Politics, current affairs and riffs and reflections on the news.
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.
G. Richard Wagoner, Jr., chairman and chief executive of General Motors, is urging business and federal and state government leaders to find what the Washington Post described as "some serious medicine" to treat the health-care crisis--fast. To procrastinate, he warned in a February 10 speech, puts "our children and grandchildren at risk and threatens the health and global competitiveness of our nation's economy."
There's nothing new either about such warnings or about the self-defeating refusal of Corporate America to embrace, or even consider, taxpayer-supported universal health insurance, as Morton Mintz documented in a November 15, 2004 article in The Nation. (Click here to read the full text of the piece.)
What was new was Wagoner's announcement of support for the idea of a federally sponsored national insurance pool to cover over-the-top costs of medical catastrophes. Now he's saying it. When John Kerry advocated just such a pool during the 2004 presidential campaign, Wagoner and his fellow corporate chieftains were silent.
Maybe GM's plummeting sales and tens of billions of dollars worth of healthcare obligations for retirees--far more than competitors based in countries with national healthcare systems--are shaking up GM's bosses. Any rational businessperson has to understand that our healthcare system is in desperate need of some "serious medicine."
Since starting Editor's Cut in April 2003, I've often written about how it can be difficult, in these times, to maintain a sense of hope--as corruption, war, lies and injustices large and small loom all around, and outrage about the Right's assault on our democracy threatens to overwhelm us.
Moreover, as the mainstream media continues to tout America's rightward turn, positive developments in the liberal/left/progressive community are too often overlooked--or ignored. But, it's during days like these that we need to remember that millions of us are organizing, agitating, mobilizing--and that there are many hard-fought victories to celebrate.
So, I'm starting Sweet Victories, a new weekly feature in which Editor's Cut will chronicle a triumph--from legislative and electoral victories, to successful organizing efforts, protests and boycotts, to the launching of a promising new organization or initiative. We hope that these stories will serve not only as a source of information, but inspiration. The victories may be small, but they'll always be sweet.
My partner in highlighting good news is former (ace) Nation intern Sam Graham-Felsen, a freelance journalist, documentary filmmaker, and blogger (www.boldprint.net) living in Brooklyn. We also want to hear from you. Please let us know if you have a story you think we should cover by emailing to: email@example.com. Below is our first victory.
Topekans Vote Against Hate
The only person asking, "What's the matter with Kansas?" right now is the Rev. Fred Phelps. His decades of anti-gay activism--which include picketing outside hate crime victim Matthew Sheppard's funeral with "God Hates Fags" signs--have apparently had little effect in his own backyard.
In Tuesday's elections, the city of Topeka officially refused to associate itself with Phelps' politics of hate--twice.
First, Topekans voted to reject Phelps' bid to overturn the city's ordinance banning discrimination of gays in municipal hiring. Phelps' repeal bid would have prevented Topeka from reinstating the anti-discrimination law for ten years, making Topeka the only city in the United States to specifically deny a single group protections against bias. Instead, Topekans voted it down 14,285 to 12,795.
And in the city council primary, Phelps' 20-year-old granddaughter and fellow anti-gay activist, Jael Phelps, lost big to Topeka's first and only openly gay council member, Tiffany Muller. Muller, who initiated the ordinance last November, received 1,329 votes to Phelps' 202.
The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force provided a boost in Tuesday's election, offering financial support for campaign staff and organizing volunteer phone banks across the country to call undecided voters. "Today, the people of Topeka not only rejected discrimination, they chose decency over immorality, truth over despicable lies," said Matt Foreman, Executive Director of the NGLTF.
In a series of extraordinary speeches, Senator Robert Byrd, a longtime historian of the Senate, has persistently sounded the alarm about imperial executive power. He has unflinchingly exposed the grave danger we face from an Administration that routinely abuses power and tramples democracy without batting an eye.
