Vermont's lone voice in the U.S. House of Representatives, Democrat Peter Welch, paid his second visit to Iraq last week and came home with a dismal view of the way things are still going there under President George W. Bush almost five years after his unjustified invasion.
In a Tuesday chat with "Inside Track," Welchie had nothing but praise for the work of the U.S. military, but strong criticism of the way the Bush administration is expanding its duties.
"What I saw over there," warned Welch, "was mission creep.
"First, they were asked to topple Saddam, which they did," said Pedro. "To search for weapons of mass destruction, which they did."
Then, Welch said, they were asked "to provide enough stability in Iraq to have elections. They did that, and Iraq had two democratic elections."
Now, he said, "They're being asked to set up court systems, corrections systems, and even figure out how to get trash collected in towns where it's not being done. It's a broad expansion of their mission," said Welch.
But more importantly, said Vermont's congressman, "It should not be their mission. It absolutely should not be their mission!"
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in an Associated Press story titled "Rice Praises Iraq Progress," said after a surprise visit to Iraq Tuesday that reconciliation has moved along "quite remarkably."
"No evidence of that when I was there," Welch told "Inside Track." "Even our top generals acknowledge that our progress on the political front is lagging."
The Sunni, Shias and Kurds, said Pedro, are "no closer to reconciliation today" about dividing Iraq's oil wealth "than they were five years ago" when the U.S. disbanded the Iraq military and civil government.
Are we ever going to end the war in Iraq?
"We have to end the war in Iraq," said Welch. "That's the central battle of the times." But Vermont's voice in the House acknowledged that this president is not going to be the one to end it.
"George Bush has a policy that hasn't changed a millimeter," Welch said. "And now I see from my trip to Iraq, it's actually expanding."
So the only way we'll end the war is to have a different occupant of the White House?
"We will have to have a different president," conceded Pedro. "George Bush is doing everything he can with all the powers of the presidency to maintain the status quo in Iraq, and actually expand it."
Still, Rep. Welch insisted the fight against the Bush Iraq war policy must not be abandoned.
"I believe we should do everything we can, no matter how uphill a battle that it is," he said, and that "whenever there's an opportunity to do something that's going to move us to ending that war, we should do it."
Asked what those somethings might be, Welch paused for a few seconds. "The power of the purse is the one power that we have, and I keep advocating for us to use it."
Unfortunately, not enough congressmen agree with him, yet. Not enough to override a Bush veto.
"We cannot capitulate to our own frustration about the intransigence of George Bush," said Welchie. "Whether or not we're going to be able to overcome the power of President Bush, which is doubtful," he added, "we've got to do everything we can, day in and day out, to try to end it."
Back from Africa - While Welchie hit Iraq last week, Ol' Bernardo, excuse me, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, was off to Africa for a week, along with Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa and Congressman Elliot Engel of Illinois. He went to see how sweet it really is, or isn't, in the lands that produce the cocoa beans that become chocolate in the United States. The delegation hit Ghana, the Ivory Coast and Morocco.
"What we're seeing in America and around the world," Sanders told yours truly this week, "is a growing consciousness about the quality of what we are ingesting." Ol' Bernardo also cited "a growing consciousness of what's going on in producing the products that we use, whether it's NIKE sneakers, carpets made by 7-year-old children or cocoa picked in the fields of Morocco."
By the way, the civil war has calmed down a bit in the Ivory Coast, according to Bernie. The American legislators met with both the president and the prime minister, who represent the country's two warring factions.
"They have a reconciliation government," said Sanders.
Ol' Bernardo was upbeat about what he saw in Morocco, where it's not enough to just remove children from child-labor situations, he said.
"You have to go further than that and make sure the kids go to school," said Sanders. "Simply taking them out of factories and fields when they have nothing else to do doesn't make any sense at all.
"Bottom line," Bernie told us, "is the United States government is having some impact in dealing with the worst forms of child labor."
However, there was no interest in his Africa trip from the Vermont mainstream press. Africa? What's Africa?
This week, Sanders will be sitting at Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy's side to demand the Bush White House release up to $800 million in badly needed LIHEAP funds to help low-income New Englanders get through the winter with sufficient heating oil - the cost of which is skyrocketing.
"The president has finally acknowledged," said the 66-year-old junior senator from the Green Mountain State, that "with the price of oil going up, the price of gas at $3.15 a gallon, the housing market in turmoil, poverty increasing, and 47 million Americans without health insurance, that the economy has some problems."
Last question for Bernie was: "Are we ever going to end this war in Iraq?"
"Not under this president," said Sen. Sanders.
Short and sweet.
P.S. Meanwhile, Patrick J. Leahy, 68, Vermont's senior senator, did not go on an official trip during Congress' holiday recess.
According to a reliable source, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, who's not known for taking days off, actually hit the Virgin Islands with wife Marcelle Leahy for a little scuba diving. It was something he had promised the missus, we're told, and St. Patrick keeps his promises.
In Leahy's Footsteps? - Democrat Patrick Leahy was serving as Chittenden County State's Attorney way back in 1974 when he was first elected to the United States Senate. He was just 34 years old. He's re-won that Senate seat five times - it's become habit-forming.
The current Chittenden County State's Attorney, Democrat T.J. Donovan, just turned 34 on Tuesday. First elected to the post in 2006, Donovan is following in St. Patrick's footsteps, some say. It's in his blood.
