Thursday, February 10, 2011

They are not on your side

As everyone knows, the renewal of some provisions of the Traitor ('scuse me, "Patriot") Act was unexpectedly defeated in the House on Tuesday. Brought to a vote under a "suspension of the rules" procedure, it required a two-thirds vote to pass - a margin it failed to reach.

Most of the media coverage - and a good deal of the online commentary - was about how "embarrassing" this was for Rep. Boner and his cronies, since it was the fact that 26 GOPpers defied the leadership and voted "nay" that brought the bill down. In a sense, I suppose that was a reasonable focus, since the vote was 277-148 for passage and when it is brought up again under normal procedures - and there is a rush on to do just that, under a rule allowing for just one hour of debate with no amendments or points of order allowed* - it should pass handily.

That outcome should be of great relief to much of elite opinion, i.e., the Serious People, such as the editorial writers at the Washington Post, who ran a panicky, trembling-lip piece on how "the clock is ticking" on the Traitor Act and how
[i]f lawmakers fail to act, they risk stripping the government of important anti-terrorism tools,
thus, we are apparently supposed to gather, leaving us all at the mercy of The terrorists! The terrorists! who hate our freedom and want to murder us in our beds. I expect the editorial was dictated; I can't help but think their hands would have been shaking too much in fear to type it in themselves.

But getting back to the overall coverage of the vote, there were a couple of points that were either wrong or omitted.

One thing that was wrong was all the talk about the vote reflecting some kind of "tea party insurgency" or "tea party defiance." But only eight of those 26 GOPpers were first-termers. Even if every one of the 5 non-voting GOPpers was a first-termer, that would still mean that 50 of the 63 new GOPper House members voted with the leadership. Not much "defiance" there.

On the other hand, something that was omitted almost entirely from the coverage that I saw was that support for renewing provisions of the Traitor Act declined rather significantly. Last year, only 10 GOPpers voted against renewal as compared to this year's 26. And that renewal got 315 votes, which is 38 more than this year. So 16 GOPpers and 22 Dims went from "yea" to "nay" since last year. Not nearly enough to make the difference for more than the immediate moment, but when support for this sort of crap drops nearly 14% in a year, well, it's at least worthy of mention.

Something else worthy of mention but got very little is that the defeat of the bill is proof again, if proof were still needed, that the areas of privacy and civil liberties are the ones where the right and the left can overlap and diverge in perhaps unexpected ways. In a lot of ways, Ron Paul may be (meaning is) suitable for popping out of a cuckoo clock - but when he says that police powers should be strictly limited to those proven actually necessary and protection of personal privacy against government intrusion is a high ideal, there are many on the left who could (and will) echo not only the sentiments, but the words.

But here's the crux of it, the vital, central point that has to be made and made clearly and to which the title of the post refers: The GOPper leadership and the White House were and are united in support of the bill. They are united in their support for continuing the expanded government powers to poke, prod, and pry into every aspect of our private lives. The are united in their devotion to the maintenance and yes expansion of executive power. In fact, the White House's only objection was that the extension was only to December of 2012 instead of 2013.

This is nothing new, of course. When these same three provisions were up for renewal in 2009, the White House was all over it, calling them "important authorities" even as they admittted that one of them hadn't ever been used, which does raise the question of just how "important" it is. No matter, we need it! Why? Well, because we have it! Which has always, always, been the cry of the national security state from the very beginning: It must have more power and it must continue to have whatever powers it already has. It's vital! Important! Necessary! It's for your own good! Power, we need to keep reminding ourselves, never concedes anything (least of all its own powers) without a fight.

And in this the Obama administration - with the full support of the Serious People - is every bit as bad as the Bush administration was, adopting its policies and embracing its positions, even going beyond them in some cases, sometimes shockingly so. On the power of the powerful, the extent of the Executive, on the ability of the government to know more about you while you know less about the government, PHC** and Shrub are two of a kind, peas in a pod, birds of a feather, soulmates, whatever cliché you care to employ.

Which is why the whole business about "sunset" provisions, about how "Oh, this is just a temporary extension, just so we can take a better look at it" is such thoroughgoing bull and has been since the Traitor Act was first passed in a panic after 9/11. At that time, we were assured that we needn't worry about the impact on civil liberties because most of the provisions - 16 of them, in fact - we going to sunset after five years.

Well, four years later, in 2005, the House voted to make 14 of those 16 permanent and the other two were extended for 10 years. The Senate made a number of changes in the Traitor Act, but most of those were undone in conference and ultimately the House version passed pretty much intact. Other provisions have gotten the same treatment: They haven't been made permanent, but "sunset" keeps getting later and later, pushed back again and again. And now some Dims in the Senate are saying they want the three provisions involved here made permanent.

All of which means that when it comes to your privacy, when it comes to your civil liberties, when it comes to insulating the individual against the power of the state, they are not on your side. Never have been. Never will be.

*Because of the way Thomas files information, that link may not be valid for long. If it doesn't work, go to the Thomas home page, look up H.R.514, select "All Congressional Actions," and look for February 9.

**PHC = President Hopey-Changey

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