Yesterday, Byrd delivered another wakeup call. Taking aim at the Republicans' threat to use the "nuclear option"--a change to the rules of the Senate that would effectively bar Democrats from filibustering judicial nominations--he assailed those who would aim "an arrow straight at the heart of the Senate's long tradition of unlimited debate." He didn't stop there. "Many times in our history," Byrd said--perhaps speaking to the hypocrites in power who prefer to lecture the world about democracy rather than protect it at home-- "we have taken up arms to protect a minority against the tyrannical majority in other lands. We, unlike Nazi Germany or Mussolini's Italy, have never stopped being a nation of laws, not men."
Read Byrd's warning to the republic:
Stopping a Strike at the Heart of the Senate by Senator Robert Byrd, delivered on March 1, 2005
In 1939, one of the most famous American movies of all time, "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," hit the box office. Initially received with a combination of lavish praise and angry blasts, the film went on to win numerous awards, and to inspire millions around the globe. The director, the legendary Frank Capra, in his autobiography "Frank Capra: The Name Above the Title," cites this moving review of the film, appearing in "The Hollywood Reporter," November 4, 1942:
Frank Capra's "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," chosen by French Theaters as the final English language film to be shown before the recent Nazi-ordered countrywide ban on American and British films went into effect, was roundly cheered...
Storms of spontaneous applause broke out at the sequence when, under the Abraham Lincoln monument in the Capital, the word, "Liberty," appeared on the screen and the Stars and Stripes began fluttering over the head of the great Emancipator in the cause of liberty.
Similarly cheers and acclamation punctuated the famous speech of the young senator on man's rights and dignity. 'It was...as though the joys, suffering, love and hatred, the hopes and wishes of an entire people who value freedom above everything, found expression for the last time...
For those who may not have seen it, "Mr. Smith" is the fictional story of one young Senator's crusade against forces of corruption, and his lengthy filibuster for the values he holds dear.
My, how times have changed. These days Smith would be called "an obstructionist." Rumor has it that there is a plot afoot in the Senate to curtail the right of extended debate in this hallowed chamber, not in accordance with its rules, mind you, but by fiat from the Chair.
The so-called "nuclear option" purports to be directed solely at the Senate's advice and consent prerogatives regarding federal judges. But, the claim that no right exists to filibuster judges aims an arrow straight at the heart of the Senate's long tradition of unlimited debate.
The Framers of the Constitution envisioned the Senate as a kind of executive council; a small body of legislators, featuring longer terms, designed to insulate members from the passions of the day.
The Senate was to serve as a "check" on the Executive Branch, particularly in the areas of appointments and treaties, where, under the Constitution, the Senate passes judgement absent the House of Representatives. James Madison wanted to grant the Senate the power to select judicial appointees with the Executive relegated to the sidelines. But a compromise brought the present arrangement; appointees selected by the Executive, with the advice and consent of the Senate. Note that nowhere in the Constitution is a vote on appointments mandated.
When it comes to the Senate, numbers can deceive. The Senate was never intended to be a majoritarian body. That was the role of the House of Representatives, with its membership based on the populations of states. The Great Compromise of July 16, 1787, satisfied the need for smaller states to have equal status in one House of Congress: the Senate.
The Senate, with its two members per state, regardless of population is, then, the forum of the states. Indeed, in the last Congress, 52 members, a majority, representing the 26 smallest states accounted for just 17.06 percent of the US population. In other words, a majority in the Senate does not necessarily represent a majority of the population. The Senate is intended for deliberation not point scoring. It is a place designed from its inception, as expressive of minority views. Even 60 Senators, the number required for cloture, would represent just 24 percent of the population, if they happened to all hail from the 30 smallest states. Unfettered debate, the right to be heard at length, is the means by which we perpetuate the equality of the states.
In fact, it was 1917, before any curtailing of debate was attempted, which means that from 1806 to 1917, some 111 years, the Senate rejected any limits to debate. Democracy flourished along with the filibuster. The first actual cloture rule in 1917, was enacted in response to a filibuster by those who opposed U.S. intervention in World War I.
But, even after its enactment, the Senate was slow to embrace cloture, understanding the pitfalls of muzzling debate. In 1949, the 1917 cloture rule was modified to make cloture more difficult to invoke, not less, mandating that the number needed to stop debate would be not two-thirds of those present and voting, but two-thirds of all Senators.
