The Commons is a weblog for concerned citizens of southeast Iowa and their friends around the world. It was created to encourage grassroots networking and to share information and ideas which have either been suppressed or drowned out in the mainstream media.

"But if the cause be not good, the king himself hath a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in battle, shall join together at the latter day and cry all 'We died at such a place;' some swearing, some crying for a surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their children rawly left. I am afeard there are few die well that die in a battle; for how can they charitably dispose of any thing, when blood is their argument? Now, if these men do not die well, it will be a black matter for the king that led them to it; whom to disobey were against all proportion of subjection." (Henry V, Act V, Scene 4)

Friday, October 20, 2006

Glenn Greenwald - Is protection from threats the highest political value?

Is protection from threats the highest political value?

by Glenn Greenwald

When President Bush signed the so-called Military Commissions Act of 2006 into law this week, he dismissed away objections to its Draconian and tyrannical provisions with one very simple and straightforward argument:

Over the past few months the debate over this bill has been heated, and the questions raised can seem complex. Yet, with the distance of history, the questions will be narrowed and few: Did this generation of Americans take the threat seriously, and did we do what it takes to defeat that threat? Every member of Congress who voted for this bill has helped our nation rise to the task that history has given us.

That paragraph from the President's remarks is an excellent summary of the philosophy of the Bush movement. Because the threat posed by The Terrorists is so grave and mortal, maximizing protections against it is the paramount, overriding goal. As a result, no other value really competes with that objective in importance, nor can any other objective or value limit our efforts to protect ourselves against The Terrorists. That's what the President is arguing when he said: "Yet, with the distance of history, the questions will be narrowed and few: Did this generation of Americans take the threat seriously, and did we do what it takes to defeat that threat." All that matters is whether we did everything possible to protect ourselves.

That is the essence of virtually every argument made by Bush supporters on virtually every terrorism-related issue. No matter what objection is raised to the never-ending expansions of government power, no matter what competing values are touted (due process, the rule of law, the principles our country embodies, how we are perceived around the world), the response will always be that The Terrorists are waging War against us and we must protect ourselves. That is the only recognized value, the only objective that matters. By definition, there can never be any good reason to oppose vesting powers in the government to protect us from The Terrorists because that goal outweighs all others.

This form of thinking is also what explains the fact that anyone who opposes their policies is seen by them as allies of The Terrorists (rather than advocates of competing values). As the President said, the only real question will be: did "Americans take the threat seriously, and did we do what it takes to defeat that threat?" Given that this is the sole objective that is recognized, this means that every person can essentially be categorized as either (a) someone who does take the threat seriously and wants to do what is necessary to defeat it, or (b) someone who does not.

But our entire system of government, from its inception, has been based upon the precise opposite calculus -- that many things matter besides merely protecting ourselves against threats which might kill us, and beyond that, we are willing to accept an increased risk of death in order to pursue those other values. That worldview -- that maximizing physical safety to the exclusion of all else leads to a poor and empty way of life, and that limiting government power is so necessary that we do it even if it means accepting an increased risk of death when doing so -- is what lies at the very core of what America is.

The Bill of Rights contains all sorts of limitations on government power which make us more vulnerable to threats that can kill us. If there is a serial killer on the loose in a community, the police would be able to find and apprehend him much more easily if they could simply invade and search everyone's homes at will and without warning. But the Fourth Amendment expressly prohibits the police from doing that -- it requires both probable cause and a judicial warrant before they can do so -- even though that restriction makes it more likely that we will be victimized, even fatally, by criminals.

Imagine the Bush movement present during pre-founding debates over the Constitution. Is there any doubt that Bush followers would have argued against the Fourth Amendment restriction on police powers by stressing that violent criminals can kill our children, that we must do everything to protect ourselves against them, and that those who favor search warrant requirements for the police are pro-murderer? If you're not doing anything wrong in your home, what do you have to hide?

Our country is centrally based upon the principle that we are willing to risk death in order to limit government power. Numerous other amendments in the Bill of Rights are identically based on that same principle and, of course, that is the central belief that drove the founders to risk death by waging war against the most powerful empire on earth. We have never been a country that ignores other objectives and asks only, as the President put it, did "Americans take the threat seriously, and did we do what it takes to defeat that threat?" There have always been numerous other values beyond mere protection which are at least as important and that have to be fulfilled in order to be convinced that we acted properly.

The President's comments are as historically inaccurate as they are contrary to core American principles. Historically, the worst mistakes made by America -- those instances in which it has most radically departed from its principles and aspirations -- have come not when Americans failed to take seriously enough some external threat, but to the contrary, when government leaders exaggerated the threat and induced overreactions among citizens. That is the question that will almost certainly be asked by historians. As History Professor Joseph Ellis wrote earlier this year in The New York Times:

My second question is this: What does history tell us about our earlier responses to traumatic events?

My list of precedents for the Patriot Act and government wiretapping of American citizens would include the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798, which allowed the federal government to close newspapers and deport foreigners during the "quasi-war" with France; the denial of habeas corpus during the Civil War, which permitted the pre-emptive arrest of suspected Southern sympathizers; the Red Scare of 1919, which emboldened the attorney general to round up leftist critics in the wake of the Russian Revolution; the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, which was justified on the grounds that their ancestry made them potential threats to national security; the McCarthy scare of the early 1950's, which used cold war anxieties to pursue a witch hunt against putative Communists in government, universities and the film industry.

In retrospect, none of these domestic responses to perceived national security threats looks justifiable. Every history textbook I know describes them as lamentable, excessive, even embarrassing. . . . .

But it defies reason and experience to make Sept. 11 the defining influence on our foreign and domestic policy. History suggests that we have faced greater challenges and triumphed, and that overreaction is a greater danger than complacency.

Our history is not -- as the President's argument assumes -- composed of a failure to take seriously enough external threats, but is instead composed of external threats being exaggerated in order to justify grave excesses and an abandonment of our core values. The scare tactic of telling Americans that every desired expansion of government power is justified by the Terrorist Threat is effective because it has immediate rhetorical appeal. Most people, especially when placed in fear of potentially fatal threats, are receptive to the argument that maximizing protection is the only thing that matters, and that no abstract concept (like liberty, or freedom, or due process, or adhering to civilized norms) is worth risking one's life for or accepting heightened levels of vulnerability to fatal threats.

A couple of months ago, Dean Barnett, writing on Hugh Hewitt's Townhall blog, wrote a post (which I started to write about back then but never finished) which expressed the mindset that lies at the core of the Bush movement (emphasis added):

The most important thing any conservative writer can do today is convince people who think that we’re perfectly safe that we’re not. Personally, I desperately want to reach those who think once Bush leaves office, the republic will be safe. I badly want to communicate with the vast majority of Americans who are benignly indifferent to politics and convince them of the peril we face. I doubt there’s a way of knowing how successful I am at these things - I’m pretty sure progress in such matters is measured in inches, not miles. Anyway, I'm trying.

Barnett says that his goal is to "convince people who think that we’re perfectly safe that we’re not." But nobody thinks we're "perfectly safe." Nothing in life is "perfectly safe." Perfect safety is an illusion, something that is wasteful to pursue, and when pursued to the exclusion of all else, creates a tragically worthless, paralyzed way of life. On a political level, pursuit of "perfect safety" as the paramount goal is precisely what produces tyranny, since one will be motivated by that value system to vest as much power as possible in the government, without limits, in exchange for the promise of maximum protection.

That is the mindset being used to justify endless expansions of presidential power and a radical abandonment of our country's values. Eliminating all risk of the Terrorist Threat is what matters, and nothing else can stand in its way. Hence, torture, indefinite detention, warrantless eavesdropping -- the whole array of authoritarian powers sought by this administration -- are justified because none of the abstract principles and values that are destroyed by vesting such powers matter when placed next to the scary prospect that The Terrorists will kill us. That is the precise opposite of the American ethos, but -- as the President's remarks this week illustrate, appropriately voiced when our country legalized torture and indefinite detention -- it is the predominant mindset under which the country is being governed.

Republican Woes Lead to Feuding by Conservatives - New York Times

Republican Woes Lead to Feuding by Conservatives

WASHINGTON, Oct. 19 — Tax-cutters are calling evangelicals bullies. Christian conservatives say Republicans in Congress have let them down. Hawks say President Bush is bungling the war in Iraq. And many conservatives blame Representative Mark Foley’s sexual messages to teenage pages.

With polls showing Republican control of Congress in jeopardy, conservative leaders are pointing fingers at one other in an increasingly testy circle of blame for potential Republican losses this fall.

“It is one of those rare defeats that will have many fathers,” said David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, expressing the gloomy view of many conservatives about the outcome on Election Day. “And they will all be somebody else.”

Whether the election will bear out their pessimism remains to be seen, and the factors that contribute to an electoral defeat are often complex and even contradictory. But the post-mortem recriminations can influence politics and policy for years after the fact. After 1992, Republicans shunned tax increases. After 1994, Democrats avoided gun control and health care reform. And 2004 led some Democrats to start quoting Scripture and rethinking abortion rights, while others opened an intraparty debate about the national security that is not yet resolved.

In the case of the Republican Party this year, the skirmish among conservatives over what is going wrong has begun unusually early and turned unusually personal.

But almost regardless of the outcome on Nov. 7, many conservatives express frustration that the party has lost its ideological focus. And after six years of nearly continuous control over the White House and Congress, conservatives are having a hard time finding anyone but one another to blame.

“It is pre-criminations,” said Rich Lowry, editor of National Review, the conservative magazine. “If a party looks like it is going to take a real pounding, this sort of debate is healthy. What is unusual is that it is happening beforehand.”

Some conservative leaders have often been quicker in the past to turn on Republican officials and one another than their rank-and-file supporters. But this year polls show broad disaffection at the grass roots, prompting some Republicans — including former Speaker Newt Gingrich — to worry that the public sparring could dampen turnout.

This year’s antagonists also include some new critics, including Mr. Gingrich’s one-time lieutenant, Dick Armey, the former House Republican majority leader.

In recent weeks, Mr. Armey has stepped up a public campaign against the influence of Dr. James C. Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family and an influential voice among evangelical protestants. In an interview published last month in “The Elephant in the Room,” a book by Ryan Sager about splits among conservatives, Mr. Armey accused Congressional Republicans of “blatant pandering to James Dobson” and “his gang of thugs,” whom Mr. Armey called “real nasty bullies” — arguments he reprised on the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal and in an open letter on the Web site organization FreedomWorks.

In an interview this week, Mr. Armey said catering to Dr. Dobson and his allies had led the party to abandon budget-cutting. And he said Christian conservatives could cost Republicans seats around the country, especially in Ohio.

“The Republicans are talking about things like gay marriage and so forth, and the Democrats are talking about the things people care about, like how do I pay my bills?” he said.

Mr. Armey also pinned some of the blame on Tom DeLay, the former Republican House majority leader, who “was always more comfortable with the social conservatives, the evangelical wing of the party, than he was with the business wing.”

Mr. Armey, who identifies himself as an evangelical, said he was tired of Christian conservative leaders threatening that their supporters would stay away from the ballot box unless they got what they wanted.

“Economic conservatives,” he argued, were emerging as the swing voters in need of attention, in part because they had become more likely to vote Democratic in the years since President Bill Clinton was in office. “A lot of people believe he brought us from deficits to surpluses, and there is a certain empirical evidence there,” Mr. Armey acknowledged.

