Friday, July 15, 2005

"Governed by Children" Watch: Senate Shamelessness

I really wish this post was satire. But sadly, it's not.

Yesterday, members the United States Senate spent ninety minutes acting like first-graders at recess, arguing over duelling tit-for-tat partisan amendments to the Homeland Security appropriations bill. Literally a week after a major ally is attacked - and instead of engaging in substantive debate about how to protect our homeland, our elected leaders choose to squabble.

The saga began when Minority Leader Harry Reid sent an amendment to the desk which read: "No Federal employee who discloses, or has disclosed, classified information, including the identity of a covert agent of the Central Intelligence Agency, to a person not authorized to receive such information shall be permitted to hold a security clearance for access to such information." Clearly intended as a shot across the bows of the S.S. Karl Rove, Reid's amendment (no matter how well-based in any other context) was nothing more than a partisan stunt to get Republicans on the record symbolically regarding the Rove case.

A skillful majority leader might have managed to quietly maneuver this amendment into the dark depths of legislative purgatory where most comparable measures disappear forver. But not Bill Frist. Oh no, he decided he would confront the amendment head on ... not by arguing against it, but by introducing his own.

Frist's counter-amendment, in the grand tradition of "security clearance chicken," said this: "Any federal officeholder who makes references to a classified Federal Bureau of Investigation report on the floor of the United States Senate, or any federal officeholder that makes a statement based on a FBI agent's comments which is used as propaganda by terrorist organizations thereby putting our servicemen and women at risk, shall not be permitted access to such information or to hold a security clearance for access to such information."

Very smooth. "You take Karl Rove's security clearance, we'll take yours." The amendment specifically targeted Reid (for his May 12 floor mention of a judicial nominee's FBI background check file) and Minority Whip Dick Durbin (back to the Gitmo-Hitler references again).

So now we have the two leaders of the Senate; each has offered their silly amendment (or thrown their spitwad, it's basically the same thing). Alright, you've both made your point, just ask unanimous consent that both amendments be withdrawn, we'll forget about it and go back to debating rail and port security.

Ha. Oh no. We need ninety minutes of debate on these two amendments, said Frist - literally moments before adding "I am very disappointed that we now have pending before us what is purely a political amendment on which we will be spending the next 90 minutes, plus the votes. We have been working in very good faith on a bill that funds important priorities to this country, to our homeland security, and that has been the focus. We have done very well staying focused on this bill until the Democratic, really political, amendment was offered ... We will be spending the next 90 minutes on these two amendments, then followed by two votes. Hopefully after that we will put politics aside and attend to the Nation's business."

Reid then had his amendment read aloud from the desk, and spoke at length regarding the need to pass his amendment in response to the leak of Valerie Plame's name: "I want everyone here today to be clear on what we are talking about. You can call it politics; I call it government. I call it good government. We are talking about a matter of national security ... It is time to quit playing partisan politics with our national security. It is time for the White House to come clean. It is time to address the pressing issues facing this country. This second-degree amendment -and I have been in the Congress more than two decades - is about as juvenile and as mudslinging as I have seen. We are here to protect the country. We are here with a bill that deals with homeland security. We are here to talk about issues such as leaking information about our CIA agents. Is that not part of our national security? I certainly hope so."

Volley back to the majority. Mitch McConnell, the Republican Whip: "Mr. President, if I may, I noticed the Democratic leader had his amendment read. I would like to ask that the Frist amendment be read ..." Touché; very mature.

Senator Norm Coleman (R-MN) then took up the charge for the Republicans (he is, apparently, one of the two Senate 'point-people' on the Rove matter). In another long speech, he explained his reading of the relevant leak-related statutes ("intent" being the buzzword), and said that he worried about these amendments removing the comity the Senate had been working under lately: "My concern is that the oxygen is being sucked out of that good atmosphere as we get involved in partisan political attacks."

