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September 25, 2006

Capitol Crimes: Abramoff, Inc.

Should U.S. territories be subject to the same laws as the United States itself. If so, why? If not, why not?

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Backgrounder: Abramoff, Inc.
One aspect of the unfolding Abramoff scandal involved the Marianas, a U.S. territory in the Pacific that Congress exempted from the U.S. minimum wage and immigration laws. The islands are home to Chinese-owned factories, where low-wage workers were imported from China and the Philippines and forced into slave labor conditions, living in squalid shacks behind barbed wire, to produce "Made in the USA" goods. As pressure built in the mid-1990s for a bill to impose U.S. laws on the islands, Abramoff was pitching his client-the government of the Marianas-as a regulation-free paradise and taking lawmakers there on luxury junkets ... [more]

Class Is in Session...

The scattered islands of the U.S. Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, which lie roughly halfway between Hawaii and the Philippines and just north of Guam, cover a mere 179 square miles and have a population of just 82,459. Yet they have figured prominently in the house of cards that Jack built. The Marianas Islands



In 1995, Abramoff took on the government of the Northern Marianas in Saipan as a client and for the next six years lobbied key Washington lawmakers to maintain a hands-off approach to the sweatshop economy blossoming there. According to Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), of all the improprieties, fraud and corruption in which Abramoff engaged, "[his] most damaging and most indefensible work was to protect … sweatshops located in this U.S. territory."

Former Senator Frank Murkowski said of the Islands in a 1998 Senate hearing..."We saw living conditions that simply should not exist in the United States of America…." And why, as immigrant workers churned out millions of garments for top labels from The Gap to Jones New York - featuring the "Made in the U.S.A." label-did the U.S. Congress fail to ensure that proper worker safety and minimum wage standards were being met? Murkowski queried: "How could we have in the United States working conditions like this under the US flag?" The answers to these questions lead directly back to the controversial relationship between Abramoff, former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and other important figures in government.

Made for America

Aside from Puerto Rico, the Northern Mariana Islands are the only other insular commonwealth of the United States. The arrangement, which began in 1978, grants all indigenous inhabitants of the islands American citizenship and allows them to elect a local island government but excludes the right to vote in U.S. presidential elections. The government of the Northern Marianas benefits from substantial U.S. federal funds-in the form of subsidies and development assistance-administered by the Department of the Interior. The United States benefits by having a strategic military site in the Pacific.

Under the terms of their commonwealth agreement, the Northern Marianas also maintained the right to label "Made in the U.S.A." all products manufactured on the islands — despite the fact that they had been given exemption from some federal labor laws, customs laws, immigration laws, quotas and tariffs laws By the late 1980s, this state of affairs had become a boon both for the island's garment industry and for a slew of American apparel giants who could count on abundant cheap labor without sacrificing the sacred "U.S.A." label.

During those years, the Northern Mariana's garment and textile businesses exploded, with companies importing tens of thousands of foreign workers from China, the Philippines, Thailand, Cambodia, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh to stitch in their factories for roughly half the American minimum wage. These immigrants often paid thousands of dollars to loan sharks to bring them to Saipan with the promise of work and spent months, if not years, paying off their debts, if they found work at all. Workers were often housed in barracks behind barbed-wire fences, often in unsafe, overcrowded and unhygienic conditions, and were charged exorbitant amounts for their room and board.

In the early 1990s, the U.S. Department of Labor began looking into allegations of garment industry worker abuses, focusing on factories owned by one of Saipan's biggest employers, Willie Tan. In 1992, the department filed suit against Tan and ordered him to pay $9 million in back wages and damages to workers at five of his plants-at the time, the largest fine ever imposed by the Department of Labor. The suit alleged that employees were forced to work more than 80 hours a week, below the islands' already low minimum wage and with no overtime. Further, workers were kept locked inside their barracks and were not allowed to leave during their off-work hours

Tan and his associates in the government of the Northern Marianas looked to American lobbyists for protection against potential federal regulation. Jack Abramoff was one of those lobbyists.

Enter Abramoff

Abramoff pocketed nearly $8 million from his contracts with Saipan between 1995 and 2001, according to the Northern Marianas' public auditor. And with the help of Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and others he accomplished his goal of keeping congressional hands off the commonwealth's sweatshops, despite a growing public outcry over the continuing abuse of immigrant workers.

Between 1995 and 1998 — in testimony before Congress; in investigations by the Department of Labor and the Department of the Interior; in congressional fact-finding missions; and in numerous media accounts, including a report which aired on ABC's 20/20 as "The Shame of Saipan"-the mistreatment of nearly 18,000 workers in the Northern Marianas became widely known. The public and the nation's lawmakers heard tales of women forced to undergo abortions in order to keep their jobs, of women and young girls guaranteed jobs in the restaurant industry only to find that they would be working as prostitutes; of long hours with no overtime and illegally substandard pay; of foul living conditions and beatings and humiliations.

In 1997, no doubt in partial response to these accounts, the Clinton administration wrote to the Marianas' elected leader, Governor Froilan Tenorio, that "certain labor practices in the islands ...are inconsistent with our country's values," and made mention of reforming the commonwealth's labor and immigration laws to bring them into line with those of the United States.

Tom DeLay visited Saipan in for the New Years holiday 1997/1998 — at the invitation of Abramoff, whom DeLay called one of his "closest and dearest friends." DeLay's trip — which boasted luxury hotels, fine white-sand beaches and several premier golf courses — was paid for by the government of the Northern Marianas and was one of a number of junkets the government sprung for at the urging of Abramoff.

When DeLay returned to Washington, he kept his promise to his clients in the Northern Marianas regarding federal regulation. Although the Senate in 1999 passed legislation that would have stipulated that any garment bearing a "Made in the U.S.A." label would have to be made by American workers, and more than 200 members of the House co-sponsored similar legislation the same year, the efforts never made it into law.

Willie Tan, the Saipan garment giant was captured on hidden camera by by Global Survival Network saying that DeLay had effectively told him not to worry about the legislation. According to Tan, "[Delay] said, 'Willie, if they elect me majority whip, I make the schedule of the Congress, and I'm not going to put it on the schedule.' So Tom told me, 'Forget it, Willie. No chance.' "

In 2000, Republican Sen. Frank Murkowski of Alaska authored a bill that would have extended U.S. labor protections and minimum-wage laws to the Northern Marianas. The Senate bill passed with unanimous consent. Again, it died in the House. But a number of class actions suits filed on behalf of garment workers in Saipan have fared better. In 2004 the workers dismissed their remaining lawsuit after having won a $20 million settlement with 26 U.S. retailers and 23 Saipan garment factories.

Discussion:

  • Should U.S. territories be subject to the same laws as the United States itself. If so, why? If not, why not?
  • What kinds of changes could we make to the Congressional power structure that would prevent one or two individuals from allowing a debate on legislation? What are the pros and cons to those changes?
  • What do you think about the ability of foreign companies to lobby the US government? What kinds of restrictions, if any, should be placed on foreign companies vs. domestic companies?

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September 19, 2006

Capitol Crimes: The Land of Lobby

What kind of changes do you think need to happen when it comes to lobbying in America that would help level the playing field for all those interested in being heard by government?

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Backgrounder: The Land of Lobby
Political folklore has it that the term "lobbying" originated during the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant, when, brandy in one hand, cigar in the other, the former general would plant himself in the lobby of his favorite hotel and wait for the public to come offering and asking for favors ... [more]

Class Is in Session...

Over the past five years, the number of lobbyists in Washington has doubled to nearly 35,000; the yearly amount spent on lobbying has increased by nearly a billion dollars to $2.3 billion; and today more than 230 former congressmen, now lobbyists, continue walk the halls of the Hill, attempting to influence the way current congressmen vote. Is there too much lobbying going on? What happens to democracy when so much money and effort are poured into selling the agendas of special interests to our elected officials?

"Congress has always had, and always will have, lobbyists and lobbying," says former Senate Majority Leader Robert Byrd. "We could not adequately consider our workload without them." But he also stresses the need for vigilance. "The history of this institution demonstrates the need for eternal vigilance to ensure that lobbyists do not abuse their role, that lobbying is carried on publicly with full publicity, and that the interests of all citizens are heard without giving special ear to the best organized and most lavishly funded."

To be clear, not all lobbyists represent big business, not all of them are Abramoff-style operator and not all of them toe the line between legality and criminal corruption. In fact, most lobbyists are respectable folks legitimately conveying the interests of organized groups to those whose actions and votes have an effect on the way we live in America. They may represent churches, universities, charities, senior citizens groups or environmental concerns, or they may represent Enron or the Northern Mariana Islands. Basically, a lobbyist's job is to persuade lawmakers to view an issue in their clients' interest and will urge them to vote in a way that benefits their clients, whether that means more federal research contracts for a college in a congressman's district, more affordable drug prescriptions for the elderly or bigger tax loopholes for corporations.

For years, the reality has been that people must organize in order to have their voices heard in politics. From the very early days of Congress, citizens have joined together in order to lobby with greater efficacy: The representatives of shipwrights lobbied lawmakers on the effects of tariffs; merchants' lobbyists pushed for an end to the tax on molasses; federal clerks requested an increase in pay; military officers sought reimbursement for personal funds expended during the Revolution. In short, individuals with common interests banded together and selected someone to plead their case before Congress, the White House or any other body that had the power to influence the situation. And so lobbying became an efficacious and accepted form of political activity. (Read a history from lobbying from the U.S. Senate.)

Bill Moyers talked with Thomas Frank, author of WHAT'S THE MATTER WITH KANSAS: HOW CONSERVATIVES WON THE HEART OF AMERICA and Norman Ornstein of the conservative American Enterprise Institute and long-time Washington observer about the particular problems exhibited by the Abramoff scandal, and the general problems that perplex a political and campaign system that runs on money — a great deal of money. Ornstein is particuarly troubled by the "earmarking" process in which representatives can use a legislative manuever, without great oversight, to steer federal appropraitions monies to pet projects...and possibly to campaign contributors. (You can learn more about earmarks in the "Fixing the System" Citizens Class.) Watch the video

You can find out how much money is being spent to lobby for the things you care about. Take a look here OpenSecrets.org to find out if you are being represented by a lobbyist in Congress. To see how many lobbyists are working in your state legislature, visit Public Integrity. Amazingly, in Washington, there are approximately 65 lobbyists for each member of the House.

