O.K., so can we just admit that when it comes to redistricting – the processby which politicians define the legislative branch of the federal government– there are few if any limits on partisan power grabs?
That certainly seems to be the signal from the U.S. Supreme Court, which hasruled that disgraced former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and his henchmenin the Texas legislature were fully within their rights to radically alterthe maps of the state's U.S. House districts in order to solidify Republicancontrol of the U.S. House of Representatives.
The redistricting of congressional districts – a process traditionallycarried out once every ten years by state legislators, who are supposed touse fresh Census data to assure that all of state's districts have similarpopulations – is the single most powerful tool by which the make up of theU.S. House of Representatives is determined. By gerrymandering districts togive advantages to incumbents from one party or another, legislators haveover the years made most House elections irrelevant. Even a well-fundedchallenger with the issues on his or her side cannot upset an incumbent whohas been given a district with favorable lines. As a result, in any givenelection year, only a few dozen of the nation's 435 House districts seecompetitive contests.
As bad as the circumstance was, in 2003, DeLay made things dramaticallyworse. After using his national contacts to raise the money to putRepublicans in charge of the state legislature in 2002, he had his allies inAustin radically redraw the state's congressional map with the expresspurpose of defeating Democratic incumbents and electing more Republicans.
It worked. Republicans picked up six Texas congressional seats in 2004.
Democrats challenged the redistricting, but the court's ruling has placed astamp of approval on DeLay's map – with one minor objection – and assuredthat the gains Republican gains engineered by DeLay will be retained.
But the importance of the 7-2 Supreme Court decision issued Wednesday goes far beyond Texas.
Three dangerous precedents have been set:
• The court has stated that the map DeLay's produced did not represent an"unconstitutional political gerrymander" of the state's district lines.Since it would be difficult to imagine a more politically-motivated map, thecourt has effectively said that partisans can draw maps that suit theirpolitical purposes without fear of intervention or objection by the courts.While some analysts interpret a line from a previous court ruling assuggesting that critics of a redistricting map could come up with a"reliable standard" for challenging a map, if such a standard could not beapplied to the DeLay map it is hard to say where it would ever be viable.
• The court has upheld the right of states to change their congressionaldistrict boundaries more frequently than once every ten years -- followingthe completion of a U.S. Census. – which is the traditional standard. Whatthis means is that, when control of a state legislature shifts, so too couldthe state's congressional district lines.
• The court has held that there is "nothing inherently suspect about alegislature's decision to replace mid-decade a court-ordered plan with oneof its own." Thus, court-ordered plans – which are usually the fairest tovoters, in that they tend to set up more competitive districts – can bereplaced by legislators who don't like them. This is a hugely significantdevelopment, in that it effectively removes the fall-back position that goodgovernment groups have used when challenging legislative gerrymandering.Foes of a particular map might get it thrown out by the courts, and theymight even get a panel of judges to draw a new map, but there is no longerany certainty that the new map will stand.
The court did rule that the lines of one Texas district will need to be redrawn because DeLay and his minions moved 100,000 Hispanic voters out of the southwest Texas 23rd District in order to protect a Republican incumbent, Henry Bonilla, politically. The court determined that move to undercut the influence of Hispanic voters was a violation of the Voting Rights Act. But, notably, the four most conservative justices on the court opposed even that determination.
Anyone who was looking to the Supreme Court to clean up the redistricting process and to provide for competitive elections is making a mistake. As Rob Richie, executive director of the Center for Voting and Democracy says, "If we're really concerned about fair elections, we have stop counting on the courts and start looking for political solutions."
In the short-term, Richie says, Congress should set national standards for redistricting. "Congress could establish standards for transparency -- sunshine-on-the-process standards that could be defined so that redistricting can't be done behind closed doors. A second step could be to set guidelines for when you can and cannot do redistricting. That would address some of the concerns about the court's ruling."
In the long-term, Richie says that reformers should begin pushing from a proportional representation system that might see three members of Congress elected from larger, more competitive districts using an instant-runoff voting model.
