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, 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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
If left-liberal bloggers have any influence on the Democraticparty, they should use their muscle right now to block a grotesquesellout--handing Republicans an odious victory on the inheritance tax.
Giving the GOP its way would hand a fabulous reward to thecountry's wealthiest families but, worse than that, create a $1trillion hole in future federal revenue. If this happens, forgetabout universal health care or other major social reforms andpublic investment that Democrats are promising to pursue.
Yet leading the rush to appeasement is Senator Max Baucus ofMontana, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee andthe party's number-one Quisling. Baucus tips over easily tooutrageous deals with Republican tax-cutters. Back in 2001, hesold out on Bush's reactionary tax reduction package. Now he isworking to organize a rump group of Democratic senators for"compromise" on the estate tax. That is, give the Republicansponsors most of what they seek and, in the process, cripplepossibilities for the future.
Democrats do not need do anything about the estate tax at thispoint since the Bush version expires automatically in 2011. Let thenext president decide what to recommend. For now, Dems merely needto hold the 40 votes to sustain a filibuster. The caucusoverwhelmingly supports that position. The problem is the handfulof potential deserters.
The first chore for activists is to bang on Baucus--quickly andmercilessly--because a Senate vote is expected next week. More tothe point, grassroots Democrats need to bang on the handful ofwobbly Democratic senators disposed to go along with SenatorSellout or flirting with the idea. These include the two Nelsons(Bill of Florida, Ben of Nebraska), Salazar of Colorado, Lincolnand Pryor of Arkansas and--most shocking--Washington's twousually progressive senators, Cantwell and Murray. Their stateincludes a bunch of techie billionaires and the family-ownedSeattle Times that hammers them on the supposed injustice of theestate tax. They need to know a price will be paid for defection.
The second great task for grassroots Dems is to confront the party leaders on their own cowardly acquiescence. Why do they allow this one disloyal rogue to undercut the party's position and yet escape any punitive consequences? If Democrats should win backSenate control this year, Baucus will become Finance Committee Chairman again--free do more outrageous tax favors for his wealthy pals.
The Democratic caucus and minority leader Harry Reid ought to informBaucus--right now--that, if he proceeds with this sellout, he canforget about ever being chairman again. The legislative fight maysound like inside baseball and it is, but this is a central test ofcharacter for the party. If incumbent Democrats are unwilling to upsettheir "club" by punishing this wayward jerk on such a decisive matter,then maybe the "club" deserves to retain its minority status.
When the former chief spokesman for Attorney General John Ashcroft says that Alberto Gonzales' subpoenaing of reporters is "… the most reckless abuse of power I have seen in years," it should make us all snap to attention.
This isn't exactly coming from a standard-bearer for the civil libertarians.
And yet, Mark Corallo, whose public relations firm currently represents Karl Rove (also striking that the top Presidential advisor should now need a PR agent), made this and similar statements in an interview with the New York Times and in an affidavit filed on behalf of two San Francisco Chronicle reporters.
Gonzales subpoenaed the reporters last month in order to force them to reveal their sources on--I kid you not--steroid use in baseball.
Mr Corallo offered this take on the action, "You just don't ride roughshod over the rights of reporters to gather information from confidential sources."
And if you didn't think this administration was waging war on the press before, here are the facts as presented by James Goodale in a recent article for The New York Law Journal:
• The Chronicle reporters face jail time for not revealing sources on the baseball story
• Gonzales is considering an indictment of the New York Times
• The FBI is reportedly tapping reporters phones
• The FBI is seeking 20 year-old classified documents from the estate of Jack Anderson
• The government is attempting to circumvent the First Amendment through an 89 year-old law, The Espionage Act
As Goodale writes, "It is hard to believe it is coincidental."
Because it isn't. Gonzales intends to shut up reporters by any means necessary. So much so that even conservatives like Corallo are finally speaking out.
There's been a media frenzy lately on the shortage of nurses in this country. It's justified; this is a serious public health problem. If you've ever been hospitalized, you've probably noticed that nurses work harder and are often more involved in your care and more knowledgeable than doctors. Seven years ago my father fell into a coma after getting a bone marrow transplant in a fancy research hospital. The doctors gave up on him, and told us we should pull the plug "when we felt ready"; luckily we didn't feel ready, because an enterprising nurse fiddled with the machines a bit, and saved his life. (We still don't know exactly what she did!) Now his health is excellent. He rides his bike every day, enjoys his grandchildren, writes poetry and just retired from his day job. If that nurse hadn't been there --or had been too busy and over-worked to pay attention to him --he'd probably be dead.
Our federal law-makers, in their wisdom, have devised a cheap solution to the nursing shortage: import nurses from other countries. There are serious drawbacks to this strategy. For one, the problem is global. Some of the countries exporting nurses to the U.S. -- India, for example -- are themselves experiencing a nursing shortage. Luring nurses here is just going to worsen the problem for those countries, weakening already-fragile Third World health infrastructures. Secondly, importing new workers won't improve the work conditions in the health care industry. If nurses aren't treated with the respect they deserve, the hard-working, talented folks from India will eventually burn out, too. A study released in March by the Institute for Women's Policy Research (IWPR) found that increasing nurses' pay was "the most direct way" to solve the nursing shortage. IWPR also found that unionization helped to raise the nurses wages, and to improve nurse/patient ratios. Granted, the study was funded by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which organizes health care workers, but I've found IWPR reports to be rigorous regardless of funding.
Another clear solution is to improve education opportunities for young working-class women. Reporting an article on vocational education in New York City in the late 1990s, I met girls who were training to be beauticians because they'd dreamed of becoming nurses, but the nursing classes had been cut. As beauticians, they'll be lucky to earn salaries above the poverty line, and will likely take home less than a third of what they'd make as nurses. I love getting my nails done as much as the next person, but we do need nurses more than we need manicurists.
On another note, thanks very much to the reader who points out that the Center for Selective Facts is run by Rick Berman, who heads the Employment Policy Institute, a right-wing group that seeks to keep the minimum wage low (not to be confused, with the Economic Policy Institute, a lefty think tank advocating quite opposite strategies). I was aware of this connection but should have included it in my post. I don't think we can say for certain that the funders for the two groups are the same, though -- Berman is a consultant and lobbyist, so he could be serving any number of masters -- but our reader is right to suspect a close fraternal relationship.