Because of procedural rules, it usually takes 60 votes to pass even nominally controversial pieces of legislation in the US Senate. Democrats only have 50 votes, give or take Joe Lieberman. That means that Republicans can stall, block and "obstruct"--to borrow a phrase they repeatedly leveled against Democrats in the minority--pretty much anything they want to.
The man pulling the strings is Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. McConnell's kept a pretty low-profile over the years, mastering legislative minutiae and blocking any attempts to get big money out of politics. But now he's front and center--and Democrats and progressive groups intend to keep it that way. Their goal is to paint McConnell as lead obstructionist, blocking not only debate on the Iraq war--as he did a few weeks back--but also on populist priorities such as energy independence, cheaper drugs and student debt relief.
"He long ago became one of the legendary money grubbers in modern American politics," the Louisville Courier-Journal editorialized recently. "He spells it P-O-L-I-T-I-C-$."
Americans United for Change launched a "McConnell Watch" campaign this week, starting with a television ad lambasting the Senator's rosy view of the war in Iraq. For a long-time Senator and leader of his party, McConnell is surprisingly vulnerable. In the latest Survey USA poll, 49 percent of Kentuckians approve of the job he is doing, versus 43 percent who disapprove. He's not endangered, but he can't get too comfortable, either.
Democrats almost knocked off Kentucky Senator Jim Bunning in '04. They'll be gunning for McConnell in '08.
Gary Tyler, black, now aged 48, is serving a life prison sentence in the infamous State Penitentiary in Angola, Louisiana. He was convicted in 1975 for the murder of 13-year-old Timothy Weber, a white schoolboy who was shot during an attack by a white mob on a school bus filled with black students.
Tyler, who was 16 at the time of the incident, has consistently denied involvement in the crime. Since his trial, serious doubts have been raised about the evidence on which he was convicted, according to Amnesty International, which named him a prisoner of conscience in 1994 and which argues that Tyler was denied a fair trial and that racial prejudice played a major part in his prosecution. (Two months ago the human rights group renewed its call to the Louisiana authorities for a pardon to be granted Tyler.)
Tyler was tried by an all-white jury with members of the black community deliberately excluded from jury selection. The prosecution relied mainly on the testimony of one student, Nathalie Blanks, who was in the same bus with Tyler. She testified to having seen him fire the gun but after the trial she recanted her testimony. Other students who also testified against Tyler have later recanted, saying that they were coerced by the police to making the statements.
As Bob Herbert wrote in the first of a recent series of three New York Times' columns on Tyler, "That single shot in this rural town about 25 miles up the Mississippi River from New Orleans set in motion a tale of appalling injustice that has lasted to the present day." Herbert's reporting has helped revive interest in the case and and given the miscarriage of justice new visibility.
Building on this momentum, Nation sportswriter Dave Zirin recently contacted a range of people from the world of sports to ask if they would stand with Tyler at this critical time. Numerous athletes have joined their name to the cause, including NBA player Etan Thomas, boxer Ruben "Hurricane" Carter, olympic medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos and former major league pitchers Jim Bouton and Bill Lee.
How you can help:
**Download and distribute 'Time To Free Gary Tyler' flyers.
**Send a letter of support to Tyler. Here's his address: Gary Tyler # 84156, Louisiana State PenitentiaryASH-4, Angola, LA 70712.
**Spread the word about this travesty of justice. Click here to read and circulate background info on the case.
Kyle Sampson resigned as a loyal servant. Now the former chief of staff to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is taking issue with some of the key statements his boss has recently made.
In testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee today, Sampson contradicted Gonzales's claims that he was not directly involved in the firing of eight US attorneys.
"[I] was not involved in seeing any memos, was not involved in any discussions about what was going on," Gonzales told reporters on March 13.
Not true, Sampson says. "The Attorney General was aware of this process from the beginning," Sampson testified. "I don't think [the AG's statement] is entirely accurate...We did discuss it when he was Attorney-General designate...and when the process came to the conclusion in the fall of 2006."
