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Katrina vanden Heuvel | The Nation

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Katrina vanden Heuvel

Katrina vanden Heuvel

Politics, current affairs and riffs and reflections on the news.

The Merchant of Baghdad

Item 1: Proving that the Republicans have no problem ignoring Biblical strictures against usury, the Congress passed a bankruptcy bill that makes life far more profitable for credit card companies and far more onerous for people who have fallen into debt. The government hasn't started building debtor's prisons or shipping off Mastercard defaulters to Australia yet, but more and more Americans will find themselves indentured servants to Visa as a result of this bill.

Item II: 48 towns in Vermont have called for the return of Vermont's National Guard troops. Army recruitment numbers have fallen off a cliff. Tours of duty in Iraq have been extended and extended again. Even the most hawkish neocons admit our forces are stretched to the breaking point.

These two news stories seem unrelated, but they are not.

We pride ourselves on our all-volunteer army, but volunteer armies are based on a series of carrots (cash bonuses, tuition payments, professional training, land grants, promises of citizenship) and can only be maintained if the upsides are sufficiently attractive to outweigh the risks.

As has been proven repeatedly since the Revolutionary War, Americans will not voluntarily sign-up in sufficient numbers unless the nation's wars are short, relatively painless, and infrequent. If they are not, as was the case in WWI, WWII, Korea, Vietnam and now in Iraq, some sort of conscription has been needed to maintain the war effort.

Bush has said a draft is a political non-starter, which makes sense: it would put rich Republican donors' children at risk. But, given the fact that it's now much more difficult for poor people to be enticed, how can the American empire find a legal means to press them into service? Or to put it in Shakespearean terms, how is Bush to get his pound of flesh?

As we saw in Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 recruitment officers in Detroit targeted strip malls looking for idle young men who were dreaming of college or starting a music career. Don't be surprised if we soon find Army recruitment officers loitering outside bankruptcy courts.

Sweet Victory: Fairness at Georgetown

After more than a week without food, the twenty-plus members ofGeorgetown's Living Wage Coalition started to have theirdoubts.

The students, who began a hunger strike on March 15th demanding that the university increase wages for its 450 contract custodians, food service employees, and security guards, had seen little sign of real compromise on the part of the administration. Two students had already been taken to the hospital, and others were suffering from dizziness, nausea, and blurred vision.

But the students persisted, and on Holy Thursday, America's oldestCatholic university officially agreed pay its contract workers aliving wage, increasing compensation from a minimum of $11.33 an hour to $13 by July and to $14 by July 2007.

Upon hearing the news, the ecstatic students shouted "We won! We won!" with campus workers and celebrated with their first meal in nine days: fresh strawberries. "We were stunned," protester Liam Stack told the Washington Post. "This is a real victory."

According to Wider Opportunities for Women, whose reportbolstered the campaign's arguments, the cost of living in Washington DC is one of the highest in the country. For workers such as Maria Rivas--a 60-year-old custodial employee who holds a second job and still earns only $600 a month--the wage increase will help her meet rent, pay for groceries, and purchase medication for her 83-year-old father.

The hunger strike was the final result of a three-year push by theLiving Wage Coalition to improve conditions for contract workers.Students had grown increasingly frustrated by the university'sunwillingness to address the issue--something they saw as especially hypocritical given the school's purported ethos of compassion and sacrifice.

The students, who said they were willing to continue the strikethrough the weekend, when the campus would be officially closed, will head home for an especially sweet Easter break.

We also want to hear from you. Please let us know if you have a sweet victory you think we should cover by emailing to: nationvictories@gmail.com.

Co-written by Sam Graham-Felsen, a freelance journalist, documentary filmmaker, and blogger (www.boldprint.net) living in Brooklyn.

States Support the Underdogs

What a month for the Green Mountain State. on March 18th, the VermontCatamounts stunned heavily favored Syracuse for their first NCAAtournament win in the team's 100-year history. And, on the day before UVM's historic win, working Vermonters enjoyed an even more meaningful sweet victory, as the state legislature gave preliminary approval to a bill that would raise the state's minimum wage to $7.25 per hour by 2006 and automatically increase it in years to come.

Boasting one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country--despite its already high (by national standards) minimum wage of $7 per hour--Vermont offers further proof that a higher minimum wage doesn't negatively impact the job market.

