Allan C. Brownfeld
Allan C. Brownfeld is the author of five books, the latest of which is The Revolution Lobby (Council for Inter-American Security). He has been a staff aide to a U.S. Vice President, Members of Congress, and the U.S. Senate Internal Security Subcommittee. He is associate editor of The Lincoln Review, and a contributing editor to Human Events, The St. Croix Review, and The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.
Eighty-four Percent of Americans Disapprove of Congress: Their Contempt Is Justified
A Washington Post-ABC News poll shows a new high - 84 per cent of Americans - disapproving of the job Congress is doing, with almost two-thirds saying they "disapprove strongly." Just 13 percent of Americans approve of how things are going. It has been nearly four years since even 30 percent expressed approval of Congress.
Editorially, The Washington Examiner notes that,
Nobody can remember the last time the public approval rating of Congress was so low. That's because it's never been as low as it is now. . . . It's not hard to see why: the American people are fed up with the bipartisan corruption, endless partisan bickering, and lack of concrete action to address the nation's most pressing problems, especially out-of-control spending and the exploding national debt. . . . Both parties have presided over congressional majorities as Congress sank in public esteem during the past decade.
One reason for public dismay is the manner in which members of Congress often support while in office the interests they then go to work for once out of office. Of equal concern is the manner in which members of Congress vote for subsidies to the groups that have contributed to their political campaigns. This is true of members of Congress from both parties.
For example, soon after he retired last year as one of the leading liberals in Congress, former Rep. William D. Delahunt (D-MA) started his own lobbying firm with an office on the 16th floor of a Boston skyscraper. One of his first clients was a small coastal town that has agreed to pay him $15,000 a month for help in developing a wind energy project.
The New York Times reports that,
Amid the revolving door of congressmen-turned-lobbyists, there is nothing particularly remarkable about Mr. Delahunt's transition, except for one thing. While in Congress, he personally earmarked $1.7 million for the same energy project. So today, his firm, the Delahunt Group, stands to collect $90,000 or more for six months of work from the town of Hull, on Massachusetts Bay, with 80 percent of it coming from the pot of money he created through a pair of Energy Department grants in his final term in office.
Beyond the town of Hull, Delahunt's clients include at least three others who received millions of dollars in federal aid with his direct assistance. Barney Keller, communications director for the Club for Growth, a conservative group that tracks earmarks, says:
I cannot recall such an obvious example of a member of Congress allocating money that went directly into his own pocket. It speaks to why members of Congress shouldn't be using earmarks.
While this case may be somewhat extreme, it is repeatedly duplicated in one form or another by members of Congress. Consider former Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania. A review of Santorum's many earmarks suggests that the federal money he helped direct to Pennsylvania paid off in the form of campaign cash. In just one piece of legislation, the defense appropriations bill for the 2006 fiscal year, Santorum helped secure $124 million in federal financing for 54 earmarks, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense, a budget watchdog group. In that year's election cycle, Santorum's Senate campaign committee and its "leadership PAC" took in more than $200,000 in contributions from people associated with the companies that benefited or their lobbyists. In all, Taxpayers for Common Sense estimated, Santorum helped secure more than $1 billion in earmarks during his Senate career.
Or consider former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who speaks about being a "Reagan conservative" who supports "limited government," yet received $1.6 million from Freddie Mac over an eight-year period and gave the government-backed mortgage giant assistance in resisting reformers in Congress. Mr. Gingrich denies that he was a "lobbyist," as do some other former members of Congress. The Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995 has three tests:
(1) Do you make more than $3,000 over three months from lobbying?
(2) Have you had more than one lobbying contract?
(3) Have you spent more than 20 per cent of your time lobbying for a single client over three months?
Only a person who has met all three tests must register as a lobbyist. Thus, a former member of Congress who has many lobbying contacts and makes $1 million a year lobbying but has no single client who takes up more than 20 per cent of his time would not be considered a lobbyist.
Clearly, it is time to change this rule. A task force of the American Bar Association recommended last year that the 20 percent rule be eliminated, which would require far more people to register as lobbyists, and subject them to ethics and disclosure requirements. The Center for Responsive Politics found that more than 3,000 lobbyists simply "de-registered" after Congress imposed new reporting requirements for lobbyists in 2007.
With regard to Gingrich, Washington Times columnist Don Lambro writes:
Mr. Gingrich . . . is the quintessential Washington insider, peddling influence in government. . . . He denied he was lobbying, insisting that he was hired to be a historian, when he was selling his services to one of the richest bidders in government. He was being paid well out of Freddie Mac's coffers while it was sowing the seeds of a housing scandal that resulted in an economic meltdown that has hurt millions of Americans and cost taxpayers billions of dollars. In other words, as a paid insider, he was part of the problem, not part of the solution.
