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No Reform in Lobbying Reform

What a coincidence: the Senate is set to wrap up its debate on lobbying reform the same day Jack Abramoff is sentenced in Florida on conspiracy and wire fraud charges.

There was a moment, after Abramoff's guilty plea in January, when real reform seemed possible. Everything was on the table, anxious leaders of both parties declared. Everyone wanted to be a reformer. No more.

New Majority Leader John Boehner has nixed the efforts of Dennis Hastert and David Dreier in the House. The Democratic plan stands no chance of passing a Republican Congress. And the Senate has failed to adopt or even consider any of the reforms that would actually make a difference: publicly financed elections, an independent ethics enforcement agency with teeth, a ban on lobbyist fundraising.

"Reform legislation is now crippled," Public Citizen declared yesterday.

The opportunities for overhaul do not appear often. The last time Congress took up lobbying was 1995. Since then the profession has exploded, its influence at an all-time high. See "Billions for Big Oil."

The American people want a dramatic cleanup, as I wrote a few months back:

 

Ninety percent of respondents in a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll say it should be illegal for lobbyists to give members of Congress gifts, trips or other things of value. More than two-thirds of the public don't want lobbyists giving campaign contributions to Congressmen or Congressional candidates. A majority believe lobbyists shouldn't organize fundraisers on a candidate's behalf.

 

Tough luck. Banning gifts and meals is enough for most Senators. Refuse a hamburger and call it a day. Abramoff is all but forgotten in Washington--that is, until another indictment hits the front page.

UPDATE: The legislation passed this afternoon 90-8. I'm assuming Sens. McCain, Graham, Obama, Feingold and Kerry voted against the bill because it was too weak. Sens. Coburn, Inhofe and DeMint presumably voted nay because they oppose the entire concept of lobbying reform.

The Testing Bubble Bursts

Looks like the $2.3 billion standardized testing industry forgot to devise a much needed self-examination.

Two weeks ago, after two students paid fees to have their SATs rescored by hand, it was discovered that 4,000 students had received scores that were incorrectly low. A week later, the College Board announced that another batch of 1,600 exams had to be rescanned.The Washington Post now reports that another 27,000 exams still need to be rechecked.

Also two weeks ago, CTB/McGraw-Hill acknowledged that questions from sample tests were mistakenly placed on the actual exam used by the NCLB regime to assess schools and students for 400,000 7th & 8th graders in New York.

And the banner month for the industry ended with the Educational Testing Service reaching an $11 million settlement with 27,000 people who were wrongly scored on their teacher certification exams, including 4,100 who were failed incorrectly.

As Robert Schaeffer, Public Education Director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing (FairTest) puts it: "If you're waiting for the other shoe to drop – this is more like a centipede."

The testing establishment has predictably responded with calls for more oversight, as reported by Karen Arenson in the New York Times.

"We need accountability," said George Madaus of the Center for the Study of Testing, Evaluation and Educational Policy.

"It's pretty clear, I guess, that the quality control issues need to be looked at again," said College Board advisory committee member, Dr. Robert Linn.

"We need accuracy and security and all these things," added New York State senator Kenneth LaValle.

But are we even asking the right questions about standardized testing? For starters, consider how dramatically standardized testing has been transformed of late.

Diane Ravitch writes in The Chronicle of Higher Education that until recently high school teachers and college professors wrote, graded, and periodically revised the tests. Now state and federal governments under bureaucratic pressures set and change the standards regularly rather than professional educators.

Ken Himmelman, Dean of Admissions at Bennington College, also notes a contemporary economic bias: "The college board was designed to level the playing field in 1900. But the more important the test has become, the more wealthier students and schools pay to prepare for it…so now it just reinforces the economic divide."

Schaeffer concurs with this assessment, noting that some families pay as much as $20,000 for individual testing coaches.

Educators describe the pressures surrounding the tests as "hysteria," "a frenzy," and "a vicious circle." Parents want their kids to attend schools that rank highly in magazines like the U.S. News and World Report. The magazines use test scores to determine the rankings. And schools want higher scores in order to attain a higher ranking.

Colman McCarthy reports on a similar phenomena in the lower grades fostered by the NCLB regime. "Most everyone is fearful of someone in power right above," McCarthy writes in the Washington Post. "Students worry about teachers, teachers worry about principals, principals worry about school boards, school boards worry about politicians, and politicians worry about the voters…a deviator must ask: Will I be whacked by that power-wielder just above me? Caution reigns."

