There Is No Silver Lining

There Is No Silver Lining

With Republicans in full control in Washington, next year’s prospects are grim.


With the Senate, the House and the White House all under Republican control beginning in January, not only will issues of concern to progressives be far less likely to get discussed in Capitol Hill committee rooms but activists will have a much harder time making their voices heard in Washington. Here’s a preview of what’s ahead in three key areas.   –The Editors


The single biggest consequence of the new Republican majority in the Senate will be the confirmation of a herd of extremists to the federal bench. The flooding of the judiciary with activist, antichoice and Christian right judges was slowed as long as the Democrats held a 10-to-9 majority on the Judiciary Committee. Now the restraining dam has broken. Two days after the election a staffer for a liberal Democrat on the committee lamented to me, “This is a new world, a sea change. We are all still reeling. Our only hope now is to pick our shots and filibuster against the worst of the worst.”

At a public hearing of the lame-duck Judiciary Committee, the incoming chairman, Orrin Hatch, gloated, “I’m quite sure that things will change markedly.” An hour later two extremely conservative Bush nominees were approved: Dennis Shedd, who had never ruled in favor of a plaintiff claiming discrimination in almost twelve years on the bench; and Professor Michael McConnell. Shedd was confirmed after nine Democrats voted against him. The tenth, Joseph Biden, absented himself from the roll call in a parliamentary contrivance to allow confirmation–an action that suggests how many weak links there are in the potential filibuster strategy. Shedd was later approved by the full Senate.

Even before this craven choreography, Ted Kennedy was telling liberal interest groups that the only way to stop some of the fanatics is through an all-out grassroots mobilization by labor unions, the NAACP and the women’s movement–organizations that can move real constituencies.

The stampede of Scalia clones will begin in January, when the GOP officially takes charge. Bush and Senate Republican leader Trent Lott now say they will resubmit the names of two appeals court nominees already voted down by the Judiciary Committee: Priscilla Owen and Charles Pickering, both for the Fifth Circuit. Democrats should interpret their renomination as an affront to the Senate’s prerogatives. The ideas, opinions and decisions of Owen and Pickering have not changed over the past six months; only control of the Senate has.

There is a mountain of evidence that Owen and Pickering are “the worst of the worst.” Beyond his fringe ideology, Pickering has severe ethics disabilities: This year he asked lawyers who practice before him to write letters in support of his nomination, which is improper coercion. Even worse, in 1994 he contacted the Justice Department, as a sitting judge, to lobby prosecutors to request a lenient sentence for a defendant accused of burning a cross in front of, and firing a gun into, the home of a biracial couple. Owen, now on the Texas Supreme Court, is so hostile to abortion that she was the first woman that Senator Dianne Feinstein ever voted against for a judicial confirmation. In addition to Owen and Pickering, there will be votes on other “worst of the worst” nominees like Carolyn Kuhl and Jeffrey Sutton, both up for appeals court seats in situations where they can tip the philosophical balance.

It would take forty-one senators to sustain a filibuster. Kennedy, Schumer, Durbin, Boxer, Stabenow, Feingold and Levin seem to have the passion necessary for such a disruptive clash in the clubby climate of the Senate. But they will need minority leader Tom Daschle to embrace the filibuster strategy and to be a general in the battle. The precondition for success will be mobilization of the grassroots constituency groups that Kennedy is already trying to energize. That was the way Democrats defeated Robert Bork for the Supreme Court in 1987.

The confirmation fights will test the resolve of Senate Democrats and reveal their collective identity; they will also test the liberal/labor/civil rights community, which in recent years has been less engaged in the politics of judge-making than have the activists of the Christian right. The Scalia clones are a threat to gun-control laws, environmental laws, free speech, equal rights, affirmative action, campaign finance reform and reproductive rights. If the liberal base gets excited, that will exert pressure on presidential candidates like John Edwards, Joe Lieberman and John Kerry to join the filibusters–or lose support in the primaries.

