What Backroom Conniving Are Steny Hoyer and the Chris Carney Blue Dogs Up To on FISA?

Are House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and a small handful of "Blue Dog" Democrats working in secret to reverse one of the only worthwhile acts of Congressional Democrats since they were given control of Congress in 2006: namely, the refusal to vest the President with vast new warrantless eavesdropping powers and bequeath lawbreaking telecoms with amnesty? It certainly appears that way.

Numerous reports -- both public and otherwise -- suggest that Hoyer is negotiating with Jay Rockefeller to write a new FISA bill that would be agreeable to the White House and the Senate. Their strategy is to craft a bill that they can pretend is something short of amnesty for telecoms but which, in every meaningful respect, ensures an end to the telecom lawsuits. It goes without saying that no "compromise" will be acceptable to Rockefeller or the White House unless there is a guaranteed end to those lawsuits, i.e., unless the bill grants amnesty to lawbreaking telecoms.

Even Capitol Hill insiders are baffled at the impetus for this new drive to capitulate. For the first times in years, the House Democratic caucus unified to take an actual stand on an issue relating to Terrorism -- all but five Blue Dogs voted for the House bill and rejected the Rockefeller/Cheney Senate bill. Even the GOP accepted that their fear-mongering campaign around the issue had failed, as there was no public outcry demanding that the President be allowed to spy on Americans without warrants or that telecoms be allowed to break the law with impunity. Key Blue Dogs have been making impressive public statements insisting that they will not reverse their position.

Hoyer's motives, then, appear to be two-pronged: (1) he and the House Democratic leadership simply want to grant amnesty to telecoms -- they favor it -- because they do not want the lawsuits relating to illegal spying to proceed to resolution; and (2) they are deferring to the tiny number of Blue Dogs who favor amnesty and warrantless eavesdropping. This article from The Hill this week specifically identifies freshman Rep. Chris Carney as demanding that the House comply with the President's demands:

Vulnerable freshman Democrats and Blue Dogs say the issue demands action.
"Overall, it's very important," said Rep. Chris Carney (D-Pa.), a freshman member of the Blue Dog Coalition who often votes against his leadership.

Carney said that a compromise should protect national security and also respect civil liberties. "I've been in favor of the Senate bill. We'll see what happens," he said.

In early March, a new campaign was announced to begin running ads in the districts of vulnerable Democratic Congressmen like Carney whose presence in Washington is worse than worthless: it's extremely counter-productive since they essentially eliminate the entire concept of "opposition party" by continuously pressuring Democrats to enable the most radical aspects of Republican rule for their own perceived narrow political gain.

 Within 24 hours, close to $50,000 was raised for that ad campaign. And the poll accompanying the fundraising campaign -- which asked which of five proposed Blue Dogs should be the first target -- resulted in a clear win (or, more accurately, a clear loss) for Chris Carney. The ad campaign aimed at Carney is in the process of being completed (and a professional ad coordinator to oversee and finalize that process is now needed -- email me if you are one or can recommend one and I'll pass it along).

For obvious reasons, this ad campaign is now more imperative than ever. The more funds that are available to fuel the ad campaign, the more potent the impact will be -- both for Carney and in terms of the message being sent generally. Those who want to donate to the ad campaign can and are encouraged to do so here.

I wrote about the reasons why it is so crucial to target Democrats who behave like Carney does back in March when the campaign was launched. These latest developments vividly highlight those reasons. Scare-mongering ads from right-wing groups have been running in numerous districts of the freshman Democrats who have stood firm against the demands of the telecoms and the President. But there have been no ads running in the districts of those members who want to vote for warrantless eavesdropping and telecom amnesty. As a result, House Democrats like Hoyer and Carney perceive that there is a cost only when they defy the President, but perceive that there is no price to be paid from capitulating. More than anything, that is what has to change.

