Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Tail Gunner Russ

I grew up in Wisconsin and we have an unfortunate tradition of sending demagogues to the U.S. Senate. The most infamous example is the now-reviled Joseph McCarthy, who emerged from my hometown and blustered his way to fame and then ignominy through his crusade against Communists. A combination of overreach and the withering exposure afforded his campaign through the scrutiny of journalists like Edward R. Murrow brought this alcoholic small-town lawyer low.

Next Wisconsin sent a different type of demagogue, William Proxmire, to the Senate. Proxmire was an inveterate publicity hound who monthly regaled his pet journalists with the "Golden Fleece Awards," where he publicly "shamed" his colleagues by shining a light on their pet projects. While Proxmire was largely correct about many of the boondoggles he spotlighted, he never did anything about actually taking these items out of the budgets. Things would pass anyway and he simply earned a reputation as a gadfly. Meanwhile, any initiatives he might offer were simply set aside by the Senate leadership, making him the least effective senator in Washington throughout his career.

Comes now Russ Feingold, emerging from the back bench with a resolution to censure President Bush for authorizing the NSA eavesdropping on conversations involving American citizens suspected of contact with Al Qaeda. Link is below:


Feingold is convinced that Bush broke the law. It's not at all clear that he did, of course. Existing case law is at best inconclusive and the 1978 FISA law has not faced constitutional scrutiny. I personally think it's time to challenge FISA and the mechanism behind it. The money graf is this:

"Congress has to reassert our system of government, and the cleanest and the most efficient way to do that is to censure the president," Feingold said. "And, hopefully, he will acknowledge that he did something wrong."

While Congress has always wanted to conduct foreign policy, authority to do so has always resided with the executive branch. And for good reason - if Congress controls foreign policy, it puts decisionmaking into the hands of 535 individuals with competing agendas. For a country to have an effective foreign policy and face it offers the world, it needs to speak with one voice. If Feingold thinks current policy is wrong, his task should be to get to the hustings and offer his vision to the voting public. Congress can hardly "reassert" something that it does not have authority to do. I can assert that I am the King of Spain, but that doesn't mean I'll be able to get free tapas in Madrid any time soon.

Ultimately, Feingold's compadres understand that his proposal is silly, which is why minority leader Harry Reid was backpedaling from the proposal yesterday. You have to wonder why my fellow cheeseheads continue to send morons to the World's Greatest Deliberative Body.


Execu-bot said...

Its interesting that you see this as a foreign policy issue, and not something related to personal protection, or civic freedoms. : )

Mark said...

I see it as a foreign policy issue because that's precisely what it is. If there were evidence that the administration had been wiretapping calls where both participants were U.S. citizens and the call emanated from inside the United States, then it might be a civic freedom issue. But that is not the case here. The calls in question were between people in the U.S., not even necessarily citizens, and other individuals from outside the U.S. who were suspected of terrorist activities. The key there is calls coming from outside the U.S. That would tend to make this a foreign policy issue.

Meanwhile, what's subsequently happened is that many of these calls are now being placed on the "pay as you go" cell phones that are offered for sale at places like Wal-Mart and Target. There was a news report of a Target store in Hemet, CA where one individual recently attempted to buy over 100 of those phones. The upshot is that whatever the merits or demerits of the program, this sort of behavior makes it impossible to track these calls. And so the NSA program is effectively dead anyway.

There's always a conflict between personal liberty and a governmental offer of safety and security. As someone who is broadly libertarian, I'm especially conscious of this. But the liberties of those who were in the WTC didn't survive the impact of the airplanes hitting the buildings. So, you make a judgment. Bush did. Feingold is free to criticize or even attempt to bring censure on Bush for his decision, but that doesn't mean that Feingold's actions are any more noble than Bush's. In fact, I'd argue they are less so. Hence the post.