The Nation

Sleepless in the Senate

Matthew Blake reports from Capitol Hill:

Full disclosure: this humble reporter left the Capitol at 1 am but continued watching on C-Span until 2:30 am before nodding off. The Senate never slept.

Though it was done through the medium of a partly absurd, often tedious "all-night" debate, Democratic politicians have finally seemed to convey what they can and cannot do to stop George Bush's disastrous Iraq War policy.

Last night Democratic Senators talked and talked on an empty Senate floor--and to a Senate park packed with anti-war advocates--about how the chamber must vote now to begin bringing troops home. Not in September when Army General David Petraeus releases a progress report on the "surge" and not in 2009 when a new President assumes office. But antiwar Senators stressed again and again that troop withdrawals cannot happen unless 60 Senators vote to end debate on an amendment that says troops must start leaving Iraq in 120 days.

"We're going to read tomorrow that the Senate voted down the Levin-Reed amendment," co-sponsor Carl Levin of Michigan told a crowd of hundreds of anti-war advocates last night. "No they didn't--they voted to filibuster."

Indeed, the Senate just minutes ago failed to clear the Levin-Reed amendment by a vote of 52 yeas to 47 nays.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who orchestrated the Senate session, had pinned the hopes on ending the war on Senate Republicans like Virginia's John Warner and New Mexico's Pete Domenici, who have spoken out against the war but did vote to end debate on the amendment. For their part, moderate Senate Republicans seem focused on both waiting until September and endorsing the guidelines of the Iraq Study Group Report, which they dismissed not so long ago. "There is a careful sequence of events between now and September," Warner said when he spoke on the Senate floor last night.

While Republicans emphasized careful deliberation and held up copies of the Iraq Study Group Report, some Democrats seemed to have found a new sense of urgency. Patty Murray of Washington state told a story of a soldier she spoke with who just returned from Iraq. "He told me every time I heard somebody contentedly sitting in a coffee shop or restaurant, I just wanted to say 'Wake up!' and that's what we're saying Republican Senators now tonight. And we're staying up all night to tell them that."

Back on the Senate floor, Democrats stood by "Let Us Vote" posters and other visuals that emphasized how Iraq has distracted America from its biggest security threats. Louisiana's Mary Landrieu used additional visuals such as a most wanted poster of Osama Bin Laden with the headline "Priority Number One." Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown spoke beside a poster stating, "The Iraq effect: War has increased terrorismseven-fold."

Much of the curiosity surrounding the event centered on Senators staying up all-night and sleeping on cots. Capitol Hill workers complained about having to bring up dozens of boxes of Chick Filet sandwiches to the Senators.

But, however tangential and monotonous, each Senator spoke about Iraq and national security. A motion to close debate on the amendment failed by eight votes today. But at least Democrats have hammered home exactly where Congress stands on getting out of Iraq. "I don't think spending one night on the Senate debating Iraq is too much to ask," Landrieu said.

Subpoena Watch: Tenth Time’s a Charm

Nine times the Senate Judiciary Committee asked the Bush Administration for the legal justification of its warrantless (and illegal) domestic spying program. Nine times. To no avail. In the end of June, in a bipartisan 13-3 vote, the committee asked a tenth time – and it issued subpoenas to the President, Vice President, Department of Justice, and National Security Council to put an end to the stonewalling.

Today at 2 PM is the deadline to comply with the request. (There is an unconfirmed rumor of an extension, but nothing definitive.) Few will be holding their breath. As Committee Chair Senator Patrick Leahy wrote in his cover letter with the subpoenas, "Our attempts to obtain information through testimony of administration witnesses have been met with a consistent pattern of evasion and misdirection. There is no legitimate argument for withholding the requested materials from this committee."

Indeed the materials requested have nothing to do with the operational details--nothing to make the administration cry "state secrets" privilege--simply the legal rationale behind the program.

