Tuesday, February 28, 2006


- The CSM's Peter Grier has an excellent piece discussing the ongoing debate in Congress over the NSA wiretap program.

- Also from the CSM, Warren Richey provides background on today's Supreme Court arguments in the Texas redistricting case.

- Linda Greenhouse has a roundup from the Supreme Court's oral argument on the Vermont campaign finance case.

- Alan Stewart Carl, posting at Donklephant, has a good post on what life might look like in a post-Roe world.

- Chris Cillizza, writing at WaPo's "The Fix" blog, suggests that John McCain is already the "man to beat" in the '08 South Carolina primary.

- Joe Gandelman highlights an important new Hill op/ed on wiretaps by Senator Jay Rockefeller, and has another great post discussing twin "The GOP is Running from Bush" stories today in the WaPo and the WaTimes.

- Michael Reynolds points out an NYTimes essay that I missed yesterday, by a former Army interrogator in Iraq.

Rules Committee Backs Earmark Reform

The Senate Rules Committee took the first step toward reforming the way Congress deals with earmarks, unanimously passing a Lott-sponsored draft bill. I've got all the gory details in a post over at TMV.

Big Days at SCOTUS

Linda Greenhouse has a good roundup in the NYTimes of several important cases that the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in this week (no, not the Anna Nicole Smith case).

In one of today's cases, Randall v. Sorrell, the Court will decide whether states (Vermont, in this instance) can limit campaign expenditures. This may be a chance for the Court to reexamine its tortured Buckley v. Valeo ruling, which "upheld limits on political contributions but determined that campaign spending was a form of political speech that the First Amendment did not permit the government to curtail." However, a federal appeals court in New York last year agreed with Vermont that certain justifications ("deterring corruption, and relieving politicians of the distractions of nonstop fund-raising") could allow expenditure limits to pass constitutional muster. How the justices decide this case will have an important impact on all future campaign finance rules at the state and federal levels, and today's argument may offer some clues as to how the current justices are inclined. As far as I know (please correct me if I'm wrong) the Court is not planning to release the audio of today's hearing immediately, so we'll have to wait for the Lithwick and Greenhouse dispatches later on to find out how things went.

When it comes to money in politics I tend to take the rather uncommon Justice Stevens view that money is property, not speech; I believe that states and the federal government do have legitimate interests in regulating its use in campaigns - but the rest of the Court's not there yet, so hopefully at least we'll get a clearer ruling than the mud they've given us so far.

On Wednesday the Supremes will take up four combined challenges to the now-infamous 2003 Texas redistricting procedure, under the umbrella name League of United Latin American Citizens v. Perry. The Court will have another chance to address the question of partisanship in redistricting; in the last case on the subject two years ago, Justice Kennedy wrote that he believes there may well be lines beyond which partisanship is not allowable. Those appealing the redistricting will argue that "an unnecessary redrawing of district lines designed solely to replace representatives from one party with representatives from another" serves "no legitimate governmental purpose" and should be declared unconstitutional.

Again, a very important case for future reforms, this time in the redistricting arena. If Justice Kennedy agrees with the appellants that the Texas districts were unconstitutionally redesigned, the move to reform the way redistricting is done will gain some serious new steam, I hope. It is time to kill the gerrymander once and for all, and declare an end to partisan redistricting.

The Texas case, as Greenhouse notes, also bears on questions of race and minority voting rights: "One question before the justices is whether black voters, accounting for less than one-quarter of the district's voting-age population, can challenge the new lines under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which guarantees minorities the right to 'participate in the political process and to elect representatives of their choice' to no less a degree than 'other members of the electorate.'"

Two hours have been set aside tomorrow for the Texas cases, and again I'll try to post excerpts or audio files as soon as they're made available.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Colbert & Congress

If you missed yesterday's New York Times piece on Stephen Colbert's hilarious "Better Know a District" segment on "The Colbert Report", I highly recommend it. In the interviews, Colbert talks with (usually incredulous and unsuspecting) members of Congress - the Times article examines some of the interviews and their potential impact.

Greenspan: Third Party May Be Imminent

Via Political Wire: the Wall Street Journal reports today (subscription wall, unfortunately) that in a recent speech, recently-retired Fed chairman Alan Greenspan predicted the rise of a centrist third party in America. According to the report, Greenspan said that the Democrat and Republican parties are:

"controlled by their extreme wings, even though the voting public is far more centrist... He described the leadership of the parties as 'bimodal', meaning clustered at the extreme ideological ends, whereas the voting public was 'monomodal', meaning clustered near the middle.

