GOP Screws Poor Voters In Missouri

August 10, 2006

From The New York Times:

Missouri is the latest front in the Republican Party’s campaign to use photo ID requirements to suppress voting. The Republican legislators who pushed through Missouri’s ID law earlier this year said they wanted to deter fraud, but that claim falls apart on close inspection. Missouri’s new ID rules — and similar ones adopted last year in Indiana and Georgia — are intended to deter voting by blacks, poor people and other groups that are less likely to have driver’s licenses. Georgia’s law has been blocked by the courts, and the others should be too.

Even before Missouri passed its new law, it had tougher ID requirements than many states. Voters were required, with limited exceptions, to bring ID with them to the polls, but university ID cards, bank statements mailed to a voter’s address, and similar documents were acceptable. The new law requires a government-issued photo ID, which as many as 200,000 Missourians do not have.

Missourians who have driver’s licenses will have little trouble voting, but many who do not will have to go to considerable trouble to get special ID’s. The supporting documents needed to get these, like birth certificates, often have fees attached, so some Missourians will have to pay to keep voting. It is likely that many people will not jump all of the bureaucratic hurdles to get the special ID, and will become ineligible to vote.

Not coincidentally, groups that are more likely to vote against the Republicans who passed the ID law will be most disadvantaged. Advocates for blacks, the elderly and the disabled say that those groups are less likely than the average Missourian to have driver’s licenses, and most likely to lose their right to vote. In close elections, like the bitterly contested U.S. Senate race now under way in the state, this disenfranchisement could easily make the difference in who wins.

The new law’s supporters say its purpose is to deter fraud. But there is little evidence of “imposter voting,” the sort of fraud that ID laws are aimed at, in Missouri or anywhere else. Groups in Missouri that want to suppress voting have a long history of crying fraud, but investigations by the Justice Department and The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, among others, have refuted such claims in the past. If the Legislature really wanted to deter fraud, it would have focused its efforts on absentee ballots, which are a notorious source of election fraud — and are not covered by Missouri’s new ID requirements.

Because of the important constitutional issues these laws raise, courts will have the final say. Federal and state judges have already blocked Georgia’s ID law from taking effect, and although Indiana’s law was upheld earlier this year, that ruling is on appeal. Missouri voting-rights advocates recently filed suit against their state’s law.

Unduly onerous voter ID laws violate equal protection, and when voters have to pay to get the ID’s, they are an illegal poll tax. They are also an insult to democracy, because their goal is to have elections in which eligible voters are turned away.

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Molly Ivins On The “Lobby Reform Bill” Scam

May 4, 2006

From The Star-Telegram:

Either the "lobby reform bill" is the contemptible, cheesy, shoddy piece of hypocrisy that it appears to be … or the Republicans have a sense of humor.

The "lobby reform" bill does show, one could argue, a sort of cheerful, defiant, flipping-the-bird-at-the-public attitude that could pass for humor. You have to admit that calling this an "ethics bill' requires brass bravura.

House Republicans returned last week from a two-week recess prepared to vote for "a relatively tepid ethics bill," as The Washington Post put it, because they said their constituents rarely mentioned the issue.

Forget all that talk back in January when Jack Abramoff was indicted. What restrictions on meals and gifts from lobbyists? More golfing trips! According to Rep. Nancy L. Johnson of Connecticut, former chairwoman of the House ethics committee, passage of the bill will have no political consequences "because people are quite convinced that the rhetoric of reform is just political."

Where could they have gotten that idea? Rep. David Hobson, R-Ohio, told the Post, "We panicked, and we let the media get us panicked."

By George, here's the right way to think of it: The entire Congress lies stinking in open corruption, but they can't let the media panic them. They're actually proud of not cleaning it up.

The House bill passed a procedural vote last week, 216-207, and it is scheduled for floor debate and a final vote today — which gives citizens who don't like being conned a chance to speak. Now is the time for a little Cain-raising.

Chellie Pingree of Common Cause said, "This legislation is so weak it's embarrassing." Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21 and a longtime worker in reformist vineyards, said: "This bill is based on the premise that you can fool all of the people all of the time. This is an attempt at one of the greatest legislative scams that I have seen in 30 years of working on these issues."

Come on, people, get mad. You deserve to be treated with contempt if you let them get away with this.

I'm sorry that all these procedural votes seem so picayune, and I know the cost of gas and health insurance are more immediate worries. But it is precisely the corruption of Congress by big money that allows the oil and insurance industries to get away with these fantastic rip-offs.

Watching Washington be taken over by these little sleaze merchants is not only expensive and repulsive — it is destroying America, destroying any sense we ever had that we're a nation, not 298 million individuals cheating to get ahead.

