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February 26, 2010

Debating Same-Sex Marriage

(Photos by Robin Holland)

This week on the JOURNAL, Bill Moyers spoke with prominent lawyers Ted Olson and David Boies about their legal challenge to California's ban on same-sex marriages. Olson, a conservative, and Boies, a liberal, are best known for facing off before the Supreme Court in Bush v. Gore following the disputed 2000 election. Now, they've joined forces to argue that gay and lesbian couples should have the right to marry.

Though a decision of the California Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in the state for several months in 2008, voters' passage of the ballot initiative Proposition 8 that November - by a margin of 52.3 % to 47.7 % - amended the state constitution to declare that "only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California."

Proponents of gay marriage have been divided over how to respond to Proposition 8. Some have advocated challenging the ban in federal court as a violation of the Constitution's guarantee of equal protection under the law, as Olson and Boies are attempting, but others fear an unfavorable legal precedent if the opposition wins. Instead, they have suggested running ballot initiatives in hope of repealing Proposition 8 by the democratic process and avoiding the risk of losing in federal court.

Ted Olson explained why he took on the case despite many other conservatives' view that it would be judicial activism for a federal court to strike down the California law:

"It's unfortunate that people think of this as something that is a political issue or a conservative or liberal issue. It is a matter of human rights and human decency and liberty. Many conservatives are libertarians, and they think that the government should allow people to live their lives the same way that other people live their lives under the Constitution, and be treated equally without the government deciding who they can live with or who they can be married to... We're not advocating any recognition of a new right. The right to marry is in the Constitution. The Supreme Court's recognized that over and over again. We're talking about whether two individuals should be treated equally, under the equal protection clause of the Constitution... It isn't judicial activism for the Supreme Court to recognize an associational right, a liberty right, and a privacy right for two people who love each other to be married."

David Boies explained why he wants the federal courts to strike down legislation that California citizens democratically enacted via ballot initiative:

"If you didn't tell the majority of voters they were wrong sometimes under the Constitution, you wouldn't need a Constitution. The whole point of the Bill of Rights and the 14th Amendment is to say 'This is democracy, but it's also democracy in which we protect minority rights.' The whole point of a Constitution is to say there are certain things that a majority cannot do, whether it's 52 percent or 62 percent or 72 percent or 82 percent of the people... There are certain rights there are so fundamental that the Constitution guarantees them to every citizen regardless of what a temporary majority may or may not vote for... Nobody's asking to create a new constitutional right here. This is a constitutional right that has already been well recognized by the Supreme Court... What the Constitution says is that every citizen gets equal protection of the laws. It doesn't just say heterosexuals."

In a statement prepared in the run-up to the 2008 vote, supporters of Proposition 8 argued against judicial determination of what constitutes marriage and said the legislation was not about attacking gays and lesbians or denying anyone rights:

"Proposition 8 is about traditional marriage; it is not an attack on gay relationships. Under California law gay and lesbian domestic partnerships are treated equally; they already have the same rights as married couples. Proposition 8 does not change that. What Proposition 8 does is restore the meaning of marriage to what human history has understood it to be and over 61% of California voters approved just a few years ago... It overturns the flawed legal reasoning of four judges in San Francisco who wrongly disregarded the people's vote, and ensures that gay marriage can be legalized only through a vote of the people... Prop. 8 will NOT take away any other rights or benefits of gay couples. Gays and lesbians have the right to live the lifestyle they choose, but they do not have the right to redefine marriage for everyone else. Proposition 8 respects the rights of gays while still reaffirming traditional marriage."

What do you think?

  • Do you support same-sex marriage? Why or why not?

  • In your view, would it be appropriate for a federal court to strike down a constitutional amendment enacted by a popular vote?

  • Michael Winship: Two Legal Foes Unite to Fight -- for Same-Sex Marriage

    (Photo by Robin Holland)

    Below is an article by JOURNAL senior writer Michael Winship. We welcome your comments below.