"If you are concerned about what the court ruling has done, there are immediate steps that can be taken," says Richie. "But what we need to do is dig in to really reform how elections for Congress are conducted."
Last year, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) began investigating one of the nation's largest hedge funds, Pequot Capitol Management, for possible insider trading. Up until last summer, the inquiry was headed by SEC lawyer Gary Aguirre.
His investigation proceeded smoothly, Aguirre claims, until he asked for testimony from former Pequot chairman and Morgan Stanley CEO, John Mack, a top Bush donor whom Aguirre's supervisor said had "powerful political connections."
Bush accepted more money from Wall Street than any other industry for his re-election campaign and Mack was one of nine Wall Street "Rangers" who raised $200,000 for W.
Aguirre's supervisors blocked Mack's testimony and fired Aguirre on September 1, only 11 days after he received a pay increase and was praised by his boss.
"His efforts have uncovered evidence of potential insider trading and possible manipulative trading by the fund," wrote his supervisor, Robert Hanson. "He has consistently gone the extra mile, and then some."
Pequet purchased $44 million of stock in a company, Heller Financial, a day before it was bought out by General Electric. The day of the buyout's announcement, Heller's stock price jumped 50 percent. Aguirre suspected Mack tipped Pequet off.
After supervisors blocked Aguirre from questioning Mack, he sent 30 complaints to SEC higher-ups, including SEC Chairman Chris Cox.
"I am compelled to write to you today, my last day with the Commission, out of a sense of duty to the Commission's mission--to maintain the integrity of financial markets and to protect the investor," Aguirre wrote to Cox. "Unfortunately, my supervisors--as far up the chain as I can see--have lost sight of that mission in the above manner."
Upon his dismissal, Aguirre described his allegations in an 18-page letter sent to Senators Chuck Hagel and Chris Dodd and the chairman of the Senate Banking and Finance Committees.
"Aguirre wrote to Hagel and Dodd that the SEC halted the investigation only a short while after having said that the evidence should be presented to federal prosecutors for a possible criminal investigation," Reuters reported.
"Those details are definitely disconcerting," former SEC Chairman Harvey Pitt told CNBC. "The SEC and the inspector general will want to look into that. There's no question that these developments are troubling."
Aguirre testified on Capitol Hill this morning. Both the Senate Banking and Finance Committees have asked the SEC to launch an internal investigation. As Aguirre writes in his letter, "It is not surprising that the US Office of Management and Budget gave SEC enforcement its lowest performance assessment: 'Results Not Demonstrated.'"
Representative Peter King – and now President Bush – are demonizing the New York Times and threatening to prosecute the paper for its story on a secret money monitoring program. This attack is part of a broader, undeclared war on the media intended to intimidate journalists from doing their jobs.
As I wrote earlier this month, even the former chief spokesman for Attorney General John Ashcroft characterized the actions of Alberto Gonzales in threatening reporters as "…the most reckless abuse of power I have seen in years."
This very abuse demonstrates that the need for an independent media is greater now than ever before. Sure, there is a balance to be struck between security and liberty. But that balance is gone – thanks to a Bush administration that has displayed reckless contempt for the media, for the Constitution, and for our Bill of Rights.
A free press is the cornerstone of a vibrant democracy – our system of checks and balances – holding accountable those who would abuse power at the expense of citizens and the public interest. If ever we've witnessed Executive Power run amok, now is that time. And since this Republican Congress has abdicated its oversight responsibilities it's up to the media to fill that void. As Matt Rothschild wrote in his blog for The Progressive, "What King, Cheney, Bush, Gonzales, and many rightwing pundits don't seem to appreciate is that we, the American people, need to have a free press to check the excesses of government."
Stories on money tracking also appeared in the Wall Street Journal and Los Angeles Times last week. But King's ire is focused on the New York Times. Why? When I debated him on MSNBC's Scarborough Country Monday night, he called the paper "a recidivist" because of its previous important (and Pulitzer-prize winning) report exposing domestic surveillance.
And so this administration and its allies are once again doing what they do best: labeling those they believe are interfering with their ability to escape accountability and oversight as "disgraceful," "treasonous," and "damaging."
