U.S. Senate Apologizes for Slavery

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This week, the United States Senate passed a resolution that apologizes for slavery. It’s pretty sad that it took well over one-hundred years to get to this point, but at least it’s something. It should be noted that Michigan Senators Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow both co-sponsored the resolution.

To be sure, a Senate resolution can’t under the reality of dehumanization and oppression–or the legacy of slavery’s contemporary manifestations–a fact that the Senate recognizes:

Whereas an apology for centuries of brutal dehumanization and injustices cannot erase the past, but confession of the wrongs committed and a formal apology to African- Americans will help bind the wounds of the Nation that are rooted in slavery and can speed racial healing and reconciliation and help the people of the United States understand the past and honor the history of all people of the United States;

The Senate resolution apologizes for both slavery and Jim Crow:

Resolved by the Senate (the House of Representatives concurring), That the sense of the Congress is the following:

(1) APOLOGY FOR THE ENSLAVEMENT AND SEGREGATION OF AFRICAN-AMERICANS.

The Congress–

(A) acknowledges the fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity of slavery and Jim Crow laws;

(B) apologizes to African-Americans on behalf of the people of the United States, for the wrongs committed against them and their ancestors who suffered under slavery and Jim Crow laws; and

(C) expresses its recommitment to the principle that all people are created equal and endowed with inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and calls on all people of the United States to work toward eliminating racial prejudices, injustices, and discrimination from our society.

Of course, the kicker:

(2) DISCLAIMER.–Nothing in this resolution–

(A) authorizes or supports any claim against the United States; or

(B) serves as a settlement of any claim against the United States.

It’s disappointing that the resolution excludes the prospect of reparations, but that is likely to be an ongoing battle that needs to be waged by progressives and radicals.

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New Database Tracks Most Used Words in Congress

An interesting project by the Sunlight Foundation tracks the most used words in Congress, allowing users to track them by state or by individual legislator. It’s an interesting example of what can be done to improve government transparency by using Internet tools.

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The Sunlight Foundation has launched an intriguing new project call Capitol Words. The project analyzes the Congressional Record to track which words are being used by Congress and which members are speaking the most.

The results can be interesting. For example, for legislators from Michigan, Senators Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow spoke the most in 2008 followed by senior Democratic House members John Conyers and John Dingell. Grand Rapids area Representative Vern Ehlers spoke the 10th most often.

It also shows results per legislator. Representative Vern Ehlers most frequently used the words “lakes,” “energy,” “capitol,” and “research.” Senator Carl Levin used “oil,” “energy,” “price,” and “market” the most, while Senator Debbie Stabenow used “jobs,” families,” “country,” and “able.”

While the Capitol Words project is interesting and some practical projects and analyses could be produced from it, it’s probably a bit more of a curiosity than anything else. Still, it’s a good example of the kind of “Web 2.0” applications that can be created to increase government transparency.

Report says CAFTA has Failed to Deliver

A new report from the Stop CAFTA coalition charges that CAFTA has failed on numerous fronts and has not improved the lives of workers in the signatory countries. The coalition says that CAFTA’s failings should be used as reason to suspend the agreement and reject future neoliberal trade agreements.

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Earlier this month, the Stop CAFTA Coalition released a report on the effects of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) and called for the trade agreement to be suspended by president elect Barack Obama.

The report argues that CAFTA has failed on several fronts and that its failure should be seen as a reason to reject the pending Colombia Free Trade Agreement and focus instead on agreements that focus on human rights, and economic, social, and environmental sustainability.

The report argues that the problems that come with CAFTA–often dismissed by critics as “growing pains” that will even out over time–are problems inherent to the flawed economic theories that shaped the agreement. As with many neoliberal trade agreements, jobs gained have largely been low paying–and often dangerous–jobs at factories owned by multi-national corporations. Similarly, a rise in exports reported by some CAFTA countries has largely benefited multinationals. Intellectual property rights included within CAFTA have stopped local corporations from being able to sell generic medicine to impoverished citizens who cannot afford brand-name drugs. The agreement has also paved the way for destructive environmental projects including open-pit mines and hydroelectric dams. Moreover, CAFTA’s rules make it harder for citizens to challenge these projects.