Cutting the size of government, reducing our debt, and balancing the budget are embraced rhetorically by candidates for public office. Once elected, however, many become part of the system they campaigned against. The incentive structure once in office is to raise money to stay in office, and the way to do this is to vote subsidies to those groups being called upon to contribute. Both parties are engaged in this behavior, and candidates of both parties are rewarded so that special interests will have a friend in office no matter who is elected.
Sadly, the action of Congress - and the lobbying enterprises of former members of Congress - are legal. This, of course, is because it is Congress itself that writes the laws. There was a time when members of Congress, when they retired or were defeated, returned home. Some still do. Many others, however, remain in Washington, getting rich trying to influence their former colleagues.
This enterprise, of course, is only part of why Congress is viewed in such negative terms by 84 percent of Americans. Narrow partisanship and a greater concern for politics than for the country's well being is another. All of this is on naked display in today's Washington. The public contempt has been well earned. Whether that public dismay with our current politics can be transformed into an effective effort to alter this behavior remains to be seen. Too many in Washington have a vested interest in today's corrupt system as it exists. How to change the incentive structure for those in political life is our real challenge.
We Must Recognize a New Threat to Freedom in the Name of "National Security"
On December 31, 2011, President Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act, which was supported by both Republicans and Democrats in the Congress. This legislation allows for the indefinite detention of American citizens within the United States - without charging them with a crime.
Under this law, those suspected of involvement with terrorism are to be held by the military. The president has the authority to detain citizens indefinitely. While Senator Carl Levin (D-MI) said that the bill followed existing law, "whatever the law is," the Senate specifically rejected an amendment that would exempt citizens, and the administration has opposed efforts to challenge such authority in federal court. The administration claims the right to strip citizens of legal protections based on its sole discretion.
This legislation was passed by the Senate 93 to 7. "The only comparable example was Reconstruction in the South," says constitutional law scholar Bruce Fein.
That was 150 years ago. This is the greatest expansion of the militarization of law enforcement in this country since.
The opposition to this legislation assembled an unlikely coalition of liberal Democrats, the American Civil Liberties Union, constitutional conservatives, libertarians, and three Republican senators - Rand Paul (KY), Mark Kirk (IL), and Mike Lee (UT).
The law, argued Senator Paul:
. . . would arm the military with the authority to detain indefinitely - without due process or trial - suspected al-Qaeda sympathizers, including American citizens apprehended on American soil. I want to repeat that. We are talking about people who are merely suspected of a crime. And we are talking about American citizens. If these provisions pass, we could see American citizens being sent to Guantanamo Bay.
Senator Mark Udall (D-CO), who proposed a failed amendment to strip the language from the bill, said that these provisions would "authorize the military to exercise unprecedented power on U.S. soil.
Writing in The American Conservative, Kelley Beaucar Vlahos notes that:
Already the federal government has broad authority to decide whether terror suspects are detained and held by federal law enforcement agencies and tried in regular courts or carried off by the military under the Military Commissions Act. This new legislation would allow the military to take control over the detention of suspects first - which means no Miranda rights and potentially no trial even on U.S. soil, putting the front lines of the War on Terror squarely on Main Street.
Bruce Fein argues that the ambiguity of words like "associated groups" or "substantially supports" gives the military wide discretion over who is considered a terrorist. "It's a totally arbitrary weapon that can be used to silence people."
Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI), one of the leading critics of the bill in the House of Representatives, issued a fact-checking memo outlining how the language can be abused:
For example, a person makes a one-time donation to a non-violent humanitarian group. Years later, the group commits hostile acts against an ally of the U.S. Under the Senate's NDAA, if the President determines the group was "associated" with terrorists, the President is authorized to detain the donor indefinitely, and without charge or trial.
James Madison warned that, "The means of defense against foreign danger historically have become instruments of tyranny at home."
Senator Paul states that:
The discussion now to suspend certain rights to due process is especially worrisome, given that we are engaged in a war that appears to have no end. Rights given up now cannot be expected to be returned. So we do well to contemplate the diminishment of due process, knowing that the rights we lose now may never be restored. . . . This legislation would arm the military with the authority to detain indefinitely - without due process or trial - suspected al-Qaeda sympathizers, including American citizens apprehended on American soil. . . . There is one thing and one thing only protecting innocent Americans from being detained at will by the hands of a too-powerful state: our Constitution and the checks it puts on government power. Should we err and remove some of the most important checks on state power in the name of fighting terrorism, well, then the terrorists will have won.