    "Two Legal Foes Unite to Fight -- for Same-Sex Marriage"
    By Michael Winship

    Watching this week's "health summit" in Washington, with both sides barely repressing the urge to turn the Blair House event into the Potomac version of mixed martial arts cage fighting, was discouraging. To get a little peace and quiet I was tempted to switch to ESPN and search for an hour of the world's greatest soccer riots. At least they make better theater. And there are better-defined goals.

    But just when you think that liberals and conservatives will never see eye to eye on anything in this country, there comes an alliance that transcends partisan and ideological lines and takes your breath away. The two powerhouse lawyers who fought each other all the way to the Supreme Court to decide whether Al Gore or George W. Bush would become President are at it again, but this time they're fighting on the same side to defend marriage equality - same-sex marriage - as a constitutional right.

    Former Bush Solicitor General Ted Olson and liberal attorney David Boies are in the middle of a case that, win or lose, they expect will wind up at the Supreme Court, just like Bush v. Gore. The former adversaries are united in support of core American values - diversity, equality and tolerance. They've become key players in one of the most important civil rights trials of the last decade, a pivotal legal action that could change contemporary society, but which has escaped the attention of much of the country.

    In May 2008, California joined Massachusetts to become the second state in the union to sanction gay marriage. But opponents launched a movement and succeeded in getting on the ballot a voter initiative to overturn that decision - Proposition 8. While the rest of the nation focused on the presidential race between Barack Obama and John McCain, millions of dollars poured into California for or against Proposition 8. In fact, after Obama/McCain, it was the year's second most expensive political campaign.

    On Election Day, Proposition 8 passed by a 52-48 margin. Voters rejected same-sex marriage and ordered the state constitution amended to define marriage as the union between one man and one woman. In 2009, the California Supreme Court upheld the amendment's constitutionality. But David Boies and Ted Olson filed a legal challenge in Federal court on behalf of two same-sex couples - two men, two women - each of whom had been denied the right to marry.

    The trial began in January at the Federal district courthouse in San Francisco. No video of the proceedings was released to the public, but you actually can see reenactments created by two ingenious Los Angeles filmmakers who used transcripts, other reporting and a cast of professional actors to recreate each day's statements and testimony. Go to their Web site at www.marriagetrial.com.

    My colleague Bill Moyers spoke with David Boies and Ted Olson on the current edition of public television's BILL MOYERS JOURNAL. He asked them why they had united in the Proposition 8 case. Boies said, "One of the things we have in common on this issue is respect for the rule of law, respect for civil rights, respect for the Constitution... It's not a Republican or Democratic issue. Conservatives and liberals alike want to keep the government out of our personal conduct - want to keep the government out of the bedroom."

    "We're not advocating any recognition of a new right," Ted Olson said. "The right to marry is in the Constitution. The Supreme Court has recognized that over and over again. We're talking about whether two individuals should be treated equally under the equal rights protection clause of the Constitution - the same thing the Supreme Court did in 1967, [when it] recognized the constitutional rights of people of different races to marry."

    Boies added, "There are certain rights that are so fundamental that the Constitution guarantees them to every citizen regardless of what a temporary majority may or may not vote for... If you didn't tell the majority of the voters they were wrong sometimes under the Constitution, you wouldn't need a Constitution. The whole point of the Bill of Rights and the 14th Amendment is to say, 'This is a democracy. But it's also a democracy in which we protect minority rights...' What the Constitution says is that every citizen gets equal protection of the law. It doesn't just say heterosexuals."

    Asked by Moyers about criticism that a loss could set the marriage equality cause back for years, Ted Olson replied that a legal challenge of Proposition 8 was unavoidable: "We felt that if a challenge was to be brought, it should be brought with a well-financed capable effort by people who knew what they were doing in the courts. Secondly, when people said, 'Maybe you should be waiting, maybe you should wait until there's more popular support,' our answer to that was, 'Well, when is that going to happen? How long do you want to wait? How long do you want people to be deprived of their constitutional rights in California?'

    "... People told Martin Luther King, 'You may lose.' He said, the battles for civil rights are won ultimately by people fighting for civil rights."

