Monday, October 24, 2005

In Praise of Senator Frank Lautenberg

When I publish the Yellow Dog Blog's monthly Senate Weasel Meter, in which I castigate Democrats who vote with Republicans on most important issues, I get one of two reactions from fellow Democrats. They may be of the I-don't-bash-other Democrats camp, believing that any public criticism of our own party only aids the Republicans. Or they believe, as I do, that we need to maintain pressure on certain elected Democrats to quit voting like they belong to the GOP.

Among the people we never have to worry about and whose ongoing contribution to our country and the Democratic party should be noted, is Democratic Senator Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey.

The 81-year-old Lautenberg, was a U.S. Senator from 1983 to 2001, retired briefly, and began serving again in 2003 when New Jersey Senator Robert Torricelli withdrew his candidacy for reelection (in 2002) because of corruption charges and Lautenberg was drafted to take his place. Despite stepping into the campaign late, Lautenberg won the election and is one of the few people in recent times to return to the Senate after leaving it.

A World War II Army Veteran, Lautenberg is known as one of the most liberal members of the Senate and has been a dependable activist presence in Washington in both word and deed.

I wrote last month about how the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination was just sitting there waiting to get snapped up, if a liberal leader would just have some guts, step up to the plate and speak truth loudly. Were Frank Lautenberg not 81 years old and already retired from politics once, he would have been exactly that person.

Lautenberg has long been an outspoken critic of the Bush administration's use of taxpayer money to covertly push White House propaganda and has been especially critical of payments made to conservative radio host Armstrong Williams to promote the No Child Left Behind program.

"Paying journalists hundreds of thousands of dollars to push the President's agenda sounds like something that happened in the Soviet Union," said Lautenberg. "This story seems to be ripped from the pages a George Orwell book. We need an investigation to get to the bottom of this."

Along with Senator John Kerry, Lautenberg passed a measure to prevent the Bush administration from further creating and distributing fake news stories that don't identify the government's role.
Lautenberg was the Senator who kept pushing until an Attorney General's investigation was started into the payments made by the Bush Education Department to Williams.

"It's bad enough the Administration bribed a journalist to promote their policies, but now it looks like taxpayer dollars were handed over for work that was never done. Unfortunately, this case falls into the pattern of corruption and cronyism we are seeing from this Administration," said Lautenberg.

"Instead of looking out for their political pals, this Administration needs to start looking out for the American people and their hard earned tax dollars," said the New Jersey senator."

Lautenberg was also the first senator to hammer White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan on how James. D. Guckert, a.k.a. "Jeff Gannon" got a press pass that allowed him to be the designated shill, in charge of softball questioning of President Bush and various Administration spokespeople.

"As you may know, Mr. Guckert/Gannon was denied a Congressional press pass because he could not show that he wrote for a valid news organization. Given the fact that he was denied Congressional credentials, I seek your explanation of how Mr. Guckert/Gannon passed muster for White House press credentials," Lautenberg wrote to McClellan.

Earlier this year, Lautenberg came out strong against the NRA, fighting (in vain)
to pass an amendment to the Republican "Gun Immunity Bill," that would have modified the bill to protect the rights of child gun victims by revoking the responsible party's immunity in cases involving the shooting death or injury of a child 16 or under.

"How can we look a mother in the eye and tell her that she cannot hold the people who caused the death of her child accountable? It is unjust, unfair and immoral to strip away the rights of children harmed or killed by gunfire," said Senator Lautenberg, in fighting for his bill. Senate Republicans defeated the Lautenberg amendment.

Other actions in which Senator Lautenberg has been a strong Democratic voice include the following:
  • In February, Lautenberg fought Team Bush on the Environmental Protection Agency's attempts at modifying mercury emissions standards for coal-burning utilities without following requirements of the Clean Air Act. "I have never seen a more blatant example of the politicization of science and public health and of catering to big business," Lautenberg said. "That it involves mercury which now permeates our environment and is known to cause birth defects and brain damage in a fetus, is even more alarming."
  • A prescient Lautenberg led the way in calling on Bush in July to immediately suspend Karl Rove's security clearance, after it was shown that Rove was responsible for revealing the identity of covert CIA agent Valerie Plame. "Karl Rove has accused liberals of not understanding the consequences of 9-11, but he's the one who blew the cover of a covert CIA agent. The President should immediately suspend Karl Rove's security clearances and shut him down by shutting him out of classified meetings or discussions," said Lautenberg. "The excuses offered by Karl Rove's lawyer don't pass the laugh test. Naming someone's spouse is the same as naming them. And as a 31-year veteran of politics, Karl Rove should know that if you want to keep a secret, you don't tell a reporter."
  • Lautenberg called the Bush administration on the lack of focus in catching Osama bin Laden after CIA Chief Porter Goss claimed in June that he had an "excellent idea" where bin Laden was hiding . "In light of these developments, I have a simple question in the names of the 2,700 who died in the World Trade Center and the over 1,700 that have died in Iraq and Afghanistan: Why don't we just go get him?" said Lautenberg, in a letter to Bush. "I urge you to meet the pledge the U.S. made to the American people and cripple and dissolve the al Qaeda network by capturing Osama bin Laden immediately."
  • In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Lautenberg wrote an amendment – killed by the Republicans – that called for a truly independent commission to investigate the reasons behind the failures in the federal response to the disaster. "It is mind- boggling that the same Republicans who hailed the work of the 9/11 Commission do not want the same kind of independent inquiry into the failed response to Hurricane Katrina," said Senator Lautenberg. "I imagine those families whose lives have been destroyed by Katrina would rather have a full and fair investigation than a partisan sideshow run by the White House."
  • Lautenberg has recently been the senator shining the brightest spotlight on Vice President Dick Cheney's Halliburton stock-option windfalls, calling on Cheney to forfeit his continuing financial interest in Halliburton. "As Halliburton's fortunes rise, so does the Vice President's, and that is wrong," said Lautenberg. "Halliburton has already raked in more than $10 billion from the Bush-Cheney Administration for work in Iraq, and now they are being awarded some of the first Katrina contracts. It is unseemly for the Vice President to continue to benefit from this company at the same time his Administration funnels billions of dollars to it."
  • When former Education Secretary William Bennett's remarks on aborting African-American babies to reduce the crime rate became public, Lautenberg once again was the leader in introducing a resolution calling on the Senate to condemn Bennett's comments. After Scott McClellan said simply that Bush thought Bennett's comments were "not appropriate," Lautenberg introduced the resolution by saying "not appropriate is wearing white shoes after Labor Day. These comments were reprehensible and racist and the Senate should condemn them."
And these are just the things for which Lautenberg has stood up and fought in 2005.

Beginning with the stolen 2000 presidential election, there's been no shortage of people making us angry and no paucity of Republican actions that have left us more cynical and dismayed. Even within the Democratic party, the likes of Joe Lieberman and Ben Nelson have left us feeling like we're in an epic tug-of-war, but with some on our own side pulling against us.

So it's important that we celebrate where we can and give credit and praise where it is due – and Frank Lautenberg has shown himself worthy of those accolades. While it's easy for us to look to Ted Kennedy and Barbara Boxer as standard bearers for the "Democratic wing of the Democratic party," Lautenberg has quietly gone about the business of aggressively watchdogging Bush and the Republicans and has been willing to yell loudly when other Democrats are content to make safe, wimpy statements of opposition.

You can contact Senator Lautenberg on his web site here if you would like to send him a note of thanks for having the heart and soul to fight the battles that need fighting.