The Nation

The Patriot Act's--and the Senate's--Constitution Problem

It has been almost six years since Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold cast the lone vote in the Senate against the USA Patriot Act, warning at a time when few others had the courage to do so that the measure undermined the basic protections afforded Americans by a Constitution that has been severely battered by the Bush-Cheney administration.

Now, a federal court has confirmed Feingold's assessment--at least with regard to the atrocious National Security Letter (NSL) provision of the Patriot Act, which in the words of the American Civil Liberties Union "allowed the FBI to demand private information about people within the United States without court approval, and to gag those who receive NSLs from discussing them."

U.S. District Court Judge Victor Marrero, in a decision issued Thursday found that the gag power was unconstitutional because the statute prevented meaningful judicial review of gag orders by the courts. As such, Marrero determined, the Patriot Act violates the Constitution's First Amendment as well as its separation of powers provisions.

"In light of the seriousness of the potential intrusion into the individual's personal affairs and the significant possibility of a chilling effect on speech and association--particularly of expression that is critical of the government or its policies--a compelling need exists to ensure that the use of NSLs is subject to the safeguards of public accountability, checks and balances, and separation of powers that our Constitution prescribes," wrote Marrero.

"As the court recognized, there must be real, meaningful judicial checks on the exercise of executive power," explained Melissa Goodman, an ACLU staff attorney on this case. "Without oversight, there is nothing to stop the government from engaging in broad fishing expeditions, or targeting people for the wrong reasons, and then gagging Americans from ever speaking out against potential abuses of this intrusive surveillance power."

That is the point Feingold sought to make back in the fall of 2001, and again in 2005, when during reauthorization of the bill Feingold fought to address issues related to the NSLs and other unconstitutional components of the act. Nine senators joined Feingold in voting "no" to the final version of the renewed Patriot Act: Hawaii's Daniel Akaka, New Mexico's Jeff Bingaman, West Virginia's Robert Byrd, Iowa's Tom Harkin, Vermont's Jim Jeffords, Vermont's Patrick Leahy, Michigan's Carl Levin, Washington's Patty Murray and Oregon's Ron Wyden.

No senator of either party who is now seeking the presidency joined Feingold and the others in casting what Thursday's court decision confirms to have been the only Constitutionally-appropriate vote.

But, as Feingold notes, New York's Hillary Clinton, Illinois' Barack Obama, Connecticut's Chris Dodd, Delaware's Joe Biden and their presidentially-ambitious colleagues can still do the right thing.

"The federal court decision declaring the statute unconstitutional comes as no surprise. The Justice Department's Inspector General has already found that the NSL authorities have been seriously abused by the government, and now a federal court has found parts of those authorities unconstitutional," says Feingold. "Congress needs to fix the mess it created when it gave the government overly-broad powers to obtain sensitive information about Americans."


John Nichols' new book is THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders' Cure forRoyalism. Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson hails it as a "nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic [that] combines a rich examination of the parliamentary roots and past use ofthe 'heroic medicine' that is impeachment with a call for Democraticleaders to 'reclaim and reuse the most vital tool handed to us by thefounders for the defense of our most basic liberties.'"

Disinformation Society, Bush-style

We live with an administration whose concept of domestic "freedom" went out with those "freedom fries," briefly sold at the cafeterias of the House of Representatives. The Bush team has quite literally been a force for darkness. For those who remember the "memory hole" down which the bureaucrats of the Ministry of Truth dumped all uncomfortable or inconvenient documents in Orwell's famed dystopian novel 1984, this administration has created its functional equivalent. Just since the attacks of September 11, 2001, the government has removed from open shelves and sequestered from public view more than one million pages of "historical government documents -- a stack taller than the U.S. Capitol." According to the Associated Press, "some of these documents are more than a century old." What we are seeing in many cases is "declassification in reverse." For example, the CIA and other federal agencies "have secretly reclassified over 55,000 pages of records taken from the open shelves at the National Archives and Records Administration." These have even included half-century-old documents already published in a State Department historical series. In many cases, there is simply no way of knowing what has been removed, because the removals have largely not been catalogued.

Even the Pentagon phone book, on sale at the Government Printing Office bookstore until 2001, is gone. There's little way for a citizen to know who occupy offices that may determine the course of his or her life. In a sense, there are no longer "public servants," only private ones, beholden to the President, not Americans. This is what "national security," Bush-style, really means. Similarly, as Robert Dreyfuss discovered when he tried to chart out who was working in Vice President Cheney's office while researching a piece, no information could be revealed to a curious reporter, not even the names and positions of those who worked for the Vice President, those who, theoretically, were working for us. Cheney's office would not even publicly acknowledge its own employees, no less let them be interviewed.