    Testimony in the Federal case has been completed but the trial goes on. Final arguments will take place in the coming weeks. Then the judge will make his ruling, perhaps sometime this spring. Whichever side loses will no doubt appeal.

    Of the four plaintiffs - Paul Katami and Jeff Zarillo, Kristin Perry and Sandra Stier - Ted Olson said, "They put a real face on discrimination...If the American people would just listen to what the plaintiffs and the other experts said in this case, they will understand so much more the damage that's done to people... Your relationship doesn't count, and you don't count - you know, that is demeaning. And if the American people see that, they'll see the difference."

    David Boies noted, "You could not listen to these people and not be moved by their stories. You could not listen to these people and not be moved by their love for each other, by their desire to be married. By the harm, the pain that they were being caused by not being able to do what we take for granted, which is to marry the person we love."

    Please note that the views and opinions expressed by Michael Winship are not necessarily the views and opinions held by Bill Moyers or BILL MOYERS JOURNAL.

    February 19, 2010

    Justice For Sale?

    (Photo by Robin Holland)

    Citizens and experts alike have been hotly debating last month's Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case, which struck down laws limiting political spending by corporations and unions. In one recent poll, 80% of respondents suggested that they opposed the Court's ruling.

    While many have discussed the decision's potential impact on presidential and congressional elections, few have addressed how increased political spending could change the dynamic of judicial elections in the 39 states where at least some judges must face voters.

    Bill Moyers began the JOURNAL this week revisiting his 1999 FRONTLINE report "Justice for Sale" about how judges running for state court positions must often rely on special interests to fund and support their election campaigns. Critics, including Stephen Breyer of the U.S. Supreme Court, have suggested that such donations and other spending on judicial campaigns undermine the stature and independence of the judiciary. Sitting down with Bill Moyers in 1999, Justice Breyer explained his concerns about judicial independence:

    "Independence doesn't mean you decide the way you want. Independence means you decide according to the law and the facts. Law and the facts do not include deciding according to campaign contributions, and if that's what people think, that threatens the institution of the judiciary. To threaten the institution is to threaten fair administration of justice and protection of liberty."

    Bob Gammage, a former Justice on Texas' Supreme Court, said that spending on judicial elections comes down to special interests trying to sway the courts to their point of view:

    "People don't go pouring money into campaigns because they want fair and impartial treatment. They pump money into campaigns because they want things to go their way. Why else would the contributors be there? They have interests to pursue. They have agendas to pursue. In some cases, they have ideologies to pursue. They're not just bland, benign philosophies. They want results."

    In this week's show, CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin told Bill Moyers that he is concerned that last month's controversial U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case could increase the influence of special interests in judicial elections. Toobin said:

    "I think judicial elections are really the untold story of Citizens United, the untold implication. When the decision happened, a lot of people said 'OK, this means that Exxon will spend millions of dollars to defeat Barack Obama when he runs for reelection.' See, I don't think there's any chance of that at all. That's too high-profile - there's too much money available from other sources in a presidential race. But judicial elections are really a national scandal that few people really know about, because corporations in particular, and labor unions to a lesser extent, have such tremendous interest in who's on state Supreme Courts and even lower state courts that that's where they're going to put their money and their energy because they'll get better bang for their buck there."

    What do you think?

  • Do you believe your state courts are beholden to special interests? Why or why not?

  • In your view, will the Citizens United decision increase the influence of deep-pocketed special interests over state courts nationwide?

  • How are you and your community working to make government serve the public good and not just those with vast sums to spend?

  • Bill Moyers & Michael Winship: What Are We Bid For American Justice?

    That famous definition of a cynic as someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing has come to define this present moment of American politics.

    No wonder people have lost faith in politicians, parties and in our leadership. The power of money drives cynicism deep into the heart of every level of government. Everything – and everyone – comes with a price tag attached: from a seat at the table in the White House to a seat in Congress to the fate of health care reform, our environment and efforts to restrain Wall Street’s greed and prevent another financial catastrophe.