"No Child Left Behind is a classic example of testing abuse," Schaeffer says. "These standardized tests are used to rate schools, fire people, transfer kids to other schools. The Joint Standards for Education and Psychological Measurements say no test should ever be used as the sole factor to make educational decisions but politicians and institutions are doing just that."

And with this omnipresence of fear the impact on learning is clear. McCarthy offers, "Tests represent fear-based learning….Desire-based learning happens when teachers deal in combustibles, when fires are lit and students burn to explore ideas that have nothing to do with what testocrats require."

Himmelman recognizes a similar loss, "Who is thinking about the student in this debate? Nobody. They're thinking about the business of higher education. That's the tragedy here. We need to be asking, ‘How do we teach people? How do we encourage thinking and learning?' And we're not doing that enough."

Bennington has decided to abandon the test score requirement beginning next year. "We want interesting kids who are engaged in what they are learning," Himmelman said.

There is reason to hope that Bennington is part of a growing trend. FairTest reports that in 1987, 51 schools did not require applicants to submit SAT scores. Now over 730 schools are test score-optional. These colleges emphasize factors such as high school academic record, essays, recommendations, personal interviews and student interests instead of standardized testing. Schaeffer anticipates that an additional 6 to 10 schools will soon announce that they are going this route as well.

"This is a wake-up call that we put far too much faith in these fallible tests," Schaeffer says. "They were never designed to make high-stake education decisions. The tests can never be fair, accurate, and precise enough to be used in that manner."

Maybe it's time more schools leave the $2.3 billion testing industry behind and move on from its fear-based, profit-driven, mind-closing culture.

The Soon-to-be-Forgotten Andrew Card

After Karen Hughes stepped down as a counselor to the president in 2002, White House chief of staff Andy Card, in a rare moment of candor, told Esquire: "She's leaving when the president has one of the highest approval ratings on record. From here, it can only go down. And when it does, you know who they're going to blame."

Then, Card tapped his chest and added, "They're gonna blame Andy Card!"

As it happens, Card was wrong.

No one blamed him. Few even remembered that he was, technically, in charge of managing the Bush White House.

Card will forever be remembered for one thing: Wandering into camera range and then whispering into the ear of President Bush that terrorists had attacked the United States -- and for not, apparently, imparting the information with sufficient force to get the most powerful man in the world to respond with anything more than a quizzical look for the seven agonizing minutes portrayed in Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9-11.

As Bill Maher has suggested: "Watergate was outrageous but it still did not carry the possibility of utter devastation, like a President's freezing at the very moment we needed his immediate focus on an attack on the United States."

Well, Card was the senior aide, who had been placed at the president's side by none other than Father-in-Chief George Herbert Walker Bush, in order to make sure that George II did not freeze at moments such as this. And he failed, miserably. Not only did Bush fail to respond to the whispered news that "America's under attack" for the seven minutes seen on screen, he then spent another twenty minutes posing for "photo-op" pictures afterward.

Bush has taken his share of criticism for fumbling the moment, and then for flying off around the country on a wild goose chase that took him to air bases further and further from where Dick Cheney was actually running things. But Card, as the man the Bush family had positioned to assure that the president didn't fall apart in just these circumstances, was the real fumbler. He did not get the president refocused, he did not rise to the challenge.

As a result, the president was not the president that day. Nora Ephron summed things up well when she wrote last year that, "[If] you remember September 11, 2001 -- and I'm sure you do -- the President had no idea what to do, but the Vice President did. The Vice President took over. He didn't even consult with the President. He put the President on Air Force One and the President spent the day flying from one airport to another, which was something that even the President eventually understood made him look as if he wasn't in charge."

"Cheney was the dominant figure on September 11," observed James Mann, the brilliant analyst of U.S. foreign policy and policy makers who serves as senior writer-in-residence at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Even wire service reports noted that dominance, with United Press International suggesting that it "reintroduced nagging questions about who was realy in charge in the Bush White House." Those questions grew louder after Cheney delivered a minute-by-minute account of the actions he took to secure the nation during an appearance the Sunday after the attacks on NBC's Meet the Press.