Right pejoratives, wrong targets.
Wow! Is it an election year already?
It must be because Republican leaders in the U.S. Senate have initiated the debate over amending the Constitution to ban flag desecration that always marks the opening of the political season.
Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Arlen Specter, the Pennsylvania Republican who sometimes lapses into sanity, was having a bad day Monday when he led the committee to a 10-7 vote to add this line to the Constitution: "The Congress shall have power to prohibit the physical desecration of the flag of the United States."
The division was almost along party lines. Nine Republicans and California Democrat Dianne Feinstein, a frequent disappointment when it comes to Constitutional matters, voted for the amendment. Seven Democrats opposed it, including Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy, the committee's ranking Democrat, and Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold, the ranking Democrat on the Constitution subcommittee.
When the full Senate took up the issue today, the amendment failed by one vote. It needed 67 votes to pass. It got 66.
But that won't stop Republican strategists from plotting fall campaigns based on empty rhetoric about how the amendment is needed to "support the troops" or to "honor those who fought for freedom."
But what do prominent people who fought in past wars actually have to say about the amendment?
The most decorated war veteran in the Senate, Hawaii Democrat Dan Inouye opposed the amendment. "This objectionable expression is obscene, it is painful, it is unpatriotic," Inouye said of flag burning. "But, the winner of the Medal of Honor for his service in World War II, told the Senate, "I believe Americans gave their lives in many wars to make certain all Americans have a right to express themselves, even those who harbor hateful thoughts."
Inouye was hardly alone in that sentiment.
"The First Amendment exists to insure that freedom of speech and expression applies not just to that with which we agree or disagree, but also that which we find outrageous," explained former Secretary of State and former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell, in his classic statement of opposition to attempts to craft a "flag-burning" amendment. "I would not amend that great shield of democracy to hammer a few miscreants. The flag will be flying proudly long after they have slunk away."
Former U.S. Senator John Glenn, a World War II Marine Corps veteran and space-program hero, shares the view that it is not necessary to alter the Constitution. "Those who have made the ultimate sacrifice, who died following that banner, did not give up their lives for a red, white and blue piece of cloth," said Glenn. "They died because they went into harm's way, representing this country and because of their allegiance to the values, the rights and principles represented by that flag and to the Republic for which it stands.
Lawrence J. Korb, a Vietnam veteran and top aide in Ronald Reagan's Department of Defense, said, "(During) my years of military and civilian service during the cold war, I believed I was working to uphold democracy against the totalitarianism of Soviet Communism expansionism. I did not believe then, nor do I believe now, that I was defending just a piece of geography, but a way of life. If this amendment becomes a part of our Constitution, this way of life will be diminished. America will be less free and more like the former Soviet Union and present-day China.
James Warner, a former prisoner of war and domestic policy adviser to President Reagan, argued against the proposed amendment, saying, "People are born free. It says that in the Declaration of Independence. They have a right to express their opinions, even if I don't like the opinions they express or the means by which they express it. They have a right to say it, even if those opinions are incoherent."
Luckily, before they voted, a good many senators considered the words of these veterans, and of Gary May, the chairman the national group Veterans Defending the Bill of Rights, who said. "I lost both of my legs in combat while serving in the U.S. Marine Corps in Vietnam. I challenge anyone to find someone who loves this country, its people and what it stands for more than I. It offends me when I see the flag burned or treated disrespectfully. But, as offensive and painful as this is, I still believe that those dissenting voices need to be heard."
"This country is unique and special because the minority, the unpopular, the dissident also have a voice," adds May. "The freedom of expression, even when it hurts the most, is the truest test of our dedication to the principles that our flag represents."
Hopefully, as the fall campaign season gears up, voters will listen, as well, to the veterans who recall what they were really fighting for.
The House Appropriations Committee actually did pass an amendment to a labor and health spending bill by Steny Hoyer and George Miller on June 13 to raise the minimum wage to $7.25 an hour. Almost immediately, the Republican leadership shelved the bill indefinitely.
