A trio of Democratic House Committee Chairmen are stepping up the fight against President Bush’s surveillance bill this week, vowing to beat back a controversial proposal to grant retroactive amnesty to companies accused of illegally spying on Americans.

Congressmen John Dingell, Ed Markey and Bart Stupak are circulating a letter urging their colleagues to stand firm and keep amnesty out of the final spying bill. The House already passed a bill without amnesty, but the Senate is scheduled to pass a bill with retroactive amnesty as early as Tuesday. That would trigger a fight to resolve the issue in a conference committee of Democratic leaders. While a majority of Democrats in both Houses have voted against amnesty, Senators Harry Reid and Jay Rockefeller have fought hard to keep the proposal on the table, quailing at Bush’s repeated threats to veto the bill if it does not include amnesty.

The House Democrats’ letter explains that amnesty is distinct from the surveillance bill, which grants the administration more spying powers and weakens judicial requirements for warrants. "The issue of immunity for phone companies that chose to cooperate with the President’s warrantless wiretapping program deserves a separate and more deliberate examination by Congress," reads the letter. "No special urgency attaches to the question of immunity other than the Administration’s general eagerness to limit tort liability and its desire to avoid scrutiny of its own actions, by either the courts or the Congress."

Last week, over two dozen House members hammered the same point in a letter toPresident Bush:

Corporations that handed over their customers’ records without a valid court order […] undermined fundamental civil protections and privacy rights of Americans. Congress as a whole was kept in the dark for years about these activities, and to this day, the overwhelming majority of House Members and Senators have never been briefed on these activities. We cannot be asked to immunize these actions before we know the full extent of what occurred.

 

According to several civil liberties groups, the developments in the House suggest that at least some Democrats are now willing to draw a line in the sand to stop Bush’s abuse of executive power. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, which is suing telephone companies over domestic spying, characterized the House letters as "a significant shift in the political debate over telecom immunity." An ACLU spokesperson told The Nation that the action by House leaders is the only "ray of hope" to scuttle amnesty, because the Senate is considered a lost cause. 2008-02-11-Picture1.png "We need the House to stand strong and not bless this multibillion dollar giveaway to the telecommunications companies," said the ACLU official.

Most observers agree that the spying bill and retroactive amnesty are distinct issues. After all, the bill governs surveillance policy going forward, while the amnesty amendment dismisses cases challenging past surveillance. Apart from one’s view on each issue –- I oppose both the underlying White House bill and amnesty, as I explained in this November op-ed –- it would be highly irresponsible for Congress to rush amnesty without basic information about what happened. Yet the administration refuses to brief members, even in classified sessions, as the House committee letter explains:

For the past five months this Committee has asked, in a bipartisan manner, the phone companies and the Administration to [provide factual and legal information that] would justify Congress telling a Federal judge to dismiss all lawsuits…Surprisingly, even at this late date, the Administration has not deemed it important enough to respond to our repeated inquiries or even to brief the Committee Members in closed session.

 

But there’s nothing surprising about the administration’s contempt for the rule of law at this point. Are Democratic leaders just figuring this out?

The past few months of the spying debate do reveal, in a depressing sort of way, both the promise and residual frailty of this (mildly) resurgent Democratic Party. There are leaders who now go to the mat against Bush, even on counterterrorism policy and even when few are paying attention. That includes people like Senators Dodd and Feingold, and the House leaders fighting this week. But even when they summon a majority of their caucus, as they have on amnesty, they are sold out by a few well-placed members of their own party. So Senate Democrats watch the spectacle of Jay Rockefeller doing his best Joe Lieberman impression, and listen to Harry Reid say that he opposes amnesty while rigging floor votes to pass it.

Meanwhile, the two remaining presidential candidates have finessed the issue with such precision, it’s the surest proof that their promises of "change" do not include restoring the rule of law until the election is over. Clinton and Obama did vote the right way this summer, but they missed recent key votes, and they have refused to use the enormous megaphone they share to get anything done. Just this weekend, President Bush peddled more attacks and disinformation about spying in an interview with Fox News. The Obama Campaign was quick to rebut Bush’s attack on the Senator’s foreign policy, and the Clinton Campaign is plenty aggressive when counter-punching to protect The Clintons. Yet neither campaign so much as released statements from aides to rebut the President’s surveillance comments, let alone launch a battle plan to protect civil liberties in the looming fight.

Both campaigns talk about how history will view their unprecedented candidacies — and breaking political glass ceilings is no small feat. Yet history tends to judge not only one’s candidacy, but one’s character, assessing whether leaders acted on the conviction to do right when pressed with the choice. Amnesty is on the table now. If Congress sends this legislation to President Bush, next January will be too late. There will be no accountability for domestic spying and few levers for a thorough investigation. And the next President will inherit an office with growing power and receding legitimacy, a dynamic reinforced by Congress and unlikely to abate when even would-be presidents refuse to stand up for the rule of law.

Photo credit: Takomabibelot