In this same period, as Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists (who produces the invaluable Secrecy News each day), pointed out in Slate, "[T]he pace of classification activity has increased by 75 percent" in the Bush years. The Information Security Oversight Office, which supervises the government's classification system, recorded "a rise from 9 million classification actions in fiscal year 2001 to 16 million in fiscal year 2004."

The removal of documents en masse, the denial of access to the public, the classification of everything -- these are signs of a now seven-year-long shutting off of the flow of unsupervised information. But perhaps nothing has been as crucial as the shutting down of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) that Ruth Rosen, former columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, historian, and author of the groundbreaking book The World Split Open: How the Modern Women's Movement Changed America (recently updated), considers at Tomdispatch.com under the rubric: "soft crimes" of the Bush administration.

It's a classic story of how to put a national "sunshine law," meant to let the light in on our legislators and bureaucrats, in the shade.

As Rosen concludes: "Don't be lulled into thinking that the act of censoring information, of shielding the American people from knowledge of the most basic workings of their own government, is any less dangerous to democracy than war crimes or acts of torture. In fact, it was the soft crimes of secrecy and deception that enabled the Bush administration's successful campaign to lure our country into war in Iraq--and so to commit war crimes and acts of torture. You don't have to be a historian to know that 'soft' crimes are what make hard crimes possible. They can also lead to an executive dictatorship and the elimination of our most cherished civil rights and liberties."

Michael Vick Doesn't Need Your Help

Watching the Michael Vick saga unfold over the past month has been a typically frustrating experience, as a woman, a person of color, and dog owner (or rather "pet guardian," as they insist upon in my oh-so PC hometown, San Francisco).

The entire nasty affair points to the ways in which any national "debate" – usually conducted by talking heads, lawyers, and a couple of celebrities on TV -- on race or gender in popular culture ends up mired in arguments that can at best be described as absurd, and at worst, damaging.

Maybe it has something to do with the fact that we can't seem to bring ourselves to talk about, say an important issue like racism unless there is a low-life like O. J. Simpson or Michael Vick facing charges for some reprehensible crime. Is this really the ideal context for a conversation that requires open minds, compassion, awareness, and a strong desire to do right?

Then again, this is the kind of foolishness that pays for a cultural critic's supper. Here's my critique of the race-related interpretations made directly or indirectly in support of Michael Vick. One, his case is yet another example of a racist white media "lynching" a young black man for sins that would be more easily forgiven – or at least, less stridently covered and condemned -- in a white person. This version of the Vick defense was offered up by civil rights groups such as the NAACP.

Umm, I don't think so. I can't imagine PETA or any of the other animal rights groups being any less outraged if Tom Brady was involved. Whatever one's reservations about their politics, we can safely say these folks have shown little love for privileged white folks. And yes, Americans in general love their dogs, and they wouldn't be any less appalled at their torture just because the QB in question was white.

If there is anything racist about the response to Vick, it's the lack of surprise, as though we simply don't expect any better from a black man. If Tom Brady or Peyton Manning had been caught doing something similar, all of America would have been shocked, shocked, shocked. How could our golden white boy ever do something like this, and so on. It's the difference between our reaction to an inner-city school shooting and Columbine.

If that wasn't enough, this week brought us Whoopi Goldberg, who claimed on The View that this kind of depraved behavior is part of Vick's "cultural conditioning" is not doing any service to her community, or the rest of us. Sure, she meant the culture of the rural South, but that's not how it's going to be interpreted in a culture already weighed down with stereotypes about brutal, violent black men.

If a white commentator had made that comment, many of us would be rightly offended at its suggestion – intended or otherwise -- that electrocuting dogs is somehow "normal" for some black folks. According to this Kansas City columnist, a number of observers are already blaming Vick's crime on black ghetto/hip hop culture. I don't see anyone arguing that a white athlete is a "wonderful guy" who just didn't know using a "rape pole" to breed a dog was a bad thing. This again, should tell us something about cultural expectations.

Some of the best writing on the race angle in the Vick case comes from Atlanta-Journal Constitution columnist, Cynthia Tucker. Here is her take on why it's a wrong-headed for black civil rights organizations to rally around the Michael Vick. And here is Tucker's far more nuanced argument about how media coverage of the Vick case does indeed point to a racial bias of a different kind.