By law, all registered lobbyists working on the Hill are required to publicly disclose which issues and bills they have worked on-in recent years, less than half of lobbyists have filed their disclosure forms in a timely manner, if at all. Increased scrutiny by both the public and oversight agencies could help the situation — especially in the age of the Internet. Watchdog groups fault the House for lagging behind the Senate. which maintains a broadly searchable database of electronic images of lobbying forms. [Read the report and find out about additional reform efforts.]

Big Money and Big Problems

There is no doubt: Lobbying is big business and it's growing. And choosing the right lobbyist can be very lucrative. For a relatively small investment in a lobbying campaign, corporations can receive a gargantuan return. THE WASHINGTON POST reported that one lobbying firm, the Carmen Group, calculated that for every $1 million its clients spend on its services, it delivers, on average, $100 million in government benefits.

Lobbyists and their firms contribute heaps of cash to political campaigns, attend or host fundraisers and even act as fundraisers and campaign treasurers themselves. According to the Center for Public Integrity, since 1998, nearly 80 members of Congress have tapped congressional lobbyists to serve as treasurers of their campaign committees and as leaders of their political action committees. Says Common Cause, "lobbyists raise campaign funds because they want to become indispensable to people in power, knowing that the service they perform will be rewarded by the access and influence they gain."

The following figures give a good idea of just how interlocking the worlds of politics and lobbying are:

  • 232 former members of Congress are now registered lobbyists.

  • Nearly 40 members of Congress retain lobbyists as treasurers of their re-election campaigns or political action committees.

  • 12 former registered lobbyists have been hired to work in various offices of the White House, sometimes formulating public policy about the various issues they once lobbied.

  • More than 1,300 registered lobbyists have personally given more than 1.8 million to George Bush over the last six years
The Revolving Door

Another issue of concern is the number of congressional staffers, executive staffers and former members of Congress taking highly lucrative jobs as lobbyists. According to a study by Public Citizen, 43 percent of eligible members of Congress who left office since 1998 have become lobbyists. During that same period, 273 former White House staffers also registered as lobbyists. While some see this as a logical move into a position where they can best apply their skills, it also raises concerns that tenure in Congress is just a stepping-stone toward a highly paid job as a lobbyist. In convincing Rep. Robert W. Ney not to run for re-election, House Majority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) reportedly told Ney that if he lost his House seat for the party, he could not expect a lucrative career on K Street-the avenue of the lobbyists.

Even though there is a one-year moratorium on taking a job as a lobbyist, members of Congress and staff often bypass the moratorium by joining lobbying firms as advisors and not registered lobbyists. Common Cause has called for an increase in the moratorium from one year to two years, and to expand the definition of lobbying. The plea agreements of both Congressman Bob Ney and his former Chief of Staff Neil Volz cite violations of the one-year waiting period. [Read the report and the Ney plea agreement (PDF).]

While "Capitol Crimes" looked primarily at the abuses perpetrated by Jack Abramoff, there have been at least half a dozen other politicians and lobbyists tainted by lobbying scandals this year alone. And with the large pot of lobby money, the growing cost of campaigns, the and lawmakers willing to trade favors for funding, it seems likely that-barring a major ethics overhaul-this kind of behavior will continue.

Discussion:

  • You’ve watched the documentary and read the accompanying materials. Come up with three government or lobbying reform ideas that if they had been instituted before the Abramoff scandal would have prevented it.
  • Take a pro and con position about lobbying: when is it a necessary part of the democratic process, when does it harm the democratic process? Can you envision a healthy democratic system without some form of organized lobbying?
  • What kind of changes do you think need to happen when it comes to lobbying in America that would help level the playing field for all those interested in being heard by government?

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Capitol Crimes: Fixing the System

How would you reform the American political system?

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Backgrounder: Fixing the System
An Earmark is a stipulation inserted into a bill by an individual member or members of Congress requiring that a portion of the funds provided through that legislation, rather than going into a general agency fund, must be spent on a particular project or given to a particular recipient. Earmark reform got a special mention in the President's State of the Union address and was, until recently, under scrutiny on the floor of Congress. In September 2006, The House of Representatives passed an internal rule that would require lawmakers to sign their names to some of the items they sponsor as special-interest provisions into major tax and spending bills. Critics say the reform doesn't go nearly far enough... [more]

Class Is in Session...
The Abramoff scandal has politicians and the public taking a hard look at the relationship between money and politics once again. Indeed, in his 2006 State of the Union address, President George W. Bush singled out a common part of the budget process for criticism-earmarks. "I am pleased that members of Congress are working on earmark reform," he told the country, "because the federal budget has too many special interest projects."

So what exactly are earmarks, and why are they causing so much trouble? Generally speaking, an earmark is a stipulation inserted into a bill by an individual member or members of Congress requiring that a portion of the funds provided through that legislation, rather than going into a general agency fund, must be spent on a particular project or given to a particular recipient. For example, as part of the 2005 Federal Transportation Equity Act, $223 million was earmarked specifically for the construction of a bridge in Alaska that would connect a town of 9,000 people to an island of 50-those funds could be used for nothing else. Taxpayers and a number of politicians complained that the appropriation seemed exorbitant given the number of people who would benefit, and eventually, after a bitter battle, the earmark was removed from the legislation.

But the bridge example points up some of the problems associated with earmarks, namely that they tie the hands of government agencies charged with determining what projects are necessary and allocating funds for those projects, and that they frequently award contracts that are not subject to competitive bidding, public hearing or review. In short, earmarking often allow lawmakers to bypass normal budgetary procedures in order to ensure that their pet projects receive funding. Naturally, this can lead to corruption, kickbacks and the like.

Most Americans are familiar with the phrase pork barrel politics-government spending that benefits the constituents of a politician in return for their political support. To be clear, not all earmarks qualify as pork barrel spending. Citizens Against Government Waste has been tracking pork barrel spending for the past 16 years; they distinguish pork barrel spending as line-item appropriations or earmarks that circumvent normal procedures for review. In other words, not every earmark is a pork barrel by their definition. Citizens Against Government Waste estimates that earmarks have grown rapidly — from 1,300 in 1994 to 14,000 last year.

Watch the video

However, the guilty plea of former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.) and an investigation into West Virginia Democrat Alan Mollohan have raised questions about earmarks and the lack of oversight. Politicians and the public are concerned that earmarks, whether used as currency for re-election or as political favors to well-connected individuals or businesses, can corrupt the political process.

History

Earmarking has become so pervasive that it would be easy to assume that this is the way Congress has always worked. Garnering monies and projects for constituents is how legislators demonstrate that they are working on behalf of the people they represent-they are "bringing home the bacon." But earmarking did not become common practice until the 1980s. Throughout our early history, Congressional spending was limited to the powers enumerated in the Constitution. President James Monroe foreshadowed the recent abuses of the earmark system when he argued that federal money should be limited to great national works only. "If [the use of federal money] were unlimited, it would be liable to abuse and might be productive of evil," he said.

Concerns

Some critics of earmarks argue that federal tax dollars should not be used for local projects. An editorial in The Hill, the newspaper for and about Congress, stated that "[earmarks] also reveal congressional intrusion into nooks and crannies where every previous generation-not just the Founding Fathers-would have understood the federal government to have no proper business." (Read a editorial from THE HILL, September 6, 2006, )

But perhaps the greatest concern about earmarks is that they invite corruption. The Cunningham bribery scandal opens the question of whether there are other cases in which unscrupulous contractors have persuaded members to support earmarks, not based on what it might do for their Congressional districts, but what it could do for them personally. Cunningham, a California Republican, resigned from the House last year after pleading guilty to accepting $2.4 million in bribes in exchange for help in securing Defense Department contracts.

Since earmarks are not subject to debate, many people are concerned that they can be used secretly as bargaining chips for personal gain or to reward campaign contributors. Lobbyists work to get earmarks slipped into appropriation bills on behalf of their clients. The client then returns the favor by contributing to the campaign of the member who secured the earmark. Staffers who have hopes of securing a high salary down the road as an appropriations lobbyist may also be tempted to push earmarks through on behalf of lobbyists. Remember this from the documentary? When Abramoff moved from one lobby company to another, he recruited seven former to aides to lawmakers who more than doubled their salaries.

According to the Congressional Research Service, the number of earmarks in appropriations bills alone more than tripled to 15,887 in 2005 from 4,155 in 1994 -- and most of them were shepherded by lobbyists. To those critical of the earmark process, earmarks are a currency of corruption.

Another concern frequently cited, is the lack of transparency in the process. Earmarks are individual efforts and are not subject to debate - a lobbyist may only have to convince only one legislator to move their case forward. Without scrutiny, there is no guarantee that the money is being spent wisely. Allocations of $50 million for an indoor rain forest in Coralville, Iowa and $1.4 million for various Halls of Fame including $70,000 for the Paper Industry International Hall of Fame in Appleton, Wisconsin are just a few examples of waste and abuse cited in the 2006 Pig Book.

But the unwise allocation of funding may be even subtler. For example, academic earmarks are rarely screened for quality. This may result divert money going to a member's pet project rather than the institution best suited to conduct the research. Several universities, including MIT and the University of Michigan (except for rare occasions), have resolved not to accept any funds which come for earmarks. Their reasoning - such projects are generally not peer reviewed and thus run counter to scientific and research policies. (Read the MIT and University of Michigan policies.)

Even more troubling to some is the lack of accountability. It is often difficult to determine who is responsible for inserting the earmark. In response, The Examiner newspapers joined with the Sunlight Foundation, Porkbusters.org, and Citizens Against Government Waste in posting the database of earmarks in the Labor-HHS appropriations and inviting readers to help identify the congressmen behind each earmark. They are calling on citizens to be part of an army of citizen journalists that will "shine some much-needed light on spending decisions made behind closed doors by powerful Members of Congress" by calling their Congressional representative and asking if they inserted the earmarks listed in their district.

