Category Archives: congress

“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer.”

So right now Congress is fighting over whether to grant big telecom companies retroactive immunity to prosecution for having violated the privacy rights of millions of customers by allowing the government to spy on them. (Big campaign contributors and fear of terrorism vs. Constitutional principle… let’s see, who do we think will win that one?)

The newest salvo in the ongoing fight over whether the government should have the power to eavesdrop on anyone without a warrant comes to you below, from Fox News:

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XQgQRL4lXzA[/youtube]

Few things. First, here’s how FISA works, briefly. There are, as makes sense, three basic types of communication: domestic-domestic, which is covered by the 4th Amendment; foreign-foreign, which isn’t; and domestic-foreign, which is what FISA addresses. Effectively, it says that if the NSA, CIA, or any other intelligence-gathering service wishes to listen to calls, read e-mails, etc., that are going between someone inside the U.S. and someone outside the U.S., they need to obtain a warrant first. That’s it.

Now, there was a funky loophole in the law which became prominent as communications tech became more advanced. Namely, what happens if someone in Syria is talking to someone in Pakistan, but the call is routed through Michigan? It’s clearly a foreign-to-foreign call, but it’s also kind of domestic. So the law was amended recently to close that loophole. This makes sense, and despite what’s claimed toward the end of the clip, neither Silvestre Reyes nor any other prominent Democrats opposed the change. (Yes, Fox News, lying to its viewers, I too nearly died of shock.)

Anyway, I’ve a feeling we’re going to hear the tale of these dead soldiers a whole lot in the coming days, and a few things need to be clear. First, there’s a provision in FISA for emergencies. Since foreign intelligence gathering is, on occasion, time-sensitive, the government’s allowed to engage in surveillance without a warrant for up to 72 hours, as long as they then apply for one and can prove that there was no time to apply normally. “Three of our guys were just kidnapped and we need to find out where they are” would seem to qualify as an emergency. In fact, it did, the thing that held up the surveillance was that no one could find a high-ranking official at the Justice Dept. to sign off on it (what with half of them resigning either in protest or disgrace), not that “the law was cumbersome,” as is claimed in the clip.

Secondly, as I said earlier, the foreign-to-foreign-but-kinda-domestic loophole which was ever so slightly problematic in this situation (and I can’t stress this enough) has been fixed already. Not only that, but with overwhelming support from both parties, because it made sense to do so. So why would the GOP bring up this story now?

For the same reason they put a provision that hurt unions in the bill establishing the Homeland Security Department, waited until just before the ’02 election to vote on Iraq, and forced a vote on expanded surveillance powers just before Congress went on recess this summer. For the same reason that Saxby Chambliss put Max Cleland next to bin Laden, and Rudy Guiliani is running for President of 9/11. Because no matter how low their approval ratings may be, how outrageous the powers they’re asking for are, they’ve figured out that they can get whatever they want as long as they scare everyone into thinking that Americans will die if they don’t get their way.

Now they’re gearing up to do it again, and they’ll keep doing it. Unless. Unless we realize that fear makes us stupid, and remember that unwise decisions will only create more things that go bump in the night. We’ve done the fear thing for a few years now. Let’s give wisdom a shot, shall we?

GOP completes quest for the Holy Grail of Irony

“…we’re standing on our principle that poor kids ought to come first.”

Which prominent member of Congress said that this morning? Was it:

A. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, explaining the plan of House Democrats to keep pushing for an expansion of the S-CHIP program despite President Bush’s veto, or
B. House Minority Leader John Boehner, declaring his intention to support said veto?
It was, weirdly enough, B. Now, I’ve been following Republican doublespeak for a while now, but this may well set a new standard for absurdity. Follow the illogic with me, folks.

The United States, alone among the big industrial democracies, relies upon the private sector to provide healthcare to the majority of its citizens. (Read this for an amazing summary of the problems inherent in that system.) As a result, Americans pay about twice as much per capita for medical care than their Western European counterparts. Not all of us are left completely out to dry, however, as senior citizens are covered by Medicare and those who live below the federal poverty level ($20,650 a year for a family of four) are eligible for Medicaid.
However, as healthcare costs increase and wages remain constant, a growing number of families have found themselves in the unfortunate position of being “too wealthy” to qualify for Medicaid, but too poor to afford private coverage. Recognizing this problem, Congress enacted S-CHIP (State Children’s Health Insurance Program) in 1997. What it does, in a nutshell, is extend Medicaid eligibility to children in families whose incomes lie above the poverty line, but below a certain threshold set by individual states.
So to review… This is a program which gives healthcare to children who would otherwise be unable to receive it. Its expansion would increase the number of children who get said healthcare by almost 4 million. And by supporting a veto that would prevent this bill from passing, John Boehner and his fellow Republicans are supporting “the principle that poor kids ought to come first.”

How on earth does someone say that without the irony causing their brain to explode?

