Sunday, March 04, 2007

Do Congress and the American people have the stomach for it?

This post follows nicely on the heels of an exchange I had with Liberal Journal Man in Comments. Referring to a NYTimes editorial advocating a Must-Do List for Congress, Glenn Greenwald warns:
The NYT Editorial is well-intentioned and possibly helpful in re-focusing attention on these issues, but the Editorial's suggested solutions are ultimately misguided. None of the proposed measures -- from restoring Habeas Corpus to enacting new FISA legislation to closing secret CIA prisons to repealing the interrogation provisions of the Military Commissions Act -- is realistic, because it is just not possible to marshall the filibuster-proof number of votes in the Senate right now to accomplish any of that. That's just reality.

And that, in turn, is true because Senators, including large numbers of Democratic Senators, remain petrified of challenging the President in any meaningful way on national security issues generally, and are particularly wracked with fear when it comes to trying to limit those powers which are "justified" in the name of Fighting the Terrorists. Before any of these measures can be pursued meaningfully, media perspective and public opinon on these matters need to change.

Congressional Democrats, for instance, have become somewhat more emboldened in their opposition to the War in Iraq not because they suddenly decided on principle that resolute opposition was necessary, but because American public opinion was way ahead of them and all but demanded action on the war. Americans turned against the war, and thus, Congressional Democrats feel compelled to find a way to follow. Nothing moves Beltway politicians except pressure from their donors and/or demands from the voters who have the power to turn them out of office.

Beyond the obvious fact that the Republican-led Congress completely abdicated their legislative and oversight responsibilities for five years, there have been two principal reasons the Bush administration has been able to break the law with impunity and to continue to govern with no accountability -- (1) a listless and compliant press which has done very little to reveal and make Americans aware of the true nature and extent of these abuses, and (2) the administration's obsessive maintenance of a wall of secrecy which has concealed its behavior from the public and thus prevented the public (and the media) from really understanding what their Government has been doing. While little is going to change with the former, the Democrat-controlled Congress does have the ability to tear down that wall of secrecy and truly shed light on how radical and lawless this administration has been.

Far more than legislative solutions right now (which have no chance of succeeding), what we urgently need are compelled, subpoena-driven, aggressive hearings designed for maximum revelation and drama. Hearings are able, in a dramatic and television-news-friendly environment, to shed light on how extreme and radical this administration really has been in all of these areas. More than trying to repeal the worst legislative abuses of the last Congress, hearings -- real and dramatic and probing -- were the real promise of electing Democrats to take over the Congress. It is time -- and it is beginning to be past the time -- for that to start in earnest.

You can't convince Americans of the need to stop abuses until you demonstrate to them in a dramatic and undeniable way that those absues are being perpetrated and that they are harmful and dangerous.

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Democrats in Congress need to realize right now that the administration will not produce or disclose any meaningful evidence unless and until they are truly forced to do so, and forcing them to disclose meaningful information is going to require a willingness to fight hard.

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There has been talk recently from the President's supporters of the possible "constitutional crisis" that may be triggered by a confrontation between the President and the Congress over war powers in Iraq and/or Iran. Such talk is absurd. We have had a constitutional crisis in this country since September, 2001, when the Bush Justice Department promulgated theories of limitless presidential power that could not be any more repugnant to our constitutional order. And since then, this President has exercised those powers continuously and aggressively, to the point where he has literally existed outside of and above all forms of law, and has been all but immune from true judicial scrutiny and/or Congressional oversight or limitation.

The choice is not whether to provoke a constitutional crisis. The real choice is whether to recognize that we have one and to act to end it, or continue to pretend that it does not exist by acquiescing to the President's ongoing abuses and fundamental encroachments into every area.

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Democrats have to internalize that this administration does not operate like previous ones. No rational person can doubt that they are limitless in their contempt for legal restrictions or notions of checks and balances. The last election, by itself, has not changed their approach and will do not so. They are not going to voluntarily comply with anything or disclose anything. They are going to have to be forced to do so.

And televised, highly publicized confrontations over the administration's hubris and arrogance and utter contempt for our legal institutions and political traditions is not something to be avoided. It is something we desperately need as a country. Issue subpoenas for all of this information, make them defy the subpoenas, and then demand that courts compel compliance. Create media dramas in which the administration fights to maintain full-scale secrecy around all of its legally dubious and extreme behavior. Americans hate hubris of that sort and do not trust this administration. Those are fights they cannot win.

Confrontations of this type are absolute pre-requisites if one wants to do anything about any of the truly urgent issues raised by the Times Editorial this morning. These issues cannot be amicably resolved or legislated away. The real power of the Congress is to compel a public airing of what this Government has been doing for the last six years. Everything else will follow from that. But it still remains to be seen -- it is highly questionable -- whether the Democrats who have been given control of the Congress by the American people have the stomach for that fight.

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