Gonzales spokesman Tasia Scolinos told reporters on March 23: "He did not participate in the selection of US attorneys to be fired." Sampson's response: "That's not accurate." He confirmed that Gonzales appeared at a meeting on November 27 to discuss "US Attorney Appointments."
Sampson's recollection was that Gonzales spoke at that meeting. "He was there, at least for a portion of the meeting," he said. "It was in the Attorney General's conference room. At the close of the meeting, I followed the Attorney General into his office."
A third bone of contention: In his March press conference, Gonzales claimed that "information that he [Sampson] had not was shared with individuals within the department who would then be providing testimony and information to the Congress." But Sampson says he did fully brief Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty and Assistant Attorney General William Moschella, who now stand accused of misleading Congress for claiming that the Attorney firings were "performance-related."
Clearly there are major discrepancies here. Gonzales will have a lot of explaining to do when he testifies before Congress on April 17--if he lasts that long.
Last week, in a remarkable interview with the American Prospect magazine's Ezra Klein, SEIU president Andy Stern, normally one of the more articulate leaders of the American labor movement, was unable to form a single persuasive sentence on the subject of his recent partnership with Wal-Mart on health care policy reform. Klein pressed Stern pretty hard, asking what exactly Wal-Mart has committed to do, in exchange for all the positive publicity the company gets for working with unions on this issue. Stern hemmed and hawed and finally said that if the partnership doesn't work, he was "gonna eat a lotta crow." Looks like that feathery chow-down may occur sooner rather than later.
I've written before about Wal-Mart's strategy of buying off potential critics: African-Americans, community groups in cities where Wal-Mart's entry is politically contested, environmentalists and women's organizations. In this week's New Yorker magazine, Jeffrey Goldberg profiles Leslie Dach, Democratic consultant turned Wal-Mart spinmeister. Goldberg shows that this practice is a conscious and systematic plan, writing:
"Dach and Edelman have been innovators in their field. A press release issued in 2000 outlines a strategy that Dach has used repeatedly to good effect. "You've got an environmental disaster on your hands," the document reads. "Have you consulted with Greenpeace in developing your crisis response plan? Co-opting your would-be attackers may seem counterintuitive, but it makes sense when you consider that N.G.O.s (non-governmental organizations) are trusted by the public nearly two to one to 'do what's right' compared with government bodies, media organizations and corporations." The document goes on to describe Amnesty International, the Sierra Club, and the World Wildlife Fund as "brands" that the public believes "do what's right."
Edelman's co-option policy may already be on display at Wal-Mart. Greenpeace has talked with the company abou the issue of environmentally sound product packaging, and earlier this year Lee Scott joined Andy Stern, the leader of the Service Employees International Union, in a coalition of businesses and unions calling for quality health care to be made available to all Americans by 2012."
Now, Wal-Mart's "co-option" of SEIU may not work as well as Wal-Mart would like, in that SEIU probably will continue to attack and criticize Wal-Mart. But there's no question that Wal-Mart is trying to BS its way into some credibility with the public on the healthcare issue, and there's -- so far -- no evidence that the company is at all serious about using its substantial lobbying power to push for real health care reform. If Andy Stern can get Wal-Mart to do that, we will of course owe him a ginormous debt as a nation. But sadly, he may just be the latest on a long list of co-optees.
In other Wal-Mart developments, CEO Lee Scott said yesterday that he didn't "personally care" if Wal-Mart came to New York City and strongly implied that the company was giving up the fight. "I don't think it's worth the effort," he told the New York Times in a meeting with the paper's editors and reporters. Labor's war against Wal-Mart has worked well here. That's good news, especially for the many New Yorkers who work in in this city's retail industry.
This just in from today's Wall Street Journal: "Pain From Free Trade Spurs Second Thoughts." Can you believe it? A "downer" story on globalization from the mother church of free-market capitalism. Who knew it was so bad? Actually, many millions of working Americans knew and have known for many years. They were regarded as mindless "protectionists." WSJ gave them the back of its hand.
Think of today's lengthy, revelatory story as a massive "correction." It led the newspaper's front page and recounted the heavy doubts accumulating among establishment free-traders about what they have wrought. The actual destruction from globalization is worse than anything they had imagined and it's going to get far worse.