In his dissent in Hamdi v. Rumfeld, Justice Antonin Scalia declared:
Where the government accuses a citizen a waging war against it, our constitutional tradition has been to prosecute him in federal court for treason or some other crime. . . . The very core of liberty secured by our Anglo-Saxon system of separated powers has been freedom from indefinite imprisonment at the will of the executive.
Jonathan Turley, professor of law at George Washington University, points out that:
In a signing statement with the defense authorization bill, Obama said he does not intend to use the latest power to indefinitely imprison citizens. Yet, he still accepted the power as a sort of regretful autocrat. An authoritarian nation is defined not just by the use of authoritarian powers, but by the ability to use them. If a president can take away your freedom or your life on his own authority, all rights become little more than a discretionary grant subject to executive will.
James Madison, Turley recalls,
. . . famously warned that we needed a system that did not depend on the good intentions or motivations of our rulers: "if men were angels, no government would be necessary." Since 9/11, we have created the very government the framers feared: a government with sweeping and largely unchecked powers resting on the hope that they will be used wisely. The indefinite-detention provision in the defense authorization bill seemed to many civil libertarians like a betrayal by Obama. While the president had promised to veto the law over that provision, Senator Levin, a sponsor of the bill, disclosed on the Senate floor that it was in fact the White House that asked for the removal of an exception for citizens from indefinite detention.
Historically, those who seek to expand government power and diminish freedom always have a variety of good reasons to set forth for their purposes. In the case of Olmstead v. United States (1927), Justice Louis Brandeis warned that:
Experience should teach us to be most on our guard to protect liberty when the government's purposes are beneficent. Men born to freedom are naturally alert to repel invasion of their liberty by evil-minded rulers. The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in the insidious encroachment of men of zeal, well meaning but without understanding.
In recent years, in the name of ecology, racial equality, public health, and a variety of other "beneficent" purposes, the power of government has grown and the freedom of the individual has diminished, just as Justice Brandeis feared it would. But it has also diminished in the name of national security, something many conservatives, usually alert to the growth of government power, tend to support - or to acquiesce in. This is a serious mistake, as we now face the new threat of indefinite detention of American citizens. Freedom cannot be preserved by taking it away.
The Arab Spring: Understanding the Promise and Peril of Revolution in the Middle East
Developments in the Middle East remain chaotic. In the wake of the Arab Spring we have seen the overthrow of autocratic regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, a virtual civil war in Syria, and challenges to such governments as those in Bahrain and Yemen. The brutal Libyan dictator Muammar Ghaddafi has been overthrown. What comes next in this volatile region is difficult to know.
In an important new book, The Invisible Arab, Marwan Bishara, senior political analyst for Al Jazeera's English language service and the editor of its flagship show "Empire," and a former lecturer at the American University of Paris, provides a thoughtful analysis on how Arabs broke their own psychological barrier of fear to kindle one of the first significant revolutionary transformations of the 21st century.
Bishara describes how the historic takeover of Tunisia's November 7 Square, Egypt's Tahrir Square, and Bahrain's Pearl Square, among others, was the culmination of a long social and political struggle: countless sit-ins, strikes, and demonstrations by people who risked and suffered intimidation, torture, and imprisonment. It was aided by the dramatic rise of satellite television networks, including Al Jazeera, which bypass attempts by governments to censor news and information.
"Like most revolutions," he writes,
. . . this one was a long time coming. . . . They were the culmination of a long social and political struggle - countless sit-ins, strikes, pickets, and demonstrations. . . . The story begins with the young Arabs whose networking and organizations brought the people out into the streets. The youth, who make up 60 percent of all Arabs, have been looked upon as a "demographic bomb," and "economic burden," or as a "reservoir for extremism." However, unlike previous generations, this group heralded change.
For decades, Bishara argues, these Arab citizens and their social and political movements
. . . have been either unfairly demonized or totally ignored by the West . . . who saw the region through the prism of Israel, oil, terrorists, or radical Islamism. But today's Arabs are presenting a stark contrast to the distortion . . . heaped upon them. Characterized as unreceptive to democracy and freedom, they are now giving the world a lesson in both.
The more difficult part of this revolutionary journey, he notes, will come as
. . . the Arabs, sooner rather than later, discover that democracy and freedom come with greater responsibility. Defeating dictators is a prerequisite for progress, but does not guarantee it, especially in the absence of functional state institutions, democratic traditions, and modern infrastructure. The prevalence of poverty, inequality, and rising regional and international competition present huge challenges.
The origins of what he calls "the miserable Arab reality" are not civilizational, economic, or philosophical per se. Instead,
. . . . The origins . . . are political par excellence. Like capital to capitalists, or individualism to liberalism, the use and misuse of political power has been the factor that defines the contemporary Arab state. Arab regimes have subjugated or transformed all facets of Arab society.
