Three Great Progressive Ideas

Editor's note: The Nation assembled 20 short political proposals authored by some of the most progressive members in the House of Representatives. The following is a selection of three of those.

Out of Iraq
by Reps. Lynn Woolsey and Barbara Lee

With the official case for war long since discredited, the human and economic costs mounting and evidence growing that the Bush Administration's "stay the course" policy may keep us there indefinitely, it has never been clearer that the war in Iraq is a moral and functional failure. Human decency, fiscal sanity and national security demand that we move quickly to bring our soldiers home.

The insurgency will never be quelled as long as American troops are in Iraq. It's the occupation that gave rise to the insurgency in the first place. Every day that U.S. boots are on Iraqi soil, militant anti-Americanism intensifies and more insurgents are created. As one American officer in Iraq bluntly put it: "We can't kill them all. When I kill one, I create three."

A radical shift in Iraq policy is long overdue. Sixty-one members of the House have signed a letter to the president offering concrete steps toward peace:
  • Withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq.
  • Establish, through the United Nations and NATO, a multinational interim security force to keep Iraq secure and stable.
  • Recast the U.S. role in Iraq as reconstruction partner, not military occupier, stepping up efforts to rebuild economic infrastructure and renouncing plans to control Iraqi oil and create permanent military bases.
  • Help establish an international peace commission, with global conflict-resolution experts overseeing postwar reconciliation and peace talks among Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds.

The president has hinted at troop reductions in the coming year, but we fear that any drawdown will be a cosmetic, cynically timed effort to minimize Republican losses in the 2006 elections. Bush warns, self-servingly, against "irresponsible debate" on Iraq. He is well aware that November's midterm elections offer progressives an opportunity to seize the initiative and define the withdrawal debate. Let's make the most of that historic opportunity. Let's remind voters that this war is not an isolated mistake but rather the central component of a flawed and destructive foreign policy. Let's insist that candidates -- even if they claim to support troop reductions -- say whether they support permanent military bases in Iraq. With the majority of Americans now seeing Bush's doctrine of pre-emptive war through the lens of its failure in Iraq, we can finally put to rest the myth that Republicans are "strong on defense" -- and redefine the debate on security.

Accountable Corporations
by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee

As they read about waste and fraud in the post-hurricane reconstruction -- and in Iraq -- my constituents in Houston are increasingly demanding stronger corporate accountability and oversight. Like Americans across the political spectrum, they see downsizing and outsourcing, excessive executive pay, the unjust dumping of pensions, accounting fraud, price gouging and other corporate abuses as fundamental threats to our democracy. They know the problem goes much deeper than some of the well-known "bad apples." They know the government condones the behavior of irresponsible corporations by giving them taxpayer subsidies and lucrative contracts.

It's time for Congress to demand that contracts and subsidies -- federal loans, grants and tax breaks -- are tied to responsible business practices. Federal regulations require that government contracts go only to "responsible" companies. But in Iraq, and now on the Gulf Coast, this standard is applied weakly; the awarding of no-bid or limited-bid contracts to corporations with government cronies as lobbyists or executives has taken even more teeth out of the accountability standards.

Congress must increase its oversight. An additional level of scrutiny should be applied to corporations with repeated violations of labor, consumer, environmental, human rights or antitrust laws, and those with multiple violations of contract-related laws (e.g., fraud or bribery). Companies that reincorporate offshore to avoid their fair share of taxes should have their tax and other benefits curtailed. A portion of their tax savings could be channeled into domestic programs that rebuild the refinery areas disabled by Hurricane Katrina.

We should use the federal purse to support a progressive vision of economic progress -- one that benefits all Americans equally and creates as many good-paying jobs as possible. To promote that kind of responsibility, Congress should make any companies that do not provide full health-care benefits to all full-time employees ineligible for federal contracts, loans, foreign aid and other subsidies -- period.

As the FEMA disaster and the lobbying scandal have shown us, we also have to improve standards of transparency and accountability. Congress must reject unqualified appointees in public safety and contract-oversight positions. We must stop the awarding of no-bid contracts to companies with close ties to federal officials. Transparent and well-publicized "pre-bid" conferences, making a special effort to include minority-owned and small businesses and representatives of struggling communities, can also help level the playing field. A pre-bid conference in my Houston district in December helped insure that $1.5 billion in federal contracts was competitively and fairly awarded. Another way to improve transparency is to post federal contracts (and large subcontracts) on a publicly accessible online database, with links to information on the companies' records of compliance with the standards of accountability that I'm proposing. Let's allow the public to see where their money is going.

This kind of corporate responsibility program should draw support from across the political spectrum. Corporate accountability is less a question of partisan politics than of fiscal responsibility and national cohesiveness.

Saving Small Farmers
by Rep. Marcy Kaptur

We all know that small farmers are in crisis. What many Americans don't realize is just how much worse things are getting. Because of trade policies like NAFTA, the United States will become a net importer of agricultural products in 2006. While agricultural subsidies have risen to record levels, the prices American farmers receive for crops like corn, wheat, soybeans, cotton and rice have fallen 40 percent since 1996. Some farmers have been able to survive temporarily through emergency payments and subsidies from the government; others, like their counterparts in developing countries around the world, are selling off or abandoning their land. The American dream of small farming is dying.

Congress has a chance to address the crisis in 2007, when the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002 expires. While recent debate has focused on subsidies, they are just a Band-Aid on the real wound: prices being controlled by the global agricultural giants. Despite being championed as a boon to small farmers, recent trade agreements have benefited the giants, not those who grow the products. Making matters worse, we have seen a steady erosion of domestic programs that used to benefit farmers by insulating them from volatile prices and correcting the inherent tendency to overproduce. The government has allowed those megabrokers to dictate policies that benefit them -- and kill small farms.

Agribusiness is thriving in global markets governed by trade agreements favoring it over small farmers. Cargill has cornered about a quarter of global grain production. Two companies, Monsanto and Pioneer, control 60 percent of the U.S. corn and soybean seed market. The top four beef packers dominate 83 percent of the market, four pork packers control 64 percent of the pork market and the top four poultry processors account for 50 percent of that market. This concentration allows these companies more power to set prices -- and further squeeze out small producers. Small farmers are reduced to mere contract growers, with little power to negotiate.

We need a system that will boost farm prices, both domestically and globally, to better reflect the true costs of production. That means several things: stepping up regulation of agribusiness worldwide; reviving domestic price-support systems that benefit the farmer first, not the big broker; strengthening rules against agricultural dumping internationally; and managing domestic supply through food security reserves, energy reserves and conservation set-asides.

We also have to recapture the market in our communities. In many places it is almost impossible to find locally produced products because big grocery chains prefer to deal with high-volume wholesalers. I have introduced the Farmers Market Infrastructure Assistance Act (HR 710), which would construct, improve and rehabilitate local farmers markets. We also must find ways to take advantage of other promising markets for local farmers -- school lunch and breakfast programs, senior citizen meal centers and hospitals.

Our energy crisis also holds the promise of a new domestic market. The byproducts and waste of agricultural production can be used to produce clean and renewable energy like ethanol, biodiesel and biomass. I have introduced the Biofuels Energy Independence Act (HR 388), which would fund the production, development, storage and marketing of all forms of biofuels.

These proposals only scratch the surface of creative, farmer-friendly solutions that must address the destructive trade policies of recent years. All it takes is some good, old-fashioned ingenuity -- along with leadership that supports America's farmers and ranchers. It's time to tell the big operators that they've had their day.

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