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Things that won’t be brought up during Hagel’s confirmation hearings

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Nick Turse at TomDispatch:

[Note for TomDispatch Readers: After TD Managing Editor Nick Turse appeared on Fresh Air Monday, his new book on the Vietnam War, Kill Anything that Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam, rose to #48 at Amazon.  Congrats, Nick!  Our offer of a signed, personalized copy of the book in return for a $100 donation to this site has had a remarkable (and heartening) response.  We can’t thank those of you who contributed enough!  The offer remains open; just check it out at our donation page.  If you want to know more about the book itself, make sure to read Jonathan Schell’s How Did the Gates of Hell Open in Vietnam? Tom]

Think of it as the Great Obama Shuffle.  When U.N. ambassador Susan Rice went downin flames as the president’s nominee for secretary of state, he turned to ally, former presidential candidate, and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee John Kerry (who had essentially been traveling the world as a second secretary of state during Obama’s first term). Next, he nominated his counterterrorism “tsar” and right-hand man in the White House-directed drone wars to be the next head of the CIA, which dominates those drone wars.  Then he picked White House chief of staff (and former Citigroup exec)Jack Lew to head the Treasury Department.  Meanwhile, he tapped his key foreign policy advisor and West Wing aide Denis McDonough to replace Lew as chief of staff.

He also renominated Richard Cordray, whose recess appointment as director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau was recently endangered by a federal appeals court, to the same position, and picked B. Todd Jones, the acting director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, as the man to reinvigorate that agency.  Otherwise, Tom Donilon will remain his national security advisor and James Clapper, his director of national intelligence.  And so it goes in Obama’s Washington where new faces and fresh air are evidently not an operative concept.

In such an atmosphere, the nomination of retired Republican Senator Chuck Hagel, the co-chairman of the president’s Intelligence Advisory Board, as secretary of defense was the equivalent of a thunderbolt from the blue.  Republicans, in particular, reacted as if the president had just picked Noam Chomsky to run the Pentagon, as if, that is, Hagel were the outsider’s outsider.  When it comes to military and foreign policy, the former Nebraska senator remains the sole breath of fresh air in today’s Washington.  That’s because he has expressed the most modest of doubts about the U.S.-Israeli relationship, as well as the efficacy of the U.S. sanctions program against Iran and a possible attack on that country’s nuclear facilities, and because he has spoken, again in mild terms, of“paring” a Pentagon budget that has experienced year after year of what he’s called “bloat.”

Of course, what little fresh space might exist between the Obama I and Obama II years (not to speak of the George W. Bush II years) has been rapidly closed.  Hagel was soonforced to mouth the pieties of present-day Washington, offering an ever friendlier take onIsrael and an ever-tougher set of positions on Iran, while assuring everyone in sight that his previous positions had been sorely misunderstood.  This should be a healthy reminder that, at least when it comes to war and national security policy, debate in Washington can be fierce and bitter (as over the Benghazi affair), even as what Andrew Bacevich calls “the Washington Rules” ensure that not a genuine new thought, nor a genuinely different position, can be tolerated, no less seriously discussed in that town.

Barack Obama arrived in Washington in 2009 buoyed by the slogan “change we can believe in.”  The bitter Hagel hearings will be a fierce reminder that, when it comes to foreign policy, old is new, and the words “change” and “Washington” don’t belong in the same sentence.  It remains something of an irony that, whether it’s John Kerry or Chuck Hagel, what little breathing room exists in the corridors of power can be credited to a now-ancient war whose realities, as Nick Turse reminds us in his remarkable new book,Kill Anything that Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam, most Americans — Chuck Hagel evidently among them — could never truly face or take in. Tom

The Hagel Hearings 
The Last Best Chance for the Truth About a Lost War and America’s War-Making Future 
By Nick Turse

He’s been battered by big-money conservative groups looking to derail his bid for secretary of defense.  Critics say he wants to end America’s nuclear program.  They claim he’s anti-Israel and soft on Iran.  So you can expect intense questioning — if only for theatrical effect — about all of the above (and undoubtedly then some) as Chuck Hagel faces his Senate confirmation hearings today.