Citizens Against Government Waste cited a additional concerns about earmarks and called for reform of the practice in a policy briefing, "All About Pork: The Abuse of Earmarks and the Needed Reforms" (Read the briefing.)


Earmark Reform Efforts

This backlash of the recent scandals encouraged several Members of Congress led to a frenzied 51 new pieces of legislation by early April 2006 designed to discourage some of these practices. The two pieces of legislation most often cited for their potential to make significant changes are the Lobbying Transparency and Accounting Act of 2005 (S. 2128) and the Pork-Barrel Reduction Act (S. 2265).

The Pork-Barrel Reduction Act sponsored by Sen John McCain (R-AZ) requires that:

  • no new or general legislation nor any unauthorized appropriation may be included in any general appropriation bill;
  • no amendment may be received to any general appropriation bill that would add an unauthorized appropriation;
  • no new or general legislation nor any unauthorized appropriation, new matter, or non-germane matter may be included in any conference report on a general appropriation bill;
  • no unauthorized appropriation may be included in any amendment between the chambers in relation to a general appropriation bill.
The Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act sponsored by Sen. Barak Obama (D-IL) does the following:
  • Creates a database that names recipients and dollar amounts of most federal grants, contracts, and loans. These will be searchable online and available to the public.
  • Identifies so-called pork-barrel projects, or earmarks, in the searchable database. The database will not necessarily name lawmakers who added an earmark, but it will reveal the congressional district where the federal money will go.
  • Gives the White House Office of Management & Budget the job of managing the online database. (Read more about the database from THE CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR.)
The Heritage Foundation, a think tank that formulates and promotes conservative public policies, supports these two bills saying, "enactment of these two bills, would deter some of the more outrageous lobbying and legislative practices related to earmarks." Further they call for even tougher provisions including:
  • disclosure of family relationships,
  • disclosure of campaign contributions paid by a client or lobbyist to a Member's charitable affiliate, and
  • a reasonably precise definition of an earmark that would prevent the congressional abuses that transfer valuable public resources to other interests for reasons based solely on influence and privilege. (Read the Heritage Foundations' briefing.)
To check the status of these and other pieces of legislation, go to http://thomas.loc.gov/ and enter the bill number.

Bill Moyers talked with Thomas Frank, author of WHAT'S THE MATTER WITH KANSAS: HOW CONSERVATIVES WON THE HEART OF AMERICA and Norman Ornstein of the conservative American Enterprise Institute about ways to combat earmark abuse and other ethics issues raised by the ties between money and power. Norman Ornstein advocates a greater oversight and visibilty for the process for a start. Both Washington observers think the problem runs far deeper than earmarks.

Watch the video
Following the Money

According to THE WASHINGTON POST, "annual fees paid to registered lobbyists reached $2.1 billion in 2004...a 40 percent increase from 1999. For 2005, lobbying revenue is on pace to rise by at least $300 million." THE HILL reported in January 2006, that "PoliticalMoneyLine, which tracks lobbying spending, reported this week that companies and other special interests spent $1.16 billion to lobby Congress and federal agencies during the first part of last year." It was a new six-month record for lobbying spending. [need to update this probably, but I can't get into politicalmoneyline database.]

Of course not everybody's earmark is everbody's waste. Use our collection of reference sites to track lobbying dollars, follow budget appropriations and priorities and make up your own mind.

Sources: "Clients' Rewards Keep K Street Lobbyists Thriving," Jeffrey H. Birnbaum, THE WASHINGTON POST, February 14, 2006; "Lawmakers Seeking Curbs on Special Spending Requests", THE NEW YORK TIMES CARL HULSE, February 8, 2006; "Hobbling the Lobbyists," THE ECONOMIST, January 26, 2006; Power Struggle Over Pork," THE HILL, Jonathan Allen, February 14, 2006; ""Match Point for Doctor No," THE ECONOMIST, January 19, 2006; MIT Office of Sponsored Programs; University of Michigan Research.

Discussion:

  • Should earmarking be allowed? What might be some of the benefits?

  • What process or guidelines should be in place to prevent the potential abuse of earmarking? How would you reform the earmarking process?

  • Go to: http://www.examiner.com/earmarks/ and look at the Labor, Health and Human Services appropriations earmarks for your state. Do you see some recipients you know? Maybe you see organizations or causes you support. Would you be willing to support a ban on earmarks even if it means that your community's federal funds might decrease?

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Capitol Crimes: Congressional Ethics

Should Congress be allowed to set its own ethic rules and police itself when it comes to ethics matters?

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Backgrounder: Congressional Ethics
A recent poll found that only 25% of American were satisfied with the job Congress is doing for them. Questions over ethics may play a part in that low rating. Just what are the rules that are meant to ensure that elected representatives aren't swayed by constituents or special interests? The House of Representatives own Web site publishes a list of FAQs for its members. Among the most asked questions: A state university in the Member's home state has offered the Member tickets to one of its basketball games. Can the Member accept? Find out more about the rules and the rules committee... more]

Class Is in Session...

Bill Moyers talked with Thomas Frank, author of WHAT'S THE MATTER WITH KANSAS: HOW CONSERVATIVES WON THE HEART OF AMERICA and Norman Ornstein of the conservative American Enterprise Institute and long-time Washington observer about the particular problems exhibited by the Abramoff scandal, and the general problems that perplex a political and campaign system that runs on money. Frank suggests that the problem goes deeper than guys just "gaming the system" but is a product of contempt for government. Ornstein, commented on the ethics process itself: "Part of it is Congress basically took their ethics process and threw it out the window more than a decade ago, partly because we were into these wars between the parties where we were criminalizing policy differences. When you lose an ethics process, you lose a sensitivity to some of these questions of what you're doing on a day-to-day basis."

Watch the video

Study finds almost $50 million spent on travel

The Center for Public Integrity, American Public Media and Northwestern University's Medill News Service conducted a nine-month analysis of congressional disclosure forms for travel January 2000 through June 2005. "Privately Sponsored Trips Hot Tickets on Capitol Hill" showed that during that 5 ½ year period, members of Congress and their aides took at least 23,000 trips valued at almost $50 million. Private sponsors - corporations, trade associations and nonprofit groups financed these trips.

Congressional ethics rules seem explicit:

  • Lobbyist-paid travel is forbidden.
  • Sponsored trips must be connected to their official duties.
  • All staffer's trips must be cleared in advance.
  • No gift of $50 or more may be accepted.
In this session we will review the findings of The Center for Public Integrity repor, exploring some of the difficulties in interpreting, enforcing and monitoring rules that, on the surface, seem straightforward.

Tracking the source

Despite the rules banning travel on a lobbyist's nickel, the study by The Center for Public Integrity found that 90 trips taken between January 2000 through June 2005 and valued at $145,000 were sponsored or co-sponsored by firms registered to lobby the federal government. Some would argue that this only represents a small fraction (4% of the number of trips taken and only .29% of the money spent). However, there may be other reasons for alarm.

For one thing, it is often difficult to determine the source of the funding or the relationship between the sponsor and a registered lobbyist. Nonprofits may be set up intentionally by a lobbying agency (as in the case of "shell" or "pass through" nonprofits set up by Jack Abramoff) or may simply be used as a conduit for funds from the lobbyist's clients. In addition, critics of the current system charge, reporting standards themselves, and policing of the reports are minimal.

In the "GIMME FIVE"- INVESTIGATION OF TRIBAL LOBBYING MATTERS, the Committee uncovered numerous instances of nonprofit organizations that appeared to be involved in activities unrelated to their mission as described to the Internal Revenue Service. The Committee also observed tax exempt organizations apparently serving as or being used as extensions of for-profit lobbying operations.

The full extent of this problem is not known, but concerns about the source of funding for trips has led some to call for an outright ban on privately funded trips. In a Letter to the Chairman of the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct for the House, a coalition of reform groups urged, "If members of Congress are traveling on official business for public purposes, it is the public that should pay for such trips, not private interests." (Campaign Legal Center, Public Citizen, Democracy 21, U.S. PIRG, League of Women Voters)

Regardless of whether travel is privately or publicly financed, there may still be opportunities for abuse. Here are some other concerns that have been raised regarding congressional travel.

Other concerns

Is it "access" or "excess"? That's a question members of the public could easily ask about the extravagant perks ($500-a-night hotel rooms) and lavish add-ons ($25,000 corporate jet rides) enjoyed by members of Congress. Of the 23,000 trips taken between January 2000 through June 2005:

  • 2,300 cost $5,000 or more
  • 500 cost $10,000 or more
  • 16 cost $25,000 or more
Congressional ethics rules state that trips shouldn't be "substantially recreational in nature." Critics are skeptical that this rule is observed pointing to the number of trips to vacation destinations, the sketchy itineraries submitted as justification, the presence of spouses who also travel at the expense of the sponsors and the length of time spent at those destinations.

Another finding of the report is that disclosure forms are inadequate. Not only are they incomplete, they ask only the bare minimum of information - certainly not enough for the public to determine whether the trip was justified. "Fact finding", a commonly cited justification is hardly informative. Critics of the current reporting system say that these reporting slights are themselves a clear violation of ethics rules. But the main problem may lie with the oversight of the whole system.

What others are saying

In January 2006, Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert suggested that an outright ban might solve the problems highlighted by the Abramoff scandal. But support for such a ban remains slim. According to The Center for Public Integrity, in a March 9 letter, representatives of 35 religious and human-rights groups urged House Speaker Dennis Hastert not to change the travel rules "in a fashion that will impede the continued ability of House Members and staff to travel on educational and fact-finding missions funded by non-governmental organizations"

The question remains how to develop a travel policy that enables members of Congress to spend time outside of Washington meeting with the public and educating themselves about critical issues in a way that is ethical, above reproach, and fiscally wise. A 2006 reform proposal in the Senate would prohibit lobbyists from going along on trips and require more thorough disclosure - full itineraries would be required.