The next week, Hoyer offered the minimum wage amendment to a different spending bill. Of the seven Republicans who initially voted with Hoyer the week prior, five switched their votes and two, Reps. John Sweeney and Jo Ann Emerson, walked out of the room, missing the vote.
Democrats tried again to force a floor vote on the minimum wage, but the House Rules Committee blocked the amendment from being considered last night.
Has there ever been a better illustration of just how out of touch this Republican Congress is? Apparently Congress is too busy cutting the estate tax, banning flag-burning and shelving the Voting Rights Act to bother caring about working Americans.
The Senate has been no better. Last week the Senate voted down a raise, 52-46, eight short of the 60 needed. It was the eleventh time since 1998 that Senate Republicans have blocked a pay increase. Lawmaker annual pay has risen $30,000 since that time.
The minimum wage has been stuck at a paltry $5.15 an hour for the past nine years. That amounts to $10,712 a year. I'd like to see a Congressman or Senator survive on that.
In January, the annual Senate salary will rise to $170,000. Of course, many Senators are already millionaires, so that salary is really just a nice bonus.
According to the New York Times, the top 10 percent of society have a greater share of wealth that at any time since World War II. This Congress and President, more than any other before them, would truly make Herbert Hoover proud.
In a democracy, the first responsibility of a journalist is to get accurate information about what the government is doing to the people so that they can make appropriate decisions about what is done in their name. That's why the founders put an unequivocal freedom-of-the-press protection in the First Amendment to the Constitution, and its why Thomas Jefferson famously declared, "The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter."
Of course, there have been some limits on what information journalists share with the citizenry. It is generally agreed, for instance, that reporters ought not report in too much detail on troop movements in wartime, as the publication of such information could endanger soldiers and undermine military objectives.
So when the Washington press corps began reporting this week on leaked information about planning by U.S. commanders in Iraq to withdraw two of the 14 combat brigades stationed in that country by September of this year, it would not have been surprising if the stories had raised eyebrows among the more sensitive players in the Bush administration.
While this is hardly a classic example of "reporting on troop movements," it is an instance where the media is getting into quite a bit of detail about where U.S. troops will be positioned in the none-too-distant future. As an example, television networks are showing maps of the regions of Iraq from which U.S. troops might exit in relatively short order.
So what has been the reaction of a White House that is known to be on edge about leaks to leaks regarding the deployment of U.S. troops in coming months?
President Bush and White House Press Secretary Tony Snow have both ruminated on the rumors in some detail. Each has suggested that no decision has yet been made, and they have even detailed the standards that are being used to come to decisions about withdrawal.
The conversations have been easy going and White House reporters have felt no presidential fury.
Contrast that reaction to the response by the president, his aides and allies to reports in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the Wall Street Journal that the president has authorized federal agencies to monitor the banking transactions of private citizens.
Ostensibly, the monitoring is intended to track transfers of money by supposed terrorists. But the program, like many of the administration's other moves to monitor the conversations and business dealings of private individuals, has been implemented in secret, without the subpoenas that are traditionally required for such reviews, and in a manner designed to avoid the sort of independent governmental oversight that is supposed to prevent abuse.
Now, it would be ridiculous to think that Osama bin Laden or anyone else associated with al Qaeda would be naïve enough to think that they could transfer large amounts of money through regular banking channels without being found out. So the revelation of the monitoring could hardly be called a threat to the "war on terror" – at least, not by anyone who knows anything about dealing with terrorist networks.
Yet, President Bush went ballistic about reporting on the monitoring, telling White House reporters, "The disclosure of this program is disgraceful. We're at war with a bunch of people who want to hurt the United States of America. And for people to leak that program and for a newspaper to publish it does great harm to the United States of America."
Vice President Cheney was even blunter, saying, "Some of the press, particularly the New York Times, have made the job of defending against further terrorist attacks more difficult by insisting on publishing detailed information about vital national security programs."
Bush allies in Congress have even called for the prosecution of the New York Times for revealing to Americans the extent to which they are being spied upon.
So why is the Bush administration so freaked out about a leak regarding a spying program that could not possibly have come as news to any terrorists but that certainly might interest average Americans? And why isn't the president concerned about leaks regarding specific redeployments of troops in the near future?
