Friday, March 14, 2008

In Which We See the Doughnut 

Given recent developments, we cannot deny that we are, at certain times, susceptible to overwhelming feelings of melancholy and dread: whenever our eyes are open, for example, or when the swift approach of the royal vacuum cleaner forces us to abandon our customary fetal position on the carpet. We will not, however, wear the brand of the pessimist! -- for, as we will be the first to tell you, there is always some occasion for joy in the land! -- and although the standard-bearers of the Democratic Party (artist's conception, right) have spared no effort in driving our already-low expectations to downright Chthonian levels, a number of canny, principled legislators have in recent days brought us great and unexpected pleasure simply by doing what we elected them to do: that is, defending the Constitution and the rule of law against the depredations of Mr. Bush and his wretched pack of power-hungry jackals. May the items immediately below gladden your withered, pruny hearts as they did ours:

1.) On Wednesday, John Conyers and 19 members of the House Judiciary Committee released the following statement:
As a result of our review of classified as well as unclassified materials concerning the Administration’s Terrorist Surveillance Program, we have concluded that blanket retroactive immunity for phone companies is not justified. However, we do recommend a course of action that would both permit the carriers the opportunity to defend themselves in court and also protect classified information – by eliminating current legal barriers and authorizing relevant carriers to present fully in court their claims that they are immune from civil liability under current law, with appropriate protections to carefully safeguard classified information. In addition, we recommend legislation to fill a current gap in liability protection for carriers, and to create a bipartisan commission to thoroughly investigate the legality of the warrantless surveillance program.
In other words, under Conyers's proposal, telecom companies would have the chance to defend themselves against potential lawsuits by revealing, in court, exactly how the Bush administration persuaded them to break the law. This ingenious wrinkle prompted the usual hissy fit from the President, who as usual accused Congress of endangering American lives by refusing to whitewash his own felonies.

Nancy Pelosi, to her enduring credit, patiently explained to the press that the President was full of shit, and earlier today the House passed the Democratic version of the FISA renewal bill, which contains no retroactive immunity for telecoms, by a vote of 213-197. Our learned colleague Glenn Greenwald reports that:
As impressive as the House vote itself was, more impressive still was the floor debate which preceded it. I can't recall ever watching a debate on the floor of either House of Congress that I found even remotely impressive -- until today. One Democrat after the next -- of all stripes -- delivered impassioned, defiant speeches in defense of the rule of law, oversight on presidential eavesdropping, and safeguards on government spying. They swatted away the GOP's fear-mongering claims with the dismissive contempt such tactics deserve, rejecting the principle that has predominated political debate in this country since 9/11: that the threat of the Terrorists means we must live under the rule of an omnipotent President and a dismantled constitutional framework . . . .

It is, of course, true that this bill will have a hard time passing the Senate (though if even most House Blue Dogs were persuaded to support this bill, why can't most Democratic Senators who previously voted for the Rockefeller bill be persuaded?). It's also true that even if it did pass the Senate, the President will veto it, and there won't be enough votes to override the veto. So this bill won't become law, but that doesn't matter.

The reality is that the best possible outcome here is
nothing -- we lived quite well for 30 years under FISA and if no new bill is passed, we will continue to live under FISA. FISA grants extremely broad eavesdropping powers to the President and the FISA court virtually never interferes with any eavesdropping activities. And the only "fix" to FISA that is even arguably necessary -- allowing eavesdropping on foreign-to-foreign calls without warrants -- has the support of virtually everyone in Congress and could be easily passed as a stand-alone measure.

What matters is not that this bill becomes law, but that the Rockefeller/Cheney bill does not.
(Thanks as always to our venerated colleague Avedon Carol for the links.)

2.) And, courtesy of our rumbustious colleague Jonathan Schwarz, an item which we take the liberty of pinching more or less intact:
Gen. William Fallon was, until Tuesday, the commander of U.S. Central Command. Last week, an article in Esquire called him the Bush administration's primary obstacle to an attack on Iran and advocate of serious diplomacy. Now, this military voice of reason on Iran has resigned, under pressure from the White House.

There is new momentum behind legislation introduced by Senator James Webb and Rep. Mark Udall
that would prevent the President from attacking Iran without Congressional authorization. Senator Hillary Clinton, in a press release following Gen. Fallon's resignation, urged support for the bill. Just Foreign Policy met personally with Senator John Kerry during the Folly of Attacking Iran Tour, and he reaffirmed his active support.
You may urge your Congresspeople to support Webb/Udall by filling out a brief form here.

We hope to bring you more peppy, invigorating news in the coming weeks! -- but we do ask you not to hold your breath.

UPDATE (courtesy of our esteemed colleague Mark Adams of Dispassionate Liberal): More evidence that Some Democrats Can Learn! Inside Baseball aficionados will certainly enjoy this detailed analysis, by Daily Kos diarist Kagro X, of the Byzantine procedural rules that allowed your Democratic House leadership to neutralize the GOP's usual obstructionist tactics on the FISA bill:
You can't move to recommit an amendment to an amendment.

So the House gets to strip immunity (and the other junk) back out of H.R. 3773, and the Republicans can't just undo that work with a motion designed to peel off Blue Dogs. If the amendment to the Senate amendment passes, it pops right back out of the House and goes back to the Senate on the express bus, no stops.

And there's more. It arrives back in the Senate in privileged form, as a message from the House (the message being: we amended your crap) the consideration of which is not subject to filibuster. To be sure, the Republicans (or anyone willing to stand in their shoes) can filibuster the actual debate on the House amendment to Senate amendment, but they can't filibuster the question of whether or not to even have that debate, as they can with most other legislation.
If the above seems a tad confusing, well, let's just say there's plenty more where that came from!

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