Republicans in Washington succeeded in fighting off Democratic attempts &emdash; as divided and inadequate as they were &emdash; to chart some kind of new course for the Iraq war. But don't think the GOP was all about staying the course. Although Americans continue to view the war as the nation's No. 1 priority, the Republicans have been busy tending to other concerns. Among them:
Minimum wage: For the ninth time since 1997, Senate Republicans 6/21 rejected raising the federal minimum wage. The federal minimum shall remain at $5.15 an hour, the level at which it was set in 1997. The House leadership intends to avoid a vote on the matter &emdash; not so much to avoid the embarrassment of voting against it, but apparently out of fear that it might actually pass.
Estate tax: The House of Representatives voted 269-156 (6/22) to exempt multi-million-dollar estates from taxation. Under the House bill, estates worth up to $5 mln (individuals) or $10 mln (couples) would be exempt from the estate tax; taxes for even larger estates &emdash; those worth up to $25 mln &emdash; would be reduced dramatically from the current levels. If the bill gets through the Senate, it's expected to reduce federal revenues by $283 bln between 2006 and 2016. That's roughly the same as the cost of the Iraq war to date. Democratic House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi calls the tax cut "morally wrong ... especially when we are turning down, rejecting, an increase in the minimum wage." That's a fair point, and it's one she should share with the three dozen Democrats who voted in favor of the estate-tax cuts.
Voting Rights Act: Leaders of the House and Senate made a good show of bicameral bipartisanship in May when they vowed to get renewal of the Voting Rights Act through Congress and onto the president's desk. But in the House on 6/21, the Republican leadership was forced to table renewal legislation in the face of complaints from some GOP members. Their issue? They don't like the fact that the Voting Rights Act still requires states with a history of racial discrimination to get Justice Department approval for their election laws, and they oppose requirements that some states print ballots in languages other than English. As the Los Angeles Times reports, Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, R-Ga., is arguing that it's unfair to single out Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia for special scrutiny. We might agree: That list seems a little lonely without Ohio, doesn't it? &emdash; Tim Grieve, Salon.com.
PREMATURE CUT-N-RUNNERS? When Democrats in the Senate pushed for a resolution calling on the Bush administration to begin to withdraw troops from Iraq by the end of the year, Republicans branded them as cutting-and-running, troop-denigrating America haters and then voted down their measure on a mostly party-line vote, Tim Grieve noted at Salon.com. The Republican congressional leadership support the White House plan to stay in Iraq for the foreseeable future. The D.C. pundits, reflecting GOP talking points, scored it a PR debacle for the Dems, despite polls showing a majority of Americans support withdrawal (see below). Then the New York Times reported (6/25) that Gen. George Casey may be proposing ... a phased withdrawal from Iraq. White House press secretary Tony Snow was asked (6/26) how Republicans could justify attacking Democrats for pushing withdrawal when one of the president's top commanders apparently plans to do exactly the same thing. Snow had a hard time explaining, but he said "one is driven by a calendar and the other is driven by events on the ground." He added, "Gen. Casey keeps in mind a number of scenarios. You're talking about scenarios here ... And so I would caution very strongly against everybody thinking, well, they're going to pull two brigades out. Maybe they will, maybe they won't." A few minutes later, asked if any of Casey's "scenarios" might involve a significant increase in US troop levels, Snow said, "here's the thing about military plans: You don't disclose them." (Except maybe a few weeks before the election.)
Meanwhile, Newsweek and The Times of London reported 6/24 that Iraq's new prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, is planning to ask for a firm US withdrawal plan to be enforced by a UN resolution. And a clear majority of Americans want a withdrawal plan, as a Gallup Poll reported 6/26 in USA Today showed 57% want Congress to pass a resolution outlining a withdrawal plan, while 39% would leave that decision to the president and his advisers. Bush's approval rating was 37% while 60% disapprove, as 55% scored it a mistake to send troops to Iraq and 67% said Bush does not have a clear plan for handling Iraq. Gallup also found, by the way, that 54% oppose a constitutional amendment to prohibit flag burning.
AMERICANS SUPPORT GOOD WARS: White House Press Secretary Tony Snow showed a poor grasp of history when he said (6/18) if polls had been taken during World War II's Bulge of the Bulge, people would probably have been pushing for a change in the course of the war as they are now in Iraq. Josh Marshall of TalkingPointsMemo.com noted (6/21) that Franklin Roosevelt had polls taken during World War II to gauge public support for the war. A graph of trendlines showed no downtick in public support for the war around the time of the German counterattack at the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944. Approval of FDR's conduct of the war continued at around 70%, where it had been for years. The number of people who said they had a clear idea of what the war was about stayed at about the same level and appears to have been rising. Support for a negotiated peace with Hitler remained around the anemic levels it had been for years &emdash; at around 15%. "But the basic picture is clear: the American people then, as they will now, will stick through a lot of adversity if they think the war they're fighting matters and that their president knows what he's doing," Marshall wrote. "Then they did. Now they don't."
