Devil in the Details

Man of the People

Readers of the congressional newspaper The Hill may have stumbled across a confusing headline on March 3: “Santorum shifts left for '06 run.” Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum? He of the “man-on-dog” theory of marital law? The Senate's most fearless advocate for destroying Social Security?

Yup. Santorum is facing a sure-to-be-tough re-election fight in 2006 against the popular Democratic state treasurer, Bob Casey Jr. So some image recalibration is in order.

Did you know that fighting poverty was the senator's true passion? You didn't? Well, say hello to the new Rick Santorum, servant of the poor.

The senator tried out his new LBJ vibe at the March 2 unveiling of the Senate Republican Poverty Alleviation Agenda. Speaking in front of a huge “Fighting Poverty” banner, Santorum and three Republican colleagues laid out what he called an “important and proactive agenda to combat poverty across our nation,” which included such guaranteed poverty-busters as reauthorization of the 1996 welfare law, tax deductions for charitable giving (which President Bush had already scrapped from his budget), and the waiving of hiring-discrimination laws for federally supported religious groups. The Works Progress Administration this ain't, though Santorum deserved points for candor when he acknowledged, in his speech, that “we're helping out, let me be honest, a little bit, not a lot.”

During the ensuing floor fight over the recent bankruptcy bill, Santorum waxed pocketbook populist with new fervor. On March 7, Santorum submitted for floor debate an amendment to the bill that would raise the federal minimum wage by $1.10 an hour over the next two years. Of course, it wasn't the most straightforward of wage hikes. The amendment also included provisions that would widen the scope of businesses exempt from the wage and hour requirements of the Fair Labor Standards Act; replace the 40-hour work week with an 80-hour two-week work period, within which employers would have sole discretion to allot work hours; and prohibit localities from enforcing any minimum-wage ordinances that don't apply a 100-percent tips-as-wage standard. One can only guess as to why such a package wasn't included in the Republicans' official Poverty Alleviation Agenda.

Luckily, nobody pushed the bill. It was no secret that Santorum introduced it only in response to Ted Kennedy's more generous minimum-wage amendment. It was also clear that Santorum's main goal was to lend moderate Republicans sufficient cover to vote against Kennedy's amendment and ensure safe passage for a “clean” bankruptcy bill. As Santorum himself said on the Senate floor, “I hope, candidly, that we don't agree to either amendment at this time.”

Thus did the new Rick Santorum achieve his first genuine success on behalf of America's poor -- ensuring the failure of reactionary legislation put forth by, um, himself.

-- Sam Rosenfeld

The Dunce Circuit

What with all the administration's wailing about the threat of Democratic filibusters, you may have missed the details on whom, exactly, George W. Bush has nominated to serve on the federal bench. Consider these three lulus the Senate Judiciary Committee heard from in March.

The month opened with a hearing on 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals nominee Bill Myers, a cattle and coal lobbyist from Idaho. In his two years as solicitor general of the Interior Department, Myers tangled with some of the thorniest problems presented by our legal system -- for example, whether the letters “o” and “r,” when placed side by side in that order, spell “or” or “and.” In reinterpreting a 1976 mining law, Myers determined that a statute requiring the Interior Department to prevent “unnecessary or undue degradation” meant that the department must allow any degradation a mining company considered necessary. Have to dump 280 tons of rock on sacred Indian grounds for each ounce of gold you recover, as Glamis Gold, a Nevada-based mining company, sought to do? Not a problem!

The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia saw it differently, noting in its opinion that “normally, of course, ‘or' is to be accepted … not as a word interchangeable with ‘and.'”

Then there's Terrence Boyle, a nominee for the 4th U.S. Circuit, who has been reversed as a district-court judge at twice the circuit's average rate, according to Senator Patrick Leahy. Higher courts have repeatedly overruled Boyle for “plain error,” a ground rarely invoked by appellate courts “to prevent a miscarriage of justice or to preserve the integrity and the reputation of the judicial process.”

Regarding Thomas Griffith, the remaining nominee, it's hard to know whether he considers himself above the law or inhabits a netherworld beneath it. The D.C. Bar suspended Griffith's membership twice for nonpayment of dues; as a result, Griffith has been practicing law illegally since 1998. By the time he discovered his second suspension, Griffith had moved to Utah to serve as Brigham Young University's general counsel, where he repeatedly declined to take that state's bar exam.

Bring on those filibusters, we say.

-- Jeffrey Dubner

A Moveable Myth

So how 'bout those weapons of mass destruction in Syria?

Speaking in front of an audience of veterans at Suncreek United Methodist Church in Allen, Texas, on February 19, Republican Congressman Sam Johnson let his listeners in on a conversation he'd supposedly had with Top Gun George W. Bush himself. “Syria is the problem,” Johnson said he told the president. “Syria is where those weapons of mass destruction are, in my view. You know, I can fly an F-15, put two nukes on ‘em, and I'll make one pass. We won't have to worry about Syria anymore.”

