economy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies. As Anderson noted at The Huffington Post last week, while progressive taxation may appear an uphill battle, politics is fluid, and “Openings will come…. The even more important challenge is to push progressive reforms into the center of the debate so they get plucked when the stars are aligned.”
Anderson has a few good taxes in mind to start with. First: Close the carried-interest loophole, so that money made by managing private equity or hedge funds no longer gets preferential treatment over wages earned by teaching kids or mining coal (President Obama offered welcome support for this change in his Super Bowl Sunday interview). Second: Cap executive pay deductibility, so that calling obscene bonuses “performance-based” no longer lets them be easily exempted from taxation. Third: Tax financial transactions, so bad behavior can be discouraged, and the people who crashed the economy can be required to pay for the cost of recovery. And fourth: Shut down offshore tax haven loopholes, so our tax code stops seducing money away from America.
Each of these tax changes would be a victory for the 99 percent, and a step towards economy sanity. We have a long way to go. As Oxfam International wrote in a briefing published last month, the world’s 100 richest billionaires alone last year made four times as much money as it would have taken to end extreme poverty. While “great progress” has been made in the fight to improve the lives of the world’s poorest, Oxfam warns, “as we look to the next decade, and new development goals we need to define progress, we must demonstrate that we are also tackling inequality—and that means looking at not just the poorest but the richest…. In a world of finite resources, we cannot end poverty unless we reduce income inequality.”
The Republican Party will pull out all the stops to avert any progress on taxes. But as House Ways and Means Committee Chair Dave Camp reminded us last month, even GOP congressmen know that taxing the wealthiest is politically popular. GOP sources told The Huffington Post’s Ryan Grim and Zach Carter that Camp is considering legislation that could transform the tax treatment of derivatives, discouraging extreme risk-taking and recouping little-taxed profit. Ironically, Grim and Carter’s sources suggested that the bill was motivated by payback: Camp resented top CEOs for supporting the (quite conservative) Fix the Debt in calling for a Grand Bargain, rather than taking the Grover Norquist line and refusing to entertain any tax increases at all. But if true, the story is telling: It shows that Republicans know that their CEO friends are depending on them to shield them from reasonable taxation, and that the top 1 percent are vulnerable to public outrage if a true tax debate breaks out.
That’s the debate we need now. It’s time for a few good tax hikes.
Newsweek may have gone under, but other print magazines aren’t just surviving, they’re thriving, including progressive titles, Katrina vanden Heuvel argues.
MOVEMENTS MAKING NOISE. “When historians look back at the decades of the transition to the twenty-first century, I think they will see a distinctive era of tumult and protest, in the United States and across the globe,” writes Frances Fox Piven in this week’s issue. Our issue focuses on the state of grassroots movements working toward change—and what activists are doing on the ground. Aura Bogado details how Dreamers are fighting deportations; while Washington debates a grand immigration resolution, some activists are putting their bodies on the line to free those in detention today. And Mark Herstgaard writes how environmentalists, awaiting the Keystone XL pipeline decision, have made an historic vow to engage in mass civil disobedience. Read more on the state of movements from Kristen Gwynne on drug reform, John Nichols on election reform, and Laura Flanders on the women’s movement .
IMMIGRATION REFORM. With the so-called Gang of Eight releasing a comprehensive immigration proposal this week, is there finally hope for reform? George Zornick argues that the numbers just don’t add up—since House Republicans must cater to the far right in primary races in heavily gerrymandered districts, the GOP will likely kill the bill. And Aura Bogado reports on President Obama’s speech and why the pathway to citizenship remains uncertain. Find out more from Bogado on how immigrants are reacting to the national debate—and what should be done next.
