By David Swanson
It’s just spring, when the world is puddle-wonderful, and your representative and your two senators pack up their lingerie and come dancing from hop-scotch and toy soldiers to make the trek outside the Beltway for a well-earned vacation sponsored by corporations completely indifferent to legislative news and dedicated to appreciation of nature’s bounty in this season of new birth — er, I mean, to begin a District Work Period dedicated to discovering exactly how much you appreciate the good work they’ve done so far — er, that is to say, the last frazzled human threads that our democratic republic hangs by are coming home from April 4th to 19th and if you want to nudge them gently or forcefully in any direction you should call and ask for an appointment NOW.
This is something you have a right and a responsibility to do, either alone or with your friends and family, or with some like-minded neighbors, or with a coalition representing activist groups, labor unions, and other civic bodies. If your polite request for an appointment with your representative or one of your senators does not work, insist on it. Do not take no for an answer. If you cannot get an appointment or you can but cannot get a commitment to better represent your district or state, I highly recommend sitting down in your elected official’s district office, phoning the media, and picketing out front. All is not well in our nation, and while there is no point in turning a friendly meeting unnecessarily confrontational, in most districts and states that WILL be necessary.
Why? What are we asking for that they aren’t willing to provide? Well, peace, justice, the rule of law, and a fair break for working people, to name a few things. But, of course, every elected official on the planet will agree to those vague values, shake your hand, and blow you kisses out the door. What you want are specific hard commitments, and what they understand committing to are bills. So, where we have bills for them to cosponsor, ask them to cosponsor. Where we don’t, ask them to introduce a new bill. Where appropriate, ask them to sign or draft a letter, make a statement, or commit to voting yes or no. Each congress member or senator is unique, as are the needs of each district and state. Knowledge is power: know as much about the person you are meeting with as possible. You can’t discuss a dozen things in a meeting. But you can hand them a list of a dozen things and insist that they agree to at least one of them. You can choose to win their support on three minor matters rather than sitting-in at their office over one big one. You can use your judgment, but you should bear in mind that there is no conflict between respectful conversation and public pressure. Pressure is what the public is supposed to provide in a democracy. Disagreement need not and should not look like it does on television shoutfests.
You may want to make clear to your congress member and senators that you want them to have more power, not less, and that you want to help them get it. They’ve given up the power of war, the power of the purse, the power of treaty, the power to legislate without signing statements and secret laws and executive decrees, and even the power of subpoena. We want Congress to reclaim some powers and we want Congress members to think of themselves as powerful defenders of the first branch of our government, not members of political parties attending a royal court. We want them to envision what Congress could be if it resembled the body described in Article I of the Constitution. Here are steps they can take:
Cosponsor the State Secrets Protection Act
This is a bill to deny presidents the power to keep information secret from even a closed court of law by claiming “state secrets.” While this power was abused greatly by President Bush, this bill was reintroduced by leading Democrats because President Obama began abusing this power. This is a rare instance of Congress standing up for itself (er, for the courts, but walking begins with baby steps) despite the party membership of those involved. Your representative and senators should be willing to sign onto this regardless of their party or politics. The House version (HR 984) has 16 cosponsors. The Senate version (S 417) has 6. Learn more:
Impeach Jay Bybee
If Congress wanted all of its powers to start flowing back up Capitol Hill, it would reclaim the power of impeachment, and it has a perfect opportunity. John Yoo didn’t write those torture memos alone. His boss was Jay Bybee, and Bybee’s signature is on memos that amount to confessions to felonies. Meanwhile, Bybee is serving as a federal judge in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco. That the people of San Francisco and their Congresswoman who serves as Speaker of the House tolerate this is a disgrace. Any member of Congress of any party and from any state can introduce an article of impeachment or a bill to initiate impeachment hearings. Learn more:
Ask Eric Holder to Appoint a Special Prosecutor
In June 2008, 56 Democratic Congress members, led by Congressman John Conyers, wrote to Attorney General Mukasey asking for a Special Prosecutor. Conyers and Congressman Jerrold Nadler wrote to Mukasey again in December 2008. Please ask them to re-send these letters to the new Attorney General, Eric Holder. Nadler says he’s drafting a new letter. The demand for prosecution has been supported by many members of the House and Senate. Almost 200 organizations are calling for a special prosecutor, as are almost 50,000 Americans. Ask your representative and senators to work with Nadler or on their own to publicly ask Holder to do what the law requires. Learn more:
Co-sponsor the Employee Free Choice Act
This bill would enforce the basic human right to assemble and self-organize, to form a union in the workplace free of intimidation and retribution from employers. This is a bill to restore power beyond Congress, to the people. You don’t have to tell congress members that, but you do have to show it to them and compel them to back this. The House version (HR 1409) already has more than enough cosponsors to pass (224), but the Senate version (S 560) has only 39 and needs 50 (or 60 if the Senate leadership chooses to allow a filibuster to block it. If unions won’t pressure senators hard for this, that doesn’t mean future larger unions can’t be made to fight for justice. We know they won’t if they don’t exist. Learn more:
End the Filibuster
Ask your senators to ask Senator Reid to support changing the filibuster rule (which can be done with a simple majority) to henceforth require only a simple majority to bring a bill to a vote. It is obscene to continue with a system in which senators representing 12 percent of the country can block all the efforts of the House and Senate. Learn more:
Cosponsor Single-Payer Healthcare