Presidential historian Douglas Brinkley summed up the point of that appearance in an interview with UPI: "It was Cheney telling the world, 'Don't worry about Shrub, I know what's going on.' "

The question that history will ask with regard to Card -- the only question -- is this: As the senior aide at Bush's side on the most significant day in recent American history, did he fail to get the president to focus on the crisis at hand? Or did he do what he was supposed to do: Get a weak and unprepared president out of the way so that the real boss could take charge?

That's a question for historians to ponder.

In the end, however, no one will spend too much time on Andy Card's role. He won't be blamed, as he once feared, for the decline in Bush's fortunes. His will be, by and large, the forgotten service of a man who managed a White House where powerful players -- Cheney, Donald Rumseld, Karl Rove -- constructed a presidency of their own design, while the elected commander-in-chief vacationed and exercised and generally ambled through history.

The truth is that Andy Card may well have failed not just his president but his country by allowing power and responsibility to drift so far from the hands of the elected president. But such failures are the stuff of footnotes and sidebars, not of the main storyline. Indeed, if Card is remembered at all by the great mass of Americans, it will be for that bit role in a Michael Moore film.

Card Folds, and Bush Draws to the Inside

The White House doesn't seem to understand the meaning of the term "fresh blood." It usually refers to new blood that is introduced into an anemic entity--not blood taken from one organ of an unhealthy body and placed in another organ of that unhealthy body.

But that's what the surgeons at the White House have done in the transplant operation that removed Andrew Card (a former lobbyist for the automobile industry) as White House chief of staff and replaced him with Joshua Bolten, the White House budget director. George W. Bush did not select someone who might have a slightly different perspective on his administration. Bolten has been in the White House since Bush was first inaugurated. Moreover, he has overseen one of the larger disasters of the Bush presidency: its fiscal policy. Here's how those radicals at The Washington Post editorial board recently described the situation:

President Bush has presided over a 46 percent increase in the federal debt, from about $5.6 trillion [to about $8.8 trillion]. By contrast, during President Bill Clinton's two terms, the debt grew from less than $4 trillion to $5.6 trillion, a 28 percent increase -- and during the last few years of his presidency, Mr. Clinton actually began to pay down the country's "real" debt....

Mr. Bush has managed to rack up more new debt during his five years in office than the entire debt amassed by the United States through 1988. And there is more to come: The president's budget envisions the debt rising to $11.5 trillion by 2011. This means that an increasing share of an increasingly tight budget must be devoted simply to paying interest -- an estimated $220 billion this fiscal year alone. Remember: This is the president who entered office promising to pay off $2 trillion in debt held by the public over the next decade.....

[A]s the debt ceiling approaches $9 trillion, it's time to pause and consider the unabashed recklessness of the Bush administration's fiscal policies and its unwillingness to alter its tax-cutting course to accommodate new budgetary realities. "Future generations shouldn't be forced to pay back money that we have borrowed," Mr. Bush said in March 2001. "We owe this kind of responsibility to our children and grandchildren." Where is that responsibility now?

Of course, Bush is most responsible for that lack of responsibility. But sharing the responsibility for being that irresponsible is Bolten. And his office has done its best to hide the true impact of Bush's budget decisions. So says the Center on Budget Policy and Priorities in its analysis of the White House's last proposed budget:

A standard part of the President's budget each year is a summary table that shows the impact of the Administration's proposed policies on the deficit. (See Table S-12 on page 364 of last year's budget.) This year, however, the Administration has eliminated that table from its budget publications, presumably to deflect attention from the deficit-increasing impact of its proposals.

Not just the liberals at CBPP believe Bolten's Office of Management and Budget at the White House has been dishonest. The centrist budget hawks of Concord Coalition have also complained:

Bush's budget fails to account for policies the Administration clearly and repeatedly has staked out as goals policies that would significantly increase the short-term and long-term deficit. In addition, the budget resorts to a familiar combination of unrealistic assumptions and scorekeeping gimmicks that understate likely expenses, overstate likely revenues and hide the costs of certain initiatives. Lastly, the budget's five-year window and limited goal of cutting the 2004 deficit in half by 2009 serve to divert attention from the fact that current policy is unsustainable over the long-term.

For weeks, Republicans and pundits have been moaning about the need for change at the White House. On Monday, Sally Quinn, the grand-dame of Georgetown, had an "essay" in The Washington Post that was an open letter to Laura Bush, calling on her to save her husband's presidency by forcing a shake-up at the White House. (The First Lady knows staff changes: she is on her second chief of staff, her second policy director, her second social director, and her third press secretary.) Quinn even mentioned bouncing Card--but in favor of some Washington poohbah with credibility on Capitol Hill and among the commentariat.