Such situations, he said, create an opening for a third-party candidate who appeals to the center. That, he said, could prompt the candidates of the other two parties to move back to the center, for fear of losing. He said the U.S. political system makes it difficult for a third-party candidate to win."

I don't have access to the full WSJ article, so if any reader out there does and wouldn't mind forwarding it I'd be much obliged. I think now that it's in print it may well get picked up by other news outlets, because this is quite an important story. In the short term Greenspan is quite right - even if a third-party candidate appears, it will be very difficult to win outright given the electoral situation. But if a third party candidate emerges during the primary campaigns, he or she could make things very interesting for those choosing the Republican and Democratic candidates.

Note: Also posted at TMV.

Is '06 the New '94?

The Bull Moose thinks it just might be:

"The Moose suspects that the bottom could be about to fall out on the Republican Congress.

The events of the last couple of weeks are beginning to have a '94 feel to them. The Moose has always been somewhat skeptical that the Republicans could actually lose Congress. No longer. That doesn't mean that there is any guarantee that there is a wave building that will sweep the Democrats into power. But, its getting close. ...

And the kicker is that at least one poll shows that the Democrats edge the Republicans on national security! Global warming is evidently not an issue because hell has frozen over!

Of course, there is no certainty that the bottom will actually fall out on the GOP. It only looks that way. Campaigns matter. And Democrats should not suffer from irrational exuberance over the latest poll showing a new-found strength on national security. Democrats still suffer from severe vulnerabilities on that front.

However, Democrats should start thinking about how they would govern if lightning strikes and they gain control over one or both chambers. What are their ideas for governance?"

If the GOP wants to keep control of Congress after this fall's elections, it's time for a sharp change in course. If the Democrats can manage to run a halfway-competent campaign this year, I agree with the Moose - the chances are better than ever that the Donkey could control the circus tent.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Specter Proposes Wiretap Oversight

The Washington Post reports that Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Arlen Specter, who has come out as a strong skeptic of the Bush Administration's controversial warrantless wiretap program, has proposed a bill that would bring the surveillance program firmly under the jurisdiction of the FISA court.

A draft of the bill, Charles Babington reports, "would require the attorney general to seek the FISA court's approval for each planned NSA intercept under the program," and would also "require the administration to give a handful of lawmakers more information about the program than they now receive, such as the number of communications intercepted and a summary of the results."

"Specter's bill would require the attorney general to give the secret court 'a statement of the facts and circumstances' causing the Justice Department to believe 'that at least one of the participants in the communications to be intercepted ... will be the foreign power or agent of a foreign power specified in [the law], or a person who has had communication with the foreign power or agent.' The attorney general would have to provide 'a detailed description of the nature of the information sought' and 'an estimate of the number of communications to be intercepted ... during the requested authorization period.'"

While it sounds to me as if the language could use some cleaning up ("foreign power or agent of a foreign power" is rather broad), at heart this proposal seems like a good start. The program should be brought within the scope of the FISA court's jurisdiction, and I'm glad Specter is moving on legislation that would do just that.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

NaJo Ranks Congress

National Journal always does a really interesting job with their annual congressional vote ratings, and this year's batch, released on Friday, is no exception. One of the things that I really enjoy about these ratings - which are based on a complicated formula you can read in its entirety here - is the huge number of ways National Journal is able to present them - for us political junkies, this stuff is great fun.

You can search for a single member's scores, or view each chamber's most conservative and most liberal (liberal House, liberal Senate, conservative House, conservative Senate). Each of those is sortable by Economic Policy, Social Policy and Foreign Policy scores. Another option is to examine the rankings for each state delegation through a handy-dandy clickable map.

The best and most interesting elements of the ratings, however, are a few little additions that the analysts have put together (the following links are PDF files):

- The Fringes: this highlights the most conservative and most liberal members in each chamber. In case you were wondering, Senators Allard, Coburn and Sessions tie in rank for most conservative in the Senate while Kennedy is the top liberal there.

- The Leaders: Rankings for the top Republicans and Democrats in each chamber.

- Twins & Odd Couples: Senators from the same state with very similar or very different voting habits.

- On the Hot Seat: Ratings for those considered most vulnerable in this fall's elections (as per the Cook Political Report.

- House Seniority: This is a noteworthy one, comparing House members' ratings by the year in which the members were first elected.

- Presidential Wannabees (Democrat, Republican): Another interesting one, looking at trend lines in ratings for the possible '08 contenders from each party.

- Finally (I saved the best for last), the Centrists: While of course it's impossible to "label" centrists, these ratings show those with composite scores closest to the center in each chamber. There were definitely some surprises here, including the very long list of House members.

