Shame on us, in being so far behind and being so willing to rubber-stamp anything this Administration does. The Republican-controlled Congress refuses to ask questions, and so we have to pick up the paper to find out what is going on. We ought to fold our tents and steal away. —Senator Patrick Leahy, responding to a May 11, 2006, USA Today article detailing the NSA’s secret database tracking “tens of millions of Americans” in coordination with several telecommunications companies
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 roars of “Shame on us!”–Democrats are now pushing legislation to validate more warrantless surveillance of American citizens. The same bill would also immunize any companies that assisted in illegal surveillance, squashing vital lawsuits that could provide the first public accountability for warrantless spying.
So much for all that outrage. On the campaign trail, Democrats may run hard against Bush’s assault on the rule of law. In Washington, however, too many of them just run from security fights with Bush.
The notable exception is Senator Chris Dodd, who announced that he will put a hold on any surveillance legislation that immunizes the telecommunications companies for participating in domestic spying “with apparent total disregard for their responsibility to protect the privacy rights of customers.” Beltway commentators swiftly derided Dodd’s move as political, since his presidential campaign is courting primary voters and netroots activists, two constituencies that value constitutional rights. And yes, fighting retroactive immunity for criminals is popular: Dodd’s campaign website traffic spiked tenfold after the announcement. But Dodd, a Senate veteran of twenty-six years, has longstanding and impeccable credentials in this area. He has led the battle to defend constitutional rights for years, fighting the Administration’s torture and detention policies, and he wrote a book about protecting rights during wartime, drawing on his father’s service as a prosecutor at Nuremberg.
Dodd’s aggressive move also pushes the intelligence fight into the thicket of Senate rules. Holds are generally honored by the majority leader, preventing legislation from a floor vote, but their authority officially derives from a senator’s power to filibuster. “Implicit in a request for a hold is the ability of a Senator to use parliamentary tools to filibuster or to delay consideration of the nomination or legislation at issue,” explains a report from the Congressional Research Service, an arm of the Library of Congress.