SUPER BOWL XLVII. As our sports editor, Dave Zirin, details, the homophobic comments from 49ers player Chris Culliver have rocked the Super Bowl week in New Orleans. But the moment has been instructive. Read more from Zirin on football, manhood and the future of an LGBT-friendly culture in the NFL. Also this week, Mychal Denzel Smith addresses football and traumatic brain injury and how the lure of million-dollar contracts is like a “lottery” for economically disadvantaged players. “We talk about the culture of violent machismo as a driving motivator behind their choice to play,” writes Smith. “But it’s even more basic than that. It’s the economy, stupid.” Find out more from Smith on why it’s no coincidence that 67 percent of NFL players are black.
DIRTY WARS. Jeremy Scahill’s new film Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield made a big impression at Sundance—not only was it awarded the prize for best cinematography in a US documentary, but it was also picked up for distribution by IFC Films. Watch Scahill and director Richard Rowley talk about the film and US covert warfare abroad here. And take a look at Jeremy Scahill’s recent investigative work for The Nation.
WELCOME NONA WILLIS ARONOWITZ & MYCHAL DENZEL SMITH. We’re pleased to welcome two guest bloggers. Nona Willis Aronowitz will report on labor and the economy in the South, and Mychal Denzel Smith will cover race, politics and more. I hope you’ll take a look at some of their work from this week—read more from Aronowitz on the labor movement in New Orleans and from Smith on the routine criminalization of America’s black and brown youth. And check back for more!
The conventional wisdom is that magazines are in decline. Newsweek’s print downfall was mourned as a death in the family (last week’s New Yorker described a gathering of ex-editors as an “Irish Wake”). Facing dwindling circulation, U.S. News and World Report has become more focused on its staple college and hospital rankings rather than on long-form journalism. Rolling Stone and Martha Stewart’s Omnimedia have seen layoffs, while old favorites like Gourmet and Life are long gone.
Last spring, the entrepreneurial and well-funded GOOD laid off virtually all of its editorial and writing staff. When The American Prospect, a haven for intelligent liberalism, was hit by a nearly fatal half-a-million-dollar deficit, The Nation spoke out urging people to help the magazine. The Prospect survived—barely—but journalism nearly lost an informed voice and essential training ground for many of America’s finest progressive journalists.
Given all the depressing news we should raise a glass to the redesign (in print) and relaunch (online) of The New Republic, The Nation’s sister fellow-liberal magazine of opinion for nearly 100 years. In rebooting the magazine, publisher Chris Hughes—co-founder of Facebook and steeped in online organizing—did something surprising: he doubled down on long-form, investigative journalism and political opinion. Hughes bought The New Republic, and could have done as he pleased: stripped it bare, sold it for parts or gone online only. But he invested instead in fact-checking, reporting and—as The New York Times reported—went to great pains to “include The New Republic’s rich history in a magazine designed for the modern media age.”
The Nation has invested in a similar type of journalism—intelligent, cutting-edge, bold writing and reporting that is embedded in our historical DNA—and we’ve embraced the digital age with passion and integrity.
In 2014, The New Republic will turn 100. A year later The Nation will turn 150. In 1948 we almost merged. Like many grand bargains between liberals, this one fell apart. (You’ll find the full story of the merger-that-almost-was in former editor Victor Navasky’s rollicking memoir, A Matter of Opinion.)
We’ve survived, I think, for 150 years by staying truly independent, and by filling our pages with unfiltered takes on politics and culture. As Navasky has noted, journals of opinion like The Nation continue to matter because they are a critical counterforce against the tabloidization, consolidation, dumbing-down and fact-challenged “debate” that dominates our political culture. Intelligent readers increasingly are looking to these magazines to set the standard for serious public discussion and debate. Sticking to that standard has won us dozens of honors, from National Magazine Awards to the George Polk, James Aronson and Sidney Hillman Awards for investigative reporting and social justice journalism. And The Nation has launched the careers of myriad young writers, from Hunter S. Thompson in the early 1960s to Jeremy Scahill today, and driven bold ideas into the national conversation.
