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Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Defunding the Military-Industrial Complex

ACORN logoLast week, I wrote a post on the ACORN scandal and the legislative rush to defund that organization over the revelation that some of their employees seem more than a little incompetent. By now, you probably already know the story, so I'll give you the short version -- two kids in "Pimp and prostitute" Halloween costumes managed to find some really dumb ACORN workers who gave them advice on getting government funding and hiding income for a brothel that was to be staffed by human trafficking. No crime was committed, other than by the costumed crusaders in recording people without their permission, but it was still pretty indefensible. The employees were fired, ACORN is investigating, and that should be the end of it.

But, of course, it's not. Right wing media in general and Glenn Beck in particular have decided that ACORN is trying to destroy America through communism. See, the right never let's anything go. During the '08 campaign, Republicans accused ACORN of registering voters illegally, as part of their voter registration drives. As proof, they pointed to a few registration forms filled out under false names. In some cases, temps hired by ACORN filled out the forms themselves, in others, people filled them out as a prank (signing up as "Mickey Mouse," for example). None of these forms got past the verifiers at the various state registration boards, proving that the system works. In any case, there was no evidence of widespread voter fraud and the number of forms found didn't add up to enough votes to throw an election for coroner, let alone national elections. It was a tempest in a teapot by a losing party desperate to smear their opponents as corrupt. ACORN was evil, so Democrats were evil. And, since the right wing never lets go of anything, ACORN remained evil, despite all evidence to the contrary.

So much for the short version. Anyway, in that post last week, I agreed with Glenn Greenwald, who asked why ACORN was being singled when other organizations that receive federal money are demonstrably more corrupt. "[I]f ACORN takes $3.5 million this year to help poor people -- and misuses a fraction of that money -- they're done," I wrote. "The poor are getting more help than they deserve anyway. But if Wall Street needs billions after blowing their nut on corruption, greed, stupidity, and bonuses rewarding incompetence, then we get out the federal checkbook and ask them how many they need. If Blackwater rapes and murders in Iraq, if KBR electrocutes soldiers and poisons personnel with rotten food, that's forgivable -- because they aren't poor. See, only poor people are a drain on the taxpayer. The wealthy deserve their wealth -- even if the only thing saving them from bankruptcy or prison is taxpayer money. They worked hard for that federal money, harder than you have. They deserve your money more."

And it's here that the law of unintended consequences sets in, in the form of House Resolution 3571, AKA the "Defund ACORN Act."

See, that bill is -- albeit accidentally -- kind of good. Not completely good (and we'll get to that in a moment), but a damned good start. Huffington Post's Ryan Grim explains:

Going after ACORN may be like shooting fish in a barrel lately -- but jumpy lawmakers used a bazooka to do it last week and may have blown up some of their longtime allies in the process.

The congressional legislation intended to defund ACORN, passed with broad bipartisan support, is written so broadly that it applies to "any organization" that has been charged with breaking federal or state election laws, lobbying disclosure laws, campaign finance laws or filing fraudulent paperwork with any federal or state agency. It also applies to any of the employees, contractors or other folks affiliated with a group charged with any of those things.

In other words, the bill could plausibly defund the entire military-industrial complex. Whoops.

Specifically, the bill cuts off funding for "Any organization that has been indicted for a violation under any Federal or State law governing the financing of a campaign for election for public office or any law governing the administration of an election for public office, including a law relating to voter registration," "Any organization that had its State corporate charter terminated due to its failure to comply with Federal or State lobbying disclosure requirements," "Any organization that has filed a fraudulent form with any Federal or State regulatory agency," "Any organization that... employs any applicable individual, in a permanent or temporary capacity... has under contract or retains any applicable individual... has any applicable individual acting on the organization’s behalf or with the express or apparent authority of the organization."

Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL) "asked the Project on Government Oversight (POGO) to sift through its database to find which contractors might be caught in the ACORN net," Grim writes. And it turns out that there's a lot of them.

"Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman both popped up quickly," Grim reports, "with 20 fraud cases between them, and the longer list is a Who's Who of weapons manufacturers and defense contractors." Which of course, brings us back to the original question -- why is this all about ACORN, when there are contractors out there who are much, much worse?