By the beginning of the 21st century, Arab autocracies represented some of the oldest dictators in the world. Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali's dictatorship in Tunsia, the most recently established in the region, ruled for 25 years, followed by 30 years for Egypt's Mubarak, and 33 years for Yemen's Ali Abdulla Sale, and 43 years for Ghaddafi in Libya. In Syria, the al-Assad dynasty has ruled for 43 years, and Saddam Hussein was removed in 2003 after 24 bloody years ruling Iraq. Only the authoritarian Arab monarchies precede these dictatorships in longevity. Bahrain, a repressive Sunni monarchy, has ruled a Shia majority since its independence from Britain in 1971.
Arab states, writes Bishara,
. . . were, for a lack of better words, turned into the private estates of the ruling families. While these regimes boasted of secular republicanism, they were run similar to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, where no political activism was allowed and where the ruling families dominated all facets of political life. . . . The energy-producing Arab states are sustained rentier-type economies, characterized by a trade-off between economic welfare and political representation. Whereas the modern democratic state was founded on the cry of "no taxation without representation" . . . the modern Arab state has turned that notion on its head. With free-flowing petro-dollars pouring into their countries, Arab leaders have been able to sell off national resources and enrich themselves without having to turn to their citizens for personal taxation. . . . It became a ritual in the wealthy monarchies for the kings, emirs, or princes to provide small sums of money to their "subjects," and the poor in particular, as a makrama or "generous gift" that was generated from the natural resources in their land.
According to the U.N. Development Program's (UNDP) first Arab Human Development Report, written exclusively by Arab experts,
. . . Arab countries have not developed as quickly as comparable nations in other regions. Indeed, more than half of Arab women are illiterate; the region's infant mortality rate is twice as high as in Latin America and the Caribbean. Over the past 20 years, income growth per capita has also been extremely low.
In virtually every Arab country, more than half the population is under 30 - more than 140 million people - while a quarter are between the ages of 15 and 29, making this generation the largest youth cohort in the history of the Middle East. This unemployed and increasingly angry demographic has given traction to the "youth bulge" theory, which posits that when population growth outstrips that of jobs, social unrest is inevitable.
The influence of the information revolution has been crucial to developments in the region. As a result, notes Bishara,
. . . The Arab youth were able to think for themselves, freely exchange ideas, and see clearly beyond their ruler's deception, vengeful jihadist violence, or cynical Western calculations. . . . At the beginning of 2011, there were 27 million Arabs on Facebook, including 6 million Egyptians. Within a few nights, 2 million more Egyptians joined, underlining the centrality of the medium to the changes in the country. More than 60 million people in the Arab world are online.
Yemeni activist and 2011 Nobel Peace Prize co-winner Tawakkol Karman described the use of social media:
The revolution in Yemen began immediately after the fall of Ben Ali in Tunisia. . . . As I always do when arranging a demonstration, I posted a message on Facebook, calling on people to celebrate the Tunisian uprising.
This new media, writes Bishara,
. . . had an important cultural, even sociological role to play in patriarchal Arab societies. It helped young people break free from social constraints. It propelled them into uncharted territory, and it helped them mold a certain type of individualism. They began to enjoy an uninhibited space where they could share information and experiences, join chat rooms, and participate with one another. Theirs is a new found egalitarianism. . . .
Bishara laments the fact that,
Arabs have been valued not for their embrace of freedom or respect for human rights, but rather in terms of their proximity to U.S. interests. A subservient ally and energy providing partner made for a good Arab regime, regardless of its despotic or theocratic rule. . . . Western leaders have talked in slogans . . . about democracy and Islam, but have always been as indifferent to the people of the region as their dictators.
What does the future hold? Bishara recognizes that there are great dangers:
Islamist movements, the likes of the Egyptian Brotherhood, have already opened dialogue with the military and with Western powers on the basis of mutual interest and respect. This might be seen as a positive development, that allows for a new sort of regional order on the basis of a new accommodation among Islamists, the generals, and Western leaders. However, this triangle could eventually be as oppressive and totalitarian as the previous dictatorships . . . the Islamists must make sure that they reconcile with the principles of democracy and modern statehood, not a division of labor with the military. . . . Many of the Islamists I spoke to reckon that if they have a majority they have a democratic right to change the constitution and govern as they see religiously fit. They don't recognize democracy as first and foremost a system of government based on democratic values that go beyond the right of the majority to rule, to ensure that the rights and privileges of the minorities are respected and preserved. . . .
The Invisible Arab is a thoughtful contribution to our understanding of the Middle East from one of its articulate new voices. He shows how the revolutions have evolved - and how it could all go terribly wrong. Marwan Bishara hopes for a free and democratic Middle East - and he has his fingers crossed. *