Discussion

  • Should Congress be allowed to set its own ethic rules and police itself when it comes to ethics matters? What kind of system could you envision that would be a good alternative?
  • The business of governance like most other businesses requires travel. We learned that Congressional travel rules seem pretty clear, so what procedures or rules can you think of that would prevent abuse of travel by our representatives?

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September 18, 2006

The Net @ Risk: The New Digital Divide

How has the Internet impacted your life?

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Backgrounder: The New Digital Divide
"The Net at Risk" explains why America lags so far behind the rest of the industrialized world in broadband access to the Internet. Industry watchdogs say it is a history of broken promises to bring the "information superhighway" to every U.S. home and business. Once a technology leader in the Internet revolution, the United States has fallen into the teens in the world rankings of Internet access for its citizens. In some places-among them Japan, Iceland, Korea, and the former Yugoslav republic of Slovenia-consumers get Internet connections that are significantly more powerful than what is available in the U.S. for the same price most Americans pay. Why? ... [more]

Class Is in Session...
"The Net at Risk," Internet scholar and media critic Robert McChesney describes the development of the Internet as the type of revolution that has come along only two or three times in all of human existence. It is the culmination, he contends, of a revolution that began with the birth of language 60,000 years ago. McChesney is not alone in equating the digital revolution with major historical shifts like the industrial revolution, which changed nearly every aspect of life-including political systems, economic power, gender roles, and where and how we live.

When you look at what we are able to do online now that we could not do even a few years ago, you can see examples of the potential of this new technological enterprise. Students can complete a university degree online. Employees from around the world collaborate on projects. People can be encouraged to take a greater role in democracy through the ease of online voting. Doctors in urban areas can diagnose patients in rural areas or consult with colleagues on difficult cases. Parents can keep on top of their child's homework and be in contact with their teacher. Aspiring authors can avoid publisher rejection letters and go straight to their readers online. Computer professionals can often repair their client's software glitches virtually. Users can even lend their expertise to the community-generated online encyclopedia Wikipedia. And anyone with a computer can become a broadcaster, movie producer, journalist, or musician.

The Internet is pretty remarkable to those who remember this scene from the World's Fair less than 50 years ago.

Watch the video: Worlds Fair 1960

But for a whole generation, it's nearly impossible to imagine a pre-Internet world. Even the thought of being tethered to a telephone line is a distant memory, if it's a memory they have at all! Ben and Becca, ages 11 and 9, sat in the back seat of their aunt's car sending instant messages from their iBooks to their father using the wireless connection accessible from the driveway of their home. They were first confused, then indignant when they lost their connection as the car pulled out of the driveway. They assumed that the Internet was like air or water. To them, it is something that should always be there. On demand! At will! 24/7! And, many adults return from other countries surprised at how unconnected their U.S. lives seem in comparison.

The truth is that they can have the kind of 24/7, instantaneous, on-demand access they expect-in dozens of other countries. Just not here in the United States, the birthplace of the Internet. (Find out about communities setting up their own municipal networks.)

Watch the video

Here's a quiz Question: What do South Korea, Hong Kong, the Netherlands, Denmark, Canada, Switzerland, Taiwan, Belgium, Iceland, Sweden Norway, Israel, Japan, Finland, and Singapore have in common?

Answer: All have a higher percentage of inhabitants hooked up to broadband than the United States, and many of them are adding a greater percentage of their population every year than we are. Only 11.4 percent of the U.S. population had broadband subscriptions in 2005, compared with more than double that amount in the Republic of Korea. US in world perspective



The international divide

In this country we often talk of a digital divide between those who have access to technology and those who do not. Indeed, this technological divide between rural and urban, wealthy and poor, persists. And when it comes to an international digital divide, the U.S. as a nation falls closer to the "have not" side of the equation than our economic rivals in every measure of broadband-subscribership, price, speed, and investment.

We still have the largest number of broadband subscribers in the world, but we lag behind other countries in the number of subscribers per capita, or what is referred to as "broadband penetration." This is an important measure of our economic competitiveness.

Watch the video

Plus, we are adding new broadband users at a slower rate than many countries, thus losing ground in broadband penetration. In March 2005, we ranked 17th in broadband penetration among countries surveyed. By March 2006, we had dropped to 20th place. In our increasingly online world, high-speed broadband has a direct impact on a nation's ability to roll out products faster, more efficiently, and more effectively.

Broadband has the potential to become the vehicle for distributing all forms of data-telephone, television, radio, and the Internet-making it an indispensable part of economic, personal, and public life. Even if you don't know what a megabit is, you'll likely still be startled to learn that most Japanese can access a high-speed connection that's more than 10 times faster than what's available here, for just $22 per month. And that's not all. They are now rolling out ultra-high speed access that is more than 500 times faster than what the Federal Communications Commission defines as "broadband." connectivity speeds This chart illustrates where the U.S. ranks internationally when it comes to speed and price.

So what exactly is broadband and why does it matter?

Broadband, or high-speed, Internet access is made possible by a series of technologies that give users the ability to send and receive data at volumes and speeds far greater than traditional telephone lines. In addition, broadband is "always on." No waiting for those clicks, beeps, and whirring sounds before you are connected! Even more important, you can send and receive data at the same time. Broadband technology can be delivered by cable, digital subscriber line (DSL), wireless, fiber, and satellite.

Fiber-optic cables are long, thin strands of glass that transmit bursts of laser light and carry information faster than any copper wire. The tiny glass fibers connect homes around the world to the information superhighway -- around 40 times faster than the broadband most Americans get from their cable or phone company.

Broadband is especially important nowadays because content on the Web is becoming sophisticated and increasingly includes video and audio applications. Users can interact with historical characters in virtual settings, families can share videos online, company employees can teleconference from far-flung areas of the world, and doctors can collaborate with colleagues on difficult diagnoses-these are just some of the amazing online opportunities that contribute to our economic, educational, and social well-being. But sending and accessing such data also requires large "pipes." Anyone who is still relying on telephone modem connections with a speed of 56K (that "click, beep, and whirring" technology) will grow old waiting for much of the new content to download.

Broadband is not just a convenience. It is important to our economy. In 2002, Gartner Inc., a research and advisory firm, found that implementation of "true" broadband (10 Mbps)-considerably faster than what most Americans use-could bolster the U.S. GDP by $500 billion a year because of new jobs, new technologies, new equipment, and new software designs.

Where's the fiber?

There are plenty of ideas about why the United States is lagging behind but very little agreement. Here are just a few of the perspectives.

In "The Net at Risk," telecom industry watchers Bruce Kushnick and Tom Allibone of Teletruth a consumer advocacy group which has published an e-book, $200 Billion Broadband Scandal, fault the telephone companies for not fulfilling the promises they made in the 1990s to provide fiber-optic connections to households. Had their grand plans been implemented, 86 million customers in the United States would have received much faster service than is currently available.

connectivity speeds Remember this chart?



Some organizations, like Free Press, a nonpartisan media policy group, say the United States is falling behind because it does not have a comprehensive national broadband policy. While the American approach of promoting competition by broadband providers may have yielded some new investment in the long-haul market and the local business market, our investment in broadband facilities for local residential customers remains far lower than in other countries.

Some critics fault the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The federal Telecommunications Act of 1996 requires the FCC to determine whether "advanced telecommunications capability (i.e., broadband or high-speed access) is being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion." If it is not, the legislation directs the FCC to "take immediate action to accelerate deployment of such capability by removing barriers to infrastructure investment and by promoting competition in the telecommunications market."

The FCC reports on its progress and consistently asserts that this goal is being met, that advanced telecommunications capability is indeed being deployed on a reasonable and timely basis to all Americans. But critics disagree, citing America's continuing drop in international broadband-penetration rankings, the comparatively low speed the FCC uses to define "broadband" (200 kpbs), and the use of zip codes as a measure of success-when only one broadband subscriber in a particular zip code constitutes regional "penetration."

Too much regulation?

Some, like the Cato Institute think tank, oppose making the FCC more proactive when it comes to broadband deployment. They argue that the Telecom Act is flawed and that Congress and the FCC should completely deregulate the telecommunications industry. According to the Cato Institute, "the Telecom Act is a statute at war with itself … Congress attempted to engineer a illogical balancing act between the contradictory goals of promoting increased competition and that of preserving the regulatory status quo." (Learn more about media regulation)

What next?

Congress has taken up the issue of broadband access, the impact of telecommunications regulation, and new technologies on broadband deployment. Some say it's about time, while others worry that regulations will not be strategic, well-thought-out, or result in prescriptive action. Clearly this will be an important issue to watch in the coming year. Stay apprised of the deliberations in Congress over the pending telecommunications legislation. (Learn more about net neutrality legislation)

Discussion

  • How has the Internet impacted your life?
  • How do you foresee the Internet having an impact on you in the future?
  • What do you wish for when you think about the online world?
  • When you hear that other countries are implementing broadband with faster speeds to a higher percentage of their population than the United States, what concerns does that raise for you?
  • Can you imagine, or have you already experienced, any impact from our declining status?
  • Have you traveled abroad and experienced higher broadband speeds or wider coverage?
  • If we were to develop a national policy, how should we go about it, and what should it include?

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September 17, 2006

The Net @ Risk: Big, Bigger, Biggest Media

Do you think that media consolidation is a problem?

