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Obama’s Willing Executioners of the Fourth Amendment

12:06 pm in Uncategorized by Norman Solomon

It’s now painfully clear that the president has put out a contract on the Fourth Amendment. And at the Capitol, the hierarchies of both parties are stuffing it into the trunks of their limousines, so each provision can be neatly fitted with cement shoes and delivered to the bottom of the Potomac.

Some other Americans are on a rescue mission. One of them, Congressman Justin Amash, began a debate on the House floor Wednesday with a vow to “defend the Fourth Amendment.” That’s really what his amendment — requiring that surveillance be warranted — was all about.

No argument for the Amash amendment was more trenchant than the one offered by South Carolina Republican Jeff Duncan, who simply read the Fourth Amendment aloud.

To quote those words was to take a clear side: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Edward Snowden’s heroic revelations have made it possible for some House members from both parties to blow away the fog that shrouds so much tap dancing on Capitol Hill. When the Amash amendment went to the floor, there was no place left to hide.

To their historic shame, 134 Republicans and 83 Democrats voted against Amash’s amendment (while 94 Republicans and 111 Democrats voted for it). That’s how the measure lost, 217-205.

The record of the House vote tells us a lot. Top Republicans—including Speaker John Boehner, Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy—voted with Obama policies to keep smothering the Fourth Amendment. So did top Democrats, including Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer.

The stench at the pinnacle of GOP power hardly surprises most Democrats. But on civil liberties—as on so many other profound issues—a similar odor is emanating from the upper reaches of Democratic power on Capitol Hill, where Pelosi and Hoyer are far from the only Democrats who have become reflexive servants of indefensible Obama policies.

Consider some of the other Democratic luminaries in the House who voted against the Amash amendment: The Democratic National Committee’s chair, Debbie Wasserman Schultz. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s former chair Chris Van Hollen. The DCCC’s current chair, Steve Israel.

Some of the other Democrats who voted no on the Amash amendment include progressive-aura lawmakers like Ami Bera (Calif.), Joaquin Castro (Texas), Luis Gutierrez (Ill.), Marcy Kaptur (Ohio), Joe Kennedy (Mass.), Annie Kuster (N.H.), Nita Lowey (N.Y.) and Louise Slaughter (N.Y.)

Deserving special mention for their deplorable votes against Amash’s amendment are Sheila Jackson Lee from Houston and Jan Schakowsky from Chicago. Both are vice chairs of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

I’ve been critical of the Progressive Caucus for enabling Obama’s rightward moves by doing scant pushback. But credit where due: on Wednesday, aside from Jackson Lee and Schakowsky, the other six officers of the Progressive Caucus and a large majority of its more than 70 members supported the Amash amendment. Eloquence in the floor debate came from John Conyers (the lead co-sponsor of the Amash amendment), Jared Polis, Zoe Lofgren and Jerrold Nadler.

Yet they were no match for the White House, with its media spin machine and behind-the-curtain arm twisting.

President Obama has a firm grip on levers of power, and anyone who thinks that his administration has been chastened enough to tread more carefully on civil liberties is engaged in wishful thinking.

While the House has grown somewhat restive, the Senate has remained notably pliant for the surveillance state. An egregious—and, for some, surprising—example is Al Franken, who declared his support for the NSA surveillance program when news of it broke in early June. “I can assure you, this is not about spying on the American people,” Franken said. From his Senate office, one press release after another has been packed with blather like overstuffed sausages.

Franken is now saying he’ll introduce a bill for “transparency” because the public will support the current surveillance programs if they grasp what’s really involved: “I think that if there were greater transparency, Americans would have a better understanding of these programs.” Count on transparency to be a buzzword cloak for more of the same.

Another Democratic senator, Ron Wyden, has been vastly more candid. At a forum the day before the Amash amendment vote, Wyden said that for surveillance, as far as the Obama administration is concerned, “the authority is essentially limitless.”