If the Administration once again chooses the stonewalling route, the Senate Judiciary Committee should move to hold those individuals in contempt of Congress, just as the House Judiciary Committee is expected to do with regard to Harriet Miers. (Miers was ordered by President Bush not to appear before a committee investigating politicized federal investigations and prosecutions.) As he's done several times before when confronted with the White House's blatant disregard for the checks and balances at the core of our constitutional design, Judiciary Chair John Conyers cut to the heart of the issue, asking, "Are Congressional subpoenas to be honored or are they optional?"

This moment is an important one as small-d democrats look to repair our democracy and defend the constitution. As the ACLU writes in a message to President Bush and Vice President Cheney: "All the Senate Judiciary Committee wants to know is your legal rationale for spying on Americans without warrants."

Tell the President and Vice President you expect them to comply with these subpoenas and the rule of law. And if they don't do it, demand that your Senators move to hold them in contempt of Congress.

Don't Fence in the Web!

The genius of the Internet, from the distant moment of its inception to the present day, has been its tendency toward openness, freedom and equality. On the great frontier of digital communications, there have been no fences. Every website has been treated equally. Once an American logs on, he or she has known that it is as easy to get to Wal-Mart Watch's dissident www.walmartwatch.com site as it is to reach the retail giant's corporate site. It is as easy to go to visit George Bush's official White House location on the Web as it is to visit the folks at www.afterdowningstreet.org, who would like very much to remove the president and everyone he rode in with.

In 2005, however, the Federal Communications Commission, began to attack the Net Neutrality rules that for decades have guaranteed a level playing field for every web site. They did so under pressure from "old-media" telecommunications corporations -- mostly in the cable and phone sectors -- that want to "own" the web. If Net Neutrality, the first amendment of the Internet, is completely eliminated in the manner favored by the telecommunications giants, then cable and phone companies can make a fortune by providing high-speed connections to sites that pay for the the service while discriminating against sites that do not pay.

Eliminating Net Neutrality cuts off the potential of the internet, by opening the way for colonization of the World Wide Web by telecommunications corporations that would amplify the voices of the wealthy and powerful while they effectively silence dissent.

The fear of this prospect has led more than 1.6 million Americans and 850 different groups on the political left and right to call for the FCC and Congress to establish rules that reinstate and protect Net Neutrality.

How intense is public support for Net Neutrality?

Tens of thousands of Americans sent comments to the FCC during the latest period of official inquiry by the agency that ended Monday. More than 95 percent of the comments called on the FCC to establish rules to prevent cable and phone companies from favoring paying Web sites or services over those that do not have the resources to buy a place on the right side of the walls erected by media monopolists.

"We see that thousands of people have submitted comments describing how a free and open Internet benefits consumers and telling you the discriminatory practices planned by their Internet service providers would substantially harm their online experience," U.S. Senators Byron Dorgan, D-North Dakota, and Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, who have sponsored the bipartisan "Internet Freedom Preservation Act," wrote to FCC chair Kevin Martin. "We hope you take note of these thousands of public comments urging you to protect Internet freedom."

Will Martin and the Bush-appointed FCC majority listen to the people who are saying they want the internet to realize its full potential, of will they allow their corporate sponsors to start erecting fences on the Web? That's the billion dollar question -- at least for the cable and phone companies.

It is, first and foremost, a democracy question: Will the FCC, which is supposed to serve the people by promoting open, freewheeling public discourse respond to the overwhelming demand for Net Neutrality? Or will it close the frontier and subdivide what were once vast open spaces into mansions for those who can pay and hovels for those who cannot?

At a time when American democracy is under assault on so many fronts, the internet has been the one place where freedom really did seem to be on the march. The only message the FCC can take from the great mass of comments it has received is that the people want that march to continue. "Internet users want competitive and affordable services. They don't want phone and cable companies to manipulate the free flow of information and distort the Web's level playing field," says Timothy Karr, campaign director of Free Press, which has coordinated the SavetheInternet.com coalition's fight to keep the World Wide Web wide open. "Now," says Karr, "the FCC must heed demands from people of every walk of life and enforce full Net Neutrality."