I'm sorry that these creeps in Congress have so little sense of what they're supposed to be about that they think it's fine to sneer at ethics. But they work for us. It's our job to keep them under control until we can replace them. Time to get up off our rears and take some responsibility. Let them hear from you.


House Lobby “Reform” Bill Barely Passes

May 4, 2006

From The New York Times:

The House narrowly passed a bill on Wednesday intended to restore public trust in Congress by reshaping the relationship between lawmakers and lobbyists. But Democrats denounced the measure as a sham, and 20 Republicans voted against it.

The measure, which passed 217 to 213, is the first lobbying and ethics legislation since 1995, the year after Republicans took control of the House. Republicans have been promising to pass lobbying legislation since January. But the measure proved extremely divisive, so much so that the bill nearly died last week in a Republican feud over earmarks, the pet projects that are often slipped into bills at lobbyists' behest.

The new bill would require lobbyists to disclose more of their activities, increase financial penalties for violations and require lawmakers and their aides to attend ethics training.

It also aims to discourage earmarks by requiring House members who write spending bills to disclose them, a move lauded by fiscal conservatives who complain that earmarks waste taxpayer money and drive up the cost of legislation.

But the measure falls short of what Republican leaders promised after the scandal involving the lobbyist Jack Abramoff rocked the Capitol in January. The chief Republican architect of the bill, Representative David Dreier of California, the House Rules Committee chairman, conceded that he wished that the measure "were stronger than it is."

But Mr. Dreier also called it a "very, very strong package," and promised that it was just the beginning of Republican efforts to clean up Congress. The bill now goes to reconciliation with a stronger version passed by the Senate. The leaders in both chambers hope to do that as quickly as possible.

"Our aim, our goal, is a Congress that is effective, a Congress that is ethical and a Congress that is worthy of the public trust," Mr. Dreier told colleagues on the House floor. He added: "After we pass this bill, let me tell you what is next on our agenda — more reform. The Republican Party is the party of reform. The drive for reform never stops."

Republicans have been trying to adopt the mantle of reform since January, when Mr. Abramoff, who wined and dined lawmakers with lavish meals at his Washington restaurants and golf outings to Scotland, agreed to cooperate in a corruption inquiry. The plea, coupled with the resignation of a Republican House member, Randy Cunningham of California, on bribery charges, gave Democrats fodder for their campaign theme of a Republican "culture of corruption."

After Mr. Abramoff's plea, Mr. Dreier and Speaker J. Dennis Hastert endorsed the idea of barring members of Congress and their aides from accepting trips paid with private money. But the bill the House passed Wednesday would not ban the trips. Rather, it calls for the House ethics committee to draft trip rules by June 15. Before then, privately financed trips will require advance approval from two-thirds of the ethics panel.

Unlike the measure approved by the Senate, the bill does not address the "revolving door," the Capitol Hill term for lawmakers and aides who leave Congress to become lobbyists. The Senate bill aims to rein in that practice by requiring lawmakers and senior aides to refrain from lobbying former colleagues for two years, instead of the current one year.

The Senate bill would also bar lobbyists from giving gifts and meals to lawmakers. The House bill keeps the current limit of $50 for gifts or meals.

"We are cleaning up Congress the way teenagers clean up their bedrooms," said Representative Brian Baird, Democrat of Washington. "And the result will be the same mess."

Eight Democrats voted for the measure, which had led to deep splits among House Republicans. To address that problem, the leadership agreed to work in conference to extend restrictions on earmarks beyond spending bills to all legislation.

Among the 20 Republicans who voted against it was the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Representative F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. of Wisconsin. Others, particularly those facing re-election fights, agreed with Democrats that the measure was too weak. They included Representative Christopher Shays of Connecticut, who supported a Democratic alternative that would have banned lawmakers' use of corporate jets and imposed the two-year revolving-door restriction.

Mr. Shays said after the vote that "the Democrats did a much better job of presenting a bill," and took aim at the new majority leader, Representative John A. Boehner of Ohio, who has been lukewarm to restricting travel.

"This is not John Boehner's forte," Mr. Shays said. "This is not something he believes in."

Mr. Boehner, a staunch opponent of earmarks, pronounced himself elated at the outcome.

"Trust between the American people in this Congress is very important, and this is the first major step in rebuilding that trust," he said.

It is now up to the House and Senate Republican leaders to appoint negotiators to reconcile the differences in their bills. Mr. Hastert said he expected to do so next week. A spokesman for the Senate majority leader, Bill Frist, said Mr. Frist would also like to move quickly.