Johnson's chief of staff, Cody Lusk, explained to Roll Call, which first reported the remarks, that Johnson “obviously does not believe” that the United States should launch a nuclear strike on Syria. Johnson later told The Dallas Morning News that he “was kind of joking” about starting a new war. “You know,” he said, “we were talking between veterans.” But was Johnson joking about Syria being the real location of Iraq's phantom weapons? His office declined to speak to the Prospect about the congressman's source for this piece of intelligence -- intelligence that has evidently eluded Iraq Survey Group chiefs David Kay and Charles Duelfer, along with the CIA, the Pentagon's prewar satellite surveillance of the Iraqi border, and whoever it is who's interrogating -- not gently, by all reports -- suspected members of Iraq's Baathist resistance.

Despite the apparent lack of evidence, it's not hard to find expressions of belief that Syria is chock-full of weapons of mass destruction. Conservative journalists William Kristol and Morton Kondracke were spouting this line as far back as a June 2003 FOX News appearance, even before it became clear that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Nationally syndicated conservative talk-radio host Hugh Hewitt expressed his belief in the Syria theory more than once during our on-air conversations over the course of 2004. And a prominent evangelical Christian leader voiced the theory in an offhanded way during an interview with the Prospect's Ayelish McGarvey last October, citing unspecified “Air Force sources.”

Skeptics, of course, can hardly produce conclusive evidence that there aren't Iraqi weapons of mass destruction in Syria. But if any real evidence for such a thing exists, the Bush administration would have a clear interest in making it known to as wide a public as possible. Yet while the administration plainly has nothing that would stand up to even mildly serious scrutiny, it has no qualms about letting an under-the-radar whispering campaign take in the consumers of “fair and balanced” media reports.

Johnson's audience, meanwhile, greeted his remarks with neither horror nor laughter, but applause. Hard to keep a good myth down.

-- Matthew Yglesias

Of Little Faith

In early march, George W. Bush rallied his “armies of compassion” at the annual conference for leaders of faith-based organizations in Washington. “I am here to talk about my continued commitment to faith-based and community groups because I'm firmly committed to making sure every American can realize the promise of our country,” he declared.

Bush came armed with statistics to drive his point home. According to the president, the administration has increased grants to faith-based organizations by 20 percent since 2003, meaning that about $2 billion in grant money was awarded last year to religious charities. But Bush's faith-based agenda is more Holy Ghost than manna from heaven. For starters, the numbers don't add up: In 2003, $1.1 billion was awarded to religious groups from money administered by five agencies -- the departments of Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Justice, Labor, and Education. That year, the Agriculture Department and the Agency for International Development also administered grants to religious groups. Those two were not tabulated in the 2003 figure, but this year they were, hence the goosed total.

While the administration spins the initiative as a way to bring new faith-based groups into the circle, in fact most of the grant recipients are large, well-established social-service providers that have received federal money for many years. According to tabulations by The Associated Press, more than 80 percent of the faith-based recipients in the Health and Human Services Department had received federal money before. At HUD, that figure was even higher. Additionally, Bush's original proposal to allow non-itemizers, who comprise 70 percent of taxpayers, to deduct their donations -- which was supposed to amount to an $80 billion increase in funding for charities -- has gone absolutely nowhere.

Though Bush's most ardent supporters still praise the piety of the administration's policy agenda, some have seen the light. David Kuo served as special assistant to the president and deputy director of the White House's Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, but recently wrote on the Web site Beliefnet that it didn't look to him as if the White House was trying very hard. “Capitol Hill gridlock could have been smashed by minimal West Wing effort,” he wrote. “From tax cuts to Medicare, the White House gets what the White House really wants. It never really wanted the ‘poor people stuff.'”

-- Ayelish McGarvey

Transcript

From the March 3 edition of FOX News' Hannity & Colmes:

(Co-host) Alan Colmes: Look, is it OK? Do you have a First Amendment right not to stand up during the Pledge of Allegiance or “The Star-Spangled Banner”?

(Nationally syndicated Clear Channel radio host) Bill Cunningham: Alan Colmes, I think if you're a 16- or 17-year-old miscreant, and you don't know the sacrifices of American soldiers from Iwo Jima through Fallujah -- if you have no idea what the red, the white, and the blue stands for -- I think to have the chair pulled out from under you is the least of what should happen. …

Colmes: I bet you were never a clown in school, huh Bill?

Cunningham: Never at all. I followed the American way.

Colmes: Look, are you OK with the idea that a school, a government school, a teacher in a government school, could whack your child, could hit your child, could physically harm -- and without your permission as a parent? That would be OK with you?

Cunningham: No problem. In the good old days, back when aids was an appetite suppressant and when gay meant you were happy, back in those days there was discipline in public schools. But not today.

We need more of that old-fashioned religion, and we need more teachers beating people about the face and head, especially on the derriere. If we had more of that, believe me, we'd have less people thinking like you.

-- Compiled with assistance from Media Matters for America, www.mediamatters.org

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