Like The New Republic, we believe in covering culture, both high and low—one of our most-read stories this week is a smart piece by a rising cultural critic on what we can learn from the TV shows Girls and Shameless about being broke, down and out. And we feature one of America’s finest sports writers in Dave Zirin and boast the inimitable JoAnn Wypijewski as our sex columnist. It’s a mix that’s good for journalism and good for the public debate. But while The New Republic appears intent on competing with New York magazine, investing in glossy paper and highly designed pages and ramping up its lifestyle coverage, we’re keeping our gritty newsprint—and more radical-edged politics.
The Nation and The New Republic’s political paths have diverged over the years, at times dramatically. The Nation has been a bigger tent when it comes to political views, welcoming radicals, liberals, progressives, anarchists and even a few big-hearted conservatives to our pages over the years. The New Republic has been more centrist, with a neoconservative streak and dark period post-9/11, which it revisited (almost) in a special issue apologizing for the magazine’s editorial march to war in Iraq.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, magazines are surviving—even thriving. The Nation is now available weekly on more than a dozen digital platforms with more than 1.1 million readers. We have more print subscribers today than we did a decade ago, because we firmly believe that the printed word is an essential part of the mix. At Mother Jones, print subscriptions jumped dramatically after they broke the “47 percent” story in September. AtGarden and Gun, one of publishing’s unlikeliest success stories, subscriptions continue to rise on the back of top-flight writing. And as the Times reported, The New Republic, whose circulation dipped to dangerous lows last spring, is slowly making its way back in print.
I was intrigued earlier this month to read that The American Prospect, still struggling to make ends meet, had decided to sublet part of its office to The American Conservative, founded in 2002 by Pat Buchanan. “We can only benefit from sharing ideas,” Maisie Allison, web editor at the Conservative, told the Times.
Cynics might scoff at strange print bedfellows huddling together for warmth in an economic chill. But I see something different in their collaboration. A mutual and shared commitment to the vital role of the independent journal of opinion in our American democracy.
Besides just progressive magazines, progressive politics in general are resurgent, Katrina vanden Heuvel writes. Will we finally get serious about fixing economic inequality in this country?
Barack Obama campaigns in 2012. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak.)
Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.
The growing progressive coalition that helped elect President Obama has emerged at the end of a failed and exhausted conservative era. The media now chronicle the flailings of Republican leaders slowly awakening to the weaknesses of a stale, pale and predominantly male party in today’s America.
But the central challenge to this progressive coalition is not dispatching the old but rather defining what comes next. Will it be able to address the central challenge facing America at this time and reclaim the American Dream from an extreme and corrosive economic inequality?
In his inaugural address, President Obama spoke powerfully to this rising American electorate—single women, minorities, the young—by summarizing the progressive contribution to building a more perfect union from “Seneca Falls to Selma to Stonewall.” He reminded all that greater social equality in America has been driven by independent movements, willing to confront the lies and limits of the conventional consensus.
SENECA FALLS TO SELMA TO STONEWALL. “We the people declare today that the most evident of truths—that all of us are created equal—is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall.” The president’s much-quoted line from his inaugural speech powerfully charts “an arc of history that bends toward justice,” as John Nichols writes this week. Linking these historic moments to today’s struggle for pay equity for women and immigrants’ rights was a meaningful nod to the electorate that gave him victory on November 6. And while symbolic recognition is not a substitute for policy, it still matters, argues Melissa Harris-Perry in her column this week. “Obama positioned Seneca Falls, Selma and Stonewall as the fulfillment of a nascent promise in Jefferson’s declaration, and thereby recognizes the deeply American narrative embedded in these moments,” writes Harris-Perry.