Vermont wasn't the only state to see a minimum wage boost last week. On March 14th, New Jersey voted to increase its minimum wage from $5.15 to $7.15 over the next two years. This is a dramatic improvement compared with the last time New Jersey raised the minimum wage--in 1999--by only ten cents.

It has been eight years since the last federal minimum wage increase (nine years is the longest the country has ever gone without an increase), and so states have begun to take up the cause on their own. Vermont and New Jersey are only the latest examples; last year we highlighted New York's increase, and there are currently twenty-two other states that have either introduced or are preparing bills calling for a higher state minimum wage.

The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN)has been a pivotal force in these fights. "As Congress continues to fail to address this issue, we are seeing a surge in organizing among ACORN, labor, and other activist groups," says Jen Kern, Director of ACORN's Living Wage Resource Center. "What happened in Vermont and Jersey is just the tip of the iceberg. This is a trend...this is a grassroots response to years of congressional inaction."

We also want to hear from you. Please let us know if you have a sweet victory you think we should cover by emailing to: nationvictories@gmail.com. This week, we're particularly interested in any creative antiwar protests that take place this weekend.

Co-written by Sam Graham-Felsen, a freelance journalist, documentary filmmaker, and blogger (www.boldprint.net) living in Brooklyn.

Cultural Barbarism

The sterile term "collateral damage" justifiably brings to mind the human tragedy of war. But the devastating and wanton damage inflicted on the ancient city of Babylon by US-led military forces gives another meaning to the term. In this case, we are witnessing violence against one of the world's greatest cultural treasures. Babylon's destruction, according to The Guardian, "must rank as one of the most reckless acts of cultural vandalism in recent memory."  When Camp Babylon was established by US-led international forces in April 2003,  leading archeologists and international experts on ancient civilizations warned of potential peril and damage. It was "tantamount to establishing a military camp around the Great Pyramid in Egypt or around Stonehenge in Britain,"  according to a damning report issued in January by the British Museum.

The report, drafted by Dr. John Curtis--one of the world's leading archeologists--documents that the military base, built and overseen by Kellog, Brown and Root, a subsidiary of Halliburton,  jeopardized what is often referred to as the "mother of all archeological sites." Helicopter landing places and parking lots for heavy vehicles caused substantial damage to the Ishtar Gate, one of the most famous monuments from antiquity. US military vehicles crushed  2,600 year old brick pavement, archeological fragments were scattered across the site, trenches were driven into ancient deposits and military earth-moving projects contaminated the site for future generations of scientists. As several eminent archeologists have pointed out, while the looting of the Iraqi Museum in the first days of the war was horrifying, the destruction of ancient sites has even more dire consequences for those trying to piece together the history of civilization. Making matters worse, the base has created a tempting target for insurgent attacks in recent months.  As Yaseen Madhloom al-Rubai reports in the valuable Iraq Crisis Report (No. 117), "It was one of the seven wonders of the world, but ancient Babylon attracts more insurgents than tourists these days."

"Turning Babylon into a military site was a fatal mistake," the Iraqi culture Minister told Iraq Crisis Report. "It has witnessed much destruction and many terrorist attacks since it was occupied by Coalition Forces. We cannot determine the scale of destruction now. As a first step, we have completely closed the sites, before calling in international experts to evaluate the damage done to the [ancient] city and the compensation the ministry should ask Coalition forces to pay. We will run a campaign to save the city."

That campaign is finding allies among a growing network of archeologists outraged by the unnecessary destruction of an irreplaceable site. John Curtis, author of the British Museum's Report, has called for an international investigation by archeologists chosen by the Iraqis to survey and record all the damage done.

The overall situation in Iraq is overwhelmingly a human tragedy but that does not exempt the US authorities, who set up Camp Babylon, from the consequences of what The Guardian called an act of "cultural barbarism"--carried out in their name by a subsidiary of Halliburton. There must be a full investigation of  the damage caused, and Halliburton should be made to offer whatever compensation is possible for the wanton destruction of the world's cultural treasure.

Congress on Steroids

When appearing before the House Government Reform Committee last week, Mark McGwire didn't want to talk about his past. It was an appropriate place to develop historical amnesia. Over the last four years the Committee hasn't tried to investigate, let alone reform, any government scandals whatsoever. Steroids in baseball--yes, but falsified WMD evidence, Halliburton no-bid contracts, the outing of a CIA operative--no.

