Friday, March 24, 2006

Bush to Congress: Drop Dead

Russ Feingold is right. There's significant evidence that George W. Bush broke the law when he authorized the NSA's program of warrantless wiretapping, and for that he deserves censure. Whether Feingold can persuade enough other Senators—even within his own party—is another question.

Even if Feingold's current proposal goes nowhere, however, perhaps he should already be gearing up for the next round, when Bush violates a law that he himself signed.

Earlier this month, after months of hard negotiation over the addition of civil liberties protections, Congress approved a renewal of the "USA PATRIOT" Act and sent it to the President's desk. Senate minority leader Harry Reid pronounced himself satisfied with "a better bill" that "does not mean a blank check for the president". Bush praised the new bill, which, he said, "will allow our law enforcement officials to continue to use the same tools against terrorists that are already used against drug dealers and other criminals, while safeguarding the civil liberties of the American people". He signed it on March 9th. He then turned around and officially repudiated one of those civil liberties safeguards. Maybe it is a blank check after all.

In a signing statement accompanying the PATRIOT Act extension, Bush declared that he would not consider himself bound to obey specific oversight provisions requiring the FBI to report to Congress on its use of PATRIOT Act powers, if he felt that to do so would "impair foreign relations, national security, the deliberative process of the executive, or the performance of the executive's constitutional duties."

In one fell swoop Bush has knocked Congress's deliberative function into a cocked hat. If the President can get away with this kind of maneuver, then the months of wrangling over the exact contents of the PATRIOT renewal were, it turns out, worth absolutely nothing.

The only question about censure would now seem to be, "now or later?" Remember that the President has sworn an oath to "preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States". Either Bush believes that the reporting provision is unconstitutional, in which case signing the bill was inconsistent with his oath (censure him now), or he believes it is constitutional but plans to violate it if necessary (be ready to censure him when he does).*

Either way, Congress should be up in arms. Only Patrick Leahy (D-VT) has had anything to say about this publicly. Where are the rest of the Democrats?

Where, for that matter, is the Republican leadership? It was once possible, perhaps, for them to believe that party solidarity trumped all other considerations, even the safeguarding of their own Constitutional role. That should no longer be possible, now that presidential poll numbers are in the 30's. The Republicans won't always be in charge of the entire apparatus of government, and they're bound to be very sorry when the precedents set during this Presidency redound to their detriment.

Finally, has anyone seen the "liberal media" lately? According to Google News, today's piece in the Boston Globe (link above) is the first mention of something that has been a part of the public record for, depending on how you look at it, either a week (Leahy statement) or two (Bush statement). Fie and for shame.

* A third possibility exists: that he has no idea whether it's constitutional or not, and/or he doesn't care. Maybe this is the likeliest of the three.

Perhaps it was inevitable: I've discovered that when I chose the title of this post, I was inadvertently channeling (not plagiarizing) another blogger, GUY2K at Capitoilette, who used the same title on a post nearly three months ago, discussing essentially the same topic. Three months ago? Yep: it turns out that the whole signing-statement dodge has a longstanding place in the Bush playbook. Among GUY2K's topics is the signing statement via which Bush opted out of the McCain anti-torture amendment to last December's defense appropriations bill. This instance, too, received some attention from the Boston Globe, and I missed it. Mea culpa.