YES, HE CAN. After a disappointing filibuster reform deal this week in Congress, Obama’s use of executive power has become even more significant going forward. In this week’s issue, we zero in on twenty actions the president should take to push for progressive change. From addressing the economy by creating a National Development Bank to challenging the school-to-prison pipeline—to auditing the Pentagon—the president can, and must, act in his second term to make our country better. “Pressing for reforms through executive action—using both “street heat” and “suite heat”—should be a serious focus of our work in the coming months,” we write. Read more about these twenty actions focusing on the environment, foreign policy, criminal justice, immigration, civil liberties and more. Also, we asked our readers to weigh in—find out what our thoughtful readers would like to see from the president during his second term.
BIG MONEY & POLITICS. As Lee Fang reports, Obama’s first term was shaped by clashes with big-business interests. Take the health reform fight, for example—opponents of reform spent over $323 million in negative advertising and offered $450,000 starting salaries to Democratic Senate staffers willing to join up with lobbying firms. And in the case of some senators, like Nebraska’s Ben Nelson—who eventually became a health industry lobbyist—their efforts paid off. But looking forward, President Obama plans to use his legions of volunteers to push back against special interests. “For Obama’s second term, even with a weaker position given the composition of Congress, he may succeed by returning to his community organizing roots—a recognition that social movements are an essential component in advancing progressive reforms over corporate or partisan opposition.” Find out more from Fang.
CLIMATE CHANGE. “Addressing climate change was—quite remarkably—the most prominent policy vow President Obama made yesterday on the steps of the US Capitol,” wrote George Zornick on Tuesday. But White House Press Secretary Jay Carney gave no comfort to environmentalists when talking about the Keystone XL pipeline this week. Read more from Zornick on the troubling signals from the White House—and how approving the pipeline “would cripple any notion that the White House is actually serious about addressing climate change.” Zornick also writes about a new congressional task force on climate change, which will work to push the Obama administration to take action as well as mobilize public support to enact real change. Find out more on how the task force aims to “break through barricades of denial.”
ELECTION REFORM. We‘ve long been familiar with the GOP’s gerrymandering strategy—as John Nichols reports, even though Democrats won 1.4 million more votes than Republicans in House races, the GOP still retains control of the chamber. Now Republicans in statehouses want to divvy up Electoral College votes based on district pluralities in key battleground states like Virginia—which would further rig the system to yield better results for the GOP. After an election with rampant efforts to suppress the votes of people of color, immigrants, women, college students, and the elderly, it’s crucial for the Obama administration and Congress to act and fix our elections. Find out more from Ari Berman on the Voter Empowerment Act and other proposals in Congress—and how they would boost voter participation. Also, take a look at my piece this week on campaign finance reform in New York—the votes are there to clean up our elections, but will Governor Cuomo push to pass legislation? Read that piece here.
Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York (AP Photo/Mike Groll).
One of the last results from Election Day 2012 is also one of the sweetest. Running in a district gerrymandered by Republicans, grassroots candidate Cecilia Tkaczyk scored a stunning upset over millionaire Assemblyman George Amedore in a New York State Senate race. Even better, Tkaczyk—and the grassroots army that powered her to victory—did it by making campaign finance reform the signature issue in the race. Tkaczyk’s victory, achieved by a nineteen-vote margin following a recount that ended Friday, is a shot in the arm for progressives. It’s also a test for New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who’s counting on progressive votes in 2016.
Tkaczyk faced daunting odds. A poll one month out showed her down by twelve points. She was running with a cash disadvantage, in a GOP-gerrymandered district, with little name recognition and a hard-to-pronounce name. With little left to lose, Tkaczk and the key groups supporting her made the race a referendum on democracy itself. In the mail and at the doors, they let the voters know that a vote for Tkaczk was a vote for publicly financed elections. Her GOP opponent agreed: Amedore began warning of a “Cece tax” that would finance such a system. According to conventional wisdom, that should have been the death of Tkaczyk’s already-underdog campaign. Conventional wisdom was wrong.
As Tkaczyk said in a December op-ed, while a furious recount battle was still underway: “Passing Fair Elections reforms, including the public financing of campaigns, was one of my campaign’s core issues…If I do get sworn in, I’ll know my support for public financing is a central reason I won the job.” A month later, the job is hers.