In a statement on Thursday, Dr. Dobson said Mr. Armey was “still ticked” over a long-ago House leadership race in which Dr. Dobson endorsed someone else, and he restated his warnings to Republicans that social conservative voters “would abandon them if they forgot the promises they had made.”

In a recent newsletter from Dr. Dobson’s organization, Representative Mark Souder, an Indiana Republican counting on Christian conservatives to turn out for his re-election, called Mr. Armey’s comments “disgusting” and insulting to “the many Christians around the United States who devoutly hold conservative moral beliefs.”

Christian conservatives began complaining last year that the Republicans had put proposed Social Security changes and tax changes ahead of issues like abortion and same-sex marriage, risking the support of social-issue voters.

Over the summer, Congress held a rush of votes on just those issues — an election-year ritual intended to motivate those voters — and in an interview last week Tony Perkins, president of the Christian conservative Family Research Council, said he believed it had begun to revive some grass-roots enthusiasm.

“But the Foley scandal just let the air out of the tires,” Mr. Perkins said.

Others dismissed the Foley scandal as largely irrelevant outside of Mr. Foley’s district. Several conservatives said Republican incumbents were using it as a scapegoat.

“It will make you feel better to say, I didn’t lose the election; Foley lost it for me,” said Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform. “Your wife and kids will believe it.”

Mr. Norquist said the Iraq war was the biggest drag on Republican candidates even before their big wins in 2004.

“Some people think we did it just to prove we could do it, like people who go running with weights on their ankles,” he said.

Many blame neoconservatives who argued most vocally for the invasion of Iraq. “The principal sin of the neoconservatives is overbearing arrogance,” Mr. Keene said. Neoconservatives, in turn, blamed Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld’s insistence on holding down troop levels for the fouling up of the war

“There is a bit of a battle between people who say, Hey, your tax cuts wrecked our war and people who say, Hey, your war wrecked our tax cuts,” said David Frum, a former Bush speechwriter who was among the war’s proponents.

Mr. Frum argued that the problem with the Iraq war was in its execution, not in the idea behind it. “The war has to be seen through the prism of Hurricane Katrina,” he argued, “because conservatives will support a tough war if they are confident in the war’s management.”

William Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard and another prominent advocate of the invasion, said he doubted that soaring spending was turning off as many voters as tax-cutters like Mr. Norquist or Mr. Armey suggested.

“The spending bill that was supposedly going to destroy the Republican Party was the Medicare drug bill,” he said. “I have heard almost no one talk about it one way or the other.”

Mr. Kristol argued that the Bush administration was suffering politically for applying too little force, not too much. “I am struck that people have the sense in North Korea and Iran that things are spinning out of control,” he said.

Mr. Frum and others blamed the Republican Senate’s support for the president’s guest-worker immigration proposal for angering the grass-roots talk-radio crowd. But Mr. Norquist, who favored the immigration proposal, argued that the election would provide a verdict on “restrictionism” in the fate of Randy Graf, a Republican candidate in Arizona running on calls for tighter borders. Polls show Mr. Graf faces long odds.

Mr. Gingrich, for his part, made the best of the fray, saying, “I would rather have a movement active enough to bite itself rather than a movement so moribund it didn’t realize it was irritated.”

Paul Krugman - Incentives for the Dead

Incentives for the Dead


I don’t know about you, but I need a break from political scandals. So let’s talk about private-sector scandals instead — specifically, the growing scandal involving backdated stock options, which this week led to the resignation of William McGuire, the chief executive of UnitedHealth Group.

To understand the issue, we need to go back to the original ideological justification for giant executive paychecks.

In the 1960’s and 1970’s, C.E.O.’s of the largest firms were paid, on average, about 40 times as much as the average worker. But executives wanted more — and professors at business schools provided a theory that justified much higher pay.

They argued that a chief executive who expects to receive the same salary if his company is highly profitable that he will receive if it just muddles along won’t be willing to take risks and make hard decisions. “Corporate America,” declared an influential 1990 article by Michael Jensen of the Harvard Business School and Kevin Murphy of the University of Southern California, “pays its most important leaders like bureaucrats. Is it any wonder then that so many C.E.O.’s act like bureaucrats?”

The claim, then, was that executives had to be given more of a stake in their companies’ success. And so corporate boards began giving C.E.O.’s lots of stock options — the right to purchase a share of the company’s stocks at a fixed price, usually the market price on the day the option was issued. If the stock went up, these options would pay off; if the stock went down, they would lose their value. And so, the theory went, executives would have the incentive to do whatever it took to push the stock price up.

In the 1990’s, executive stock options proliferated — and executive pay soared, rising to 367 times the average worker’s pay by the early years of this decade.

But the truth was that in many — perhaps most — cases, executive pay still had little to do with performance. For one thing, the great bull market of the 1990’s meant that even companies that didn’t do especially well saw their stock prices rise.

Then there were the tricks that companies used to ensure lavish executive pay even if the stock simply seesawed up and down. For example, after a downward move in the stock price, executive stock options would often be repriced or swapped — that is, the price at which the executive had the right to buy stocks would be reduced to the new market price. Heads the C.E.O. wins, tails he gets another chance to flip the coin.

What the backdating scandal reveals is that for many executives even that wasn’t enough. To ensure that executives profited from newly issued options, companies would pretend that the options had in fact been issued at an earlier date, when the stock price was lower. Thus a contract that Mr. McGuire signed in December 1999 included a grant of one million stock options dated back to Oct. 13, the day UnitedHealth’s stock price reached its low point for the year.

What’s wrong with backdating stock options? There’s a tax evasion aspect, but the main point is the bait-and-switch. The public was told that gigantic executive paychecks were rewards for exceptional performance, but in practice executives were lavishly paid simply for showing up at the office.

And in some cases even that wasn’t required. Cablevision Systems gave options to a deceased executive (in other words, to his heirs), backdating them to make it appear that he had received them while still alive.

The moral of the story is that we still haven’t come to grips with the epidemic of corporate misgovernance revealed four years ago by the Enron and WorldCom scandals, then drowned out as a political issue by the clamor for war with Iraq. Even now, we’re still learning how deep the rot went.

And there’s no reason to believe that the problem has been solved. Three years ago, Warren Buffett declared that reining in runaway executive pay was the “acid test of corporate reform.” Well, executive compensation, which fell briefly after the Enron and WorldCom scandals, has shot right back up.

So we’re still waiting for serious corporate reform. And don’t tell me that everything must be O.K. because stocks have been rising lately. Remember, they rose even faster in the 1990’s — and the 1920’s.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Can You Tell a Sunni From a Shiite?

October 17, 2006
Op-Ed Contributor

Can You Tell a Sunni From a Shiite?


FOR the past several months, I’ve been wrapping up lengthy interviews with Washington counterterrorism officials with a fundamental question: “Do you know the difference between a Sunni and a Shiite?”

A “gotcha” question? Perhaps. But if knowing your enemy is the most basic rule of war, I don’t think it’s out of bounds. And as I quickly explain to my subjects, I’m not looking for theological explanations, just the basics: Who’s on what side today, and what does each want?

After all, wouldn’t British counterterrorism officials responsible for Northern Ireland know the difference between Catholics and Protestants? In a remotely similar but far more lethal vein, the 1,400-year Sunni-Shiite rivalry is playing out in the streets of Baghdad, raising the specter of a breakup of Iraq into antagonistic states, one backed by Shiite Iran and the other by Saudi Arabia and other Sunni states.

A complete collapse in Iraq could provide a haven for Al Qaeda operatives within striking distance of Israel, even Europe. And the nature of the threat from Iran, a potential nuclear power with protégés in the Gulf states, northern Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, is entirely different from that of Al Qaeda. It seems silly to have to argue that officials responsible for counterterrorism should be able to recognize opportunities for pitting these rivals against each other.

But so far, most American officials I’ve interviewed don’t have a clue. That includes not just intelligence and law enforcement officials, but also members of Congress who have important roles overseeing our spy agencies. How can they do their jobs without knowing the basics?

My curiosity about our policymakers’ grasp of Islam’s two major branches was piqued in 2005, when Jon Stewart and other TV comedians made hash out of depositions, taken in a whistleblower case, in which top F.B.I. officials drew blanks when asked basic questions about Islam. One of the bemused officials was Gary Bald, then the bureau’s counterterrorism chief. Such expertise, Mr. Bald maintained, wasn’t as important as being a good manager.

A few months later, I asked the F.B.I.’s spokesman, John Miller, about Mr. Bald’s comments. “A leader needs to drive the organization forward,” Mr. Miller told me. “If he is the executive in a counterterrorism operation in the post-9/11 world, he does not need to memorize the collected statements of Osama bin Laden, or be able to read Urdu to be effective. ... Playing ‘Islamic Trivial Pursuit’ was a cheap shot for the lawyers and a cheaper shot for the journalist. It’s just a gimmick.”

Of course, I hadn’t asked about reading Urdu or Mr. bin Laden’s writings.

A few weeks ago, I took the F.B.I.’s temperature again. At the end of a long interview, I asked Willie Hulon, chief of the bureau’s new national security branch, whether he thought that it was important for a man in his position to know the difference between Sunnis and Shiites. “Yes, sure, it’s right to know the difference,” he said. “It’s important to know who your targets are.”

That was a big advance over 2005. So next I asked him if he could tell me the difference. He was flummoxed. “The basics goes back to their beliefs and who they were following,” he said. “And the conflicts between the Sunnis and the Shia and the difference between who they were following.”

O.K., I asked, trying to help, what about today? Which one is Iran — Sunni or Shiite? He thought for a second. “Iran and Hezbollah,” I prompted. “Which are they?”

He took a stab: “Sunni.”


Al Qaeda? “Sunni.”


AND to his credit, Mr. Hulon, a distinguished agent who is up nights worrying about Al Qaeda while we safely sleep, did at least know that the vicious struggle between Islam’s Abel and Cain was driving Iraq into civil war. But then we pay him to know things like that, the same as some members of Congress.

Take Representative Terry Everett, a seven-term Alabama Republican who is vice chairman of the House intelligence subcommittee on technical and tactical intelligence.

“Do you know the difference between a Sunni and a Shiite?” I asked him a few weeks ago.

Mr. Everett responded with a low chuckle. He thought for a moment: “One’s in one location, another’s in another location. No, to be honest with you, I don’t know. I thought it was differences in their religion, different families or something.”

To his credit, he asked me to explain the differences. I told him briefly about the schism that developed after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, and how Iraq and Iran are majority Shiite nations while the rest of the Muslim world is mostly Sunni. “Now that you’ve explained it to me,” he replied, “what occurs to me is that it makes what we’re doing over there extremely difficult, not only in Iraq but that whole area.”

Representative Jo Ann Davis, a Virginia Republican who heads a House intelligence subcommittee charged with overseeing the C.I.A.’s performance in recruiting Islamic spies and analyzing information, was similarly dumbfounded when I asked her if she knew the difference between Sunnis and Shiites.

“Do I?” she asked me. A look of concentration came over her face. “You know, I should.” She took a stab at it: “It’s a difference in their fundamental religious beliefs. The Sunni are more radical than the Shia. Or vice versa. But I think it’s the Sunnis who’re more radical than the Shia.”

Did she know which branch Al Qaeda’s leaders follow?

