The current Congress is giving more visibility, in-depth exploration, and oversight to some Quaker goals as stated in FCNL’s legislative priorities for the 110th U. S. Congress. These cover: peace-building and resolution of deadly conflict, including ending military involvement in Iraq and diplomacy with Iran; restoration of civil liberties and human rights; social and economic equity in health care, education, housing, and jobs; and promoting sustainable energy and environments.
The Congressional leadership, generally more open this year to many Quaker concerns than before, faces the challenge of having only a narrow majority, the threat of Presidential vetoes, and a White House that insists on claiming executive privilege in the face of requests for information. This produces delays and compromises. Nevertheless, bills are being debated and frequently result in progressive movement. Whether or not these acts become law during this Congress, the public will be better informed, and the proposals will signal the direction of public policy when, with continuous work by those who care, a more progressive White House and Congress lead the nation.
Peace-Building & War Resolution
In addition to the ongoing political confrontation over Iraq, both chambers of Congress are closely monitoring Administration relations with Iran, especially any pretexts for aggressive action, as well as its approach to nuclear nonproliferation in North Korea, Russia, and Iran. These are issues of intense Quaker interest, reflected in recent high-level meetings in Iran by an AFSC-Mennonite-led delegation, and ongoing FCNL follow up in Congress and the State Department.
Despite frustration of majority attempts to change course in Iraq, small steps were taken in the first months of this Congress. Long sought by FCNL, a recent House resolution forbidding permanent bases in Iraq was passed by an overwhelming majority. In addition, the Iraq Study Group Implementation Act passed, which sets out a framework for the U.S. to make serious regional diplomacy initiatives, negotiations with Iraq’s warring factions, and troop withdrawals.
Committees are also addressing Africa issues, ranging from genocide in Darfur to AIDS. In regard to the latter, Uganda, the poster child for the Administration’s abstinence education program, is showing a reversal from its former decline in HIV/AIDS. A House Bill would stop the policy requiring a third of international AIDS prevention funds to go to abstinence-only education—but, according to the New York Times, this contentious measure was bargained away for this year.
Among the dozen appropriations bills going to the President—some threatened with a veto—funds were added to programs long advocated, and in a few instances partly crafted, by FCNL. As leading lobby for nuclear nonproliferation, FCNL and its partners succeeded in getting very large increases in the global threat reduction initiative (mainly for work with Russia), the international nuclear materials protection program, and the international nuclear fuel bank.
In a less favorable move, the Administration concluded a treaty with India that rewarded it with nuclear technology and enriched fuel while only getting it to agree to international inspections of its nonmilitary nuclear facilities and not getting it to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The Senate majority will challenge this contentious decision.
Other new budget monies went for a Reconstruction and Stabilization Office to coordinate State Department programs, to the U. S. Agency for International Development, and to the Pentagon to help countries recover from conflict situations. According to FCNL, Funds have also been added for international peacekeeping, de-mining, small arms destruction, and peacekeeping in Darfur.
Civil Liberties & Human Rights
Several pending court cases could become landmarks in the evolution of U. S. democracy. Having asserted that National Security Administration wiretapping complied with the law, the Justice Department argued in court that cases being brought against the program should be dropped. The plaintiffs, including the American Civil Liberties Union, held that because the government refused to proscribe future warrantless wiretaps, the trials should proceed.
In other cases brought under habeas corpus by Guantanamo detainees, Justice argued the suits were moot under the new Military Commissions Act, which stripped civilian courts from hearing challenges to detention from prisoners. It also claimed that since the 9/11 attacks, the entire U.S. is a battleground, so the Commander-in-Chief can exercise his power accordingly. Plaintiffs held that habeas court-stripping was unconstitutional, according to the Brennan Law Center. These cases were reaching the Supreme Court by September 2007, and you can find out more at http://www.fcnl.org.
Several Congressional committees are also restoring programs that affect vulnerable people of all ages. For example, appropriations bills have increases for low-income home energy assistance, childcare, and Head Start; $2 billion in grants for low-income college students; and more funds for No Child Left Behind. NCLB monies would support learning, especially for low income kids, and build new schools. Some Quakers are seeking to end NCLB’s granting military recruiters access to schools.
According to the New York Times, major compromise among liberals and conservatives was required to reauthorize the Farm Bill. There were only modest reductions in subsidies, which will continue to go to wealthier farmers—individuals with up to $1 million in yearly income (instead of the previous $2.5mil). But for the first time subsidies also went for fruit and vegetable crops; country-of-origin meat labels were mandated—favoring consumers and small ranchers; and there was a large increase in Food Stamps, which had declined to $1 per meal.
The House Education and Labor Committee is also addressing working people’s concerns, like requiring employers to respect workers’ choice to unionize when a majority sign authorization cards—but the measure was blocked under threat of a veto.
A breakthrough Supreme Court ruling confirmed environmentalists’ claim that the Environmental Protection Agency has authority to regulate greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide, contrary to Administration assertions. Congressional environment committees heard a range of global warming-related proposals to cap greenhouse gases, mandate emission reductions, and provide incentives for development of energy efficiencies and alternative fuels, according to Physicians for Social Responsibility. According to FCNL, the resulting compromise may over-fund ethanol production, placing pressure on world food prices for poor countries and straining U.S. farmland and water supplies.
Federal regulatory agencies set up to protect health, safety, and the environment have received little scrutiny in recent years. The House Oversight Committee has been demanding public accountability. For example, it investigated the FDA’s monitoring of direct-to-consumer drug advertising for needed controls and FDA’s post-marketing withdrawal of damaging drugs. The FDA has failed to institute changes advised by the national Institute of Medicine, according to the Government Accountability Office. New legislation will require and fund reforms.
The Committee also heard testimony on the alleged political threats to science in shaping policy on the environment, water, worker safety, and health through pushing non-science-based report revisions and withholding of full information from policymakers and the public, according to Physicians for Social Responsibility.
Legislation that supports Quaker priorities is taking shape. Even if it reaches the President’s desk only to be vetoed, the public discussion will nonetheless move the agenda forward. Hearings, investigations, and new proposals have changed the terms of debate on the Iraq war, civil liberties, social justice, and climate change. This at a minimum promotes public awareness of issues and viewpoints, and can re-ignite and give meaning to "democracy," the antidote to dangerous concentrations of power.
Yet, the gains cannot survive political pressure unless policymakers are continuously pressed and buoyed by the informed voices of those who care about peace, equity, and our common habitat, not least individual Quakers, their meetings, churches, and organizations.