Tkaczyk’s victory is a testament to the power of grassroots and netroots organizing. It took savvy, tireless work by Working Families Party, Citizen Action of New York, Progressive Congressional Campaign Committee, MoveOn and the new “anti-PAC PAC” Friends of Democracy to make it happen. And it took a righteous cause: getting money out of our elections. In one statewide survey, 79 percent of New Yorkers supported comprehensive campaign finance reform; just 8 percent were against it.
Voters in Tkaczyk’s district heeded that call. But will their governor?
Over the past few months, Andrew Cuomo had the opportunity to help secure Democratic control of the state senate. But he passed, neither endorsing Democrats against Tea Partying opponents, nor lifting a finger when senators who were elected as Democrats moved to erect an alternative majority coalition with the Republicans (a result that’s neither Democratic nor small-"d" democratic).
Now Cuomo faces a new test. The governor has said he supports campaign finance reform. With Tkaczyk’s victory, the votes are there to pass it. But now that clean elections reform is in reach, will Cuomo defy his business-class supporters? After all, Cuomo’s recent high-profile liberal moves on guns and abortion, while welcome and worthy of celebration, don’t threaten the power of the business folks backing him. Campaign finance reform would. And it would pave the way for rent regulation, progressive taxation, living wage laws and other reforms that differ from the “socially progressive, economically conservative” agenda the governor has pushed to date.
As we saw with New York’s new gun laws, Andrew Cuomo knows how to get a bill passed when he really wants to. But tepid statements aside, it’s far from clear that Cuomo actually wants campaign finance reform, or other progressive economic measures to which he’s paid lip service.
If Cuomo joins arms with the Senate Democrats and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (long a champion of this reform) to muscle through clean elections in New York State, he’ll earn a fresh look from skeptical progressives.
Katrina vanden Heuvel last wrote about the NRA’s Fast and Furious scandal and the flow of guns over the border to Mexico.
GUNS, RACE & POLITICS. President Obama announced some of the most sweeping gun control proposals in over two decades this week—George Zornick breaks down the president’s proposals, and what might happen next. But are our media and politics fostering an honest debate on what comprehensive reform will do? As Bryce Covert writes, as we push for gun control legislation, we must remember how reforms might impact those most affected by gun violence—and how the criminalization of certain guns could disproportionately affect people of color. “What may look like a colorblind law on the books can be interpreted and implemented in incredibly racist ways,” writes Covert. And as Mychal Denzel Smith argues, the conversation about guns has focused too much on keeping the weapons out of the hands of certain people—and not on real ways to reduce gun violence. But who are the “bad guys”? Read Smith’s piece, “It’s Not the Bad Guys—It’s the Guns,” here.
REMEMBERING AARON SWARTZ. We were saddened at the loss of Aaron Swartz last weekend, a tireless activist committed to making information free and accessible to all. “I remember always thinking that he always seemed too sensitive for this world we happen to live in, and I remember him working so mightily, so heroically, to try to bend the world into a place more hospitable to people like him, which also means hospitable to people like us,” writes The Nation’s Rick Perlstein. The New York Times cited Perlstein’s moving tribute in an article on Swartz’s extraordinary work as a data crusader. And on the prosecution of Swartz, Michelle Dean writes how the case was about more than hacking; rather, “it reflected a completely bizarre set of priorities in law enforcement, one which fetishizes the technicalities of the issues over the real justice of them.” Read more from Dean about the larger attack on those who want to “challenge the public to think more deeply and carefully about what justice demands.”