“Al Qaeda is the one that’s most radical, so I think they’re Sunni,” she replied. “I may be wrong, but I think that’s right.”

Did she think that it was important, I asked, for members of Congress charged with oversight of the intelligence agencies, to know the answer to such questions, so they can cut through officials’ puffery when they came up to the Hill?

“Oh, I think it’s very important,” said Ms. Davis, “because Al Qaeda’s whole reason for being is based on their beliefs. And you’ve got to understand, and to know your enemy.”

It’s not all so grimly humorous. Some agency officials and members of Congress have easily handled my “gotcha” question. But as I keep asking it around Capitol Hill and the agencies, I get more and more blank stares. Too many officials in charge of the war on terrorism just don’t care to learn much, if anything, about the enemy we’re fighting. And that’s enough to keep anybody up at night.

Jeff Stein is the national security editor at Congressional Quarterly.

Bush in a Snit

Bush in a Snit

By Dan Froomkin
Special to
Monday, October 16, 2006; 12:52 PM

The notion that President Bush is not just in denial -- but is petulantly in denial -- is taking on greater credence thanks to two recent Washington Post stories.

One describes Bush's seemingly inexplicable confidence that Republicans will maintain control of both houses of Congress in the upcoming elections. He doesn't even seem to have a backup plan.

The other describes Bush's growing penchant for calling events on the world stage that he doesn't like "unacceptable" -- an awfully strong formulation in diplomatic circles -- even as his ability to affect those events continues to wither away.

Upbeat During a Meltdown

Michael Abramowitz writes in Sunday's Washington Post: "Amid widespread panic in the Republican establishment about the coming midterm elections, there are two people whose confidence about GOP prospects strikes even their closest allies as almost inexplicably upbeat: President Bush and his top political adviser, Karl Rove. . . .

"The official White House line of supreme self-assurance comes from the top down. Bush has publicly and privately banished any talk of losing the GOP majorities, in part to squelch any loss of nerve among his legions. Come January, he said last week, 'We'll have a Republican speaker and a Republican leader of the Senate.'

"The question is whether this is a case of justified confidence -- based on Bush's and Rove's electoral record and knowledge of the money, technology and other assets at their command -- or of self-delusion. Even many Republicans suspect the latter. Three GOP strategists with close ties to the White House flatly predicted the loss of the House, though they would not do so on the record for fear of offending senior Bush aides."

In a similar vein, Kenneth T. Walsh writes for U.S. News: "Some Republican strategists are increasingly upset with what they consider the overconfidence of President Bush and his senior advisers about the midterm elections November 7--a concern aggravated by the president's news conference this week. . . .

"'The Bush White House has had no relationship with Congress,' said a Bush ally. 'Beyond the Democrats, wait till they see how the Republicans--the ones that survive--treat them if they lose next month.' GOP insiders are upset by Bush's seeming inability to come up with new ideas or fresh approaches. . . .

"There is also considerable criticism of Bush for making little or no news in his 63-minute encounter with the press.

"'He had nothing to say at the press conference,' says a prominent GOP insider. 'My question is, why call it?'"

Marc Sandalow of the San Francisco Chronicle examines the history of harsh words between Bush and House Democratic leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi and asks: "So if Pelosi's party wins control of the House for the final two years of Bush's presidency, can the new Democratic speaker and the Republican chief executive put aside their rhetorical disdain long enough to forge a productive relationship?"

Pelosi says yes, on her terms: "If Democrats are in control of the House, the president will have to listen," she said.

But Sandalow writes that the White House, predictably, "dismissed the premise of a question regarding how Bush might work with a Speaker Pelosi.

"'The president fully intends to maintain control of the House and the Senate and looks forward to working with (Republican) Speaker (Dennis) Hastert,' White House spokesman Peter Watkins said."

Simply Unacceptable

R. Jeffrey Smith , with research assistance from Lucy Shackelford, writes in Friday's Washington Post: "President Bush finds the world around him increasingly 'unacceptable.'

"In speeches, statements and news conferences this year, the president has repeatedly declared a range of problems 'unacceptable,' including rising health costs, immigrants who live outside the law, North Korea's claimed nuclear test, genocide in Sudan and Iran's nuclear ambitions.

"Bush's decision to lay down blunt new markers about the things he deems intolerable comes at an odd time, a phase of his presidency in which all manner of circumstances are not bending to his will: national security setbacks in North Korea and Iraq, a Congress that has shrugged its shoulders at his top domestic initiatives, a favorability rating mired below 40 percent. . . .

"Having a president call something 'unacceptable' is not the same as having him order U.S. troops into action. But foreign policy experts say the word is one of the strongest any leader can deploy, since it both broadcasts a national position and conveys an implicit threat to take action if his warnings are disregarded. . . .

"Moisés Naím, the editor in chief of Foreign Policy magazine, said there is a relationship between 'how strident and extreme' the language of many leaders is and how limited their options are. For Bush, Naím said, 'this comes at a time when the world is convinced he is weaker than ever.' . . .

"Bush's proclamations are not the only rhetorical evidence of his mounting frustrations. One of his favorite verbal tics has long been to instruct audiences bluntly to 'listen' to what he is about to say, as in 'Listen, America is respected' (Aug. 30) or 'Listen, this economy is good' (May 24). This year, he made that request more often than he did in a comparable portion of 2005, a sign that he hasn't given up hope it might work."


All of this reminded one faithful reader of my column of that running joke in the movie, "The Princess Bride," where the evil Vizzini, played by Wallace Shawn, repeatedly splutters "inconceivable!" in the fact of the implacable advance of the Dread Pirate Roberts. Eventually, Mandy Patinkin as Inigo Montoya tells him: "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."

(See IMDB 's list of memorable quotes from the movie.)

Angry President

The Huffington Post called my attention to this exchange on NBC's Chris Matthews Show on Sunday, between correspondent Andrea Mitchell and Bob Woodward.

Andrea Mitchell: "Andy Card, former White House chief of staff so memorably interviewed by Bob Woodward for the book, did fly down to the christening of the George Herbert Walker Bush [aircraft] carrier last week on Air Force One, at the personal invitation of the president. But this does not mean he's been absolved. In fact, the president -- and the first lady, most importantly -- are really angry at him for talking to Bob Woodward."

Woodward: "For telling the truth!"

Mitchell: "For telling the truth. And the real reason he was there was the former president Bush wanted him."

Angry Former Presidential Aides

Thomas M. DeFrank writes in the New York Daily News that "one of the worst-kept secrets in Bush World is the dismay, in some cases disdain, harbored by many senior aides of the former president toward the administration of his son - 41 and 43, as many call them, political shorthand that refers to their numerical places in American presidential history.

"For five years, the 41s have bit their collective tongues as, they complain, the 43s ignored their counsel. But as the war in Iraq has worsened and public support for the current administration has tanked, loyalists of the elder Bush have found it impossible to suppress their disillusionment - particularly their belief that many of 43's policies are a stick in the eye of his father.

"'Forty-three has now repudiated everything 41 stands for, and still he won't say a word,' a key member of the elder Bush alumni said. 'Personally, I think he's dying inside.' . . .

"'Everyone knew how Rumsfeld acts,' another key 41 assistant said. 'Everyone knew 43 didn't have an attention span. Everyone knew Condi (Rice) wouldn't be able to stand up to Cheney and Rumsfeld. We told them all of this, and we were told we don't know what we're doing.'"

Angry Electorate

John Whitesides writes for Reuters: "With three weeks left in a volatile U.S. election campaign, growing public unhappiness with the Iraq war has become the top obstacle for Republicans in their fight to keep control of Congress, pollsters and analysts said. . . .

"'This election has become a referendum on Bush and a referendum on his principal policy, which in the minds of voters is Iraq,' said pollster Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center.

"'It is clear the public is angry with President Bush and therefore with Republicans for a war that has his name on it,' he said."

The Baker Panel

Eli Lake wrote for the New York Sun on Friday: "A commission formed to assess the Iraq war and recommend a new course has ruled out the prospect of victory for America, according to draft policy options shared with The New York Sun by commission officials.

"Currently, the 10-member commission -- headed by a secretary of state for President George H.W. Bush, James Baker -- is considering two option papers, 'Stability First' and 'Redeploy and Contain,' both of which rule out any prospect of making Iraq a stable democracy in the near term."

Doyle McManus has more in today's Los Angeles Times: "A commission backed by President Bush that is exploring U.S. options in Iraq intends to propose significant changes in the administration's strategy by early next year, members say. . . .

"While it weighs alternatives, the 10-member commission headed by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III has agreed on one principle.

"'It's not going to be "stay the course,"' one participant said. 'The bottom line is, [current U.S. policy] isn't working. . . . There's got to be another way.'"

Changing Justifications

Tom Raum writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush keeps revising his explanation for why the U.S. is in Iraq, moving from narrow military objectives at first to history-of-civilization stakes now. . . .

"When no weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq, Bush shifted his war justification to one of liberating Iraqis from a brutal ruler.

"After Saddam's capture in December 2003, the rationale became helping to spread democracy through the Middle East. Then it was confronting terrorists in Iraq 'so we do not have to face them here at home,' and 'making America safer,' themes Bush pounds today."

"'We're in the ideological struggle of the 21st century,' he told a California audience this month. 'It's a struggle between good and evil.'

"Vice President Dick Cheney takes it even further: 'The hopes of the civilized world ride with us,' Cheney tells audiences."

The White House fired back with another of its Setting The Record Straight memos, asserting that Bush had indeed mentioned the importance of liberating the Iraqi people and spreading democracy before the war.

Betrayal Watch

A new memoir by David Kuo, former second-in-command of Bush's Office of Faith-Based Initiatives, has the White House on the defensive.

In an excerpt from his book published by Time, Kuo writes about one particularly cynical sounding exchange with the president himself.

Bush, with Karl Rove nearby, asked Kuo how much money had been made available to faith-based groups by Bush's new initiative.

"I glanced over at Karl and turned to look the President in the eye. 'Sir, we've given them virtually nothing,' I said, 'because we have had virtually nothing new to give.' The President had been looking down at some papers about the event, but his head jerked up. 'Nothing? What do you mean we've given them nothing?' He glared. 'Don't we have new money in programs like the Compassion Fund thing?'

"I looked again at Karl. He seemed stunned at what I was saying. 'No, sir,' I told the President. 'In the past two years we've gotten less than $80 million in new grant dollars.' The number fell shockingly short of the $8 billion he had vowed to deliver in the first year alone. . . .

"I was also contradicting our office's own spin. In an effort to divert attention from all the money that wasn't being given to faith-based groups, we had come up with the idea of highlighting the amount of money now 'available' to faith-based organizations because of particular administrative reforms announced six months earlier. It was one of those wonderful Washington assertions that is simultaneously accurate and deceptive and just confusing enough to defy opposition. . . .

"I finished the briefing. Yes, I told the President, because of new regulations there was technically about $8 billion in existing funding that was now more accessible to faith-based groups. But, I assured him, those organizations had been getting money from those programs for years and it wasn't that big a deal.

"'Eight billion in new dollars?' he asked.

"'No, sir. Eight billion in existing dollars where groups will find it technically easier to apply for grants. But faith-based groups have been getting that money for years.'

"'Eight billion,' he said. 'That's what we'll tell them. Eight billion in new funds for faith-based groups. O.K., let's go.'"

