Sea Change

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Election '06: The accidental president gets a taste of how the other half lives.

Accountability is a bitch, especially when you're the poster boy for centuries of white male Affirmative Action. 
 
Rejected by the University of Texas Law School in the early seventies, George W. Bush was taken in by Harvard Business School.  In the late seventies, Bush dipped into his trust fund to set up Arbusto, an oil company.  A few years later, after George Bush Sr. had been chosen vice president, Arbusto was about to go under, so some of daddy's friends came to the rescue and brought Arbusto under Spectrum 7's wing.  When Spectrum 7 hemorrhaged money, they were acquired by Harken Energy, who put W. on the board and gave him loads of stock that he conveniently dumped two months before the shares plummeted.  The money Bush happened on in his business ventures helped him become owner of the Texas Rangers.  After he successfully sold a ballot measure that made the public pay for a new stadium and traded future Hall of Famer Sammy Sosa, Bush sought out the commissionership of pro baseball without result, so decided to run for governor of Texas as a fall-back.  With the help of a Rovian whisper campaign claiming his opponent was a lesbian, Bush won the race and began his public service.  Six years later, after increasing incarcerations, executions, pollution, and debt, Bush became president after a Republican Supreme Court discarded the will of the voters.   

 

The dubious nature of his ascension to power notwithstanding, Bush governed as if he were a king from moment one.  When he refused to go along with tax cuts for the rich and other administration policies, Vermont Senator Jim Jeffords was purposely left off the guest list for the Teacher of the Year ceremony, though that teacher was also from Vermont.  Not long after, Jeffords switched parties and gave Democrats control of the Senate, but just as Bush was starting to reel from this setback and a general lack of legitimacy, 9/11 happened, thanks in part to Bush's having done as little as humanly possible to stop 9/11, and his kingly powers were restored manifold.

 

Five years later, this presidency's unprecedented destruction of American institutions had become so widely known that the boy-king was for once in his life in danger of being held responsible for his actions.  To elude the colossal cosmikarmic boomerang, Bush's army of ghouls pulled out all the right's election season golden oldies, including the scapegoating of gays and immigrants, questioning opponents' patriotism, passing voting "reform" measures intended to disenfranchise minorities, and delaying the release of unflattering public reports, all while outspending the Democrats by over a $100 million with ads light on the issues and heavy on personal attacks of unfounded innuendo. 

 

As if by magic, Saddam Hussein was convicted of crimes against humanity the Sunday before the election, just as the GOP bombarded registered voters in key districts with a million robo calls.  When the phone was answered, a message about the Democratic candidate came on, making it appear that the Democrats had paid for the call.  As the message got further along, the Democrat was slimed, but for the many that hung up right away and got another robo call soon after, it appeared that the Democrats were pestering them over and over.            

 

By November 7th, the Republican fog machine was firing on all cylinders, but as happened with the Great Depression, Watergate, and the L.A. riots, a GOP blunder of catastrophic proportions (next stop:  Iraq) woke a solid majority of swing voters up to their kinder, better, more practical selves. 

 

George W. Bush, meet adversity.   

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From time immemorial, when things fall apart due to the selfish and reckless actions of men, women come along, pick up the pieces, and try to glue everything back together.  So it is now that incoming Speaker Nancy Pelosi's Democratic-led House of Representatives takes over from a Republican House that is half of what was recently dubbed "The Worst Congress Ever." 

 

Since taking over in 1995 on heady promises of institutional reform, House Republicans have instituted a raft of autocratic practices, such as routinely forcing up or down votes on huge, complex bills (no amendments allowed), letting lobbyists write legislation that benefits the industries they represent, holding votes open until a one-vote majority is achieved through threats or monetary lubrication, and purposely negotiating behind closed doors and scheduling votes after midnight to avoid public scrutiny.  In essence, their 12-year reign was little more than one big party for the economic elite, paid for by the American public, who by and large worked harder for stagnant wages while Congress gave themselves raises and lowered their workload (to a low of 93 days in 2006.)    

 

Pelosi appropriately plans to begin her speakership with a series of votes on ethics issues:  a ban on gifts, meals, and travel paid for by lobbyists; a law that would force retiring lawmakers to wait 2 years before returning to Capitol Hill as lobbyists; creation of an Office of Public Integrity to make lobbying activities more transparent; pay-as-you-go budgeting, which would end the budget-busting GOP practice of passing tax cuts that aren't paid for; and opening House-Senate conferences, in which the two chambers of Congress work out the final contours of legislation, back up to the public and the press. 

 

Democrats also hope to reform an electoral process endangered by Republican shenanigans and public obliviousness or indifference. 