Indeed, from 1919 to 1962, the Senate voted on cloture petitions only 27 times and invoked cloture just four times over those 43 years.
On January 4, 1957, Senator William Ezra Jenner of Indiana spoke in opposition to invoking cloture by majority vote. He stated with conviction:
We may have a duty to legislate, but we also have a duty to inform and deliberate. In the past quarter century we have seen a phenomenal growth in the power of the executive branch. If this continues at such a fast pace, our system of checks and balances will be destroyed. One of the main bulwarks against this growing power is free debate in the Senate...So long as there is free debate, men of courage and understanding will rise to defend against potential dictators...The Senate today is one place where, no matter what else may exist, there is still a chance to be heard, an opportunity to speak, the duty to examine, and the obligation to protect. It is one of the few refuges of democracy. Minorities have an illustrious past, full of suffering, torture, smear, and even death. Jesus Christ was killed by a majority; Columbus was smeared; and Christians have been tortured. Had the United States Senate existed during those trying times, I am sure these people would have found an advocate. Nowhere else can any political, social, or religious group, finding itself under sustained attack, receive a better refuge.
Senator Jenner was right. The Senate was deliberately conceived to be what he called a "better refuge," meaning one styled as guardian of the rights of the minority.
The Senate is the "watchdog" because majorities can be wrong, and filibusters can highlight injustices. History is full of examples.
In March 1911, Senator Robert Owen of Oklahoma filibustered the New Mexico statehood bill, arguing that Arizona should also be allowed to become a state. President Taft opposed the inclusion of Arizona's statehood in the bill because Arizona's state constitution allowed the recall of judges. Arizona attained statehood a year later, at least in part because Senator Owen and the minority took time to make their point the year before.
In 1914, a Republican minority led a 10-day filibuster of a bill that would have appropriated more than $50,000,000 for rivers and harbors. On an issue near and dear to the hearts of our current majority, Republican opponents spoke until members of the Commerce Committee agreed to cut the appropriations by more than half.
Perhaps more directly relevant to our discussion of the "nuclear option" are the seven days in 1937, from July 6 to 13 of that year, when the Senate blocked Franklin Roosevelt's Supreme Court-packing plan.
Earlier that year, in February 1937, FDR sent the Congress a bill drastically reorganizing the judiciary. The Senate Judiciary Committee rejected the bill, calling it " an invasion of judicial power such as has never before been attempted in this country" and finding it "essential to the continuance of our constitutional democracy that the judiciary be completely independent of both the executive and legislative branches of the Government." The committee recommended the rejection of the court-packing bill, calling it "a needless, futile, and utterly dangerous abandonment of constitutional principle....without precedent and without justification."
What followed was an extended debate on the Senate Floor lasting for seven days until the Majority Leader, Joseph T. Robinson of Arkansas, a supporter of the plan, suffered a heart attack and died on July 14. Eight days later, by a vote of 70 to 20, the Senate sent the judicial reform bill back to committee, where FDR's controversial, court-packing language was finally stripped. A determined, vocal group of Senators properly prevented a powerful President from corrupting our nation's judiciary.
Free and open debate on the Senate floor ensures citizens a say in their government. The American people are heard, through their Senator, before their money is spent, before their civil liberties are curtailed, or before a judicial nominee is confirmed for a lifetime appointment. We are the guardians, the stewards, the protectors of our people. Our voices are their voices.
If we restrain debate on judges today, what will be next: the rights of the elderly to receive social security; the rights of the handicapped to be treated fairly; the rights of the poor to obtain a decent education? Will all debate soon fall before majority rule?
Will the majority someday trample on the rights of lumber companies to harvest timber, or the rights of mining companies to mine silver, coal, or iron ore? What about the rights of energy companies to drill for new sources of oil and gas? How will the insurance, banking, and securities industries fare when a majority can move against their interests and prevail by a simple majority vote? What about farmers who can be forced to lose their subsidies, or Western Senators who will no longer be able to stop a majority determined to wrest control of ranchers' precious water or grazing rights? With no right of debate, what will forestall plain muscle and mob rule?