(John Nichols is a co-founder of Free Press and the co-author with Robert W. McChesney of TRAGEDY & FARCE: How the American Media Sell Wars, Spin Elections, and Destroy Democracy -- The New Press.)

Scaife to Bush: Withdraw from Iraq

The conservative movement has cracked apart. If any more evidencewas needed, check out Editor & Publisher's website for an articleabout Richard Mellon Scaife's newspaper and its latest editorial onIraq. It seems that the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, long owned byconservative billionaire Scaife, a stalwart supporter of many rightwing causes, is not only questioning Bush's disastrous war-- buthis "mental stability." Read on.

Conservative-Owned Newspaper Calls for Iraq Troop Withdrawal -- Questions Bush's 'Mental Stability'

By Editor & Publisher StaffPublished: July 16, 2007 3:29 PM ET

NEW YORK The Pittsburgh newspaper owned by conservative billionaireRichard Mellon Scaife yesterday called the Bush administration'splans to stay the course in Iraq a "prescription for Americansuicide."

The editorial in the Tribune-Review added, "And quite frankly,during last Thursday's news conference, when George Bush startedblathering about 'sometimes the decisions you make and theconsequences don't enable you to be loved,' we had to question hismental stability."

It continued: "President Bush warns that U.S. withdrawal would risk'mass killings on a horrific scale.' What do we have today, sir?

"If the president won't do the right thing and end this war, thepeople must. The House has voted to withdraw combat troops fromIraq by April. The Senate must follow suit.

"Our brave troops should take great pride that they rid Iraq ofSaddam Hussein. And they should have no shame in leaving Iraq. Forit will not be, in any way, an exercise in tail-tucking and running.

"America has done its job.

"It's time for the Iraqis to do theirs."

The editorial said it agrees with its local congressman on this:Democratic U.S. Rep. John Murtha.

Scaife has been a loyal backer of Republican politicians and manyconservative causes, and funded a network of investigations intoPresident Clinton during the 1990s.

The Dark Force

When John McCain was running his insurgent campaign against George W. Bush in 2000, he frequently compared himself to "Luke Skywalker trying to get out of the Death Star." But then Luke lost, the Evil Empire won, and John McCain embraced the dark side: Bush in 2004, Falwell in 2006, the surge in 2007.

Or as his friend Lindsey Graham said, trying to reassure conservatives about McCain's second run for president: "This is not Luke Skywalker here. This is a totally different campaign."


Like Bush, McCain built an imperial campaign, spending money like a drunken sailor. Unlike Bush, he could not raise enough cash to overcome his burn rate and had to severely downsize his staff, which in the horserace-obsessed Washington media is even worse than Giuliani having to fire Senator David Vitter for solicitation. (Based on the couple's joint press conference, Rudy should have hired Wendy Vitter instead.)

But it's bigger than McCain. Bush is so toxic right now and Republicans so demoralized that none of the top tier Republican candidates are raising more money than they spend. The Republicans are being crushed in the money game by Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

That sound you just heard is the Death Star exploding.

Deconstructing the Benchmarks

Last week the Bush Administration announced that the Iraqi government had made "satisfactory" progress on just 8 of the 18 benchmarks the Administration and Congress set this spring. Yet little attention has been paid to what these benchmarks actually are and whether they matter.

McClatchy newspapers analyzed all 18 benchmarks. The Washington Post summarized the report thusly:


The report judged that progress was "satisfactory" in eight of 18 benchmarks, including a review of the Iraqi constitution; legislation to divide Iraq into semi-autonomous regions; the protection of minority rights; and government, military and civil support for the new strategy. But it noted mixed progress on new electoral laws, militia disarmament and the reduction in militia control of local areas.



Areas receiving unsatisfactory grades included reform of Iraq's de-Baathification laws; enactment of a new law governing oil revenue; the ability of Iraqi security forces to operate independently from U.S. forces; and a range of benchmarks measuring sectarian bias in the government.


So the most important targets--curbing sectarian violence, empowering Iraqi forces, cracking down on militias, fairly distributing oil revenues--remain unmet. The Administration has little to show for the $2 billion per week our government is spending in Iraq.

