Wednesday, December 16, 2009

This is What "Democracy" Looks Like

So, like many of you, I said lots of words when I heard about Joe (fun fact - Stalin was also a Joe - coincidence??? I kid, I kid) Lieberman playing the role of Vito Corleone in this health care reform saga. I used phrases comedians would find offensive. I think I even made up a few new profanities. What can I say, I have many talents. Anyway, point being, the Obama administration pushed generally-spineless Harry Reid to kowtow (Obama kowtows like it's going out of style) to Lieberman and scrap the Medicare buy-in from the bill, which was already a substitute for the public option, which was a self-imposed compromise from Obama (love that hope, baby) away from a broader push for universal coverage or at least some regional-based private system that could maximize economies of scale and competition to get us the best coverage for the most people at the lowest cost. None of this is exactly shocking. Joe Lieberman is, well, a lot of words I won't write here. But none of them are good. And Obama is doing what I thought he would all along, except people seem to be more content with letting him do so than I had hoped. But this is bigger than health care. What the Lieberman affair speaks to is, very simply, the heart of democracy in America today.

What do I mean by that? Simple. Lieberman was always going to push hard against any progressive health care reform. Not just because he's an ass - he is. Not just because he despises the left and wants to stick it to them - he does. Not because his soul is composed of arsenic and sulfuric acid - it is. ( got isn't. Or I should say, I don't know that it isn't. Prove me wrong!) Take all of that away. You could argue against any of those points with some success. There's still one that is far more important than the others - unless Lieberman is, of course, the earthly version of El Diablo, which might be slightly worse. (Again, I kid. But seriously...can you prove he's not? Provide me the proof!) Joe Lieberman runs for office. In order to run for office, Joe Lieberman needs to get loot. Lots of it. It cost almost $6 million to win a Senate seat in 2008. The amount of TV ads, and the rising price of said ads, is part of the reason spending has increased. You know, the 7 ads you see over the course of one episode of Lost in October/November telling you candidate John Smith is actually a terrorist, kills babies himself, or will drop nuclear weapons on every country whose leaders so much as looks at him the wrong way. Ah, nostalgia.

So, Joe Lieberman needs to raise a lot of money in Connecticut. He probably doesn't have to raise that much most of the time, though. There is lots of research looking at, once you get elected, you're much more likely to stay in office. Not only that, but Lieberman hasn't really faced too many serious challengers. Ned Lamont was, of course, an exception, and forced Lieberman to run as an independent/de-facto Republican to win his current term. But, he wants to have the money on hand because it's always good to have money on hand in politics. He wants to obliterate whoever his competition is with TV ads. He wants to outspend his rivals by a lot just to make sure he stays in office. So, he wants lots of money, both hard (from individuals) and soft (from PACs, etc.). Thus, he, like many of his colleagues in Congress, spend a hell of a lot of time fundraising, as opposed to, I don't know, governance. You can't raise millions of dollars that quickly, especially because their are limits on how much donors can give. Thus, it takes time to build up your treasure chest.

Now, who does Joe Lieberman get money from? A lot of sources. But he gets a lot from the health care industry. This includes pharmaceutical companies, the American Medical Association, etc. In other words, organizations that stand to lose a lot if any large-scale health care reform gets through. Lieberman gets a decent amount of money from them. Over his career, he ranks 10th among sitting senators in terms of industry contributions. This amounts to over $1 million - he ranked second in the Senate in contributions from the health insurance industry during his re-election campaign in 2006. Connecticut also happens to be home to a lot of big health insurance companies. Over 22,000 jobs in the state are directly in the health insurance industry. This is obviously problematic. This doesn't account for the loopholes, either. One way Congressional leaders get around campaign finance rules is by having the industry pay their spouses a lot of money through jobs and speaking gigs. Now, if they are highly qualified people for these positions, I get it. If they're not, you're basically filtering money to the candidate through a huge loophole. Lieberman has been getting slammed about this lately, as his wife pockets quite a lot of money from the insurance and pharmaceutical industries...several hundred thousand/year for, essentially, photo-ops. And that's after they actually got cleaner about it. So, yeah, lots of money. And the results seem to follow eerily well. Lieberman's flip flop on the Medicare buy-in came after the insurance industry slammed it.

Some argue that Lieberman's about-face has more to do with ideology - Lieberman did this to oppose the progressive left, something his comments do suggest. Maybe. But what's he going to say? The guys who bankroll me decided it wasn't good, so I did their bidding? At least the anti-liberal argument wins him some points among conservative democrats and Republicans. The admission of following the money could piss everyone off.

