We at the Organic Consumers Fund, OCA's partner for legislative and electoral advocacy in the nation's capitol, couldn't help but dance in the streets when regime change finally came to Washington, but we're trying to balance our celebrations of the positive and significant changes that Obama's presidency is bringing with constructive criticism that will ensure the process is truly democratic. Washington Post writer Alec MacGillis, summed up our assessment of the new administration in his December 20th article, Obama's Cabinet May Be Short on Reformers:
To the most aggressive advocates for change in the course of government, Obama's preference for centrists such as Vilsack who are amenable to rival camps is a discouraging sign that the status quo will prevail. "His appointments indicate small change," said Ronnie Cummins, director of the Organic Consumers Association. "The latest polls show that 60 percent of Americans say we're in serious straits and need some major changes . . . but he's going to have to be pushed if we're going to see anything other than small change.
To inspire you to join us in pushing for the major changes we need, we've created action alerts that you can use to contact President Obama, the Congress, and each member of the newly confirmed Cabinet. At confirmation hearings before the Senate, the new cabinet members outlined platforms for agriculture, health care, the economy, energy & global warming, the constitution & rule of law, environmental protection, labor rights, immigration, war & peace, and other important issues facing the nation. The Obama Administration and Congress are acting fast on many fronts with a stimulus package, more bailout money, and big changes to Bush-era policies.
They’re not waiting and neither should we. Below is a quick summary of the new cabinet members and the nominees who have yet to be confirmed, along with their backgrounds and the issues they face. If you’re inspired to take action, click the link in the nominee’s name for more information and a template letter.
President Obama has not yet nominated a Secretary of Health and Human Services to replace Tom Dachle. Those of us in the natural health community who want single-payer universal health care should speak up now and demand an HHS secretary who would remove the current bias for HMOs and pharmaceutical companies and level the playing field for natural health products and practitioners. Dr. Quentin Young, national coordinator of Physicians for a National Health Program, has suggested Dr. Marcia Angell or Dr. David Satcher for their many outstanding achievements in medicine and health policy, and because of "their belief that health care is a human right, not a commodity for sale."
Hilda Solis will be a great Labor Secretary. She's going to need everyone who supports labor rights to mobilize around the Employee Free Choice Act. Since that bill and current labor laws don't adequately protect migrant labor or farm workers, we're going to have to work extra hard to win those groups basic rights.
Judd Gregg was nominated by President Obama on February 4, 2009 to be the Commerce Secretary. David Sirota's scathing assessment of the appointment in his article, Despite Obama's Promises, Rival Views are Scrubbed from White House, says it all:
As President Bill Clinton's Treasury secretary in the late 1990s, [Lawrence] Summers [the director of Obama's National Economic Council] worked with his deputy, Timothy Geithner (now Obama's Treasury secretary), and Clinton aide Rahm Emanuel (now Obama's chief of staff) to champion job-killing trade deals and deregulation that Obama Commerce Secretary Judd Gregg helped shepherd through Congress as a Republican senator. Now, this pinstriped band of brothers is proposing a "cash for trash" scheme that would force the public to guarantee the financial industry's bad loans. It's another ploy "to hand taxpayer dollars to the banks through a variety of complex mechanisms," says economist Dean Baker.
Hilary Clinton (confirmed January 21, 2009) is brilliant, experienced, and is already a great improvement over Condoleezza Rice as Secretary of State, but she will to face the same challenges to Middle East diplomacy as long as the US is supplying Israel military aid and weapons that are killing innocents in Gaza.
Steven Chu, the new Energy Secretary (confirmed January 20, 2009), is similarly talented and skilled, but his expertise in nuclear power isn't likely to reform an Energy Department that spends 67% of its budget on nuclear weapons. He’s also hedged his opposition to coal, caving to “clean coal” propaganda. Ideally, the Energy Department would dismantle its nuclear program and transfer all funds spent on nuclear and fossil fuels to clean energy. The positive is that Chu is speaking up for conservation measures like weatherization and Obama is putting the money where his mouth is with his Recovery and Reinvestment Plan. Weatherization addresses buildings’ energy use (buildings are primarily powered by coal and nuclear, and are responsible for 40% of total energy use) and weatherizing a million homes creates 78,000 jobs. The RRP would “double the production of renewable energy in the next three years, … modernize more than 75% of federal buildings and improve the energy efficiency of two million American homes.”
Arne Duncan, the new Education Secretary (confirmed January 20, 2009) ran Chicago’s Public Schools and that's valuable experience, but some of the reforms he's implemented are more radical than successful. These include a harsh zero- tolerance policy that sends thousands of kids to the criminal justice system each year, and the Renaissance 2010 program, a plan to close “failing” schools and replace them with charter schools managed by for-profit businesses. So far, the program has filled just 9 percent of Chicago’s 227,900-seat “service gap.” This is unconscionable. We cannot allow a school to fail or let a child’s education to be lost in a “service gap.” We need to recommit the country to public education, a tuition-free, publicly funded system that guarantees an education to each child in a neighborhood school within a publicly governed school system.