Yet the incessant talk about benchmarks, on both sides of the Iraq debate, misses the point. "By setting 18 benchmarks that will be nearly impossible to reach but saying you won't leave until they are met is a recipe for long-term occupation," says Erik Leaver, an Iraq expert at the Institute for Policy Studies in DC. "There's no need for benchmarks at this point if you believe the war is a failure and can't be won."

Leaver notes that there is no similar mechanism of accountability or official indexes of progress for US troops and reconstruction teams. We didn't benchmark our way into this war and we won't benchmark our way out.

Harry Reid Finally Starts to Fight Smart

Harry Reid is finally coming to the realization reached months ago by the American people: That Democrats in Congress have been played for suckers by the Bush White House and its Republican allies on Capitol Hill.

The Senate Majority Leader's recognition of the realities of Washington in the Bush era--as evidenced by his decision Monday to set up a scenario that could clarify the role played by Republican senators in maintaining the president's exceptionally unpopular approach to the Iraq War--holds out the prospect that the politics of the debate over ending the occupation could change radically in the weeks to come.

Make no mistake, such a shift is necessary.

Despite the clear mandate they received last November--a mandate that, in a time of war and against a fierce campaign by the sitting President, restored the opposition party to control of both the US House and Senate for the first time since the "Republican revolution" of 1994--Congressional Democrats have for the past six months behaved as powerless bystanders in George Bush's Washington.

Instead of boldly challenging the most dysfunctional president in American history, using all the tools of the system of a checks and balances that was established to favor legislative oversight of the executive branch, Democrats have played the game by Bush's rules. And they have lost at every turn.

With a quarter of the term of the current Congress now done, it is clear that the cooperative approach adopted by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, and Senate Majority Leader Reid, D-Nevada, hasn't worked. It is not just that approval ratings for Congress are now below those of a failed president that Democrats were elected to challenge and constrain. It is that the disastrous war in Iraq, the central crisis of this American moment, continues to claim the lives of US troops and Iraqi civilians at an alarming rate.

The circumstance requires that Congressional Democrats change course. And their new priority should be to clarify rather than muddy the debate over Iraq.

That is what Reid is doing, at least tentatively, with his decision to, as he puts it, "highlight Republican obstruction" of Democratic efforts to bring the troops home.

Reid plans to do that Tuesday by refusing to allow Republicans to quietly make procedural moves to block voting on an amendment sponsored by Michigan Senator Carl Levin and Rhode Island Senator Jack Reed that would establish a withdrawal timeline. Instead, he plans to force the President's Senate allies to filibuster--at least for one night--in favor of continuing a war that even Republicans do not want to be associated with anymore.

"I would like to inform the Republican leadership and all my colleagues that we have no intention of backing down," Reid declared Monday afternoon. "If Republicans do not allow a vote on Levin/Reed today or tomorrow, we will work straight through the night on Tuesday. The American people deserve an open and honest debate on this war, and they deserve an up or down vote on this amendment to end it."

Unless Republicans agree to a simple-majority vote on Levin-Reed, Reid has indicated that he will keep the Senate in continuous session through Tuesday night and into Wednesday.

The point is to make it absolutely clear that Republican senators--even those who say they want to start bringing the troops home--are doing everything in their power to prevent a Senate vote that might embarrass of challenge Bush.

It is not likely that one night of filibustering complete the process of exposing the Republican shenanigans for what they are.

But Reid's move is a step in the right direction.

Nothing highlighted the ineffectual nature of the Democratic opposition to Bush's policies more than Reid's willingness to politely allow Republicans to prevent votes on fundamental issues such as the war.

Again and again, Republicans threatened to filibuster--a move that involves endless speechifying and limitless debate--in order to prevent the passage of measures designed to being bringing US troops home from Iraq.