You can be sure of one other thing: Hagel’s military service in Vietnam will be mentioned — and praised. It’s likely, however, to be in a separate and distinct category, unrelated to the pointed questions about current issues like defense priorities, his beliefs on the use of force abroad, or the Defense Department’s role in counterterrorism operations.  You can also be sure of this: no senator will ask Chuck Hagel about his presence during the machine-gunning of an orphanage in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta or the lessons he might have drawn from that incident.

Nor is any senator apt to ask what Hagel might do if allegations aboutsimilar acts by American troops emerge in Afghanistan or elsewhere.  Nor will some senator question him on the possible parallels between the CIA-run Phoenix Program, a joint U.S.-Vietnamese venture focused on identifying and killing civilians associated with South Vietnam’s revolutionary shadow government, and the CIA’s current targeted-killing-by-drone campaign in Pakistan’s tribal borderlands.  Nor, for that matter, is he likely to be asked about the lessons he learned fighting a war in a foreign land among a civilian population where innocents and enemies were often hard to tell apart.  If, however, Hagel’s military experience is to be touted as a key qualification for his becoming secretary of defense, shouldn’t the American people have some idea of just what that experience was really like and how it shaped his thinking in regard to today’s wars?

Chuck Hagel on Murder in Vietnam

“In Chuck Hagel our troops see a decorated combat veteran of character and strength — they see him as one of their own,” President Obama said as he nominated the former Republican senator from Nebraska to become the first former enlisted service member and first Vietnam veteran to serve as secretary of defense.  He went on to call him “the leader that our troops deserve.”

Chuck Hagel and his younger brother, Tom, fought together in Vietnam in 1968. The two are believed to be the only brothers to have served in the same infantry squad in that war and even more remarkably, each ended up saving the other’s life.  “With Chuck, our troops will always know, just as Sergeant Hagel was there for his own brother, Secretary Hagel will be there for you,” the president said.

Largely unnoted was the falling out the brothers had over the conflict.  After returning home, Tom began protesting the war, while Chuck defended it.  Eventually, the Hagel brothers reconciled and even returned to Vietnam together in 1999.  Years before, however, the two sat down with journalist and historian Myra MacPherson and talked about the war.  Although their interpretations of what they had been through differed, it’s hard not to come away with the sense that both witnessed U.S. atrocities, and that Chuck Hagel’s vision of the war is far more brutal than most Americans imagine.  That his experience of Vietnam would include such incidents should hardly be surprising, especially given the fact that Hagel served in the 9th Infantry Division under one of the most notorious U.S. commanders, Julian Ewell, known more colorfully as “the Butcher of the Delta.”

The Hagel brothers, MacPherson recounts in her moving and important history Long Time Passing: Vietnam and the Haunted Generation, argued over whether American troops were “murdering” people.  Chuck disagreed at first, pointing instead to the depredations of Vietnamese revolutionary forces.  Tom reminded his brother of the CIA’s Phoenix Program which, with an estimated body count of more than 20,000 Vietnamese, too often turned murderous and was no less regularly used by corrupt Vietnamese government officials to settle personal grudges.  “There was some of that,” Chuck finally granted.

Tom then raised an example that hit closer to home — the time, after an enemy attack, when a sergeant from their unit took out his frustrations on a nearby orphanage.  “Remember the orphanage, Chuck… That sergeant was so drunk and so pissed off that he crawled up on that track [armored personnel carrier] and opened up on that orphanage with a fifty-caliber machine gun,” Tom said. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

31 January 2013 at 1:43 pm

Posted in Military, Obama administration

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Should we rewrite the Constitution?

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Some of the provisions seem outdated—and certainly some have been changed by amendment. Randy Hayes and Shannon Biggs ask whether it’s time for a re-do, knowing what we know now:

What do you love about the U.S. Constitution?