But the real 'roids outrage of the week was the Republicans' decision to violate conservative ideals about state rights, limited government, and the sanctity of marriage by muscling into the Terri Schiavo tragedy. Never let it be said that Republicans let their principles get in the way of their politics. (The last time they interfered with the Florida judiciary was Bush v. Gore.)

Like McGwire and other ex-baseballers looking to save face, Tom DeLay wants to change the subject from his far more insidious and scandal-ridden past. He was front and center in this weekend's cable news-ready, theater of  the absurd performance. But to be fair, perhaps he does feel a certain degree of empathy for Schiavo. As the fund-raising and junket scandals continue to deprive him of the two sources of sustenance for politicians (credibility and cash), it seems only a matter of time before his colleagues pull the plug on his political life.

Sweet Victory:Taking Back the Campuses

For all the talk of left-wing bias in academia, little notice has been given to the right's growing influence on America's college campuses. As part of the conservative message machine's decades-long project to spread its ideology, the right currently pumps over $35 million a year into college campuses, funding speakers, backing conservative papers, and pampering young leaders with internships and job opportunities.

In the past month, however, two promising organizations have emerged to aggressively counter the right's operations and promote progressive values on campuses and beyond.

The Center for American Progress officially launched its Campus Progress initiative in February, and has already created significant media buzz with its "Name Ann Coulter's Next Book" contest (the winning submission was "Roosevelt: Wheelchair-Riding, America-Hating Terrorist"). Campus Progress currently provides funding to fourteen progressive college papers nationwide, sponsors film screenings and lectures by CAP fellows and progressive leaders, and in July, will host a national student conference in Washington. (In addition to providing speakers to the lecture circuit, The Nation will be co-sponsoring the student conference.)

The Roosevelt Institution, America's first national student-run think thank, also emerged this February. Independently launched by students at Stanford University, the Roosevelt Institution hopes to counter the far-reaching impact of right-wing think tanks-- such as Stanford's own Hoover Institution--with fresh progressive ideas and policy suggestions. Instead of seeing student papers such as Jenny Tolan's thesis on AIDS in Africa filed away, the Roosevelt Institution is ensuring that these findings are brought to the attention of the public.

"Progressive students are already generating smart, bold ideas in their classes everyday," Kai Stinchcombe, president of the think tank, told the Stanford Daily. "The Roosevelt Institution fills a huge, but relatively simple, need by providing an infrastructure to forward those ideas to the public, to influence the decision makers." The institution has grown rapidly since its inception, opening branches at Yale, Columbia, Middlebury; dozens of other schools have chapters underway.

The campus left looks more organized and unified than it has been in decades.

We also want to hear from you. Please let us know if you have a sweet victory you think we should cover by emailing to: nationvictories@gmail.com. This week, we're particularly interested in any creative antiwar protests that take place this weekend.

Co-written by Sam Graham-Felsen, a freelance journalist, documentary filmmaker, and blogger (www.boldprint.net) living in Brooklyn.

Andy Stern Speaks His Mind

"Andy Stern is not shy about speaking his mind," veteran labor reporter David Moberg wrote in our recent cover story, Can't Workers of the Word Unite? In these last months, Stern has been anything but shy about triggering the most far-reaching strategic debate in labor in more than a generation.

But while Stern's call for dramatic structural change, his openness to remake labor's traditional ties to the Democratic Party and create new institutions and alliances for working people, and his sense of urgency, even desperation, about the future of labor is admirable and welcome, much of SEIU's argument about what is to be done is less persuasive. (For more on Stern and the recently dissolved New Unity Partnership's (NUP) reform proposals--and my take on the arguments--see below.)

The insistence on the need for change at almost any cost was at the heart of Stern's talk to a packed early Monday session at the Harvard Club--organized by the Drum Major Institute and its indefatigable Executive Director Andrea Batista Schlesinger. The charismatic 54-year old leader of SEIU, the AFL's fastest growing affiliate, acknowledged that if his (and NUP's) candidate--John Wilhelm of UNITE HERE--isn't elected (and John Sweeney ousted) at the AFL's quadrennial convention this July, it's the endgame.

