Nancy Pelosi’s Legacy

SF Bay Guardian

It's been just over 10 years since Congress passed Rep. Nancy Pelosi's Presidio Trust legislation, effectively creating the first privatized national park in the United States (see "Stolen Base," 5/8/96). The results are pretty clear: Just cruise through the Presidio and check out the gigantic new office complex George Lucas has built. In fact, the private business interests that were given control of the park in 1995 now oversee more than 80 percent of the 1,408-acre parcel. The goal of the privatizers: raise enough money from development, leases, and other real estate deals to pay the entire cost of running the park by 2013. That's what Pelosi's legislation requires.

It's a terrible disaster for San Francisco. And at the time we warned it would set a terrible precedent for the nation: Once you turn the national parks over to private interests and require the parks to pay for themselves, you'll get the equivalent of Nike Corp. putting logos on the Grand Canyon and casinos demanding concessions at Yosemite.

Guess what? Just as we had feared and warned, the Republicans have discovered Pelosi's lovely precedent, and are looking at ways to privatize 350 million acres of public land. A rider by Rep. Richard Pombo (R-Tracy) that would have allowed big corporations to take over public parcels for almost nothing nearly snuck into a 2005 budget bill. And earlier this year, Rep. Mark Souder, an Indiana Republican, introduced a bill that would in many ways mirror Pelosi's model for the entire national park system, by cutting back on park funding and requiring the parks to find corporate sponsors to make up the difference.

This is a gigantic leap from the philosophy behind the formation of the national park system a century ago. National parks aren't supposed to be revenue generators. They're supposed to be publicly supported and publicly controlled places where the public can enjoy the natural world.

For years, the right wing of the Republican party has been trying to undo that social contract: When Ronald Reagan was president, his interior secretary, James Watt, proposed letting Disney take over the Grand Canyon – but the idea was so roundly dismissed as lunacy that it never went very far.

In fact, nobody really took it seriously until a San Francisco Democrat, a woman who is now the highest-ranking Democratic politician in Washington, decided to give it liberal credibility. ...

The Presidio Trust Act emerged from the fray that erupted after the Pentagon decided it no longer needed the San Francisco headquarters of the Sixth Army. Under legislation authored by the late Rep. Phil Burton, the Presidio was supposed to become part of the national park system the moment the military marched away.

But as soon as this stunning parcel – perhaps the single most valuable chunk of urban real estate in the world – popped up on the horizon, private interests in San Francisco began to eye it greedily. Pacific Gas and Electric Co. cut a backroom deal to have the Army spend $5.5 million upgrading the electrical grid on the base – and then pay PG&E $4 million to take it over. That was the first sign of trouble: For half a century the Army had run a public power system at the Presidio, and now it was going private, at public expense (see "The Presidio Power Grab," 1/12/94). Soon, a special planning council headed by the chair of Transamerica Corp., and involving the Gap's Don Fisher, PG&E executives, the University of California, the Energy Foundation, and other big interests, was poised to set the Presidio's future – and Pelosi was carrying the water.

Pelosi argued that the only way to save the base as a park was to let private businesses raise money through development and real estate deals to cover the operating costs. If that didn't happen, she argued, the conversion to civilian use would never take place – or, she even warned, Congress could try to sell it to the highest bidder.

Yes, there was a Republican-controlled Congress. But the Democratic president, Bill Clinton, wasn't likely to sell the Presidio – and the public would never have tolerated it. That was an empty threat used to promote her privatization initiative.

But the scare tactics – and arm twisting – worked: By the time the bill got to Congress, virtually every major environmental group, including the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council, backed it. So did almost every elected official in San Francisco. Willie Brown, John Burton, Carole Migden, Kevin Shelley, and the Board of Supervisors all signed on. All the big neighborhood groups, including San Francisco Tomorrow, supported it. The San Francisco Examiner and the Chronicle blacked the story out.

Only a small band of neighborhood types, led by Joel Ventresca and Neil Eisenberg, along with some animal rights activists and veterans, tried to fight the plan, but they got no support or political traction.

Now, of course, almost everyone who initially backed the plan has seen what a disaster it's become. The Sierra Club has completely reversed its position, decrying the overdevelopment of the park and the precedent it sets. But the damage is done: The Republicans have been able to take a Democrat-sponsored plan and turn it into a model for destroying one of the nation's most precious (and irreplaceable) resources.

Pelosi and her House colleagues will no doubt bitterly oppose the Pombo and Souder bills, and they'll decry the attack on public lands and lay it at the feet of the Bush administration. We're the first to agree that Bush wants to privatize almost every aspect of American life. But in this case, if Pelosi and her allies want to be consistent, they need to move – now – to repeal the Presidio Trust bill and ferociously oppose any idea that requires national parks to pay their own way through corporate sponsorship.

But if somehow the Republicans manage to turn the national park system into a subsidiary of Disney, Halliburton, or Microsoft the way the Presidio has become a private office park for George Lucas, the blame for laying the groundwork will lie with the Democratic representative from San Francisco.

PS: In the 1970s, when the right wing was on the run and looking for ways to become a force again in American politics, much of the intellectual work was done by a series of foundation-funded think tanks. When Pelosi was preparing to the privatize the Presidio, the local foundations and nonprofits that were supposed to be in the progressive camp went right along with her. The Energy Foundation and the Tides Foundation, for example, were key to the bill's support – and they both wound up with cozy leases at the Presidio (see "Pulling Strings," 10/8/97).

And, of course, the entire Democratic Party operation in San Francisco signed on.