Again and again, the majority leader responded to the threats by seeking a cloture vote that, if successful, would trump the filibuster threat and allow a vote of the full Senate in favor of the anti-war position that the vast majority of Democrats and a reasonable number of Republicans say they favor. Cloture refers to the only procedure by which the Senate can place a time limit on debate, thus overcoming a threatened filibuster, and get to clarity. Cloture can only be achieved if three-fifths of the members of the Senate, normally sixty of them, vote for it.

Unfortunately for Reid, the Democratic caucus has just fifty-one members--a few of whom, like Connecticut's Joe Lieberman, are in the pocket of the Bush White House--and the majority leader has only a handful of Republican allies who are willing to break with the administration on cloture votes regarding Iraq.

Thus, when Reid has sought cloture, he has more often than not been thwarted by Republican leaders, who successfully hold enough of their members to prevent the limit on debate. Only when the White House has ordered Senate Republicans to back off and allow a vote, as happened on the supplemental funding measure that Bush would eventually veto, does Reid get the vote he wants.

Reid and his fellow Democrats have tried to portray the votes on cloture as true tests of the will of senators.

But the American people have not seen these procedural clashes as consequential. As a result, Republicans who wanted to play both sides of the Iraq debate--making vaguely anti-war statements that get big play in the media while quietly providing the behind-the-scenes votes the White House needs to maintain its policies--were able to do so.

There was no clarity. And more and more Americans came to see Reid and the Democrats as, at best, ineffective; and, at worst, in unspoken collaboration with Bush.

Reid appears finally to have recognized that problem--with a little prodding from Senate colleagues and grassroots activists.

North Dakota Senator Kent Conrad, a principled Democrat from a rather red state who voted against authorizing Bush to go to war in Iraq and who "gets" the Senate as well as just about any member, raised the prospect of a new approach when he appeared last week on Air America's "Young Turks" program. Conrad explained that a Republican senator had recently told him the GOP leadership had adopted a strategy designed to "prevent any accomplishment" by the Democratic Congress. A key component of the strategy is to repeatedly threaten filibusters that force cloture votes -- on the theory that, try as Democrats might to portray those votes as meaningful, all that most Americans would know is that under Democratic leadership nothing was getting done.

Conrad suggested that it might be wise to put the procedural debates aside and let the American people see what is really happening.

"We have a narrow but clear majority in the United States Senate. We have a narrow but clear majority in the House of Representatives. And so we do have more of an ability to have our points of view heard than we did when we were in the minority. But it's also the reality [that] he President has the biggest megaphone, and, you know, until Democrats have the White House, they're always going to be at a disadvantage in terms of getting a message out," explained Conrad. "With that said, with that said, I think that we could do a better job making our points, and one part of that is to let the American people see just how obstructionist this Republican minority is being."

Asked if Democrats should abandon the polite approach of seeking cloture votes, losing them and then going on to other business, and instead begin forcing the Republicans to filibuster--thus displaying their true positions on ending the war--Conrad said, "Yeah, I think there's a growing consensus that we ought to do that."

Conrad's statement inspired activists, including the folks at MoveOn.org, to begin a push to get Reid and the Democratic leadership of the Senate to call the bluff of the Republicans.

Reid has not quite done that. He is still playing the cloture game to some extent, and a single night of forcing Republicans to show their true colors may not be enough to scare wavering GOP senators into breaking with their president and their party's Senate leadership.

But it is a start, potentially, of a new chapter in the war debate.

Reid is beginning to realize that Democrats have gotten nowhere by playing according to rules that favor the White House and its congressional allies.

He is moving toward a point of saying to Republicans: "It you want to filibuster in favor of continuing the failed occupation of Iraq, go for it. Show the American people exactly how determined you are to maintain George Bush's war."

By abandoning at least some of the inside-the-beltway politeness that gave Republicans an opening they have ably exploited, Reid is forcing members of the president's party who like to hint that they are anti-war but never vote that way to publicly and officially take a side. The more republicans engage in pro-war filibusters, the more they establish once and for all that -- no matter what they say about their supposed discomfort with the president's approach -- they see it as their job to prevent Congress from checking and balancing the Bush White House.