That's not Bolten. He is merely another Bush loyalist, whose stewardship of the administration's budget policy hardly inspires confidence in his integrity. Couldn't the White House get a better donor for the needed transfusion? I suppose David Gergen wasn't available. Fred Thompson is too busy making television shows and raising money for Scooter Libby's defense fund. And James Baker? Well, Bush the Younger may still be smarting over his dad's secretary of state's opposition to the invasion of Iraq.

Anyway, the problem at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is not who's managing the staff. The problem is the combination of policies, priorities and visions of the fellow who lives there. The mess in Iraq cannot be undone by better staff work. Nearly $12 trillion in debt cannot be erased by a more effective communications strategy. Bush cannot be removed from the bubble of his own policies--and certainly not by a Bush lieutenant. This staff change is not about new blood. It's just the recycling of thin blood already low on oxygen. And the patient remains the same.

So Much for Straight Talk

So much for "straight talk." If you needed any more proof that the maverick John McCain will run as the ultimate insider come 2008, scroll down.

McCain, February 28, 2000, Virginia Beach, Virginia:

 

I am a pro-life, pro-family fiscal conservative, an advocate of a strong defense, and yet Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell and a few Washington leaders of the pro-life movement call me an unacceptable presidential candidate. They distort my pro- life positions and smear the reputations of my supporters.

 

 

Why? Because I don't pander to them, because I don't ascribe to their failed philosophy that money is our message.

 

 

Neither party should be defined by pandering to the outer reaches of American politics and the agents of intolerance, whether they be Louis Farrakhan or Al Sharpton on the left, or Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell on the right.

 

Press release from Jerry Falwell's Liberty University, March 28, 2006:

 

American military hero and Arizona Sen. John McCain will deliver the Commencement message at Liberty University on May 13, at 9:30 a.m., in the Liberty University Vines Center.

 

 

While Sen. McCain and Liberty University Chancellor Jerry Falwell have had their share of political differences through the years, the two men share a common respect for each other and have become good friends in their efforts to preserve what they see as common values. This will mark his first ever appearance at Liberty University.

 

More from the Lynchburg, Virginia News & Advance:

 

Falwell said McCain's appearance at LU's graduation is another sign that McCain is wooing evangelical Christians.

 

 

"He is in the process of healing the breech with evangelical groups," Falwell said.

 

 

Falwell said McCain has expressed a willingness to support a Federal Marriage Amendment, an issue dear to conservative Christians.

 

Our cover story on McCain back in November showed him juggling images of Teddy Roosevelt and Falwell. The "agent of intolerance" has become his new best friend.

Breakthrough on Immigration Reform

As immigrant protests continued to ripple through the country on Monday--22,000 students walking out of classes just in LA County--the Republican-dominated Senate Judiciary Committee voted to approve sweeping and liberalized comprehensive immigration reform.

With three GOP Senators voting with Democrats, the key Senate panel approved the broad outlines of what's become known as the McCain-Kennedy bill.

The measure still faces a fierce and uphill battle on the Senate floor, with full debate scheduled for Tuesday. And approval of the measure pits the Senate directly against a starkly anti-immigrant House.

Monday's vote, nevertheless, registers as a historic victory for reform advocates who have been fighting against the hypocrisy and denial that have marked border and immigration policy for decades.

Read the whole story here.

I for Infantalization

You would think that V for Vendetta, a movie jam-packed with post-9/11 themes, deserved a serious response. Instead, some of the most prominent media outlets have chosen to insult anyone who might believe the film worthy of debate.

The New York Times' review opened with the line: "Thumb-suckers of the world unite." It concluded by wondering how anyone over the age of fourteen could find the movie subversive. David Denby in the New Yorker speculated that the movie would mainly appeal to "aging kids."

This infantilizing line of attack is sadly nothing new.

Those of us who objected to the results of the 2000 presidential election were told to, quote, "get over it." Those of us who were outraged by the outing of Valerie Plame were condescendingly told that this was "how the game is played." Those of us who question the continued occupation of Iraq are accused of being quitters or "cut-and-runners."