    Our government is not broken; it’s been bought out from under us, and on the right and the left and smack across the vast middle more and more Americans doubt representative democracy can survive the corruption of money.

    Last month, the Supreme Court carried cynicism to new heights with its decision in the Citizens United case. Spun from a legal dispute over the airing on a pay-per-view channel of a right-wing documentary attacking Hillary Clinton during the 2008 presidential primaries, the decision could have been made very narrowly. Instead, the conservative majority of five judges issued a sweeping opinion that greatly expands corporate power over our politics.

    Never mind that in at least two separate polls an overwhelming majority of Americans from both political parties say they want no part of the Court’s decision; they want even more limits on the power of money in elections. But candidates and their campaign consultants are gearing up to exploit the Court’s gift in the fall elections.

    Just this week, that indispensable journalistic Web site TALKING POINTS MEMO reported that K&L Gates, an influential Washington lobbying firm, is alerting corporate clients on how to use trade associations like the Chamber of Commerce as pass-throughs to dump unlimited amounts of cash directly into elections. They can advocate or oppose a candidate right up to Election Day, while keeping a low profile to prevent “public scrutiny” and bad press coverage. And media outlets already are licking their chops at the prospect of all that extra money to be spent buying airtime – as much as an additional $300 million dollars. That’s not even counting production and post-production costs of campaign ads, which are considerable. A bad situation just got worse.

    If you want to know just how much worse, look to the decision’s potential impact on our court system, where integrity, independence and fair play count the most when it comes to preserving faith in our system. It’s as susceptible to the lure of corporate wealth as the executive and legislative branches are.

    Ninety-eight percent of all the lawsuits in this country take place in the state courts. In 39 states, judges have to run for election – that's more than 80 percent of the state judges in America.

    The Citizens United decision makes those judges who are elected even more susceptible to the corrupting influence of cash, for many of their decisions in civil cases directly affect corporate America, and a significant amount of the money judges raise for their campaigns comes from lobbyists and lawyers.

    In the words of Charles W. Hall, a spokesman for the non-partisan, judicial watchdog group Justice at Stake, “Corporate bottom lines are not affected by whether a bank robber gets 10 or 20 years in prison. The bottom lines are affected however by whether a large scale lawsuit is upheld or overturned.”

    During the 1990s, candidates for high court judgeships in states around the country and the parties that supported them raised $85 million dollars for their campaigns. Since the year 2000, the numbers have more than doubled to over $200 million.

    The nine justices currently serving on the Texas Supreme Court have raised nearly $12 million in campaign contributions. The race for a seat on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court last year was the most expensive judicial race in the country, with more than $4.5 million spent by the Democrats and Republicans. Now, with the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, corporate money’s muscle just got a big hypodermic full of steroids.

    As Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens wrote in his 90-page Citizens United dissent, “At a time when concerns about the conduct of judicial elections have reached a fever pitch… the Court today unleashes the floodgates of corporate and union general treasury spending in these races.”

    States that elect their judges, he said, “after today, may no longer have the ability to place modest limits on corporate electioneering even if they believe such limits to be critical to maintaining the integrity of their judicial systems.”

    No wonder that legal experts, including former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor (the only living current or former Supreme Court member to have been an elected state court judge), have called for states with judicial elections to switch to a system of merit selection. Judges would be appointed but possibly subject to “retention elections” in which voters can simply vote thumbs up or down as to whether jurists are qualified to remain on the bench.

    Until such changes are made, the temptations of corporate cash mean that in those states where judicial elections still prevail there hangs a crooked sign on every courthouse reading, “Justice for Sale.”

    February 12, 2010

    The Expressive Power of Dance

    (Photo by Robin Holland)

    This week on THE JOURNAL, Bill Moyers spoke with renowned choreographer and dance artist Bill T. Jones about his art form and his recent work about the life of Abraham Lincoln.

    Moyers asked Jones a question that might be asked about more than just the late President:

    "Abraham Lincoln may be the most scrutinized figure in American history. What can a dance tell us that a thousand, five thousand, ten thousand, fifteen thousand books haven't done?"