Lesley Stahl interviewed Kuo on 60 Minutes yesterday. Here's the video . Notes Stahl: "In his book, Kuo wrote that White House staffers would roll their eyes at evangelicals, calling them 'nuts' and 'goofy.'"

In his briefing on Friday, press secretary Tony Snow tried to knock down Kuo's allegations.

"Q Is it possible that Karl Rove called them nuts, the evangelicals?

"MR. SNOW: He says no.

"Q You've asked him about the quotes that are already out?

"MR. SNOW: The nuts quote he was asked about. I don't know if there are any additional ones, but I'll be happy to run all by Karl. But here's what your -- Karl made the same point I did, which is, 'these are my friends, I don't talk about them like that.'"

But Greg Sargent blogs for the American Prospect that Snow got off easy because the press corps "didn't seem to have any real command of the basic facts surrounding the book's potentially important allegations. . . .

"So Snow asked Rove about the 'nuts' quote. And Rove denied saying it. But guess what? Uttering that quote isn't what Rove is accused of in the new book. It's unnamed staffers who are accused of calling evangelicals 'nuts,' not Rove. Rather, Rove is accused by Kuo of a completely different quote -- one which is meant to illuminate Rove's cynical view of the political usefulness of evangelicals."

This from Keith Olbermann on MSNBC Thursday night:

"Kuo . . . says the faith-based office wasn't even set up during the 2001 transition after the end of the Clinton administration. It was not set up until Mr. Bush took office and Karl Rove gave a transition volunteer less than one week to roll out the entire faith-based initiative.

"The volunteer asked Rove how he should do that without a staff, without an office, without even a plan. According to Kuo, quote, 'Rove looked at him, took a deep breath, and said, "I don't know. Just get me a f-ing faith-based thing, got it?" unquote."

Abramoff Watch

Peter Wallsten writes in the Los Angeles Times: "For five years, Allen Stayman wondered who ordered his removal from a State Department job negotiating agreements with tiny Pacific island nations -- even when his own bosses wanted him to stay.

"Now he knows.

"Newly disclosed e-mails suggest that the ax fell after intervention by one of the highest officials at the White House: Ken Mehlman, on behalf of one of the most influential lobbyists in town, Jack Abramoff. . . .

"Mehlman said he did not recall the details of his contacts with the Abramoff team, including discussions about Stayman, the former State Department official. But he said such interactions were part of his job as White House political director.

"'I was a gateway,' Mehlman said in an interview. 'It was my job to talk to political supporters, to hear their requests, and hand them on to policymakers.'"

CNN's Wolf Blitzer asked Mehlman about that yesterday.

Blitzer: "In the L.A. Times, it quotes an e-mail from one of Abramoff's associates, as saying, 'Mehlman said he would get him fired.'

"MEHLMAN: Yes, Mehlman didn't have that authority. Mehlman wouldn't say he had that authority. And remember, you're dealing with individuals who, as we know, have pled guilty to defrauding their clients by saying they did things they weren't able to get done."

Snow the Partisan

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times: "In the six months since Mr. Bush enlisted him to resuscitate a White House press operation that was barely breathing, Mr. Snow, a former Fox News television and radio host and a conservative commentator, has reinvented the job with his snappy sound bites and knack for deflecting tough questions with a smile. Now, he is reinventing it yet again, by breaking away from the briefing room to raise money for Republicans, as he did here on Saturday night for Speaker J. Dennis Hastert. . . .

"Yet even as the Republican establishment revels in his celebrity -- 'It's like Mick Jagger at a rock concert,' Mr. Rove said -- Mr. Snow's extracurricular activities are making some veteran Washington hands, including those with strong Republican ties, deeply uneasy.

"'The principal job of the press secretary is to present information to reporters, not propaganda,' said David R. Gergen, who served in the Nixon, Ford and Reagan administrations and also advised President Bill Clinton. 'If he is seen as wearing two hats, reporters as well as the public will inevitably wonder: is he speaking to us now as the traditional press secretary, or is he speaking to us as a political partisan?'"

There's also the credibility question. As Stolberg writes, here's Snow on "the intellectual acumen of his boss: 'He reminds me of one of those guys at the gym who plays about 40 chessboards at once.'"

Larry Sandler writes in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: "President Bush is smarter than his critics think, Bush's chief spokesman said Thursday. . . .

"Snow said Bush questioned aides closely to learn all sides of an issue because he knows 'you can't be living in a dream world' as president."

Poll Watch

The Wall Street Journal reported on Friday: "President Bush's job-approval rating fell, with 34% of Americans voting him 'excellent' or 'good,' down from 38% in September, according to a new Harris Interactive poll.

"Sixty-four percent of U.S. adults now have a negative view of Mr. Bush's job performance, compared with 61% who ranked him 'only fair' or 'poor' in a similar poll last month. The drop follows a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll that showed the president's job approval rating fell to 39% from 42% earlier in October."

Cynical, or Just Forgetful?

The White House issued a solemn statement Thursday commemorating the sixth anniversary of the al Qaeda attack on the USS Cole.

The White House has been citing the Cole a lot lately, as part of its narrative that President Clinton, who was in charge back then, was asleep at the switch when it came to terrorism.

I went back to see what the White House statement was like on the fifth anniversary of the attack on the Cole. But there wasn't one!

And there wasn't one on the fourth, the third, the second or the first, either.

Specter's Dive?

R. Jeffrey Smith writes in The Washington Post about whether Republican Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter knuckled under to White House pressure yet again -- but this time, in a particularly sneaky fashion.

At issue: Proposed amendments to the recent detainee legislation that, among other things, stripped detainees of habeas corpus rights

Specter is accused of having put to a vote only the more assertive of two amendments restoring habeas rights -- knowing that it would be defeated, thereby giving the White House an important political victory before the mid-term elections.

Writes Smith: "Questions about Specter's role in the last-minute maneuvering arose in part because he had taken a maverick position before -- and then backed President Bush's policy on the floor or in his votes."

Bush is set to sign the legislation tomorrow morning in a Rose Garden ceremony.

The Washington Region Religious Campaign Against Torture will hold a simultaneous "vigil to mourn the attack this legislation wages on basic American and religious values." And a " People's Signing Statement will be presented to the White House, during which time some participants are prepared to commit acts of civil disobedience in order to deliver the People's Signing Statement to the president."

The Gift That Barked

Darlene Superville writes for the Associated Press: "When U.S. presidents receive gifts, the items are acknowledged, then packed away in a government warehouse to await the opening of his future library."

But Bulgarian President Georgi Parvanov gave Bush a dog: "a living, barking, 2-month-old Bulgarian Goran shepherd pup named Balkan of Gorannadraganov. . . .

"Obviously, Balkan couldn't be sent to the National Archives with the rest of the presidential booty. The Bushes apparently considered taking him to their ranch in central Texas but realized he might not adapt well to the heat, said first lady spokeswoman Susan Whitson."

So Bush ended up giving the dog "to an unidentified friend who lives with her Bulgarian-American husband on a farm in Maryland, Whitson said."

The dog was one of more than 100 gifts worth nearly $75,000 Bush received from the leaders of some 50 countries last year.

Here's a partial list from the Associated Press. Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah gave Bush an $8,000 clock; Russian President Vladimir Putin gave Bush a $5 photograph of the Bush's father.

Here's the full list from the Federal Register.

Answers From a Bush?

John M. Broder blogs for the New York Times about this new political ad , which "shows a variety of Americans standing in a park asking questions of a piece of shrubbery. 'So what's our exit strategy from Iraq?' the first person asks. 'Why did we let down Katrina victims?' asks an African-American man. 'Why are we losing so many jobs to overseas?' asks an elderly citizen. The narrator then says, 'Okay, it's kind of ridiculous to think you're ever going to get an answer from this (pause) bush. But it's also kind of ridiculous to think you're going to get an answer (cue a picture of President Bush) from this one.'"

Still Dancing to Ollie's Tune

Still Dancing to Ollie's Tune
By Greg Grandin

Tuesday 17 October 2006

Will the Democrats blow it again as they did in 1986?

A Republican Party on the ropes, bloodied by a mid-second-term scandal; a resurrected Democratic opposition, sure it can capitalize on public outrage to prove that it is still, in the American heart of hearts, the majority party.

But before House Democrats start divvying up committee assignments and convening special investigations, they should consider that they've been here before, and things didn't turn out exactly the way they hoped.

It was twenty years ago this November 3rd - exactly one day after the Democrats regained control of the Senate after six years in the minority - that the Lebanese magazine Ash-Shiraa reported on the Reagan administration's secret, high-tech missile sale to Ayatollah Khomeini's Iran, which violated an arms embargo against that country and contradicted President Ronald Reagan's personal pledge never to deal with governments that sponsored terrorism.

Democrats couldn't believe their luck. After years of banging their heads on Reagan's popularity and failing to derail his legislative agenda, they had not only taken back the Senate, but follow-up investigations soon uncovered a scandal of epic proportions, arguably the most consequential in American history, one that seemed sure to disgrace every single constituency that had fueled the upstart conservative movement. The Reagan Revolution, it appeared, had finally been thrown into reverse.

The New York Times reported that the National Security Council was running an extensive "foreign policy initiative largely in private hands," made up of rogue intelligence agents, mercenaries, neoconservative intellectuals, Arab sheiks, drug runners, anticommunist businessmen, even the Moonies. Profits from the missile sale to Iran, brokered by a National Security Council staffer named Oliver North, went to the Nicaraguan Contras, breaking yet another law, this one banning military aid to the anti-Sandinista guerrillas.

The ultimate goal of this shadow government, said a congressional investigation, was to create a "worldwide private covert operation organization" whose "income-generating capacity came almost entirely from its access to U.S. government resources and connections" - either from trading arms to Iran or from contributions requested by administration officials. Joseph Coors and H. Ross Perot kicked in, as did the Sultan of Brunei, whose $10,000,000 gift, solicited by Assistant Secretary of State Elliot Abrams, went missing after it was deposited into the wrong Swiss bank account.

The Democrats, now the majority in both congressional chambers, gleefully convened multiple inquiries into the scandal. From May to August 1987, TV viewers tuned in to congressional hearings on the affair. They got a rare glimpse into the cabalistic world of spooks, bagmen, and mercenaries, with their code words, encryption machines, offshore holding companies, unregistered fleets of boats and planes, and furtive cash transfers. Fawn Hall, Oliver North's secret shredder, told of smuggling evidence out of the Old Executive Office Building in her boots, and lectured Representative Thomas Foley that "sometimes you have to go above the written law."

Foreign enemies were not the only targets set in North's crosshairs, as later investigations described what was in effect a covert operation run on domestic soil, with the White House mobilizing conservative grassroots organizations to plant disinformation in the press and harass legislators and reporters who opposed or criticized President Reagan's Contra policy.

Reagan's poll numbers plummeted and talk of impeachment was rampant. Democratics thought they had found in Iran-Contra a sequel to Watergate, another tutorial about the imperial presidency that would enable them to consolidate the power Congress had assumed over foreign policy in the 1970s.

But just a year after the hearings, Iran-Contra was a dead issue. When Congress released its final report on the matter in November 1988, Reagan breezily dismissed it. "They labored," he said, "and brought forth a mouse." Vice President George H.W. Bush was elected president that month, despite being implicated in the scandal.