An ACLU staff attorney, Alexander Abdo, was driving at the same point when he wrote days ago: “Perhaps the most fundamental problem with the NSA’s constitutional theory is that it has no limit. If the constitution is blind to the collection of our data and limits only the NSA’s later uses of it, then the NSA truly can ‘collect it all’ now and ask questions later. Our emails, phone calls and internet activities would all be very simple for the NSA to collect under the NSA’s theory. But it could go much further. It could put video cameras on every street corner, it could install microphones in every home and it could even remotely copy the contents of every computer hard drive.”

All three branches of the U.S. government are now largely under the control of forces with stunning contempt for basic legal processes required by the Bill of Rights. Mere words and mild reforms from members of Congress may mollify the gullible, but only a direct challenge to the Obama administration’s policies can rise to the level of the current historic imperative to restore civil liberties in the United States.

Which Members of Congress Are Standing Up for Economic Decency – And Which “Progressives” Aren’t

3:00 pm in Uncategorized by Norman Solomon

Jared_Huffman

Representative Jared Huffman (D-CA)

Now we know.

Every member of Congress has chosen whether to sign a letter making a crucial commitment: “We will vote against any and every cut to Medicare, Medicaid, or Social Security benefits — including raising the retirement age or cutting the cost of living adjustments that our constituents earned and need.

The Democratic Party hierarchy doesn’t like the letter. House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi has said that cutting Social Security would “strengthen” it, and President Obama’s spokespeople keep emphasizing his eagerness to cut Social Security’s cost of living adjustments. The fact that Social Security has nothing to do with the deficit is beside the austerity point.

Since mid-February, across the country, many thousands of people have sent personal notes, submitted petitions and made phone calls imploring members of Congress to sign the letter, initiated by Congressmen Alan Grayson and Mark Takano.

Twenty-eight members of the House of Representatives have signed the letter.

Here are their names: Brown, Cartwright, Castor, Clay, Conyers, D. Davis, DeFazio, Ellison, Faleomavaega, Grayson, G. Green, Grijalva, Gutierrez, A. Hastings, Honda, Kaptur, Lee, Lynch, C. Maloney, Markey, McGovern, Nadler, Napolitano, Nolan, Serrano, Takano, Velazquez and Waters.

If you don’t see the name of your Congress member on that list, you live in a House district without a representative standing up for economic decency.

Especially noteworthy are 49 members of the House who belong to the Congressional Progressive Caucus but have refused to sign the Grayson-Takano letter. In most cases, they represent districts with a largely progressive electorate. In effect, their message is: We like to call ourselves “progressive” but we refuse to clearly stand up to an Obama White House that’s pushing to slash Social Security and Medicare benefits. To see the names of those 49 members of Congress, click here.

A case in point: As a freshman Congressman, Jared Huffman represents California’s North Coast district, stretching from the Golden Gate Bridge to the Oregon border. On the 2012 campaign trail, I often heard Huffman assuring voters that he opposed cuts to Social Security and Medicare. (As a candidate, I finished second to him among Democrats in the primary election last June.) When he got to Washington, Huffman joined the Progressive Caucus.

Now, refusing to sign the Grayson-Takano letter, Congressman Huffman publicly touts his disdain for “outside groups.” Days ago, deriding the pressure from organizations urging him to sign the letter, Huffman boasted on his public Facebook page: “I won’t be bullied from the left or the right into signing Norquistian vote pledges to outside groups.”

The pejorative word “Norquistian” is proving to be very handy for some Democratic politicians — eager to equate progressive pledges not to cut vital social programs with right-wing pledges not to increase any taxes — as if standing up for economically vulnerable people is somehow comparable to the ideological rigidity of Grover Norquist. This amounts to old-wine corporate centrism poured into a new rhetorical bottle. Subtext: basic progressive principles aren’t important enough to warrant a wiggle-proof promise.

As battles over key issues of economic fairness intensify on Capitol Hill, we’re very likely to see a lot of Democrats — led by President Obama — preening themselves as virtuously non-dogmatic while they rebuff the minimal humanistic demands of progressive constituencies. The Grayson-Takano letter, for example, has been endorsed by dozens of progressive groups such as National Nurses United, Credo Action, MoveOn.org Civic Action, Bold Progressives, Democracy for America, RootsAction.org, Social Security Works, Progressive Democrats of America, the Strengthen Social Security Coalition, Rebuild the Dream, Progressives United, Color of Change, Campaign for America’s Future, Center for Community Change, Latinos for a Secure Retirement, and the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare.