There's no mystery.
The leak about spying on bank records will feed concerns about the extent that this administration has engaged in spying on citizens. That could be politically damaging.
On the other hand, the leak about planning for troop deployments – coming at a time when the majority of Americans say they want to see a plan for getting the U.S. out of Iraq – eases the political pressure on the president and his Republican allies.
What's the bottom line? The cynical Bush White House has always seen the "war on terror" as a political tool. The president and his allies – heeding the advice of White House political czar Karl Rove – regularly tailor their responses to new developments to benefit their domestic political fortunes while undermining the prospects of their political foes.
Leaks about plans for troop redeployment are fine with the president because they could help him and his congressional allies politically.
Leaks about the administration spying on citizens, on the other hand, are "disgraceful" because they could cause the president and his Republicans acolytes political harm.
The last post I wrote about the estate tax was followed by a lively comment thread arguing the merits and meaning of a regulated economy. Even more importantly, it was also followed by a June 8 Senate vote (57 to 41) against permanent estate tax repeal. That was an important victory. But, somehow, there's going to soon be another vote on the estate tax. ("Like the ghoul in the horror movie that refuses to die," the Washington Post said.) Last week the House approved a proposal to sharply cut the estate tax that will cost roughly 75 percent as much as full repeal. The Senate is expected to vote on it this week, maybe even today.
According to experts, the vote should be extremely close. But the fact is that gutting the nation's most progressive tax would benefit less than one half of one percent of the country and would subtract, according to United For a Fair Economy (UFE), roughly 833 billion dollars from government coffers over the next decade. At a time of raging deficits and social spending cuts, it's the worst time imaginable to contemplate something like estate tax repeal. But then, as the New York Times editorialized, "The goal is not to pass good legislation, but to get this top priority for big-shot constituents nailed into law before the November elections produce a legislature that's more responsible on fiscal matters."
UFE, which is the group that discovered that 18 families worth a total of $185 billion have financed and coordinated the repeal campaign, sees Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray as the two key swing votes. Both voted against repeal in the last vote but they're apparently getting leaned on hard this time around. So UFE is urging people to contact Cantwell and Murray (especially Washingtonians) and implore them to hold firm against the moneyed interests seeking to concentrate wealth into even fewer hands. Ask them to oppose another huge tax break for multi-millionaires while the rest of the country suffers from breakdowns in infrastructure, housing and healthcare.
Here's UFE's suggested script:
"Don't cut the estate tax. Please vote ‘no' on the motion to proceed with consideration of HR 5638, and any other votes that sharply reduce the estate tax. And thank you for voting against repeal of the estate tax." Add a personal message about who you are and why you oppose cutting the estate tax, such as, "I am a small business person, and it is a myth that the estate tax hurts small businesses," or "I am wealthy and will pay this tax, and I believe it's an important part of our progressive tax system." Leave a full message and your number if you do not reach the staffperson.
**Call Senator Cantwell's DC office, 202-224-3441. Leave a short message about supporting the estate tax with the front desk, then ask to speak with Rachel Nuzum, the Leg. Asst. on Taxes. If you do not talk with her, please send one email with your support to michael_Meehan@cantwell.senate.gov, email@example.com, and firstname.lastname@example.org.
**Call Senator Murray's DC office, 202-224-2621. Leave a short message about supporting the estate tax with the front desk, then ask to speak with Josh Jacobs, the Leg. Asst. on Taxes. If you do not talk with him, please send one email with your support to email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, and joshua_Jacobs@murray.senate.gov.
Representative Walter Jones was out of place when he sat down at the dais in a committee room in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Monday. He had come to participate in an unofficial hearing being held by the Senate Democratic Policy Committee. And Jones is neither a Senator nor a Democrat. He is a hawkish Republican from North Carolina. But he asked one of the most poignant questions of the afternoon.
Before him were a panel of veterans of the intelligence wars that had raged before the invasion of Iraq: retired Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff of Secretary of State Colin Powell; Paul Pillar, former national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia; Carl Ford, former assistant secretary of state for intelligence and research; and Wayne White, a former Iraq analyst at the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research.
