Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Obama's Team of Admirers

With just days left for the 113th Congress to finish their business before the year is out, this Congress appears to be the least productive in history. Between January 1, 2013 and December 2 - paltry total of 55 laws passed. Recently though, Senate Democrats voted to eliminate the filibuster on executive and judicial nominations (except Supreme Court nominees). Now, a simple majority of 51 votes is needed rather than the 60 previously required to override the filibuster. This power move by Senate Democrats snatches away a key tool used by the Senate Republicans to obstruct the process by denying nominees a committee vote. The new rule will enable the nominees to move forward since they will be shielded from raucous partisan politics in the Senate. Nominees for key positions such as Jeh Johnson (Secretary of Department of Homeland Security), Janet Yellen (Chairman of Federal Reserve), Mel Watt (Federal Housing Finance Agency) along with the D.C Circuit Court nominees, Patricia Ann Millett, Cornelia T.L. Pillard and Robert L. Wilkins can move forward.

Jeh Johnson, the nominee to run the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), has passed out of committee and is headed for a full Senate confirmation vote. Last week, Roland Martin of NewsOne, “moderated” a brief yet rather contentious debate on Mr. Johnson’s qualifications. The debate erupted between panelists, Dr. Wilmer Leon and Angela Rye, when Ms. Rye took issue with Dr. Leon raising doubts regarding Mr. Johnson’s qualifications. During the spirited back and forth, Dr. Leon analysis focused on policy and on Mr. Johnson’s political views while Ms. Rye’s argument centered on DHS needs. She also appeared to lament over the double standard afforded to African American nominees. “You have to be twice as good to outpace everyone else,” asserted Ms. Rye. Dr. Leon pointed out Mr. Johnson’s position on the U.S. drone policy and countered, “I don’t question his credentials as an attorney, I question his competence from an ideological perspective. I just don’t see a lot of his positions consistent with the Constitution in this country.”

So who is Mr. Johnson and is he really qualified to run the Department of Homeland Security? Let’s first take a quick look at DHS and Mr. Johnson so you can decide for yourself. If you recall, the Department of Homeland Security was created in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, tasked with the fundamental goal of protecting the nation from terrorist attacks. They’re made up of 22 departments with over 240,000 employees that includes the Transportation Security Administration or TSA, Customs and Border Protection, Immigration, the Coast Guard, the Federal Emergency Management Agency or FEMA, and the Secret Service.

Now let’s turn our attention to the nominee, Mr. Jeh Johnson, who is currently a partner of the law firm Paul Weiss. Medea Benjamin, wrote, "Johnson is an obscure figure to the general public, but his likely confirmation does not bode well for human rights, or your civil liberties." Ms. Benjamin even noted a National Journal poll taken about possible replacements - Mr. Johnson's name doesn't come up.

According to Mr. Johnson’s bio, he’s a graduate from Morehouse (1979) and Columbia Law School (1982); appointed by President Obama to serve as the General Counsel of the Department of Defense (2009-2012); appointed by President Clinton to serve as General Counsel of the Department of the Air Force (1998-2001); and he served as an Assistant United States Attorney in the Southern District of New York (1989-1991).

His nomination is generally viewed by the president’s supporters as another example of his commitment to assembling a racially diverse Cabinet - consider appointments such as Susan Rice (National Security Advisor) and Eric Holder (US Attorney General). But should Black America stand behind the president’s nomination of this Morehouse graduate? Is this an example of yet another black face in an important place?

Mr. Johnson’s nomination raises legitimate questions because of his support of the use drones in targeted killings, his defense of NSA’s collection of metadata on US citizens, his role as a major donor (over $200,000) to the Democratic Party, and his view that Dr. Martin Luther King would support the American wars - a clear attempt at revisionist history considering Dr. King’s position on the Vietnam war. Consider for a moment a February 2012 speech, when Mr. Johnson said, “On occasion, I read or hear a commentator loosely refer to lethal force against a valid military objective with the pejorative term “assassination”. Like any American shaped by national events in 1963 and 1968, the term is to me one of the most repugnant in our vocabulary, and it should be rejected in this context. Under well-settled legal principles, lethal force against a valid military objective, in an armed conflict, is consistent with the law of war and does not, by definition, constitute an assassination…belligerents who also happen to be U.S. citizens do not enjoy immunity where non-citizen belligerents are valid military objectives.”

President Obama named his Homeland Security nomination amid scrutiny over his managerial style and staffing decisions. Back in 2008, then-candidate Obama said, “I don’t want to have people who just agree with me. I want people who are continually pushing me out of my comfort zone.” Is the president still committed to putting together a team of rivals or just a team of admirers.

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