A NEW COLD WAR. “With the full support of a feckless policy elite and an uncritical media establishment, Washington is slipping, if not plunging, into a new cold war with Moscow,” writes Stephen F. Cohen in this week’s issue. “Relations, already deeply chilled by fundamental disputes over missile defense, the Middle East and Russia’s internal politics, have now been further poisoned by two conflicts reminiscent of tit-for-tat policy-making during the previous Cold War.” Russia’s adoption ban, or “Dima’s Law” comes on the tails of the US’s Magnitsky Act, which would essentially put Russian officials on a blacklist without due process. Find out more from Cohen on how this one-dimensional approach from President Obama, Congress and the media could prove disastrous for US-Russian relations.
ROE AT 40. Forty years after Roe v. Wade, we’re still fighting for reproductive justice—in 2011 alone, states passed ninety-two restrictions on abortion rights. “The piecemeal strategy of the anti-choice movement has paid off, and the Republicans’ ascendance at the state level has been a disaster for choice,” we write in this week’s editorial. After taking some hits, though, the movement for abortion rights is pushing back. And, as columnist Katha Pollitt writes, while Americans might be wary of identifying as “pro-choice,” they still believe that abortion is a decision best left to a pregnant woman and her doctor. Is “pro-choice” passe? Read more from Pollitt here. Also, take a look at Peter Rothberg’s blog which highlights the many groups, including Planned Parenthood and NARAL, working to defend Roe forty years later. And visit our Take Action blog to learn about the Hyde Amendment and how it’s the main obstacle to abortion access for low-income women. Find out what you can do to repeal the Hyde Amendment.
ATF officials display seized weapons in Phoenix. Lax laws prevented the agency from effectively targeting the flow guns across the border. (AP Photo/Matt York.)
With days–perhaps hours–to go before President Obama announces recommendations from Vice President Biden’s gun violence task force, battles lines have already been drawn.
Most dramatically, with the heartrending burials of 20 innocent first-graders and six of their heroic educators as a backdrop, NRA top lobbyist Wayne LaPierre issued a belligerent and self-pitying demand for yet more weaponry, and the posting of armed guards at every school in America. But as the nation debates Obama’s proposals—and LaPierre’s—it will be important to reexamine the NRA’s greatest PR victory of the last few years: the greatly overworked, shamefully distorted Fast and Furious scandal.
As Fortune reporter Katherine Eban revealed in an outstanding investigation published last summer, much of what Republicans have claimed about the scandal—including the headline-grabbing assertion that the US government intentionally provided guns to Mexican drug cartels—is false. The real story is of an agency sabotaged by the same pro-gun mania which led to the Newtown tragedy.
The Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) opened up the Fast and Furious case to monitor American teenagers, who had been tapped by Mexican drug cartels to help arm the war in Mexico by becoming straw purchasers or front buyers. Our laws permit a teenager with no prior criminal record to pay cash and buy an unlimited number of military assault rifles. Their favorites included AR-15 variants like the Bushmaster .223 rifle used by Adam Lanza at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Were Lanza in Arizona, he could have walked into nearly any federally licensed firearms dealer, plunked down $10,000 in cash, and left with 20 AK-47s in his hands—as do so many straw purchasers.
An e-mail from the head of the criminal division for the Arizona District US Attorney’s office makes clear that the Fast and Furious prosecutors believed that it was legal for a straw purchaser to buy the guns and then transfer them to others, so long as those people were not legally prohibited from possessing firearms. The Republicans have asserted the opposite—that if the straw purchasers certified in their paperwork that they were the true buyers of the gun, but then transferred it after the purchase, they were lying and should have been prosecuted. But the courts in Arizona have disagreed, and thus, so did the prosecutors. Agents protested these decisions repeatedly, but of course were required to abide by the prosecutors’ legal judgments. The result: a lot of guns wound up in Mexico, and two were found near the Arizona-Mexico border, where an elite US border patrol agent, Brian Terry, was gunned down.