Each man had offered an explanation of what had gone wrong with the prewar intelligence, and generally they excoriated the Bush administration. Wilkerson noted that "our national leaders had used intelligence in a careless manner and that there should be "some kind of accountability" for that. Pillar accused the Bush White House of having turned the "textbook model of intelligence-policy relations...upside down." He explained: "Instead of intelligence being used to inform policy, it was used primarily to justify a decision already made." Ford blasted the entire intelligence community for turning out lousy analysis. He maintained that "we" got the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq's WMD "wrong because we aren't very good at analysis....Unfortunately it represents one of our better analytical efforts." And White said that policymakers--including Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Condoleezza Rice--routinely "turned a blind eye to intelligence inconsistent with their Middle East agenda."
The witnesses went over many of the known horror stories of the prewar intelligence battles: the aluminum tubes cited by the White House as proof Saddam Hussein was developing nuclear weapons (which actually were for rocket launchers); the mobile biological weapons labs (which actually were for producing hydrogen for weather balloons); Saddam's alleged training of al Qaeda in biological and chemical weapons (which was sourced to an al Qaeda commander who recanted his story).
So after all this, Representative Jones, who had voted to grant Bush the authority to invade Iraq, had a question. He noted that "my heart has ached ever since I found out that the intelligence...was flawed and possibly manipulated." He said that he had written letters to relatives of every American soldier who has died in Iraq--8000 letters so far. "What perplexes me," he said, "is how in the world could [intelligence] professionals see what was happening and nobody speak out?"
It was an important question. Within the intelligence community, there were professionals who knew that critical parts of the Bush administration's case for war--which relied primarily on the argument that Saddam posed a direct WMD threat to the United States--had serious holes. Those who dissented internally did not go public--they worked within the system. But the system did not work. The White House made certain not to pay attention to any of the dissents, and it did not share the disputes with the voters. Why had the entire intelligence community allowed Bush and his aides to get away with this?
The panelists did not get a chance to respond to Jones, for he kept on talking--right over that query--and he segued to another subject, asking how it could be that the neoconservative hawks in the Bush administration gained so much power and had more influence than "you, the professionals."
Wilkerson fielded the question, first noting that as a Republican he was "embarrassed" that Jones was the only GOPer to attend the hearing (which was open to legislators of both parties). Then Wilkerson replied, "I'll answer you with three words: the vice president." That seemed to satisfy Jones. Neither he nor Wilkerson mentioned the two-word answer: the president.
The hearing--chaired by Senator Byron Dorgan--was the Senate Democrats' effort to examine an issue that the Republican-controlled Congress has so far ignored: how the White House handled and represented the prewar intelligence. The House and Senate intelligence committees did investigate the quality of the prewar intelligence and slammed the intelligence community for botching much of it. But they have not yet confronted how Bush officials characterized the intelligence and used it to promote a war. The Senate intelligence committee was supposed to probe this topic and release a report, but it has dragged its heels and watered down its investigation by tacking on an examination of statements made by Democrats about Iraq and WMDs going back to the early 1990s. The Republicans' obvious gotcha goal is to show that Democrats, just like Bush and his advisers, had, at various times, said that they believed that Iraq had WMDs. But no Democrat launched a war on such assertions.
The Bush administration overstated the overstated intelligence--on Iraq's WMDs and its supposed ties to al Qaeda. Yet every investigation to date has ducked the issue. The Senate Democrats cannot conduct a full-fledged investigation on their own. For instance, they could not compel administration officials to attend this hearing. They could not subpoena records. The most they could do is invite those willing to appear and make a point.
The points were sharply made. Wilkerson called Powell's now-infamous presentation to the UN Security Council--in which practically everything Powell asserted was wrong--"the lowest point of my professional life." Pillar noted that the intelligence community "never judged that there was anything close to an alliance" between Iraq and al Qaeda. Ford bemoaned that his own analysts at the State Department failed to persuade Powell not to use the aluminum tubes charge in his UN speech.
