Article

Government: A Congress That Acts

The 110th Congress has now been in power for nearly six months. Despite facing critical challenges -- namely, a closely divided Senate and an obstinate, ideological president now eager to use his veto pen -- the new progressive Congress has achieved real, concrete results.

June 15, 2007 by Faiz Shakir, Nico Pitney, Amanda Terkel, Satyam Khanna, and Matt Corley
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GOVERNMENT

A Congress That Acts

The 110th Congress has now been in power for nearly six months. Despite facing critical challenges — namely, a closely divided Senate and an obstinate, ideological president now eager to use his veto pen — the new progressive Congress has achieved real, concrete results. The House of Representatives has passed all 10 bills it promised during the 2006 campaign, including enacting the 9/11 Commission recommendations, landmark lobbying and ethics reform, the first minimum wage increase in a decade, and a stem cell research expansion. The Senate has passed six of the 10; three others are currently being considered. (The White House has signed just two of the bills. It has vetoed or threatened to veto five.) Polls this week showed approval ratings for Congress sharply down after last month’s controversial Iraq spending legislation. The country is undoubtedly frustrated that President Bush’s conservative allies have blocked a major change in Iraq strategy. But on a wide array of issues, the 110th Congress is proving extremely effective at outmaneuvering conservatives, holding the Bush administration accountable, and winning key legislative victories.

PROGRESSIVES GETTING RESULTS: From tough new congressional ethics rules, bans on gifts from lobbyists, and the most transparent earmarking system ever established, Congress has honored its pledge for more openness and accountability. Both the House and Senate have voted to implement the critical recommendations of the 9/11 Commission, which Bush and Congress selectively ignored for five years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and to expand federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, a cause that Bush has stubbornly vowed to veto for a second time. Congress is cleaning up the system in other ways — creating new protections for government whistleblowers, requiring greater disclosure of presidential records, and more responsiveness from Freedom of Information Act requests. After a decade of delay, Congress approved a raise in the federal minimum wage from $5.15/hour to $7.25/hour, benefiting millions of Americans, and Bush signed the legislation last month. After the administration’s mishandling of veterans care was exposed, Congress included billions more than the President requested for military health care and research in the 2007 Emergency Supplemental, which he also signed. The 110th Congress has restored necessary checks and balances, in contrast to the dangerous expansion of executive authority granted by previous Congresses. Just yesterday, Congress drove Bush to sign the Preserving United States Attorney Independence Act, which repeals an obscure PATRIOT Act provision permitting the appointment of interim U.S. attorneys without Senate approval, a provision which is at the heart of the U.S. attorney scandal. Congress is also examining new ways to curb Bush’s warrantless wiretapping system, which even FBI Director Robert Mueller acknowledges is laden with “abuses and violations” of authority.

AGGRESSIVE OVERSIGHT: “You must ask the questions. You must do oversight if we’re going to keep people honest, if we’re going to provide the checks and balances that our Constitution envisions,” House oversight committee chairman Henry Waxman (D-CA) said in a recent interview with The Progress Report. In the previous Congress, oversight of the executive branch was woefully neglected by Bush’s conservative allies. For example, in the 108th Congress, the House Government Reform Committee held just 37 hearings described as “oversight,” including “only 12 hours of sworn testimony about the abuse of prisoners at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison.” In the first five and a half months of 2007 alone, the committee has already held 33 hearings on previously ignored subjects such as, waste, fraud, and abuse in Iraq Reconstruction; political influence on government climate change scientists; and the reliance on private military contractors. Overall, Congress has held more than 200 oversight hearings on issues related to the Iraq war alone. Aggressive efforts by the 110th Congress have already resulted in a bevy of resignations by scandal-plagued members of the executive branch. At the Justice Department, three top aides to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales have resigned as part of the ongoing U.S. attorney scandal investigation. A week before an oversight hearing, Julie MacDonald of the Interior Department resigned amidst allegations that she had censored scientists. Following the revelations of neglect and abuse at Walter Reed Medical Center, the new Congress swept into action with hearings and oversight, resulting in the resignations of the Center’s commander, the Army Surgeon General, and the Secretary of the Army — accountability that was unlikely to happen in the previous Congress.