That's how the insidious, creeping privatization of America happens.

March 14, 2008

Vichy Democrats: Pelosi and the Politics of Collaboration


As the Bush Administration’s economic stimulus plan sailed through Congress last month, a few Democratic senators timidly raised objections to the legislation that Nancy Pelosi’s House had approved, particularly in relation to certain provisions deleted by the House. These provisions, which would have provided critical assistance to people most hard hit by the continuing recession included an extension of unemployment insurance, expansion of food stamps, and rebates to the working poor whose incomes fall below the radar of income tax requirements.

They lost.

“There’s no reason for any more delay on this,” House Speaker Pelosi said as the Senate approved the plan.

In a not-surprising move earlier in the legislative process, Pelosi had surrendered those provisions during a joint session with president’s budget crew. It was not surprising because in her fourteen month reign as Speaker of the House, Pelosi has collaborated incisively and repeatedly with the policies of the Bush Administration.

The term “collaboration” is popularly considered to be a construct of WWII, but the phenomenon is certainly older than Judas and threads through recorded history to its penultimate high point in Vichy France after the German conquest in 1940. In Vichy France, the collaborators appeared in basically two forms: active and passive collaboration with the German masters. Simply stated, the active collaborators identified Jews and resisters for the Nazis to take to the concentration camps, and the passive collaborators watched it happen and made excuses about why they could do nothing about it.

Through the power of her office, Speaker Pelosi’s collaboration with the White House Agenda has been both active and passive. For the sake of identification, the White House Agenda can be defined as: aggression overseas, suppression of dissent at home, and the transfer of wealth upward to the richest segment of society.

The Speaker of the House is one of the most powerful positions in Washington. The Speaker, selected from the majority party, controls the inner workings of the House, determining who goes on what committee, what legislation gets considered, and what hearings are to be scheduled in support of legislation. Conversely, the Speaker also decides who doesn’t go on what committee, what legislation never gets considered, and what hearings will never be called.

Let’s look at the practice of active collaboration through the categories of the White House Agenda. For starters, there’s Speaker Pelosi’s continued funding of undeclared wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the illegal occupation of Haiti, support of the Colombian government’s reign of terror, Israel’s scorched earth policy in Lebanon, and aggressive posturing toward countries like Iran, Cuba and Venezuela. In lockstep with imperial White House policy, Pelosi called the democratically-elected president of Venezuela a “thug” for stating that our questionably-elected president was promoting a “democracy of bombs.”

In terms of legislation, perhaps the most egregious transfers of wealth upward under Speaker Pelosi’s stewardship were the Energy Bill, the Farm Bill and the Peru Free Trade Agreement. The Energy Bill was not substantially different from the legislation Dick Cheney created on secret several years ago. The oil, coal and power companies all got what their lobbyists bought.

The Farm Bill was a lay-down-and-roll-over capitulation to the corporate greed of giant unregulated agribusiness, even in this day of massive meat recalls from feedlot cattle production and other destructive agricultural practices such as the use of pesticides and squandering of water resources. To add insult to injury, after virtually excluding support for organic farming from the big buck bill, Speaker Pelosi directed House cafeterias to serve organic meals. Like health care, it’s obvious that Pelosi believes that what’s good for Congress is not for good the rest of us.

Speaker Pelosi actively trumpeted the Bush Administration’s Peru Free Trade Agreement, yet another an offspring of NAFTA. NAFTA, championed by President Clinton and supported by Pelosi in 1993, has become the poster child of the multinational corporations’ eternal quest for cheap non-union labor. In 2002, the Economic Policy Institute estimated that NAFTA had eliminated 879,000 American jobs. It also devastated Mexico by disrupting the work force and dumping subsidized American corn on its markets. The trade agreement passed the House with yes votes from all of the Republicans plus Pelosi and 108 other Vichy Democrats.

In terms of passive collaboration with the White House Agenda, we encounter the fact that since Speaker Pelosi’s House held hearings on the steroid farce in baseball, Pelosi’s House Can Hold Hearings On Anything. That being the case, not calling for hearings on issues vital to the American public is an act of passive collaboration.

Where are the hearings on Katrina? Where are the hearings on the new American policy of torture? Who was responsible for Abu Graib and the secret prisons around the world? What about warrantless wiretapping and the removal of habeas corpus from the judicial system? No bid contracts to Halliburton, the vice president’s company? Who rigged the 2000 and 2004 Florida and Ohio elections? What about the fact that 35.5 million Americans went hungry in 2006? Why isn’t there an investigation into the predatory lending schemes and bundling that created the mortgage crisis? Bush’s signing statements and the Constitution? Why are the oil companies reaping vast profits while working people pour their pay checks into the gas pumps?

And, of course, the 500 pound gorilla: where are the impeachment hearings for grievous lies and heinous falsifications that led to the preemptive war on Iraq? Hundreds of thousands dead, thousands injured and wounded, millions displaced. No hearings. The carnage continues.

“Impeachment is not on the table,” Speaker Pelosi stated fourteen months ago and—bunker like--has continued to suffocate all efforts to bring the White House’s treasonable activities to the table.

Our prison system--which is now the largest in the world—is filled with non-violent drug offenders and petty criminals. When sentencing these people to the living death of prison, our courts are known for laying on bromides like “you have to be responsible for your actions. A civil society demands that we must have accountability!”

And yet there is no accountability in Washington. No one is held responsible for crimes against humanity. And no one will be held responsible as long as the Vichy Democrats remain in power.

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