Tuesday’s Washington Post reports that House Democrats are close to granting all of President Bush’s demands for more domestic spying powers and telecommunications amnesty, in exchange for, well, nothing:
House and Senate Democratic leaders [say they are close to a bill giving the President] more domestic surveillance powers and grant[ing] phone companies some form of immunity for their role in the administration’s warrantless wiretapping program…
Unlike the Senate leadership, senior House Democrats have been fighting Bush’s demand that telecommunications companies receive blanket amnesty for warrantless surveillance. Even when Bush refused to sign an extension of the surveillance bill without amnesty, the Democrats held firm and let the measure expire, drawing attack ads and fear-mongering from the G.O.P. By surrendering now, Democrats would not only ratify the administration’s assault on the rule of law. They would also be practicing a self-destructive brand of political cannibalism that thins their ranks and enervates their base. Salon’s Glenn Greenwald explains it in crushing detail, which I think is worth quoting at length:
The signs are unmistakably clear that what was always inevitable — full compliance by the House Democratic leadership with Bush’s demands on warrantless eavesdropping and telecom amnesty — is now imminent… There’s very little point anymore in writing about how the Congressional Democratic leadership is complicit in all of the worst Bush abuses, or about how craven they are. All of that is far too documented….But what is somewhat baffling in all of this is just how politically stupid and self-destructive their behavior is. If the plan all along was to give Bush everything he wanted, as it obviously was, why not just do it at the beginning? Instead, they picked a very dramatic fight that received substantial media attention. They exposed their freshmen and other swing-district members to attack ads. They caused their base and their allies to spend substantial energy and resources defending them from these attacks.
And now, after picking this fight and letting it rage for weeks, they are going to do what they always do — just meekly give in to the President, yet again generating a tidal wave of headlines trumpeting how they bowed, surrendered, caved in, and lost to the President. They’re going to cast the appearance that they engaged this battle and once again got crushed, that they ran away in fear because of the fear-mongering ads that were run and the attacks from the President. They further demoralize their own base and increase the contempt in which their base justifiably holds them (if that’s possible). It’s almost as though they purposely picked the path that imposed on themselves all of the political costs with no benefits.
The Post even floats one Democratic ploy to hide the ball: a "procedural move would allow many Democrats to vote against immunity but still make its approval all but certain." I don’t think Democratic voters will be fooled by that "move." Even if you don’t follow the floor rules closely — and Speaker Pelosi can prevent most of Bush’s demands from coming to a vote at all — it’s obvious when the Democratic Congress caves. It’s especially striking on issues like Constitutional rights and Iraq, where Democrats cave after loudly declaring their commitment to fight. Back in October, I wrote about this tendency to "Rage and Cave":
If you believe the papers, Congressional Democrats have spent the better part of the past seven years vacillating between shock and outrage. They are thunderstruck by every White House scandal, stunned to discover another lie from the Bush Administration and positively livid each time they realize Bush is negotiating in bad faith. That is, of course, until they cave again. The Democrats’ current rush to pass the President’s intelligence bill repeats this sorry pattern.After roughly three years of outrage over illegal domestic spying–complete with [Sen. Pat Leahy’s] roars of "Shame on us!"–Democrats are now pushing legislation to validate more warrantless surveillance of American citizens.
It’s only gotten worse since October. Just this week, Bush’s attorney general flatly refused to enforce contempt citations issued by Congress to investigate allegations of criminal conduct by White House officials. House Democrats say they are outraged and they will fight the attorney general. But the spying bill grants the attorney general new powers to prevent courts from reviewing the administration’s conduct.
In the end, the Democrats have not offered a coherent explanation for this policy or their political surrender. After following this issue closely, I can’t explain it either. As Greenwald writes, even on the most cynical terms, this was the worst possible route. And on principle, of course, there is no defense for retoractive amnesty, which stymies court oversight and undermines the rule of law.