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Backgrounder: Big and Bigger Media
Media ownership rules are again a topic of debate on Capitol Hill, as the rules come up for a review and Republican Kevin Martin undergoes hearings to reconfirm him as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. Senator Barbara Boxer grilled Martin about an FCC study on local media ownership, which found local reporting decreased markedly after the Telecommunications Act of 1996. In 1984, the number of companies owning controlling interests in America's media was 50 — today that number is six. Critics of media consolidation say it has led to fewer and fewer voices being heard — and a marked decrease in local news coverage. Some media watchers are worried that the much touted "free for all" of the Internet will go the same way. Proponents of "net neutrality" worry that the cable and telecom companies providing the bulk of Internet connectivity will use new fee structures, which may favor some content providers over others. Phone and cable companies have a near monopoly over Internet service. More precisely, it's a 'duopoly' - which means that in more than 90 percent of American homes in the U.S… [more]

Class Is in Session...
In 1941, the federal government regulated the ownership of media outlets to ensure a broad spectrum of opinion. The Local Radio Ownership Rule, National TV Ownership Rule stated that a broadcaster cannot own television stations that reach more than 35% of the nation's homes. Many other regulations followed as the American media landscape changed. In the 1980s the climate changed in the U.S. -- fewer federal regulations became the order of the day under President Reagan. (View a timeline of media regulation.)

Then came the Telecommunications Act of 1996, signed into law by President Clinton. It is generally regarded as the most important legislation regulating media ownership in over a decade. The radio industry experienced unprecedented consolidation after the 40-station ownership cap was lifted. Clear Channel Communications now owns 1200 stations, in all 50 states, reaching, according to their Web site, more than 110 million listeners every week. Viacom's Infinity radio network holds more than 180 radio stations in 41 markets. Its holdings are concentrated in the 50 largest radio markets in the United States. In 1999, Infinity owned and operated six of the nation's Top 10 radio stations.Who Owns the Media?



Then in 2003 ownership limits came up for review again -- media companies wanted ownership rules relaxed further. Among the proposed changes: allowing greater cross-ownership in media markets (newspapers and broadcast stations, radio and television stations) and caps on television and radio stations ownership raised in large markets. In addition, the FCC proposed that a single entity could own television stations reaching up to 45 percent of the national viewership, an increase from 35 percent.

Watch the video: Barry Diller

In 2003, Barry Diller, the man who created Fox Broadcasting and ran ABC Entertainment, Paramount, Vivendi Universal, spoke out against the rule changes to an industry group - and to Bill Moyers. (Diller is currently chairman and CEO of USA Interactive, itself an empire of informational services from the Home Shopping Network to Ticketmaster.)

What about the fairness doctrine?

Critics of consolidation fear that the fewer the owners the fewer the voices on the airwaves. Several recent cases -- among them Sinclair Broadcasting's decision not black out names and faces in an episode of NIGHTLINE which listed the names of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq - have media watchers saying conglomerates have too much power over the message heard.

The Communications Act of 1934, as amended, called for stations to offer "equal opportunity" to all legally qualified political candidates running for office. In 1949, the FCC adopted the "fairness doctrine," a policy that viewed station licensees as "public trustees" and, as such, responsible for addressing controversial issues of public importance. The key requirement was that stations allowed opportunity for discussion of contrasting points of view on these issues.

By the 1980s, many stations saw the FCC rules as an unnecessary burden. Some journalists considered the fairness doctrine a violation of the First Amendment rights of free speech and free press; they felt reporters should be able to make their own decisions about balancing stories. In order to avoid the requirement of presenting contrasting viewpoints, some journalists chose not to cover certain controversial issues at all. In addition, the political climate of the Reagan administration favored deregulation. When the fairness doctrine came before the courts in 1987, they decided that since Congress did not mandate the doctrine, it did not have to be enforced.

(You can also see how the major news stations prioritize the news by visiting the Tyndall Report. Andrew Tyndall has watched the major broadcasts for six years.)

What happens to local media?

Another key worry surrounding media consolidation is that as ownership of newspapers, radio and television stations are concentrated in fewer hands - a vital connection to the local community is lost. NOW WITH BILL MOYERS and correspondent Rick Karr told a cautionary tale about the risks of media consolidation to local communities.

The story, broadcast in April 2003, starts in Minot, North Dakota where a train derailment spilled two hundred and ten thousand gallons of ammonia and a toxic cloud. Authorities wanted to get the word out to Minot residents: stay indoors and avoid the area near the derailment. So they tried to get in touch with six local commercial radio stations.

Watch the video

All six of those commercial stations — out of a total of seven in Minot — were owned by one huge radio and advertising conglomerate: Clear Channel Communications and had replaced live local programs with shows recorded in far-off studios that only sound local.

But what does this mean for the internet?

Lots of lobbying and advertising money is being spent on net neutrality and ownership rules in DC. In 2006, the FCC approved the sale of substantially all of the cable systems and assets of Adelphia Communications Corporation to Time Warner Inc. and Comcast Corporation. And, in July 21, 2006, BellSouth shareholders approved the $67 billion sale of the company to AT&T, which would further expand the latter company's reach in the telecommunications sector and place Cingular under a single owner.

In addition, the Supreme Court ruling on the Brand X case put cable modem service providers in the class of information provides, not telecommunication service providers - which come under fewer regulations - and are not bound by common carriage rules. At the bottom of the ruling? Cable broadband providers don't have to share their lines with competitors. A ruling which some say will further hamper the spread of high-speed service throughout the nation. (See more on the new digital divide.)

Discussion

  • Do you think that media consolidation is a problem?

  • Do you feel like you get enough local news coverage?

  • Do you know who owns your local media outlets?
Explore more

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The Net @ Risk: Community Connections

Is wireless internet access a civic right?

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Backgrounder: Community Connections
In Lafayette, Louisiana, residents and officials took on their phone company, BellSouth, and their cable company, Cox Communications, and built their own high-speed fiber network after the firms refused to bring true broadband connections to their community. Both telcom giants lobbied the state legislature to block Lafayette's plan, citing unfair competition. Ultimately, lawmakers put it to a vote to let residents decide. The measure allowing the community-built network passed overwhelmingly. BellSouth then filed suit, delaying construction by more than a year, before losing their case in court. There are hundreds of Community Internet and municipal broadband projects underway or in the planning stages in the U.S. But there are also 14 states that either prohibit cities and towns from building their own networks or have passed laws that make it more difficult ... [more]

Class Is in Session...
The United States — as discussed in the New Digital Divide Citizens Class — has fallen far behind much of the world in broadband penetration, and our broadband connections are significantly slower than those in many other countries.

But that's not the worst of it. Some rural communities, like Lafayette, Louisiana, that couldn't get high-speed Internet from their cable or telephone company simply decided to build networks themselves. And then the backlash began, with large commercial providers lobbying state legislatures and filing suit in court to stop local communities from doing what these telcom giants allegedly wouldn't do themselves. And now, there are several bills in Congress addressing the issue —one would protect the right of local communities to set up such networks — others which would make them nearly impossible.

Here, we'll explore community Internet and municipal networks extending broadband service to rural communities and meeting the goals of universal service. We'll also learn about legislation affecting municipal networks and how you can track what is happening in your community on this front.

Watch the video

New community internet networks-like the one in Lafayette-crop up across the country every day. This new technology is making it possible for cities and towns to improve access to information, provide education and job training, enhance public safety, foster technological innovation, and bolster local economic development.

Communities are connecting their residents to the Internet through fiber, wireless technology and "mesh networks," which transmit broadband signals through antennas throughout the city. Rural areas, often deemed unprofitable by broadband providers, are now joining the Internet revolution, taking advantage of wireless services by doing it themselves. Some of the benefits of community Internet are universal affordability, public access, community development, and competitive advantages.

Jim Baller, an expert on public broadband and the attorney who represented Lafayette, has made the case that public electric utilities are ideally positioned to play an important role in building the national information infrastructure. They follow the ethic of universal service and their participation could increase competition in the delivery of telecommunications and information services. Further, they have historically filled the gaps left by private enterprise and served as yardsticks for measuring the reasonableness of prices and quality of services. In 1932, Franklin D. Roosevelt charged, "Where a community, or a city, or a county, or a district is not satisfied with the service rendered or the rates charged by the private utility, it has the undeniable right as one of its functions of government … to set up … its own governmentally owned and operated service."

Bumps in the Information Superhighway
The problem with these community Internet networks is that they frequently encounter significant roadblocks. Big telcom companies have lobbied to prevent municipalities from offering broadband service. More than a dozen states now have laws on the books restricting municipal broadband. Five states approved anti-municipal broadband measures in 2005 alone or added on to their current restrictions. But in nine other states, attempts to restrict community Internet projects were either defeated or delayed indefinitely.

Congress is currently considering reforms to the telcom laws, and community Internet is on the agenda. The Lautenberg-McCain Bill (S. 1294), for example, would "preserve and protect the ability of local governments to provide broadband capability and services," ensuring that local communities everywhere can decide for themselves how to best serve the technology needs of their own citizens. Community networks



But two other bills, one in the Senate and one in the House, would be detrimental to community Internet projects. In the Senate, Nevada Republican John Ensign introduced The Broadband Investment and Consumer Choice Act, S. 1504, a bill which would require local governments wishing to offer broadband services to ask the private provider for permission. Existing municipal projects would be grandfathered in, but would not be able to expand services. In the House, Texas Republican Pete Sessions introduced H.R. 2726, "Preserving Innovation in Telecom Act of 2005," a bill which would prevent any city in the country from providing their citizens with Internet access if a private company offers service nearby. The bill would prohibit municipal wireless projects in any locale where a private provider serves 10 percent of the population or above.

Discussion
  • The nonprofit Free Press promotes community Internet as a public service and tracks relevant state and federal legislation. Check out your state on their site. Does your state impose legal barriers to community Internet projects? Do you live in one of the states that successfully held off a bill?

  • As we saw in the story about Lafayette, sometimes community Internet or municipal broadband projects may be the only option for some communities. What is the status of broadband in your community? Have you been satisfied with the services that you receive? Do you feel that you have adequate options?

  • Do you think that Internet connectivity should be provided in the same way services are provided by public utilities? Is access a right?

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The Net @ Risk: Net Neutrality

What principles should drive our policies regarding technology?