Or, as Stern said, "We made a decision, rightly or wrongly that we will either be part of or partners with the AFL-CIO, but we don't want to be part of a labor movement that isn't willing to make changes that give workers a chance." Meaning that either the AFL-CIO implements a slate of specific reforms that Stern and his partners are demanding, or some 40 percent of the AFL will depart the federation and form something new--raising the specter of a split in the House of Labor akin to John Lewis's departure in 1935 to form the CIO.

When I pressed Stern about the danger of a split, at a time when labor is under ferocious assault, it was startling to hear SEIU's fiery leader invoke a business model. "Competition is not necessarily the most unhealthy aspect of moments in history...in a business analogy, there is US Airways, which has a model of doing work which has not been as successful as they ever wanted it to be...If you were Herbert Kelleher [chairman of the board of Southwest] right now and you wanted to start a new airline, you could either start Southwest with a whole new model and see if it worked or you could take over US Airways and see if you could change it. To me, one of the questions in the labor movement is, do you want to take over US Airways or do you want to build Southwest?" (Click here to read an excerpted transcript of the conversation.)

Sounds like the House of Labor, under attack by the most anti-labor administration in modern history, is about to split. Is it worth it? While fundamental change in labor is critical, will changing the rules of the AFL bring about the revival Stern hopes for--and seems to promise? And will structural reforms really address the larger problem of how to revitalize a broader movement for economic democracy and social justice?

Here's my take:

Andy Stern and the other members of the recently dissolved New Unity Partnership deserve great credit for forcing the first serious strategic debate in labor in more than a generation. I do not speak to the current state of the debate, which will inevitably change between now and the AFL's convention in July.

Let me instead raise three questions about the basic proposal for reform.

First goes to the feasibility of the basic reform proposal. Second goes to the consequences of dividing labor if it's not adopted. Third goes to the truth of its basic argument: that consolidation is the key to growth. While my answers are generally negative, they're not proposed to end the discussion, but to clarify the terms on which I hope it will continue.

On the first question: Is this proposal feasible, given the current structure of the AFL and its affiliates? We'll know in July but, whatever happens at the convention, I'm skeptical. Quite apart from questions of incompetence, bad faith or fraud in claiming organizing expenditures, there is the substantive prior question of which industries different unions can legitimately and consensually claim as core. This given the growth in the "general" unions--meaning those servicing members in many different industries--is a very dense omelet indeed, taking some time to unscramble under the best of circumstances. And these are NOT the best of circumstances. The AFL faces a powerful, unified right-wing, business dominated coalition of industry associations and the Republicans control all three branches of government.

The best unions will be those anxious to defend current members under attack, not bargain them away to a structure they don't yet know. And then there are the familiar differences of union culture, and membership loyalties. For unions actually to surrender organizing ambitions or members to others is more daunting still. This would suggest indeed something like a sovereign with absolute force was needed to bring it off, but surrendering their power to some Leviathan like the AFL-CIO is one thing that almost no union is prepared to do.

On the second question: Is this worth a split? Again I am skeptical.The last time labor split was because the AFL was actively resisting the organization of millions of workers who clearly wanted to be organized. Nothing like that is going on now. And the prospect of employers and the Bush Administration further exploiting divisions within labor is horrifying, as is that of wasting precious resources in a new round or murderous turf disputes. That's precisely what Andy Stern is interested in getting away from. But splitting off makes that a virtual certainty. Any dispute SEIU has with CWA or AFSCME now will only get worse, more ugly, if SEIU is outside the federation.

But the third question is the most important. Is the basic argument even right? I certainly think that decentralization and particularly a lack of discipline among the decentralized parts are labor's Achilles heel. I'm all for coordinated industry organizing plans. And what woman would seriously disagree that size and focus are generally a good thing? But I don't see union centralization per se, especially when achieved through merger, as more than a tiny step toward improving labor's current predicament. That uncontested jurisdiction per se is no guarantee of anything can be seen in the recent decimation of many unions that enjoyed precisely that privilege in different industries. Sometimes this decimation as achieved through deregulation--here think of the Teamsters in over-the-road trucking, or CWA in long distance telephone; sometimes it was achieved through technical change that took away labor's advantages in bargaining: here, think of longshore, mining, meatpacking. And even closer to protagonists in the current debate, it's worth noting that members of the NUP are not doing very well on the density front. Outside hospitals, even SEIU is losing density in such key industries as nursing homes and building services.