Finally, there's the "unfair scrutiny" argument that deflects the issue from race to gender, as in: we get worked up about a little animal cruelty, but don't give a damn when the same men are accused of beating the crap out of their wives. The critique about NFL's wink-nudge attitude toward domestic violence is well-founded, but it is only undermined by any comparison to dog-fighting. I don't know of a single athlete accused of brutally torturing and killing a number of women for fun playing professional sports.

Certainly, colleagues of any player accused of beating up his wife would hardly be eager to get on TV and sing his praises – as so many of his team-mates did before Vick pleaded guilty. NFL"s locker-room culture is infamous for its misogyny and homophobia, but even athletes (or their PR reps) know where to draw the line in public. And would Whoopi declare Vick a "wonderful guy" or blaming it on his cultural upbringing if he'd been beating his wife? I doubt it.

Bottomline, Whoopi herself is evidence that we have no problems distinguishing between animals and human beings: it is okay to kill one for food (and in many cases, even sport) and not the other. Besides, no one wins in this bizarre game of one upmanship between two equally repulsive crimes. What's the logic: if we only would turn a blind eye to dog-fighting, we'd be cracking down harder on domestic violence? I don't think so. And that goes for racism too. No reasonable person can think that treating Vick with greater clemency would mark a victory for race relations in this country.

To rephrase Freud, sometimes a jerk is just a jerk.

No Plans To Leave Iraq

On his recent trip to Iraq, President Bush commented about the future of the US mission. "General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker tell me if the kind of success we are now seeing continues, it will be possible to maintain the same level of security with fewer American forces," he said near the end of his speech in Anbar province.

Speculation abounded back in Washington. Was Bush hinting that at least some US troops might be coming home soon? Was he heeding the calls of his Joint Chiefs of Staff, who advocate cutting the US presence in half over the next year? Could the war even end on Bush's watch?

Not likely. In an interview with USA Today published this morning, White House chief of staff Josh Bolten said that "I don't think that any realistic observer thinks that by the time the president leaves office in 2009 it'll be possible--- safely--to get all or even most of the American troop presence out."

Critics of the war have suspected all along that President Bush would try to run out the clock and pass the mess in Iraq off to his successor. "Josh Bolten basically says 'we're gonna be there with troops for a long time,'" responded John Podesta, Bill Clinton's White House chief of staff from 1998-2001. "'We're handing this baby off.'"

President Bush admitted as much in a rare moment of candor in March 2006. "Will there come a day," he was asked, "when there will be no more American forces in Iraq?"

"That, of course, is an objective," Bush answered. "And that will be decided by future Presidents and future governments of Iraq."

A year later, Bush said he envisioned a "Korea model" presence for US troops in Iraq. At least 37,000 troops have been stationed in the Korean peninsula for over 50 years.

As The Craig Turns

Where to begin with the latest developments in L'Affaire Craig?

How about with the delicious proposal by Larry Craig's fans at the American Land Rights Association? The group's so upset at the prospect of losing the Idaho Republican's anti-environmental influence on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee that it is proposing a boycott of the Minneapolis-Saint Paul Airport where the Senator got busted for cruising in a disorderly manner for anonymous sex.

Land Association leaders claim the airport and the local cops are guilty of "ambushing" their favorite senator -- using the old technique of placing attractive young cops in bathroom stalls frequented by senators who are "not gay (and) and never have been gay."

More power to the association. Senators who are as unreconstructed in their willingness to pave paradise as Larry Craig are not easy to come by, so special-interest groups can't have them getting ambushed by airport security schemes.

And who knows? Maybe the American Land Rights Association won't have to bid a fond farewell to the senator who never met a plot to despoil the countryside that he didn't adore.

Urged on by the delightfully off-message Republican senator from Pennsylvania, Arlen Specter, Craig is now scrambling to withdraw his guilty plea in the Minnesota case, beat the rap and reverse his resignation announcement.

The word from Craig's camp is that he is reconsidering, which of course he has every right to do. Resignation from the Senate has nothing to do with what one says or does not say. A senator must notify the proper legislative authorities of an intention to forfeit his or her seat, and the man from Idaho has not done that -- and, perhaps, will not do that.