 

Like clockwork, come election time minority voters around the country receive suspicious calls or fliers falsely telling them they're ineligible to vote, providing them with erroneous election dates, or purposely directing them to the wrong precinct.  Senator Barack Obama's Deceptive Practices and Voter Intimidation Prevention Act would make these actions a felony. 

 

Also of widespread concern is the use of electronic voting machines with no paper trail.  Currently (and fittingly), in Florida, in Katherine Harris's old district, a Republican House candidate is ahead by 369 votes in a race where 18,000 votes (in a solidly Democratic part of the district) disappeared.  A hand recount would make the Democrat the victor, but the district uses electronic voting machines with no paper trail, so those 18,000 votes are gone, and the Republican has declared victory while the case works its way through the courts.  Democrat Russ Holt's Voter Confidence and Increased Accessibility Act would put this banana republic scenario behind us for good by making voting districts with electronic voting machines use a paper trail.

 

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Though Mr. Bush has a habit of trampling on other people's privacy in the name of "national security," he has always been very touchy about having anyone look into his public business.  For nearly all of six years, he has had the luxury of a Republican congress of enablers that has not issued Bush a single subpoena, despite glorious heights of corruption, though the same Congress issued 1,000 subpoenas to the Clinton Administration for skimpy land deals gone awry and fellatio eagerly offered and publicly denied.   

 

Come January, there'll be a new sheriff in town, whose first order of business will be holding public hearings in which the record will be played backward in order to unmask the demonic intentions behind the administration's actions.   

 

Soon-to-be chairman of the House Armed Services Committee Ike Skelton plans to revive the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations of the Pentagon that Republicans killed when they took over Congress in 1994.  Skelton will also look into getting an Inspector General at the Pentagon, which has gobbled up half a trillion dollars in public funds without an internal watchdog since August 2005.

 

Skelton's colleague, Henry Waxman, a fervent advocate for government transparency whose crack investigative staff has produced roughly 2,000 reports over the past 8 years, looks to do much of the heavy lifting as head of the House Government Reform Committee.  Waxman's overflowing plate includes passing the Clean Contracting Act, which would put a leash on the unaccountable subcontractors and gravy train no-bid deals that have become a way of life in the Bush era in Iraq, Gulf Coast rebuilding, and the Homeland Security Department.  Waxman is also likely to put porcine oil company executives on the stand for a vigorous public grilling, as he famously did to tobacco execs in 1994. 

 

Also likely to land on the war and death and destruction investigation docket are the small matters of pre-war intelligence, torture, domestic surveillance, detentions without trial at Guantanamo Bay and secret prisons in Europe, forged Niger docs that falsely posited Saddam Hussein's intention to acquire uranium, the Bush Administration's disastrous lack of postwar planning in Iraq, and the FEMA fiasco in New Orleans.

 

The change in committee leadership and introduction of oversight will also extend to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, where committed enviro Barbara Boxer will replace Big Oil stooge James Inhofe, who secured his place in the frontispiece of the Climate Change Hall of Shame with the comment that "global warming is the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people." 

 

Boxer will have her hands full shining sunlight on the worst environmental record in modern history, with an emphasis on the EPA's meddling with global warming reports, their lax controls over deadly mercury emissions, punitive measures taken against EPA whistleblowers, and the Bush EPA's hard turn away from the scientific method.  Boxer also will look at Bush's dogged attempts to open publicly-owned lands to commercial exploitation and his quiet change in funding for Superfund toxic waste clean up from "polluter pays" to "public pays."

 

The committee shifts will prove most momentous in the Senate Judiciary Committee, which will be headed by old pro Patrick Leahy.  Since coming into office, George W. Bush has appointed the most extreme right-wing judges he could find.  When Republicans controlled the Senate, Democrats filibustered a handful of exceptionally loathsome choices, but now that they control the Judiciary Committee, Democrats can kill a judicial pick effortlessly by simply not holding a vote.  In addition, majority control will give Democrats at least some leverage should the Supreme Court's oldest (86) and most progressive judge, John Paul Stevens, decide to step down (I am not alone in hoping Mr. Stevens keeps to fruits and vegetables until at least January, 2009). 

 

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While Iraq was foremost in voters' minds, economic insecurity was not far from the surface for the legions of middle class voters who are falling further and further behind in a brutish economy in which business interests increasingly shed social responsibility and shift risk onto the back of America's working class. 

 

To show these voters she means business, Nancy Pelosi has scheduled four big votes as part of her opening gun 100-hour agenda.  The first vote would increase the minimum wage, which has not been raised since Bill Clinton was president, from the current $5.15 an hour to $7.25/hour.  The second vote would overturn a Republican-authored law forbidding the government from negotiating with pharmaceutical companies for lower drug prices, as the VA currently does, to the tune of drug costs that are half of Medicare's.  The third vote would repeal tax breaks for oil companies.  The fourth vote would slice student loan interest rates in half.