Ollie's Song

How could the Democrats have failed to inflict serious damage on an administration that had sold sophisticated weaponry to a sworn enemy of the United States? How could they have botched the job of transforming a conspiracy of self-righteous renegades, many of whom not only admitted their crimes but unrepentantly declared themselves to be above the law, into a defense of constitutional checks and balances in the realm of foreign affairs?

One reason is that the congressional hearings they called backfired on them. In the early months of those hearings, Congress methodically gathered damning testimony and documentary evidence of what many believed amounted to treason by high-level administration officials, if not the President himself.

But then in marched Oliver North - the crisp Marine, with his hard-rock jaw and chest full of medals. Ronald Reagan may have once been an actor, but it was North's dramatic chops that rescued his presidency.

For six days, the Marine fended off the questions of politicians and their lawyers. His answers were contradictory and self-serving, but his performance was virtuoso. Many viewers viscerally connected with the loyalty and courage so artfully on display. "If the commander in chief tells this lieutenant colonel to go stand in the corner and stand on his head," North said, "I will do so." Never mind that, as Senator Daniel Inouye, a maimed WWII veteran, pointed out, the U.S. Military Code stipulates that only legal orders are to be followed. Ollie-mania swept the heartland and Hollywood. Even liberal TV producer Norman Lear admitted he couldn't "take [his] eyes off" the colonel.

North's luster may not have rubbed off on Reagan, but his standoff with Congress allowed the president's defenders to take control of the storyline, reducing the scandal's cacophony to the simple chords of patriotism and anticommunism. Conservative activist Richard Viguerie compared the hearings to a song: "Liberals are listening to the words, but the guy in the street hears the music. The music is about men and women who are prepared to die for their country."

At the heart of the Democrats disaster was their unwillingness ever to question North's militarism or Reagan's support for the Contras, whose human-rights atrocities were well-documented. Rather than attacking Reagan's restoration of anticommunism as the guiding principle of U.S. policy, they focused on procedure - such as the White House's failure to oversee the National Security Council - or on proving that top officials had prior knowledge of the crimes.

Much as Hillary Clinton and John Kerry today focus on this administration's "incompetence" and "mishandling" of the Iraq War, Democrats twenty years ago were scathing in their descriptions of an administration steeped in "confusion, secrecy and deception" as well as of the White House's "pervasive dishonesty" and "disarray." But as today, so then, these criticisms seemed like mere cavils when the security of the United States - of the "Free World" - was at stake.

In 1988, when Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis, in his first debate with Vice President Bush, brought up the scandal, Bush responded that he would take "all the blame" for Iran-Contra if he got "half the credit for all the good things that have happened in world peace since Ronald Reagan and I took over." Dukakis quietly took the deal, never again raising the issue. So, when Ollie North jibed that Libya's Muammar Qaddafi endorsed Dukakis, there was little left for the Massachusetts governor to do but don a helmet, jump in a tank, and look famously foolish.

Along with political timidity, there was another factor that led to the Democratic collapse on Iran-Contra - careerism. Far more so than today, Washington was then a clubby, small, inbred world. One of the reasons why the anger over George H.W. Bush's Christmas Eve 1992 pardon of six indicted Iran-Contra figures was so short-lived is that the move was quietly blessed by ranking Congressional Democrats, including Wisconsin Representative Les Aspin, who huffed and puffed but let the matter die. Aspin, who had supported aid to the Contras, was later tapped by Bill Clinton to be Secretary of Defense, easily winning confirmation with significant Republican support.

Careerism naturally leads to back-room deals. There were rumors that Democratic House Majority Leader Tip O'Neill, who unlike Aspin was an outspoken critic of Contra funding, toned down his opposition as a quid pro quo to secure federal funds for Boston's Big Dig construction project - another disaster from the 1980s that we are still living with.

Unleashing the Imperial Presidency

But if the Democrats failed to gain political traction with the scandal, or wring a parable out of it, others did far better. Dick Cheney today points to Iran-Contra not as a cautionary tale against unchecked executive power but as a blueprint for how to obtain it.

It turns out that it was Dick Cheney's current chief of staff David Addington - the man the press calls "Cheney's Cheney" for his defense of unchecked presidential power in matters of foreign policy - who, as a counsel to the Republicans serving on the congressional Iran-Contra committee, wrote the controversial 1988 "Minority Report" on the scandal.

At the time, the report, which condemned not the National Security Council for its secret dealings but Congress for its "legislative hostage taking," was considered out of the mainstream. Today, it reads like a run-of-the-mill Justice Department memo outlining the legal basis for any of the Bush Administration's wartime power grabs. It was this report that Cheney referenced when asked last December about his role in strengthening the executive branch. The report, he said, was "very good in laying out a robust view of the President's prerogatives" to wage war and defend national security.

Cheney and Addington are not the only veterans of the scandal to have found a home in the current White House. Other Iran-Contra notables who have resurfaced in recent years include Elliot Abrams, John Bolton, Otto Reich, John Negroponte, John Poindexter, neoconservative Michael Ledeen, and even Manucher Ghorbanifar, the Iranian arms dealer who brokered one of the first missile sales to the Khomeini regime.

This recycling of Iran-Contra personnel to fight the War on Terror points to the most important reason it has been so difficult to transform the scandal into a parable: Iran-Contra wasn't just a crime and a cover-up - as Watergate was - or a misdemeanor like Monica-Gate. It was rather the first battle in the neoconservative campaign against Congress and in defense of the imperial presidency.

Iran-Contra field-tested many of the tactics used by the Bush administration to build support for the invasion of Iraq by manipulating intelligence, spinning public opinion, and riding roughshod over experts in the CIA and the State Department who counseled restraint. While the original Iran-Contra battle might be termed a draw - the eleven convicted conspirators won on appeal or were pardoned by George H.W. Bush - the backlash has become the establishment.

That 80s Show

Today, with that establishment shackled to the most ruinous war in recent U.S. history, the Republicans, taking a page out of Oliver North's songbook, decided that the best defense was to go on the offensive, to turn the upcoming midterm vote into a debate on Iraq and national security. Up until the eve of the recent Foley IM-sex scandal, the strategy seemed like it just might be working once again. The Democrats were losing momentum in the run-up to next month's elections, unanimously consenting to a distended military budget, and watching silently as Republicans, with significant Democratic support, revoked habeas corpus and gave the President the right to torture at will.

Foley-gate, along with a cascade of other scandals, controversies, and bad war news, may indeed now give the Democrats the House, and perhaps even the Senate. But already there are reports that, if they do take over Congress, their agenda will have a remarkably 1986-ish look to it: hearings and calls for more congressional "oversight" of foreign policy that leave uncontested the crusading premises driving the President's extremist foreign policy.

If the Democratic Party wants to halt, or even reverse, its long decline and avoid yet again snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, it will need to do more than investigate the six-year reign of corruption, incompetence, and arrogance presided over by Cheney and company. Progressive politicians who protest the war in Iraq will have to do more than criticize the way it has been fought or demand to have more of a say in how it is waged. They must challenge the militarism that justified the invasion and that has made war the option of first resort for too many of our foreign-policy makers. Otherwise, no matter how many tanks they drive or veterans they nominate - or congressional seats they pick up - the Democrats will always be dancing to Ollie's tune.


Greg Grandin is the author of the other book endorsed by Hugo Chávez on his recent New York visit: Empire's Workshop: Latin America, the United States, and the Rise of the New Imperialism (Metropolitan).

Matt Taibbi - The Worst Congress Ever

The Worst Congress Ever

How our national legislature has become a stable of thieves and perverts -- in five easy steps


>> See our picks for the 10 Worst Congressmen and read what people are saying in our politics blog.

There is very little that sums up the record of the U.S. Congress in the Bush years better than a half-mad boy-addict put in charge of a federal commission on child exploitation. After all, if a hairy-necked, raincoat-clad freak like Rep. Mark Foley can get himself named co-chairman of the House Caucus on Missing and Exploited Children, one can only wonder: What the hell else is going on in the corridors of Capitol Hill these days?

These past six years were more than just the most shameful, corrupt and incompetent period in the history of the American legislative branch. These were the years when the U.S. parliament became a historical punch line, a political obscenity on par with the court of Nero or Caligula -- a stable of thieves and perverts who committed crimes rolling out of bed in the morning and did their very best to turn the mighty American empire into a debt-laden, despotic backwater, a Burkina Faso with cable.

To be sure, Congress has always been a kind of muddy ideological cemetery, a place where good ideas go to die in a maelstrom of bureaucratic hedging and rank favor-trading. Its whole history is one long love letter to sleaze, idiocy and pigheaded, glacial conservatism. That Congress exists mainly to misspend our money and snore its way through even the direst political crises is something we Americans understand instinctively. "There is no native criminal class except Congress," Mark Twain said -- a joke that still provokes a laugh of recognition a hundred years later.

But the 109th Congress is no mild departure from the norm, no slight deviation in an already-underwhelming history. No, this is nothing less than a historic shift in how our democracy is run. The Republicans who control this Congress are revolutionaries, and they have brought their revolutionary vision for the House and Senate quite unpleasantly to fruition. In the past six years they have castrated the political minority, abdicated their oversight responsibilities mandated by the Constitution, enacted a conscious policy of massive borrowing and unrestrained spending, and installed a host of semipermanent mechanisms for transferring legislative power to commercial interests. They aimed far lower than any other Congress has ever aimed, and they nailed their target.

"The 109th Congress is so bad that it makes you wonder if democracy is a failed experiment," says Jonathan Turley, a noted constitutional scholar and the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington Law School. "I think that if the Framers went to Capitol Hill today, it would shake their confidence in the system they created. Congress has become an exercise of raw power with no principles -- and in that environment corruption has flourished. The Republicans in Congress decided from the outset that their future would be inextricably tied to George Bush and his policies. It has become this sad session of members sitting down and drinking Kool-Aid delivered by Karl Rove. Congress became a mere extension of the White House."

The end result is a Congress that has hijacked the national treasury, frantically ceded power to the executive, and sold off the federal government in a private auction. It all happened before our very eyes. In case you missed it, here's how they did it -- in five easy steps:


If you want to get a sense of how Congress has changed under GOP control, just cruise the basement hallways of storied congressional office buildings like Rayburn, Longworth and Cannon. Here, in the minority offices for the various congressional committees, you will inevitably find exactly the same character -- a Democratic staffer in rumpled khakis staring blankly off into space, nothing but a single lonely "Landscapes of Monticello" calendar on his wall, his eyes wide and full of astonished, impotent rage, like a rape victim. His skin is as white as the belly of a fish; he hasn't seen the sun in seven years.

It is no big scoop that the majority party in Congress has always found ways of giving the shaft to the minority. But there is a marked difference in the size and the length of the shaft the Republicans have given the Democrats in the past six years. There has been a systematic effort not only to deny the Democrats any kind of power-sharing role in creating or refining legislation but to humiliate them publicly, show them up, pee in their faces. Washington was once a chummy fraternity in which members of both parties golfed together, played in the same pickup basketball games, probably even shared the same mistresses. Now it is a one-party town -- and congressional business is conducted accordingly, as though the half of the country that the Democrats represent simply does not exist.