As we grimly mark the 3rd anniversary of the infamous Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) Citizen United ruling [3]that opened the corporate-funded floodgates, empowering Billionaires to speak loudest in our elections, it is an important if not overlooked question.

For the rest of us who can’t afford our own SuperPAC [4], ‘corporate personhood’ has become shorthand for all that ails our flagging democracy. Amending the Constitution to abolish it and/or repeal Citizens United is certainly a movement gaining steam, and it has created space for casting a critical eye on the structural defects of our system [5]. But if the bull’s eye is fixing government in the hands of the people, then it is time to ask: If the Supreme Court had never granted “personhood” privilege to corporations, would rights of people, communities and nature be protected [6]? Would we have democracy? Would this one fix affect the wide scale change we seek?

Truth is, there is far more standing in the way of building sustainable, democratic and just communities than corporate personhood. To dismantle corporate rule we have to look at ALL the tools that the U.S. Constitution provides to the powerful few corporate rulers, enabling them to override the needs of local and state majorities and the natural systems upon which we depend. Maybe it’s time to do what Thomas Jefferson [7] advised every generation to do and rewrite the Constitution itself.

While criticizing corporate personhood has reached the mainstream, questioning the Constitution is not just a conversation killer—but the ultimate taboo topic from the lunatic fringe. With so much at stake, it’s time to take open stock of this powerful document and contemplate: What do we really love about it, or find convoluted or missing?

What the Constitution AIN’T

Here we sit 225 years into the current Constitution—and from the onset of climate disruption to drone warfare [8] to the Internet, the world has changed in ways that would boggle a Founding Father’s mind. Yet questioning the legend or wisdom of the framers can still be as electrifying as touching the third rail on the subway.

Now consider that the Constitution doesn’t make it illegal to kill the planet. Nature’s needs are not addressed in the document. In fact, it encourages and legalizes destruction it every day by treating nature or natural systems as owned property with a price. That’s a problem when you realize that nature nourishes all things, including us. As far as business goes, remember that 100 percent of the economy depends on the functions of nature just doing their thing. The life support systems of this country, continent and planet are not mere things for the property and commerce titans to profiteer, plunder and trash. Consider natural entities such as a river and all the life it sustains have legal rights to exist and flourish [9]. Now take the idea of human rights and apply them to ecosystems. Legal rights of nature wouldn’t stop development—just the kinds of development that interfere with the existence and vitality of natural systems.

Chances are you, like most folks, “love” either the Preamble [10] or the Bill of Rights [11] … neither of which are actually part of the current Constitution [12], and neither of which affect the way decisions are made or who makes them. The “We The People,” Preamble encapsulates the dream of the Constitution for many, but has been ruled as mere poetry by the Supreme Court, and therefore cannot be used to make law, and bears little resemblance to the text that follows. The Bill of Rights is what most believe is the heart of the Constitution, but it was drafted as a tack-on concession to appease the masses who feared the new Constitution was a “conspiracy of the Well Born few against the sacred rights of their fellow citizens [13].” The Bill of Rights was left up to the unelected Supreme Court to interpret. Rather than using this unrivaled (and generally unquestioned) power to uphold these rights for the many, their decisions read like the wish list of the few: from ‘Separate but Equal’ to denying labor and environmental rights to creating corporate personhood.

If our own human rights come by virtue of being born, then they surely emanate from the natural world. And yet we treat the natural word as if our own rights don’t depend on the health of our planet. It’s like trying to take care of a single leaf on a tree that is dying all around us. We cannot protect nature as long as we treat it as a belonging, rather than seeing ourselves as part of the natural world. Nature needs legal rights in our Constitution. We would not be the first to do so; the Ecuadorian people ratified a new system of environmental protection based on legal rights when they rewrote their Constitution [14] (lots of countries do this). Bolivia, New Zealand [15] and some U.S. communities [16] have paved the way for us. We can enshrine this as well.

