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howard berman

Rep. Howard Berman (D-San Fernando Valley)

Wednesday night’s packed Town Hall at the Robert A. Millikan Middle School auditorium in Sherman Oaks (January 4, 2012) to meet Congressman Howard Berman (D), the San Fernando Valley’s longest serving representative, was an informative and low-key affair about a good number of hot-button issues, punctuated by occasional but persistent outbursts from . . . the sound system.

If not for that, then there really wasn’t any reason for six police officers to be reassigned from street patrol to monitoring duties at the back of the hall, unless that was to protect us from ourselves in the event anyone in the audience became a bit too excited. In which case, hats off to Congressman Berman and his staff, because two hours later we left as well behaved, not to mention safe, as we walked in. In addition, the officers in attendance had an opportunity to learn about the issues while on the job. Invite more next time as a public service.

Now, if the congressman’s office can focus as much on upgrading the sound system as they do on security at the next town hall, and find somebody (anybody!) to make introductions so their boss doesn’t have to fumble through a list of his accomplishments while glancing down at his notes, then maybe there is hope for this campaign.

This time around Howard Berman does not have the luxury of going through the motions to retain his seat. Due to a redistricting plan that pits him against fellow liberal democrat and congressional veteran, Brad Sherman in the newly created 30th District, he is facing his first serious challenger in years. (There are also two republican neophytes running, but they have very little chance in the predominantly democratic West San Fernando Valley.) Wednesday night’s program, then, was a welcome opportunity for his constituents to get to know their congressman finally as he embarks upon a more active meet and greet campaign than in years past. Standing room only, it was.

The issues during the Q&A, which was the main part of the evening, ran the gamut from the inane and highly suspicious (Q: Do you spend tax payer money to fly first class? A: Only when traveling with Brad.) to the important but predictable topics of social security, Israeli-Palestinian issues, and the wars. But there were also a number of issues raised that were not on the public’s radar just a few months back, before the Occupy Wall Street movement burst on the scene to push them front and center, such as reinstating the Glass-Stiegel Act; reining in abusive behavior by the banks; defeating the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), a very hot item for many people in the audience who weren’t buying Berman’s position as a co-sponsor of the legislation; and the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), the defense budget for the year laced with national security and foreign policy attachments, which was passed by congress at the end of the last session and signed into law by President Obama over New Years weekend while people were busy partying. The last item contains a provision that permits, at the President’s discretion, the indefinite detention of US citizens and legal resident aliens without recourse to a trial or access to a lawyer, in effect codifying into law two Supreme Court rulings that touched on these issues within the context of presidential and military powers under the war on terror.
Hold that thought.

First, I must tell you that the real star of the evening was not the congressman, nor the audience, but the sound system, which repeatedly stole the show, providing instant feedback with uncanny precision.

For instance, when Section 1021 of the NDAA – the problem provision referred to above – was brought up by a questioner who compared the congressman’s vote in favor of it to legalizing a Nazi style police state, he leaned in to the microphone to challenge that characterization and defend his vote but was blown back, upstaged by the deepest bone-chilling sonic boom of the evening.

Talk about a wake up call! People around me had that trapped in an elevator look as the feedback reverberated for a very long fifteen seconds. As for the speaker, all that was missing as his head snapped back from the mic were sparks flying from his ears. Ah, well, maybe next time.

Clearly the gods were angry with Howard Berman.

After that disturbance was over (no thanks to the police) my wife turned to me and whispered, “He should try the people’s microphone.”

Which brings me back to the point: the Occupy Wall Street movement does appear to have had a direct influence on the Berman campaign in a way that benefits all of the 99%. In December a small Occupy group located in the San Fernando Valley made several visits to Berman’s office as part of the Occupy Congress campaign (they dropped by Sherman’s office, as well), specifically to raise awareness about section 1021 of the NDAA. He didn’t have a clue. But he promised to look into it and get back to them.

Had they been at the Town Hall on Wednesday night they probably would have fallen out of their chairs in amazement, because after the sonic protest faded away he announced that he was a co-sponsor of H.R.3702, the John Garamendi amendment (Due Process Guarantee Act of 2011), which if passed will reinstate protections for U.S. citizens on U.S. soil that the NDAA eliminated.

To go from a doubting Thomas in December to the people’s champion in January is a remarkable turnaround for any politician, but especially for Howard Berman who is not known for changing his position to please “fringe” groups; i.e. those who are better educated than he is on a particular issue but are not major campaign donors. Purely circumstantial, I know, and crassly presumptive and speculative, but perhaps a clue for his new found zeal to defend our rights can be found in the list of original co-sponsors of the amendment, which the occupiers left behind on their way out of his office in December: one name sticks out: Brad Sherman.

