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Tuesday, 01 August 2006 02:52

Michael Winship: Play the Cards Fair. I Know What I Dealt You

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by Michael Winship

Maybe, like me, you were totally distracted by the president having that photo op with the finalists from "American Idol." Especially that moment when he mistook Simon Cowell for Tony Blair.

Don't laugh. According to Monday's Washington Post, last spring, at a White House meeting to discuss immigration, President Bush confused New Jersey Democratic Senator Robert Mendendez with Florida Republican Senator Mel Martinez, his former secretary of housing and urban development.

As the president would say, s*&# happens.

But, seriously, it's your civic duty to pay attention and not let yourself be bamboozled by photo ops and other manifestations of the administration's sleight of hand. They're performing diversionary card tricks even as Mr. Bush's popularity hits the iceberg and the Marine Band strikes up "Nearer My God to Thee." We're sinking while the White House, aided and abetted by Congress, plays three-card monte on the poop deck.

Not that the president always deals Congress a fair hand, either. We've seen that most drastically and egregiously in the president's penchant for "signing statements." Those are the interpretive documents -- more than 800 now -- he attaches to congressional legislation after he signs it. As he, Vice President Cheney and their lawyers see it, the statements allow him to pick and choose which parts of the law he feels like obeying, circumventing the House and Senate.

Last week, a blue ribbon task force appointed by the American Bar Association (ABA) issued a scathing report attacking President Bush's unprecedented volume of signing statements and urging Congress to pass legislation allowing judicial review of their constitutionality. As a result, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter has introduced a bill that, if passed, would allow Congress to sue the president over the statements' legality.

"This report raises serious concerns crucial to the survival of our democracy," ABA President Michael Greco said. "If left unchecked, the president's practice does grave harm to the separation of powers doctrine, and the system of checks and balances, that have sustained our democracy for more than two centuries. Immediate action is required to address this threat to the Constitution and to the rule of law in our country."

There are many other ways the administration subtly is subverting the people's will for ideological gain. On July 23, Charlie Savage, the same Boston Globe reporter who first broke the signing statement story, reported, "The Bush administration is quietly remaking the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, filling the permanent ranks with lawyers who have strong conservative credentials but little experience in civil rights...

"Only 42 percent of the lawyers hired since 2003, after the administration changed the rules to give political appointees more influence in the hiring process, have civil rights experience. In the two years before the change, 77 percent of those who were hired had civil rights backgrounds.

"In an acknowledgment of the department's special need to be politically neutral, hiring for career jobs in the Civil Rights Division under all recent administrations, Democratic and Republican, had been handled by civil servants -- not political appointees. But in the fall of 2002, then-attorney general John Ashcroft changed the procedures."

The report adds, "At the same time, the kinds of cases the Civil Rights Division is bringing have undergone a shift. The division is bringing fewer voting rights and employment cases involving systematic discrimination against African-Americans, and more alleging reverse discrimination against whites and religious discrimination against Christians."

Pretty sneaky stuff, huh? But wait, there's more. According to that same day's New York Times, "The federal government is moving to eliminate the jobs of nearly half of the lawyers at the Internal Revenue Service who audit tax returns of some of the wealthiest Americans, specifically those who are subject to gift and estate taxes when they transfer parts of their fortunes to their children and others...

"Six I.R.S. estate tax lawyers whose jobs are likely to be eliminated said in interviews that the cuts were just the latest moves behind the scenes at the I.R.S. to shield people with political connections and complex tax-avoidance devices from thorough audits. Sharyn Phillips, a veteran I.R.S. estate tax lawyer in Manhattan, called the cuts a 'back-door way for the Bush administration to achieve what it cannot get from Congress, which is repeal of the estate tax.'"

Maybe they can't get total repeal, a notion unpopular with the public, but they're doing their best to sneak up to it. Last week, the White House and congressional Republicans attached a huge, $62 billion a year, partial elimination of the estate tax to a long overdue increase in the minimum wage. As Kevin Drum noted, tongue-in-cheek, in his Washington Monthly "Political Animal" blog, "Clearly, the Republican Party is the party of common sense. After all, if you give a few hundred dollars a month to the poorest of the working poor, it's only fair that you also give several million dollars to the richest of the idle rich."

Although the legislation passed the House (at 1:40 a.m., Saturday, after circumventing normal floor rules), this unholy coupling is having trouble in the Senate. But here's the really insidious part. As the Times buried deep in its coverage, the minimum wage hike "would allow tips to be counted toward minimum wage increases in states where that is not now allowed."

In other words, the law would preempt state minimum wage laws in states where it's been ruled that tips can't be counted as salary -- a ploy many service industries like fast food restaurants have used to pay below acceptable minimums.

According to Nathan Newman, policy director for the Progressive States Network, a non-profit lobby group, "Not only would it hurt tipped workers, it would set a precedent for conservatives to try to preempt all minimum wage rates higher than the federal level... just as they recently preempted state class action laws and just as they have preempted state health care and environmental regulation."

"Play the cards fair," goes the old joke. "I know what I dealt you."

The deck's stacked. And the jokers run wild.


Copyright 2006 Messenger Post Newspapers

Michael Winship, Writers Guild of America Award winner and former writer with Bill Moyers, writes a weekly column for the Messenger Post Newspapers in upstate New York.