There is no small measure of irony in the fact that the final vote by the U.S. House of Representatives before leaving for an extended Fourth of July break involved a basic question of American freedom – and there is no small measure of tragedy in the fact that the majority of House members took a position closer to that of King George III than the American revolutions who will be celebrated next Tuesday.
The question so basic that it should not have produced a division at all: Should the United States have a free press that challenges and exposes government wrongdoing, or should the United States have a subservient press that “cooperates” with government to report the “news” in a manner that pleases those in power?
Yet, in a flurry of last-minute procedural votes on House resolutions rebuking the news media for reporting leaks about Bush administration schemes to spy on Americans produced a variety of results, the Congress consistently came down on the side of a subservient press that performs stenography to power.
The final measure of authoritarian sentiment came in the vote Thursday evening on the measure introduced by Ohio Republican Mike Oxley: House Resolution 896. And the result was even worse than on some of the earlier votes: Only 183 of the House’s 435 members voted to uphold the Constitution.
The Oxley resolution, written as part of the Bush administration’s push to punish the New York Times for reporting on a secret program that monitors millions of bank transfers was fairly draconian in its language – despite the efforts of some House Republicans to temper their caucus’ vitriolic response to recent leaks and news stories about Bush-backed domestic and international spying programs.
Among other things, it declares that the House “expects the cooperation of all news media organizations” in keeping secret spying programs that the Bush administration claims are part of a war on terrorism but that could easily be used to invade the privacy of Americans.
No member of Congress who took seriously his or her oath to “defend the constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic” could vote for legislation that is so clearly at odds with the Freedom of the Press protections contained in the First Amendment to that document, and with the clear intention of founders such as Thomas Jefferson, who famously declared, “were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.
Yet, the final tally on the Oxley resolution was 227 in favor, 183 against.
The party breakdown was murkier than on some of the earlier votes, which pretty much divided along partisan lines.
Two hundred and ten Republicans endorsed the “expects the cooperation of all news media organizations” language, as did 17 Democrats.
The anti-First Amendment Democrats were John Barrow of Georgia, Melissa Bean of Illinois, Dan Boren of Oklahoma, Leonard Boswell of Iowa, Henry Cuellar of Texas, Pete DeFazio of Oregon, Chet Edwards of Texas, Bart Gordon of Tennessee, Brian Higgins of New York, Jim Marshall of Georgia, Jim Matheson of Utah, Charles Melancon of Louisiana, Collin Peterson of Minnesota, Mike Ross of Arkansas, John Salazar of Colorado, Ike Skelton of Missouri and Gene Taylor of Mississippi.
The 183 voted for a free press came from 174 Democrats, 8 Republicans and Vermont Independent Bernie Sanders.
The pro-First Amendment Republicans were Roscoe Bartlett of Maryland, Scott Garrett of New Jersey, Walter Jones of North Carolina, Donald Manzullo of Illinois, Butch Otter of Idaho, Ron Paul of Texas, Chris Shays of Connecticut and Jim Walsh of New York.
Through the various procedural votes, Shays was the most consistent backer of Freedom of the Press. But all the Republicans who voted against the resolution deserve praise. They provided a faint signal that there is still bipartisan support for the First Amendment in Congress – even if that there was not enough of it to carry the day for the Constitution.