It never ceases to amaze me how desperate many members of the media are to appear cool, to show they "get it"--their eye-rolling cynicism masquerading as maturity. Government surveillance, torture, fear-mongering, media manipulation, corporate corruption--this is how the world works, they shrug.

Well, they may be comfortable in such a world. But for those of us who are not, V for Vendetta is a movie to savor.

A New Downing Street Memo

The British government memo on Iraq, reported in today's New York Times, is perhaps even more important than the Downing Street memo. The five-page memo--of a January 31, 2003 Oval Office meeting between Bush, Blair and six of their top advisers--reveals the Bush Administration's fierce determination to invade Iraq even without a second UN resolution, and even if international arms inspectors failed to find unconventional weapons. Indeed, confronted with the possibility of not finding any weapons before the planned invasion, Bush talks of ways to provoke a confrontation with Iraq, including, the Times reports, "a proposal to paint a US surveillance plane in the colors of the United Nations in hopes of drawing fire, or assassinating Mr. Hussein."

Reminiscent of the Downing Street Memo's famous line, David Manning, British Prime Minister Tony Blair's foreign policy adviser at the time, writes, "Our diplomatic strategy had to be arranged around the military planning,"

Bush's mendacity in taking America into this illegal, unprovoked catastrophe is already well known. But it's still horrifying--especially on a day when the US Ambassador to Iraq states that "More Iraqis are dying from the militia violence than from the terrorists"--to read Bush's arrogantly ignorant prediction that it is "unlikely there would be internecine warfare between the different religious and ethnic groups." (For the record, the British memo shows Blair agreed with Bush's assessment.)

Today, American troops are an occupying force, inside a civil war, inside a militia struggle.

It is time to get US forces out of this untenable position.

Fortunately, with virtually no political leadership, there is, as today's New York Times article reports a "deepening and hardening opposition to the war."

Effective, smart pressure--in the streets, at the ballot box this November, and beyond--must be brought to bear so that our 'leaders" in Washington listen to this growing, broad-based opposition.

Bernard-Henri Levy Live!

On behalf of all the angry Nation readers who protested Bernard-Henri Levy's "Letter to the American Left," I wish I had had a pie -- or at least Levy antagonist and pie-thrower Noel Godin in tow -- at Skidmore College's conference on "War, Evil, the End of History and America Now." The good folks at Salmagundi usually put on a good show, and this weekend was no exception. Bob Boyers brought historian Jackson Lears, poet Carolyn Forche, Jihad vs. McWorld author Benjamin Barber, "just war" theorist Jean Bethke Elshtain and Nation regulars Jonathan Schell and Michael Massing to reflect on the aforementioned themes. Too bad that the conversation was centered on the French buffoon in an expensive suit.

I'd never seen Levy in person before, though like most of you I found his writing vacuous, masturbatory hot air. I have to admit though that his keynote address was at least an amusing spectacle. His hair artfully askew, his English dramatically broken, Levy's most frequent words were "I" and "myself" and "my book" -- that is when he's wasn't referring to himself in the third person ("Bernard-Henri hates two things..."). His talk was mostly a self-hagiography and rehash of his book War, Evil and the End of History, and it was perversely satisfying to see his American interlocutors attempt to maintain civility while also upbraiding this self-styled Tocqueville in their midst. Lears objected to BHL's facile use of the word "evil" as akin to the neo-conservative expression "Islamo-fascism." Barber criticized BHL's evacuation of power and history from his classification of certain wars as "nihilistic, black holes of non-meaning." And even Elshtain -- whose latest book provides a morally bankrupt rationale for the Iraq War dressed up in ponderous and irrelevant philosophizing -- took Levy to task for the voyeuristic impulse of his reportage.

The most amusing, and in some ways most revealing, moment of the evening came, however, when BHL recapitulated his Nation article and excoriated U.S. left intellectuals for their impotence and docility. According to BHL, during the Vietnam War, America had a left intellectual class that mounted fervent, thoughtful and serious opposition to imperialism and war mongering -- unlike the present moment. Back then, BHL claimed "America had the kind of intellectual Martin Luther King...the writer Norman Mailer....and Jean Fondue."

"Jean Fondue?" I wondered. Who is this "Jean Fondue," and how come I haven't read her? About fifteen seconds later, the audience and I realized BHL was talking about Jane Fonda. Now I'm Kinda Fonda Jane myself, but I have to wonder: Does BHL admire and envy Fonda as an anti-war intellectual or as a the star of Barbarella?