    What do you think?

  • What can dance express that other art forms cannot?

  • Do you think other art forms have unique expressive power? Explain.

  • How has art helped you see topics differently?

  • Michael Winship: From the Annals of Sno-Cone Science

    (Photo by Robin Holland)

    Below is an article by JOURNAL senior writer Michael Winship. We welcome your comments below.

    "From the Annals of Sno-Cone Science"
    By Michael Winship

    There's a vintage Bob and Ray radio sketch in which Bob plays "Mr. Science," a parody of TV's "Mr. Wizard." He's trying to explain to his young protégé Sandy "the miracle of gas refrigeration."

    "Doesn't it seem paradoxical to you that a refrigerator is made cold by a flame?" Mr. Science asks.

    Sandy exclaims, "Holy cats! Wait 'til I tell the gang at school that! I thought it was made cold by the ice cubes, Mr. Science!"

    Sandy's slippery grasp of physics and Mr. Science's increasingly convoluted explanations characterize the debate over climate change that was taking place in Washington and the media this week. As the capital and much of the Eastern seaboard were digging themselves out from two big snow events, climate change deniers were pointing to the frozen tundra on the Potomac as evidence that global warming is a fraud.

    Virginia's Republican Party used the blizzards to put out a snarky ad attacking two of the state's Democratic congressmen who voted for the cap-and-trade bill last year: "Tell them how much global warming you get this weekend," the spot chortled. "Maybe they'll come help you shovel."

    Right-wing Senator Jim DeMint sent out a Twitter tweet: "It's going to keep snowing until Al Gore cries 'Uncle!'" And the daughter and grandkids of Republican Senator James Inhofe built a six-foot igloo on Capitol Hill with signs announcing "Al Gore's New Home" and "Honk if you [heart] Global Warming." Once again, the GOP mines comedy gold.

    Granted, debating global warming while stuck in a snowdrift can seem a little counterintuitive, especially if you tend to willfully deny scientific evidence and prefer to limit your knowledge of the cold to such things as sticking your tongue on the schoolyard flagpole and enjoying the occasional Sno-Cone. And scientists didn't do themselves any favors when the phrase "global warming" was coined. Compared to "climate change," it's much too easy to misinterpret, intentionally or not. (As some have suggested, "global weirding" might be more accurate and helpful.)

    In truth, and to get way too basic, warmer air holds more moisture and when temperatures get colder it falls from the sky as a lot of snow. Not to mention that short term weather phenomena, like blizzards, don't necessarily reflect overall climate trends which are measured over decades and more.

    And by the way, as the progressive Web site Media Matters reports, if we can momentarily shift our East Coast-centric eyes from our own icy weather, note that they're having trouble getting enough snow at the Olympics in Vancouver and Rio de Janeiro is wilting from its worst heat wave in half a century.

    One big fact that convinces me of the reality of climate change is the seriousness with which America's defense and intelligence agencies are taking it as a worldwide threat. The American Security Project, a Washington think tank, reported last month that the Central Intelligence Agency has relaunched a program "to share surveillance and other data with scientists monitoring climate change," including satellite photos. And in September, the CIA announced it was creating a Center on Climate Change and National Security that will study "the effect environmental factors can have on political, economic, and social stability overseas."

    The Chief of Naval Operations has established "Task Force Climate Change" to "assess the Navy's preparedness to respond to emerging requirements, and to develop a science-based timeline for future Navy actions regarding climate change." Navy Secretary Ray Mabus has set the year 2020 as a deadline for the Navy cutting its use of fossil fuels by half.

    On February 1, the Pentagon issued its Quadrennial Defense Review, which establishes defense strategy and priorities and evaluates potential international risks. It cites intelligence assessments that "climate change could have significant geopolitical impacts around the world, contributing to poverty, environmental degradation and the further weakening of fragile governments. Climate change will contribute to food and water scarcity, will increase the spread of disease and may spur or exacerbate mass migration.

