The report by the Justice Department inspector general on the FBI’s use of national security letters to obtain private data with minimal judicial review (NY Times, 3/08/07) appears to be just another attempt to curtail the civil liberties and privacy rights of Americans. Our busy days sometimes don’t allow us to see the bigger picture though, the wholesale of civil rights that began on 9/11 and has since been portrayed as necessary to combat terrorism. There was phonetapping without warrants (NY Times, 1/17/06), opening of mail without warrants (NY Times 12/23/05), detention of an US Citizen without right to a habeas corpus petition (Hamdi vs. Rumsfeld) just to name a few.
If one looks at the yet even bigger picture of the constitutionality of the Bush administration’s policies, the sight gets scarier. Between presidential signing statements, broad interpretation of presidential power and privilege, and a refusal to release documents requested by Congress, this administration has successfully broadened executive power while Congress and largely the media has looked the other way.
The Democrats, while promising change, have not gotten past a non-binding resolution and a new ethics rule that is already being exploited. Afraid of political backlash in the next elections, over a year away, it appears they are afraid of seriously challenging Mr. Bush. The Republicans at the same time have very successfully outmaneuvered especially the Senate Democrats, disallowing them even to debate said non-binding resolution. So are Republicans just smarter? More savvy of playing politics? My argument is they are more ruthless and they have more of the proverbial balls. And therein lies the Democrats biggest problem not just to get anything done in Washington, but also to be successful in the next election.
Let’s look at the example of the nomination of court of appeals judges a bit over a year and half ago (NY Times 07/20/2005). After Democrats successfully prevented up-or-down votes for several nominees, some of which had been nominated years earlier, Republicans simply threatened to change the rules of the proceedings by instating the nuclear option, i.e. requiring simple majorities for cloture for nominations. Within days the Democrats agreed to a compromise and some of the most controversial judges ascended to the bench.
Fast forward, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge debate, pick a session between now and ten years ago. Republicans have applied essentially any maneuver to outplay Senate Democrats threatening to filibuster legislation that would allow oil exploration. For example, a little over a year ago, frustrated by several failed attempts to get to a vote, Republicans in the Senate simply attached a drilling measure to a Defense Bill (NY Times, 12/15/2005) thereby putting Democrats on the spot to either vote against funding the military or opening the refuge for drilling.
With these maneuvers for much less serious issues, the Republicans have successfully pushed their agenda. Yet, faced with the erosion of civil liberties, the uncontrolled expansion of executive power, and a ever more costly war in Iraq, all the Senate Democrats can muster is a non-binding resolution that never even gets to the floor. In this playing field Democrats have to stop playing the nice guys. The American people gave them lots of political capital last November, Democrats must be bald enough to spend it and stand up to Republicans and Mr. Bush. If they fail now, the Karl Rove’s of 2008 will have the easiest job ever .