Many times in our history we have taken up arms to protect a minority against the tyrannical majority in other lands. We, unlike Nazi Germany or Mussolini's Italy, have never stopped being a nation of laws, not of men.
But witness how men with motives and a majority can manipulate law to cruel and unjust ends. Historian Alan Bullock writes that Hitler's dictatorship rested on the constitutional foundation of a single law, the Enabling Law. Hitler needed a two-thirds vote to pass that law, and he cajoled his opposition in the Reichstag to support it. Bullock writes that "Hitler was prepared to promise anything to get his bill through, with the appearances of legality preserved intact." And he succeeded.
Hitler's originality lay in his realization that effective revolutions, in modern conditions, are carried out with, and not against, the power of the State: the correct order of events was first to secure access to that power and then begin his revolution. Hitler never abandoned the cloak of legality; he recognized the enormous psychological value of having the law on his side. Instead, he turned the law inside out and made illegality legal.
And that is what the nuclear option seeks to do to Rule XXII of the Standing Rules of the Senate.
It seeks to alter the rules by sidestepping the rules, thus making the impermissible the rule. Employing the "nuclear option", engaging a pernicious, procedural maneuver to serve immediate partisan goals, risks violating our nation's core democratic values and poisoning the Senate's deliberative process.
For the temporary gain of a hand-full of "out of the mainstream" judges, some in the Senate are ready to callously incinerate each Senator's right of extended debate. Note that I said each Senator. For the damage will devastate not just the minority party. It will cripple the ability of each member to do what each was sent here to do - - represent the people of his or her state. Without the filibuster or the threat of extended debate, there exists no leverage with which to bargain for the offering of an amendment. All force to effect compromise between the two political parties is lost. Demands for hearings can languish. The President can simply rule, almost by Executive Order if his party controls both houses of Congress, and Majority Rule reins supreme. In such a world, the Minority is crushed; the power of dissenting views diminished; and freedom of speech attenuated. The uniquely American concept of the independent individual, asserting his or her own views, proclaiming personal dignity through the courage of free speech will, forever, have been blighted. And the American spirit, that stubborn, feisty, contrarian, and glorious urge to loudly disagree, and proclaim, despite all opposition, what is honest and true, will be sorely manacled.
Yes, we believe in Majority rule, but we thrive because the minority can challenge, agitate, and question. We must never become a nation cowed by fear, sheeplike in our submission to the power of any majority demanding absolute control.
Generations of men and women have lived, fought and died for the right to map their own destiny, think their own thoughts, and speak their minds. If we start, here, in this Senate, to chip away at that essential mark of freedom - - here of all places, in a body designed to guarantee the power of even a single individual through the device of extended debate - - we are on the road to refuting the Preamble to our own Constitution and the very principles upon which it rests.
In the eloquent, homespun words of that illustrious, obstructionist, Senator Smith, "Liberty is too precious to get buried in books. Men ought to hold it up in front of them every day of their lives, and say, 'I am free--to think--to speak. My ancestors couldn't. I can. My children will."
Gloria Totten is the savvy executive director of Progressive Majority--and she's bullish about Howard Dean's ascendance: he will speak "with a clear voice," pursue a "movement-building politics" and "bring a well-rounded [states-based] approach to the chairmanship."
Indeed, the former Vermont Governor and former head of the Democratic Governor's Association shares Totten's commitment to rebuilding state parties, mobilizing new voters and using new technologies and fresh ideas to inspire the grassroots. In short, Dean gets it--and so does Totten.
In 2004, Dean's group Democracy for America endorsed scores of candidates running in local and state races--from a school board member in Huntsville, Alabama, to a mayoral contender in Salt Lake County, Utah. Working with like-minded progressive organizations such as Progressive Majority and 21st Century Democrats, DFA sought to give back power to citizens, and recruit and support the next generation of grassroots leaders.
Looking ahead, we need to see action and real muscle behind the commitment to localism and fighting in the states. We're now well into 2005, and for Dean and Totten, it's a chance to build on their work of the 2004 campaign.