The back-and-forth continued (it's not worth quoting them again, they just said the same things): Levin - Sessions; Rockefeller - Roberts; Dodd - Coleman. Feinstein, Boxer, Roberts again. You get the drift. All saying they regretted the distraction, but then jumping right into the slime-pit and wallowing around merrily spewing invective and partisan talking points. Reading the transcript (you can do so by going to THOMAS) really is an exercise in keeping down your breakfast.

Finally, the playground monitor approached. The LONE VOICE of sense in the entire eye-rollingly-stupid series of exchanges. Susan Collins of Maine. I'm quoting her statement in full:

"Mr. President, last week we saw the terrorist attack on an ally. Our country faces very important homeland security challenges. We have been in the midst of debating important public policy issues - how best to secure mass transit or to prepare our first responders. I cannot believe the Senate has diverted from that important debate - a debate important to Americans all across this country - and instead of finishing up the Homeland Security bill, we have diverted to debate these issues.

We should not be doing this. This is exactly why the American public holds Congress in such low esteem right now.

We should be focusing on the national security and homeland security challenges facing this Nation. We should not be engaging in this debate. I, for one, am going to vote no on both of the amendments."

What was that she said? "We should not be doing this. This is exactly why the American public holds Congress in such low esteem right now."

Did Collins' statement change anything? Nah. Norm Coleman stood up next and said he "I understand the frustration of my colleague from Maine" before launching back into the rhetoric. Carl Levin did the same thing. The spatting continued until the ninety minutes finally, blessedly, expired - of course after Coleman had introduced into the Congressional Record the Wall Street Journal editorial calling Rove a "whistleblower" (and he also read most of it on the floor).

Reid ended for his side by repeating his oft-used phrases "coverup," "abuse of power," and "diversion." Bill Frist urged his colleagues to oppose Reid's amendment, but support his own, and called the debate "a sad and a disappointing afternoon in the Senate."

Well at least he was right about that last bit.

Frist's amendment was voted on first, and failed 33-64, with twenty Republicans voting no. Reid's also failed, 44-53: no one crossed party lines.

This whole episode was a shameful example of partisan hackery at its finest. Yes, maybe there should be concerns about Karl Rove and his security clearance. But Senator Reid knew exactly what he was doing and what it would mean when he sponsored that amendment. Frist ought to have dealt with it maturely, but he and the other Republican leaders decided to take the childish way out. In ninety minutes of debate, only one senator had the guts to stand up and call both amendment what they were: distractions, and poorly-disguised ones at that.

The leaders of the United States Senate ought to be ashamed of themselves. They ought to know that Senator Collins is right - stunts like yesterday's are exactly why the American people hold Congress in low esteem ... deservedly so. Hopefully now that it's out of their systems they will be able to get back to doing the real work of the American people, instead of launching rhetorical spitballs. We deserve better.


At 11:35 AM, Blogger Jessica said...

I really think that we are better apt to run our government than they are.

At 12:11 PM, Blogger Sam Nicolas said...

What a fantastic post. Utterly enjoyable. I cried without shedding a tear, I laughed without making a noise, I was enlightened and entertained. It was like sitting with a friend. Thank you, sincerely.

Sam Nicolas
The Daily Belch

At 1:59 PM, Blogger SherAn said...

I have no quarrel with Susan Collins' comments, or the general gist of the blog entry. There was no way the Reid amendment (and gotcha Frist amendment) should have taken up 90 minutes.

But - when was the last time you heard of the "subject" of a federal criminal investigation getting a free pass with respect to a security clearance? Refresh my memory, please. When was the last time you can recall that an employee of government (local, state, or federal) was not at least suspended during a criminal investigation? You know, suspended with pay pending the outcome of the investigation? Clearly, a security clearance would be pulled until that person was cleared of any wrongdoing. Sometimes paid leave in cases like this has lasted over a year, in fact.

Rove's attorney admitted and the Cooper email confirms that Rove spoke out of school about a restricted subject (CIA operative) to non-official individuals who did not have the security clearance to hear any such discussion. That is a violation, and that alone would warrant pulling his clearance. No if's, and's, or but's about it. That is also one of the reasons why Rove is considered a subject (no, not a target) of the Fitzgerald investigation. His attorney admitted he is a "subject"; did you miss those press reports? That's pretty damn serious stuff. That means he could well find himself standing before a judge in a criminal court for real before this all shakes out.