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Backgrounder: Net Neutrality
The debate is hot, the language heady, the metaphors many. Op-ed pages alternately bemoan "The End of the Internet" or curse "Net Neutrality Nonsense." Allegations fly about the stifling of free speech, the holding back of progress, corporate hegemony. Indeed, network neutrality has become something of a cause celebre in the digital world, pitting a slew of high-profile Internet content providers and consumer-advocacy groups against major phone and cable companies, and federal lawmakers against each other ... [more]

Class Is in Session...
Remember dial-up access? The buzz on the telephone line and then the long wait for the Web page to load? Today the mere memory of that slowness seems painful. Yet even with new technology and high-speed access, many of us still find our patience tested when we have to wait more than a few seconds for sites to load.

But the large cable and phone companies who provide broadband access say that unless there is major change in the capacity of their networks and the way in which data is transmitted, long waits will be the order of the day. The growing number of Web sites and bandwidth-heavy content on the Internet, they say, threatens to clog the entire system, making everything load more slowly.

So they want to upgrade the system. Good news, right? Well, not to everyone. Upgrading the system is an expensive proposition, and who will pay for it-and how they will pay-has divided Internet users and forced the battle into the national political spotlight. The telecom companies want Web sites that send large packages of data-generally sites that include video, audio, and other multimedia applications-to pay more. That, they insist, is how they'll finance a more robust Internet system.

So what if some sites take longer to load than others because they didn't pay a premium for the network operator to put their data in the fast lane? Would consumers have the patience to wait it out, or would they jump ship for the faster loading competitor's site? What would this new tiered system do to sites that don't have the resources to play ball? Would the telephone and cable companies play fair and charge every site the same fee, or would they slap exorbitant tolls on sites whose content they don't like? What's more, the companies that deliver internet connections to most homes are increasingly in the business of generating content, as well, so supporters of neutrality worry that they'll be in a position to privilege their own content over competitors. For example, if AT&T decided to start its own online auction site, neutrality supporters say, the firm's customers might find themselves unable to use eBay -- unless Congress protects net neutrality. Get a brief introduction to the debate from the video.

Watch the video



These are the issues being debated by Congress and these are the issues we will consider in this session of the MOYERS ON AMERICA Citizens Class. It is an important and contentious issue. And there is much at stake.

In this Citizens Class, you will learn more about the issues at the heart of this debate, and have an opportunity to contribute your ideas about what should be considered in a sound telecommunications policy. In addition to this discussion guide, we encourage you to read Net Neutrality: Background and Issues, a report to Congress prepared by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, the office which provides information on important issues to representatives and senators. (Read Broadband Internet Regulation and Access: Background and Issues)(PDF)

We also have invited two guest bloggers who are telecommunications experts with different ideas on what they think our telecommunications policy should be. Just as Congress does when it invites experts to testify on pending legislation, this class is your opportunity to pose questions to further your understanding of the issues and possible consequences of various policy options. Much like they would do in giving testimony on the Hill, our guest bloggers will be monitoring the questions you pose at the end of this page and will respond].

Read through this brief guide and think about the questions you would need answered before developing new telecommunications policy. Some of the questions you will want to consider:
  • Is regulation needed to guarantee that all data sent over the Internet is given equal access and nondiscriminatory treatment-that is, net neutrality?
  • Should network operators be allowed to charge higher rates for Web sites that use heavy bandwidth technology, like voice and video?
  • Who should bear the cost of overhauling the Internet infrastructure to meet the growing demand for high-speed, reliable data transfer?
  • Is the Internet so indispensable to the success of our economy, our culture, and our nation that it should not discriminate or be regulated in the same manner as other utilities?


In order to understand this issue, we need to back up and understand how the Internet works how content on the Internet is developed and delivered.

Telecommunications companies are the network operators that carry online content (Web sites, data, video, VOiP) to Internet users. Content is created by big companies like Google, Amazon and eBay, as well as by small retail businesses, artists and musicians, news organizations, nonprofits, educational institutions and individuals with something to say-basically, any Web site can be considered a content creator. Currently, Internet traffic is delivered on an equal basis. That is, a family Web site where members can download video of the last reunion picnic is treated the same as a newspaper site or any other data streaming down the information superhighway.

This system of delivery is called net neutrality - no one gets special preference and it's the Internet version of the legal concept of "common carriage" or that no customer seeking reasonable service - and able to pay a competitive price - would be denied lawful use of a transportation service or would otherwise be discriminated against. Net neutrality was the rule until recently because the Federal Communications Commission had enforced that system. But, in 2002, the FCC decided that neutrality didn't apply to cable internet. And in the summer of 2005, the FCC replaced them the net neutrality rules suggested "principles" for an open internet. (Glossary of net neutrality terms)

At the core of the net neutrality debate is whether or not network operators-those who control the lanes on the superhighway-should be allowed to charge higher rates for large Internet packet streams being sent by content providers. The telephone and cable companies want the high-bandwidth data users to pay. As AT&T Chairman Edward Whitacre Jr. told Business Week, "Why should they be allowed to use my pipes [i.e., my network]? The Internet can't be free in that sense, because we and the cable companies have made an investment, and for a Google or Yahoo! or Vonage or anybody to expect to use the pipes [for] free is nuts."

The ways that network operators might put this system into operation are to selectively block packets of data, adjust the quality of service (speed, for example), or adjust prices so that larger packets that include multimedia applications would pay more. Some critics of this system like Columbia Law professor Timothy Wu say it in effect adds up to paying twice. "The Bell companies want the opportunity to charge twice. They want to charge for Google to connect to the network at all, and then they want to charge another price to reach their consumers."

Other critics say that this move by the telecom companies violates a core principle of the Internet. They propose restrictions on the owners of the networks, to ensure equal access and nondiscriminatory treatment. "Owners of the networks that compose and provide access to the Internet should not control how consumers lawfully use that network; and should not be able to discriminate against content provider access to that network" wrote the Congressional Research Service in its report to Congress. Still others are concerned that the plethora of voices now available online might be reduced - or rendered less effective - because those who could pay for faster travel would most likely win out for users. Some neutrality supporters say the "pipes" don't even belong to the telephone and cable companies -- that they're not Ed Whitacre's pipes at all -- because tax breaks and government subsidies helped pay for the network.

(Read the Congressional Research Service report) (PDF)

Issues that are driving this debate:
  • Some contend that the consolidation and diversification of broadband providers into content providers has the potential to lead to discriminatory behaviors which conflict with net neutrality principles.
  • The increase in the number of packets going out will eventually exceed the limitation of the existing networks. The telecom industry says it will invest — if there's no neutrality — in a multibillion dollar overhaul of the Internet infrastructure to accommodate the growing demands on its pipes, raising the question of who should pay.
  • The technology has changed in such a way that it is possible for network operators to treat some classes of traffic differently from others.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is the agency that regulates the nation's telecommunication's infrastructure. Two actions in 2005 fueled the net neutrality debate. The details of these actions are included in the Congressional Research Service's report on net neutrality. In the Brand X Case, the Supreme Court upheld an FCC decision to define broadband services provided by cable companies as "information services" under Title I regulations. These regulations are less strict than Title II regulations which impose the kind of rigorous anti-discrimination, interconnection, and access requirements that are consistent with the principles of net neutrality. Then, the FCC decided to extend those same privileges to telephone companies involved in providing Internet access services. As a result, cable operators and telephone Internet service providers no longer fall under the strict Title II. These two actions raised concerns in the net neutrality community. Arguments by those who support net neutrality:
  • The only way to maintain the Internet as the open and free space we have come to appreciate is for government to prevent telecommunications companies from charging extra fees to heavy users.
  • More specific regulatory guidelines may be necessary to protect the marketplace from potential abuses which could threaten the net neutrality concept.
  • Some people fear that discriminatory practices would be the result if broadband providers become content providers or have the option to control how the content is delivered.
  • The two-tiered system proposed by the network operators would violate their First Amendment rights because those who could pay would get preferential treatment.
  • A tiered pricing system could pose a barrier for people who are developing new Web sites, or offering new services, or providing other content for download. They might have to pay more to get the top-level access to the broadband pipes, and that could limit the possibilities for new companies and individuals who want to develop more sites and services online.
  • There is little competition in the broadband market since most consumers have limited options. At best, consumers in larger markets can choose between cable or telephone connections. In smaller markets, there may only be one choice. This removes the incentive for the network operator to avoid discriminatory practices that harm consumers or aggressively seek to benefit consumers. Since network operators don't have competition, they could engage in discriminatory practices that increase profits but harm consumers. Without the option to take their business elsewhere, the consumer would be at the mercy of the network operator.
Arguments by those who oppose net neutrality regulation:
  • In an article in the National Law Journal, Randolph J. May, a senior fellow at the Progress and Freedom Foundation in Washington, DC, argues that net neutrality legislation would violate the First Amendment rights of network service providers like Verizon and Comcast because it would restrict them from exercising their own right to free speech.
  • Action to ensure unfettered access to the Internet is unnecessary. To date, neither the cable operators nor the telephone companies providing broadband Internet services have blocked, impaired, or otherwise restricted subscriber access to the content of unaffiliated entities. Passing net neutrality laws would be just blind response to a harm that may never materialize.
  • Existing laws and FCC policies are sufficient to deal with potential anti-competitive behavior.
  • Net neutrality regulations would have negative effects on the expansion and future development of the Internet.
  • Telecommunications companies should have the right to charge heavy users more to offset the costs of building greater broadband capacity. They own the means of transmission.
  • They should be allowed to charge data-heavy sites more than others so that those of us who don't download lots of data don't get socked with higher user fees? Heavy sites cause traffic congestion that affects the ability of others to use the Internet and should therefore pay more.
  • Data-heavy content providers or Web sites should have to pay more to use the cyber-highways just as commercial transporters pay more for trucks that do more damage to the highways than regular vehicles.
(Additional voices from the debate)

Discussion
  • What principles should drive our policies regarding technology in this country and how do those principles support our technological position in the world?

  • Read the Congressional Research Service report "Net Neutrality: Background and Issues." What additional facts do you need to know or questions do you have for our guest bloggers?

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September 16, 2006

Is God Green? Your Environment

How should economic and environmental needs be balanced?