In the real politics of the emerging struggle over Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, there’s a very big difference between expressing opposition to benefit cuts and promising not to vote for them. It’s only when members of Congress make a firm public commitment that Obama White House strategists may feel a need to recalibrate their deal-making calculus with Republicans.

Even firm commitments have eroded all too often on Capitol Hill, but at least the Grayson-Takano letter is a solid starting point. And as we look to the next election season, we should be searching for alternatives to the members of Congress who call themselves “progressive” but refuse to risk the wrath of an austerity-crazed Obama White House.

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Three-Quarters of Progressive Caucus Taking a Dive on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid

12:19 pm in Uncategorized by Norman Solomon

Rep. Alan Grayson

Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL)

For the social compact of the United States, most of the Congressional Progressive Caucus has gone missing.

While still on the caucus roster, three-quarters of the 70-member caucus seem lost in political smog. Those 54 members of the Progressive Caucus haven’t signed the current letter that makes a vital commitment: “we will vote against any and every cut to Medicare, Medicaid, or Social Security benefits — including raising the retirement age or cutting the cost of living adjustments that our constituents earned and need.”

More than 10 days ago, Congressmen Alan Grayson and Mark Takano initiated the forthright letter, circulating it among House colleagues. Addressed to President Obama, the letter has enabled members of Congress to take a historic stand: joining together in a public pledge not to vote for any cuts in Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid.

The Grayson-Takano letter is a breath of fresh progressive air, blowing away the customary fog that hangs over such matters on Capitol Hill.

The Progressive Caucus co-chairs, Raul Grijalva and Keith Ellison, signed the letter. So did Barbara Lee, the caucus whip. But no signer can be found among the five vice chairs of the Progressive Caucus: Judy Chu, David Cicilline, Michael Honda, Sheila Jackson-Lee and Jan Schakowsky. The letter’s current list of signers includes just 16 members of the Progressive Caucus (along with five other House signers who aren’t part of the caucus).

What about the other 54 members of the Progressive Caucus? Their absence from the letter is a clear message to the Obama White House, which has repeatedly declared its desire to cut the Social Security cost of living adjustment as well as Medicare. In effect, those 54 non-signers are signaling: Mr. President, we call ourselves “progressive” but we are unwilling to stick our necks out by challenging you in defense of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid; we want some wiggle room that you can exploit.

In contrast, the House members on the short list of the letter’s signers deserve our praise for taking a clear stand: Brown, Cartwright, Conyers, DeFazio, Ellison, Faleomavaega, Grayson, G. Green, Grijalva, Gutierrez, A. Hastings, Kaptur, Lee, McGovern, Nadler, Napolitano, Nolan, Serrano, Takano, Velazquez and Waters.

If you don’t see the name of your representative in the above paragraph, you might want to have a few words. (For a list of the 54 Progressive Caucus members who haven’t signed the letter, click here.)

It’s one thing — a fairly easy thing — to tell someone else what you hope they’ll do, as 107 House Democrats did recently in a different letter to President Obama: “We write to affirm our vigorous opposition to cutting Social Security, Medicare, or Medicaid benefits. . . . We urge you to reject any proposals to cut benefits.”

It’s much more difficult — and far more crucial — for members of Congress to publicly commit themselves not to vote for any cuts in those programs, which are matters of life and death for vast numbers of Americans.

Even a signed pledge to do or not do something, in terms of a floor vote, is no guarantee that a member of Congress will actually follow through. But in a situation like this, the pledge is significant — and even more significant is a refusal to make such a pledge.

As of now, 54 members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus have taken a historic dive. We should take note — and not forget who they are.