American government was not designed for one-party rule but for rule by consensus -- so this current batch of Republicans has found a way to work around that product design. They have scuttled both the spirit and the letter of congressional procedure, turning the lawmaking process into a backroom deal, with power concentrated in the hands of a few chiefs behind the scenes. This reduces the legislature to a Belarus-style rubber stamp, where the opposition is just there for show, human pieces of stagecraft -- a fact the Republicans don't even bother to conceal.

"I remember one incident very clearly -- I think it was 2001," says Winslow Wheeler, who served for twenty-two years as a Republican staffer in the Senate. "I was working for [New Mexico Republican] Pete Domenici at the time. We were in a Budget Committee hearing and the Democrats were debating what the final result would be. And my boss gets up and he says, 'Why are you saying this? You're not even going to be in the room when the decisions are made.' Just said it right out in the open."

Wheeler's very career is a symbol of a bipartisan age long passed into the history books; he is the last staffer to have served in the offices of a Republican and a Democrat at the same time, having once worked for both Kansas Republican Nancy Kassebaum and Arkansas Democrat David Pryor simultaneously. Today, those Democratic staffers trapped in the basement laugh at the idea that such a thing could ever happen again. These days, they consider themselves lucky if they manage to hold a single hearing on a bill before Rove's well-oiled legislative machine delivers it up for Bush's signature.

The GOP's "take that, bitch" approach to governing has been taken to the greatest heights by the House Judiciary Committee. The committee is chaired by the legendary Republican monster James Sensenbrenner Jr., an ever-sweating, fat-fingered beast who wields his gavel in a way that makes you think he might have used one before in some other arena, perhaps to beat prostitutes to death. Last year, Sensenbrenner became apoplectic when Democrats who wanted to hold a hearing on the Patriot Act invoked a little-known rule that required him to let them have one.

"Naturally, he scheduled it for something like 9 a.m. on a Friday when Congress wasn't in session, hoping that no one would show," recalls a Democratic staffer who attended the hearing. "But we got a pretty good turnout anyway."

Sensenbrenner kept trying to gavel the hearing to a close, but Democrats again pointed to the rules, which said they had a certain amount of time to examine their witnesses. When they refused to stop the proceedings, the chairman did something unprecedented: He simply picked up his gavel and walked out.

"He was like a kid at the playground," the staffer says. And just in case anyone missed the point, Sensenbrenner shut off the lights and cut the microphones on his way out of the room.

For similarly petulant moves by a committee chair, one need look no further than the Ways and Means Committee, where Rep. Bill Thomas -- a pugnacious Californian with an enviable ego who was caught having an affair with a pharmaceutical lobbyist -- enjoys a reputation rivaling that of the rotund Sensenbrenner. The lowlight of his reign took place just before midnight on July 17th, 2003, when Thomas dumped a "substitute" pension bill on Democrats -- one that they had never read -- and informed them they would be voting on it the next morning. Infuriated, Democrats stalled by demanding that the bill be read out line by line while they recessed to a side room to confer. But Thomas wanted to move forward -- so he called the Capitol police to evict the Democrats.

Thomas is also notorious for excluding Democrats from the conference hearings needed to iron out the differences between House and Senate versions of a bill. According to the rules, conferences have to include at least one public, open meeting. But in the Bush years, Republicans have managed the conference issue with some of the most mind-blowingly juvenile behavior seen in any parliament west of the Russian Duma after happy hour. GOP chairmen routinely call a meeting, bring the press in for a photo op and then promptly shut the proceedings down. "Take a picture, wait five minutes, gavel it out -- all for show" is how one Democratic staffer described the process. Then, amazingly, the Republicans sneak off to hold the real conference, forcing the Democrats to turn amateur detective and go searching the Capitol grounds for the meeting. "More often than not, we're trying to figure out where the conference is," says one House aide.

In one legendary incident, Rep. Charles Rangel went searching for a secret conference being held by Thomas. When he found the room where Republicans closeted themselves, he knocked and knocked on the door, but no one answered. A House aide compares the scene to the famous "Land Shark" skit from Saturday Night Live, with everyone hiding behind the door afraid to make a sound. "Rangel was the land shark, I guess," the aide jokes. But the real punch line came when Thomas finally opened the door. "This meeting," he informed Rangel, "is only open to the coalition of the willing."

Republican rudeness and bluster make for funny stories, but the phenomenon has serious consequences. The collegial atmosphere that once prevailed helped Congress form a sense of collective identity that it needed to fulfill its constitutional role as a check on the power of the other two branches of government. It also enabled Congress to pass legislation with a wide mandate, legislation that had been negotiated between the leaders of both parties. For this reason Republican and Democratic leaders traditionally maintained cordial relationships with each other -- the model being the collegiality between House Speaker Nicholas Longworth and Minority Leader John Nance Garner in the 1920s. The two used to hold daily meetings over drinks and even rode to work together.

Although cooperation between the two parties has ebbed and flowed over the years, historians note that Congress has taken strong bipartisan action in virtually every administration. It was Sen. Harry Truman who instigated investigations of wartime profiteering under FDR, and Republicans Howard Baker and Lowell Weicker Jr. played pivotal roles on the Senate Watergate Committee that nearly led to Nixon's impeachment.

But those days are gone. "We haven't seen any congressional investigations like this during the last six years," says David Mayhew, a professor of political science at Yale who has studied Congress for four decades. "These days, Congress doesn't seem to be capable of doing this sort of thing. Too much nasty partisanship."

One of the most depressing examples of one-party rule is the Patriot Act. The measure was originally crafted in classic bipartisan fashion in the Judiciary Committee, where it passed by a vote of thirty-six to zero, with famed liberals like Barney Frank and Jerrold Nadler saying aye. But when the bill was sent to the Rules Committee, the Republicans simply chucked the approved bill and replaced it with a new, far more repressive version, apparently written at the direction of then-Attorney General John Ashcroft.

"They just rewrote the whole bill," says Rep. James McGovern, a minority member of the Rules Committee. "All that committee work was just for show."

To ensure that Democrats can't alter any of the last-minute changes, Republicans have overseen a monstrous increase in the number of "closed" rules -- bills that go to the floor for a vote without any possibility of amendment. This tactic undercuts the very essence of democracy: In a bicameral system, allowing bills to be debated openly is the only way that the minority can have a real impact, by offering amendments to legislation drafted by the majority.

In 1977, when Democrats held a majority in the House, eighty-five percent of all bills were open to amendment. But by 1994, the last year Democrats ran the House, that number had dropped to thirty percent -- and Republicans were seriously pissed. "You know what the closed rule means," Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart of Florida thundered on the House floor. "It means no discussion, no amendments. That is profoundly undemocratic." When Republicans took control of the House, they vowed to throw off the gag rules imposed by Democrats. On opening day of the 104th Congress, then-Rules Committee chairman Gerald Solomon announced his intention to institute free debate on the floor. "Instead of having seventy percent closed rules," he declared, "we are going to have seventy percent open and unrestricted rules."

How has Solomon fared? Of the 111 rules introduced in the first session of this Congress, only twelve were open. Of those, eleven were appropriations bills, which are traditionally open. That left just one open vote -- H. Res. 255, the Federal Deposit Insurance Reform Act of 2005.

In the second session of this Congress? Not a single open rule, outside of appropriation votes. Under the Republicans, amendable bills have been a genuine Washington rarity, the upside-down eight-leafed clover of legislative politics.

When bills do make it to the floor for a vote, the debate generally resembles what one House aide calls "preordained Kabuki." Republican leaders in the Bush era have mastered a new congressional innovation: the one-vote victory. Rather than seeking broad consensus, the leadership cooks up some hideously expensive, favor-laden boondoggle and then scales it back bit by bit. Once they're in striking range, they send the fucker to the floor and beat in the brains of the fence-sitters with threats and favors until enough members cave in and pass the damn thing. It is, in essence, a legislative microcosm of the electoral strategy that Karl Rove has employed to such devastating effect.

A classic example was the vote for the Central American Free Trade Agreement, the union-smashing, free-trade monstrosity passed in 2005. As has often been the case in the past six years, the vote was held late at night, away from the prying eyes of the public, who might be horrified by what they see. Thanks to such tactics, the 109th is known as the "Dracula" Congress: Twenty bills have been brought to a vote between midnight and 7 a.m.

CAFTA actually went to vote early -- at 11:02 p.m. When the usual fifteen-minute voting period expired, the nays were up, 180 to 175. Republicans then held the vote open for another forty-seven minutes while GOP leaders cruised the aisles like the family elders from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, frantically chopping at the legs and arms of Republicans who opposed the measure. They even roused the president out of bed to help kick ass for the vote, passing a cell phone with Bush on the line around the House cloakroom like a bong. Rep. Robin Hayes of North Carolina was approached by House Speaker Dennis Hastert, who told him, "Negotiations are open. Put on the table the things that your district and people need and we'll get them." After receiving assurances that the administration would help textile manufacturers in his home state by restricting the flow of cheap Chinese imports, Hayes switched his vote to yea. CAFTA ultimately passed by two votes at 12:03 a.m.

Closed rules, shipwrecked bills, secret negotiations, one-vote victories. The result of all this is a Congress where there is little or no open debate and virtually no votes are left to chance; all the important decisions are made in backroom deals, and what you see on C-Span is just empty theater, the world's most expensive trained-dolphin act. The constant here is a political strategy of conducting congressional business with as little outside input as possible, rejecting the essentially conservative tradition of rule-by-consensus in favor of a more revolutionary strategy of rule by cabal.

"This Congress has thrown caution to the wind," says Turley, the constitutional scholar. "They have developed rules that are an abuse of majority power. Keeping votes open by freezing the clock, barring minority senators from negotiations on important conference issues -- it is a record that the Republicans should now dread. One of the concerns that Republicans have about losing Congress is that they will have to live under the practices and rules they have created. The abuses that served them in the majority could come back to haunt them in the minority."


It's Thursday evening, September 28th, and the Senate is putting the finishing touches on the Military Commissions Act of 2006, colloquially known as the "torture bill." It's a law even Stalin would admire, one that throws habeas corpus in the trash, legalizes a vast array of savage interrogation techniques and generally turns the president of the United States into a kind of turbocharged Yoruba witch doctor, with nearly unlimited snatching powers. The bill is a fall-from-Eden moment in American history, a potentially disastrous step toward authoritarianism -- but what is most disturbing about it, beyond the fact that it's happening, is that the senators are hurrying to get it done.

In addition to ending generations of bipartisanship and instituting one-party rule, our national legislators in the Bush years are guilty of something even more fundamental: They suck at their jobs.

They don't work many days, don't pass many laws, and the few laws they're forced to pass, they pass late. In fact, in every year that Bush has been president, Congress has failed to pass more than three of the eleven annual appropriations bills on time.

That figures into tonight's problems. At this very moment, as the torture bill goes to a vote, there are only a few days left until the beginning of the fiscal year -- and not one appropriations bill has been passed so far. That's why these assholes are hurrying to bag this torture bill: They want to finish in time to squeeze in a measly two hours of debate tonight on the half-trillion-dollar defense-appropriations bill they've blown off until now. The plan is to then wrap things up tomorrow before splitting Washington for a month of real work, i.e., campaigning.

Sen. Pat Leahy of Vermont comments on this rush to torture during the final, frenzied debate. "Over 200 years of jurisprudence in this country," Leahy pleads, "and following an hour of debate, we get rid of it?"