I know I haven't done very much analysis, etc. of the numbers, but I really just wanted to pass them along to you all. If you do have anything thoughts or comments on those that I've posted or if you do some original analysis and would like to share, feel free to do so.

Note: Also posted at TMV.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Ports Deal Reax Roundup

Joe Gandelman's got a tremendous post covering all aspects of this big ports-deal controversy that has suddenly taken on the "big story" role in D.C. I have to confess I don't know all that much about it, but I would venture a guess that the Administration's critics will win the day on this one. Veto threats from this president mean absolutely nothing, and Congress knows it. They'll get what they want in the end.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Washington's Birthday

In honor of George Washington's 274th birthday, I would suggest a reading of his 1796 Farewell Address, one of the most underrated fine pieces of political writing in our nation's history.

New Senator Approval Ratings

SurveyUSA has released its newest batch of approval ratings for the members of the U.S. Senate. Some very interesting results:

- 24 senators have approval ratings under 50%. Of those, Chafee, Nelson (FL), Sarbanes, Stabenow, Dayton, Kyl, Menendez, DeWine, Burns, Santorum, and Talent (11) are either running for reelection or retiring. That's a 6-5 split between seats currently held by Democrats and Republicans.

- Seven senators have approval ratings under 45%. They are Burr, DeWine, Santorum (43%), Burns (42%), Cornyn (40%), Lautenberg (37%) and Menendez (36%).

- Five senators have approval ratings higher than 70%. They are McCain (72%), Collins, Snowe, Obama, and Johnson (71%).

Polls are polls, and should always be taken with half a grain of salt. But they're fun to dissect. If you find any other interesting trends in the numbers, feel free to include them in the comments.

New Kid on the Bench

Yesterday was Justice Samuel Alito's first day of Supreme Court oral arguments, as the Court heard two consolidated challenges to the 1972 Clean Water Act. Slate's Dahlia Lithwick has a good dispatch, and Dana Milbank devotes today's "Washington Sketch" to the topic. The cases argued are both very important challenges to one of the country's most basic and effective environmental laws, and how they're resolved will have major implications far into the future.

For other Supreme Court news, don't miss Linda Greenhouse's twin pieces, one on a decision from the Court to hear arguments on the constitutionality of the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003, and the other a roundup of yesterday's other developments.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

On Bum-Kicking

I was just going to write up a post on George Will's excellent Newsweek column, but Alan at Maverick Views beat me to the punch yesterday. I highly recommend both items.

Gratuitous Reclassification

The New York Times features a must-read story on a long-running effort by American intelligence agencies to reclassify thousands of historical documents that have been in the public eye at the National Archives for many years, in some cases.

This smacks of unecessary government secrecy, not to mention utter inanity, given that much of the "classified" materials have been published or used in research many times over. Good for the Times to bring it to public attention.

Monday, February 20, 2006

WaPo on White House Wiretap Fears

Today's must-read wiretaps article comes from Charles Babington at the Washington Post. It outlines recent efforts by the White House to sideline congressional inquiries into the secret NSA warrantless wiretap program. As both the House and Senate intelligence panels met to consider investigations, White House officials including Chief of Staff Andy Card called Republicans known to have concerns about the wiretapping, including Senators Olympia Snowe (ME) and Chuck Hagel (NE).

According to sources (from outside Snowe's office), the phone call from card made Snowe less inclined to support the White House rather than more; she and Hagel told committee chairman Pat Roberts that if the Democratic-backed motion to launch an investigation into the program were brought up, they would support it. This is apparently what prompted Roberts to adjourn last week's meeting (as I discussed Friday) - not a victory for the Administration, but an impending defeat.

Things are about to get very, very interesting.

Joe Gandelman has a good post over at TMV on this article and an accompanying one from the NYT.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Maverick On the Air

Alan Stewart Carl, a terrific ally and great writer who blogs at Maverick Views, will be on CNN's "On the Story" this weekend to discuss the Dick Cheney shooting story and the media's coverage of it. You can catch airings of the show at 7 p.m. EST Saturday or 1 p.m. EST on Sunday. Be sure to tune in for some classic centrist commentary.

Wiretaps Update: Roberts Leaves the Reservation

I've just posted a piece on Friday's developments in the wiretap saga over at TMV. We're getting there, slowly but surely.

Friday, February 17, 2006


- New 50-state governor approval ratings are out from SurveyUSA (via PoliticalWire). Connecticut's Jodi Rell (81% approval) and West Virginia's Joe Manchin (80%) top the pack, while Ohio's Bob Taft brings up the rear once again with a dismal 14% approval.