As of this writing, however, Howard Berman’s name is not listed as one of the 29 co-sponsors on the Thomas web site.

Was he inspired to get on board during the Town Hall, perhaps in mid-sentence?

In any case, the Garamendi amendment is the perfect campaign morning-after pill for representatives like Berman who need to get right with the public after screwing them over in DC. So, why did he vote for the NDAA in the first place?

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People in the audience did want to know. After all, there is little reason to be optimistic about the amendment passing (or two others that are very similar), considering the failure of a waiver introduced by Senator Feinstein back in December that basically said the same thing. – By the way, in the end Feinstein also voted for the NDAA. This is standard practice: our defenders in congress will “try” representing our interests on occasion, but when that symbolic chore is done they vote with the club anyway.

The reason Howard voted for the NDAA was less feckless: he really wanted that bill to pass. Here’s why:
“I voted for the NDAA because it had thousands of other important provisions, including the Iran Sanctions Act.”

There it is. Howard Berman is at the forefront in congress for tightening sanctions against Iran and that’s all he cared about when it came to the NDAA. Sherman is just as vehement and the two republicans running in the race for the 30th are even worse, advocating military action, one of them preemptively, like now, so there is no choice for the voters if they want a representative in congress who is not a hawk on this issue.

Of course, Berman denies that he is. In reply to a question from an audience member critical of his confrontational foreign policy approach with regard to Iran, saying it risked another war, he claimed that he is not in favor of military action against Iran. Rather he prefers to pursue a diplomatic course. The tougher sanctions he advocates (and succeeded in getting passed) are designed to force the regime to comply with international law over its nuclear development program.

But that is disingenuous. Diplomacy, real diplomacy, is conducted between nations to reduce tensions and find common solutions to seemingly intractable problems. The diplomacy Howard Berman advocates, if you check the details, only makes sense if part of a larger strategy requiring military action. It is designed to heighten tensions by internationally isolating and economically squeezing the target regime in advance of removal.

The goal is to cripple Iran’s oil export business, its main source of revenue. If that happened to us, then we would call it tantamount to an act of war. In short, Berman and too many of his colleagues are operating under a mind-set that has set in motion a self-fulfilling prophecy: Iran is a going to attack us or one of its neighbors, and to prove it we shall threaten its economic survival until it behaves exactly as we say.

I don’t want a guy like this representing me in Congress.

Many people in the hall do, it appears, about half, I’d say, judging by the positive response he received at the start of the evening when he first mentioned the Iran sanctions; later on the applause was thinner. I think reality intruded: there are consequences for catastrophic foreign policy mis-ventures, such as wars that go bad, and we have just lived through one. Still, there will always be people who are prepared to prove American dominance regardless. But for those of us who live in the real world, we are a war weary nation that is looking forward to another quick in and out action to remove the latest existential threat in the Middle East with about as much enthusiasm as sitting through another thunderclap from Berman’s PA.

That was made clear when a young lady in the audience too young to follow how we got snookered into Iraq, but fully aware now of how the consequences have impacted her generation, asked the congressman to please explain his vote in 2002 in favor of granting George Bush War Powers Authorization, which he used to launch the Iraq War.

Judging by his response, she should have asked for an apology instead, because it is obvious he has learned nothing. He still excuses himself from any responsibility for enabling a war policy based on lies that was obvious to thousands of his constituents calling in to challenge all of the crap the Bush administration was putting out. To summarize, the congressman said he was persuaded that Saddam Hussein did have weapons of mass destruction, but after the invasion when it became clear that Iraq's WMD systems did not exist he realized he should have been more skeptical. In other words, it was all an honest error on his part. There was no admission of getting the facts totally wrong, no regrets, no apology. And so, here we go again.

On a personal note, I recall calling Berman’s office in 2002 to urge him to vote against the war powers authorization resolution, and then calling once more a day or two later after it had passed with Berman’s help. I asked his spokesperson if there had been an unusual number of calls to his office in Van Nuys and Washington, DC about the issue and he said there had been. Then I asked what was the percent of callers urging him to vote “No”?


“Um, ah, well, that was about ten to one.”

My response was not as vocal as the sound system Wednesday night, but it did prompt the aid to bleat, “Sir, it was just one vote!”

That was five Berman sho-in re-elections past. And today he is still pushing for war in the Middle East. Not diplomacy. War. Learning to be more skeptical is for other people.

Mic Check! Mic Check! Beware of soft-spoken pros in congress so fixated on saving us from perceived threats abroad they are blind to the usurpation of our liberties at home.

Steve Fine

UPDATE: January 10, 2011. As of 1/6/12, Howard Berman is now listed as a cosponsor of H.R.3702, the Due Process Guarantee Act.