Friday, March 11, 2005

Interview with Conyers

Full transcript: Raw Story interviews Rep. John Conyers on Gannon, voting, democracy

In an interview with RAW STORY Wednesday, Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) detailed concerns on a broad array of issues, including discredited White House reporter Jeff Gannon, remarks by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and voting reform.In summary, Rep. Conyers expressed concern at what he perceives to be a systematic erosion of due process throughout government. He asserted this departure from the “protection that the government provides people” should be a “wake up call” to those who cherish democracy in the United States.Transcript follows.

Raw Story’s John Byrne: I wanted to say first Congressman, it’s an honor to speak with you. First of all, I wanted to touch on the Gannon scandal which seems to be consuming the media a little more than was expected. I’m wondering what you think will become of the Gannon scandal and what the Gannon’s exposure shows the American people.

Rep. John Conyers (D-MI): John, we’re aiming at one piece of information. Who in the White House knew that Jeff Gannon was an assumed name, was not a legitimate journalist and was merely a shill for the Administration for more than two years, almost three years. We, with [Rep.]Louise Slaughter (D-NY) and two or three other dozen members of Congress, we’ve been making some very good headway. Like you, I’m surprised and pleased that many others in the media are looking by in the amazement as we deal with a person who actually has flouted the very basic fundamental of our society in terms of gaining access into the White House with the President of the United States and which many, many reporters cannot do. So it’s a key question because it raises suspicions as to how the White House manages the news.

Raw Story: As I understand it you haven’t heard back from the White House, you haven’t gotten any documentation. Is that correct?

Conyers: We got a little bit under our Freedom of Information request but it was inadequate and it was much short; we’ve asked for more information. But we’ve got another technique. We have a Resolution of Inquiry that is guaranteed to members under the House rules in which we can hold a hearing, demand a vote in our committee, which would be Judiciary, and then go to the floor and get a vote in which we would request that this information that we need, we’ve got 20 something questions in, to tell us, who is this Gannon person, how did he get credentialed, does he have confidential information, for example, the secret, the CIA woman, agent, Valerie Plame, remember that he’s claimed that he got information that is classified about how they decided to go after her.

Raw Story: What have you gotten from the Freedom of Information request? Has there been more than the letter than the Secret Service?

Conyers: No, that’s essentially it. We’re demanding more, and others are joining in with because now its become clear that agencies of the government are going to stonewall to prevent us from knowing what Jeff Gannon’s relationship to the White House really is.

Raw Story: So you think they’re hiding something?

Conyers: [Laughs] That’s putting it mildly, my friend.

Raw Story: And if they’re hiding something, what do you think that might be?

Conyers: Well, the truth about their relationship. In other words, it’s very hard to get press credentials to go into the White House. As a matter of fact, you have to reapply every time you go there. And he’s been doing this for years. So somebody must know who he really is and we want to know who that somebody is. We want to trace these bread crumbs of facts to what office, what person or persons in the White House have been letting him get through the very strict investigation that they give press people before the let them come into the White House to talk with the President of the United States.

Raw Story: Senator Graham (R-SC) made remarks Saturday at a Lincoln Day dinner in Tennessee that “We don’t do Lincoln Day Dinners in South Carolina. It’s nothing personal, but it takes awhile to get over things.” His spokesperson told Mary Ann Akers at Roll Call yesterday that they should be understood in their “proper context.” I’m wondering whether you think there are a proper context for such remarks?

Conyers: Well, I can only take the senator at face value for what he said. It’s no secret of course, is it John, that in our history the Lincoln Republicans were in short supply even when Lincoln was alive before his assassination. There were people that really were fed up with him particularly in the South and actually throughout his party. Now as a result in history in ‘48 when Senator Hubert Humphrey and others started pushing for desegregation laws in the South, what happened was that the Southerners began to desert the Democratic Party. They did a switch; they left the Democrats and became Republicans.

Raw Story: Do you think then it has more to do with Lincoln? You don’t interpret it as something suggesting that, you know, that the South wasn’t getting over the Civil War as regards slavery, you think that’s a leap to make?Conyers: No, I don’t think it’s a leap at all. That’s what I assume he was referring to. But you’ll probably be able to get a quick interview with him to clear this thing up. And I’m sure you’ll be able to make it clear to everybody just what Senator Graham was saying when he said what is if we take it [at] face value it seems very clear that it’s referring to the legacy of slavery and second class citizenship that had been the cause of the Civil War itself.Raw Story: You mentioned in our last call that you were pushing Chairman [F. James] Sensenbrenner (R-WI) about voting reform. What’s become of that?

Conyers: It’s on the table. He and I are going before the committee that handles our Judiciary budget so I’m waiting until I find out how much our resources will be before I really begin to press him. It is commonly viewed that the leadership may ask him not to hold hearings on election reform since much of the, uh, legislation that we’ve created comes out of the debacle in the Ohio elections of November 2004. If so, it would be a great disservice. Elections, voting is the bedrock of a democratic society where the people are supposed to choose their representatives. No state had as many irregularities, violation of due process, disparities in locations of machines, misinformation coming from no less than the Secretary of the State of Ohio itself Mr. Ken Blackwell. Plus we have machines that do not have paper trails so that we can make sure these computer-driven devices are not for some reason erroneous. And we’ve found out that there’s plenty of room for error. There’s lots of computer companies that are now almost supplanting election workers on the polls on election days because they know how to handle machines and most election workers don’t. So we’ve got a privacy question as well. With these new machines coming from corporations like Triad and Diebold who are very busy trying to make sure that we don’t impose requirements that would guarantee us an ability to trace every ballot. We’re trying to make the elections better, not just keep them the same.

