The Hightower Report

Come On, Congress, Get Some Gumption; and No Punishment for Exxon Malfeasance?

Come On, Congress, Get Some Gumption

If the arrogant autocrats of the Bush regime had been depicted in a 1950s B-movie, it would be called The Imperial Presidency Strikes Again, and the movie poster would feature members of Congress cowering at the feet of an all-powerful Bush.

Sadly, the image is all too real, for the Bushites are slapping down Congress once again. At issue is the crass effort by the White House and top Justice Department officials to turn America's nonpartisan U.S. attorneys offices over to GOP political hacks willing to attack Democratic officeholders. They got caught, but the White House is even refusing to have this politicalization of justice investigated.

When Congress subpoenaed two top Bush aides who were involved to testify, they defied this perfectly legal demand. A House committee then voted to hold the two officials in contempt, but Democratic leaders were skittish about even asking Bush's attorney general to enforce the contempt citation. When they finally got up the nerve to do so, the attorney general imperiously said no, unilaterally rejecting Congress' clear constitutional power to investigate such wrongdoing.

Some in Congress meekly say their hands are tied, that they can't make a recalcitrant presidency obey the law. But that's as wrong as it is pathetic. A little-known doctrine called the power of "inherent contempt" gives Congress the incontrovertible right to enforce its own contempt citations – a right it has exercised before and that has been upheld by the Supreme Court. By "enforce," I mean Congress can send its sergeant-at-arms to arrest the White House outlaws, imprison them in a Capitol jail, and put them on trial by Congress itself.

America's founders intentionally created a muscular Congress. The question is whether today's leaders have the gumption to measure up to their own institutional power.

No Punishment for Exxon Malfeasance?

How time flies. Think back to 1989, for example. Hillary Clinton was the obscure first lady of Arkansas, back then. Roger Clemens was pitching for the Boston Red Sox and had never even heard of steroids. And the Exxon Valdez ran aground in Alaska's Prince William Sound, causing the worst oil spill in U.S. history.

Nineteen years later, Exxon has merged into ExxonMobil, and it has prospered enormously, banking $40 billion in profits last year alone – the richest year for any corporation in history. Back at Prince William Sound, however, the picture is not so rosy, for Exxon's malfeasance devastated the ecology, the economy, and thousands of lives there.

In an area that's dependent on fishing, the waters are still polluted with some 85 tons of Exxon's crude. Herring, which was the main catch for local fishing families, accounting for half of the yearly income for many of them, has essentially been wiped out by the spill. The economic stress has led to bankruptcies, divorces, and suicides.

Meanwhile, ExxonMobil has deployed a battalion of $600-an-hour lawyers to stiff the locals, keeping the people's lawsuit stalled in America's corporate-biased court system. Nearly two decades ago, a jury awarded $5 billion in punitive damages to some 33,000 victims of Exxon's spill, yet the oil giant has not paid a penny of it. In various appeals courts the corporation got the sum cut in half, and its lawyers are now asking the Supreme Court to reduce the penalty to absolute zero.

So, 19 years after its tanker dumped 11 million gallons of crude into the lives of thousands of people, ExxonMobil is pulling every legal trick to avoid a punishment that would amount to only three weeks' worth of its 2007 profits. And Exxon's top executives, living in luxury 3,000 miles away, wonder why people despise Big Oil.

For more information on Jim Hightower's work – and to subscribe to his award-winning monthly newsletter, The Hightower Lowdown – visit www.jimhightower.com. You can hear his radio commentaries on KOOP Radio, 91.7FM, weekdays at 10:58am and 12:58pm.
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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Congress, Bush administration, Justice Department, inherent contempt, Hillary Clinton, Exxon Valdez, Prince William Sound, ExxonMobil, U.S. Supreme Court

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