With polls showing public approval ratings for Congress at historic lows, Republicans are eager to have a bill on President Bush's desk long before the November elections.

"The sooner the better," Mr. Boehner said.


GOP Senator Comes Out Of The Rabbit Hole?

May 4, 2006

From The Boston Globe:

Hearing vowed on Bush's powers
Senator questions bypassing of laws

The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, accusing the White House of a ''very blatant encroachment" on congressional authority, said yesterday he will hold an oversight hearing into President Bush's assertion that he has the power to bypass more than 750 laws enacted over the past five years.

''There is some need for some oversight by Congress to assert its authority here," Arlen Specter, Republican of Pennsylvania, said in an interview. ''What's the point of having a statute if . . . the president can cherry-pick what he likes and what he doesn't like?"

Specter said he plans to hold the hearing in June. He said he intends to call administration officials to explain and defend the president's claims of authority, as well to invite constitutional scholars to testify on whether Bush has overstepped the boundaries of his power.

The senator emphasized that his goal is ''to bring some light on the subject." Legal scholars say that, when confronted by a president encroaching on their power, Congress's options are limited. Lawmakers can call for hearings or cut the funds of a targeted program to apply political pressure, or take the more politically charged steps of censure or impeachment.

Specter's announcement followed a report in the Sunday Globe that Bush has quietly asserted the authority to ignore provisions in 750 bills he has signed — about 1 in 10.

Over the past five years, Bush has stated that he can defy any statute that conflicts with his interpretation of the Constitution. In many instances, Bush cited his role as head of the executive branch or as commander in chief to justify the exemption.

The statutes that Bush has asserted the right to override include numerous rules and regulations for the military, job protections for whistle-blowers who tell Congress about possible government wrongdoing, affirmative action requirements, and safeguards against political interference in federally funded research.

Bush made the claims in ''signing statements," official documents in which a president lays out his interpretation of a bill for the executive branch, creating guidelines to follow when it implements the law. The statements are filed without fanfare in the federal record, often following ceremonies in which the president made no mention of the objections he was about to raise in the bill, even as he signed it into law.

Dana Perino, a White House spokeswoman, said via e-mail that if Specter calls a hearing, ''by all means we will ensure he has the information he needs." She pointed out that other presidents dating to the 19th century have ''on occasion" issued statements that raise constitutional concerns about provisions in new laws.

But while previous presidents did occasionally challenge provisions in laws while signing them, legal scholars say, the frequency and breadth of Bush's use of that power are unprecedented.

Bush is also the first president in modern history who has never vetoed a bill, an act that gives public notice that he is rejecting a law and can be overridden by Congress. Instead, Bush has used signing statements to declare that he can bypass numerous provisions in new laws.

The statements attracted little attention in Congress or the media until recently, when Bush used them to reserve a right to bypass a new torture ban and new oversight provisions in the Patriot Act.

''The problem is that you have a statute, which Congress has passed, and then the signing statements negate that statute," Specter said. ''And there are more and more of them coming. If the president doesn't like something, he puts a signing statement on it."

Specter added: ''He put a signing statement on the Patriot Act. He put a signing statement on the torture issue. It's a very blatant encroachment on [Congress's constitutional] powers. If he doesn't like the bill, let him veto it."

It was during a Judiciary Committee oversight hearing on the FBI that Specter yesterday announced his intent to hold a hearing on Bush's legal authority. Another committee member, Senator Russ Feingold, Democrat of Wisconsin, also questioned Bush's assertions that he has the authority to give himself an exemption from certain laws.

''Unfortunately, the president's signing statement on the Patriot Act is hardly the first time that he has shown a disrespect for the rule of law," Feingold said. ''The Boston Globe reported on Sunday that the president has used signing statements to reserve the right to break the law more than 750 times."

Feingold is an outspoken critic of Bush's assertion that his wartime powers give him the authority to set aside laws. The senator has proposed censuring Bush over his domestic spying program, in which the president secretly authorized the military to wiretap Americans' phones without a warrant, bypassing a 1978 surveillance law.

At the hearing yesterday, Feingold pressed FBI director Robert Mueller to give assurances that the bureau would comply with provisions in the Patriot Act and to tell Congress how agents are using the law to search homes and secretly seize papers.

Mueller said he saw no reason that the bureau couldn't share that information with Congress. But he also said that he was bound to obey the administration, and declined to promise that he would ''go out there and fight" on behalf of Congress if Bush decided to override the Patriot Act's oversight provision and ordered the FBI not to brief Congress.

Feingold also said Bush's legal claims have cast a cloud over a host of rules and restrictions that Congress has passed, using its constitutional authority to regulate the executive branch of government.