- Spitzer will face a primary challenge in the NY Gov race from Nassau County AG Tom Suozzi. Embattled Rep. Bob Ney has also gained a primary challenger.

- Dennis at NeoMugwump comments on the role of the black community in the debate over Darfur. He also points out what I think was a tremendously good show by US speed-skater Joey Cheek, who's donating his $25,000 gold medal bonus to an organization supporting Darfur refugees in Chad.

- Alan at Maverick Views has a whole slew of great posts, including "Another Reason to Get Rid of Earmarks," "The Military, the Universities, and the Polarization of America," and "The MoveOn.org Purge." The last concerns the campaign against centrist Democrats by the left wing of the Democratic Party, which (inexplicably, given their current electoral state) is being kicked up a notch this year.

- The Bull Moose offers his support for one of those Dems (Joe Lieberman) being targeted by the far left.

- Joe Gandelman has an excellent post on the media's coverage of the Cheney shooting .

Wiretap Program Developments

[Also posted at TMV]

There were several important but divergent events yesterday in the continuing debate over the Bush Administration's NSA warrantless wiretap program:

- The Senate Intelligence Committee voted along party lines not to consider a motion by ranking Democrat Jay Rockefeller to open an investigation into the program. Apparently Republicans DeWine, Snowe and Hagel (who had previously expressed support for an investigation) were corralled by Administration pledges to "discuss" proposed legislation to govern the program.

Rockefeller said after the meeting "It is more than apparent to me that the White House has applied heavy pressure in recent days, in recent weeks, to prevent the committee from doing its job," while chairman Pat Roberts (KS) said "The administration is now committed to legislation and has agreed to brief more intelligence committee members on the nature of the surveillance program. The details of this agreement will take some time to work out."

At least one Republican, Olympia Snowe, left the door open for a future investigation, saying after the meeting "The administration must demonstrate its commitment to avoiding a constitutional deadlock by engaging in good-faith negotiations." She and Hagel told Roberts before the meeting "that they were prepared to vote for an investigation if the committee did not agree to work toward legislation," according to the LA Times.

- Legislation introduced by Senator DeWine, which is apparently that being "considered" by the White House, would "explicitly authorize the wiretapping, without court warrants, but create small Congressional subcommittees to oversee it." As the New York Times reports, this is not likely to go far enough for some Republicans, including Senator Specter (or myself), who hold the position that the program should be brought under the full jurisdiction of the FISA court.

- The White House "signaled" that it would not allow former Attorney General John Ashcroft or other former DoJ officials to testify about the program, which would greatly hamper any investigation. In a letter to Senator Arlen Specter, Asst. AG William Moschella wrote "We do not believe that Messrs. Ashcroft and Comey would be in a position to provide any new information" about the wiretaps. Since they were the officials in charge when the program was implemented (and at least one of them is known to have had strong concerns about its legality), the Adminstration's argument seems rather untenable.

- Over in the House, the Intelligence Committee agreed to open an inquiry into the program, but as the New York Times reports, a squabble over the scope of the inquiry has already emerged among committee Republicans. Subcommittee chair Heather Wilson said the investigation would cover "multiple avenues," to "thoroughly review this program and the FISA law."

Chairman Pete Hoekstra (a strong support of the Administration's position), however, said through an aide that the committee would "be much more limited in scope, focusing on whether federal surveillance laws needed to be changed and not on the eavesdropping program itself." This will certainly take some ironing out, but it is my hope that Rep. Wilson holds out and gets the full inquiry she has requested (particularly in light of the Senate non-action).

- Federal judge Henry Kennedy ruled "that a private group - the Electronic Privacy Information Center - will suffer irreparable harm if the documents that it has been requesting since December are not processed promptly under the Freedom of Information Act. He gave the Justice Department 20 days to respond to the request." Wrote Kennedy "President Bush has invited meaningful debate about the wireless surveillance program. That can only occur if DOJ processes its FOIA requests in a timely fashion and releases the information sought."

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Will's On the Right Track

Often I disagree with George Will. Today is not one of those times. His column, "No Checks, Many Imbalances" is a strong indictment of the Bush Administration's doctrine "that whenever the nation is at war, the other two branches of government have a radically diminished pertinence to governance, and the president determines what that pertinence shall be." He lambastes nearly every argument that the Administration has offered in favor of the NSA wiretaps program in his typically precise way, to what I think is great effect.