    "While climate change alone does not cause conflict, it may act as an accelerant of instability or conflict, placing a burden to respond on civilian institutions and militaries around the world."

    Among its other findings, the review cites a 2008 National Intelligence Council report that more than 30 U.S. military installations were "already facing elevated levels of risk from rising sea levels. DoD's operational readiness hinges on continued access to land, air, and sea training and test space. Consequently, the department must complete a comprehensive assessment of all installations to assess the potential impacts of climate change on its missions and adapt as required."

    Consider yourself warned and, one hopes, suitably chastened. As Sandy tells Mr. Science, "I'm never going to throw an ice cube from a moving car again. Boy, Smokey the Bear's got enough trouble as it is!"


    Please note that the views and opinions expressed by Michael Winship are not necessarily the views and opinions held by Bill Moyers or BILL MOYERS JOURNAL.

    February 5, 2010

    Can Democracy Withstand The Power of Big Money?

    (Photos by Robin Holland)

    This week on the JOURNAL, Bill Moyers spoke with libertarian journalist Nick Gillespie and progressive legal scholar Lawrence Lessig about the impact of last month's controversial Supreme Court ruling allowing corporations and unions to spend unlimited funds from their general treasuries on political communications in periods shortly before elections and primaries.

    While many have argued that the Court's decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission affirms free speech and the First Amendment, others have expressed grave concern that the ruling may open the floodgates of corporate money into America's elections and undermine the voices and trust of ordinary citizens.

    Criticizing the Court's ruling as a blow to citizens' faith in government, Lessig said:

    "I think it's an ominous sign about the future of this Court and any kind of reform. Because though I support free speech, and even free speech for corporations, what this means is increasingly people are going to believe their government is controlled by the funders and not by the people... Congress has lost the respect of the people, and it's only going to get much, much worse... Increasingly, members are thinking not about what makes sense... They think about what's going to make it easier for the lobbyists to help channel money into their campaigns. They've produced the fundraising Congress, where their obsession is, 'how do I make the people who will fund my campaigns happier?'... The problem that I see is that when speech gets read by the ordinary American people as just another way in which Congress is focusing on the funders rather than focusing on the people, it erodes the trust in this government."

    Gillespie defended the Court's decision and suggested that shrinking the scope of government is the best way to drain money from politics:

    "I think it was a victory for free speech, in the end. If anything, it didn't go far enough. Campaign finance regulation is always a suppression of speech... What I would argue is that we have too many campaign finance reforms. They do stifle free speech - that's what they're designed to do - particularly political speech... Who are the corrupt politicians? Name names, because that's what this is about. Who are the people who are dancing to the tune of their corporate masters?... We have seen an explosion of corporate lobbying after Obama went into office. This past year has been the biggest bumper year for lobbyists ever. What I would argue is it has nothing to do with patrolling speech or even elections - what it has to do with is the fact that the budget that's on the table now is $3.8 trillion. As long as the government is shoveling that kind of cash around, people are going to be sniffing out ways to get their share."

    What do you think?

  • What's your perspective on the Supreme Court's decision in the Citizens United case?

  • Do you believe that a system of campaign finance laws is capable of limiting the influence of money, or do you agree with Gillespie that lobbying and corruption are inevitable with a large federal budget?

  • Do you agree with Lessig that Congress has lost the people's respect? What reforms would increase your faith in Washington?

  • A Single-Payer Solution?

    (Photo by Robin Holland)

    In this week's JOURNAL, Bill Moyers sat down with physician and activist Dr. Margaret Flowers, who was recently arrested for an act of civil disobedience - trespassing - as she attempted to deliver to President Obama a letter urging him to resuscitate the stalled effort at health reform and consider a Medicare-for-all plan, known colloquially as "single-payer."