The Steny Hoyers of the world need to realize that there will be a real cost when they enable lawbreaking and help to further eviscerate the rule of law, or else they will continue to do it. There's no point in having Chris Carneys in Congress if -- as he and his small band of like-minded comrades are doing now -- they're going to force the House Democrats to join with the most radical elements of the GOP in dismantling core constitutional protections and further entrenching our two-tiered system of justice where the most politically well-connected actors are literally immune from the rule of law.

At the very least, Carney's constituents ought to be -- and will be -- aware of his abdication of duties, his serving as a Bush/Cheney rubber stamp, and his support for patently un-American measures such as warrantless spying and telecom amnesty. The voters in his district can then decide in an informed way whether Carney should be returned to Congress to do more of that. And the House Democratic leadership and their caucus members should know that there will be similar campaigns whenever they contemplate abdicating their responsibilities this way.

Needless to say, this planned capitulation makes no sense either substantively or politically. Democrats are supposedly afraid of a renewed fear campaign in August claiming that the one-year surveillance orders obtained under the Protect America Act are about to expire. But Democrats have always been willing to agree -- and can again offer -- a short-term extension of the PAA. It is the President and the GOP who have always blocked its extension, meaning that any alleged "danger" from expiration of those orders comes from Bush and the GOP. Moreover, the PAA did not expire until last February, which means that the White House could have -- and should have -- obtained new one-year PAA surveillance orders which would not expire until next February, not this August.

The planned capitulation makes even less sense politically. Having picked this fight and then stood their ground for months while numerous caucus members were subjected to ad campaigns, a reversal and capitulation by Democrats now -- and that is what any so-called "compromise" would be -- would make them look even weaker and more devoid of convictions than is typical. It would severely exacerbate the greatest political liability Democrats have: namely, the perception that they are "weak" because they stand for nothing and/or lack the courage to defend their convictions.

And there are few things that would infuriate their base and prompt the equivalent of all-out political war in an election year more than an act like this. Handing George Bush new warrantless eavesdropping powers and full-scale protection from having his illegal spying finally investigated and adjudicated (and that is what the effect of telecom amnesty would be), rather than just waiting six months for the next President to take office, would be unconscionable. At worst, all they have to do is re-offer an amnesty-free six month extension of the PAA, which would negate any GOP arguments that they're leaving "critical gaps in the intelligence," and that will resolve any perceive fears that (as usual) are driving them. If House Democrats end up passing an amnesty-like bill, it will be only because they want to, because they favor it. Those who do that will be indistinguishable from the worst extremist elements of the Bush-led GOP and ought to be treated as such.

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Contributions to the ad campaign aimed at Chris Carney due to his support for warrantless eavesdropping on Americans and amnesty for lawbreaking telecoms can be made here.

UPDATE: For those who believe it is sinful ever to do anything to undermine or weaken any political official who has a "D" after his or her name, my response to that is here. That mindset ensures that Beltway Democrats will continue to ignore and stomp on the political values of those who mindlessly support all of them no matter what they do merely due to the fact that they are "Democrats." Why would Congressional Democrats ever change their behavior if those favorable circumstances just blissfully continue unchanged? The goal here isn't to weaken a Democrat, but rather, to create an incentive scheme to induce them to change their conduct.

It is also worth noting that when Carney first ran for election, this was his stated position regarding spying on Americans, which he gave to Project Vote Smart (h/t Casual_Observer):

Should the United States grant law enforcement agencies greater discretion to read mail and email, tap phones, and conduct random searches to prevent future terrorist attacks? No.

Yet once elected, here he is doing exactly the opposite: agitating for a bill demanded by the President which would authorize vast new unchecked government powers to spy on the telephone calls and emails of Americans. So in addition to supporting an un-American, destructive bill, Carney is also violating the commitments he made to the voters in his district when he was elected. Why shouldn't the voters who elected him know about that?

Glenn Greenwald was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator in New York. He is the author of the New York Times Bestselling book "How Would a Patriot Act?," a critique of the Bush administration's use of executive power, released in May 2006. His second book, "A Tragic Legacy", examines the Bush legacy.

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