Slavish Republican lawmakers roll over for Bush

March 20, 2006|By STEVE CHAPMAN

CHICAGO -- Sen. Russ Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat, thinks President Bush broke the law with his secret program to eavesdrop on Americans, and he wants Congress to censure Mr. Bush. He's right about the lawbreaking but wrong to think censure is the answer. That might give Americans the impression that Congress is something more than a supine slave of partisan interests. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Republicans on Capitol Hill, presented with the censure resolution, practically trampled each other to prove their slobbering devotion to the president. Sen. John W. Warner of Virginia assailed the proposal as "the worst type of political grandstanding." Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee accused Mr. Feingold of giving hope and encouragement to al-Qaida: "The signal that it sends, that there is in any way a lack of support for our commander in chief who is leading us with a bold vision in a way that is making our homeland safer, is wrong."

I had the impression that indicating a lack of support for our commander in chief was a constitutional right and sometimes a patriotic duty. But never mind that. It would be a waste of time to censure Mr. Bush because censure would not compel him to do anything he doesn't want to do, such as obey the 1978 law governing domestic wiretapping.

The only thing worth doing is to stop the president from carrying out such eavesdropping without genuine oversight by the courts. And that is one option our incumbent lawmakers wouldn't touch with a 10-foot pole.

Republicans, after all, control both the Senate and the House, and they are far more intent on protecting their party than upholding their prerogatives as a co-equal branch of government. Recently, Senate GOP leaders offered to bless the program without even investigating first to find out what, exactly, they are blessing.

Under this plan, the National Security Agency could listen in on the international phone calls of Americans if there is "probable cause to believe that one party to the communication is a member, affiliate or working in support of a terrorist group or organization." But no court would review whether "probable cause" exists. That assessment would be entirely up to Mr. Bush and his subordinates.

Vice President Dick Cheney, in a speech in Chicago last week, explained the equally rigorous process that the president has to go through to renew his surveillance effort: "Before he reauthorizes the program, the intelligence community has to certify that the threats still exist and recommend that the program be renewed. The secretary of defense has to sign off on it. The attorney general of the United States ... has to certify that it is compliant with the laws and Constitution of the United States. Then the president reauthorizes the program." What a relief it is to know that the administration can't renew the program without the approval of the administration.

This is an absurd parody of the checks and balances our system is supposed to provide. If the framers of the Constitution had thought a single branch of government could police itself, they would not have created three branches.

The idea was that each branch would jealously guard its powers against the others. But in this case, Congress passed a law, the president ignored it, and Congress applauded him for doing so.

What the framers didn't anticipate was the rise of political parties, allegiances to which now override every other consideration. This episode makes clear that the best government is divided government - where the party that occupies the White House does not control Congress. Only then can we rely on lawmakers to provide a meaningful check on presidential power. With the GOP dominant at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, the president can treat Congress as an obsolete irrelevancy.

Sen. Pat Roberts, Republican of Kansas, defending the GOP proposal against critics who say it's pathetically weak, said he resented being called a "lap dog of the administration." That label certainly is unfair. Even lap dogs will bite if they're kicked often enough, which is more than you can say for congressional Republicans.

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Mondays and Wednesdays in The Sun. His e-mail is schapman@tribune.com

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.