The Journal is playing catch-up, to put it kindly. This is the bad news that newspaper was never willing to face frankly and publish. Now that it has, however, the impact will be truly significant--mainly by opening the way for other newspapers (think New York Times and Washington Post) whose editors and reporters have been similarly afraid to tell the whole truth about free-trade dogma's destructive impact on American prosperity. I look forward to many more confessional "corrections" from our leading media.
The WSJ reporters featured Princeton economist Alan Blinder as their influential truth-teller, now bravely breaking the news. Blinder was Federal Reserve vice chair and economic advisor to Bill Clinton, who participated directly in the facile promotion of unregulated, lopsided free trade with Mexico, China and other developing economies. Blinder was one of the credentialed "experts" cited to assure everyone that free trade is a blessing for all, pay no attention to those whining workers who lost their jobs.
So now he wants to warn us? I regard him as a "running dog" looking for a little absolution, after the fact.
I also have a bone to pick with David Wessel and Bob Davis, the two WSJ reporters who wrong the piece. Wessel and Davis have been preeminent cheerleaders for establishment line for many years, though I always suspected they knew better. We had an unpleasant encounter ten years ago, when my own book on the global economy was published – One World, Ready or Not: The Manic Logic of Global Capitalism. Davis and Wessel made a very public point of disparaging my analysis and predictions. Wrong, wrong, wrong, they said on a public affairs TV show where we both appeared. The thrust of my book's argument is what these two reported today as news.
I sent them an e-mail this morning congratulating their breakthrough in understanding things. "Time for an apology?" I asked. "Not holding my breath."
Take a deep breath. The nation has arrived at an extraordinary political moment. The Congress is about to instruct the President he should withdraw from the ongoing war. Yes, I know the fine print in the House and Senate versions has lots of wiggle room. But the congressional action is still breathtaking when you think about it, possibly without historic precedent.
I assumed it would take many months and numerous failed efforts for the new Democratic majority to reach this juncture. When House leaders kept softening their terms, I even thought it might be a good thing for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to lose the first time around. She would then be assailed by outraged Americans and get the message: stiffen up, this is not business as usual. I was mistaken. Many of the final details are disappointing, but the message has been delivered and received--get out of Iraq. It will rule politics until the American exit actually occurs.
Democrats did not create this new dynamic--it arose volcano-like from the American people--but Democrats have had the wisdom to embrace it. I remember the torturous struggle in the Sixties waged by congressional opponents--Republicans and Democrats--trying to end the war in Vietnam. Their first resolutions were mild and deferential, politely urging Lyndon Johnson to start negotiating for peace. They were rejected. Subsequent measures raised the ante, but it took years of frustrating failure to get Congress to speak clearly. By comparison, the shift in politics this time moved like lightning.
Democrats now have the Republicans in a political vise and will keep squeezing them. Let Bush veto whatever anti-war measure House and Senate finally produce. Let the president's GOP troops uphold his veto. Democrats will then rally for another legislative assault on the willfully blind chief executive. Each new roll call will stick it again to the Republicans. Do they want to stand with the public's common-sense grasp of reality? Or are they going to keep voting with the crackpot commander-in-chief and his delusional search for victory?
The guy in the bunker, unfortunately, may never get the message. That deepens the tragedy, both for America and Iraq. Each new needless death will deepen the hurt and anger. But it looks like George W. Bush will stick with denial, even as Congress keeps toughening its attempts to force withdrawal. I hope I am wrong about that, but a wise friend explained the logic of Bush's desperation politics.
Bush and Cheney, he said, are trying to run out the clock--keep this war going until they leave office and can dump the mess on the next president, very likely a Democrat. In retirement, the Bush crowd will then begin to sow the "if only" revisionism that blames Democrats or the media or the American people for a "loss of will." Sounds absurd now, but that is roughly what happened after the lost war in Vietnam. We could have won, "if only." Sad to say, many Americans came to believe it, especially resentful veterans seeking explanation for why they fought and lost.
