Use it or lose it. That's the first lesson of political power - which Democrats still haven't learned. As they proved by their vote on the National Security Agency wiretap legislation, when push comes to shove, Democrats would rather fold than fight.
A quick recap: In December 2005, The New York Times first reported that, shortly after Sept. 11, President Bush ordered the NSA to monitor international phone calls without first getting a warrant from the court, as required by the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA. As if that weren't bad enough, we soon learned that many domestic calls were also included in the NSA sweep; that only a handful of members of Congress had been informed of the program (and sworn to secrecy); and that then-Attorney General John Ashcroft had refused to sanction the White House order because he believed it was against the law.
As soon as the news broke, Democrats began to raise hell. They demanded an investigation. They grilled Mr. Ashcroft and then-White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales. They even threatened to impeach President Bush. How dare he purposely evade the law? Why refuse to get a warrant from what is, in effect, a rubber-stamp court? Surely, cried Democrats, Congress would not tolerate an outlaw administration.
But that was then, and this is now. Then, Republicans controlled Congress. Now, Democrats do. So what did Democrats do in the first opportunity they had to vote on the NSA spying program? They copped out.
Congress, on the last day before its members left town for August, and with the help of 16 Senate Democrats, passed emergency legislation to authorize Mr. Bush's past illegal, warrantless wiretaps. Not only that, it absolved Mr. Bush from having to seek a court warrant for any future wiretaps - as long as he first obtains permission from Alberto Gonzales. Congress rewarded Mr. Bush's lawless behavior and gave him a free pass to continue doing legally what he had been doing illegally.
Why? Democrats admit there were problems with the original FISA legislation but insist they didn't have time to fix them before leaving for the August recess. Nonsense. If so, why did they wait till the day before vacation to bring the bill up for consideration?
Clearly, any necessary corrections to FISA could have waited until September. If not - if there really were a terrorist threat that demanded immediate action (none was cited by the administration) - surely it would have been worth sacrificing a couple of days at the beach, rather than simply throwing the Fourth Amendment out the window and running out of town.
Some Democrats also explain that they went along with Mr. Bush because, otherwise, they were afraid of being branded "soft on the war on terror." What a bunch of wimps. Haven't they learned anything? Republicans will accuse Democrats of being soft on terror no matter how they vote.
There is no excuse - none - for Democrats to surrender to Mr. Bush on illegal wiretapping. Doing so was a huge, cowardly, shameful cop-out.
Adding insult to injury, Democrats now insist that because, under the new legislation, Mr. Bush's expanded spy powers expire in six months, they'll fix everything six months from now. If they didn't get it right the first time, they won't get it right the second time. Once again, Mr. Bush will plead "terror" and Democrats will cave. Our Fourth Amendment rights could be gone forever.
That is, unless the Democratic leadership and Democratic senators hear from enough outraged Americans between now and then.
Today, Democrats have the power. But if they don't start using their power to end the war in Iraq and stop Mr. Bush's outlaw presidency, they're going to lose it all.
Bill Press is host of a nationally syndicated radio show. His e-mail is: email@example.com.
© 2007 by The Baltimore Sun