A tribute and the way forward

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Rep. John Conyers has probably done more than anyone in Congress to expose the depths of the constitutional crisis in our country and to fight to protect and restore civil rights and liberties. He is a champion of the broad people’s alliance to defeat the ultra-right.

As ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee under the ultra-right Republican majority, Conyers commissioned a complete study of the Bush administration’s activities. The 300-page report, “The Constitution in Crisis: The High Crimes of the Bush Administration and a Blueprint for Impeachment,” was issued in 2006. A second edition was published this year after the newly won Democratic majority named Conyers as Judiciary Committee chair.

The work led by Conyers laid the groundwork for the various congressional hearings investigating abuse of power by the Bush administration. As a result, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales may face impeachment.

The dean of the Congressional Black Caucus, representing Detroit, the autoworker city, with a strong union background, Conyers has been a constant champion on every issue of concern to African Americans and all working people. His position as Judiciary chair is critical for immigrant rights. He is the principal author, with Rep. Dennis Kucinich, of HR 676, the universal single-payer health care bill.

Conyers and other progressives in Congress gained new leverage when the unity of labor, African American, Latino, women and youth voters elected a Democratic majority to Congress last fall.

The balance of forces shifted dramatically. But it was not enough to rout the ultra-right’s ability to obstruct.

It has been a huge struggle to get any pro-people legislation through. Even raising the minimum wage for the first time in a decade took complicated tactics.

The continuing war in Iraq and the inability of Congress to override Bush’s veto of a measure that would have cut funds for the war has given rise to frustration and impatience.

Unfortunately, that frustration was turned against Conyers in July. He was charged with “betrayal” by some peace activists during a civil disobedience action in his Capitol office because he did not agree to bring impeachment of Bush to the House floor.

Obviously there has never been an administration more deserving of impeachment than this one. Their criminality is plain to be seen. However, Conyers and his progressive congressional colleagues have determined that the votes are not there for impeachment. They are working to break through the ultra-right’s obstruction by pursuing legislation for people’s needs, emphasizing the importance of the 2008 elections to complete the job.

It is the obstructionist votes of the Republicans in Congress and those Democrats who have continued to vote with the Bush administration that must be changed. That is where the heat must be placed, to get the necessary votes that will increase the leverage of Conyers and the Progressive, Black, Hispanic and Asian-Pacific caucuses.

Whether or not there is agreement on every legislative tactic, distinguished allies such as Conyers are not the enemy. Attacking them weakens the movement to end the war or for other progressive steps. It splinters the labor and people’s alliance and diverts efforts to hold the Bush administration and Republican leadership in Congress accountable.

In fact, Conyers’ past and present contributions helped inspire the growing number of local legislative resolutions supporting impeachment of Bush and Cheney.

The strongest grassroots push for impeachment is in Vermont. After passing many town meetings, a resolution passed the state Senate, and with growing public pressure almost passed the more conservative state House.

Vermont’s progressive independent U.S. senator, Bernie Sanders, welcomes the impeachment movement but agrees with Conyers that the most effective way for progressives in Congress to isolate the ultra-right now is to bring forward legislation to end the war, for health care and for union rights, all of which he warns could be sidelined by the impeachment process.

For several decades the people’s movements have been forced into a holding action, unable to forge ahead. It is up to labor and its allies, left and progressive forces, to develop new tactics for today’s conditions.

Urging activists to reach out more broadly, Rep. Barbara Lee told the recent Take Back America conference, “We are winning.” Six weeks later her bill to prohibit permanent bases in Iraq passed the U.S. House overwhelmingly. The tactic of progressive members of Congress as well as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is to keep bringing bills forward, even if they are voted down or vetoed, as a way of breaking through. As the right wing cracks under pressure, legislative victories can be won.

The Bush administration and the ultra-right are responsible for the Iraq war, for undermining democracy in our country and for fanning racism and bigotry. They will not give up easily in 2008.

The battle for the future of our country will be won in the precincts, voter by voter. Maximum unity is required. The target must be the ultra-right. The results could open a whole new era of struggle for progressive gains.

Joelle Fishman (joelle.fishman @pobox.com) chairs the Communist Party USA Political Action Commission and is also chair of the Connecticut Communist Party.