Given all he has done to this country, Bush could do something truly valuable for history by accepting the blame in a stand-up way. Admit his great errors. Acknowledge the failure. This might ensure him a tragic but noble legacy. I am afraid there is nothing noble in the man.
The carnage in Iraq continues, but what did anyone expect? Roadside bombs (IEDs) take their deadly almost daily toll on U.S. troops in and around Baghdad (and adjoining provinces). Seventy-five Americans have already died in March, at least 50 of them from roadside bombs. Of course, that's a drop in the bucket, when it comes to Iraqi casualties. The now widely discussed Lancet study of Iraqi "excess deaths" between the invasion of March 2003 and June 2006 offered an estimated figure of 655,000. Its careful, door-to-door methodology was vehemently rejected by both George Bush (not "a credible report") and Tony Blair. According to the British Broadcasting Corporation, however, recently obtained British government documents indicate that the study's methodology was indeed sound. ("[T]he chief scientific adviser to the Defense Ministry, Roy Anderson, described the methods used in the study as ‘robust' and ‘close to best practice'… In another document, a government official -- whose name has been blanked out -- said ‘the survey methodology used here cannot be rubbished, it is a tried and tested way of measuring mortality in conflict zones.'")
None of this is likely to fully penetrate the mainstream in the U.S. During the week of the fourth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, both NBC and ABC in their prime-time news shows typically continued to cite the figure of 60,000 for Iraqi deaths -- despite the fact that the U.N. Assistance Mission for Iraq calculated 34,452 Iraqi deaths for 2006 alone and this is known to be an honest undercount, because some bodies never make it to morgues or hospitals and, in the embattled no-go zones of the Sunni insurgency, official reporting of deaths is weak at best.
With the President's surge plan well underway and "encouraging signs" of progress in Baghdad already being hailed -- how long can we be encouraged on the road to hell? -- Iraq is ever more a charnel house, a killing ground. The latest real surge is in car and truck bombs driven by Sunni jihadis, which have reached record levels in exact conjunction with the attempt to flood Baghdad with American troops. On this roiling planet, the car or truck bomb is the weapon of the under-armed and under-funded, and, for almost a century, it has proven remarkably unstoppable no matter whose hands have been on the steering wheel. No one who wants to understand the particularities of our violent age should, then, miss Mike Davis' remarkable new history of this devastating weapon of our time, Buda's Wagon: A Brief History of the Car Bomb.
It's a cliche: what a difference a Democratic congressional majority makes. The US attorney scandal, Walter Reed, the suppression of global warming data, the FBI's misuse of national security letters--Democratic legislators have been demanding documents, testimony and answers. Given that they now hold the purse strings and can shoot out subpoenas, the Democrats can no longer be ignored by the White House, executive agencies, and the media. Representative Henry Waxman, the relentless Democratic chairman of the government oversight and reform committee, has been leading the pack in investigating allegations of administration wrongdoing. (See my 2005 profile of Waxman here.) There's a lot for Waxman to cover, and he's being thorough. Consider the letter he sent the White House on Monday.
In that note to Joshua Bolten, President Bush's chief of staff, Waxman requested information about a $140,000 contract the White House awarded in July 2002 to MZM, Inc. This was Mitchell Wade's company. He's the (now former-) military contractor who paid more than $1 million in bribes to Republican Representative Randy "Duke" Cunningham, who's in jail for having accepted these and other bribes in return for steering federal contracts to Wade and Brent Wilkes, another defense contractor. (Wade pleaded guilty; Wilkes has not.) What's intriguing about the contract Wade received from the White House is that its amount equals the price Wade paid in August 2002 to buy the Duke-Stir, the yacht Cunningham lived (and partied) on in Washington. According to the sentencing recommendation memo in Cunningham's case, Cunningham himself negotiated the $140,000 purchase price of the boat in the summer of 2002. This raises the intriguing possibility that Wade that summer needed money to buy Cunningham the yacht and--presto--a White House contract materialized.
And there's more: this contract was Wade's first prime contract with the federal government. The firm had been incorporated in 1993 but had pulled in no revenue through 2001. So Cunningham scandal watchers have wondered, did a White House contract help launch Wade on his felonious ways, and was this contract legitimate?