In a sane country, the inquiry into Brian Terry’s death would have examined all the tools that the ATF agents lacked in trying to build a case against the straw purchasers in Fast and Furious. There is no firearms trafficking statute, which would have allowed the ATF to build a swifter case that targeted the straw purchasers and their recruiters as a group. There is no comprehensive database of firearms purchases, which would have given the agents a much-needed real-time look at their suspects’ activities. In fact, the laws are so lax that the buyers didn’t even need to resort to a favored avenue for shady purchases: our totally unregulated gun shows, which require no background checks at all. (A sane country also would not have left the ATF to languish without a permanent head for fully six years—an unacceptable situation that Mayor Michael Bloomberg has rightly called on the president to address with a recess appointment.)
The Republican-led House, acting in lockstep with the NRA, twisted the facts of the ill-fated gun trafficking investigation in Phoenix to complete almost every item on its political To Do list. It used the scandal to bludgeon and destabilize the ATF, the agency charged with enforcing the nation’s gun laws. It diverted attention from the ineffective gun laws that made the ATF’s job in Fast and Furious nearly impossible. And it emerged with a cherished talking point: that the gun laws on the books right now are more than adequate, and it’s only their enforcement that has flaws.
The effort by the NRA and its friends in Congress to stymie any discussion of our permissive guns laws during its Fast and Furious investigation was made plain by the lead sled dog, Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA), who at multiple hearings openly silenced Democratic members from even asking questions about the strength of the laws or potential legislative solutions.
If the NRA and Republican congressmen really cared about Brian Terry or his tragic death, they would have probed the actual causes underlying it, instead of proliferating a lot of phony conspiracy theories so wild, they almost left Stephen Colbert at a loss for words.
Since the shooting, other media outlets have now written about how the ATF is fundamentally hobbled in its mission. On December 26, the New York Times reported on the warnings of advocates and law enforcement officials that “the agency’s ability to thwart gun violence is hamstrung by legislative restrictions and by loopholes in federal gun laws...” Of course, hamstringing the ATF has always been a prime goal of the NRA's. What has always seemed breathtakingly hypocritical about Issa's pursuit of the ATF in Fast and Furious, is the pretense that the Bureau actually had some other way to stop all those guns, but failed to do it.
That's simply untrue. Nothing makes this clearer than two different reports from the Justice Department’s Inspector General. In November of 2010, the IG issued a report (see page 51) saying that the ATF failed in its efforts to stop gun traffickers because it has pursued the little straw purchasers, while ignoring the larger cartels recruiting them. So the ATF did a course correction and started targeting the big guys. This time around, Congress (and the DOJ IG) blasted ATF for not pursuing the little guys (the straw buyers) more aggressively.
With the restrictions and laws as they are today, there is actually no way for the ATF to succeed. Issa and the NRA love to pretend otherwise, so they can persist in the fiction that the laws are more than adquate. Sadly, the ATF, which is truly a broken agency, has been all too happy to play along. Most recently, ATF quietly withdrew its policy of targeting the cartels (which was a response to the first 2010 IG report). In a little-noticed memo issued late last year, ATF Assistant Director Ronald B. Turk informed agents that, “All policies and guidance set forth in that document are hereby rescinded.” That amounts to a quiet acknowledgement that there is no way, under current law, to stop the epidemic of gun trafficking which is at the root of the problem.
Simply put, Fast and Furious would never have happened if we banned the sale of military assault rifles and cop-killing handguns, the weapons of choice for the drug cartels. It would not have happened if we made it illegal to transfer firearms to third parties, plain and simple.
Early on in the investigation, the few reality-based ideas came from Representative Elijah Cummings, the Oversight and Government Reform Committee’s ranking Democrat. Cummings held a hearing on the state of the gun laws and issued a report with recommendations including the enactment of a federal firearms trafficking statute. But the 36-month Republican-led investigation into Fast and Furious yielded not a single suggestion for strengthening the laws or empowering the ATF. Instead, it was a blueprint for reducing what passes as gun enforcement to rubble. As we’re tragically reminded over and over, that comes at a tragic price.
Is the tide finally shifting on gun control? George Zornick argues that new proposals have moved the debate left.