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July/August 2009

Washington Report to Presbyterians

Voting Rights Act Challenged

by Mary Anderson Cooper

Equality and fairness are constitutive aspects of both justice and love, and are requirements of Christian living. Accountability is demanded of every political figure in the Bible story. Because of sin in human personal and social life, transparency and the enforcement of principles of equality and liberty is required as a condition of a fair common life. Both citizens and officials are accountable for their custody of the democratic-representative process. To deny anyone a fair vote is a sin. Reinhold Niebuhr’s aphorism that “[human] capacity for justice makes democracy possible but [human] capacity for injustice makes democracy necessary” is a fair summary of the possibilities of our political life as we strive to make it as participatory, just and accountable as possible.

— From Lift Every Voice: Democracy, Voting Rights, and Electoral Reform. Approved by the 218th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

On June 22 the Supreme Court rendered a decision upholding a key provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, at the same time putting Congress on notice that change in the law is needed. The 8-1 decision (with Justice Clarence Thomas the only dissenting voice) was a surprise to most observers, who had expected a portion of the law to be struck down.

Section 5 of the Act, which was renewed by Congress in 2006, requires eight entire states (Alaska, Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Texas), much of Virginia, and dozens of specified jurisdictions in seven other states to get approval from the U.S. Department of Justice before making any changes in their voting procedures. The provision is intended to halt efforts to disenfranchise voters through tactics that make it difficult or impossible for eligible people to vote.

The states and areas covered by Section 5 are ones which had particularly egregious histories of preventing members of minority groups from voting at the time the Voting Rights Act was originally enacted. The legislation includes provisions to allow a voting district to “bail out” of the requirements if certain conditions are met, but only 17 of 12,000 covered jurisdictions have done so in the history of the law.

In the case in question — Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District #1 v. Holder, Attorney General, et al. — a small jurisdiction sought relief from the provisions of Section 5 on the grounds that it did not register its own voters and therefore could not discriminate. The district further requested the Supreme Court — if it did not grant the district a bailout — to rule Section 5 unconstitutional. A federal district court earlier rejected both claims, which led to the district’s taking the case to the nation’s highest court.

The Supreme Court chose to rule only on the narrow question of the district’s request for a bailout, saying it is eligible to apply, but declined to rule on the constitutionality of Section 5. Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the majority, said that Congress’s action in renewing Section 5 in 2006 without examining whether it was still needed “raise[s] serious constitutional questions … but the importance of the question does not justify our rushing to decide it.”

Roberts further stated:

The South has changed. The evil that Section 5 is meant to address may no longer be concentrated in the jurisdictions singled out for preclearance. The statute’s coverage formula is based on data that is now more than 35 years old, and there is considerable evidence that it fails to account for current political conditions.

By declining to rule on the constitutionality of Section 5 while raising serious questions about its appropriateness, the Court is warning Congress that — before another challenge to the law is raised that might not fare as well — Congress should examine the situation in the covered jurisdictions to determine whether there is still an egregious pattern of voting rights violations.

Chief Justice Roberts, although not questioning that discrimination still exists, suggested that it is likely that significant changes have occurred. Justice Thomas, dissenting, stated flatly that “The violence, intimidation and subterfuge that led Congress to pass Section 5 and this court to uphold it no longer remains.”

Faced with the Supreme Court’s warning that change is needed, Congress and the administration will now need to consider ways to amend the Voting Rights Act to avoid a future constitutional debate while still protecting the rights of minority voters.

One expert on the subject, attorney Bill Yeomans, who spent 25 years in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, has said the solution might be to amend the law to make it easier for jurisdictions to bail out of Section 5’s provisions if they can prove that they have not discriminated against minorities for a specified period of time. This would allow those areas that have corrected previous discriminatory practices to be excused from further regulation, while keeping in place sanctions against those areas that cannot show improvement.

By repeatedly renewing Section 5, Congress has shown it is not convinced discrimination is a thing of the past. Faced with this apparent warning from the high court that time is running out for the provision, legislators are now called upon to review the status of voting rights in the United States to determine whether or not justice prevails with regard to the rights of minority groups.

Update on Climate Legislation

by Leslie G. Woods

On June 26, 2009, the House of Representatives passed the American Clean Energy and Security Act (ACES), a bill that places a mandatory cap on U.S. carbon emissions and begins to address United States energy consumption. U.S. efforts to address the global climate crisis and shift to home-grown sustainable energy are long overdue. Though this bill is imperfect, it is a vital step toward an equitable response to the energy and climate problems the United States currently faces.

ACES will reduce U.S. carbon emissions by 20 percent below 2005 levels by 2020 and by 83 percent below 2005 levels by 2050. The international scientific community has called for reductions of 25 to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 and 80 percent by 2050. Translating ACES’s short term goal of 20 percent below 2005 levels yields a cut of about seven percent below 1990 levels, so ACES’s short-term goal falls far short of scientific recommendations (and of calls for 20 percent below 1990 levels from the PC(USA) General Assembly). Fortunately, 83 percent below 2005 levels by 2050 comes out right around 80 percent below 1990 levels, so the long-term goal is better. The short-term cap is incredibly important, however, for setting us on the right path to meet the 2050 goal. Even so, starting with an inadequate cap is better than nothing, making this bill an important first step toward slowing the U.S. contribution to climate change and to addressing our energy addiction.

This bill also provides support for: those living in poverty both internationally and domestically; helping vulnerable communities to adapt to the impacts of climate change, such as floods, droughts and other natural disasters; as well as increased energy costs. The effects of climate change are wreaking havoc on the most vulnerable populations around the world, but this bill seeks to provide support for those communities to adapt, even though the funding for international adaptation is not adequate.