So, yeah, let's put the pitchforks down for a second and stop frothing about Lieberman. I hate his guts more than most of you. But his killing the already-compromised Medicare buy-in was almost a given. It's the last fact that's really got me boiling. It was almost a given. The industry owns him. He directly benefits from their avoiding any real competition (since, as I've noted before, health insurance companies resemble oligopolies in America) through universal coverage, regional plans, a public option, or even a Medicare buy-in. Good business for them is good business for him. He's not alone. This industry spends a lot of money in lobbying Congressional leaders, both legally, and through the loopholes. It doesn't matter that most Americans want real reform - too many of their leaders get their marching orders from the health insurance companies. This is the real story in the Lieberman affair.

It extends well beyond health care, obviously. Look at any major industry in the United States and the amount of money they spend lobbying Congressional leaders. It is disgusting. Now, they like to give money to everyone (as it would be politically stupid to only give to one party), so they sometimes do donate to leaders who won't vote their cause. However, a lot do. The revolving door makes it even worse, as people move regularly from the industry, to regulating the industry, to the industry. Something just stinks here. And, of course, these companies have huge swaths of money, which make it hard for people to challenge them in the competition for Congress.

This isn't a left/right issue. It isn't even an anti-corporation issue. It's a democracy issue. If we want to have a strong democracy, the fact that Washington is owned by, and serves, corporations and industries, is a real problem. Look, it's in these companies' interests to lobby. It only makes sense for them to do so. The issue is, we don't check them on it. What we get are policies that are often bad for the majority of Americans, bad for the country in the long-run, but good for industries. We know they're problematic before they even get implemented, but they happen, anyway. Health care is a good example. We badly need to slow down the growth of health care spending, for the sake of our economy in the long-run. However, to do so, we need to implement some major overhauls of the system. Are we doing that? No. In fact, some of the best ways to lower costs in the long-run, like the public option, have already been dropped from the bill.

We can debate the specifics about many of these issues all day and night. And, so long as its on the actual facts, that's a good thing. But when the debate gets hijacked by companies, we have a serious problem, for both liberals and conservatives, and those of us who refuse to be categorized as either of those. When our government no longer works for us, but rather for companies who do not necessarily share our long-term interests, we need to bum rush the show. I don't even blame the industries themselves - it's in their interests to do this. The problem is when we let this kind of thing happen.

Democracy is a very precious thing. It came with a lot of blood, a lot of struggle, and a lot of pain. It is not something we can ever take for granted. The age of Obama is, I think, a scary time, though not because he's a Kenyan Muslim baby-killing gay-loving socialist-capitalist terrorist. It's about issues like democracy itself. I fear that people are becoming complacent, just because he's in power (at least on the left). Contrary to what he says, he is just a politician. His game is to stay in power, just like Joe Lieberman and others. Just because he's in power and there are Democratic majorities in Congress does not mean things are going to go well.

If you haven't seen it, there was a fantastic documentary on this past weekend, The People Speak, which should remind everyone that the things we value the most are the things we must fight for the most, at all times. That means, even with this supposedly liberal administration, that doesn't mean things will change. We have to hold our leaders accountable at all times. The way health care reform has unraveled over the past few months is a prime example. It has become one concession after another. Many say, trust Obama, he's looking out for us on this, it'll be fine. I say, do you know anything about American history? Yes, there will obviously be differences between an Obama administration and a Bush administration (though fewer than you'd think), but this one problem, illustrated by the Lieberman affair, that Washington serves industry over the populace, will remain with us unless we are willing to confront it. It's bad news for all of us, too, from the left and the right. That sacred pledge made hundreds of years ago, to have a government for the people, by the people, is at stake. Obama isn't looking out for us, people. We are looking out for us. We cannot go silent about this, we cannot wait to see how things play out. We need to act in whatever ways we can. In Voices of a People's History of the United States, Howard Zinn and Anthony Arnove give use examples of the power of both the big and little guy/gal who stood up for democracy, freedom, and justice, throughout American history. What has happened in health care reform is indicative of what has happened in a number of other issues, and shows just how fragile our democracy is. Today, democracy, it don't look so good in America. We mustn't wait for our leadership to turn the tide and bring us back to some utopian state. We must put pressure on them ourselves. The great advances in American history only came after great pressure and struggle from Americans who saw wrong and gave everything to right it. We must follow the footsteps of those who came before us, and fight for that democracy. Let's start with health care reform.

p.s. - this has little to do with partisanship. People on the right should be angry about this trend as much as those on the left. While I think Democrats are definitely better than today's brand of Republican, they take a lot of money and allow their corporate interests to override the interests of their constituents and their country a lot, too. A website which has provided a lot of information about who's paying who (although it gets harder when we get to the loopholes, like jobs for wives discussed above) is opensecrets, which is run by the Center for Responsive Politics. Check it out!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Failure of the Federalist, No. 10

Despite our Founders' vision of independent powers exercising checks and balances to prevent a "tyranny of the majority," every branch of the federal government acted last month to cast its lot with torturers. But even though President Obama, Congress and the Court have united to hide evidence of high-level crime, Americans of conscience continue to resist, arguing that sweeping human rights abuses under the rug is a greater threat to national security than dealing with them openly and bringing the perpetrators to justice.