When is the Constitution like a Hydra?

A deeper dive into our own history than we learned in school reveals that most Founding Fathers truly believed that the best form of government was one in which the wealthy made the rules, and set up the Constitution to put fat cats in charge to protect fat property and commerce, rather than liberty and justice for all. From day one, the Constitution embraced slavery and limited suffrage to only white men with property. And like a mythological many-headed hydra, when we finally ended the plantation system and freed the slaves (a time that looked like the birth of real democracy to many) out of thin air, the Supreme Court created and embedded corporate personhood into the 14th Amendment. No discussion, no vote, no accident, and nobody’s life was enriched but the corporate gentry.

So What IS the Constitution, anyway? . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

31 January 2013 at 1:23 pm

Posted in Government, Law

Shootings today

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Here’s one in Arizona.

Here’s one in Georgia.

From a Yahoo! answer:

According to this web site, there were 17,000 homicides in the US in 2007:
http://www.fbi.gov/ucr/cius2007/data/tab…

According to this web site, about 68% of homicides are committed with firearms:
http://www.justfacts.com/guncontrol.asp

That means there are about 11,600 homicides by firearms per year in the US, or about 32 per day.

This figure doesn’t include non-fatal shootings, or suicides by firearms. According to the following, there are about 75,000 non-fatal shootings per year (both deliberate and accidental) and about 17,000 suicides with firearms per year:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gun_violenc…
(Interestingly, the majority of deaths by firearms are self-inflicted.)

Altogether, that’s an average of 284 people killed or injured by firearms every day.

Written by LeisureGuy

31 January 2013 at 1:20 pm

Posted in Guns

Gayle Trotter Opposed Law To Protect Women Before Testifying On Guns For Moms

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UPDATE: Excellent commentary on the hearings and surrounding events.

Gayle Trotter seems to have some odd inconsistencies in her outlook. First, Evan McMorris-Santoro reports in TPMDC:

Gayle Trotter, the conservative activist who became the breakout star of Wednesday’s gun violence hearing in the Senate with her adamant cry that women need assault rifles to defend themselves, wrote last year that she opposed the Violence Against Women Act.

The reason, she said at the time, was the law would create the prospect of “false accusers” stealing taxpayer money by using shelters and legal aid.

On Wednesday, Trotter used the fear of violence against women to support gun laws that allow access to large capacity magazines and assault weapons in her testimony.

“An assault weapon in the hands of a young woman defending her babies in her home becomes a defense weapon,” she said.

Trotter based her defense of gun rights on the need for women to defend themselves against those who would commit violent acts against them. Back in 2012, she was not as supportive of the federal government’s efforts to protect women with VAWA. The law, she wrote on the website of the Independent Women’s Forum, could promote false accusations of domestic violence.

Trotter opposed VAWA, she wrote last year, because it opened the door to false accusers wasting taxpayer funds.

“Americans all want to deter violence, but we also need to protect that foundational principle of the presumption of innocence,” said her April 2012 post. “Needed resources like shelters and legal aid can be taken by false accusers, denying real victims of abuse access to these supports. That result runs directly counter to the VAWA’s spirit.”

Trotter was also skeptical of the law for other reasons cited by . . .

Continue reading.

And Amy Davidson reports in the New Yorker:

What gun does a woman want? AR-15s are “easy for women to hold,” Gayle Trotter, of the Independent Women’s Forum, said to the Senate Judiciary Committee, in her explanation of why an assault-style weapon was just what a young mother needed. She praised their weight, handling, “and most importantly, their appearance,” since “the peace of mind knowing she has a scary-looking gun gives her more courage.” When Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island asked whether a more modest weapon might not do the trick, Trotter said, “You can not understand. You are not a woman.” The senator was “a big man,” while women were little. A woman, Trotter said, might have to fight off four or five criminals “with her children screaming in the background.” She deserved “a right to choose” a weapon with a thirty-round magazine.