Like the southern senators who filibustered against civil rights legislation in the 1950s, Republicans who choose to rant on and on about how Congress cannot block the president's war making will expose themselves and their party to the harsh light of day--and potentially to the harsh response of the voters in 2008. And those Republicans who like to sound like critics of the war but who allow their party's leadership to maintain the filibuster will be exposed as the hypocrites they are.

If particular Republican senators do not like this scenario, they can pull together enough votes to assure Reid will have the sixty supporters he needs to avert the filibuster threat and get a real debate and a real vote on whether to end the occupation. Then, instead of allowing Republicans to abuse the cloture process to obstruct the will of the people, Reid can use cloture to quickly and easily remove the obstruction.

The key is for Reid to stop giving Republicans an easy out. When GOP leaders threaten to filibuster in favor of endless war, the majority leader must continually call their bluff. That will give the president's partisan allies in the Senate political ownership of his war -- and it will give the American people a clear picture of who wants to bring the troops home and who wants to leave them mired in George Bush's quagmire.


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.'"

Unjust Execution Delayed

Guest post by Liliana Segura. Liliana is a member of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty and has written on the death penalty for The Nation and other publications.

UPDATE: This evening the Georgia pardon board granted Troy Davis a 90-day stay, just a night before the state was set to execute him for a crime witnesses say he didn't commit. His tragic story is recounted below.

The case of Troy Anthony Davis is a textbook example of blind prosecutorial zeal--and the legal blockades that can leave the innocent condemned to death.

Davis is a black man convicted for the 1989 killing of a white police officer in Savannah, Georgia. Those facts alone should raise an eyebrow or two when it comes to Southern justice. But consider these facts:

The case against Davis relied solely on eyewitness testimony. No physical evidence linked him to the crime. Nor was there a murder weapon found.

Out of nine non-police witnesses, seven would later admit to having been coerced by police and recant their testimony.

As the Washington Post reports:

"Three of four witnesses who testified at trial that Davis shot the officer have signed statements contradicting their identification of the gunman. Two other witnesses -- a fellow inmate and a neighborhood acquaintance who told police that Davis had confessed to the shooting -- have said they made it up. Other witnesses point the finger not at Davis but at another man. Yet none has testified during his appeals because federal courts barred their testimony."

Why would the courts refuse to hear such compelling evidence regarding a prisoner's possible innocence?

One reason is the Clinton-era Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, which in 1996 rolled back federal reviews of state death penalty convictions, making it nearly impossible for prisoners facing execution to introduce potentially exculpatory evidence. It's chilling to think of what the subsequent decade has wrought, given the number of overturned death sentences in recent years. Since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976, 124 people have been exonerated from death row. Six have been from Georgia. As Jared Feuer, the Southern Regional Director of Amnesty International told Democracy Now! this morning, "It really is a runaway train."

One would think that officials in Georgia would be hesitant to go through with an execution on so little evidence.

One would be wrong.

On Friday afternoon the state Board of Pardons and Paroles denied a request from Davis's lawyers asking for more time to make their case for clemency.

In legal papers filed last week, Chief Assistant District Attorney David T. Lock dismissed the witnesses' recanted testimonies, writing: "A recantation...does not prove that the witness' testimony was in every part the purest fabrication."

So much for "beyond a reasonable doubt."

"They're saying that actual innocence doesn't matter," Davis's sister Martina Correia told Democracy Now!

With Davis's execution previously hours away, more than 4,000 letters of support have been sent the Georgia parole board. Desmond Tutu, Harry Belafonte, and even William Sessions, the former head of the FBI, have spoken out against the execution. A number of jurors spoke before Georgia's clemency board this morning, saying that they would never have convicted Davis based on what is known now. And longtime civil rights leader Rep. John Lewis told the board: "If executing Troy Davis on the evidence we now have is the best our justice system can do, then that system is not worthy of the word justice."

Click here to voice your support for clemency in this case.

Call the Board of Pardons and Parole at (404) 657-9350.