After all, his mom is State Rep. Joey Leddy Donovan, and grandpa was Judge Bernard Leddy, the Democrat who lost the 1958 Vermont governor's race to Republican Bob Stafford by just 719 votes. The Burlington park and ice arena are named after him.
"Inside Track" has learned from reliable sources that State's Attorney Donovan has offered to drop unlawful trespass charges against 13 recent antiwar protesters in exchange for 15 hours of "community service" or a "charitable donation" in the $50 to $100 range.
Those arrested at the Vermont National Guard recruitment office in Williston back on November 30 included two military veterans of the Iraq war.
"I respect what they're doing," Donovan told "Inside Track" on Tuesday. "We, the police and the prosecutors, have a job to do. And they understood. I'm hoping we can come to some sort of reasonable settlement that's short of a conviction, but something in which they give back, whether it's community service or a donation."
He declined to discuss specifics of the deal, but did tell us, "An offer's been made which I think is a very reasonable offer."
Sources say the offer includes the stipulation that the "community service" could even be antiwar-oriented, as long as it's "legal."
Donovan said he does "not think it serves any purpose for a young person to be tagged with a criminal record for the rest of their lives for doing something they believe. I'm trying to take that into account during these negotiations and find a middle ground."
He also acknowledged there is "a tradition of civil disobedience in this country that in a lot of cases has led to positive change."
Shifting Gears - The top prosecutor in Vermont's largest county was all pumped up about the advisory ballot question regarding marijuana proposed for Burling-ton's Town Meeting Day in March.
Democratic City Councilor Ed Adrian, an attorney, is seeking council approval to ask voters in the People's Republic of Burlington to "call upon the mayor and the city council to explore creating a system of marijuana decriminalization whereby marijuana-possession cases involving small quantities shall be subject to a civil-offense ticket for a predetermined fine, rather than using a criminal-court process that brings significant costs to the taxpayer . . ."
Donovan, the county's top prosecutor, told us he "supports the resolution." He said he thinks "There is a conversation that needs to happen [regarding marijuana], and there's a lot of issues that need to be discussed."
But one thing many folks may not realize, he said, is that a "civil-offense ticket" might not be an improvement over the current situation on the ground. A civil ticket is still a record, Donovan emphasized, and those who receive one "may have insurance consequences, student-loan consequences or employment consequences."
What happens to pot-possession cases in Chittenden County today?
"They're sent to diversion," said T.J. the Prosecutor. "They're dismissed for a charitable contribution."
That means the offenders get their records wiped clean.
"This civil-ticket fine may have more harsh consequences," warned T.J., "than the way we're doing business now."
Maybe we should just make marijuana legal?
"This is my point. These things need to be discussed. We can't say, 'Let's decriminalize it,' 'Let's legalize it,' without looking at the consequences."
Health-Care System? - Last week's gathering of more than 150 health-care reform advocates under the Golden Dome sure got some good press. Made an impression, one might say, on the Statehouse reporters themselves, who face rising insurance premiums and deductibles and the rest of the gobbledygook that makes health care a serious headache in America.
Despite both Republican Gov. Jim Douglas and the Demo-cratic leaders of House and Senate all putting notions of serious reform on the back burner, we could be nearing a situation of: "If the people lead, the leaders follow."
Certainly Gov. Scissorhands senses the health-care reform vibrations - he made his "concerns" about health care one of the top talking points in his State of the State address.
Reformers are rallying around Republican Rep. Topper McFaun's bill H.304, which would provide universal hospitalization coverage for all - repeat, all - Vermonters. It would reduce current health-insurance costs by 40 percent, something business owners and school boards are slowly realizing may not be such a bad thing.
Opponents, led by the insurance companies and the hospital association, claim it would push us towards a dreaded "single-payer system." Can't have that, can we?
After all, single-payer would be like communism, wouldn't it?
At last week's Statehouse rally, Dr. Deb Richter, the firebrand of Vermont's reform movement, took on "single-payer" directly. Richter described them as "those poisonous words which mean to marginalize what turns out to be what the majority actually wants."
But in reality, said Dr. Deb, single-payer is what most people already have.
"You know, the governor's health care is covered by single-payer, and other state employees have single-payer health care," said Richter. "Those with Medicare have single-payer health care. Those with Medicaid have single-payer health care. Veterans have single-payer."
Rather than some kind of communist conspiracy, Richter noted, single-payer health care "is simply a more efficient way of collecting and paying for health care, and it is not the issue."
Instead, said Dr. Deb, "The issue here is, when will the governor and the legislature do something that is not just for a few Vermonters, but for all Vermonters? H.304 is an excellent start!"
The sad fact of the matter is, we in America and Vermont are paying twice as much as citizens in other modern, industrialized nations and getting less coverage and worse care. We don't have a system that makes sure everybody has coverage, and we don't have a system that contains the cost.
Truth be told, we don't actually have anything in place that could justly be called a "system."
Rep. McFaun's H.304 looks like it's finally coming off the House Health and Welfare Committee wall. McFaun says the principles behind the bill are "everyone getting covered."
"That's not so radical," he said.
"We're talking about everyone contributing according to their ability to pay. That's not so radical," he continued.
"We're talking about controlling the cost going forward. I think they're all good ideas," said McFaun. And the "end result" is, "You will be able to go to the hospital, get taken care of, and spend your energy on getting better, not worrying about how you're going to pay a huge hospital bill."
That's not so radical, is it?
As Richter put it, "Wouldn't it be nice to finally get the health care we're already paying for?"