Department of Peace bill off to a rocky start ' again

Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) may need to stage a sit-in on the House floor before a Department of Peace and Nonviolence is created.

Kucinich, newly empowered as chairman of the domestic policy subcommittee on the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, vowed yesterday to hold hearings on legislation lawmakers have discussed since the dawn of the republic: a bill to establish a Department of Peace and Nonviolence.

It seems that, like the Founding Fathers before him, Kucinich won’t get past the talk — even with a bit of Hollywood backing.

Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), whose job is to manage the flow of legislation to the House floor, said that he considers Kucinich a “thoughtful, substantive guy and a good friend,” but that “a lot of members have a lot to say about [the bill] and we’re going to give them a lot of time to say it.”

Perhaps unintentionally, other Democrats slighted the initiative yesterday. The majority governs room assignments, and Kucinich had to hold his peace press conference in a cramped room in the Capitol basement. Meanwhile, a gathering of centrist Republicans, the Tuesday Group, had a better room despite its minority status.

Plus, Hoyer met with reporters while Kucinich was making his announcement. Hoyer’s appointment was a regular one — he talks to members of the press at the start of every workweek when Congress is in session — but it perhaps could have been rescheduled. While plenty of cameras showed up at Kucinich’s event to get a few frames of “Walk the Line” star Joaquin Phoenix — wearing a black suit and pale green shirt without a tie — few print reporters opted out of the weekly briefing.

Phoenix did not speak; he lent his support, Kucinich said, by his presence.

Several other B-list celebrities were on hand, including actresses Amy Smart and Francis Fisher, as well as Nicole Brown Simpson’s sister, Denise Brown, who has founded a charitable organization in her sister’s name.

Pointing to Phoenix, Smart and Fisher, Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.), a chairwoman of the Progressive Caucus, said, “You humble us because we think we’re big shots until you show up.”

She thanked the celebrities for bringing attention to the peace movement, saying, “We can’t do anything if the people in this country don’t care.”

Despite the logistical hurdles and legislative roadblocks, Kucinich made history when he said he would hold hearings on H.R. 808, which has 52 cosponsors, including centrist Democratic Reps. Ellen Tauscher (Calif.) and Albert Wynn (Md.).

Tauscher pointed to a letter she and Kucinich wrote in 2002 urging Bush to postpone a vote on going to war until after the midterm election. At least one left-leaning political action committee has suggested finding a liberal Democrat to challenge Tauscher; Wynn nearly lost his primary in 2006 to a more liberal Democrat.

“We have to have a balance. For too long we have had a knee-jerk reaction to overuse the military for things like nation-building and reconstruction,” Tauscher said. “Politics is never a factor.”

Wynn, a new convert to the bill who has called his 2002 vote for the war in Iraq a mistake, said, “It makes sense to send a signal to the world that we’ll at least consider non-violent solutions.”

Kucinich said as chairman he would revisit the work of the Kerner Commission, which in 1968 issued a report on the causes of riots and violence in American society.

While the activists and actors in attendance agreed on the need to create a Department of Peace, they did not agree on who should become secretary of Peace.

Phoenix said nothing when asked for an informal nomination.

Wynn suggested Kucinich for the job — if he does not become president, that is.

Rep. Susan Davis (D-Calif.), who questioned President Bush on his handling of the Iraq war on Saturday at the House Democratic retreat, suggested Ret. Gen. Anthony Zinni. The chairwoman of Peace Alliance, Marianne Williamson, said the job should go to Jan Hartke, an environmental activist whose father, while an Indiana senator in the 1960s, introduced legislation to create a Peace Department.

Throughout the hour-long event, Kucinich remained upbeat and positive.

“There will be a Department of Peace,” he said, speaking of a department that Jesus Christ, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. would have wanted to be a part of government.

“It’s not about blaming anyone for anything. We want to capture the human potential … to create peace in our homes to influence peace in the nation,” Kucinich said.

Even House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) lavished praise on Kucinich, saying his is the standard by which all other presidential candidates will be judged in terms of their commitment to the peace movement.

The event ended when Kucinich’s aide held a hand-written sign from the back of the room that read, “You need to get to the House floor.”