Republican leaders in the Senate are, predictably, apoplectic. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is still busy blathering about how Craig made the "right decision" to quit -- after the Idaho senator was thrown under the bus by McConnell and other Republican bosses who can tolerate Louisiana Senator David Vitter's penchant for prostitutes but who draw the line when it comes to bathroom sex. It's as if McConnell believes that if he just says it enough -- or maybe if he clicks his red ruby slippers together enough -- Larry Craig will just disappear.

But that's not going to happen for so long as Specter is publicly urging Craig to "seek to withdraw the guilty plea."

How can Specter seriously entertain the notion that Craig might be innocent? Need it be recalled that the distinguished senator from Pennsylvania was, in a previous incarnation, the junior counsel for the Warren Commission who came up with the "single-bullet theory" to explain President John Kennedy's assassination.

In Arlen Specter's view, anything is possible -- even the impossible.

And in the case of Larry Craig, the impossible dream of a disgraced senator that he might yet redeem himself and reclaim his seat is turning into a political nightmare of epic proportions for congressional Republicans who cannot seem to keep their stories straight or their resignations permanent.

The story that was supposed to go away before the Senate was gaveled back into session this week has turned into a saga with no end in sight. Oregon Senator Gordon Smith is exactly right when he says of his party's Craig conundrum: "If this story doesn't get smaller, it will get bigger." Indeed, considering the broadcast news media's continuing fascination with all things Craigy, the Bush White House had better start worrying. Senator Craig's headline-grabbing absolution, or his next visit to the restroom, could come just in time to grab the fickle media's attention away from the administration's latest faked up report on how great things are going in Iraq.


John Nichols' new book is THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders' Cure forRoyalism. Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson hails it as a "nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic [that] combines a rich examination of the parliamentary roots and past use ofthe 'heroic medicine' that is impeachment with a call for Democraticleaders to 'reclaim and reuse the most vital tool handed to us by thefounders for the defense of our most basic liberties.'"

A Democratic Litmus Test

A disturbing story in The Washington Post yesterday suggested that Congress is losing its cojones when it comes to closing some of the most obscene tax loopholes benefiting the richest of the rich--hedge funders and private equity managers.

According to The Post, proposals to increase tax rates on private equity partnerships like Blackstone from a 15 percent capital gains rate to a 35 percent corporate rate led to "private-equity funds dispens[ing] at least $5.5 million for lobbying assistance" in the first six months of this year.

That kind of pay-to-play politics may be one reason the Senate seems to be balking at raising the tax rates on the profit paid to fund managers--called "carried interest"--which as the New York Times pointed out is a "euphemism for the hefty performance fees that fund managers haul in." That particular loophole allows managers to pay lower tax rates on their income than the average American worker, as I posted previously. The Senate is also considering limiting the rate increase only to private partnerships that trade publicly as corporations--even though most of the private equity and hedge fund firms are private. And those publicly traded firms would be allowed a 5-year grace period before seeing the increased rate--this at a time when the war is draining our nation's treasury to the tune of $12 billion per month and a serious public investment agenda is desperately needed.

We already know where Republicans stand when it comes to protecting Big Business at the expense of helping ordinary Americans. But if the Democrats can't move on this very basic issue of tax fairness then they will have failed this critical litmus test: does the party stand for working people or doesn't it?

Sheehan Seeks a More Principled Politics

In California, where Cindy Sheehan proposes to mount an independent anti-war challenge to cautious House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the political structures used to err on the side of candidates who opted for principles over partisanship. Once in the not so distant past, a Cindy Sheehan or anyone else frustrated by the failure of a Pelosi to work effectively to end the war in Iraq and to hold those responsible for it to account, would have found it much easier to take on so powerful a figure.

In the progressive era in California, contenders for Congress were allowed to run in the primary of any party they chose. In fact, they could run in the primary of every party at the same time. If the candidate won more than one nomination, he or she could then "fuse" their votes from various ballot lines into a whole in the November contest – allowing populist contenders to mount universal appeals and allowing voters to respond to them as they saw fit.

This "cross-filing" option – under which candidates petitioned their way onto the ballots of multiple parties -- was established early in the 20th century as a means to break the grip of party bosses and the corporate special-interest groups with which they were aligned. It was one of many progressive reforms – open primaries, direct election of senators, initiatives and referendums and the lifting of restrictions on third parties -- adopted at the time with the purpose of freeing up political processes that had been rendered moribund by insider control and anti-democratic structures.