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Backgrounder: Your Environment
Environment-watchers worry that in the past six years have witnessed many attempts to rollback key environmental legislation. The Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Roadless Rule protecting wilderness area from development -- all faced challenges in court, Congress and changing federal policy priorities. In addition, the nation has seemed out of step with the international community as the Kyoto Protocol went into effect without U.S. participation in 2005. In August 2006 California took it upon itself to buck the system and tackle global warming on its own. California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger crossed party lines to sign into law the nation's first bill to cap man-made greenhouse gas emissions ... [more]

Class Is in Session...
Many individuals might throw up their hands when confronted with a problem as massive as global warming - that's not the case with the ecological challenges they face in their backyard. The environment is an intensely local issue. "Is God Green?" explores environment and community in the Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia -- where mountaintop coal mining has local residents bringing their faith to bear in their effort to stop widespread pollution and environmental damage. The program explores the real-world consequences of mountaintop mining and its toxic byproducts by profiling residents forced to live with drinking water allegedly contaiminated by a local subsidiary of the region's largest coal company, Massey Energy. Today, after 12 years, the local government is building the infrastructure that eventually will bring clean water to the effected communities. (More on mountaintop mining)

Watch the video

"I first want to apologize as a Christian for the unfaithfulness of the churches and Christians who have oftentimes - too often - been complicit in the destruction that we see upon the land," says Allen Johnson, who co-founded the advocacy group Christians for the Mountains. "In the Book of Revelation, there's a scripture that says that God will destroy those who destroy the Earth. We're breaking a covenant with God." Allen's group is working to recruit local churches to explore the pollution problem as a theological and Biblical issue, and to join their fight.

Watch the video: Ken Cook

Knowledge is a powerful tool in safeguarding health and the environment. Several years ago Bill Moyers became a guinea pig in study on how toxins in the environment make it into the human blood stream. Researchers at two major laboratories tested for 210 industrial compounds, pollutants, and other chemicals in the blood and urine of nine volunteers, including Bill Moyers. Scientists refer to this contamination as a person's body burden. The resulting report, documented in TRADE SECRETS, found that Bill Moyers has 85 industrial chemicals in his blood stream. Ken Cook of the Environmental Working Group talked with Bill Moyers about environmental toxins on NOW in 2003. (More on health and the environment)

Watch the video: The Earth Conservation Corps

Of course there are federal agencies charged with the responsibility to monitor environmental conditions — and cleaning up problems. But, as experience shows — it's often local initiative that makes a difference in environmental quality. NOW WITH BILL MOYERS documented a unique group in one of the country's most environmentally and economically challenged areas. The Earth Conservation Corps takes local kids and turns them into local stewards of their environment. The Earth Conservation Corps (ECC) was founded in 1989 and takes as its mission "providing hands-on environmental education, job training and community service programs for people of all ages from diverse backgrounds, with an emphasis on serving at-risk youth from the inner-city neighborhoods."

Tell us about your community. And check on local environmental conditions.

Discussion
  • Where does federal responsibility end for environmental protection? What should be left to states? Local community governments?

  • Consider the mountain top coal mining story in the documentary. Coal mining and its environmental effects have been part of that region for generations, why do you think the local churches have stayed out of the discussion for so long, and why do you think they are involved now?

  • How should economic and environmental needs be balanced?

  • Do you feel that you know enough about your environment?

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Is God Green? Common Ground?

How have labels crippled our ability to engage in a healthy dialogue?

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Backgrounder: Common Ground?
Those inside the Christian environmental movement gained a high-profile "convert" when Pat Robertson recently changed his stance on global warming. In October 2005, Robertson had castigated the National Association of Evangelicals for their support of the Evangelical Climate Initiative, accusing them of teaming up with "far-left environmentalists" in their campaign to combat global warming and other environmental problems. But in the summer of 2006 ... [more]

Class Is in Session...
The Citizens Class on Religion & Politics explores the power of faith at the polling place. Religion & the Environment examines the evolution of the evangelical environmental debate. The following audio and video clips and documents map out some of the major issues addressed in those classes and shed light on the possibilities for political and social dialogue between evangelicals and others, and between evangelicals themselves, in America today-be sure to join in.

Rev. Richard Cizik is a national leader in the evangelical environmental movement. Based in Washington, D.C., he serves as vice president for governmental affairs of the National Association of Evangelicals, America's most influential Christian lobbying group, which represents 59 denominations, 45,000 churches, and 30 million believers. When Cizik heard Sir John Houghton, a noted scientist and fellow evangelical speak about global warming, he realized that "the fate of the earth may well depend on how Christians, especially evangelical Christians who take the bible seriously, respond to the issues of climate change." In the following video clip, Cizik describes why he came to embrace an environmental agenda and how he has come under fire from his partisan brethren for his stance.

Watch the video: Richard Cizik

This disagreement among conservative evangelicals on global warming and environmental change is particularly noteworthy because it is taking place within a group of people who agree on just about every other important public policy issue .And some critics of the creation-care contingent view those who forge an "unholy alliance with the environmentalists" as aligning themselves with a movement that is seen as uncomfortably close to those that support abortion, support for gay marriage, and support for a number of other political causes that are anathematic to traditional evangelicals.

Watch the video: Jan Markell

In her article, "Green Christianity," Christian broadcaster Jan Markell lays out her criticism of evangelical environmentalists and emphasizes the danger of taking on an issue that is generally associated with another worldview. "This effort," she writes, "is partially funded by leftist outfits like the Rockefeller Brothers' Fund and the Hewlett Foundation, which support many anti-Christian ideals and organizations. Their worldview would make it appear like the signers on to the EEN are 'unequally yoked together.' These organizations do NOT have any interest in what evangelicals stand for. They are pro-abortion and pro-gay marriage and lean to the left on many issues." Later she writes, "Liberal Christianity has infected enough of evangelicalism to the point where 'evangelicalism' doesn't mean what it did even twenty years ago."

Certainly, Richard Cizik has not abandoned the evangelical platform on abortion and homosexuality in order to take up the charge of creation care.

The question becomes, What does it mean to be politically inconsistent? Some, like Markell, would argue that being politically inconsistent means compromising core values or at least diluting the movement's focus.

In her book, THE ARGUMENT CULTURE: STOPPING AMERICA'S WAR OF WORDS, Deborah Tannen describes how the definition of compromise as "giving in for the purpose of reaching agreement" has taken on a negative connotation in our political life and has become synonymous with selling your soul or cheapening yourself.

In a passage that has great significance for the evangelical debate on the environment, Tannen quotes U.S. Senator J.J. Exon on his early departure from politics: "Unfortunately, the traditional art of workable compromise for the ultimate good of the nation, heretofore the essence of democracy, is demonstrably eroded." Senator Warren Rudman gives this reason for leaving: "I thought the essence of good government was reconciling divergent views with compromises that served the country's interests ... The spirit of civility and compromise was drying up."

When the Interfaith Stewardship Alliance sent its January 2006 letter to the National Association of Evangelicals in an effort to convince leaders of that organization to back away from their stance on global warming, their words were telling. They requested that "the NAE carefully consider all policy issues in which it might engage in the light of promoting unity among the Christian community and glory to God."

If a split over environmentalism threatened to destroy the unity of the evangelical movement as a whole, how many evangelicals would be willing to risk it? And if partisanship and ideology are allowed to trump, compromise and dialog, what possibility for discussion and common ground is left? More importantly, what does it mean for the future of the planet?

Discussion
The insights and perspectives featured here, while focusing on the debate within the evangelical community, have implications that stretch far beyond religious and environmental issues. They also raise some interesting questions for discussion:
  • In the documentary Richard Cizik said "…to be biblically consistent means you have to, at times, be politically inconsistent." What are the implications of that statement for the future political power of the religious right?

  • What happens to our democracy when our affiliation with particular organizations or groups inhibits our ability to disagree?

  • How can we begin to humanize and work with those with very different perspectives?

  • How have labels crippled our ability to engage in a healthy dialogue and constructive debate? Do our assumptions that a person who is a member of X group must also be a Y do justice to our humanity?

  • What guidelines will help make this online dialogue useful and productive for you?

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Is God Green? Religion & Environment

How does your faith or religion or spirituality affect your perspective of environmentalism or creation care?

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Backgrounder: Religion & The Environment
What's so important about the potentially powerful influence of conservative evangelical Christians on environmental issues, especially global warming? For years, many of these evangelicals have been charging environmentalists — and those progressive Christians who support environmentalism — with idolatry for lavishing worship on "God's creation" rather than God. Moreover, they have been skeptical, if not downright hostile, toward government-mandated protection of the environment ... [more]

Class Is in Session...
How did conservative evangelicals, who tend to present a unified front on most matters of political significance, end up in such a public battle over how to approach environmental issues like global warming? What's behind this difference of opinion?

In most respects, the divide comes down not to a disregard for the world — which is, for evangelicals, the creation of God but on how exactly to care for that creation. Evangelicals part company on what God calls them to do about the environment: where to focus their attention, how to interpret scientific data, what the role of legislation and/or the free market should be in protecting the environment and human interests. The discussion and debate are less about whether God is green and more about what God commands. Does he ask Christians, explicitly or implicitly, to make environmentalism, or "creation care," part of their ministry and political platform? (Find out more about creation care, wise use and environmental stewardship)

Concern for the environment, and the current debate it has engendered, might be a hot topic in the evangelical community, but it is not a new one. Environmental policy debates emerged among evangelicals, as they did among the nation at large, in the 1960s and '70s. There were some critics, like medieval scholar Lynn Townsend White Jr., who went so far as to blame organized religion itself for the world's ecological ills, arguing that medieval Christian attitudes in particular, and the entire Judeo-Christian tradition in general, taught a disregard for nature and led to exploitation of the environment. That argument finds echoes today among certain evangelicals who insist that in Genesis, God gave man "dominion" over the earth and its creatures — essentially, carte blanche to do what he wants with his environment.

But for a number of religious Christians and evangelicals, this represents a dangerous misreading of the Bible. God, they contend, appointed man steward of the world, to protect it and sustain it as a way to honor to the divine work of the Creator. Caring for the environment, they say, isn't a political issue — it's a theological imperative.

