The Nation

Keep the Estate Tax--UPDATED

Updated on June 8.

Good News:

Senators voted this afternoon to block a Republican effort to shrink taxes on inherited estates during this election year. GOP leaders had pushed senators to end the tax once and for all. It disappears in 2010, under President Bush's first tax cut, but rears up again a year later. A 57-41 vote fell three votes short of advancing the bill.

As William Greider and Katrina vanden Heuvel have both noted in recent Nation weblog posts, the Senate is close to pulling off another massive giveaway to the country's super-rich by eliminating the inheritance tax.

This change in the tax code would benefit less than half of one percent of American citizens but would harm many more by creating a one trillion dollar hole in future federal reserves. New handouts to the rich are especially galling coming right after Congress has cut Medicaid, child support, and college loans. But 18 super wealthy families, standing to benefit from the repeal to the tune of 72 billion dollars, have spent millions on the effort. The Senate is expected to soon vote on legislation to either repeal or drastically cut the estate tax. Reports suggest that a vote could come as early as Thursday, June 8.

This fight can be won. The bill's sponsors need 60 votes to bring the estate tax repeal/gutting to the floor, and, if they know you're paying attention, the votes will be hard to drum up. Please make every effort to let your elected reps know that you expect them to stand against repeal of the estate tax. Click here to email them and take the time to join United for a Fair Economy's campaign and call your Senators this week before it's too late. Call toll-free at 1-800-830-5738 to reach the US Capitol switchboard and ask to be connected to your Senators' offices. Call twice--once for each Senator.

BACKGROUND: The reality of the estate tax is frequently misrepresented by its critics. Here's a little cogent background on the tax, thanks to Stephen Wamhoff in the Sacramento Bee.

"The estate tax was enacted 90 years ago to curb the most extreme inequalities of wealth and to help fund public programs that all Americans, including the wealthy, enjoy. The tax applies to only the largest estates. Only those bigger than $2 million, or $4 million for married couples, pay any tax at all. In addition, family farms and businesses get special, favorable treatment. As a result, of the 2.5 million people expected to die this year, only one in 300 will leave a taxable estate."

Defending the Constitution (Continued)

Kudos to the American Bar Association for creating a bipartisan "all-star legal panel" to investigate President Bush's penchant for signing statements that assert his right to ignore more than 750 laws enacted since he took office.

Bush has challenged more laws than every previous president combined.

The blue-ribbon panel includes former officials from the Reagan, Bush Sr., and Nixon administrations. Panel-member William Sessions, who served as FBI Director under Presidents Reagan and Bush, told the Boston Globe that he believes the signing statements raise a "serious problem" for our constitutional system.

"I think it's very important for the people of the United States to have trust and reliance that the president is not going around the law," Sessions said.

Now there's a novel idea for this administration run amok--adherence to the separation of powers, and our system of checks and balances. Among the laws Bush has challenged are the ban on torture, oversight of the Patriot Act, and whistleblower protections.

The panel will make its recommendations to the over 400,000-member ABA this summer. Here's hoping this bipartisan effort makes some headway in the critical fight to defend our Constitution from those who would treat it as nothing more than a matter of convenience.

Flying the Corporate Skies

A top official in the Bush Administration, David Safavian, is on trial right now for lying about a golfing trip to Scotland taken by a lawmaker, Rep. Bob Ney, and funded by a lobbyist, Jack Abramoff.

What's unusual about this story is the fact that a White House official tried to cover it up. Lobbyist-funded travel is standard operating procedure for lawmakers in Washington. In fact, a new study released today found that lawmakers and their aides, Republicans and Democrats alike, spent $50 million on privately funded travel between 2000-2005.

That amounts to 23,000 trips and 81,000 days (or 222 years) of travel, to such popular locales as Paris, Italy and Hawaii. The top offenders, whose offices accepted more than $350,000 in travel costs, include powerhouse Republicans like Tom DeLay, Joe Barton and Roy Blunt, and sleazy Dems such as DLC-favorite Greg Meeks.

"Some trips seem to have been little more than pricey vacations," writes the Center for Public Integrity, the study's lead author. "In many instances, trip sponsors appear to be buying access to elected officials or their advisers."

Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert proposed a ban on such travel after Abramoff pled guilty in January. But incoming Majority Leader John Boehner, another frequent flier, quickly nixed the idea. Under the new lobbying "reform" bill passed by the House, these trips must be cleared by the dormant House Ethics Committee--until December that is, when the provision conveniently expires after the midterm elections.

The abuse is bipartisan. "Of the two dozen congressional offices on which trip sponsors spent the most money, 15 were occupied by Republicans," the study found. "Of the 25 individual lawmakers who each accepted more than $120,000 worth of travel for themselves, 17 were Democrats."

This system, not surprisingly, breeds special favors, also known as corruption. One small San Diego-based defense contractor, General Dynamics, spent more than $660,000 on 86 trips for Capitol Hill legislators and aides. General Dynamics enjoyed close ties to indicted Rep. Duke Cunningham and House Appropriations Chairman Jerry Lewis, whose lobbying firm of choice, Copeland Lowery, is also under investigation by the FBI.

Countless similar tales, no doubt, are waiting to be told.

Gore Vidal Campaigns for "A Real Democrat"

Gore Vidal, the grandson of a senator who stood himself for the House and Senate and then played a senator in Tim Robbins' brilliant film "Bob Roberts," has been campaigning this spring -- almost as hard as if he was once again on the ballot.

The author, resident in Los Angeles, has thrown himself into the campaign of Marcy Winograd, the teacher and progressive activist who is mounting a spirited challenge to Bush-friendly Democratic Representative Jane Harman for an L.A.-area House seat in today's California Democratic primary.

Harman, who voted to authorize President Bush to order the invasion and occupation of Iraq, and who has supported the administration repeatedly in divisions on issues ranging from the Patriot Act to warrantless wiretapping and domestric surveillance, is trying to sell herself as a generally solid Democrat who should be forgiven her lapses.

Vidal, displaying the knowing skepticism that is his greatest contribution to the American political discourse, is unwilling to accept the incumbent's election-season spin.

"The all important issues are the war and civil liberties," says the social critic who has appeared at a number of Winograd fund-raising events and rallies, including an election-eve gathering in Venice. "I'm not even interested in Harman's other issues. She has been wrong on the war, and the war is such a fundamental issue."

In fact, Harman's been wrong on a host of other issues. For instance, she's been such a disappointing player on trade policy and related economic concerns that the United Auto Workers [Western Region] has joined several other unions -- including the United Farm Workers of America, United Teachers of Los Angeles and the University Council of the American Federation of Teachers -- in taking the rare step of endorsing a challenge to a Democratic incumbent in a primary election. But Vidal's right that the distinction on the war is fundamental; as Winograd says: "I will vote to end the war in Iraq and to bring our troops home. Harman will not."

Vidal is not merely anti-Harman, however. He is pro-Winograd. Noting the challenger's clear vision with regard to foreign policy, her consistent critique of the domestic eavesdropping programs so favored by the current administration, and her pledge to hold Bush accountable -- using all the means available to a member of Congress, up to and including the option of impeachment -- the author labels her "a real Democrat" and suggests that she is the sort of candidate who might inspire the party's broad if frequently disenchanted base.

"Marcy Winograd's election would teach a lesson all around," Vidal told me the other day. "The Democratic Party is theoretically a minority but in reality is always the majority in the country. When Democrats vote, and when their votes are actually counted, which is of course an issue of some concern with these Diebold [voting] machines, they prevail. But we have been in a rough period where that has not been the case. Now, we are told that this is about to change, that this will be a good year for Democrats. Perhaps. But it does no good that a Jane Harman will benefit from a Democratic year -- which it looks like this is going to be -- when we can dump her and get a real Democrat to take her place."

Bush: Discrimination 'Serves Interests of All'

President Bush has framed his support for a Constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage as a necessary defense of cherished institutions and practices.

"Marriage is the most enduring and important human institution, honored and encouraged in all cultures and by every religious faith," the president said Monday. "Ages of experience have taught us that the commitment of a husband and a wife to love and to serve one another promotes the welfare of children and the stability of society. Marriage cannot be cut off from its cultural, religious, and natural roots without weakening this good influence on society. Government, by recognizing and protecting marriage, serves the interests of all."So, you see, denying citizens who love one another and want their relationships to be sanctioned, respected and protected by the state is in everyone's interest – even, Bush assures us, the interest of those who because of their sexual orientation do not meet with this particular president's approval.