 

These measures reflect the fresh tenor of economic populism of the new Congress as it returns public focus after a 12-year banishment to affordable housing, a progressive tax structure, education and healthcare. 

 

One of the unseemly realities of the Republican privatization model are endless middle men (a.k.a. Republican campaign contributors) who are more concerned with profit margins than delivering public services.  Where Bill Clinton did what he could to cut banks out of the federal student loan process to bring down costs, the Republicans brought costs back up by pulling banks back into the mix, which is why Republicans received 80% of loan financiers' donations over the past election cycle. 

Ted Kennedy (soon to be head of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee) best communicated the new congressional m.o. when he said:  "It's time to throw the money-changers out of the temple of higher education."  Democrats will try to remove banks and their pound of flesh from the process in favor of government-direct lending, while making college tuition tax-deductible and increasing grants to economically-disadvantaged students.  Kennedy and George Miller, the new head of the House Education and Workforce Committee, also promise to push hard for generous funding for K-12 education through the No Child Left Behind Act.

 

Now that Democrats have regained some power in Washington, healthcare is back on the public agenda, and the rapacious pharmaceutical companies are target number one.  As Ken Johnson, spokesman for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America put it, "We woke up the day after the election to a new world."  Not only are major critics of the pharmaceutical industry likely to schedule public hearings on price-gouging and predatory advertising, but Democrats will push legislation to allow imports from Canada and encourage development of reasonably-priced generic drugs.

 

In other areas of healthcare, Democrats will increase spending on Medicaid and Medicare, and will keep an eye on Bush and his penchant for allowing states more "flexibility" in Medicaid administration, which is too often a euphemism for giving mean-spirited red state governors the green light to slash benefits and raise co-pays for vulnerable populations.  Democrats will also decrease the number of children with no health insurance by boosting funding for CHIPS (Children's Health Insurance Program), with the eventual goal of covering all 8,000,000 children currently uninsured. 

 

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As you read this, you may be wondering why the Democrats' healthcare goals are so modest when 45,000,000 Americans are without health insurance, and those who have healthcare pay significantly more than anyone else in the world, and you will come upon the inevitable fact that we have a divided government led by a Republican president. 

 

Republicans and the health insurance middle men (currently composed of HMOs, insurance companies, pharmaceutical companies) who help fund their campaigns have a blood pact to fight healthcare reform to the death, as corporate Republicans have been doing ever since Harry Truman first proposed universal coverage nearly sixty years ago.  Despite the painfully obvious fact that free market healthcare has largely failed us, Republicans cloak their opposition to healthcare - and every other attempt to soften the rough edges of capitalism - in robotic gospel about the magic of the marketplace, because they're addicted to the racket.  The racket is their pulse.     

 

In fact, to swing this a little wider, it's likely that Bush will order his congressional henchmen in the Senate to try to kill virtually all populist (and popular) Democratic legislation before it reaches his desk.  And though Bush will be pressured publicly by an empowered and vocal opposition, it's doubtful Democrats will be any more successful than previous Congresses in effecting foreign policy hatched in and implemented by the executive branch, no matter how disastrous the policy is to America's future 

 

Add in the monstrous Republican money and media machine, doing what they do best (distorting public debate and getting dedicated stenographers in the mainstream media to give any and all talking points equal time), the feral loyalty of the Republican base, the legendary discipline of the Congressional Republicans that is the fruit of the authoritarian mindset, and the possibility of an Iran distraction, or a successful suicide mission on American soil that would rile up red and purple voters who live hundreds of miles away from the action, and you may ask yourself how far forward will we go?

 

It's a good question, but let's take one step at a time.  Barring another turncoat move by Joe Lieberman that would give Republicans control of the Senate, there are many things we can be sure of over the next two years.  Lobbyists won't turn the clock back to the early twentieth century with re-writes of environmental and labor laws.  The telecom giants will have a hell of a time imposing toll lanes and unequal access on the Internet.  Hundreds of billions of dollars won't be pissed away on new tax cuts for millionaires.  Drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the corporate orgies known as free trade agreements are deader than Michael Richards' diversity counseling credentials.  The taxpayer-funded dog-and-pony shows of flag burning and gay marriage votes Republicans have staged every two years since 1994 will not occur before the next elections in 2008.  Last but not least, a huge number of ignorant, jingoistic, homophobic Republican swine, the ones who weren't voted out of office, will be shrunk to minority status, where their idiotic comments are unlikely to be heard abroad, sparing those of us who value human progress the head-scratching and condescension that understandably came from more advanced corners of the world following the 2004 election.   

 

Has America really got her groove back?  Stay tuned.  Now it is the time of the show when we shall dance.       

 

© Dan Benbow, 2006

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