The modest contract reportedly covered supplying computers and office furniture to Vice President Dick Cheney's office. By the time it was signed, MZM, which had become an approved federal contractor only two months earlier, was already bribing Cunningham, a member of the influential defense appropriations subcommittee. Two months later, in September 2002, MZM hit it big, scoring a $250 million, five-year contract with the General Services Administration. Look at the timeline, one congressional investigator notes: May, MZM was listed as a federal supplier; July, it won a White House contract for $140,000; September, it obtained a $250 million contract. A not-too-suspicious mind could wonder if something--or someone--was juicing the process.
A look at that first contract--and how it had come to be--would seem a no-brainer for investigators. Plenty of MZM's subsequent doings have been probed. But as Waxman notes, "To date, however, there has been no examination of the circumstances surrounding MZM's initial federal contract and the role that White House officials played in the award and execution of the contract."
Months ago, I tried to obtain information about this contract. According to federal procurement records, the contract was for "ADP systems development services" and "custom computer programming services." What did MZM do for the White House under these terms? I contacted the Interior Department. Why Interior? It's home to an interagency contracting office that handles procurement for the White House. This office was established during the Clinton administration as a good-government measure aimed at consolidating contracting efforts. But this procurement reform has become subject to abuse. A recent Senate armed services committee hearing examined how this change in the procurement system has allowed agencies to escape effective oversight. A 2005 Government Accountability Office report slammed the Interior Department's interagency contracting office for "significant problems" in handling Pentagon contracts granted to CACI International for interrogation and "other intelligence-related services" in Iraq.
I asked the Interior Department if I could obtain a copy of the MZM contract under the Freedom of Information Act. The answer: you can submit a FOIA request, but you won't get anything. "It's national security," an Interior official told me, reciting various exemptions. The release of this information, he said, was restricted not by the Interior Department but by the Executive Office of the President because it "includes techniques and procedures used by the Secret Service for law enforcement investigations" and because its disclosure "could reasonably be expected to risk circumvention of the law." He added, "There is no way to get any details."
A committee chairman with access to subpoenas might have better luck. Waxman has asked for all MZM contracts related to the White House and other materials, such as any communications between Wade, Wilkes, MZM officials and White House employees. Waxman's request also covers communications between the White House and Interior relating to MZM--for the obvious reason.
It could be that MZM in the summer of 2002 managed to snag a small White House contract in legitimate fashion, even as Wade was plotting a quick, bribery-greased rise to the top. But given that the Cunningham/MZM tale is one of sleaze and crime--I haven't even mentioned the prostitutes Cunningham received as bribes--Wade's first contract with the Bush administration deserves scrutiny. Republican legislators--no surprise--expressed no interest in this when they ran Congress. And, coincidentally or not, the US attorney in charge of the Cunningham case, Carol Lam, is one of the prosecutors who was fired by the Bush administration. But here comes Waxman, and the Case of MZM's First Contract is alive and open.
Update: See this Talking Points Memo posting for more news on this MZM contract.
DON"T FORGET ABOUT HUBRIS: THE INSIDE STORY OF SPIN, SCANDAL, AND THE SELLING OF THE IRAQ WAR, the best-selling book by David Corn and Michael Isikoff. Click here for information on the book. The New York Times calls Hubris "the most comprehensive account of the White House's political machinations" and "fascinating reading." The Washington Post says, "There have been many books about the Iraq war....This one, however, pulls together with unusually shocking clarity the multiple failures of process and statecraft." Tom Brokaw notes Hubris "is a bold and provocative book that will quickly become an explosive part of the national debate on how we got involved in Iraq." Hendrik Hertzberg, senior editor of The New Yorker notes, "The selling of Bush's Iraq debacle is one of the most important--and appalling--stories of the last half-century, and Michael Isikoff and David Corn have reported the hell out of it." For highlights from Hubris, click here.
Alaskan wood carver Mike Webber unveiled his "Shame Pole" this past Friday in Cordova to mark the 18th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, which devastated the area and ruined lucrative herring and salmon fisheries.