Yawns, chatter, a few sets of rolling eyes -- yeah, whatever, Pat. An hour later, the torture bill is law. Two hours after that, the diminutive chair of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, Sen. Ted Stevens, reads off the summary of the military-spending bill to a mostly empty hall; since the members all need their sleep and most have left early, the "debate" on the biggest spending bill of the year is conducted before a largely phantom audience.

"Mr. President," Stevens begins, eyeing the few members present. "There are only four days left in the fiscal year. The 2007 defense appropriations conference report must be signed into law by the president before Saturday at midnight. . . ."

Watching Ted Stevens spend half a trillion dollars is like watching a junkie pull a belt around his biceps with his teeth. You get the sense he could do it just as fast in the dark. When he finishes his summary -- $436 billion in defense spending, including $70 billion for the Iraq "emergency" -- he fucks off and leaves the hall. A few minutes later, Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma -- one of the so-called honest Republicans who has clashed with his own party's leadership on spending issues -- appears in the hall and whines to the empty room about all the lavish pork projects and sheer unadulterated waste jammed into the bill. But aside from a bored-looking John Cornyn of Texas, who is acting as president pro tempore, and a couple of giggling, suit-clad pages, there is no one in the hall to listen to him.

In the Sixties and Seventies, Congress met an average of 162 days a year. In the Eighties and Nineties, the average went down to 139 days. This year, the second session of the 109th Congress will set the all-time record for fewest days worked by a U.S. Congress: ninety-three. That means that House members will collect their $165,000 paychecks for only three months of actual work.

What this means is that the current Congress will not only beat but shatter the record for laziness set by the notorious "Do-Nothing" Congress of 1948, which met for a combined 252 days between the House and the Senate. This Congress -- the Do-Even-Less Congress -- met for 218 days, just over half a year, between the House and the Senate combined.

And even those numbers don't come close to telling the full story. Those who actually work on the Hill will tell you that a great many of those "workdays" were shameless mail-ins, half-days at best. Congress has arranged things now so that the typical workweek on the Hill begins late on Tuesday and ends just after noon on Thursday, to give members time to go home for the four-day weekend. This is borne out in the numbers: On nine of its "workdays" this year, the House held not a single vote -- meeting for less than eleven minutes. The Senate managed to top the House's feat, pulling off three workdays this year that lasted less than one minute. All told, a full fifteen percent of the Senate's workdays lasted less than four hours. Figuring for half-days, in fact, the 109th Congress probably worked almost two months less than that "Do-Nothing" Congress.

Congressional laziness comes at a high price. By leaving so many appropriations bills unpassed by the beginning of the new fiscal year, Congress forces big chunks of the government to rely on "continuing resolutions" for their funding. Why is this a problem? Because under congressional rules, CRs are funded at the lowest of three levels: the level approved by the House, the level approved by the Senate or the level approved from the previous year. Thanks to wide discrepancies between House and Senate appropriations for social programming, CRs effectively operate as a backdoor way to slash social programs. It's also a nice way for congressmen to get around having to pay for expensive-ass programs they voted for, like No Child Left Behind and some of the other terminally underfunded boondoggles of the Bush years.

"The whole point of passing appropriations bills is that Congress is supposed to make small increases in programs to account for things like the increase in population," says Adam Hughes, director of federal fiscal policy for OMB Watch, a nonpartisan watchdog group. "It's their main job." Instead, he says, the reliance on CRs "leaves programs underfunded."

Instead of dealing with its chief constitutional duty -- approving all government spending -- Congress devotes its time to dumb bullshit. "This Congress spent a week and a half debating Terri Schiavo -- it never made appropriations a priority," says Hughes. In fact, Congress leaves itself so little time to pass the real appropriations bills that it winds up rolling them all into one giant monstrosity known as an Omnibus bill and passing it with little or no debate. Rolling eight-elevenths of all federal spending into a single bill that hits the floor a day or two before the fiscal year ends does not leave much room to check the fine print. "It allows a lot more leeway for fiscal irresponsibility," says Hughes.

A few years ago, when Democratic staffers in the Senate were frantically poring over a massive Omnibus bill they had been handed the night before the scheduled vote, they discovered a tiny provision that had not been in any of the previous versions. The item would have given senators on the Appropriations Committee access to the private records of any taxpayer -- essentially endowing a few selected hacks in the Senate with the license to snoop into the private financial information of all Americans.

"We were like, 'What the hell is this?' “says one Democratic aide familiar with the incident. "It was the most egregious thing imaginable. It was just lucky we caught them."


The constitution is very clear on the responsibility of Congress to serve as a check on the excesses of the executive branch. The House and Senate, after all, are supposed to pass all laws -- the president is simply supposed to execute them. Over the years, despite some ups and downs, Congress has been fairly consistent in upholding this fundamental responsibility, regardless of which party controlled the legislative branch. Elected representatives saw themselves as beholden not to their own party or the president but to the institution of Congress itself. The model of congressional independence was Sen. William Fulbright, who took on McCarthy, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon with equal vigor during the course of his long career.

"Fulbright behaved the same way with Nixon as he did with Johnson," says Wheeler, the former Senate aide who worked on both sides of the aisle. "You wouldn't see that today."

In fact, the Republican-controlled Congress has created a new standard for the use of oversight powers. That standard seems to be that when a Democratic president is in power, there are no matters too stupid or meaningless to be investigated fully -- but when George Bush is president, no evidence of corruption or incompetence is shocking enough to warrant congressional attention. One gets the sense that Bush would have to drink the blood of Christian babies to inspire hearings in Congress -- and only then if he did it during a nationally televised State of the Union address and the babies were from Pennsylvania, where Senate Judiciary chairman Arlen Specter was running ten points behind in an election year.

The numbers bear this out. From the McCarthy era in the 1950s through the Republican takeover of Congress in 1995, no Democratic committee chairman issued a subpoena without either minority consent or a committee vote. In the Clinton years, Republicans chucked that long-standing arrangement and issued more than 1,000 subpoenas to investigate alleged administration and Democratic misconduct, reviewing more than 2 million pages of government documents.

Guess how many subpoenas have been issued to the White House since George Bush took office? Zero -- that's right, zero, the same as the number of open rules debated this year; two fewer than the number of appropriations bills passed on time.

And the cost? Republicans in the Clinton years spent more than $35 million investigating the administration. The total amount of taxpayer funds spent, when independent counsels are taken into account, was more than $150 million. Included in that number was $2.2 million to investigate former HUD secretary Henry Cisneros for lying about improper payments he made to a mistress. In contrast, today's Congress spent barely half a million dollars investigating the outright fraud and government bungling that followed Hurricane Katrina, the largest natural disaster in American history.

"Oversight is one of the most important functions of Congress -- perhaps more important than legislating," says Rep. Henry Waxman. "And the Republicans have completely failed at it. I think they decided that they were going to be good Republicans first and good legislators second."

As the ranking minority member of the Government Reform Committee, Waxman has earned a reputation as the chief Democratic muckraker, obsessively cranking out reports on official misconduct and incompetence. Among them is a lengthy document detailing all of the wrongdoing by the Bush administration that should have been investigated -- and would have been, in any other era. The litany of fishy behavior left uninvestigated in the Bush years includes the manipulation of intelligence on Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction, the mistreatment of Iraqi detainees, the leak of Valerie Plame's CIA status, the award of Halliburton contracts, the White House response to Katrina, secret NSA wiretaps, Dick Cheney's energy task force, the withholding of Medicare cost estimates, the administration's politicization of science, contract abuses at Homeland Security and lobbyist influence at the EPA.

Waxman notes that the failure to investigate these issues has actually hurt the president, leaving potentially fatal flaws in his policies unexamined even by those in his own party. Without proper congressional oversight, small disasters like the misuse of Iraq intelligence have turned into huge, festering, unsolvable fiascoes like the Iraq occupation. Republicans in Congress who stonewalled investigations of the administration "thought they were doing Bush a favor," says Waxman. "But they did him the biggest disservice of all."

Congress has repeatedly refused to look at any aspect of the war. In 2003, Republicans refused to allow a vote on a bill introduced by Waxman that would have established an independent commission to review the false claims Bush made in asking Congress to declare war on Iraq. That same year, the chair of the House Intelligence Committee, Porter Goss, refused to hold hearings on whether the administration had forged evidence of the nuclear threat allegedly posed by Iraq. A year later the chair of the Government Reform Committee, Tom Davis, refused to hold hearings on new evidence casting doubt on the "nuclear tubes" cited by the Bush administration before the war. Sen. Pat Roberts, who pledged to issue a Senate Intelligence Committee report after the 2004 election on whether the Bush administration had misled the public before the invasion, changed his mind after the president won re-election. "I think it would be a monumental waste of time to re-plow this ground any further," Roberts said.

Sensenbrenner has done his bit to squelch any debate over Iraq. He refused a request by John Conyers and more than fifty other Democrats for hearings on the famed "Downing Street Memo," the internal British document that stated that Bush had "fixed" the intelligence about the war, and he was one of three committee chairs who rejected requests for hearings on the abuse of Iraqi detainees. Despite an international uproar over Abu Ghraib, Congress spent only twelve hours on hearings on the issue. During the Clinton administration, by contrast, the Republican Congress spent 140 hours investigating the president's alleged misuse of his Christmas-card greeting list.

"You talk to many Republicans in Congress privately, and they will tell you how appalled they are by the administration's diminishment of civil liberties and the constant effort to keep fear alive," says Turley, who testified as a constitutional scholar in favor of the Clinton impeachment. "Yet those same members slavishly vote with the White House. What's most alarming about the 109th has been the massive erosion of authority in Congress. There has always been partisanship, but this is different. Members have become robotic in the way they vote."

Perhaps the most classic example of failed oversight in the Bush era came in a little-publicized hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee held on February 13th, 2003 -- just weeks before the invasion of Iraq. The hearing offered senators a rare opportunity to grill Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and top Pentagon officials on a wide variety of matters, including the fairly important question of whether they even had a fucking plan for the open-ended occupation of a gigantic hostile foreign population halfway around the planet. This was the biggest bite that Congress would have at the Iraq apple before the war, and given the gravity of the issue, it should have been a beast of a hearing.

But it wasn't to be. In a meeting that lasted two hours and fifty-three minutes, only one question was asked about the military's readiness on the eve of the invasion. Sen. John Warner, the committee's venerable and powerful chairman, asked Gen. Richard Myers if the U.S. was ready to fight simultaneously in both Iraq and North Korea, if necessary.

Myers answered, "Absolutely."

And that was it. The entire exchange lasted fifteen seconds. The rest of the session followed a pattern familiar to anyone who has watched a hearing on C-Span: The members, when they weren't reading or chatting with one another, used their time with witnesses almost exclusively to address parochial concerns revolving around pork projects in their own districts. Warner set the tone in his opening remarks; after announcing that U.S. troops preparing to invade Iraq could count on his committee's "strongest support," the senator from Virginia quickly turned to the question of how the war would affect the budget for Navy shipbuilding, which, he said, was not increasing "as much as we wish." Not that there's a huge Navy shipyard in Newport News, Virginia, or anything.

Other senators followed suit. Daniel Akaka was relatively uninterested in Iraq but asked about reports that Korea might have a missile that could reach his home state of Hawaii. David Pryor of Arkansas used his time to tout the wonders of military bases in Little Rock and Pine Bluff. When the senators weren't eating up their allotted time in this fashion, they were usually currying favor with the generals. Warner himself nicely encapsulated the obsequious tone of the session when he complimented Rumsfeld for having his shit so together on the war.