THE IMPACT OF IRAQ: Six weeks ago, the congressional leadership had a 54 percent approval rating; that rating has now dropped to 44 percent. Conservatives have been gloating over these numbers, stating that they show large-scale disapproval of Congress’s priorities. “Democrats who control this floundering and roundly disapproved Congress are paying a painful price for the pleasure of defeating everything that could be construed as in any way an achievement by the president,” wrote conservative pundit George Will. But the public’s dissatisfaction with Congress is bipartisan; the approval rating for Republicans in Congress is just 36 percent. And as ABC News notes, the recent decline is almost entirely among people who “strongly oppose the war in Iraq.” Congress’s approval rating began to drop only after May 1, when Bush vetoed the Iraq war funding bill that set a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. Congress’s approval rating fell the most dramatically when it sent a new war funding bill to the President that did not contain a withdrawal timetable, a reality that congressional leaders now acknowledge. “It’s the war, I believe so, it’s the war,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), who voted against the bill. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) noted, “I understand their disappointment. We raised the bar too high.” Earlier this week, Pelosi and Reid recommitted Congress to changing course in Iraq in a letter to Bush. “In light of the additional evidence since your veto that your plan is not working, it is clear that a course correction in Iraq is needed,” they wrote. “The American people cannot and should not have to wait until later this year for changes in your flawed Iraq policy. There is an obligation to act now.”

UNDER THE RADAR

IRAQ — SNOW: INTENSE NEW LEVELS OF VIOLENCE IN IRAQ ARE ‘SIGNS OF SUCCESS’: The Pentagon this week released its first quarterly report assessing President Bush’s escalation strategy, confirming that overall levels of violence in the country actually “increased throughout much of Iraq in recent months,” as attacks “shifted away from Baghdad and Anbar” and into “cities and provinces that had been relatively peaceful before the Bush administration’s troop buildup.” Political reconciliation has almost entirely stalled, suicide bombings “more than doubled” from January to April, sectarian deaths have increased beyond pre-escalation levels, and U.S. troop deaths are spiking. During his press briefing yesterday, White House spokesman Tony Snow said the increasing chaos was a positive sign. The new levels of attacks “fit a pattern that we see throughout the region,” he said, “which is that when you see things moving towards success, or when you see signs of success, that there are acts of violence.” Also yesterday, Snow downplayed the importance of the September Iraq report from top U.S. commander in Iraq Gen. David Petraeus. Just last month, Bush said September would be an “important moment” in the war because “Petraeus says that’s when he’ll have a pretty good assessment as to what the effects of the surge has been.” Yesterday, Snow described Petraeus’s report as merely a “first opportunity” to “have a little bit of a metric” to “see what happens when you have all the forces in place for the Baghdad security plan.” 

ADMINISTRATION — LIBBY MUST REPORT TO PRISON PENDING APPEAL:
Yesterday, U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton ordered Vice President Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff Scooter Libby to “surrender in six to eight weeks to begin serving his 30-month prison term,” rejecting “Libby’s request to remain free while appealing his conviction.” Walton, who received threatening letters and phone calls from Libby’s supporters in the case, said that “clearly, under the statute, I’m required to detain him. … And I just think blue-collar criminals are entitled to the same kind of justice as white-collar criminals.” “A dozen prominent constitutional scholars,” most of them outspoken conservatives, filed a brief last week “urging that Libby remain free pending appeal.” Walton dismissed the brief as “not something I would expect from a first-year law student” and said that “it appeared to be produced…for the sole purpose of throwing their names out there so somehow I’d feel pressure.” Libby’s last hope for a get-out-of-jail-free card is President Bush. While the White House yesterday released a statement stating that “the president will continue not to intervene in the judicial process,” Walton’s ruling to send Libby to jail increases “the pressure for President Bush to decide soon whether he will pardon Libby.”  

IRAQ — BUSH IGNORES 28,500 ADDITIONAL TROOPS IN IRAQ, SAYS ‘SURGE’ HASN’T STARTED YET:
Early this week, the Pentagon delivered to Congress its “first comprehensive statistical overview of the new U.S. military strategy in Iraq.” Citing “uneven cooperation” and little “concrete progress,” the report concluded that “reconciliation between Shiite, Kurdish and Sunni factions” remains “a serious unfulfilled objective.” Furthermore, the report found that suicide bombings across Iraq have doubled since January, overall violence “has increased in most provinces,” and “civilian casualties rose slightly, to more than 100 a day.” Yesterday, however, the President attempted to dismiss the report’s conclusions, saying that it is still “too early to judge the results of this new strategy” by repeating the myth that U.S. forces “haven’t even started the full surge yet.” The President is wrong — it is not “too early to judge” the results of his escalation in Iraq. As Secretary of Defense Robert Gates explained nearly six months ago at the start of the escalation plan, “we’ll have pretty good early indications of their performance” before “very many American soldiers have been sent to Iraq”: “Well, as I indicated, we’re going to know pretty early on whether the Iraqis are meeting their military commitments, in terms of being able to go into all neighborhoods, in terms of the Iraqis being in the lead and carrying out the leadership and the fighting, and for there not to be political interference in the military operations that are going forward,” Gates said. Furthermore, the President’s assertion that U.S. forces “haven’t started” the surge yet becomes almost laughable as the Washington Post reports today that with an additional 28,500 U.S. troops “now posted in the country,” a military spokesman said yesterday that the “Iraq troop surge [is] complete.”