Lisa Jackson, the new EPA administrator (confirmed January 22, 2009), led New Jersey's Department of Environmental Protection and that qualifies her, but under her leadership, DEP failed to warning parents of children in a daycare center in a former thermometer factory about mercury exposure, mismanaged hazardous waste sites that had to be picked up by the Bush Administration's EPA, and let water pollution get worse. Obama and the Congress must ensure that Jackson does better at EPA than she did at DEP. The EPA needs to take on climate change with a carbon tax and caps on emissions that can get atmospheric CO2 back below the dangerous tipping point of 350 parts per million. EPA should take a precautionary approach to assessing health and environmental impacts.
Peter Orszag, the new Office of Management and Budget director (confirmed January 20, 2009), has the requisite experience as the former director of the Congressional Budget Office, but his focus on health care as the primary budget drain seems to be adding fuel to the fire that would burn up Medicare and Medicaid coverage and the universal health care cause, while ignoring the real problem, defense spending and the 3 trillion war. Sensible budget reform begins with ending the war and slashing the military budget in half to free funds for pressing domestic needs.
Eric Shinseki (confirmed January 20, 2009), will make an excellent Veterans Affairs administrator, but he's going to need everyone concerned for veterans to speak up for the hundreds of thousands of veterans who face worsening health, poverty and homelessness while waiting for promised care and benefits.
The Colorado and Senate records of Ken Salazar, the new Interior Secretary (confirmed January 20, 2009), cast doubt on how well he will enforce the Endangered Species Act and protect our natural resources from exploitation by the agriculture, timber, and resource extraction industries. He has fought against federal action on global warming, against higher fuel efficiency standards, and for increased oil drilling and oil subsidies. Salazar may be unlikely to do it, but it’s time to end resource exploitation for profit on public lands and stop unsustainable logging, drilling and mining.
Tom Vilsack, the new Agriculture Secretary (confirmed January 20, 2009), when he was Iowa's governor, faced the challenging task of balancing the interests of agribusiness, small farms and environmental quality, but his unfettered support for gene-altered and cloned food, as well as the production of pharmaceuticals in common food crops, shows a disregard for the public's justified fear of being the unwitting subject of a dangerous experiment. Vilsack won’t support it, but gene-altered foods should be labeled. Another top priority should be to reform the USDA subsidy system by replacing payments to polluting industrial producers with environmental and conservation programs that take into account the benefits of organic farming practices.
Timothy Geithner, the new Treasury Secretary, and Larry Summers, who heads President Obama's National Economic Council, worked together in Clinton's Treasury and have been criticized as helping to earn the International Monetary Fund its reputation as the Typhoid Mary of emerging markets for interventions in the economic crises in East Asia, Russia, and Argentina. Secretary Geithner was up to his elbows in the failed first installment of the bank bailout as chair of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. On February 6, 2009, the Congressional Oversight Panel released a report estimating a total of $78 billion in overpayments to the 300 institutions that received bailout funds in 2008. In one example, Treasury paid AIG $40 billion for assets valued at $14.8 billion. Secretary Geithner was given a second bite at the bailout apple when he was confirmed on January 26, 2009, although there was some opposition to spending the second half of the $700 billion pledged under the Bush Administration. On January 15, 2009, an attempt in the Senate to block the release of another $350 billion in bailout money failed, 42-52, but the House voted 275-152 in support of House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank’s provision that would require the Treasury Department to spend $50-100 billion to modify mortgages of troubled borrowers so they can avoid foreclosure. This measure was attached to the release of the second $350 billion. David Korten argues that the banking system of "phantom wealth" should be allowed to fail. He says it should be replaced by small banks that support local economies where real wealth, like education, green energy, public transportation, and farmers markets, can be created. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who voted against Geithner's confirmation, called the bailout "the greatest financial scandal in the history of this country."
Eric Holder, the new Attorney General (confirmed February 2, 2009), has represented some unsavory clients as a private attorney, including Chiquita Banana in a Columbia death squad case, but he has also been an outspoken critic of the Bush Administration's violations of the rule of law in the War on Terror. Anti-torture advocates are pressing Attorney General Holder to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the Bush Administration's war crimes.
Janet Napolitano, the new Homeland Security director (confirmed January 20, 2009), is unlikely to change DHS where top concerns, including immigration and Mexico's war with the drug cartels, parallel those of Arizona where she was governor. She vetoed anti-immigrant bills passed by the Arizona legislature, but supported workplace raids on immigrants and deployed National Guard troops to secure Arizona’s border. She supported efforts to track weapons smuggling from the US to Mexico (Mexico's drug cartels get more than 90% of their guns from the US) and vetoed extreme pro-gun bills, but she generally opposes new gun restrictions. She's likely to join Obama in ignoring calls from border-state officials, including Arizona's attorney general, to legalize marijuana as a way to deprive drug cartels of resources.
Susan Rice, the new UN ambassador (confirmed January 20, 2009), spoke of "a world without nuclear weapons" in her Senate confirmation hearing, but, she focused on the nuclear potential of Iran and North Korea when describing the current threat. Iran and North Korea don't even have nuclear power yet, let alone nuclear weapons at the ready, and both countries might still be deterred from their nuclear ambitions if diplomatic efforts stay on track. The Bush Administration has already brought us to the brink of war with Iran, beginning destabilizing operations within its borders and considering Israel's request to attack Iran with US weapons from US-controlled airspace. If Rice and Obama are serious about a world without nuclear weapons, they'll avoid provocation, step up diplomacy, and lead by example by taking our nuclear weapons off of hair-trigger alert and disarming.