There were revealing moments at the event. But the press attendance was not great. After all, the session could be dismissed as not a real hearing. Only three Democratic senators were there for most of it (Dorgan, Jeff Bingaman, and Dianne Feinstein). And it is three years too late. The war happened. And now the White House and its allies dismiss talk of how the war started as unproductive given the present-day challenges. But as Wilkerson noted, accountability still awaits those who called it wrong--and those who misused the intelligence.
The Washington Post has a riveting article today on the death of legislative reform. The House and Senate haven't even tried to reconcile the sham lobbying "reform" bill approved by both chambers this Spring. Rampant corruption seems to have had little effect on the behavior in Washington.
"There's a belief among my colleagues that our constituents are not concerned," said John McCain.
Apparently, neither is the Supreme Court. Today the nation's highest court overturned a Vermont law mandating strict caps on the amount of money politicians can spend and raise during a campaign. The Vermont law--along with clean money initiatives in Arizona and Maine--could have been a model for breaking the hold of money on politics.
But by a verdict of 6-3, the Supreme Court further set back the cause of reform.
"The findings made by the Vermont legislature on the pernicious effect of the nonstop pursuit of money are significant," Justice David Souter wrote in a dissenting opinion.
"I am firmly persuaded that the Framers would have been appalled by the impact of modern fundraising practices on the ability of elected officials to perform their public responsibilities," added Justice John Paul Stevens, concurring with Souter.
Souter and Stevens rightly noted that what ails our contemporary politics can be summed up in one word: money. The solution is publicly financed elections, which 74 percent of voters support, according a new poll released by Public Campaign.
According to Lake Research Partners and Bellwether Research, "82 percent of voters believe it is likely, as a result of publicly financed elections, that candidates will win on their ideas, not because of the money they raise, and 81% believe it is likely politicians will be more accountable to voters instead of large contributors."
Today, the will of the people was of little concern to the Roberts court.
"People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public..." wrote Adam Smith in 1776. Four new class action suits allege that folks running hospitals are doing just that: conspiring to depress nurses' wages, even though, as I've written before, raising them could help address a nurse shortage which threatens public health.
Filed yesterday in Albany, Chicago, Memphis and San Antonio, the suits allege that hospitals in those cities are exchanging detailed information about nurses' pay, so that each can keep labor costs low without suffering a competitive disadvantage. A lead lawyer on the suit, Dan Small of Cohen, Milstein, Hausfeld and Toll (a large corporate firm whose deep pockets are backing the sex discrimination suit against Wal-Mart) tells me that the suits are based on interviews with current and former employees of these hospitals, who were privy to meetings and discussions in which pay information was shared.
In each of these markets, raising the wages could have helped to alleviate a nurse shortage. Instead, understaffing and low pay is leading to widespread burnout. Yesterday I spoke with one of the named plaintiffs, Conise Dillard, of Cordova, Tennessee, an RN who worked for Baptist Memorial Hospital in Memphis. Conise painted a disturbing picture of the consequences of a nursing shortage. She worked the night shift, handling thirteen patients at a time all by herself, because "the hospital was not able to send us more nurses." Conise explained that more patients are admitted during the night, more die during the night, and pain levels are higher, so the understaffing made it almost impossible to adequately care for everyone. "I'd be crying my eyes out at the end of my shift," she recalls. With so many patients, if one needs all your attention, "you just have to pray that the others are holding their own." Conise adds, "Sometimes you would have a patient go, expire, and you didn't anticipate it because you have so many."
The lawsuits are based in part on evidence uncovered by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU)'s Nurse Alliance. Given the current political climate, no one wants to say publicly that the legal actions are part of an organizing strategy, but let's hope that nurses in these cities do organize for better pay and conditions.
With three children, Conise did need to make more money. (Memphis hospitals are charged with conspiring to underpay nurses about $14,000 yearly.) But she also quit her hospital job because understaffing made it impossible to care for sick people, which she feels is her "calling." Her description of her night shift should strike fear into the heart of anyone who might ever find themselves in a hospital bed. That is to say, all of us.