SENATE OK'S CORRUPTION: Senate Republicans defeated two attempts to bring corrupt military contractors to account for their wrongdoing, Bob Geiger reported at Democrats.com 6/20. Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., first sponsored an amendment to the defense authorization bill that would have increased penalties for fraud and abuse by military contractors and would have improved competition in contracting and procurement. It was tabled 55-43 on a party-line vote 6/14. Then on 6/20 the Senate, 52-44, defeated Dorgan's amendment to form an oversight committee to investigate military contractor fraud. Lincoln Chafee (R.I.) was the only GOP senator voting with the Dems to investigate contractor corruption.
HEALTH CARE PANEL TAKES COMMENTS: The Citizens' Health Care Working Group, created by Congress in 2003, is calling for the nation to develop and implement universal health care by 2012. President Bush has proposed privatized "health savings accounts" and high-deductible, limited benefit plans to help some of the 46 mln uninsured, but the 14-member working group has declared, "It should be public policy that all Americans have affordable health care," and calls for the government to define a "core" benefit package for all Americans, guarantee financial protection against very high health care costs, support integrated community health networks and promote efforts to improve quality of care and efficiency. The commission is taking recommendations and comments from the public until 8/31 before finalizing its recommendations. See www.citizenshealthcare.gov or phone 301-443-1502.
OUTDATED FEDERAL POLICIES: Rekha Basu, columnist with the Des Moines Register, has been finding out about survivor benefits since her husband, fellow columnist Rob Borsellino, recently died after working 41 years. She received a Social Security death benefit of $255, which has not chanced since 1949. Maybe it would have paid for a funeral back then; today it might pay for flowers. Until the 1980s, Social Security benefits from a deceased parent would have put a surviving child through college. (Survivors' benefits helped put the editor through college after his father died at age 62.) But President Reagan put a stop to that, setting a ceiling of 18 years old to receive benefits. Then there are the limits on what an unmarried widow or widower can earn to qualify for Social Security benefits at age 60: $12,480 or less. "I'm hoping not to have to depend on Social Security in retirement, but many people have no other choice. Now President Bush would rather do away with the program than fix it," Basu wrote (6/25). "It would be helpful if those setting the policies for benefits at least got out and talked to folks who are trying to survive on them."
WHITE HOUSE PRICE LIST DETAILED: Face time with President Bush or Karl Rove cost $100,000, according to emails that showed that prominent Republican activist Grover Norquist facilitated some administration contacts for Jack Abramoff's clients while the lobbyist simultaneously solicited those clients for large donations to Norquist's tax-exempt group, the Associated Press reported 6/24. "Can the tribes contribute $100,000 for the effort to bring state legislatures and those tribal leaders who have passed Bush resolutions to Washington?" Norquist wrote Abramoff in one such email in July 2002. "When I have funding, I will ask Karl Rove for a date with the president. Karl has already said 'yes' in principle and knows you organized this last time and hope to this year." A Senate committee that investigated Abramoff previously aired evidence showing Bush met briefly in 2001 at the White House with some of Abramoff's tribal clients after they donated money to Norquist's group. (Meetings with Cabinet secretaries went for substantially less.) Paul Kiel of TPMMuckraker.com noted 6/24 that Grover Norquist could get in trouble with the IRS for using his nonprofit, Americans for Texas Reform, to lobby and launder money. He also could be criminally liable for any false statements in his filing documents with the IRS or if he conspired to make the organization appear eligible for tax-exempt status when in fact it was not.
PUBLIC WANTS CLEAN ELECTIONS: In the wake of Capitol Hill corruption and bribery scandals, a new nationwide poll released 6/21 by the campaign reform group Public Campaign found that 75% of voters support a voluntary system of publicly-financed "Clean Elections." That includes 80% of Dems, 78% of independents and 65% of Republicans. (See poll numbers at campaignmoney.org/polling.) Public Campaign Executive Director Nick Nyhart said passing Clean Elections initiatives, such as those is all the more important given the 6/26 Supreme Court decision in Randall v. Sorrell, which overturned Vermont's laws that set strict spending and contribution limits on all state elections. But the court left public financing as a reform mechanism in Vermont, as well as Arizona, Maine, North Carolina, Connecticut, New Jersey and New Mexico, as well as the cities of Albuquerque, N.M., and Portland, Ore. An initiative to provide public financing for statewide campaigns has qualified for the November California ballot. See publicampaign.org.
GOLDWATER CALLS FOR FORCED LABOR CAMP: Don Goldwater, nephew of the late Sen. Barry Goldwater and Republican candidate for governor of Arizona, in an interview with Mexican news service EFE (6/23) called for undocumented immigrants to be held in camps where they could be used "as labor in the construction of a wall and to clean the areas of the Arizona desert that they're polluting." Goldwater later said his comments were taken out of context. He said he was calling for a work program for convicted nonviolent felons, similar to "tried and tested, effective and accepted practices" used by state and local jails. But AP noted that Goldwater made a similar comment at an April anti-immigration rally when he promised that if elected, he would put illegal immigrants in a tent city on the border and use their labor to build the Arizona section of 700 miles of fences along the US-Mexico border. Sen. John McCain and Rep. Jim Kolbe, both R-Ariz., called Goldwater's comments "deeply offensive." In Arizona that passes for "moderate" on immigration.