''How can we know whether the government will comply with the new laws that we passed?" Feingold said. ''I'm not placing the blame on you, obviously, or your agents who work to protect this country every day, but how can we have any assurance that you or your agents have not received a secret directive from above requiring you to violate laws that we all think apply today?"

Mueller replied: ''I can assure with you with regard to the FBI that our actions would be taken according to appropriate legal authorities."

Specter said that challenging Bush's contention that he can ignore laws written by Congress should be a matter of institutional pride for lawmakers. He also connected Bush's defiance of laws to several Supreme Court decisions in which the justices ruled that Congress had not done enough research to justify a law.

''We're undergoing a tsunami here with the flood coming from the executive branch on one side and the judicial branch on the other," Specter said. ''There may as well soon not be a Congress. . . . And I think that most members don't understand what's happening."


Donations for a Congressman, Profits for His Wife

April 17, 2006

From The Washington Post:

On Capitol Hill, there is widespread agreement that the annual congressional salary of $165,200 just does not go far enough on today's dollar. The clamor for ethics reform will likely make things tougher, forcing congressmen to pick up lunch and dinner tabs and pay their own way to Redskins games.

One enterprising member of the House, Rep. John T. Doolittle (R-Calif.), and his wife, Julie Doolittle, have found an innovative — and apparently legal — way to boost the family salary.

Julie Doolittle has set up a fundraising company, Sierra Dominion Financial Services. Two of her clients are John Doolittle's campaign committee and his leadership PAC, the Superior California Federal Leadership Fund. Julie Doolittle's company gets 15 cents of every dollar raised by her husband's political committees.

The United Parcel Service PAC, for example, has given $15,000 to the leadership PAC and $10,000 to the campaign committee, which, in turn, means a commission of $3,750 for Julie Doolittle's company.

Overall, in the 2005-2006 election cycle, according to PoliticalMoneyLine, Sierra Dominion has collected $82,127 from the Doolittle committees. That is already ahead of the $77,947 in commissions in the 2003-2004 cycle, even with nine months to go until the election.

Asked about the propriety of Julie Doolittle's profiting from campaign contributions to her husband, Doolittle spokesman Richard Robinson replied by e-mail: "Sierra Dominion's compensation is based entirely upon performance in that it receives a percentage of what it is directly involved in raising. This arrangement is not only consistent with that of other fundraisers, but was designed to avoid the appearance that Sierra Dominion is compensated for anything other than its tireless and effective work."

Robinson contended that "having family members paid for such work is both legal and ethical." He said that "the Federal Election Commission approved such activity in 2001 when it issued a formal advisory opinion to Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.), who wanted to hire his wife as a campaign consultant, and the House Ethics Committee has advised us that such activity is in compliance with the House rules so long as compensation is consistent with the market rate."

Julie Doolittle and Sierra Dominion Financial Services have become issues in John Doolittle's reelection bid. The controversy involves not only the commissions from the political committees but also payments to Sierra Dominion by Jack Abramoff and Abramoff's former law firm, Greenberg Traurig, to raise money for Abramoff's Capital Athletic Foundation, a charity. On Jan. 3, Abramoff pleaded guilty to fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy to bribe public officials.

Union vs. University of Miami

Two important figures in the Democratic Party — Service Employees International Union President Andrew L. Stern and University of Miami President Donna E. Shalala — are at loggerheads in a fight to organize janitors at the university.

Stern is aggressively pressing Shalala, who was secretary of health and human services during the Clinton administration, to intervene on behalf of the janitors seeking to form a union. The janitors work for a private Boston-based company, UNICCO, hired as an outside contractor by the university.

Stern, who has criticized Shalala in a commentary on the liberal Huffington Post Web site, wants her to pressure UNICCO to allow janitors to decide to unionize under a system called a card check, instead of through a secret-ballot election held under the auspices of the National Labor Relations Board.

Under the card-check system, if accepted by the employer, a union is recognized when a majority of workers sign cards declaring their support.

In an interview, Shalala said she cannot intervene, for a variety of reasons. First, she said, it would be wrong on principle to oppose an election. Second, she argued: "It's not our fight — Andy and our contractor are having a fight, and I'm trying to stay out of it. Andy keeps trying to drag me into it."

The Politics of Students

A new poll by scholars at Harvard University found that religion and morality are playing important roles in shaping the politics of college students of all political leanings.

More than half of students interviewed at schools around the country said they are worried about the moral direction of the country. But the poll, conducted by the Institute of Politics at Harvard, also noted that students were sharply divided along party lines over whether religion ought to play a strong role in politics and government.