Something more than union structure is going on here, and something more than union structure will need to change to turn it around. There's also the blunt fact---from the history of corporate mergers in the US in recent decades--that merger per se does nothing particularly for efficiency. Often uniting two diverse cultures creates more problems than it's worth. I THINK COORDINATION, NOT CONSOLIDATION.

But I also think and hope we can talk about what more is needed. Along with industry plans, what about massive political education of existing union membership? What about a much more sophisticated political program--one that really does build to last and keeps strength in the field after presidential elections--particularly at the state and city level, as the Working Families Party is demonstrating here in NYC? Especially outside the special context of New York electoral law, that implies stronger regional labor capacity for political as well as other coordination. And that requires confronting what many see as in many ways an even bigger challenge to labor coordination than turf wars among affiliates--that is, the war between affiliates and the central labor bodies that are needed for their political coordination and effect.

Finally, we need more aggressive recruitment of anybody who wants to join a revitalized political and social movement but doesn't stand a chance anytime soon of getting to 50 percent plus one on some NLRB election, or benefiting from a bargaining to organize fight. Labor has a lot of friends out there that it could be doing more to tap into as part of a political strategy of developing more popular support for organized labor.

So in looking at all this, I'd put more emphasis on membership clarity and focus, not just industry; on coordination of a diverse movement--more than its willed consolidation; and on the strengthening of weak ties in political affinity and mobilization, to change policy and outcomes for workers outside collective bargaining or the climate of organizing.

I just don't think labor's ever going to win this fight if it is seen as only its fight. It must be seen as working America's struggle, and that is not best organized through specific industry actions but broad and sweeping political and issue campaigns. My hope is that a transformed, revitalized labor movement will emerge from an intricate mix of different but complementary strategies.

Talking with Andy Stern

Excerpt from DMI "Marketplace of Ideas" Series with SEIU President Andy Stern. March 14, 2005. New York City, New York.

Hon. Carl McCall: President Stern I have a practical question. One of the things you've done is that you've challenged the leadership of the AFL-CIO and you've suggested to them that they adopt some of the very interesting ideas that you've presented today. I was just wondering if you could comment on what is the end aim. Is (it) to extract from John Sweeney certain commitments to move in the direction you've suggested, or do you plan to run a candidate to oppose him?

Andy Stern: I think in any situation there are always two ingredients to change, one is what we're trying to talk about, "What do you believe in?" and then "who are the leaders that actually believe in what you believe in?" Because we have lots of people who say we're all for the same thing and then they get there and we're not sure what the same thing we all were for is. So I'd say the key, the first discussion is what do we all believe in. I'm not sure we're ever going to reach an agreement, so we may never get to the second question, which is "who is a leader that embraces what we agree in?" We made a decision rightly or wrongly that we will either be part of or partners with the AFL-CIO, but we don't want to be part of a labor movement that isn't willing to make changes that give workers a chance. We believe, as I said earlier, that we have fake unity not real unity, maybe what Democrats have. We're all Democrats but you can vote for the bankruptcy bill, you can vote against minimum wage and we're all Democrats. So, to us it's either time to change the AFL or build something stronger. A lot of building something stronger isn't building another labor movement, it is answering some of these questions of how do we relate to community organization, how do we build a progressive infrastructure, how do we build relationships with other membership organizations? Whether they be all the groups that work together in America Votes. How do we build the Working Families Party or other institutions that represent a different…so for us building something stronger isn't necessarily building a parallel labor movement. It's about joining with people that share a common set of values and trying to figure out what we should do regardless of what happens. How we work together to win for working people, to see work rewarded, to have a country that has a little more tolerance, a little more belief in science and progress and democracy, in the good sense of the word, more than we have today. So for us we want to make the change, if we make the change it needs a leader that embraces the change but at the same time we all have to build something stronger because we're losing. None of us, no progressive institution, no party, no labor movement, at this moment in history is strong enough on their own.

Katrina vanden Heuvel:But are you suggesting that a split might become necessary and can a house of labor divided survive in this climate?

Andy Stern: I might just say, that the house of labor is divided, so…

Katrina vanden Heuvel: But even more divided?

