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In the name of humanitarianism, NATO continues to bomb Yugoslavia.
At home, Congressman John Conyers, ranking Democrat of the House
Judiciary Committee, is waging a “culture war” against the National
Rifle Association.

Recently, Conyers joined with Hillary Clinton to honor NATO and our
president at a political love-in. In the name of the victims of
Columbine, Conyers denounced the defenders of the Second Amendment as
“Merchants of Death” — as the First Lady smiled in approval. That
Conyers has become a spear-carrier for NATO and our morally flawed
commander-in-chief saddens but doesn’t surprise me.

I first met John Conyers more than 30 years ago when he became a
freshman member of the House Judiciary Committee. During the Watergate
era I was proud to consider him as both a friend and as a political ally
against President Nixon. In 1974 I sat close to John during the
Committee’s impeachment debate. I also supported his unsuccessful
effort (and that of the Congressional Black Caucus) to persuade the
Judiciary Committee to adopt an article of impeachment for Nixon’s
bombing of Cambodia “in derogation of the sole power of Congress to
declare war.”

Sadly, over the years a rift developed between us. I now attribute
our differences in part to the congressional seniority system. I still
recall John’s joking remark to me when he first became the chairman of
our Subcommittee on Crime. He lit a cigar and said, “I used to hate the
seniority system — but the longer I stay here the more I like it.”

My quarrels with Conyers began in 1989. He had become the Chairman
of the House Committee on Government Operations. I was then the general
counsel of the National Council for Industrial Defense — a non-profit
organization comprised mostly of some 22 AFL-CIO unions and the American
Engineering Association. NCID had brought a lawsuit against the U.S.
Department of Defense.

I was pleased that Judge Norma Holloway Johnson was assigned to the
case. She is a black woman from Louisiana’s Cajun country, who had been
appointed by President Carter. She was also a friend of Conyers. (A
decade later she was to preside over the prosecutions brought by Kenneth
Starr.)

Our lawsuit was an attack on the military industrial complex that was
providing weapons for NATO countries. The Bush administration had
argued that we had presented “non-justifiable political issues.” On
April 20, 1989 Judge Johnson refused to dismiss the case. In deciding
in our favor, she wrote:

    The National Council for Industrial Defense (NCID) is challenging
    the enforcement by the Department of Defense (DOD) of the Buy American
    Act, 41 U.S.C. 10, and other “related measures.” Generally, Buy American
    laws impose restrictions on DOD in purchasing foreign-made defense
    products. … NCID alleges DOD is failing to enforce these restrictions.
    Specifically, NCID asserts, inter alia, that the Secretary of Defense
    has exceeded his statutory authority in providing blanket waivers of the
    Buy American Act on a country-by-country basis. …

    The fact that plaintiff’s claims involve agreements with other
    countries does not require the Court to dismiss this case. … Under the
    Constitution one of the judiciary’s characteristic roles is to interpret
    statutes, and we cannot shirk this responsibility merely because our
    decision may have significant political overtones.

One political overtone was that DOD was entering into agreements with
foreign countries which allowed American defense contractors to export
American jobs abroad. The agreements gave each such country a blanket
waiver of Buy American laws that had previously been vigorously enforced
under President Eisenhower — who had warned of the dangers of the
military industrial complex. Under the new agreements (which were not
approved by Congress), American companies could buy foreign-made
components. They could even move their factories to foreign countries
and still sell weapon systems to the United States. In so doing, some
were also able to avoid federal income taxes.

Still another political overtone was the subject of a memorandum
which I submitted to NCID’s board of Directors on Jan. 11, 1989 titled
“Inter-relationship between Buy American laws and restrictions on
foreign military sales.” At that time I had some evidence that some
American companies were selling weapons to our cold-war communist
enemies as well as to our own government and NATO allies. My memorandum
of a decade ago had stated:

    I have come to suspect that in some cases procurement from
    foreign sources is either encouraged by DOD or actively pursued by prime
    contractors as a means of circumventing the spirit and purpose of
    congressionally imposed restrictions on foreign military sales.

In 1989 the late William G. Phillips was the founder and president of
NCID. Bill was a combat veteran of World War II. He had belonged to the
United Auto Workers, became the first director of the liberal Democratic
Study Group, had been in charge of legislation for the War on Poverty,
and had also served on the staff of the Government Operations
Committee. Bill later became a lobbyist for the Metal Trades Department
of the AFL-CIO. Like me, he had known Conyers since John’s first days in
Congress.

As NCID’s lobbyist, Bill was anxious for us both to brief Conyers
personally on Judge Johnson’s decision and the politics of DOD’s new
buy-foreign program. Indeed, John was then the single most important
member of Congress with respect to the Buy American Act — which was in
the jurisdiction of the Conyers-chaired committee. But sadly, John
would never schedule an appointment for us.

Eventually, we learned why we had lost what lobbyists call “access”
to Conyers. He had become a spear-carrier for the military industrial
complex. Late one night on the House floor, without prior notice,
Conyers quietly slipped in a “technical” amendment to a complex
end-of-session bill. It authorized the very type of agreements with
foreign countries that our lawsuit before Judge Johnson would have
overturned. It demolished the underpinnings of our case.

Bill first learned about the amendment the next morning. For the
next few weeks he was depressed and angry. One Saturday morning, we
had arranged to meet in NCID’s office. When I got there I found Bill
slumped in his desk chair with his eyes open. He had died of a heart
attack. A week later his ashes were interred in Arlington cemetery.

Bill Phillips was very well known and popular on Capitol Hill.
Although a life-long Democrat, he had won the respect of members of
Congress and their staffs on both sides of the political aisle. Thus
Conyers’ staff later arranged for a memorial service in the hearing room
of the Government Operations hearing room. But John did not attend.

These days, I understand why some of my fellow Democrats still look
with disfavor on such gun manufacturers as Colt, Remington, and
Winchester. At the time of the Wild West they sold guns to cowboys and
sheriffs — and at the same time sold rifles and “firewater” to
Indians. But today, the evil profiteers are those who do more than sell
guns to sportsmen and hunters. The real “Merchants of Death” are the
multinational missile and bomb manufacturers whose stock rose when we
starting bombing Yugoslavia — and rose even higher when we bombed the
Chinese Embassy.

Not surprisingly, Conyers and the Clintons are now encouraging
American defense contractors (many of whom do business in Russia and
Communist China) to give six digit campaign contributions to the “new”
Democratic Party.


Jerome Zeifman was the House
Judiciary Committee’s chief counsel during the Nixon impeachment
proceedings. A lawyer turned author, he was formerly a Professor of Law
at the University of Santa Clara.

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