The reforms were enacted with the encouragement of a broad national movement led by Wisconsin Governor and then Senator Robert M. La Follette. Like the best of the progressives, La Follette saw political parties as vehicles for advancing ideas and expanding representation of the people, not as ends in themselves.

That's a point that Sheehan understands better than most of today's prominent political figures, and it is a part of what makes her decision to campaign as an non-partisan independent activist such an invigorating prospect.

Like the progressives of old, and like anyone who tries to push the boundaries not merely of electioneering but of our imaginations, Sheehan is taking her hits for daring to make this run. But even those people of good will who choose not to support Sheehan – either because they honestly prefer Pelosi or because they think that it is more important to fight the political battles of 2008 elsewhere – should recognize that the principled determination of the nation's best-known anti-war activist to seek a more meaningful politics is worthy of respect. And for many reasonable and politically pragmatic Americans, whose disenchantment with today's politics has only been heightened by the sorry spectacle of a Democratic Congress struggling to get its footing in a wrestling match with a Republican president whose clumsiness should have made it an easy fight, that respect will translate to support.

In an important sense, Sheehan mounts her campaign the not in the contemporary California tradition of Pelosi – a transplanted Marylander from an old Democratic machine family in Baltimore – but in the deeper tradition of a remarkable native Californian who rejected the bonds of partisanship in favor of a genuinely representative and often radical politics.

California's progressive reforms of the last century swept into the state's governorship La Follette's comrade and later ally in the great struggles against war, empire and imperialism, Hiram Johnson. Johnson was the ultimate principle-over-party man. Two years after his election to the governorship in 1910 as a titular Republican, he left the party to join Teddy Roosevelt on the 1912 Progressive "Bull Moose" presidential ticket. Twenty years later, as a Republican senator, Johnson abandoned his party to campaign for Democrat Franklin Roosevelt in realigning election of 1932. And serving in the Senate from 1917 to 1945, he crossed the aisle to work – in that dramatically more diverse and representative time -- with Democrats, Progressives, Farmer-Laborites and Independents who chose to challenge economic and foreign-policy elites.

Johnson enjoyed the freedom to support the best candidates, and to champion peace, equality and economic democracy, because he regularly entered and won primaries on multiple party lines – securing reelection in several years as the candidate of the Republican, Democratic and Progressive parties. He was bossed by his ideals and by his constituents, not party leaders and campaign donors.

Unfortunately, after Johnson's death, California politicians associated with Richard Nixon undid progressive political policies and structures in order to restore the influence of party and money. By the late 1950s, they had succeeded in eliminating the "cross-filing" rule, and in so doing they broke not just with progressivism but with the core principles of the American experiment that La Follette and Johnson sought to renew. No less a founding figure than James Madison warned that political partisanship focused on the mere securing of power rather than the advocating of bold ideals was a "dangerous vice" that led to the "instability, injustice, and confusion (that) have, in truth, been the mortal diseases under which popular governments have everywhere perished…"

Cindy Sheehan, who will be honored Saturday in Baraboo, Wisconsin, at Fighting Bob Fest's annual celebration of La Follette's legacy of anti-war and anti-corporate activism, mounts her 2008 challenge to Pelosi as an independent progressive. Were she running in 1918 or 1948, she could have taken advantage of California's then more open politics to run as a Democrat, Republican, Green and Libertarian, which would have suited her politically adventurous spirit. But the "cross-filing" option is closed to her. In a narrower political sphere, defined by party and interest rather than ideals and patriotism, her choices and those of the voters are constrained in a manner designed to favor party elites and their even more elite allies.

Cindy Sheehan may not turn out to be a perfect candidate – although she will prove far abler and potentially far more successful contender than her casual critics imagine -- and 2008 may not be the perfect year for her to try and break the stranglehold of excessive partisanship that has rendered American elections so frustrating and frequently meaningless. But she has an opportunity to deliver a perfect message: American politics needs to be freer, more open, more exciting and, yes, more unsettling.

The status quo of two parties with bitterly competing electoral strategies but one frame of reference when it comes to so many of the critical demands of governance has not made America safer, more just or more free. Rather, it has confirmed the worst fears of the progressives – and of the founders – about a nation guided by a surplus of partisanship and a deficit of principle. To the extent that Sheehan speaks to those fears and counters them with a promise of a purer politics – a politics steeped in the best traditions of Hiram Johnson, Bob La Follette and their progressive allies – her race will be a redeeming and refreshing reminder that elections can be about more than petty partisanship.