The United States National Health Care Act or the Expanded and Improved Medicare for All Act, is a House bill, HR 676, that now has 72 cosponsors. Some members of the Senate supported this bill when they were in the House, but there is not yet any bill in the Senate. Your far-right elected officials will call this “socialized medicine” but it uses private doctors, private hospitals, complete freedom of choice (unlike the current system), saves businesses billions, and nets 2.6 million new jobs. Your moderate-right elected officials will tell you they want to just follow the president’s plan, but unless they do their jobs and represent you by pushing for single-payer there will not be even a partial solution to our healthcare disaster in the final compromise bill. You can’t compromise unless you have a starting position. And that requires putting your name on the line. Learn more:
Cosponsor Resolution Rejecting Treaties Made Without Congress
Bush made a treaty with Iraq for three more years of war, without congressional approval, and President Obama has declared in a signing statement that he has the power to make treaties without congress “interfering,” despite the Constitution’s requirement that two-thirds of the Senate approve any treaty. Feel free to mention Bush or Obama depending on who you’re talking to. A House resolution (HRes 72) would express opposition to Bush’s Iraq treaty unless approved by Congress. It has 6 cosponsors. Many groups and individuals are urging Pelosi to support this. No Senate resolution or bill has yet been introduced. Learn more:
Oppose Escalation of War in Afghanistan
Even when Congress members won’t use their powers and choose to behave as advisors to the throne, it is possible for them to say the right thing and for that to help build the willingness to act. A bipartisan group of fourteen members of Congress recently wrote to the president asking him to reconsider his proposal to ship more troops to Afghanistan. Your representative and senators should send similar letters. Learn more:
Promise to Vote No Money for War Escalation, War Extension, Military Enlargement, or Bankers
Congress plans to vote on another supplemental spending bill for 2009 to continue the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan and expand the latter. This will be for $75.5 billion on top of the $68.5 billion already stolen from our children and forked over. We want commitments to vote no on appropriating or authorizing any such spending, unless amended to be used purely for withdrawal. Enough is enough. We have seen huge struggles over this in past years that should not be allowed to dissipate because the wars are rebranded with the face of a new commander in chief. We do not have another $75.5 billion to spend on death and destruction and the antagonizing of the Muslim world. That money must go to human needs.
Another $130 billion or so will be marked for war funding in the upcoming FY 2010 budget as well, on top of another $557 billion or so in military spending, not counting various pieces of Pentagon spending and the military spending scattered across various other departments. In other words, the plan is to increase the largest military budget in world history. More than half of every dollar of income tax now goes to killing rather than living, investment in weapons and only weapons is destroying our economy, we desperately need jobs, green energy, mass transportation, healthcare, infrastructure, and schools, our government has already put our grandchildren in deep debt to China, and the plan is to INCREASE this approach. It’s time to say No. We need a commitment to vote No on appropriating or authorizing any spending that extends illegal wars and fails to significantly decrease the wasteful spending of the Pentagon. If that means passing an amendment to the budget, so be it. If it means revising the budget until it will pass, so be it. We waste some $140 billion per year maintaining military bases around the world that damage our relations with the world. We dump billions and billions into weapons systems that do not work or are designed to combat enemies we do not have. Investing in non-military areas creates more and better-paying jobs, and without all the blowback. We need change, and we will not get it by voting, or by watching basketball. Change comes through organized public pressure. Learn more:
Cosponsor the Cluster Munitions Civilian Protection Act
Congress passed a law in March permanently banning exports of nearly all U.S.-made cluster bombs. But Congress has not banned the use of cluster bombs by the U.S. military. The Senate version of a bill to do so (S 416) has 23 cosponsors, and the House version (HR 981) has 24. Learn more: http://www.banclusterbombs.org
Let Wall Street Bankers Try Working for a Living
We need an understanding in congress that we will not tolerate any more bailouts for bankers, and we need leadership in efforts to undo what has been done, take our money back, allow fraudulent finance companies to fail, and fund the real economy. We want New Orleans rebuilt. We want a moratorium on foreclosures and evictions. We want a living wage minimum wage. And we want investment of the size traditionally reserved for weapons makers and now expanded for bankers to go, instead, into the creation of non-military non-Wall Street jobs. We want money for every useful local and state need and pet project any elected representative has in mind, and we want our representatives to begin seeing potential funding for human needs when they look at massive military and Wall Street waste. We want local groups that work on domestic issues to see the same thing, and we should use these visits to build such coalitions. Here are two more things we DO want:
Cosponsor the Universal Prekindergarten Act
This House bill (HR 555) would assist States in establishing a universal prekindergarten program to ensure that all children 3, 4, and 5 years old have access to a high-quality full-day, full-calendar-year prekindergarten education. It has 6 cosponsors.
Cosponsor a Department of Peace
This House bill (HR 808) has 65 cosponsors. Learn more:
You can read any bill and check the list of cosponsors at:
You can find your representative and senators at:
Don’t want to lobby Congress alone? You don’t have to. You can find people in your district by joining like-minded organizations.
Join After Downing Street.
Join the Progressive Democrats of America Issue Organizing Team on Accountability and Justice.
Join the National Accountability Network.
Join the United for Peace and Justice Working Group on Accountability and Prosecution.
Join the Peace Team.
Join World Can’t Wait.
Join CODE PINK: Women for Peace.
Join Veterans for Peace.
Join High Road for Human Rights.
Join American Freedom Campaign.
Join Center for Constitutional Rights.
Join National Lawyers Guild.
The Robert Jackson Steering Committee was formed at a September 2008 conference in Andover, Mass. Watch video.