    Flowers said:

    "I went into medicine because I really do care about taking care of my patients... I really thought that medicine was going to be about taking care of patients, and I learned otherwise - that it was more about fighting with insurance companies and being pushed to see more and more patients. When I looked at what was going on and looked at what works in other places and what models have worked here, I saw that if we have a Medicare-for-all system, then really doctors can practice medicine again... [The White House was] concerned that if we let the single-payer voice in, or if it was associated in any way with [their] legislation, that it would hurt their ability to pass that legislation, so they kind of put the kibosh on it... Why is [Obama] excluding us? Why isn't he letting us be at the table when this makes complete sense from a public policy, public health policy, and economic health policy standpoint?"

    Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, who appeared on the JOURNAL last June, argued that single-payer is the best possible health reform but that it is not politically achievable in Congress:

    "The single-payer system would be the best of all... Because a single-payer actually would have huge bargaining leverage, be able to tell the providers what they can do and what they can't do without it being 'socialized medicine.' A single-payer would actually have the reins... But a President, to some extent, has got to be politically realistic. There is no real political option in Congress now for a single-payer... I'm a big single-payer fan. Unfortunately, we cannot get there from here because the political forces are just too strong against single-payer."

    On the other hand, columnist John Steele Gordon of the WALL STREET JOURNAL has argued that, historically, self-interested politicians have proven unable to run large enterprises sensibly. Gordon wrote:

    "It might be a good idea to look at the government's track record in running economic enterprises. It is terrible... Because of the need to be re-elected, politicians are always likely to have a short-term bias. What looks good now is more important to politicians than long-term consequences even when those consequences can be easily foreseen... And politicians tend to favor parochial interests over sound economic sense.... The inescapable fact is that only the profit motive and competition keep enterprises lean, efficient, innovative and customer-oriented."

    What do you think?

  • Do you believe single-payer is the best potential reform for the U.S. health system? Why or why not?

  • In the wake of the Republican Senate victory in Massachusetts that disrupted Democrats' legislation, what health reforms do you believe are politically achievable?

  • How are you and your community working to reform America's health system?

  • Michael Winship: Lobbyists Retreat But Never Surrender

    (Photo by Robin Holland)

    Below is an article by JOURNAL senior writer Michael Winship. We welcome your comments below.

    "Lobbyists Retreat But Never Surrender"
    By Michael Winship

    George Washington's birthday is approaching and with it will come the attendant mythology: hatchet and cherry tree, wooden teeth, throwing a silver dollar across the Potomac River - or the Rappahannock.

    Of course, as the old joke goes, a dollar went a lot further then. Today, if you tried to hurl a silver dollar across the Potomac, chances are some member of Congress would snatch it in flight like one of those nature film grizzly bears grabbing a salmon in mid-leap.

    And the more likely person doing the throwing would be a lobbyist, tossing coins in the air to keep the playful legislator's attention. The other day, the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics reported that more than 15,600 companies spent at least $3.2 billion on federal lobbying last year. Five hundred thirty-five members of the House and Senate, more than 13,000 registered lobbyists in DC - you do the math.

    This week, White House Special Counsel Norm Eisen blogged about President Obama's plans to further crack down on lobbyists by updating the Lobbying Disclosure Act and getting Congress to mandate "low-dollar limits on the contributions lobbyists may bundle or make to candidates for federal office," bundling being that insidious practice by which you raise a lot of money by hitting up a number of people for contributions and "bundling" their donations together.

    Good luck with that, Norm. As we've seen, lobbyists are brilliantly devious at figuring out ways into the inner sanctums, and whoever's behind the door tends to welcome them with open arms, as long as they've arrived with the secret password - "Cash."

    Example: last weekend, both Democratic and Republican members of Congress held retreats, ostensibly to go away some place and sagely contemplate their navels, discussing issues and plotting strategy. Guess who else was there?

    The House Republican Caucus chose to stay near Washington at the Renaissance Baltimore Harborplace Hotel, all the easier for lobbyists to make a quick sprint up Interstate 95 and pitch woo. Among those addressing the Caucus were President Obama - you've seen the video of his give-and-take with them last Friday - and the ubiquitous former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, the GOP equivalent of a rash that won't go away.