Raw Story: Also in regards to voting, there was an Ohio paper that reported that the FBI was investigating in Claremont County in the stickers allegations that we reported on [Recount witnesses alleged seeing white stickers over some of the ovals on the presidential election ballots]. Our witnesses had told us that they hadn’t been questioned by the FBI. I’m wondering if, given that, and also given the experience that you guys have had in pushing hard to get agencies to investigate, have you been satisfied with the FBI and other agencies’ responses in terms of investigating your findings in Ohio?

Conyers: I would need to call in my chief of staff, attorney Perry Applebaum, who’s been tracking that, but you know, we’re dealing with a political viewpoint now that is witnessing the steady erosion of the protection that the government provides people in voting, against emergencies, problems in life, or unemployment, or running out of money, or having to go into bankruptcy, or suing in court, where you may be injured far beyond some measly cap of $250,000. So, it seems like on every front they’re trying to frustrate, obfuscate and make it as difficult as possible for citizens to assert their rights. And it seems to me that this should be a wake up call to a lot of people who begin to realize that we’re moving backwards in terms of democracy. We’re moving backwards in terms of economic security, we’re having many of our rights taken away that we thought we had in the courts. There’s some wholesale movements that are quietly going on. I see this 60-day rush of President Bush’s [trip] around the country about the privatization of Social Security as a cover for all of these terrible things that are happening to our legislative process and our courts.

Raw Story: It’s interesting that you mention that because I’m sure your aware of Congresswoman Slaughter’s staff’s report on the alleged Republican abuse of power in the House…

Conyers: It’s right on. The democratic process of allowing amendments, and allow us to have time to review the legislation, or sometimes they don’t even go through committee, they just bring it straight to the floor. Period.Raw Story: Have there been, then, times when you haven’t even been able to read legislation before it’s gone to the floor?Conyers: Well, yes. We have that with great regularity, especially if a complicated report is put out the night before it goes to the floor, there may be only a couple copies available to all the members except for going to the web page on the computer to really know what we’ve got. And, uh, this is all part of that systematic deprivation of due process that’s going on, in my view.

Raw Story: Are there means for the minority then, in your opinion, to ensure they have a voice?

Conyers: You know, because of the Senate rules and their ability to filibuster, they’re our last hope in a Congress where the majority has no problem of trampling the rights of the minority party representatives whenever we feel like it. So, we want to make sure Sen. [Harry] Reid (D-NV)and Sen. [Dick] Durbin (D-IL) are right in there with stiff upper lips with Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) so that we’re doing everything we can to assert our rights because we’ve got to fight back – that’s the only way we’re going to get that changed. I never thought I would be defending the filibuster with such passion as I am now, when I first came to Congress I remember I wanted to do away with the filibuster because that was the fate of many of the civil rights bill at that time.

Raw Story: Yeah, that was the –

Conyers: An irony, isn’t it. I was also against a lot of seniority building up in members too so that we young guys could get in Congress. It’s funny how your views get modified by the realities of the situation.

Raw Story: The filibuster in interests me in particular. There was a piece in the New Yorker this week. They raised a question that you seem to indicate as well is that over American history, it seems, that if the filibuster hadn’t been in place, anti-lynching laws would have gone through, and a number of other critical civil rights legislation wouldn’t have been able to be stopped. Some people would argue then it would be better just to do away with the filibuster altogether and if Democrats want to stop procedure by other means…

Conyers: There aren’t any other means, that’s the problem. The only way the minority can protect itself against the majority in the Senate is through the filibuster. Now of course we don’t even have the filibuster here in the House, and things sail through because they make sure they get enough votes, they leave the votes open for hours, and hours, late into the night until they get a Republican to shame-facedly go into the well and change his vote the way that the Republican leadership wants it. It’s not a pretty picture.

Raw Story: Would you say then the House then demonstrates the importance of the filibuster?

Conyers: Oh it does, because that’s the only protection the minority has. I don’t defend the use of a filibuster to prevent good legislation or important legislation from going through, but when we get down to a point where we have nominees whose credentials are being written and discussed and analyzed all over the country, and they say we don’t care, we’re not going to reconsider their confirmation, a couple of senators can stop business in the U.S. Senate until that is reconsidered as a matter of right.

Raw Story: I know you’ve got to run, I just wanted to shoot you one last question. There’s a recent bill about allowing faith-based groups federal funding, and given that some of those groups are discriminating on the basis of faith and some of those groups are discriminating against, say, gay Americans. I’m wondering what you thought of that bill and the Scott amendment that would have removed the faith-based initiatives to override discrimination provisions.

Conyers: But we lost it. I was with Bobby Scott of Virginia who’s carried on a long and lonely opposition over the years in this. It’s amazing how these kinds of questions that were never even on the agenda up until recently. The right of a religious group to discriminate is to me hostile to the rules of nondiscrimination in the federal system. It’s as plain and simple as that. I think that we need to examine where all these conservative philosophies now being hastily translated into legislation are going. My position is that they’re setting us back many, many years. And I’ve enjoyed this discussion with you John, very much.

Raw Story: I have as well.

Conyers: I just hope the people that listen to you find it as useful and enjoyable as I do in participating in it.

Raw Story: Thanks so much for your time.

Conyers: Have a good day, and a good week.

Raw Story: All right. You too.

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