In 1970, one such group, the National Association of Evangelicals, released a strongly worded policy resolution that called on Christians "to support every legitimate effort to maintain balance in ecology, preservation of our resources, and avoidance of the cluttering of our natural beauty with the waste of our society." And they didn't hedge at adding a bit of fire and brimstone: "Today those who thoughtlessly destroy a God-ordained balance of nature are guilty of sin against God's creation." (Read the documents)

In 1993 the Evangelical Environmental Network began to turn creation-care beliefs into action, publishing a declaration which began, "As followers of Jesus Christ, committed to the full authority of the Scriptures, and aware of the ways we have degraded creation, we believe that biblical faith is essential to the solution of our ecological problems."

But another religious group, which later became known as the Interfaith Council for Environmental Stewardship, wanted to take the environmental debate in a different direction. They made their opposing views known in the 1999 "Cornwall Declaration on Environmental Stewardship," which warned that groups like the Evangelical Environmental Network's presented "a romantic view of nature, a misguided distrust of science and technology, and an intense focus on problems that are highly speculative and largely irrelevant to meeting our obligations to the world's poor."

The Cornwall Declaration stressed a free-market environmental stewardship and emphasized that individuals and private organizations should be trusted to care for their own property without government intervention. It also claimed that environmental concerns like global warming, overpopulation, and the extinction of species were either unfounded or greatly exaggerated. In the words of Father Robert A. Sirico of the conservative Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty and member of Interfaith Council, "Environmental ideology is increasingly being used, not to preserve nature's beauty, but to restrict human enterprise that is essential to a more humane existence for people."

The Evangelical Climate Initiative Watch the video



The rhetoric over the role of evangelical Christians in the global warming debate escalated significantly in February 2006 when 86 Evangelical leaders signed and publicly released a statement entitled Climate Change: An Evangelical Call to Action.

Among the tenets of the statement:

  • Human-induced climate change is real.
  • The consequences of climate change will be significant and will hit the poor the hardest.
  • Christian moral convictions demand our response to the climate change problem.
  • The need to act now is urgent. Governments, businesses, churches, and individuals all have a role to play in addressing climate change-starting now.
(Read the document)

News that the call to action was in the works in January 2006 prompted the Interfaith Stewardship Alliance, a group related to the Interfaith Council for Environmental Stewardship and the Acton Institute, to attempt to forestall any global warming policy statement by the National Association of Evangelicals. They sent the group a missive warning them to "not adopt any official position on the issue of global climate change," as "global warming is not a consensus issue, and our love for the Creator and respect for His creation does not require us to take a position." Led by high-proflie evangelical leaders Charles Colson and James Dobson, Interfaith Stewardship Alliance called for the National Association of Evangelicals not to put their name to the document. Richard Cizik, the vice-president for governmental affairs for the National Association of Evangelicals acceded to their demands but continued to voice his agreement with the statement. The debate within the evangelical community soon hit the public consciousness, with articles in NEWSWEEK and THE WALL STREET JOURNAL. Cizik even made it to the pages of VANITY FAIR.

For others in the evangelical community, taking a public stand on issues like global warming just isn't part of the religious plan. Christian broadcaster Jan Markell believes that evangelicals are called by God to win souls for Jesus, not to take up social issues, and that environmentalism distracts from the real mission of the evangelical church.

Watch the video: Jan Markell

And for some on the evangelical community the embracing of causes like environmentalism represents a dangerous move to the left — to partnership with groups with very different views on the core "culture war" issues. Explore the possibilities of that shift in political power in our Citizens Class on Religion & Politics.



Discussion
Although the documentary focused on the evangelical movement's relationship to the environment, other faiths and religious traditions have perspectives on man's relationship to the environment. Different cultures may also have different ways of interacting with the natural environment.

  • As we saw in the documentary, more and more conservative evangelicals believe that it is a Biblical responsibility to care for the environment. The environmental movement has focused on the moral responsibility to care for the environment. Is it the same thing? And what are the implications of this difference in approach to the same goal?

  • About environmental policy, The Cornwall Declaration says: “Public policies to combat exaggerated risks can dangerously delay or reverse the economic development necessary to improve not only human life but also human stewardship of the environment.” What do you think the balance should be between environmental, human, and economic concerns?

  • How does your faith or religion or spirituality affect your perspective of environmentalism or creation care?

Explore more
  • Find out about other faiths' environmental stance
  • Hear evangelical Christian, and chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Sir John Houghton, talk about his faith and his science
  • Additional voices from the debate

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September 11, 2006

Is God Green? Religion and Politics

Do you believe that we are a divided and polarized nation?

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Backgrounder: Religion & Politics
Over the past 25 years, conservative Christians have become an increasingly powerful force in American politics. The late 1970s and the early '80s marked the initial triumphs of the Christian right, with groups like the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition flexing their political muscle on issues like abortion and homosexuality. In 1980, presidential candidate Ronald Reagan courted their as-yet untapped power and won the White House ... [more]

Class Is in Session...
If politics were boxing, evangelical Christians would be the undisputed religious heavyweight champs. And today, their power is being felt in an arena not typically part of their ideological circuit-the environmental movement. Roman Catholic groups, Jewish groups, and a dozens, if not hundreds, of non-religious organizations have embraced the environmental cause, but it's the evangelicals, with their close ties to the GOP, who "have the power to move the debate," says John Green of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. "They could produce policies more palatable to people who have not been moved by secular environmental groups."
Watch the video

But where did their power come from? Why can they "move the debate?" Ronald Reagan was the first presidential candidate to recognize the political potential of the Christian right. During his 1980 presidential bid, in his efforts to secure evangelical votes, Reagan met with major conservative Christian figures and voiced his likeminded opinion that the Bible was unquestionably the key to unlocking America's greatness, at home and abroad.

Evangelical voting power

Well, we all know how Reagan's 1980 presidential campaign turned out. His strategy of courting the evangelical vote has been a standard of the Republican party ever since.

But the election in which evangelicals made their biggest show of influence was the last one-Republican George W. Bush rode into power with the support of tens of millions of conservative Christians who shared his views on most of the more pressing political and social issues of the day. It's worth taking a look at how that vote played out. Throughout the 2004 presidential election, the media featured maps like the one below that showed partisan division between states-the blue state went to Democrat John Kerry, the red states to Bush.

US voting map 2004 -- red and blue states The evangelical contribution to the Republican victory cannot be overestimated. Shortly after the election, the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron released several reports about the American religious landscape and politics.

  • 63% of registered evangelicals-or 26.5 million individual evangelicals-voted.

  • 78% of evangelicals who voted chose George W. Bush.

  • 97% of evangelicals surveyed said it was important for the president to have strong religions beliefs.
Reverend Jerry Falwell's three-point plan-get them saved, get them baptized, get them registered-certainly paid off at the polls. It would seem that the millions of evangelical voters, along with the scores of non-evangelical Republican voters, had made clear what was Republican territory and what wasn't, and the nation seemed more polarized than ever-along religious lines, along party lines, and along geographic lines.

But the red-and-blue map may not alone tell the whole story, and in our current discussion on the perceived divisions in our nation, it bears looking at some further data. The following map breaks down voting results county by county. Robert Vaderbei of Princeton University proposed using a third color, purple, to indicate counties where the differences were slim. Results are analyzed on a scale ranging from solid blue (100% Democratic) to solid red (100% Republican) with shades of purple representing the degrees in between.

US voting map 2004 -- the purple effect Not so stark? Let's take an even further look. The following cartogram of the 2004 election is based on county-wide results, and the sizes of geographic regions such as counties or provinces appear in proportion to their population.

It is hardly recognizable as the land mass of the United States, but it certainly tells us that we are not as divided as common understanding would indicate. And yet, there is a sense among citizens that we are deeply polarized and that extreme perspectives dictate the public conversation. How can we be purple when our airwaves, civic discourse, media reports seem to indicate otherwise?

US voting map 2004 -- cartogram Another report by the Ray C. Bliss Institute may shed some light on this apparent contradiction. "Increased polarization is the principal finding of the Fourth National Survey of Religion and Politics post-election survey ... Although the election was very close overall (51 percent for Bush and 49 percent for Kerry), there was extensive polarization between and within the major religious traditions ... Evangelical Protestants gave Bush more than three-quarters of their votes, while nearly three-quarters of the Unaffiliated voted for Kerry."

It is no wonder that the environmentalists like Larry Schweiger, president of the National Wildlife Federation and a Christian have called on the evangelicals to become involved in the environmental movement.

Schweiger, in a speech at the Christianity Today-National Association of Evangelicals-Evangelical Environmental Conference in 2004 (reprinted in the Winter 2005 Issue of CREATION CARE magazine), said:

"And I'm here to tell you something else. The environmentalists, the National Wildlife Federations and the Sierra Clubs and all the other groups out there will not win this battle - [pause] - hear this, will not win this battle without evangelical Christians.

Because the U.S. Congress is made up of a lot of Conservative Republicans and the Conservative Republicans consider their bedrock constituency evangelical Christians. If evangelical Christians come to the table and say that caring for the planet is a part of Christianity and a part of our message, evangelical Christians can turn this struggle. In fact, I will predict that until evangelical Christians weigh in in a serious way in this matter, we will not win it, and I mean that sincerely.

So I'm here as a brother in Christ to urge you…who are not in this fight to get in this fight for the benefit of our children's children. Together we can turn this if we work together and find ways to make this happen. "

Hear what Larry Schweiger has to say about the recent debate within the evangelical movement and what it may mean for Republican Party priorities.

Watch the video: Larry Schweiger

In summary, Evangelicals wield considerable power over public policy: They vote more often and they care more than anyone about their candidate's religion

Discussion
  • Do you believe that we are a divided and polarized nation? What evidence do you see that we are or are not?

  • The three maps presented here each tell a story about the United States. What do you take away from looking at these three maps? Which map is closest to your political experience and political wishes?

  • Is your faith critical to your vote?

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