The report also briefly looks at how the United States has been impacted by CAFTA. The agreement’s passage was hotly debated in the legislature and many unions and NGOs opposed CAFTA. Some of them opposed the agreement on the grounds that it would negatively affect the agricultural and industrial sectors of the US economy. The report concludes that there has been relatively little effect on those sectors. However, it cautions that any gains for the US under CAFTA favor large corporations over small ones, and agri-business over small farms.

Overall, the report concludes that:

“The promises of DR-CAFTA have not been realized in the first three years of its implementation. If DR-CAFTA is not seriously renegotiated, it will continue to harm local economies and people, promote migration, and greatly increase the economic inequalities that persist throughout the region. Without changes to the current economic model and vast improvements to local infrastructure, employment opportunities will continue to be scarce, and the poor will continue to become poorer as the rich continue to become richer.”

The report offers several ideas for alternatives to the neoliberal CAFTA, including ALBA, a cooperative trade agreement focusing on development and mutually beneficial policies, and the Association Agreement with the European Union. In addition, it contains a “Pledge for Trade Justice” that offers elements that must be present to have an agreement based on justice and equality. These include increased transparency, stronger core environmental and labor standards in the body of trade agreements, provisions allowing for locally focused sustainable development, and more.

CAFTA was supported by West Michigan Representative Vern Ehlers who has a history of supporting neoliberal trade agreements including the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the World Trade Organization (WTO). Michigan Senators Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow both voted against CAFTA.

The Stop CAFTA coalition has released two previous reports on the effects of CAFTA in 2006 and 2007.

Michigan Senators Vote to Keep Funding the Occupation of Iraq

Michigan Senators Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow–both of whom consistently claim to be opponents of the Iraq War–voted last week to fund the continued occupation of Iraq without any restrictions on the military’s conduct.

While both have positioned themselves as critics of the United States’ occupation of Iraq, Democratic Party Senators Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow both voted to provide additional funding for the Iraq War last week. Their votes were not surprising, given that they supported unrestricted funding of the war last month. The funding brings the total funding that Congress has approved to $665 billion and will allow the United States to keep troops in Iraq into 2009.

Levin and Stabenow Vote for Failed Iraq Withdrawal Amendment, Then Vote to Give Bush Money Anyway

Today, Michigan’s two Democratic Party Senators–Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow–voted in support of an amendment to a $165 billion war funding bill that would have assigned a timeline to the continued occupation of Iraq in addition to other restrictions on US military operations. However, the amendment failed via a 34-63 vote. The funding portion of the bill–which had no restrictions and no timeline for withdrawal–then passed the Senate via a 70-26 vote. Both Levin and Stabenow voted to fund the war without restriction, making their earlier votes essentially meaningless.

The spending bill is intended to pay for the continued occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan through spring of next year. The bill must now go back to the House of Representatives that voted down a funding bill last week after Republicans raised objections over non-war related appropriations.

New Project Measures West Michigan Representatives’ Wealth

A new project by the Sunlight Foundation called Fortune 535 estimates the net worth of members of the US House of Representatives and the Senate. The project–based on Congressional disclosure procedures that the group says are “seriously flawed”–still shows that most members of the legislature have increased their personal wealth since taking office. Here’s the information about legislators representing Grand Rapids:

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While the data makes no statement about how or why the legislators’ wealth increased, it does show that with the exception of Senator Debbie Stabenow, the three Grand Rapids area legislators have a net worth significantly higher than that of the average family living in the United States.

Michigan Voters See Link between Economy and Iraq War

MoveOn.org released a new report today indicating that Michigan voters are concerned about the economy and continued spending on the Iraq War. According to the report, 69% of Michigan voters surveyed said that they “worry” about the economy. 43% of voters said that “pulling out of Iraq” would help Michigan’s economy. Moreover, 66% of Michigan voters said that they would rather invest the money spent on the Iraq War–$256 billion–at home rather than continuing the war. The report says that the United States is “on the brink of a recession” as massive job losses and war spending continue.

Here in Grand Rapids, MoveOn.org members delivered the report to Michigan Senators Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow earlier today.

West Michigan Legislators Received Millions for Pet Projects in 2007

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Back in January, Mediamouse.org reported that West Michigan’s legislative delegation–Representative Vern Ehlers and Senators Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow had secured millions of dollars in “earmarks” contained within appropriations bills passed by the legislature. Earmarks, which are spending provisions requested by individual members of Congress that target taxpayer dollars to specific projects and recipients, are inserted into government spending bills with little discussion and debate.