"I think your response reflects that we have given a good deal of consideration," Warner said. "That we have clear plans in place and are ready to proceed." We all know how that turned out.


There is a simple reason that members of Congress don't waste their time providing any oversight of the executive branch: There's nothing in it for them. "What they've all figured out is that there's no political payoff in oversight," says Wheeler, the former congressional staffer. "But there's a big payoff in pork."

When one considers that Congress has forsaken hearings and debate, conspired to work only three months a year, completely ditched its constitutional mandate to provide oversight and passed very little in the way of meaningful legislation, the question arises: What do they do?

The answer is easy: They spend. When Bill Clinton left office, the nation had a budget surplus of $236 billion. Today, thanks to Congress, the budget is $296 billion in the hole. This year, more than sixty-five percent of all the money borrowed in the entire world will be borrowed by America, a statistic fueled by the speed-junkie spending habits of our supposedly "fiscally conservative" Congress. It took forty-two presidents before George W. Bush to borrow $1 trillion; under Bush, Congress has more than doubled that number in six years. And more often than not, we are borrowing from countries the sane among us would prefer not to be indebted to: The U.S. shells out $77 billion a year in interest to foreign creditors, including payment on the $300 billion we currently owe China.

What do they spend that money on? In the age of Jack Abramoff, that is an ugly question to even contemplate. But let's take just one bill, the so-called energy bill, a big, hairy, favor-laden bitch of a law that started out as the wet dream of Dick Cheney's energy task force and spent four long years leaving grease-tracks on every set of palms in the Capitol before finally becoming law in 2005.

Like a lot of laws in the Bush era, it was crafted with virtually no input from the Democrats, who were excluded from the conference process. And during the course of the bill's gestation period we were made aware that many of its provisions were more or less openly for sale, as in the case of a small electric utility from Kansas called Westar Energy.

Westar wanted a provision favorable to its business inserted in the bill -- and in an internal company memo, it acknowledged that members of Congress had requested Westar donate money to their campaigns in exchange for the provision. The members included former Louisiana congressman Billy Tauzin and current Energy and Commerce chairman Joe Barton of Texas. "They have made this request in lieu of contributions made to their own campaigns," the memo noted. The total amount of Westar's contributions was $58,200.

Keep in mind, that number -- fifty-eight grand -- was for a single favor. The energy bill was loaded with them. Between 2001 and the passage of the bill, energy companies donated $115 million to federal politicians, with seventy-five percent of the money going to Republicans. When the bill finally passed, it contained $6 billion in subsidies for the oil industry, much of which was funneled through a company with ties to Majority Leader Tom DeLay. It included an exemption from the Safe Drinking Water Act for companies that use a methane-drilling technique called "hydraulic fracturing" -- one of the widest practitioners of which is Halliburton. And it included billions in subsidies for the construction of new coal plants and billions more in loan guarantees to enable the coal and nuclear industries to borrow money at bargain-basement interest rates.

Favors for campaign contributors, exemptions for polluters, shifting the costs of private projects on to the public -- these are the specialties of this Congress. They seldom miss an opportunity to impoverish the states we live in and up the bottom line of their campaign contributors. All this time -- while Congress did nothing about Iraq, Katrina, wiretapping, Mark Foley's boy-madness or anything else of import -- it has been all about pork, all about political favors, all about budget "earmarks" set aside for expensive and often useless projects in their own districts. In 2000, Congress passed 6,073 earmarks; by 2005, that number had risen to 15,877. They got better at it every year. It's the one thing they're good at.

Even worse, this may well be the first Congress ever to lose control of the government's finances. For the past six years, it has essentially been writing checks without keeping an eye on its balance. When you do that, unpleasant notices eventually start appearing in the mail. In 2003, the inspector general of the Defense Department reported to Congress that the military's financial-management systems did not comply with "generally accepted accounting principles" and that the department "cannot currently provide adequate evidence supporting various material amounts on the financial statements."

Translation: The Defense Department can no longer account for its money. "It essentially can't be audited," says Wheeler, the former congressional staffer. "And nobody did anything about it. That's the job of Congress, but they don't care anymore."

So not only does Congress not care what intelligence was used to get into the war, what the plan was supposed to be once we got there, what goes on in military prisons in Iraq and elsewhere, how military contracts are being given away and to whom -- it doesn't even give a shit what happens to the half-trillion bucks it throws at the military every year.

Not to say, of course, that this Congress hasn't made an effort to reform itself. In the wake of the Jack Abramoff scandal, and following a public uproar over the widespread abuse of earmarks, both the House and the Senate passed their own versions of an earmark reform bill this year. But when the two chambers couldn't agree on a final version, the House was left to pass its own watered-down measure in the waning days of the most recent session. This pathetically, almost historically half-assed attempt at reforming corruption should tell you all you need to know about the current Congress.

The House rule will force legislators to attach their names to all earmarks. Well, not all earmarks. Actually, the new rule applies only to nonfederal funding -- money for local governments, nonprofits and universities. And the rule will remain in effect only for the remainder of this congressional year -- in other words, for the few remaining days of business after lawmakers return to Washington following the election season. After that, it's back to business as usual next year.

That is what passes for "corruption reform" in this Congress -- forcing lawmakers to put their names on a tiny fraction of all earmarks. For a couple of days.


Anyone who wants to get a feel for the kinds of beasts that have been roaming the grounds of the congressional zoo in the past six years need only look at the deranged, handwritten letter that convicted bribe-taker and GOP ex-congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham recently sent from prison to Marcus Stern, the reporter who helped bust him. In it, Cunningham -- who was convicted last year of taking $2.4 million in cash, rugs, furniture and jewelry from a defense contractor called MZM -- bitches out Stern in the broken, half-literate penmanship of a six-year-old put in time-out.

"Each time you print it hurts my family And now I have lost them Along with Everything I have worked for during my 64 years of life," Cunningham wrote. "I am human not an Animal to keep whiping [sic]. I made some decissions [sic] Ill be sorry for the rest of my life."

The amazing thing about Cunningham's letter is not his utter lack of remorse, or his insistence on blaming defense contractor Mitchell Wade for ratting him out ("90% of what has happed [sic] is Wade," he writes), but his frantic, almost epic battle with the English language. It is clear that the same Congress that put a drooling child-chaser like Mark Foley in charge of a House caucus on child exploitation also named Cunningham, a man who can barely write his own name in the ground with a stick, to a similarly appropriate position. Ladies and gentlemen, we give you the former chairman of the House Subcommittee on Human Intelligence Analysis and Counterintelligence:

"As truth will come out and you will find out how liablest [sic] you have & will be. Not once did you list the positives. Education Man of the funding, jobs, Hiway [sic] funding, border security, Megans law my bill, Tuna Dolfin [sic] my bill...and every time you wanted an expert on the wars who did you call. No Marcus you write About how I died."

How liablest you have & will be? What the fuck does that even mean? This guy sat on the Appropriations Committee for years -- no wonder Congress couldn't pass any spending bills!

This is Congress in the Bush years, in a nutshell -- a guy who takes $2 million in bribes from a contractor, whooping it up in turtlenecks and pajama bottoms with young women on a contractor-provided yacht named after himself (the "Duke-Stir"), and not only is he shocked when he's caught, he's too dumb to even understand that he's been guilty of anything.

This kind of appalling moral blindness, a sort of high-functioning, sociopathic stupidity, has been a consistent characteristic of the numerous Republicans indicted during the Bush era. Like all revolutionaries, they seem to feel entitled to break rules in the name of whatever the hell it is they think they're doing. And when caught breaking said rules with wads of cash spilling out of their pockets, they appear genuinely indignant at accusations of wrongdoing. Former House Majority Leader and brazen fuckhead Tom DeLay, after finally being indicted for money laundering, seemed amazed that anyone would bring him into court.

"I have done nothing wrong," he declared. "I have violated no law, no regulation, no rule of the House." Unless, of course, you count the charges against him for conspiring to inject illegal contributions into state elections in Texas "with the intent that a felony be committed."

It was the same when Ohio's officious jackass of a (soon-to-be-ex) Congressman Bob Ney finally went down for accepting $170,000 in trips from Abramoff in exchange for various favors. Even as the evidence piled high, Ney denied any wrongdoing. When he finally did plead guilty, he blamed the sauce. "A dependence on alcohol has been a problem for me," he said.

Abramoff, incidentally, was another Republican with a curious inability to admit wrongdoing even after conviction; even now he confesses only to trying too hard to "save the world." But everything we know about Abramoff suggests that Congress has embarked on a never-ending party, a wild daisy-chain of golf junkets, skybox tickets and casino trips. Money is everywhere and guys like Abramoff found ways to get it to guys like Ney, who made the important discovery that even a small entry in the Congressional Record can get you a tee time at St. Andrews.

Although Ney is so far the only congressman to win an all-expenses trip to prison as a result of his relationship with Abramoff, nearly a dozen other House Republicans are known to have done favors for him. Rep. Jim McCrery of Louisiana, who accepted some $36,000 from Abramoff-connected donors, helped prevent the Jena Band of Choctaw Indians from opening a casino that would have competed with Abramoff's clients. Rep. Deborah Pryce, who sent a letter to Interior Secretary Gale Norton opposing the Jena casino, received $8,000 from the Abramoff money machine. Rep. John Doolittle, whose wife was hired to work for Abramoff's sham charity, also intervened on behalf of the lobbyist's clients.

Then there was DeLay and his fellow Texan, Rep. Pete Sessions, who did Abramoff's bidding after accepting gifts and junkets. So much energy devoted to smarmy little casino disputes at a time when the country was careening toward disaster in Iraq: no time for oversight but plenty of time for golf.

For those who didn't want to go the black-bag route, there was always the legal jackpot. Billy Tauzin scarcely waited a week after leaving office to start a $2 million-a-year job running PhRMA, the group that helped him push through a bill prohibiting the government from negotiating lower prices for prescription drugs. Tauzin also became the all-time poster boy for pork absurdity when a "greenbonds initiative" crafted in his Energy and Commerce Committee turned out to be a subsidy to build a Hooters in his home state of Louisiana.

The greed and laziness of the 109th Congress has reached such epic proportions that it has finally started to piss off the public. In an April poll by CBS News, fully two-thirds of those surveyed said that Congress has achieved "less than it usually does during a typical two-year period." A recent Pew poll found that the chief concerns that occupy Congress -- gay marriage and the inheritance tax -- are near the bottom of the public's list of worries. Those at the top -- education, health care, Iraq and Social Security -- were mostly blown off by Congress. Even a Fox News poll found that fifty-three percent of voters say Congress isn't "working on issues important to most Americans."

One could go on and on about the scandals and failures of the past six years; to document them all would take . . . well, it would take more than ninety-three fucking days, that's for sure. But you can boil the whole sordid mess down to a few basic concepts. Sloth. Greed. Abuse of power. Hatred of democracy. Government as a cheap backroom deal, finished in time for thirty-six holes of the world's best golf. And brains too stupid to be ashamed of any of it. If we have learned nothing else in the Bush years, it's that this Congress cannot be reformed. The only way to change it is to get rid of it.

Fortunately, we still get that chance once in a while.