This Monday, the Supreme Court ruled in Department of Defense v. ACLU that the Defense Department could maintain secrecy over photos documenting pervasive torture. While disappointing, the decision was more or less inevitable in the wake of the Obama administration's latest reversal.

After deciding to release evidence of torture in wake of court orders requiring disclosure, the administration later caved to pressure from the intelligence community, and even went so far as to force out the official whose decision antagonized the CIA leadership. Lobbying Congress to secure an amendment to FOIA, the administration bent over backward to protect torturers and keep them from facing justice.

Executive secrecy is appalling enough in the abstract, and even worse in the context of a cover up hiding evidence of apparent war crimes and torture. Authorized by an act of a complacent Congress bowing to a disingenuous administration, the Defense Department acted last week to withhold evidence of its own misconduct, based on an illusory justification citing the safety of U.S. troops abroad. And, as it must under Justice Jackson's analysis in the seminal Steel Seizure cases, the Supreme Court acquiesced.

Every branch of the U.S. government—the Executive, the Congress, and now the Supreme Court—has shockingly acted to sweep evidence of war crimes under the rug. Their collusion is a profound betrayal of our nation's historical legacy, a setback for international human rights, and a devastating defeat for democratic transparency in the face of official misconduct.

But in a democracy, even collusion among every branch of our federal government does not end the story. Last week, the Bill of Rights Defense Committee released a forceful coalition letter I wrote on behalf of nearly 30 interfaith, civil rights, and peace and justice organizations around the country to "explain why transparency and robust accountability are a strategic national security imperative, and to expose the self-interest of voices counseling against accountability."

The letter criticized the "self-serving and internally inconsistent diatribe" of the CIA leadership, reiterating that "any incident of torture or kidnapping violated international law," and also that "detainee abuse...undermined several important national security interests."

First, by forcing detainees to make unreliable statements, coercive interrogation proved to be a poor vehicle for intelligence gathering. Second, torture played into the hands of our nation's enemies by facilitating their recruitment efforts. Finally, torture sapped the morale of junior intelligence agents, as well as the experienced interrogators who complained about torture policies. (citations omitted)

Our coalition went on to examine the impact of torture with impunity on several important groups of stakeholders: (a) the men and women of our armed forces and intelligence services, whose morale has been sapped by the protection of criminals among them; (b) our nation's international allies, "many of which have voiced concerns about detainee mistreatment"; (c) civil society voices supportive of U.S. military deployments in areas where our legitimacy is contested; (d) and the "millions of Americans from all walks of life, demographics, professions, backgrounds, and communities who are appropriately appalled by the CIA's abuses."

Beyond noting the interests of these groups, our letter also reframed a number of misconceptions pervading the issue of accountability for torture, which grows only more pressing with the revelation over the weekend of continuing torture under the Obama administration despite the repudiation of enhanced interrogation techniques.

First, responding to "the self-serving ruse that releasing the photos would undermine the safety of U.S. troops deployed abroad," our coalition argues that "any potential harm to our troops inheres in the criminal conduct depicted in the photos, not their potential disclosure." Moreover, "[t]he extent to which that conduct has undermined our broader national security only reinforces the imperative of prosecution."

Second, the letter reframes the procedural posture, noting that "failing to investigate those who conceived, planned, and orchestrated violations of international law does not reflect political neutrality. In fact, the current investigation, limited to some junior agents, reflects pre-judgment in favor of alleged torturers." (emphasis in original)

Ultimately, "the Department of Defense retains--and we request[ed] that [the President] exercise--the authority to declassify and release the photos." As we argued last week, "Our safety as a nation, as well as the legitimacy of our system of justice, the integrity of our intelligence services, and the strength of our international alliances all depend on [President Obama's] willingness to restore the rule of law by ensuring its equal application to all."

This is the latest among many tests - most of which he has, so far, unfortunately failed - that will demonstrate who the President is in fact. Will he serve as the beacon of hope in government that he pretended to be throughout last year's campaign, or like other politicians, did he merely pander to the public in order to pursue his personal ambitions?

This article was originally published by Huffington Post.