And the next round of judicial fights is only a dress rehearsal for the coming Supreme Court Armageddon. It now seems likely that both William Rehnquist and Sandra Day O’Connor will retire at the close of this term. This will offer Bush the opportunity to name two antichoice Justices and thrust choice into jeopardy thirty years after Roe v. Wade. But if one or two filibusters prevail, that would be a powerful message to Bush to nominate at least one Souter-like moderate for the High Court.

There is only so much that Kennedy, Schumer and Durbin can do with colleagues who resemble the Cowardly Lion and the Tin Man–Democrats missing backbone and heart. They need back-up. They need the grassroots to be on fire. Judicial selection will be the real national election of 2003.



It was a very off-year election for environmentalists. Along with the House and White House, they now have to deal with a Republican Senate in which the Environment and Public Works Committee has slipped from the hands of Independent Jim Jeffords (League of Conservation Voters rating: 76 percent), into the grip of Jim Inhofe (LCV rating: 0 percent). Inhofe’s major 2002 campaign contributor, not surprisingly, was the oil and gas industry.

At the same time, several Republican candidates, notably Wayne Allard in Colorado and Norm Coleman in Minnesota, claimed they were committed environmentalists. In New Hampshire John Sununu called for tougher restrictions on air pollutants while backing away from Democratic attempts to link him to the President’s “Clear Skies Initiative,” which will increase sulfur- dioxide emissions and allow pollution trading in airborne mercury.

Still, the enviros are reacting to the GOP gains with divergent strategies and a lot of worry. “Bush won’t moderate anything,” warns Deb Callahan, who heads LCV. “They’ll play chicken with us, go straight at us and be in our face. This is the challenge of our lives.” Groups like hers, the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the US Public Interest Research Group are expected to dig in defensively and begin working with the new postfiasco Democratic leadership under Nancy Pelosi (LCV rating: 95 percent) and the remnant population of moderate Republicans in the House and Senate (who may support the Endangered Species Act out of a sense of self-preservation). Some critics expect huge new infusions of cash to green groups as soft-money surrogates, now that the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance law, which prevents the national parties from having their own slush funds, has gone into effect. “I don’t believe for a minute we’ll get that windfall,” says Callahan. “We’re not reliably partisan enough.” She adds, “I think [green] issue groups will just pop up with direct ties back to political consultants.”

Of course, the real test for the environmental movement will not be how bipartisan it’s perceived to be but how effective it is. The grassroots National Forest Protection Alliance began staging demonstrations around the country against Bush’s public-lands logging proposals two days after the elections. Other groups are focused on statehouse campaigns in places like California, which has begun to set its own tough standards for greenhouse-gas emissions and ocean protection. Still others, including Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and the Rainforest Action Network, say they plan to accelerate their anticorporate campaigns, targeting companies like Monsanto, Citigroup and ExxonMobil, “bypassing the middle man,” according to Greenpeace USA director John Passacantando. They hope that through boycotts, demonstrations, consumer education and shareholder protests they can force response on issues such as sustainable forestry and climate change. “Right now we can’t get big gains on big threats from politicians of either party, so we’re going to go after corporate brands, peel off customers and lead global campaigns,” Passacantando explains. “We think we can get more squeezing them on the store shelves than pleading in the Capitol.”

At the same time, enviros at all levels are uniting for a déjà vu showdown with Bush, Cheney and the Republican leadership over drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. While there was some internal debate in 2001 about the movement’s putting too many resources into this one fight, it’s now seen as a make-or-break issue for more than just the caribou. Having vanquished the DLC Dems and the UN and put Saddam in his sights, the President seems to be hankering for a decisive first-strike victory over his environmentalist critics. The enviros’ best hope is for presidential wannabe Senators John Kerry and Joe Lieberman to stick to their earlier pledges to filibuster against a drilling bill (or rider), which would give the enviros time to organize and force ANWR back into the media spotlight. Kerry placed a call to LCV two days after the election to assure them he was still committed to the issue. Leading this fight would also give him a nice campaign advantage over the two big party losers from the midterms, Tom Daschle and Dick Gephardt.

In order to move beyond a purely defensive posture, the environmental movement is going to have to push beyond ANWR on the issues of oil, energy and climate change. This will mean dealing with Bush’s foreign policy on Iraq and the Middle East and committing to a level of national and global politics, both complex and intense, that many US environmentalists have avoided since 9/11, if not since the free-trade battles of Seattle back in 1999.