Dean told state party leaders that if he became DNC chair, "strengthening the state parties" would be among his highest priorities. In a recent Nation cover story, John Nichols argued that the 2006 state and local elections are one of "Dean's best chances to prove himself."
Thirty-six governorships will be at stake. According to nonpartisan political analyst Charlie Cook, seven of these GOP-held governorships are considered toss-ups; six, he says, lean Republican. In contrast, only two seats, now held by Democrats, are toss-ups--and only one Democratic seat leans Democratic. Thousands of municipal offices, control of state legislatures and redistricting in 2011 will be on the ballot.
As those in DC focus on national races in 2006, I still think the states represent the brightest hope--in these times--as laboratories for bold reform experiments. At least 14 states have raised the minimum wage in recent years; a number of states, including Kansas, are encouraging the buying of low-cost prescription drugs from state-approved pharmacies in Europe and Canada; clean money and clean election laws are on the books from Maine to Arizona, and 30 states have rejected a depreciation provision written into the tax code by Republicans for their corporate allies in March, 2002.
Gloria Totten knows that building a progressive majority in America requires patience, as well as the creation of a "farm team," which is an essential piece of this puzzle. On this front, her organization, Progressive Majority, is blazing the trail for 2006 and beyond.
Progressive Majority supported 100 candidates in the 2004 general election and 41 of them were victorious. Of the 59 candidates who fell shy of the mark, 33 of them, according to Totten, plan to run in 2006. Progressive Majority targeted the then-GOP controlled Washington State Senate--and Democrats now control the chamber. Totten's organization has offices in five states--Washington, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Colorado and Arizona, and it plans to establish footholds in five more in the next two years--including, potentially, Ohio, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, Minnesota and New Mexico.
In the 2005 and 2006 elections, Progressive Majority intends to assist some 270 to 300 candidates local and statewide, providing one-on-one training as well as other support. The group will help to raise money, sharpen their daily message operations, refine their stump speeches, offer media strategies, and encourage the candidates to connect with voters by speaking from their guts. Other goals: help candidates pay attention to "what voters care about," avoid sounding like "policy wonks," and encourage "nontraditional candidates" like firefighters and teachers to run for office.
Some of the PM-supported candidates include people like Yvonne Kinoshita Ward, a rising star in Washington State. Running for the State Senate, Ward is a Japanese-American civil rights attorney from Auburn, Washington, a past President of the Asian Bar Association of Washington, and she's not given to pretensions: she rides a Harley and wears steel-toed boots.
Progressive Majority will focus on recruiting more women and union members to become candidates--and its Racial Justice Campaign Fund "focuses exclusively on raising money and enhancing the recruitment of candidates of color," says its 2004 Year-end Report.
Progressive Majority also will continue to team up with groups like the National Committee for an Effective Congress to target key districts in the redistricting battle in 2011--its effort to "strengthen the connection between state and local political targeting and overall national priorities."
Progressive Majority doesn't buy the political equivalent of "instant gratification;" instead, it is setting its sights on a long-term agenda. In addition to focusing on redistricting in 2011, Totten has urged Democratic national leaders to "take a longer view of things" instead of devoting a disproportionate amount of energy to the hottest races in any one election cycle. Totten understands that, like the Right, progressives need to think strategically, not lurch from crisis to crisis or candidate to candidate. Totten has learned from the opposition, and studied the past; "75 percent of federal officials started their careers" in local or state government, she reminds us.
Progressive Majority is the most successful progressive organization working to enact positive political change in the states. Click here to check out what it's up to and how you can help. As Totten so eloquently reminds progressives, "our future is in the states."
Your credit card issuers are hoping that the sixth time will be the charm for a bill they've been pushing since the Clinton years: "The Consumer Bankruptcy Reform Act" (now S.256 & H.R.685). This legislation would make it more difficult for people turning to bankruptcy as a last resort to actually discharge their credit card debts.