John Nichols' new book is THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders' Cure forRoyalism. Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson hails it as a "nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic [that] combines a rich examination of the parliamentary roots and past use ofthe 'heroic medicine' that is impeachment with a call for Democraticleaders to 'reclaim and reuse the most vital tool handed to us by thefounders for the defense of our most basic liberties.'"

Not Waiting For Petraeus

What's left of the Republican Party in the Northeast is once again feeling anxious about the war in Iraq. They've been told over and over by party leaders to "wait until September." Well, September is here and six House Republicans don't need to hear from General Petreaus in order to make up their minds.

"Next week, General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker will submit a very important report to Congress regarding efforts to quell violence and reach political compromise in Iraq," they state in a letter to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Minority Leader John Boehner. "While we are hopeful that their report will show progress, we should not wait any longer to come together in support of a responsible post-surge strategy to safely bring our troops home to their families."

The letter was signed by GOP Reps. Mike Castle, Phil English, Scott Garrett, Jim Gerlach, Charlie Dent, Thomas Petri and House Democrats John Tanner, Tim Mahoney, Allen Boyd, Bob Brady and Dennis Cardoza, leaders of the party's Blue Dog wing.

Despite a relentless PR campaign to sell the surge, increased GOP defections spell more bad news for the White House, as moderate Republicans join with conservative Democrats in calling for a "bipartisan strategy to stabilize the country and bring our troops home."

Facing Down Poverty

Last week, President Bush cited the recent Census Report as proof "that more of our citizens are doing better in this economy, with continued rising incomes and more Americans pulling themselves out of poverty." Welcome to the latest episode of Fantasy Island with George Bush.

In fact, as a recent New York Times editorial notes, the 2005 data which the Census Report is based on (and therefore doesn't even account for those suffering from the recent credit crisis) "underscores how the gains from economic growth have failed to benefit most of the population," and that "the gains against poverty last year were remarkably narrow." Since Bush came to power poverty has risen by 9 percent.

And with the passing of the two-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, there is a sense that the window of opportunity the disaster opened to put poverty back on the national agenda has now closed, with too little political leadership and a media that stopped paying attention.

But while the White House and too many in Congress have indeed turned their backs on New Orleans and Americans struggling to make ends meet, Mark Greenberg, director of the Center for American Progress' (CAP) Task Force on Poverty, says that there has in fact been a "resurgence of interest" in dealing with poverty in America. He says that when it comes to NGO's, and some cities and states, the focus and determination to address the economic pain and hardship that Americans witnessed during Katrina has persisted.

Greenberg points to the US Conference of Mayors Task Force on Poverty, Work and Opportunity. Faith groups like Catholic Charities, Sojourners/Call to Renewal, and Jewish Council on Public Affairs who have "intensified their efforts." Cities like Milwaukee, Savannah, Kalamazoo, Portland, and New York. And three states with poverty commissions – Connecticut, Vermont, and Minnesota – the first two focused on child poverty and the latter on ending poverty by 2020.

"Developments like these are steps forward," Greenberg says. "It's far short of where we want to be, but it's real progress."

In 2004, Connecticut became the first state in the nation to write poverty reduction into a public act, mandating a 50 percent reduction in child poverty by 2014 and establishing the Child Poverty Prevention and Reduction Council. The Council makes recommendations on how to meet the 10-year goal but its up to others to ensure legislative action.

"Since our legislature is controlled by Democrats and the Executive branch by Republicans, there is often a chasm that divides priorities, so we lose important pieces like the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and have to go back yearly to fight for them," says Juliet Manalan, Government and Public Relations Specialist for the Connecticut Association for Community Action (CAFCA). CAFCA is the umbrella organization for the state's 12 federally designated anti-poverty agencies from the 1960s War on Poverty.

In April, CAFCA convened the Connecticut Symposium on Child Poverty Reduction to develop a blueprint for action which stakeholders – agencies, business and advocacy groups, education institutions, and public policymakers – could use to address issues of poverty in a cohesive way. There was consensus on the need to establish a refundable state EITC program to supplement low-wage parents' income. (The EITC is a refundable tax credit that supplements the earnings of low- and moderate-income workers); increase parents' access to literacy, post-secondary, and vocational education; strengthen the state's Individual Development Account (IDA) program to assist in the accumulation of assets and enhance matched savings accounts; increase affordable child care so that parents can pursue work and/or education and children are prepared for success in school; ensure public or private health care coverage for families as well as access to providers; support young, at-risk families through home visiting medical and social services which enhance parent/child interaction, parent education, work and life skills, and broaden access to community resources.