Women, as much as criminals and the mentally ill, were the subject of caricaturing at the hearings Tuesday. They were the besieged victims with only an AR-15 between themselves and a chaotic world of rapists and home invaders. To hear Trotter and her fellow-witness, Wayne LaPierre of the N.R.A., tell it, a gun is the sort of thing one ought to keep near a baby, like syrup of ipecac or a box of Band-Aids. Senator Chuck Grassley asked Trotter whether “banning guns which feature designs to improve accuracy disproportionately burdens women”—women apparently being not only small but also wild shooters. She thought they would. (Neither mentioned what might be the disproportionate benefit of closing a loophole that allows people with domestic-violence records to buy guns without background checks.) There was also a digression about how women, unlike criminals, quietly obeyed laws. Senator Lindsey Graham, in arguing about limits on magazines, told a story about a woman hiding in a closet who managed to put five of the bullets in her six-shooter into the body of a criminal who nonetheless drove away: “There can be a situation where a mother runs out of bullets because of what we do here.”

And yet, as I’ve written before, a gun in the home tends to do little more than make bad situations worse. When a gun is involved in domestic disputes, the chances that a woman will end up dead are far higher. A follow-up of a survey of women who had been the victims of domestic violence found that those who’d said they had a gun in the house were six times more likely to have been murdered. A gun kept within reach of a mother at all times is also something a toddler, or an older child, can find. Nancy Lanza had a lot of guns in her house. They kept neither her nor the children of Newtown safe.

But the talk about women was, in many ways, just a more crystalline version of a general vision of society and the law. In one of the day’s stranger exchanges, . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

31 January 2013 at 1:14 pm

Posted in Congress, Daily life, Guns, Law

Tracing the movement to nullify Federal gun laws

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The fight against the US government seems to be widespread. Eric Lach reports at TPMMuckraker:

On Jan. 11, five days before President Barack Obama unveiled 23 executive actions he intended to to take to reduce gun violence, Pennsylvania state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe (R) announced that he was working on a firearms measure of his own.

“I am currently having legislation drafted that is similar to firearm legislation recently introduced in Wyoming,” Metcalfe wrote in a memorandum sent to his fellow House members. “My legislation would prohibit the enforcement of any new federal restriction, prohibition or registration requirement for firearms, magazines, and ammunition. My legislation would also require the state to intercede on behalf of Pennsylvania citizens against any federal attempt to register, ban or restrict the purchase or ownership of firearms and firearms accessories which are currently legal products.”

Metcalfe is one of many. Over the last several weeks, he and Republican lawmakers nationwide have introduced bills addressing firearms, the Second Amendment, and federal power. The bills are a response to President Barack Obama and Democrats’ renewed interest in gun control measures, which itself is a response to the December mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

At least 20 states have had some kind of firearm-related legislation recently introduced or currently pending: Texas, Utah, Arizona, Alaska, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Wyoming, Missouri, North Dakota, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, Nebraska, New Mexico, Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, Iowa, Indiana, and Montana.

The language in the bills differs from state to state (and some states have seen several different bills proposed), as do some of the particulars. But the message and general thrust of the bills are the same: the lawmakers are telling the federal government to back off on guns.

“Our government and our legislature is not in place to simply do the bidding of the federal government,” Missouri state Rep. Casey Guernsey (R) told TPM in an interview. “That is not the function of a state. And there is an ability and a right, an inherent right, of states to protect [their] citizens when the federal government becomes overreaching.”

On Jan. 15, Guernsey introduced HB 170, which among other things would make it a class D felony for any federal official or agent to enforce or attempt to enforce any federal law or regulation on a firearm owned or manufactured in the state that remains “exclusively within the borders of the state.” It’s an idea contained in a number of other bills.

Asked what he imaged it would look like if Missouri were to, for instance, prosecute an agent of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Guernsey said that “hopefully, it would look like a very strong statement on the part of state government.”