Considering that most people who file for bankruptcy are squeezed middle-class homeowners who experience a job loss, divorce, or medical emergency (see Dan Frosch's "Your Money or Your Life"), you'd think that Congress might be timid about introducing such a draconian bill with 46 million uninsured and on the heels of record job losses. As research from Demos shows, American families' debt has skyrocketed over the past decade because of stagnant wages, rising basic costs, and abusive practices on the part of a deregulated credit industry. Many families are borrowing to make ends meet, and are just one missed paycheck away from financial collapse.
Somehow, though, that kitchen-table reality hasn't reached the Washington bubble. In DC, the banking lobby's line about frivolous debtors lacking personal responsibility plays well on both sides of the aisle. Perhaps that's because the industry was Washington's single largest contributor in 2000. Or perhaps it's because they haven't heard from you. Senator Specter (R-PA), Chairman of the Judiciary Committee, held a hearing on February 11th on the Senate bill. Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA) is the main sponsor of the bill in the Senate, and Democrats Kennedy (MA) and Durbin (IL) are leading the fight against it.
Click here to contact your Senator now. If you've got a credit card, you've got a problem with this bill. With the threat of consumer bankruptcy defused, issuers will have no reason to refrain from escalating the fee and penalty rate wave they've been riding to record profits in recent years.
Ex-Nation intern Chris Kromm and the Institute for Southern Studies--a "think tank/act tank" founded by civil rights veterans, which publishes the award-winning Southern Exposure magazine--have launched a new blog, Facing South.
The Institute has been at the forefront of campaigns for economic justice, campaign finance reform, environmental sanity and most recently the defense of voting rights and the reigning in of war profiteers (over 40 percent of military contracts go to corporations operating in the South).
Why Facing South? Because the South is far from a lost cause for social change. Progressives in the region are getting energized, laying infrastructure and finding openings that draw on the region's populist streak and unbroken history of movements for justice and dignity.
And there's much to build on recently: A campaign for economic justice in Florida won a 71 percent vote to boost the minimum wage last November. The Farm Labor Organizing Committee's recent contract victory for 8,000 North Carolina farm-workers was an important victory in the struggles for immigrant rights. Successful efforts to ward off corporate encroachment, like the Public Safety and Justice Campaigns to halt prison privatization in several states. Progressives are getting more serious about electoral politics, too--one third of the delegates at South Carolina's Democratic Convention last May were members of a growing Progressive Caucus.
Facing South will chronicle these sources of inspiration--as well as the inevitable outrages-- to move forward the debate about progressive prospects in the red states. Click here to check it out.
In secretly taped conversations in 1998 and 1999, President Bush admitted to deliberately "stoned-walling" the press about his past drug use during the 2000 election.
Quote: "I wouldn't answer the marijuana questions. You know why? Because I don't want some little kid doing what I tried." Instead Bush used "code words" about his "wild past" to appeal to the Christian Right as a sinner who had been saved.
If George Bush is the Cheech Marin of turning past vices into present virtues, then John Negroponte is Tommy Chong. While ambassador to Honduras, Negroponte was involved in Iran/Contra, misled Congress about Honduras' human rights record, and denied the existence of CIA-trained death squads which, in fact, were then hunting down, torturing, and killing suspected subversives.
But Negroponte's resume doesn't stop there. He was ambassador to the United Nations, when Colin Powell presented false WMD intelligence to the Security Council. And finally, if more proof is needed that he is the last person in the world you want to hear the United States has assigned to be ambassador to your country, Negroponte's most recent posting was Iraq.
So let's see, covert torture operations, involvement with Iran/Contra, failed nation building, and a history of lying to the press and Congress--sounds like the perfect man with the perfect qualifications for the job of Bush's National Intelligence Director.
George Hunsinger gives the lie to the Right's caricature of progressives as anti-religious zealots. As a minister, the McCord professor of theology at Princeton Theological Seminary, and coordinator of Church Folks for a Better America (CBFA), Hunsinger is working hard to reframe the "moral values" debate by raising tough questions about how torture, pre-emption, unjust war, and poverty can be tolerated by people of moral and religious conviction.
Hunsinger has tapped into a rich tradition of religious progressive activism--from Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Father Robert Drinan to Rev. William Sloane Coffin. He shared his thoughts on Iraq, torture, and the challenges facing progressive religious leaders in a recent email interview.