Gee, where have we heard this logic before?

Oh, yes, back in 1914, after President Woodrow Wilson dramatically expanded segregation in the federal civil service, a group of African-American leaders led by newspaper editor Monroe Trotter came to the White House to challenge the decision.

Trotter said, "Mr. President, we are here to renew our protest against the segregation of colored employees in the departments of our National Government. We [had] appealed to you to undo this race segregation in accord with your duty as President and with your pre-election pledges to colored American voters. We stated that such segregation was a public humiliation and degradation, and entirely unmerited and far-reaching in its injurious effects…"

Wilson replied, "Segregation is not humiliating, but a benefit, and ought to be so regarded by you gentlemen. If your organization goes out and tells the colored people of the country that it is a humiliation, they will so regard it, but if you do not tell them so, and regard it rather as a benefit, they will regard it the same. The only harm that will come will be if you cause them to think it is a humiliation."

Surely, President Bush would prefer that supporters of equal rights for gays and lesbians accept that the marriage ban "serves the interests of all."

But a more appropriate response is an echo of Monroe Trotter's reply to Woodrow Wilson: "Mr. President, you are entirely mistaken."

George Bush is entirely mistaken if he thinks that his amendment "serves the interests of all," just he is entirely mistaken if he thinks that bigotry – be it motivated by racial hatred, ethnic rivalry, religious intolerance or homophobia – ought to be sanctioned by the Constitution.

Every freedom struggle is different. The specifics of racial segregation are fundamentally different from the specifics of anti-gay discrimination.

Yet the reality of a president leading the charge against equal protection for a specific group of Americans creates a parallel that is undeniable – and that will prove indefensible in the long run.

History has not been kind to Wilson. It will not be kind to Bush.

Despite his attempt to put a friendly face on his embrace of segregation based on race, Woodrow Wilson is appropriately downgraded in any consideration of the relative merits of the nation's presidents because of his hateful acts against people of color who wanted only to do their jobs.

Despite his attempt to put a friendly face on his embrace of discrimination based on sexual orientation, George Bush will be appropriately downgraded in any consideration of the relative merits of the nation's presidents because of his hateful acts against gays and lesbians who want only to have their relationships respected and protected.

Fish and Fiction

The latest attempt by this White House to muzzle the truth isn't about Haditha, domestic spying, or torture--it's about salmon. That's right, salmon.

It seems the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration--already infamous for reprimanding scientists who speak out on global warming--was none too pleased when a spokesman in Seattle made "positive comments about decisions by a federal judge and federal scientists that ran contrary to Bush administration policies on salmon protection."

The day after the Seattle official was quoted in the Washington Post, the NOAA issued a directive that only three political appointees in the DC headquarters are permitted to speak about endangered salmon--and none are scientists or officials who actually participate in the salmon studies.

Headquarters spokesman Jeff Donald explained that the new policy was undertaken because "some folks were trying to consolidate a little bit and make sure everything we were putting out was accurate and as up to date as possible."

Well, I'm sold, aren't you? Nothing like a little consolidation by the Bush administration so that we receive accurate information.

And consider, if you would, the implications of this action. If they are willing to muzzle people over salmon, what might they do when the stakes are really high?

The New York Times wrote in an editorial on Haditha yesterday that "Americans need to be told what steps are now being taken, besides remedial ethics training, to make sure that such crimes against civilians and such deliberate falsifications of the record do not recur….[And] straight answers on what went wrong at Haditha and who, besides those at the bottom of the chain of command, will be required to take responsibility for it."

One source in the Pentagon has already acknowledged that the ethics training is simply being undertaken "to make it look like we are doing something for the public."

So does anyone--of any political stripe--still believe that this administration has any intention of giving us even an approximation of the truth on any matter of consequence? If so, I know of a great ocean view property in Iowa I'd like to sell you. And you don't have to worry about any endangered salmon there either--because they fly. Just ask the NOAA.

Symbolism and Scandal

The war in Iraq keeps getting worse. Gas prices remain high. Corruption is oozing through Congress. And hurricane season just started.

So what are Republicans in Washington preoccupied with?

This week it's banning gay marriage and repealing the estate tax.

Next week it's banning flag burning and criminalizing Janet Jackson's left breast, aka upping indecency fines.