SKEPTICISM IS DANGEROUS: Richard Morin of the Washington Post wondered (6/23) if Jon Stewart is poisoning democracy because two political scientists found that young people who watch Stewart's mock news program, The Daily Show, develop cynical views about politics and politicians that could lead them to just say no to voting. But Matt Stoller of MyDD.com notes that turnout among youth actually went way up in 2004, more than any other age group. And Morin didn't mention the part of the study suggests that even though The Daily Show generates cynicism toward the media and the electoral process, it simultaneously makes young viewers more confident about their own ability to understand politics. In fact, Daily Show viewers were better informed than viewers of "hard news" and newspaper readers, according to a survey by the Annenberg Pulic Policy Center in September 2004. An October 2003 study by the University of Maryland's Program on International Policy found Fox News viewers had the least grasp of facts relating to the invasion of Iraq.
Meanwhile, in hysteria that mocks parody, Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., said he wants to see the New York Times prosecuted for reporting that the Bush administration has been monitoring and examining the bank records of thousands of American citizens and thereby "putting its own arrogant, elitist, left-wing agenda before the interests of the American people." Bush (whose political strategist has curiously avoided prosecution after he was implicated in the outing of an undercover CIA operative) said reports on the bank records &emdash; the Times wasn't the only news outlet to get it &emdash; was "disgraceful" and "does great harm to the United States of America." His assurance that "what we did was fully authorized under the law" would be more comforting if his administration had not been caught in so many lies and overreaches already. White House press secretary Tony Snow went even farther, saying that the "New York Times and other news organizations ought to think long and hard about whether a public's right to know in some cases might override somebody's right to live." The right-wing echo chamber is taking the argument a step further, ThinkProgress.org noted. Appearing on MSNBC's Hardball, radio talker Melanie Morgan said that Times editor Bill Keller is guilty of treason and that "Keller and his associates" should be thrown "in prison for 20 years."
POT TRACES MAY PROVE DUI: Motorists in Michigan can be prosecuted for driving under the influence of drugs if they test positive for any trace of marijuana, even if they inhaled the smoke passively, the Michigan Supreme Court ruled. Justice Michael Cavanagh, in a dissent, called the 4-3 ruling unconstitutionally vague. He cited expert testimony that noted marijuana traces can be detected for up to four weeks after being ingested &emdash; long after its effects have worn off. "Plainly, there is no rational reason to charge a person who passively inhaled marijuana smoke at a rock concert a month ago," Cavanagh wrote. "Now, if a person has ever actively or passively ingested marijuana and drives, he drives not knowing if he is breaking the law, because if any amount of 11 carboxy-THC can be detected &emdash; no matter when it was previously ingested &emdash; he is committing a crime."
EPA NEGLECTS FACTORY FARMS: Family farm and environmental groups are pushing for stronger enforcement of pollution regulations after the US Environmental Protection Agency announced that factory farms will be allowed decide for themselves if they should be regulated under the federal Clean Water Act. After a US Court of Appeals decision in 2003 ordered the EPA to revise a rule controlling factory farm water pollution as part of the Clean Water Act, the EPA weakened it. More than 30 years ago, Congress identified factory farms &emdash; or "concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs)" &emdash; as water pollution point sources that are regulated under the Clean Water Act. Today, most factory farms still do not have Clean Water Act permits. In Iowa, the Department of Natural Resources has only required 3 large-scale confinement facilities to apply for Clean Water Act permits. Factory farms generate 500 million tons of manure annually across the country. Spills and over-application of manure can run off into surface water, killing fish, spreading disease, and contaminating drinking water supplies. For more information see Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement (iowacci.org or phone 515-282-0484).
RITCHIE RUNS IN MINN. Mark Ritchie, founder of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, won the Democratic-Farmer-Labor endorsement for Minnesota secretary of state 6/11 when his only opponent, Christian Sande, conceded after the first round of balloting at the party's state convention, the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported. Ritchie may face other primary challengers but he is virtually assured of winning the DFL nomination and going on to face two-term incumbent Secretary of State Mary Kiffmeyer (R) in November. Ritchie, 54, who founded the Minneapolis-based nonprofit think tank in 1989 and ran the organization until two years ago, in 2004 ran a national campaign, called the National Voice, that helped nonprofit groups across the country register new voters and then encouraged the new voters to cast ballots. Instead of working to help eligible citizens vote, Ritchie said Kiffmeyer "often put up barriers or tried to intimidate those working to help register voters by threatening lawsuits and legal actions."
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