Torture is not a divisive issue for religious people. No religious person, and no person of conscience, can possibly justify it morally. An example of this is an emerging new network of religious progressives which recently published an "Open Letter to Alberto Gonzales."
My fledgling organization, Church Folks for a Better America, took the lead. In a short time we garnered over 225 signatures from a wide variety of religious leaders: Not only Catholics, Protestants and Jews, but also Muslims and Sikhs. We also made inroads among leading evangelicals.
The Open Letter got some good coverage. We were often mentioned alongside the ex-military lawyers who came out against Gonzales in press accounts. In the final Gonzales debate, our letter was quoted on the Senate floor.
Church Folks for a Better America came into existence almost by accident. On September 12, 2001, I found myself spending more time on the Internet than I care to remember trying to get a handle on what was really happening. I could see the ominous implications for war as well as for a crackdown on liberty at home. I wrote an Urgent Appeal opposing the invasion of Iraq on just-war grounds, signed by prominent academic theologians like Sarah Coakley, Stanley Hauerwas and Nicholas Wolterstorff as well as activists like JimWallis and William Sloane Coffin, Jr., and published in Sojourners. I started flooding the inboxes of my friends each day with what I found by scouring the net.
Until the Abu Ghraib torture scandal I was pretty much just a guy alone in his office with a computer. By that time I had an enormous backlog of files. I wrote a new statement that I hoped we could run in the New York Times. I wanted to get it out there before the "transfer" of power in Iraq on June 30, 2004. When I was unable to raise the handsome sum the Times requires, a colleague suggested setting up a website a la Howard Dean. One thing led to another, and by August CFBA came online. And, with a few large donations and many smaller ones, An Appeal to Recover America's Moral Character"--the Dove Ad, as we called it--finally ran in the Times as a quarter-page ad on the Sunday Op-Ed page just prior to the presidential election. We also had enough funds to publish the letter in papers in Pennsylvania and Ohio.
I try to keep the website up-to-date, though as a professor I also have a day job. The site keeps abreast of Iraq news, in-depth analysis, good sermons, antiwar poetry and little-known websites.
It used to be said that the right had the wallet but the left had the pen. But then the Right discovered that if you had the wallet you could buy the pen. The rightwing take-over of religious discourse in America is part of a larger trend that has developed over the last 25 to 30 years. The right has learned to be extremely effective in shaping the political agenda and exploiting religious sensibilities.
Meanwhile, the liberal left has not always been hospitable to religious people. The renewal of a progressive movement in our country may well hinge on whether that can change. The Solidarity movement in Poland, where dissident intellectuals joined hands with the Catholic Church, is suggestive of what we need here. Jeffrey Stout's new book Democracy and Tradition is also seminal for the future of religion and politics in America.
Church Folks for a Better America is dedicated to the idea that the word "Christian" does not necessarily go with the word "Right." Our motto, taken from Martin Luther King, is addressed first to the churches: "A time comes when silence is betrayal." We are a rallying point for many Christians who are appalled when the churches remain silent. If the churches cannot speak out against something like torture, what good is it to have tongues?
The confirmation of Alberto Gonzales was, in effect, a national referendum on torture. No one in high places has been held accountable, the Republican-dominated Senate has acquiesced, and not enough people seem to care. Enormities like torture are increasingly papered over with democratic rhetoric and pious falsehoods. Anti-democratic forces in America tighten their grip, while we suffer from a will to ignorance. The elements of atrocity, manipulation and indifference add up to a spiritual crisis.
Let me add, however, that to some extent I was heartened by the quality of opposition to Gonzales. Senators Kennedy, Byrd, Durbin, and Reed, for example, all made distinguished speeches. They remind me of the hopes we once had, and might still have, for our beloved country.
Karl Barth (1886-1968), regarded by many as the 20th century's greatest theologian [and whom Hunsinger has studied], is, in one sense, something like Noam Chomsky. He does not fit neatly into familiar categories. Theologically traditional, he stood on the political left. Generous orthodoxy, as he represented it, inspires my intellectual and religious life.