    The meeting was organized by the Congressional Institute, which describes itself as "a not-for-profit corporation dedicated to helping Members of Congress better serve their constituents and helping their constituents better understand the operations of the national legislature." It holds seminars for legislators and their staffs, publishes a handbook on floor procedure and sponsors the annual Congressional Art Competition.

    The reality, as the Center for Media and Democracy's SourceWatch Web site reports, is that the Congressional Institute is "funded by corporate contributions and run by top Republican lobbyists." Twelve of its 14 board members are registered lobbyists, including its chair, Daniel Meyer of The Duberstein Group, a lobby firm founded by former Reagan chief of staff Ken Duberstein; vice chair Barbara Morris-Lent, who has been a consultant to Verizon and is the wife of former Republican Congressman Norman Lent; and its secretary Gary Andres, a columnist for Rupert Murdoch's right-wing Weekly Standard and vice president of public policy and research for the lobby company Dutko Worldwide. Many of them are former Republican congressional staff members; two of them worked for ex-Speaker Gingrich.

    A list of the Congressional Institute's financial contributors reads like a Who's Who of corporate America: among them have been General Motors, Lockheed Martin, Time Warner, UPS, Merck and tobacco giant Altria.

    Lee Fang, a researcher for the progressive Center for American Progress Action Fund, paid a visit on the Republicans at their Baltimore hotel. In the time before Congressional Institute representatives told him to scram or face arrest, he found out quite a lot.

    The aforementioned Dan Meyer was on his way to the retreat - his Duberstein clients include Goldman Sachs, BP, HealthNet and AHIP, the health insurance industry trade group that fought tooth and nail against the public option in the health care fight.

    Also in attendance, according to Fang, was Institute board member Michael Johnson. A lobbyist at the OB-C Group, Johnson "touts himself as a 'Republican heavyweight' whose firm represents the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association, JPMorgan Chase, and the health insurance giant WellPoint." And as he was pointed to the exit, Fang spotted John Sampson, chief lobbyist for Microsoft.

    Meanwhile, Democrats chose to bask in sunnier climes, and some select lobbyists decided to grab their towels and Jamba Juice and enjoy the balmy weather with them. A dozen senators headlined the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee's winter retreat at a Ritz Carlton resort in Miami Beach, a cozy little hideaway with 375 guest rooms, "sumptuous" marble baths, spa and a $2 million dollar art collection.

    The senators included DSCC chair Robert Menendez, Carl Levin, Frank Lautenberg, Claire McCaskill and Bernie Sanders. Riding in the wake of their surf were 108 lobbyists - special guests who shared meals, receptions and "informal conversations" with the legislators.

    According to the Web site Politico.com, among those attending were "top lobbying officials for many of the industries Democrats regularly attack: Represented were the American Bankers Association, the tobacco company Altria, the oil company Marathon, several drug manufacturers, the defense contractor Lockheed, and most of the large independent lobbying firms."

    The price of admittance wasn't released but the maxiumun contribution to the DSCC for similar events is $30,000 a head. Interesting when compared to recent remarks by Senator Menendez. Politico's Ben Smith quoted a January 27 Menendez press release: "In the upcoming elections, voters will face a choice between Republicans who are standing with Wall Street fat cats, bankers and insurance companies - or Democrats who are working hard to clean up the mess we inherited by putting the people's interests ahead of the special interests."

    Hearing all this makes me think we should stage a national intervention and ship the entire 111th Congress off to a different kind of retreat, a sort of political rehab facility. They would be kept isolated from lobbyists and special interests for as many weeks as it takes for them to be weaned from money and pork and made to pay attention to the needs of their constituents - and the nation.

    There would be lectures, motivational speakers, readings from the Federalist Papers, and daily screenings of "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." And emblazoned across its entryway would be a denunciation of money and politics, Thomas Jefferson's 1816 battle cry to "crush in its birth the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations, which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength and bid defiance to the laws of our country."

    I know it's just a fantasy, but I feel better already.

    Please note that the views and opinions expressed by Michael Winship are not necessarily the views and opinions held by Bill Moyers or BILL MOYERS JOURNAL.

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