Media Deregulation

One major victor on election night was Michael Powell, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (and son of the Secretary of State). Powell’s principal Congressional critic–Democrat Ernest “Fritz” Hollings–lost the chair of the powerful Senate Commerce Committee and also the chair of a key subcommittee, thus eliminating the only obstacle to Powell’s far-reaching proposals on media issues. The media lobby in Washington is already gloating over the restoration of GOP control; majority leader Trent Lott in particular is an avid supporter of industry interests.

The new Commerce chair is Republican John McCain, rightly described as a maverick on media issues. McCain, who generally supports media deregulation, is also widely acknowledged to be a key booster of Powell’s career.

Hollings was unique among Congressional Democrats, who have generally remained silent on the Bush FCC proposals. (Too much campaign money and the power of the press have acted as powerful brakes on any public interest spirit.) He was seen as the public interest community’s only major Congressional ally in the fight to retain key FCC media-ownership safeguards. In September Powell launched an ambitious proceeding that by spring could bring the end to a host of rules designed to insure diversity of media ownership–for example, policies that now prevent joint ownership of a newspaper and television station in the same market, and that prohibit one company from owning two major TV networks–and place at least some checks on corporate media power. Powell is the most deregulation-minded chairman of the FCC since the Reagan era; he believes that the US media environment is so diverse that most ownership safeguards are unnecessary. Given the 3-to-2 GOP majority Powell has at the FCC, it is very likely that his proposals will win approval. Media-industry experts are already preparing for a self-described “gold rush,” when newspapers, TV stations and cable systems will be gobbled up by the conglomerates.

Media lobbyists have already breathed a public sigh of relief that Hollings won’t be able to use the appropriations process to block Powell’s agenda, as he threatened to do in his role as chair of the subcommittee funding the FCC. With Republican Ted Stevens as the new chair of the full Appropriations committee, Tribune Company lobbyist Shaun Sheehan told Broadcasting and Cable magazine that “deregulation is no longer under the appropriations cloud.” Tribune–which owns such major outlets as the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times and twenty-four TV stations–has been leading one of the most aggressive campaigns in support of changes in media policy.

Lott will be able to control the Senate agenda and will continue to support the political efforts of the National Association of Broadcasters, the lobbying arm for the broadcasting industry, run by his college buddy Edward “Eddie” Fritts. Most critically, Lott will be able to quash any attempts that would seriously challenge the media lobby interests–including from McCain.

McCain, while generally supportive of media deregulation (he voted against the 1996 Telecommunications Act because he thought it was too regulatory!), has been one of the major critics of the broadcast lobby. He opposed the $70 billion giveaway of extra airwaves to the broadcast TV industry for the transition to digital television, and he has been publicly critical of the power of the broadcast lobby, including its failure to cover, on the air, the industry’s special-interest efforts. McCain is the leading force behind legislation that would require TV stations to provide more airtime for political debate. He even attacked the cable industry last April for continuing to increase monthly subscriber fees far beyond the rate of inflation.

Powell will also receive the blessing of Senator Conrad Burns, a former broadcaster who now assumes control of the Commerce Subcommittee on Communications. And over at the Judiciary subcommittee on antitrust, Senator Mike DeWine will now be at the helm. He and his Democratic colleague Herb Kohl have worked together closely over the years but have generally failed to seriously challenge any media merger.

In addition to spurring deregulation, Republican control is likely to halt any efforts to protect privacy and will remove obstacles to Powell’s radical proposals on how to regulate broadband (high-speed) Internet access. Under Powell, the big cable TV and local phone companies will have greater leeway to control the “last mile” of Internet connections, which the ACLU has warned threatens free speech online.

If nothing else, Congressional Democrats could offer more support for Michael Copps, who until the confirmation of an additional FCC member on November 14 was the only Democrat on the board and one of the most public-interest-oriented commissioners in decades. But if the past–when they were in control–is any guide, Democrats can’t be expected to do much either for Copps or for the media diversity essential to a thriving democracy.


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