Andy Stern: Yes well no…Well, I hate to sound like a business person, because that's what people accuse me of all the time. You know competition is not necessarily the most unhealthy aspect of moments in history. You can say the Working Families Party is bad or you could say it sort of holds people accountable because there's alternatives. So to me we're not going to fight with people in the AFL-CIO as far as we're concerned we can work with them politically and as much as we do now. But at some point, the rules of the AFL-CIO really hold people back from growing. It's kind of restraintive (sic) trade. The merger of the AFL-CIO was the end of competition, and we never solved the problem of "do you believe in craft unionism or industrial unionism?" We just agreed that we were both successful enough that we should stop fighting and institutionalize what we each had. To me, yeah it's …if I thought this was a tragic moment for labor I would think differently, as I say it's a moment of opportunity potentially. I think this is also a question, this may be unfair, there are…in a business analogy, there is US Airways which has a model of doing work which has not been as successful as they ever wanted it to be, it doesn't really have a business model. You can sort figure out what's the future of US Airways. You know they kind of look like everybody else but do it less. If you were Herb Kelleher [ Chairman of the Board of Southwest] right now and you wanted to start a new airline you could either start Southwest with a whole new model and see if it worked or you could take over US Airways and see if you could change it. To me one of the questions in the labor movement is, do you want to take over US Airways or do you want to build Southwest?

Sweet Victory: Yo Quiero Justice!

On Tuesday, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers scored aprecedent-setting victory for America's beleaguered farm workers.

After three years of a CIW-led boycott against Taco Bell, Yum Brands Inc.--the world's largest fast-food corporation and the chain's parent company--agreed to improve working conditions of the Florida tomato pickers and increase their wages by paying an extra penny per pound oftomatoes picked.

The average American farm worker lives far below the poverty line,(barely) subsisting on $7,500 a year. Currently, the market price for tomatoes hovers around 32 cents per barrel, roughly the same amount it stood at thirty years ago. For the tomato pickers, the penny-per-pound increase provides a significant income boost. For America's farm workers, CIW's victory is a groundbreaking step towards a more socially responsible fast-food industry.

Taco Bell's concession comes on the heels of CIW's protest outside the Yum corporate headquarters in Louisville, Kentucky on Saturday. The protest was the culmination of CIW's massive "Taco Bell Truth Tour," which drummed up support for the boycott across the country. The National Council of Churches, representing 50 million Christians, and prominent figures such as Jimmy Carter strongly backed the movement. Campus activists also provided a major boost: students at over 300 colleges and universities participated in the boycott, and students at twenty-one schools even had Taco Bell removed or barred from their campuses.

"This is an important victory for farm workers, one that establishes a new standard of social responsibility for the fast-food industry and makes an immediate material change in the lives of worker," said Lucas Benitez, co-president of the CIW. "This sends a clear challenge to other industry leaders."

We also want to hear from you. Please let us know if you have a sweet victory you think we should cover by emailing to: nationvictories@gmail.com.

Co-written by Sam Graham-Felsen, a freelance journalist, documentary filmmaker, and blogger (www.boldprint.net) living in Brooklyn.

Sunshine Is the Best Disinfectant

At a time when we need accountability more than ever in Washington, when corruption and ethical violations are sweeping our capital, we must turn to groups like Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW).

Setting up shop in February 2003, CREW has already played a key role in exposing corruption at the highest federal levels with non-partisan, no-holds-barred scrutiny of our elected officials. "There are already many fine groups focusing on publishing information about campaign finance abuses, or promoting legislation to improve government," Melanie Sloan, CREW's executive director told Environmental Media Services, a non-profit organization, in explaining CREW's genesis. But "there is no mainstream group that is dedicated to taking legal action directly against offending politicians and their supporters." As CREW's mission statement puts it, "the greatest danger to democracy is posed [by]...public policy unduly influenced by special interests."

Sloan recently discovered that the PR giant Fleishman-Hillard had received a $1.8 million contract from the supposedly nonpartisan Social Security Administration, (which, it's worth noting, seems to have morphed into a wholly owned subsidiary of the Bush propaganda machine.) Why had the government paid nearly $2 million in taxpayer money to hire a PR firm? Sloan filed a FOIA request seeking answers.

The SSA didn't even have the good sense to offer a response. "It looks like they're hiding something," Sloan said. Last week, CREW filed a lawsuit against the SSA for failing to respond to its FOIA request.

This is the tip of the iceberg for CREW. The organization has filed FOIA requests with 22 government agencies to find out which PR firms and "journalists" the Administration has hired to flack its policies. Sloan believes "there has to be more" of the Armstrong Williams-type cases out there--and CREW intends to get the information.