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Jane Harman and the Killing Aboard the Gaza Flotilla

7:24 pm in Uncategorized by Norman Solomon

The Washington Post calls it “The Flotilla Fiasco” — the headline over Tuesday’s editorial that condemns the victims of a massacre and complains that the perpetrators were inept. “It’s already clear,” the Post laments, “that Israel’s response to the pro-Palestinian flotilla was both misguided and badly executed.”

As for the hundreds of people who risked their lives to bring desperately needed humanitarian supplies to Gaza’s wretched of the earth, the Post was eager to show its contempt for “a motley collection that included European sympathizers with the Palestinian cause, Israeli Arab leaders and Turkish Islamic activists.”

And so it goes, with much of the U.S. press now busily making excuses for the morally inexcusable. In this country, such media maneuvers are in sync with the usual discourse from elected officials.

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When Israel attacked the Gaza aid flotilla, Congresswoman Jane Harman was engaged in a parallel assault. Israel’s government relied on the efficacy of violence; Harman’s campaign was counting on the power of paid media. In both cases, the targets were advocates of human rights for Palestinian people.

Brandishing guns and stun grenades, in international waters, Israeli commandos rappelled from a helicopter and boarded from a fast-moving boat onto the flotilla’s largest ship. The mission was to halt a Gaza-bound expedition carrying 10,000 tons of humanitarian aid.

The mission of Harman’s campaign strategists — targeting her progressive opponent with a slick TV commercial — was to achieve a related goal in California’s 36th congressional district. Stopping the Gaza flotilla and stopping the congressional campaign of Marcy Winograd are similar agenda items.

Harman, a powerful member of the center-right Blue Dog Coalition, is one of the Israeli government’s most valued allies on Capitol Hill. She’s a standout — even in a Congress teeming with fervent apologists for Israel’s relentless suppression of Palestinian rights.

In sharp contrast, her opponent Marcy Winograd — an outspoken advocate of human rights without regard to race, religion or ethnic background — has been unrelenting in her support for Palestinian rights.

And so, less than two weeks before California’s June 8 election, Harman hit the airwaves with a slimy TV commercial aimed at her challenger in the Democratic primary.

After claiming that Winograd “wants to kill the defense budget, putting thousands more people out of work and exposing our nation to attack,” the commercial declared: “Congressman Henry Waxman says in Marcy Winograd’s vision, Israel would cease to exist.”

Yes, liberal Congressman Waxman has distinguished himself by supplying the most demagogic ammo in Harman’s re-election arsenal. And endorsements from several other members of the Progressive Caucus — including John Conyers, Barney Frank, Jim McGovern and Lynn Woolsey — have given Harman more cover.

The basic difference between Harman and Winograd on human rights is clear in the aftermath of the killing of Gaza flotilla activists.

Harman stayed silent for a day and a half. Then she released a tepid statement; not a word went on her campaign website.

Winograd responded quickly. “I suspect the murders were committed as a warning to others who might want to bring humanitarian aid to Gaza,” she said in a widely posted statement. “Ironically, the killings are bound to heighten awareness about the brutal blockade and to increase pressure to end the imprisonment of over a million people in Gaza.”

And Winograd added: “Violence begets violence. Hatred begets hatred. Enough, we must stop this, and adhere to the laws that have been established by the international community. Working for peace and human rights for all is the only way forward. As a Jewish woman of conscience, I invite my opponent, Jane Harman, another Jewish woman, and all of Congress to join me in denouncing this kind of barbaric violence, demanding an end to the blockade and seeking an international investigation into these murders. I recommit myself to working towards a true, just and lasting peace.”

Subsidized with a few billion dollars from the U.S. Treasury each year, the Israeli government depends on support from high Washington places. And that support, in turn, gets reinforced by the kind of propaganda weaponry that Harman is now firing at Winograd. In the process, the salvos amount to preemptive strikes, aiming to dissuade others in politics who might be tempted to speak up for Palestinian rights.

The so-called smart money is on Harman in next Tuesday’s primary, but the incumbent — like the Israeli government — has reason to worry. Sometimes, moral revulsion can topple defenders of the indefensible.

In any event, no amount of advertising firepower can bring down the high moral ground of Marcy Winograd’s grassroots campaign for Congress.