Bob Geiger of Democrats.com calls it "Wedge-Issue June." I prefer irrelevancy month.

Can disaffected conservatives be bought off this cheaply? After six years in power, are symbolism and scandal the only things Republicans have left to offer the country?

These steps are truly pathetic. No wonder seventy percent of Americans believe Congress doesn't share their priorities.

Has Wal-Mart Jumped the Shark?

Always a rollicking affair, with the feel of a pep rally or revival meeting, by all accounts, the Wal-Mart shareholder's meeting on Friday was over the top. According to Michael Barbaro, Wal-Mart correspondent for the New York Times, a cast of Broadway actors sang numbers like "Walk Across the Aisle," "The Day That I Met Sam," and "It's About the Customer." Has Wal-Mart jumped the shark?

For those of you that don't watch -- or talk about -- television, "jumping the shark" is a term TV fans have long used to refer to the point at which a show goes downhill. It originates, of course, in that moment on "Happy Days" when Fonzie, water-skiing, jumps over a shark. Usually referring to a preposterous new plot twist, shark-jumping suggests some desperation on the part of the creators. Wal-Mart: The Musical certainly has that feel. Wal-Mart's sales growth has been slow recently, lagging below Wall Street's expectations.

One thing that hasn't jumped the shark is anti-Wal-Mart resistance. In a national "Quarantine Wal-Mart" day of action Friday, thousands around the country, organized by Jobs With Justice and the Ruckus Society, donned hazmat suits and, armed with yellow caution tape, surgical gloves and face shields, had some fun at their local Wal-Marts. Why a quarantine? Because by not providing adequate health care coverage to its workers, the mega-retailer is hazardous to the health of our nation. Actions took place in Wheat Ridge, Colorado, Urbana, Illinois and even outside the Wal-Mart meeting itself, in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

Also notable at the meeting, Martha Burk, the feminist activist who made the Augusta National Golf Club synonymous with discrimination a couple years ago, presented a shareholder proposal on pay equity, particularly relevant in light of the ongoing class action suit Betty Dukes vs. Wal-Mart Stores. Wal-Mart refused to talk about these issues with groups like the National Organization for Women for years, but times are changing: Burk had a meeting with CEO Lee Scott Thursday, the day before the shareholder's meeting.

AIDS Groups Call UN Meeting a "Failure"

As UNGASS +5 winds down, a coalition of over 70 civil society organizations from around the world are denouncing the meeting as a significant step back in the global fight against AIDS. The 2006 Declaration, which will be ratified by the General Assembly this afternoon, "recognizes" that $20-23 billion are needed per year, but fails to set hard targets for funding, treatment, care or prevention. Moreover, the document euphemistically refers to "vulnerable groups" but refuses to name them.

"Vulnerable groups such as intravenous drug users, sex workers and men who have sex with men have been made invisible in this document," said Aditi Sharma of ActionAid International.

African activists in particular are irate that their governments retreated from specific targets on treatment (reaching 80% by 2010) that were agreed to at the Abuja Summit in Nigeria just three weeks ago. South Africa and Egypt are both signatories to the Abuja Declaration, but they -- along with the U.S. -- worked behind the scenes to eliminate funding and treatment targets. "The final outcome document is pathetically weak. It is remarkable at this stage in the global epidemic that governments cannot set the much needed targets," said Sisonke Msimang of the African Civil Society Coalition.

The 2006 declaration does, however, note the "feminisation of the pandemic," promotes the "empowerment of women," and mentions "male and female condoms" and "harm-reduction efforts related to drug use" -- all points of contention in earlier drafts.

Earlier in the day First Lady Laura Bush addressed the UN briefly. Bush said that "more people need to know how AIDS is transmitted, and every country has an obligation to educate its citizens." Bush then praised her husband's PEPFAR program for providing treatment and prevention to developing nations. But several activists I spoke to bristled at what they see as "hypocrisy" from the First Lady. For example, the U.S. requires a "loyalty oath" from AIDS grantees opposing prostitution -- thus making it effectively impossible to educate sex workers on HIV transmission. Today's NYT editorial rightly praised two recent court decisions that struck down this requirement for U.S.-based groups, but failed to note that this global gag rule on prostitution still applies to subgrantees in other countries.