More on this fight later, but I couldn’t let that quote go without some sort of comment.

Thank Odin the Nobels don’t have a butterfly ballot

As easy as it would be to make a bunch of parallels between tonight’s massive bed-crapping by the Sox bullpen and the performance of the Democratic majority in Congress since we voted them in, I think I’ll go a different route.

The media coverage of Al Gore’s Nobel win has been quite something to watch. For one thing, the American press seems blissfully unaware that Gore’s actually sharing the award with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Not surprising, really, since that would require them to know what said panel is, but it’d be nice if they could at least do the IPCC the courtesy of acknowledging their work. That’s not what’s been most fun, though. It’s been the focus on “does this mean Gore will take a shot at the Presidency again?” On the one hand, I’d love for him to try. He’s easily the most qualified person for the job; he’s got the long-term vision necessary to lead a superpower, and if nothing else, he clearly has a functioning brain.

But come back with me, dear readers, to November of 2000. You’re the sitting Vice President of the United States. Your administration, though plagued by a torch-wielding Congress, has presided over the greatest peacetime economic expansion ever. Your opponent is a callow, inexperienced legacy politician. Despite this, partly due to your own tentative campaigning style and largely due to a media more interested in which candidate would be a better pick to host your frat party, the polls have been close all year. Election Night rolls around, and at the end of the night, you’ve clearly won the popular vote, but Florida is so close that they’ll need to count again to figure out who won. It’s stressful, sure, but such is democracy. There’s a system in place to deal with this sort of thing, and you’ve been raised your entire life to trust that system.

That’s when it all goes to hell. The other guy’s operatives start gaming that system. They use every legal trick in the book to hold up the recount. They launch a press campaign to convince the media that the election’s over, and all the delay is due to sour grapes. When this looks like it might not work out, they send mobs into the streets to intimidate vote counters. (For a more complete account of the post-election battle, read Jeffrey Toobin’s Too Close to Call, which is required reading for anyone wanting to know how easily democracy can be thrown for a loop.) These banana republic-style tactics work, and faced with a mocking press, a hostile Supreme Court, and no support from your own political allies, you concede.

Losing an election, by all accounts, is a crushing blow to your ego. Having an election that you’ve clearly won stolen from you in broad daylight? I can’t even imagine. As much as I would love to see Al Gore taking that oath on January 20 (even if it would be 8 years late), I completely understand why he doesn’t want it anymore. He’s found his place, and more power to him.

Incidentally, for those hoping to avoid a replay of 2000 (and, depending on what you read about Ohio, 2004), a few things to keep an eye on:

-A ballot initiative in California being financed by several prominent GOPer’s which would apportion electoral votes by congressional district, a move which would effectively hand the GOP candidate 20+ votes. The campaign’s hit a few snags lately, but this sort of thing has a way of hanging around after you think it’s been dealt with.

-Whether the Senate plans to confirm Hans von Spakovsky to a permanent seat on the Federal Elections Commission. The Rules Committee passed his nomination on to the full Senate, but there’s as yet been no vote. Keeping in mind that the FEC determines the rules for elections, might be a good idea to check out his record, which doesn’t exactly give me the warm fuzzies.

There’s a year until the election, all. Lots of wild tricks can be pulled if our eyes aren’t constantly on the ball.

This is… our country?

Nothing like getting things started on an upbeat note, so here goes…

Ted Kennedy, my very own senior Senator, wrote a piece for Salon in which he discusses the Administration’s less-than-stellar record on torture. Among other things, he mentions the legislation he’s sponsoring which would clarify the law in this particular area. Please take a look at the bill (it’s short, I promise) before reading any further.

Now then. On the one hand, I think we can agree that the methods banned by this bill are good things to ban. (And just to save everyone a lot of time and bother, if you don’t find these tactics worth banning, my posts probably aren’t going to be your particular cup of chai.) The thing that disturbs the hell out of me is that one of the more prominent members of the US Senate actually has to write a bill laying out in blunt terms that these things are bad. Not only that, but that there’s a better than decent chance that this bill won’t pass, and even if it does, that the Administration will attach a signing statement and toss it down the memory hole.
If someone had told you seven years ago that Congress would soon be considering a bill the purpose of which was to make sure that American soldiers and intelligence agents wouldn’t electrocute, beat, or fake-drown prisoners, would you have believed it possible? Certainly it’s been a long time since I was naive enough to believe that America has never done anything even morally grey, let alone lousy, but I still thought there were at least a few lines we wouldn’t cross. Torturing people was one of those lines.
That’s the single reason I’m most pissed off at the current Administration, I think. Seven years ago, I had a pretty good grasp on what America meant. Now I’m not nearly as sure, and that drives me up the wall.

Fortunately enough, being driven up the wall tends to make me write, so I imagine there’ll be no shortage of posts in the near future. Hopefully they’ll be worth reading.