Send an e-mail to: Clemency_Information@pap.state.a.us

Clinton and Obama Call to End Tax Breaks for Hedge Funders

Last Thursday, I pointed out that among the leading Presidential candidates only John Edwards had called for ending glaringly unfair tax breaks and loopholes for billionaire hedge funders and private equity managers.

When you look at the revenues desperately needed to fund healthcare, education, housing, infrastructure and support for returning veterans, it seemed high time that Democratic Presidential frontrunners took a stand on what should be the no-brainer issue of tax fairness and sound tax policy.

By Friday, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama had seen the light. They joined Edwards in calling for cracking down on a tax loophole that allows hedge funders and private equity managers to get away with paying dramatically lower tax rates on their income than those paid by average working Americans. At a rally in Keene, New Hampshire on Friday, Clinton denounced this "glaring inequality." That same day, Obama's campaign issued a statement confirming that the Senator would co-sponsor legislation to raise the 15 percent tax rates on certain private and hedge fund partnerships that go public to the top corporate rate of 35 percent.

At a moment when hedge funds have emerged as among the largest contributors to Democratic campaigns, it's heartening to see the front-running candidates challenge the tax loopholes these institutions are receiving. It's still important, however, to check the fine print of their proposals, and I'll be doing that in an upcoming Editor's Cut. Will they, for example, ensure that all private equity and hedge fund partnerships--not just those going public--be taxed at the higher rate? Will they close the loophole on what is called "carried interest"--which essentially allows fund managers to get away with paying a 15 percent capital gains rate on their outsized performance fees? Will they increase tax revenue by capping offshore tax deferrals used by these investment structures?

We'll see. And while it's good to hear the populist talk on the campaign trail and to track the action in Congress--with various Committees proposing legislation to crack down on these tax breaks--it's crucial that we don't miss the bigger picture of how these titans of greed are gaming our system. That bigger picture was detailed in David Cay Johnston's stunning, must -read article in Friday's New York Times. Lee Sheppard, a leading tax lawyer who critiques deals for the trade journal Tax Notes, tells Johnston: "There is a disconnect between the tax debate in congress and how the tax system actually operates at the highest levels of the economy, These guys have figured out how to turn paying taxes into an annuity. What people don't realize is that the private equity managers, the investment bankers, all the financial intermediaries, are in control of their own taxation and so the debate in Washington about what tax rate to pay misses the big picture."

In an easy-to-follow chart, Johnston (the best journalist reporting today on our tax system) shows how Blackstone, one of the leading private equity firms, "has devised a way for its partners to effectively avoid paying taxes on $3.7 billion, the bulk of what it raised last month from selling shares to the public."

Moreover, Blackstone and its partners will get back about $200 million *more* in taxes than they paid initially. According to Johnston, other private equity funds that plan to go public soon include similar push-the envelope tax gimmicks in their preliminary deal documents. (And a report issued last week by the Congressional Joint Committee on Taxation shows that such deals have been done at other companies.) Such "strategies" are so deviously rapacious that even a usually-cautious Democrat like Max Baucus, Chair of the Senate's Finance Committee, was moved to speak out on Friday: "The tax code is a road map for law-abiding citizens and businesses to pay what they fairly owe, not an obstacle course to be gamed and gotten around." Baucus also promised that the arrangement was already under review as part of a general look at issues surrounding private equity and similar investment structures.

But we need tougher steps. Here's a modest proposal. Let's fight for strong legislation, in the short-term, to crack down on the tax loopholes that loot our country's revenue and privilege the richest among us. Let's get legislation to end arrangements like Blackstone's--which game the system and expose these titans of greed for what they are. But let's also pressure the Democratic Congress to create a Special Committee on Taxation with a mandate to hold investigations (with subpoena power) into every aspect of our tax system, with a special focus on gimmicks benefiting private equity and hedge fund firms. The larger goal: to radically overhaul our tax system so it supports, not subverts, fairness, justice and the common good. Without radical reform of our rigged tax system, working people in this country will never get a fair break.