CREW proved its mettle when it used the ethics process in the House to expose House Majority Leader Tom DeLay's corrupt activities (including allegedly bribing his Republican colleagues to win their votes for the GOP's sham Medicare legislation, engaging in quid pro quos with corporations seeking legislative favors and violating campaign finance laws in Texas in 2002.) Sloan discussed filing a complaint against DeLay with members of the House, but nobody bit. But then, Chris Bell, the Congressman from Texas whom DeLay had effectively redistricted out of his seat, phoned her. He agreed to take the complaint to the Ethics Committee.

A former Assistant US Attorney from 1998 to 2003, Sloan drafted the complaint as if "I was writing an indictment." After Bell and Sloan traded several drafts, the complaint was filed. It grabbed headlines by exposing DeLay's brass-knuckles tactics and highlighting the Majority Leader's illegal and undemocratic activities.

CREW is one of a growing number of watchdog organizations in the capital that is battling against increasing secrecy and metastasizing government corruption. Not long ago, CREW became part of a coalition of eight watchdogs seeking to revive the defunct ethics complaint process in the House. (While the majority of the organizations in the coalition were on the left, Judicial Watch was an exception to the rule.)

Other groups, like POGO (The Project on Government Oversight) and the Government Accountability Project, are doing similar watchdog work in Washington. And the Institute for America's Future (Disclosure: I am on IAF's Board) is running The Project for an Accountable Congress, which recently unveiled a report charging that Rep. Jim McCrery, the newly appointed chair of the Social Security Subcommittee, received over $200,000 in contributions from banking and securities interests that stand to benefit from Bush's plan to privatize Social Security.

In the meantime, OpenTheGovernment.org is sponsoring Sunshine Week to highlight the need to lift what US News and World Report has called a "shroud of secrecy" blanketing the federal government. "There's a great need to turn up the heat," said Charles Lewis, founder and former executive director of the Center for Public Integrity. (The Center itself has used FOIA requests and sued the Army and State Department over its handling of no-bid contracts.)

Lewis cited a "tectonic shift in government information" in recent years. The "obsession with secrecy by Dick Cheney and former Nixon officials" working in this Administration, combined with the Administration's agenda to privatize government and create a 'donor class of contractors,' has severely reduced public accountability in Washington. Watchdog efforts as usual are insufficient in these perilous times...The situation is out of control."

"Since 9/11," Lewis said in an important speech last month, "the country has seen a historic, regressive shift in public accountability. Open-records laws nationwide have been rolled back more than 300 times--all in the name of national security. For the first time in US history, the personal papers of past presidents now may only be released with White House approval. A Justice Department 'leak' investigation of the White House regarding an Iraq war-related news story has degenerated into a full-fledged witch-hunt against the news media and the First Amendment, with reporters facing imprisonment if they don't reveal their sources."

"It took 20 researchers, writers and editors at the Center for Public Integrity six months and 73 Freedom of Information Act requests, including successful litigation in federal court against the Army and State Department, to begin to discern who was getting the Iraq and Afghanistan contracts, and for how much," he also said. "What has happened to the principles of accessible information and transparency in the decision-making process in our democracy?"

Plenty of scandals loom. Ralph Nader's claim that President Bush's family has profited from the US invasion of Iraq should be investigated. Sloan insists that it's important to focus on the investigation already underway of the super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Over a three-year period, Abramoff allegedly received $82 million from six Indian tribes to lobby on their behalf. He is deeply tied to DeLay and other members of the Congressional Leadership. Last week, the Washington Post reported that Abramoff secured $70,000 from Indian gaming interests to finance a trip DeLay took to Britain in mid-2000.

The Washington Post has also eported that "Federal investigators are examining tens of millions of dollars in lobbying and public relations fees Abramoff obtained from the tribes. They are also looking into his dealings with members of Congress and their staffs..."

But, says Sloan, hearings conducted in the Senate have so far skipped over Abramoff's ties to members of Congress. Sounding like the enterprising watchdog that she is, Sloan vows that CREW will continue to press for a full accounting. The Abramoff case represents "a level of corruption unimaginable to most people."

If CREW and Sloan are successful, the public will soon get a better idea of the scope of this malfeasance. And we will be reminded that the maxim about stamping out corruption has merit: sunshine is the best disinfectant.

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