While these bills have come all at once, lawmakers and professionals who are tracking the bills said there is no publicly identified group organizing or coordinating the efforts. Jon Griffin, a policy associate with the National Conference of State Legislatures who has been keeping a list of recent firearms bills, told TPM the bills did not appear to be particularly uniform.

Oklahoma state Sen. Nathan Dahm (R), for one, told TPM that a constituent had pointed him to model legislation prepared by The Tenth Amendment Center, a think tank which supports “the principles of strictly limited government.” (The center has prepared a model “2nd Amendment Preservation Act,” which serves to “prevent federal infringement on the right to keep and bear arms,” and maintains a map tracking which states have introduced similar bills.) Dahm said he liked the center’s model bill, but he “wanted to add some other things.”

On Jan. 16, Dahm introduced SB 548, which reads, in part: . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

31 January 2013 at 1:09 pm

Posted in Government, Guns, Law

Some bad times ahead: Southern rebellion redux

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Frank Schaeffer writes in Alternet:

The battle over gun control has exposed a truth the mainstream media is apparently too shy to mention: A bunch of far-right, white, mostly Southern, paranoid extremists are preparing for armed revolution and apocalypse. They speak treason: literally.

They are preparing to “defend” America from America with arsenals of weapons and stockpiles of ammunition. Their “enemy” is everyone in America not like them.

They think the world is ending and/or that the government is out to get them. That doesn’t mean it will happen. But expect violence and assassinations. Their ideology is made up of equal parts racism, evangelical Christian fascination with the “end times,” hatred of President Obama, resentment of the “Old “South” variety and a Fox News/Glenn Beck/Rush Limbaugh version of world history.

As the New Yorker noted [3]:

“Every demographic and political trend that helped to reëlect Barack Obama runs counter to the [South’s] self-definition:…The Solid South speaks less and less for America and more and more for itself alone… Solidity has always been the South’s strength, and its weakness. The same Southern lock that once held the Democratic Party now divides the Republican Party from the socially liberal, fiscally moderate tendencies of the rest of America… The South’s vices—‘violence, intolerance, aversion and suspicion toward new ideas’—grow particularly acute during periods when it is marginalized and left behind. An estrangement between the South and the rest of the country would bring out the worst in both—dangerous insularity in the first, smug self-deception in the second.”

The Republican/white/Southern extremists make reasonable gun control impossible. Their cataclysmic irrationality risks taking the debate into the twilight zone, and that “zone” is a zone of violence: call it the civil war continued by other means.

Some “leaders” in the pro-gun lobby have literally said they will kill to protect their right to arm themselves with arsenals that are fit for nothing but murder and war. These delusional Americans are a vocal minority, and they have extreme fears — gun confiscation, civil instability, a tyrannical government, a “takeover” of the US by the UN and that Obama is a communist.

If you pay attention to the rhetoric, you hear code words calling out to the types of people who called January 19 and Martin Luther King’s birthday “Gun Appreciation Day.” The event chairman, Larry Ward, said in the press release, “The Obama administration has shown that it is more than willing to trample the Constitution to impose its dictates upon the American people.” Andrew P. Napolitano, a Fox News analyst, said in a video [4] posted on the network’s GretaWire: “Here’s the dirty little secret about the Second Amendment, the Second Amendment was not written in order to protect your right to shoot deer, it was written to protect your right to shoot tyrants if they take over the government.” . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

31 January 2013 at 11:40 am

Posted in GOP, Government, Guns

Congress imposes on others rules that it itself will not follow

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This fails the test of reciprocity pretty badly: if the rules are good for others, why not for Congress? If not good for Congress, why would the rules be good for others? I fear it is the corruption that power brings. Theodoric Meyer has the story for ProPublica:

When CBS News reported in 2011 that members of Congress weren’t prohibited from insider trading, Congress moved swiftly.President Obama signed a lawbanning it within six months of the broadcast.