Instead of parading the man before God and the world (like the cabinet meeting with him seated directly behind the pres and the lawn walk together to the helicopter for a visual show of support), Bush would have been better served by asking Rove to stay out of sight at least, don't you think? That doesn't mean I think he's guilty of violating the IIPA. It's common sense. Bush again caved to pressure, the repeated "why doesn't he offer a show of support" questions from the press corps during the McClellan press briefings.

With the pres' credibility at an all-time low, people are rightfully questioning why Bush doesn't keep his word that he would fire anyone found to have leaked. Well, Rove clearly leaked, although we don't know yet whether he violated the IIPA law. But illegally breaking the law wasn't originally a reason to be fired by Bush, the leak itself was. That much has been proved; Rove did leak. That case is proved beyond a shadow of a doubt.

So is it so outlandish that Harry Reid would ask for an amendment that would essentially take the decision to withdraw Rove's security clearance away from Bush until the matter is resolved? Bush is clearly conflicted by his long-time personal friendship with Rove versus his official presidential duty to uphold the rule of law, particularly since congress is supposed to fill an oversight role in our government. Wouldn't it essentially be doing him a favor by taking the responsibility for that decision out of his hands?

Step back and take the partisan politics out of this argument. This isn't an us-versus-them. It's a matter of national security. Rove is more powerful than Al Gore was, probably more essential to this administration anyway. But he is also a diehard partisan and is well known for bending the rules for short-term gain. Juxtapose the two administrations; if Gore had blown the cover on a CIA operative and Clinton hadn't asked him to step down or at the very least to stay home until the criminal case was settled, what would the Gingrich Republicans do?

So, who precisely, was really playiing childish games yesterday?

At 3:39 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Wonderful post.

-Westendorf of the Spectical Politrum.

At 5:05 PM, Blogger JBD said...

Jessica - seems as though just about anyone could.

Sam, Westendorf - thanks!

SherAn - Absolutely it's a discussion that needs to be had. I agree (as I've said repeatedly) that we need to get to the bottom of Rove's involvement in the leak affair. But Reid's amendment was nothing but a political stunt, calculated to do exactly what it did (send everything into craziness). If Reid wanted to have a serious discussion about the concerns related to Rove's role, that could have been done. But it wasn't.

You say sit back and take partisan politics out of it. Great idea. I have great respect for Harry Reid, but this amendment was a cheap stunt. Frist's was bad too, equally so (if not worse since it looked like an immature response). The answer to your question: both sides were playing childish games. Neither is blameless.

At 2:50 AM, Blogger cakreiz said...

Can't we get return to the days of handling critical issues of national importance- like creating federal jurisdiction in the Schiavo matter?

At 11:18 AM, Anonymous H.B. said...

re your response to Sheran's post: splitting hairs here, but I'm glad she got you to acknowledge that Frist's amendment effort was a stupider, more blatantly childish move than Reid's was. Reid wasted the Senate's time by engaging in the debate, but bringing the amendment to the floor can be seen as a somewhat worthwhile attempt to maintain pressure on a criminally manipulative, deceitful white house. In the abstract, it made sense to insert this issue into a discussion of national (in)security. It was over-the-top and overlong, but had a point.

Frist's response, on the other hand, had nothing to do with reform of anything. It came from a petty, ugly place inside the neo-con mind. It was simplistic bullying. It demonstrated a deep lack of respect for our intelligence. In other words, it was exactly the kind of thing Karl Rove comes up with in strategy meetings all the time.

The bright side of the story is that more than a third of the GOP Senators turned their backs on Frist. How about that? A large block of the supposedly more unified party stating by their votes that they find the majority leader's efforts ridiculous.

At 9:56 AM, Anonymous ascap_scab said...

JBD, I concur with your post.


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