Cynicism and Generosity Toward Congress

By David Swanson

In May of 2005 the Downing Street Memos came out, and some of us started a website and coalition called After Downing Street. And for many months we worked closely with Congressman John Conyers and many other Democrats in Congress, holding unofficial hearings, trying to pass resolutions of inquiry, and educating the public about impeachable offenses. But for the past year or so, including the past six months of Democratic majority, Congress Members have been much less interested in this project.

The most cynical interpretation of this, I think, is that Congress Members care about nothing other than elections. Prior to the 2006 elections, they feigned interest in impeachment because they thought it would help them. Now, during the two-year-long prelude to the 2008 elections, they are avoiding impeachment because they think that keeping Bush, Cheney, and the war around is the way to win, to each win individually and to win the strongest possible majority.

How many of you think that’s what they’re thinking and doing? (In Chicago 2/3 of the room raised their hands on June 21.)

The most generous possible interpretation, on the other hand, I think, is that the Democrats are waiting for the right moment, pushing investigations both publicly and in secret to help build the case, and quietly organizing to make sure an impeachment succeeds. And, in case it doesn’t, they’re working at the same time to accomplish (either in this session or the next one) the reversal of Bush and Cheney policies through legislation. So, even if they don’t hold Bush and Cheney accountable for their abuses, the Democrats hope to ban those abuses in the future.

How many people think that’s what’s going on? (In Chicago one guy in the whole hall raised his hand.)

Now, here’s a third interpretation. There is some truth to both of the others, but they are too simplistic. Each member of Congress is a human being, capable of conflicting goals, self-deception, uncertainty, and shifting priorities. And each Congress Member is different from the others. They are herd animals. But it is possible to predict who will break from the herd first and why. In the lead-up to the 2006 elections, the Democrats avoided impeachment at the insistence of Nancy Pelosi. It was in 2005 with no election looming that they pushed toward it. Of course, the public believed a Democratic majority would mean impeachment, and some Democrats who campaigned on impeachment or accountability did very well. There was never any evidence to support the strategy of avoiding impeachment, but my point is that Pelosi adopted that policy in May 2006, well before the elections. And there are some Democrats who recognize that impeachment is the surest way to win in 2008. And there are others who put saving human lives at least on an equal level with winning in 2008. Others favor impeachment but are afraid to challenge Pelosi or afraid to move on anything controversial until a lot of others move first. There are some in prominent positions afraid to move until someone even higher up gives the OK or until a whole lot of those lower down demand it. And of course a lot of those lower down are afraid to act until someone leads them.

How many of you think this is what is happening in Washington? (In Chicago, ¾ of the room raised their hands.)

If this is right, then we have to conclude that if impeachment is going to happen, and if there is anything we can do to make it happen, we should look to BOTH the threat of electoral defeat as one of the necessary tools to appeal to concerns of certain Congress Members outside of their obsession with elections.

Exhibit #1 in the case for electoral pressure is Albert Wynn. This Congressman from Maryland is perhaps the least likely member of the Black Caucus to support impeachment. He’s one of the reasons that on many issues the Black Caucus can’t achieve a unified progressive position anymore. But a young woman named Donna Edwards came very close to defeating Wynn in the last primary and is challenging him again. Wynn never signed onto H Res 635, Conyers’ bill for a preliminary investigation, but he was one of the first to sign onto H Res 333 to impeach Dick Cheney. At you can help us recruit challengers in other primaries.

Exhibit #1 in the case for appealing to Congress Members’ consciences and willingness to challenge their colleagues even when their own seats are not at stake is Illinois Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky. She was one of the first to sign onto both H Res 635 and H Res 333. Jan Schakowsky stands for the rule of law, and she deserves our gratitude. But we need to place an even greater burden on her shoulders. She is one of only 435 people with the power to act. We need to ask her to do more than just sign onto a bill. We need her to lobby her colleagues publicly and privately to join her. If she understands the gravity of the situation, that’s the least she can do. After all, thousands of other Americans are working night and day, sacrificing their family lives, even going to jail, even marching from Chicago to Washington for this cause.