In the United States we know that enacting a cap on carbon emissions will likely increase the cost of essential items like energy, food and transportation. This bill includes an excellent provision designed to hold harmless from those cost increases people whose incomes fall in the bottom quintile of earnings.

In addition, ACES includes a number of other provisions that set the U.S. on the right track. It creates a Renewable Electricity Standard (RES), requires part of the nation’s energy supply to be produced from renewable sources, trains workers in green industry; and helps non-profits and churches retrofit buildings.

Of course, there are poor components of this bill. In particular, it does not require polluters to reduce carbon emissions quickly enough. It also includes excessive give-aways — known as “free carbon credits” — to carbon emitters. This means that polluters will not have to reduce carbon emissions for a number of years, because the bill creates no short-term cost incentive to do so. The bill also diminishes the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to regulate climate-changing emissions through the Clean Air Act.

So, this bill is a mixed bag; but it is a start. It was the result of months of intra-party and partisan negotiations. As difficult as it was to achieve a bill that could pass the House, it will be even more difficult to do so in the Senate, where the politics and rules make climate legislation a very heavy lift. It will take significant pressure from advocates and constituents to move the Senate through the process of writing a climate change bill.

Senators need to hear that this must be a priority, even given many major legislative agenda items before them. The Washington Office, together with other Presbyterian networks and programs, will be monitoring the Senate process and alerting members to the situation in Washington.

In 2008, the General Assembly “urge[d] individuals and families in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to… pray, asking for forgiveness and for the power and guidance to enjoy and care for creation in new ways”… and “advocate for change and leadership within the church and in all forms of government regarding energy policy and global climate change.”

We know from our Reformed tradition that we are called to be faithful citizens and agents for just government and the common good. The earth is groaning and needs to be healed. The U.S. must enact policy to ensure that the earth receives the healing it needs. Only you can make it happen. Send a message to your elected officials today.

The Real Cost of Oil

by Sarah Pray, Coordinator
Publish What You Pay United States

[Editor’s Note: The PC(USA) endorsed the Publish What You Pay (PWYP) campaign and joined the PWYP coalition by action of the 218th General Assembly in 2008. The campaign calls for oil, gas and mining companies to disclose what they pay governments for the extraction of natural resources, thereby holding them accountable.]

When filling up our cars, most of us complain about the high cost of gas and the record profits for the oil companies. However, what most of us don’t think about is the price that so many people around the world pay for this oil.

There is a well-documented phenomenon called the “resource curse” — that is to say, many countries that are richly endowed with natural resources are also the poorest and most corrupt. Why is this? There are several explanations, but one of the biggest contributing factors is the secrecy surrounding the oil, gas and mining industries, which fuels corruption in many of these countries.

Although natural resources usually belong to the public, companies make contracts with the governments and don't tell how much they are paying for the resources. The public is kept in the dark with no recourse for oversight or accountability.

As a result, the money comes into the hands of the country’s rulers and never leaves. The money does not go toward education, health and other social programs for the people; instead it goes toward grandiose palaces, fast cars and expensive vacations for those in power. The people of the country receive no benefit and have little to no access to the information on how their resources are being squandered.

Take, for example, the tiny country of Equatorial Guinea. It sits in the oil-rich Gulf of Guinea region, and is a major exporter of oil to the United States. There are only 500,000 people living in the country, most of whom survive on less than $1 a day. However, the country averages $7 billion in oil revenues per year, most of which comes from American companies Exxon and Chevron. The president is a known human rights abuser and his government is one of the top 10 most corrupt in the world. His son bought the fifth most expensive house in the United States in 2006. The price tag? $35 million. Imagine what that money could do for the people of Equatorial Guinea, who remain in poverty without access to basic services. Yet, the U.S. oil companies continue to pour money into the government’s coffers.

There is no “quick-fix” for this complex problem. But there is a global movement of people and organizations that are calling for a first step toward addressing the issue of corruption in the oil, gas and mining industries. The Publish What You Pay (PWYP) campaign was started almost five years ago with a very simple premise: companies should publish their natural resource revenue payments to foreign governments. This way the population of a country can have some idea of how much money was coming in to their country in exchange for their precious resources and could start asking questions about where that money is going.

The PWYP campaign is made up of a diverse coalition of human rights, environmental, development and faith groups. The coalition works with governments, companies, international financial institutions and other international bodies, advocating for standards that would require companies and governments to make oil revenues public.

Since the campaign’s inception, there have been several significant achievements. Tony Blair and the British government launched the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), which is a voluntary agreement between governments and companies to publish all their payments and receipts, with the involvement of local citizens to ensure accountability. Although EITI is a positive development, it alone cannot provide complete transparency and accountability. The main reason is that it is a voluntary initiative and relies on the political good will of countries to participate.

Requirements to publicly report payments are necessary for cases when political good will is missing. We now have the opportunity to make these requirements mandatory through the adoption of new U.S. legislation. The U.S. arm of the Publish What You Pay campaign has been working with several members of Congress to introduce a bill which will mandate that oil, gas and mining companies registered in the United States (which covers most of the major companies operating around the world) publish the payments they make to each country for natural resources. If passed, this would be a significant step forward in the fight to end the cycle of corruption, as for the first time, there would be a law on the books mandating that companies must publish what they pay. This is standard business practice for oil companies operating on U.S. soil and is the logical extension of good U.S. business practices abroad.

The bill was introduced in the House and Senate in 2008, but no action was taken before Congress went out of session. It is expected to be reintroduced in 2009. You can make a difference by encouraging your members of Congress to support it. This is one small step you can take to help shed light on where the money you pay at the pump ends up. It is our hope that with more information will come more accountability and the cycle of poverty and corruption will end. You can help make this a reality by learning more about the issues and talking about this issue with your friends, family and your members of Congress. After all, once you know the real price of oil you realize how costly it really is.