Barth was the theological leader of the confessing church, the grouping of Protestant churches that resisted Hitler. He was a life-long democratic socialist. On the war question, he went back and forth between just-war pacifism and chastened non-pacifism. These are the parameters of my political views.
As a divinity student at Harvard years ago, I pounded the pavement for Father [Robert] Drinan during his campaign for the House of Representatives. It was a particular pleasure for me when, just recently, he volunteered his signature for The Dove Ad. In 1978-79, with the Riverside Church Disarmament Program, I served as an assistant to [Rev.] William Sloane Coffin, Jr. The loose-leaf anthology and course syllabus I developed on nuclear disarmament, which we called the Red Notebook, was widely distributed at the time. You might say that Church Folks for a Better America online is a successor to the Red Notebook.
Church Folks for a Better America owes a debt to great figures who have gone before us like Karl Barth, Martin Luther King, and Bill Coffin. You could look at it as my modest attempt to pay them tribute.
As for what's next, a larger anti-torture campaign is now in the works with the following goals: 1) Congressional action to stop exempting intelligence services from the torture ban imposed on military services; 2) Congressional action to outlaw the horrifying practice of extraordinary rendition/torture by proxy; 3) A clear statement from Bush that US policy does not condone torture in any form or under any circumstances; 4) The appointment of a special prosecutor to get to the bottom of the issue.
Our work will also continue against the Iraq war. Destroying entire cities, as happened with Fallujah, is a form of terrorism, just as torture is a form of terrorism. Fighting terrorism by terrorism is at once immoral and futile. It has been clear since Abu Ghraib that the war cannot be won. The 14 new military bases planned for Iraq must be exposed and opposed along with the shameless profiteering still taking place. We join with all who call for an early and orderly exit, and for reparations for Iraq's long-suffering people.
As our list of supporters grows, we will combine Internet activism with direct mail and political action. Last fall the Dove Ad campaign saw seminary students raising money on 12 campuses across the country. Model sermons and prayers appear on our website along with alternative news and analysis. Congregations need a deeper understanding of the just-war tradition. Ordinary believers need to see the progressive implications of ordinary faith. They need powerful alternatives to the Religious Right.
We will work in concentric circles, beginning with the community of faith. Our efforts will be modest. Remember that we have only been around for six months. Though we will of course join in coalitions with anyone who shares our concerns, our particular calling is reaching out to people of faith, including elected officials. Republican Senators who profess to be believers, for example, have no business voting for torture. Through creative new faith-based initiatives, perhaps they too can be reached.
Al Franken's decision not to run for the Senate is a loss for the people of Minnesota and the country, but at least he'll have more time for his very funny radio show and books. I was just thinking about Al's first book today after reading a transcript of Rush Limbaugh's Valentine's Day show.
Recently, I wrote in this space about data showing that single women were more likely to be Democratic voters than married women, and I joked that this was another reason not to get married. Now, I do know that it's the nature of our political culture today that if a progressive, even a happily married one (16 years), makes a joke like that some right-wing blowhard is going to distort it for the sake of scoring cheap partisan points. So it wasn't a surprise that Rush Limbaugh, the grandaddy distorter of them all, stepped up to the plate to take a whack. But what did surprise me is that he took the opportunity not only to attack me but also my husband. Here's what he said:
"Now, The Nation is one of our favorite publications here, the far left fringe publication of the liberal journal of opinion that is edited by well known communist named Katrina vanden Heuvel whose husband is a well known communist at Columbia. Well, I use the term advisedly. Stephen Cohen's his name."
Now, I know that Limbaugh doesn't have a lot of experience with successful relationships, but attacking someone's spouse is generally considered to be pretty low down and dirty. In fact, some would call his reckless allegations libelous--my lawyer, for example. I also know that Limbaugh suffers from a rather severe case of McCarthy-era nostalgia, but equating liberalism with communism is tired and boorish even for someone who is a big, fat idiot. I use the term advisedly.
By the way, if Rush had done any research, he would have discovered that my husband now teaches, after many years at Princeton, at NYU, not Columbia. (Kids, this is an object lesson: read books, don't take drugs.)