Washington Monthly's Steve Benen is one who finds this an interesting puzzle to ponder over. "The next question, of course, is why ACORN's problems with voter-registration materials are extremely important, while Lockheed Martin's and Northrop Grumman's bad habits are not only considered uninteresting -- to conservatives, to lawmakers, to news outlets -- but largely verboten as a topic of conversation," he writes.

The answer is spelled M-O-N-E-Y. Lawmakers get that sweet defense contractor cash, so they aren't all that likely to kill the goose that laid the golden egg. Ditto for the media. Ask yourself this; when was the last time you saw a commercial for Lockheed Martin on CNN and thought to yourself, "I'm going to run out and buy a jet?" Defense contractors buy ads for two reasons; good PR and to influence the media. Discussing corruption by contractors is "largely verboten" because they paid for all the microphones.

And now the problem with the bill. At least one representative points out that there's no way it's constitutional, because it mentions ACORN specifically.

The Public Record:

Congressman Jerrold Nadler, D-NY, denounced a Republican amendment adopted by the House of Representatives Thursday to deny all federal funds to the advocacy group the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) as blatantly unconstitutional and a threat to unpopular organizations everywhere.

Nadler said the Republican initiative, the Defund ACORN Act, introduced by Rep. Darrell Issa, R-CA, singles out a specific organization by name for exclusion from participating in any federal program, in direct violation of the Constitution’s prohibition against Bills of Attainder. The amendment was attached to a student loan bill.

The short definition of a Bill of Attainder is that it's a law passed to punish a person or an organization specifically. As such, it's unconstitutional since it's a de facto finding of guilt by a body that's not part of the judicial branch; i.e., it defies the separation of powers. A more complete and accurate definition is here, but mine is good enough for a basic understanding of the issue.

The section naming ACORN "is in blatant violation of the Constitution’s prohibition against Bills of Attainder," Nadler explains. "Congress must not be in the business of punishing individual organizations or people without trial, and that’s what this amendment does. Whatever one may think of an organization, the Constitution’s clear ban on Bills of Attainder is there for the protection of all of our liberties." If a Bill of Attainder were constitutional, congress could vote to put you -- specifically -- to death, simply because they decided they didn't like you. So you can see the problem.

Still, it's possible that the bill would stand up to a legal challenge in that it's not entirely unconstitutional. The rest of the bill is, when all is said and done, fine. It may be that only the section that mentions ACORN will be struck down, while the rest of the bill survives. After all, there's no reason to mention ACORN, since the group would be covered under the definitions section regardless.

Whether or not any of this means that corrupt defense contractors will be caught up in this net is another question. If the amendment is struck down as unconstitutional, the congress may go back to the drawing board and figure out a way to get it to apply to ACORN, but not Blackwater. It's not extremely clear how this could be done, but never underestimate the creativity of an ideologue.

If, however, that doesn't happen and this becomes enforceable law, then good government groups will have a powerful new tool to chase down corrupt corporations.

Don't rule it out, but don't hold your breath, either.


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vet said...

Surely it's not just the arms industries. What about, ooh, to take an example at random, the health industry? The insurance industry? Media? Law?

A bill like this, it seems to me, has the potential to brutally cut the amount of government money being funnelled back into all campaign funds, on both sides. And that could do the US as a whole nothing but good.

M said...

Defunding ACORN is just another way of waging class warfare on those who are unlikely to vote republican.

It's the GOP's way of legislating a war on democracy.

"Defense contractors buy ads for two reasons; good PR and to influence the media. Discussing corruption by contractors is "largely verboten" because they paid for all the microphones."

That's part of their absurd idea of "free speech."

Very well put, by the way. It's that kind of writing that should earn you national praise.

Their idea free speech is actually a privatized gag-order on the media and government.

The best freedom and disproportionate recognition of rights money can buy.

What's so disappointing is that they get so much for so little.

A $5,000 contribution can net you billions from congress and a 30 second ad on CNN can buy their silence and national ignorance in a two-for-one investment.