But Congress is still exempt from portions of a number of federal laws, including provisions that protect workers in the private sector but don’t apply to the legislative branch’s approximately 30,000 employees.

Here’s our rundown of measures Congress exempts itself from:

  • Whistleblower Protections: Congress passed the Whistleblower Protection Act in 1989, which protects workers in the executive branch from retaliation for reporting waste, mismanagement or lawbreaking. The Sarbanes-Oxley Act gives similar protections to private-sectors workers. But legislative-branch workers — a category that includes congressional staffers as well as employees of the Library of Congress, the Architect of the Capitol and other offices —don’t get the same protections.
  • Subpoenas for Health and Safety Probes:  The Occupational Health and Safety Act empowers the U.S. Department of Labor to investigate health and safety violations in private-sector workplaces. If an employer doesn’t cooperate, the agency can subpoena the records it needs. The Office of Compliance, the independent agency that investigates such violations in the legislative branch, doesn’t have the power to issue those subpoenas.
  • Keeping Workplace Records: A number of workplace-rights laws — the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act and others — require employers to retain personnel records for a certain period of time. But as arecent report on the congressional workplace notes, “Congress has exempted itself from all of these requirements.” Congress is also exempt from keeping records of injuries and illness the way private-sector employers are.
  • Prosecution for Retaliating Against Employees: If a private-sector employer retaliates against a worker for reporting health or safety hazards, the Department of Labor can investigate and, if necessary, sue the employer. Congress’ Office of Compliance doesn’t have that power — legislative-branch employees must file suit personally and pay their own legal fees.
  • Posting Notices of Workers’ Rights: Workplace-rights laws require employers to post notices of those rights, which often appear in office lunchrooms. Congress is exempt from this requirement, though this has little real-world impact. The Office of Compliance sends legislative employees the same information each year, formatted “in a manner suitable for posting.”
  • Anti-Discrimination and Anti-Retaliation Training: The No Fear Act requires agencies in the executive branch to provide such training to employees, but the legislative branch is exempt.
  • The Freedom of Information Act: The public can request information from federal agencies, but Congress, the federal courts and some parts of the Executive Office of the President are exempt.

In addition to sparing itself from complying with measures it has made mandatory for others, Congress is violating of some of the laws that do apply to it, according to a recent report from the Office of Compliance. (The pint-sized agency, created by Congress in 1995, is responsible for enforcing a number of workplace-rights laws in the legislative branch.) The sidewalks surrounding the three House office buildings, the report noted,don’t comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Neither do the restrooms in the House and Senate office buildings and the Library of Congress’ James Madison Building.

The Office of Compliance cites certain congressional exemptions as particularly problematic. The agency’s inability to subpoena information regarding some legislative workers’ complaints about health and safety often means the office must negotiate with congressional offices to gather the facts it needs.

“It can tie our hands sometimes,” said Barbara J. Sapin, the office’s executive director.

The Office of Compliance has urged Congress to apply the laws listed above to itself — except the Freedom of Information Act — with little result. Eleanor Holmes Norton, the non-voting delegate who represents the District of Columbia, introduced a bill in 2011 to do this, but it died in committee.

The number of complaints of discrimination and harassment filed by legislative-branch workers with the Office of Compliance has nearly doubled in the last two years, from 102 in the 2009 fiscal year to 196 in the 2011 fiscal year. Workers’ complaints about retaliation or intimidation have risen even more sharply, from 36 in fiscal year 2009 to 108 in fiscal year 2011.

Even so, Debra Katz, a Washington lawyer who specializes in workplace-rights law, said some Capitol Hill employees might be holding back from filing complaints. House and Senate staffers, she said, are often reluctant to speak up about harassment or discrimination for fear of jeopardizing their careers.

“People are very loath to burn bridges by filing a complaint or going to the Office of Compliance,” she said. “They don’t want to go forward with bringing a claim, even when it’s covered under the law.”

Written by LeisureGuy

31 January 2013 at 10:58 am

Posted in Congress, Government, Law

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