In September, CAFCA will again convene over 300 participants for its "Ending Child Poverty: Investing in Our Future" annual conference. "We will provide more information on legislative efforts, business and community partnerships, policy initiatives, and workshops to support the efforts of frontline case management staff," Manalan said. "Connecticut is doing the work and building the coalitions necessary to produce lasting change."

Those coalitions are especially necessary at a time when opponents of change are digging in. There was a legislative attempt to sunset the requirement for Council recommendations this year, which would make it more difficult to track the effectiveness of anti-poverty measures as well as the scope of poverty.

"There are a lot of great people on the Council," Manalan says. "We know the body can be successful, provided the reporting requirements don't disappear."

This year, Vermont also passed legislation to create a Vermont Childhood Poverty Council and develop a strategy to reduce child poverty by 50% in ten years. According to the Rutland Herald, the bill was modeled after the Connecticut initiative. The Poverty Council will hold hearings in all 14 of the state's counties – meeting with citizens and frontline advocates – before issuing a report to the Legislature in January.

"One of my short term goals for the Council is to bring the issue back into the political conversation here in Vermont," council co-chair, Senator Doug Racine, tells me. "In fact, this is necessary if we're to make progress."

Council co-chair, Representative Ann Pugh, told the Herald: "We want to visit the four corners of the state and meet directly with people. It would be easy to hold a public hearing in Montpelier that would be filled with policymakers, but that's not what we want to do."

Racine says the 50 percent child poverty reduction goal is an ambitious one "but it's attainable."

"While we understand that state policies may not be enough in the absence of changes in Washington on tax policies and spending priorities," Racine says, "I believe that we can make significant progress if poverty becomes a high priority issue."

Greenberg agrees that leadership in Washington is necessary in order to achieve needed change. "This can't just be about the federal government," he says. "But in the long run the nation can't make dramatic progress without the federal government, and it's been the noticeably missing partner for the last number of years."

Some members of Congress are working hard to bring attention to the issue. Greenberg points to Ways and Means Committee chair, Charles Rangel, who speaks of the need to address poverty as part of a national security strategy. Rangel started off the year by holding a hearing to examine the economic costs of poverty. Economist Harry Holzer testified that the cost of sustained childhood poverty is in range of $500 billion dollars a year, roughly evenly divided between lowered productivity, increased health care costs, and increased crime-related costs. Holzer took a conservative approach, examining a set of variables that are readily quantifiable. A Republican scholar testifying at the hearing called the study "superb." As a result, this figure is one that is increasingly incorporated into analysis of poverty. (On the flip side, Rangel supports "paygo" which makes it much more difficult to get the money to invest in cutting poverty.)

Representative Jim McDermott has also played a key role as chair of the Ways and Means Subcommittee on Income Security and Family Support. Recently, Greenberg and others testified before McDermott's Committee on shortcomings regarding how we measure poverty in America – inadequacies in measuring the scope of the problem and the impact of anti-poverty efforts.

But it is Representative Barbara Lee – co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and also the Out of Poverty Caucus – who along with 13 co-sponsors is introducing the boldest legislation, incorporating the recommendations of the CAP Poverty Task Force and setting a national goal to reduce poverty by 50 percent over the next ten years.

Greenberg points to real progress already being achieved such as new minimum wage laws and expanded state EITCs. And, he says, the poverty commissions will promote overall development of state strategy, bring the issues to the forefront, promote accountability, and hopefully lead to stronger action at the federal level.

For decades Americans have heard the tired refrain, "We waged a war on Poverty and Poverty won." Taking on that view, Greenberg says, "It's a very common challenge in a discussion about poverty. It's clear from polling that people wish something could be done but they fear that government action always goes wrong or is counterproductive. But the real story of why poverty stopped falling after the early 70's isn't failed government policies. The biggest factor has been that since that time economic growth has been slower and much less equitably distributed. The fact is we've learned a lot about how to reduce poverty and we know things that work. It's ultimately a question of political will."

There is hope that many good leaders, activists and organizations across the nation are committed to the fight against poverty. We need to pay attention, and bring that energy and focus back to places like New Orleans, and demand that our political representatives do the same. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once told us, "We may not all be guilty, but we are all responsible."