The numbers we cited back in January were preliminary, but now Citizens Against Government Waste’s annual “Congressional Pig Book” has a complete list generated by examining the 12 appropriations bills passed in 2007. West Michigan legislators secured millions of dollars for a variety of projects including subsidies for military contractors, funding for various projects, research, assistance to various youth projects, and assistance to city governments. While some of the projects were probably worth funding, a more transparent means of doing so needs to be used. Moreover, the fact that despite all the attention that has been focused on earmarks in recent years they continue to be awarded, shows that simple transparency is not enough and that legislation regulating or banning the practice is needed.

Ehlers, Levin, and Stabenow Evaluated on Support for the Middle Class

Yesterday, the Drum Major Institute–a liberal think-tank–released its annual ranking of legislators based on their support for the middle class. The ranking tabulated votes on a variety of measures ranging from trade deals to tax bills. The Institute noted that 34 Senators and 199 Representatives received “A” grades while one-third of Representatives and nearly 40% of Senators received “F” grades.

While their methodology is far from perfect, especially with its rather limited understanding of class, the ranking is another useful way of tracking legislators and their voting records. The Institute defines “the middle class” in the following way:

“The middle class is more than an income bracket. Over the past fifty years, a middle-class standard of living in the United States has come to mean having a secure job, the opportunity to own a home, access to health care, retirement security, time off for vacation, illness and the birth or adoption of a child, opportunities to save for the future and the ability to provide a good education, including a college education, for one’s children. When these middle-class fundamentals are within the reach of most Americans, the nation is stronger economically, culturally and democratically. Most Americans identify themselves as middle class. Yet DMI is concerned not only with those who currently enjoy a middle-class standard of living, but also with expanding the middle class by increasing the ability and opportunities of poor people to enter the middle class. The middle class is strengthened when more poor people are able to work their way into its ranks. In a nation that is increasingly polarized between the very wealthy and everyone else, DMI sees the poor and middle class as sharing many of the same interests. Simply put: what strengthens and expands the middle class is good for America.”

Michigan Senators Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow both received “A” ratings, although Stabenow received an “A+” because she voted in what the Institute determined to be the middle class’ interest on every vote. Levin’s rating was less because he supported the Peru Free Trade Agreement.

Representative Vern Ehlers, who represents the Grand Rapids area, received an “F” ranking for the third time in a row. Ehlers voted against legislation designed to address housing prices, lower the price of college, make it easier to form unions, and to lower the price of subscription drugs. At the same time, he voted in support of the Peru Free Trade Agreement, a trade agreement that is based on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) that has been devastating to the middle class.

Last year, Ehlers was named a “Public Enemy of the Middle Class” by Americans for Change.

Legislators Rated on Animal Protection Issues

The Humane Society Legislative Fund has released its annual “Humane Scorecard.” The scorecard reports how legislators in the United States House of Representatives and Senate have acted on animal protection issues. The scorecard primarily tracks co-sponsorship of animal protection legislation in the House and the Senate.

Legislators representing Grand Rapids–Representative Vern Ehlers and Michigan Senators Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow–generally were rated highly by the Humane Society. Senator Levin received a “Humane Champion” award for having a 100% rating on the scorecard and sponsoring the Animal Fighting Prohibition Enforcement Act that created federal-level felonies for violating the federal law on animal fighting. Levin also co-sponsored the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act and a law designed to prevent animal researchers from using stolen cats and dogs. Additionally, he signed onto a letter to the Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee seeking more funding for animal protection. Senator Stabenow received a 75% rating. The Humane Society rated her lower for failing to co-sponsor the law preventing animal researchers from using stolen pets.

In the US House of Representatives, Representative Vern Ehlers received a 67% rating. Ehlers co-sponsored the Dog and Cat Fur Prohibition Enforcement Act that would require all garments trimmed with fur to list the source of the fur. He also voted for the Animal Fighting Prohibition Enforcement Act that would create felonies for violation of federal animal fighting laws, a bill that prohibits the commercial sale and slaughter of wild horses, and a bill that prevents the import of sport-hunted trophy polar bears from Canada. However, Ehlers did not co-sponsor the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act that would limit the sale of horses for human consumption, nor did he sign onto a letter to the Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee seeking additional funding for animal protection.