Fifty-six percent of Republicans thought it should, but only a fifth, or about 20 percent, of Democrats agreed. The poll found that college students did not fall neatly along liberal and conservative lines. While the largest group of students was still traditional liberals (44 percent), the numbers of religious centrists (25 percent) and traditional conservatives (16 percent) have grown in the past year. The number of secular centrists (15 percent) has declined.

The study's authors noted that the religious centrists are a key group for politicians to watch. "Optimistic about the future and very likely to participate in elections, the Religious Centrists' views are characterized by a deep concern over the moral direction of the country that is likely influenced by opposition to Roe v. Wade and belief that homosexuality is immoral," they wrote.

Moving into real-world politics, the poll showed that college students have a more dismal view of the job President Bush is doing than the general public has, with only 33 percent approving. As for Bush's possible successor, Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) each received 40 percent support in a presidential matchup.


Lawmakers Unable To Reform Themselves

April 14, 2006

From HuffPo:

Last month, the Senate rebuffed an amendment for pending ethics legislation asking freeloading lawmakers to pay the whole cost of taking flights on corporate jets.

Now the House is poised to act on ethics and lobbying measures when members get back from a two-week spring break to do some work between vacations. The pending GOP-drafted House proposal for dealing with corporate subsidized flights is no reform.

The problem is this: At present, members of the House and Senate are allowed to ride on private jets owned or leased by corporations. They have to pay only the price of a first-class ticket, which hardly covers the costs of operating the aircraft. House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) takes corporate subsidized jet rides. Last year, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) accepted this corporate discount 23 times before ending the practice in January, after he was named the Democratic lead on ethics. Most of this travel is fund-raising related.

There are a few problems with allowing lawmakers this perk of power. Taking the discount rides basically allows a member of Congress to take a gift from a corporation that would be impermissible in cash. The flights also allow a member of the company to send a lobbyist or officer along, granting incredible access to a lawmaker. The ill-fated Senate amendment — which Obama strongly argued for from the Senate floor — would have forced lawmakers riding borrowed planes to pay the full market rate.

The House remedy for this ethical ailment is cunning. In the legislation to be advanced to the House floor, the suggested cure is to merely ban the lobbyist representing the company, or working for a lobbying firm retained by the corporation, from being a "passenger or crew member on that flight.''

"You could still have the CEO of the company sitting with you,'' said Chellie Pingree, president of Common Cause, a nonpartisan government watchdog group.

It's a cosmetic patch designed to fool the public. And once again, in this ethics debate triggered by the lobbying scandals surrounding convicted GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff, it is an attempt by Congress to control the behavior of lobbyists rather than themselves.

"The solution here is to require members to pay the full market value of the ride,'' said Fred Wertheimer, the president of Democracy 21, another watchdog organization.

House trip perks

The pending House bill titled the "Lobbying Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006'' has a provision to trick people into thinking it is seriously dealing with problems associated with private interests paying for trips for lawmakers.

Abramoff's schemes included lavishing travel on some lawmakers and congressional staffers, and a golfing junket to Scotland figures in the federal probe. Once the Abramoff outrages burst on the nation's front pages, Hastert and Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier (R-Calif.) called for a ban on private travel and gifts. But Hastert and Dreier could not sell a ban to their GOP colleagues.

In the pending legislation, that outright ban — which may have been an overreaction — is diluted down to a moratorium on private-paid trips until Dec. 15, which is after the November elections. The moribund House ethics panel, evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, is supposed to use the time to study the situation.

Now not all trips are junkets. Congressional travel done the right way should be encouraged.

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) has been in Congress since 1981 and just weeks ago took his first foreign trip, to China. Schumer said he never traveled because in his early years in the House he thought his rivals would portray him unfavorably as a globetrotter if he left town. I want lawmakers to be familiar with China, a growing economic giant whose trade policies affect all of us.

Outside of the corporate subsidized jet flights, which are nearly impossible to defend and a separate issue, there are other types of more substantial congressional travel. There are official delegations, paid for by the government and called congressional delegations, that are not part of this current ethics debate. On Wednesday, Hastert and seven other lawmakers, including Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.) and their wives, wrapped up a four-day congressional delegation to India and Vietnam. A stop in Nepal was canceled because of the threat of violence.

Then there are private sector special-interest bankrolled tours to places a lawmaker may not otherwise go if he or she had to pay. And there are trips sponsored by non-profits, think tanks and the like that are educational in nature.

The most controversial are the private paid trips to seminars or forums that just happen to be at luxury destinations and are thinly veiled free vacations.

"Everyone agrees that it is good for members of Congress to get out in the world,'' Pingree said. But lawmakers still are a long way from figuring how to do it right.