Katrina vanden Heuvel | The Nation

Katrina vanden Heuvel

Katrina vanden Heuvel

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

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.

GM Chair for National Healthcare?

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."

Sweet Victories

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: nationvictories@gmail.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.

"I Am Free--To Think--To Speak"

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."

She Has the Power

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."

Making It Even Harder to Make Ends Meet

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.

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