Why Democratic Senators Should Filibuster Against John Ashcroft and Gale Norton
[Editor's Note: the following letter was written to the staff of Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM).]
Before beginning, I'd like to mention again -- and in fact I cannot stress this enough -- that George Bush did *not* win the Presidency of the United States as determined by the vote of the American people. Even if he had won the Presidency legitimately through the rules of the Electoral College, he lost the nationwide popular vote to Al Gore by over half a million votes, and thus his agenda does not reflect the majority will of the American people. But furthermore, as the media-initiated counts of previously-uncounted votes in Florida continue to reveal, it is almost certain that Al Gore won the popular vote in that decisive state, and thus was legitimately entitled to that state's Electoral Votes, and consequently the Presidency.
Nevertheless, it of course appears that George Bush is going to be inaugurated into the Presidency on Saturday, and I am cognizant enough of the political realities to understand that the Senate is going to have to work with him. There may indeed be occasions when the Bush administration and the U.S. Congress will be able to work together to produce legislation and results benefiting our country and its people. However, especially given the extremely questionable circumstances under which George Bush was awarded the Presidency and his clear lack of a mandate from the people, the Senate is under no obligation to allow George Bush to push undesirable elements of his agenda onto the people who did not elect him. The Senate has the right -- and I would go further and say the duty -- to resist and block any efforts to do this. The two Cabinet nominees whom I have mentioned and discussed with you earlier are two examples of this.
Much has been written about John Ashcroft's extreme right-wing views on civil rights and on a woman's right to choose, his misrepresentation of Judge Ronnie White's record in his ultimately successful effort to block Judge White's appointment to the Federal bench, his interview and statements in the pro-Confederate journal "Southern Partisan," and his apparent links to groups such as Gun Owners of America which have advocated more guns in schools. I add my voice to the chorus of those who say he should not be confirmed to the office of Attorney General because of items such as these. I wish to focus, however, on another issue of great importance to me, and that is John Ashcroft's views on the role of religion in our government, and how I believe those would affect his performance as Attorney General.
This is not a criticism of John Ashcroft's personal religious views and practices. Like any other American, John Ashcroft has every right to believe in and practice whatever religious beliefs he wishes, and to do so without condemnation. He does not, however, have the right to try to use the power of the government to force his religious beliefs and practices onto other people. His publicly stated viewpoints on a number of issues lead me to believe that this is precisely what he would do. Furthermore, it is no secret that his biggest supporters, both when he initially tried to run for President, and now in the struggle for his confirmation to Attorney General, are individuals such as Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, who have publicly stated their goals to turn America into a "Christian nation."
In his now widely-publicized speech at Bob Jones University John Ashcroft declared that America "has no King but Jesus." John Ashcroft is wrong: America has no King -- whatsoever. We are a nation founded on the underlying rule of "We the People" and we have an (ostensibly) elected President and elected representatives in the Congress. While it is true that many Americans are Christians to whom Jesus might be "King" in a personal and spiritual sense, there are millions upon millions of Americans for whom this is not true. There are millions of Jews in America; Jesus is not their King. There are hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, and Wiccans; Jesus is not their King. There are the many Native Americans -- including many right here in New Mexico -- who practice their traditional religious beliefs; Jesus is not their King. There are millions of Americans who have no strong religious beliefs of any kind; Jesus is not their King.
America is not a "Christian nation," nor a nation for any other religion; we are a secular nation. The U.S. Constitution mentions religion only twice: in Article VI, where it says "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any Office or public trust under the United States," and in the First Amendment, where it says "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." According to former President Thomas Jefferson, who I would say speaks with some authority on this issue, the purpose of the First Amendment's religion clause was to "build a wall of separation between church and state." That wall has helped to make America one of the most religiously diverse, and religiously believing, nations on Earth, and it has properly kept religion and the government from interfering in each other's business.
We should keep in mind, however, the words of the French General Marquis de Lafayette, who, after the American revolution, uttered: "If the liberties of the American people are ever destroyed, they will fall by the hands of the clergy." When I see Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell state their "Christian America" rhetoric, and so enthusiastically embrace and support John Ashcroft and his "no King but Jesus" statements, I shiver. The founders of this nation were all too aware that in the past, when religions have controlled government, the results were witch-burnings.
I've read that John Ashcroft has stated that it is the government's job to "legislate morality." He is wrong again; it is the government's job to "establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity." It is *not* the government's job to decide what I may or may not do in my own bedroom, or to decide what I may or may not read, or to decide what god I will or will not pray to, or to decide what god I will or will not call "King."
Turning to Gale Norton, I've also read many of the articles discussing her apprenticeship under former Interior Secretary James Watt, her advocacy of allowing polluting companies to oversee "voluntary compliance" of environmental regulations -- the metaphor of the fox guarding the henhouse comes to mind -- her advocacy of allowing oil drilling in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge, and even her apparently supportive statements of the Confederacy in the context of the state's rights issue. I again add my voice to the chorus of those who say her nomination to head the Department of the Interior should be rejected on these grounds.
However, there is again one specific issue I would like to address. I've read that Gale Norton has said that George Bush's policies would be her policies. I'm not quite sure exactly what she means by that. However, I've also read that she's stated her beliefs that the issue of global warming is an open question, and during the third Presidential debate George Bush stated his belief that "the jury is still out on this." For the scientific community, however, this is not an open issue; it is real. There may be discussion and disagreement on the specific effects of different processes and how much these have been properly accounted for, but as evidenced in the international scientific report released this past fall the phenomenon is real and is getting worse. The report sees the distinct possibility, if not probability, of enormous global climatic changes taking place during the next few decades, which will only be exacerbated if we don't start taking action now.
I perhaps should add here that global weather and climatic systems are chaotic in a mathematical sense, i.e., small changes introduced into the system at one point can wreak enormous and unpredictable effects on the system thereafter. Frankly, we don't know exactly what will happen to the earth's climate patterns as a result of all the changes we are introducing to them, but the fact that we are indeed causing changes to these patterns, and that we and our descendants will have to deal with the results -- whatever they are -- in the future is indisputable. Is it not prudent to take steps now to alleviate the future harmful effects of our actions, instead of sticking our heads in the sand and pretending, in spite of the evidence, that we're causing no harm or that "the jury is still out?"
Even if we were to take the view that destroying the environment in our own country is fine, the global weather and climatic patterns neither know about nor respect our arbitrary political boundaries. What we do here in the U.S. affects everyone else on this planet. Regardless of what we might want to do to our own environment in this country, we have *no moral right whatsoever* to destroy the environment for all the rest of the people in the world. We need a Secretary of the Interior who understands that fact, and based upon her policies and statements Gale Norton does not seem to do so.
I fully understand that the Senate is split 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans, and that if the confirmation votes are cast strictly along partisan lines Dick Cheney will cast the tie-braking votes and nominees like John Ashcroft and Gale Norton will be confirmed. For this reason, I must ask Senator Bingaman to consider strongly the usage of a filibuster to stop these two nominations. (John Ashcroft was not averse to using this technique, for example in 1995 when he filibustered President Clinton's nomination of Henry Foster to Surgeon General.) I remind you yet again of the questionable circumstances surrounding George Bush's ascension to the Presidency, and that his agenda is in no way a mandate from the American people. John Ashcroft and Gale Norton, if confirmed, could very well wreak enormous, and perhaps irreversible, damage to our society and possibly even our entire planet, and we cannot allow this to happen. These nominations must be stopped.