THINK FAST

A controversial Sept. 2005 government memo suggests that in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, FEMA authorized private insurance companies to overbill the taxpayer-funded federal flood program “while shorting people on their wind damage payments.”

The escalation is now complete. “The full contingent of new U.S. forces being sent to Iraq…was completed by Friday, with 28,500 additional troops now posted in the country.” Five U.S. soldiers died yesterday.

“Senate leaders agreed on Thursday to revive a stalled immigration overhaul,” announcing an effort “to overcome conservatives’ objections” by immediately setting aside “more than $4 billion to beef up enforcement of immigration laws.”

Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK), “dogged by a federal probe of political corruption in Alaska, disclosed Thursday that he has asked the Senate Ethics Committee to review his latest financial disclosure report.” Ethics reviews of lawmakers’ financial reports “are unusual unless they are under a legal cloud.”

The Supreme Court struck a blow against unions yesterday, ruling that states may “force public sector labor unions to get consent from workers before using their fees for political activities.” Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the court, said a Washington state law requiring such consent “does not violate the union’s First Amendment rights.” 

“The increased demand for ‘green’ vehicles is spilling over to the rental car counter,” as Hertz and Avis rental companies announced plans to add thousands more hybrid vehicles to their fleets.

“The Justice Department is investigating whether British defense giant BAE Systems, which supplies Bradley fighting vehicles to the U.S. military and is becoming a major player in the U.S. defense industry, paid bribes to win contracts in Saudi Arabia, Chile and elsewhere.”

“The military’s mental health system has ‘fallen significantly short’ of meeting the needs of troops and their families, according to a year-long task force study released Thursday.” The report also notes that the “Pentagon must immediately start recruiting to fill a mental health staff ‘woefully inadequate’ to deal with conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder.”

And finally: Yeeeaaaarrrrrggghhh!!: The Musical. An “unlikely subject may be headed for Broadway this fall: Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign. Last week, Oscar-nominated actor Jake Gyllenhaal did a private reading of ‘Farragut North’ (written by playwright and former Dean campaigner Beau Willimon) about the presidential hopes of a charismatic, unorthodox candidate and his staff.”

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GOOD NEWS

In a “stunning victory for gay marriage advocates,” Massachusetts lawmakers “blocked a proposed constitutional amendment Thursday that would have let voters decide whether to ban gay marriage in the only state in which same-sex marriages are legal.”

STATE WATCH

NEW JERSEY: Legislature approves bill requiring pharmacists to dispense birth-control pills regardless of personal beliefs.

CALIFORNIA
: Twenty-one of 23 environmental bills recently pass in the state legislature.

FLORIDA
: Pollution, warming waters, shipping, and oceanic development threaten Florida’s “gorgeous” coral reefs.

BLOG WATCH

THINK PROGRESS: While promoting escalation in Iraq, U.S.-backed Ahmad Chalabi blocked U.S.-led political reforms.

THINK PROGRESS: Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) hypocritically attacks Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) for criticizing Gen. Peter Pace.

RAW STORY: Attorney General Alberto Gonzales again uses U.S. Attorney appointment power that Congress voted to repeal.

DANGER ROOM: 2003 Army booklet on Iraq: “Arabs are reluctant to accept responsibility.”

DAILY GRILL

Q: Are there any members of the Bush family or this administration in this war?
SNOW: Yeah, the President. The President is in the war every day. […]
Q: On the frontlines, where ever…
SNOW: The President.
— White House Press Briefing with spokesman Tony Snow, 6/14/07

VERSUS

“I can only tell you what people on the ground, whose judgment — it’s hard for me, living in this beautiful White House, to give you an assessment, firsthand assessment. I haven’t been there; you have, I haven’t.”
— President Bush, 2/14/07