The pole tells the grim story of the spill: sea ducks, a sea otter and eagle float dead on oil. A sick herring with lesions is featured. There's a boat for sale with a family crew on board, commemorating fishermen who went belly up, and a bottle of booze to remind people that Joe Hazelwood, who was captain of the Exxon Valdez, had been drinking before turning the helm of the ship over. Topping the pole is the upside-down face of former longtime Exxon CEO Lee Raymond, sporting a Pinocchio-like nose.
None of these apocalyptic images were the hardest part of the job however, as Webber told the Anchorage Daily News. "No, the toughest part was etching the words 'We will make you whole again' from the trunk of yellow cedar,' said the Alaska Native carver. That infamous promise was made to the state's inhabitants after the spill by Don Cornett, formerly Exxon's top official in Alaska.
The reality is that after eighteen years and countless false promises, ExxonMobil has still not paid the billions of dollars in punitive damages that the courts have determined it owes the spill victims--this despite the fact that the company posted the most profitable year in 2006 of any corporation in history. In 1994, a federal court in Anchorage, Alaska, awarded $5 billion in punitive damages to fishermen, Native Alaskans, and other plaintiffs in a class action suit against the oil giant. But rather than accepting its obligations Exxon has been fighting the verdict, employing hundreds of lawyers, filing countless appeals and effectively buying science that supports its claims.
This has added injury to injury as more than 30,000 people whose lives and livelihood were disrupted by the spill have now been dragged through years of litigation. During this time, according to the advocacy group ExposeExxon whose excellent mailing prompted this column, 6,000 plaintiffs have died waiting for compensation.
The company is even employing a strategy straight from the White House's fact-challenged department by arguing that the affected area of Prince William Sound has recovered and is "healthy, robust and thriving." (The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council reports that, in fact, the multi-million dollar herring fish industry, which once supported thousands of lives and livelihoods in the area, remains closed indefinitely.)
As Ashley Shelby concluded in an extensive investigative report outlining Exxon's legal tricks and maneuvers in the April 5, 2004 issue of The Nation, this is a classic story of how corporations can use and abuse the legal system and the seeming apathy of the federal government to avoid responsibility for their actions. It's been twelve years since a federal jury awarded the fishers and Natives on the Cordova sound $5.2 billion in punitive damages from Exxon, but not a single check from that award has been cut.
ExposeExxon is offering facsimile solidarity to Webber and his educational campaign. Click here to send a fax to Exxon's CEO Rex Tillerson and Exxon Board Chair Michael J. Boskin imploring them to stop appealing the guilty verdicts and pay the damages the company owes.
You can also help get the word out about ExxonMobil's misdeeds by distributing flyers in front of your neighborhood Exxon or Mobil stations, by passing the information out generally, and by writing letters to the editor of your local newspaper asking them to report on Exxon's continued refusal to pay its debts. (Click here for downloadable materials.) Lastly, if you can make it to the next exit without stopping, try to speed past Exxon and Mobil gas stations! It should be pretty simple to refuse to buy the company's gas.
Pontificators of conventional wisdom in Washington have been warning Democrats not to overreach in their probe of why 8 US Attorneys were unexpectedly fired last December. "It seems doubtful that Democrats can help themselves a great deal just by tearing down an already discredited Republican administration with more investigations such as the current attack on the Justice Department and White House over the firings of eight U.S. attorneys," Washington Post columnist David Broder wrote on Sunday.
Broder's an astute analyst of polling, so let's hope he sees the latest USA Today poll on Attorneygate [see questions 14-16]. Seventy-two percent of the public believes Congress should investigate the involvement of White House officials. When asked how the Bush Administration should respond to a Congressional probe, 68 percent of respondents want top officials to "answer all questions." The same number believe White House aides should testify under oath.
It seems pretty clear cut what the public wants Congress to do on this front. Of course they'd like Democrats to try and pass substantial pieces of legislation (even though President Bush will probably veto them). But they also realize that after six years of one-party rule, a measure of accountability is long overdue.