Saturday, June 10, 2006

the not ready for prime time players

it's saturday night, so let's tune into the not-ready-for-prime-time players. but it's not the cast of nbc's saturday night live we'll be watching, though this season's replacements from washington d.c. — that tragicomic capital of calumny and calamity — should prove as entertaining as the originals, if nothing else. we should by now be used to nothing else.

as i forewarned in my post "elegy", the constitutional crisis facing the country can only be resolved by congress' resumption of its responsibilities to both its constituents and itself as a concrete bulwark against any encroachment on its powers and duties by either of the other two branches of government — in these circumstances, the encroachments of the bush administration against the nation's time-tested system of checks and balances.

as glenn greenwald argues with his characteristic clarity — and frustration — in his post "a new low — the senate seeks to 'pardon' the president for past lawbreaking", from which i excerpt liberally, the 109th congress, especially as represented by senate intelligence committee chair arlen specter, is not quite ready for prime time:

observing and commenting on the behavior of arlen specter is one of the most unpleasant obligations a person can have, but for anyone following the nsa eavesdropping scandal specifically, and the bush administration's abuses of executive power generally, it is a necessary evil. the principal reason that the bush administration has been able to impose its radical theories of lawbreaking on the country is because congress, with an unseemly eagerness, has permitted itself to be humiliated over and over by an administration which does not hide its contempt for the notion that congress has any role to play in limiting and checking the executive branch. and few people have more vividly illustrated that institutional debasement than arlen specter, who, along with pat roberts, has done more than anyone else to ensure that congress completely relinquishes its constitutional powers to the president.

congressional abdication is so uniquely damaging because the founders assumed that congress would naturally and instinctively resist encroachments by the executive, and the resulting institutional tension — the inevitable struggle for power between the branches — is what would preserve governmental balance and prevent true abuses of power. but for the last five years, congress has done the opposite of what the founders envisioned. they have meekly submitted to the almost total elimination of their role in our government and have quietly accepted consolidation of their powers in the president.

if the congress is unmoved by their constitutional responsibilities, then at least basic human dignity ought to compel them to object to the administration's contempt for the laws they pass. after all, the laws which the administration claims it can ignore and has been breaking are their laws. the senate passed fisa by a vote of 95-1, and the mccain torture ban by a vote of 90-9, and it is those laws which the president is proclaiming he will simply ignore. and yet not only have they not objected, they have endorsed and even celebrated the president's claimed power to ignore the laws passed by congress. and that failure, more than anything else, is what has brought us to the real constitutional crisis we face as a result of having a president who claims the power to operate outside of, and above, the law.

a bill proposed yesterday by arlen specter to resolve the nsa scandal — literally his fifth or sixth proposed bill on this subject in the last few months — would drag the congress to a new low of debasement. according to the washington post, specter has introduced a bill "that would give president bush the option of seeking a warrant from a special court for an electronic surveillance program such as the one being conducted by the national security agency." this proposal is the very opposite of everything specter has saying for the last several months:

specter's approach modifies his earlier position that the nsa eavesdropping program, which targets international telephone calls and e-mails in which one party is suspected of links to terrorists, must be subject to supervision by the secret court set up under the foreign intelligence surveillance act (fisa).
a law which makes it "an option" — rather than a requirement — for the government to obtain a warrant before eavesdropping is about as meaningless of a law as can be imagined.

but that complete change of heart by specter is not even nearly the most corrupt part of his proposed bill. for pure corruption and constitutional abdication, nothing could match this:

another part of the specter bill would grant blanket amnesty to anyone who authorized warrantless surveillance under presidential authority, a provision that seems to ensure that no one would be held criminally liable if the current program is found illegal under present law.
the idea that the president's allies in congress would enact legislation which expressly shields government officials, including the president, from criminal liability for past lawbreaking is so reprehensible that it is difficult to describe.

... what makes this proposed amnesty so particularly indefensible is that specter himself has spent the last two months loudly complaining about the fact that he — along with the rest of the country — has been denied any information about how this illegal, secret eavesdropping has been conducted. has that power been abused? has it been exercised for political, rather than national security, reasons? before one even considers shielding those responsible for this lawbreaking from liability, wouldn't one have to at least know the answer to those questions?

... specter receives substantial criticism because of the flamboyant way in which he engages in what can only be described as sado-masochistic rituals with the administration. he pretends to exercise independence only to get beaten into extreme submission, and then returns eagerly for more. it is as unpleasant to watch as it is damaging to our country. but specter's unique psychological dramas should not obscure the fact that it is the entire congress which has failed in its responsibilities to take a stand against this president's lawbreaking and abuses, and there is plenty of blame to go around in both parties. the reason the president has been allowed to exert precisely the type of unrestrained power which the founders sought, first and foremost, to avoid, is because the congress has allowed him to.


to glenn's further consternation, it looks like the post may have only imagined the heinous amnesty proposal in specter's bill:

before i wrote the post, i searched for the actual text of specter's bill in order to read it myself, but could not find it (specter's website is one of the worst sites for any senator, as it is usually a month or more behind). as a result, my post ... was based upon the post's reporting about specter's bill, rather than my own reading of it.

i have now had a chance to review the actual text of specter's bill and cannot find any basis for the post's claim that it contains an amensty [sic] provision for past violations of the law. ... there is simply nothing in it which supports the post's report.

glenn had good cause to be cautious — this wasn't the first time that the post bungled the reading of the ever-multiplying proposals spawning from the senate intelligence committee:

before i wrote the post on friday, i was very reluctant to post anything about specter's bill in reliance on the report of the washington post. that's because the post previously published a front-page article about another fisa-related bill, this one proposed by sen. michael dewine, which was completely inaccurate about what the bill actually provided — not with regard to minor details of the bill, but with regard to its fundamental provisions.

this is what happened. on march 17, the post published a front-page article by charles babington regarding the proposed legislation introduced by dewine (co-sponsored by sens. snowe, hagel, and graham), which was offered by those senators as the "compromise" solution when the republicans on the senate intelligence committee refused to hold hearings to investigate the nsa warrantless eavesdropping program. the post article falsely depicted this gop bill as vesting oversight power in the congress to stop warrantless eavesdropping, even though the bill provided nothing of the kind.

specifically, the post article claimed — erroneously — that the bill would allow the administration to engage in warrantless eavesdropping only if a newly formed senate intelligence subcommittee approves of the program's renewal every 45 days. in fact, the legislation provided nothing of the sort. it gave no power whatsoever to any senate committee to approve or disapprove of warrantless eavesdropping. contrary to the post's front-page claim, that legislation would have vested no power whatsoever in the congress (or the courts) to stop the warrantless eavesdropping. it merely required that the administration "brief" the subcommittee, but the subcommittee (along with everyone else) would be completely powerless under that bill to stop the administration from engaging in warrantless eavesdropping.

on that day, i first read the post article about this proposed legislation, but then found the legislation itself and read it. it was very clear that the post was simply wrong in what it told its readers on its front page about this significant legislation — wrong about the legislation's fundamentals.

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