But the other Illinois Congress Members who have not signed onto H Res 333 stand not for the rule of law, but for tyranny and the rule of Dick Cheney. And pundits in Washington can’t figure out why the only thing less popular than Bush, other than Cheney, is the Congress. A Gallup poll says that those with confidence in how Congress is acting are 14 percent of Americans. So, we should run challengers in primaries, but also lobby, pressure, annoy, educate, sit-in, and shame Illinois Congress Members who are not Jan Schakowsky.

I got an Email this morning from Congressman Henry Waxman’s office. He’s been looking into Dick Cheney’s attempts to exempt the Vice President’s office from requirements to protect classified information. Cheney couldn’t get the office at the National Archives to go along, so he proposed eliminating it. At one point he argued that the office of the Vice President is not part of the executive branch.

That’s a start. Most of us would prefer Cheney were not part of our country at all.

We want to restore the offices of the vice presidency and the presidency to the rule of law, to the state in which the next administration and future ones, including more dangerous ones than this one, will understand that they cannot get away with spying without warrants, detaining without charges, torturing, lying us into wars of aggression, committing countless war crimes, hiding our government behind a wall of secrecy, exacting retribution against whistleblowers, rewriting laws passed by Congress, and refusing to comply with Congressional subpoenas.

Not to mention stealing elections, politicizing the Department of Justice, ignoring threats to cities like New York and New Orleans, misappropriating funds, manufacturing phony news reports, bribing journalists, bombing journalists, and generally behaving like the mafia with bigger weapons.

Impeachment is a forward-looking proposal. It’s purpose is to control future presidents. But it’s also a present-time proposal aimed at halting the ongoing death and destruction. The threat of impeachment put Nixon on the defensive and helped to end the Vietnam War, while Congress raised the minimum wage and created the Endangered Species Act. Avoiding impeachment, this Congress can only get war bills past the president. We’ve wasted more time in 2007 avoiding impeachment than any past impeachment effort has taken.

And this impeachment will be an especially fast one, because the evidence is already in front of us. The spying has been confessed to and ruled a felony, the torture has been argued for and witnessed and photographed, the signing statements have been posted online, the threats to Iran have been made on television, etc.

Which brings us to one of the other urgent reasons for impeachment now – averting an attack on Iran. In fact, a White House put on the defensive by an impeachment effort is less likely to commit new crimes or even to veto bills re-criminalizing current crimes, even if the impeachment is not successful.

There’s another reason to pursue impeachment, and it turns the thinking of Nancy Pelosi upside down. Pursuing impeachment would actually create a political force and a political party able to dominate Washington’s agenda and move it aggressively in a progressive direction. I’ll leave it to John Nichols [who spoke after this speech in Chicago] to tell you how impeachment has benefited the parties that have brought it forward. Suffice it to say that if a Democratic president had committed one one-hundredth of the crimes of Bush and Cheney, Republicans would have impeached them and prosecuted them in court a long time ago. And rightly so.

Now, there are a lot of arguments for hesitating, and if you go to you can find all the ones I’ve heard and the best responses I’ve heard to them. Jay suggested a few concerns to me that she’d heard around Chicago. One was that we should focus on the election. But we’re likely to elect someone who has already said they’re willing to attack Iran. And we’re guaranteed, if we don’t impeach, to pass on to future presidents and vice presidents to knowledge that they can commit crimes and go unpunished, even if the crimes are recriminalized by new legislation.

Another concern was that the Democrats will never act because they are complicit in the crimes. Some of them are not complicit in any of the crimes. And all of them are not complicit in some of the crimes. They’re not complicit in signing statements, in outing a CIA agent, in refusing to comply with subpoenas, etc.

Another concern was that impeachment is a trick to channel revolutionary energy back into elections. But I see impeachment and elections as in competition with each other for our attention. Impeachment is the tool the Constitution gives more weight to. Elections are the tool we give more weight to. I want to shift the focus toward impeachment. We don’t need to pour all of our energies into choosing between Tweedledum and Tweedledee when we should be focused on knocking Humpty Dumpty off his wall.

The alternative to impeachment is either submission to fascism or a suicidal, immoral, and impossible attempt at violent revolution. What we need is a nonviolent revolution that imposes the will of the people on our current government – and the way to do that is through impeachment. Writing the Bill of Rights was a positive endeavor. Reinstating it is a positive step.

Reverend Jesse Jackson said this recently. Stand up and repeat after me:
Bush spied. Cheney lied.
Far too many people have died.
It’s time they were tried.
It’s impeachment time.

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