At the end he drifts off a bit, excusing the actions as "necessary in the emergency," but I think his conclusion ends up sound: "... 53 months later, Congress should make all necessary actions lawful by authorizing the president to take those actions, with suitable supervision. It should do so with language that does not stigmatize what he has been doing, but that implicitly refutes the doctrine that the authorization is superfluous" [emphases added].

Well said.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Perspectives on Energy

The Hill today is running a special report on "Energy & the Environment," featuring submissions from a bipartisan and bicameral selection of legislators with very different views on the subject.

- Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY), the Chairman of the House Science Committee (and this writer's representative, I'm generally proud to say) weighs in with "Reduce energy consumption in transportation sector - now," in which he argues - correctly, in my view - that "if we are serious about ending our oil addiction, we must address the unbridled consumption of gasoline within our transportation sector, which is the single largest and fastest growing source of U.S. oil usage. The way to do that is to raise the standard known as corporate average fuel economy (CAFE)."

Boehlert notes his support for the initiatives recently announced by the president to fund research and development of non-petroleum-based technologies, calling the efforts "
wise investment of taxpayer funds." But, he continues, "widespread practical use of any of these new technologies is years or even decades away, and at this point none appears to be a panacea to our oil addiction. A modest increase in CAFE standards, though, would, in the relative near future, significantly reduce the amount of oil imported from abroad and thereby reduce the amount of money that makes its way into the hands of unstable or even openly hostile regimes."

Boehlert trumpets his bill H.R. 3762, which would raise CAFE standards from today's 25 mpg (average) to 33 mpg (average) by 2015. As he notes, Canada recently reached agreement with automakers "
that will effectively boost the fuel economy of the vehicles sold across our northern border by 25 percent over the next five years. If it can be done in Canada, it can surely be done here in the states." Boehlert concludes "There simply is no credible argument against raising CAFE standards. It would not force people into small, unsafe vehicles. It would not force consumers to give up the SUVs and minivans they so cherish. And it would not undermine the economic viability of the domestic auto industry. What it would do, though, is significantly cut our oil consumption while we move forward with the long-term development of new fuel options under the President’s Advanced Energy Initiative. I don’t see how any of us could argue against that."

- Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) argues in "Dependency on foreign oil makes U.S. vulnerable" that to reduce dependence on foreign energy we must a) "
increase domestic production of oil and natural gas by allowing exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and on Outer Continental Shelf lands where huge reserves exist," b) "take steps now to encourage the conservation and efficient use of oil, gas and other energy sources," and c) "support research and development of advanced technologies such as nuclear energy, clean coal and hydrogen power that will provide our long-term answers."

While I disagree strongly with opening ANWR to drilling (among other reasons, it just makes absolutely no logistical sense, given the time it would take to extract what little oil is there), I certainly support Sessions' second and third options. As part of the second, he writes that he's co-introduced legislation to "
require the U.S. government to find ways to reduce our consumption by 2.5 million barrels per day by 2016, require that half of all cars manufactured in the United States be alternative-fuel vehicles and provide tax credits and loan guarantees to auto manufactures to retool their factories to build more efficient vehicles." Certainly would be a good start.

- Rep. Bart Gordon (D-TN) submits "Boldly rethinking our energy future," in which he asks the fundamental question: "
Energy independence is the talk of the town lately, but is Washington actually willing to take the bold steps — and perhaps risks — to get the job done?" He pushes for the establishment of an Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy (ARPA-E), which would "have the ability to draw people and ideas from all of the research and technology-development programs in the Department of Energy, the nation’s universities and private industry." "Innovation breeds innovation," Gordon writes, which is certainly true. The idea isn't a bad one, to be sure.

- Rep. Mike Honda (D-CA) rounds out the selections with "Need to break oil addiction is old news to Democrats." The only overtly partisan letter of the four, Honda criticizes the president's budget framework for the most part, but does offer some suggestions in the final two paragraphs. He urges funding for research into nanotechnology, setting agency standards for fuel efficiency and "
publicize technologies that have been developed in government labs that might have applications in alternative energy generation and provide targeted funding for the further development of research findings."

I recognize that this is an election year, and there probably is no prospect (how sad is that?) for any actual progress on energy reform for the forseeable future. But just in reading over these selections, it's clear that there is at least some common ground that can be worked from. With any luck at all, combined with a little time, some hard work, and a minimum of political posturing (sounds impossible, but hey anything can happen) we may yet be able to make some eventual headway. Let's get at it.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Some Good News from Alabama

While it's early yet, and things could and will change from now through the June 6 primary, incumbent (and sane) Republican governor Bob Riley of Alabama is currently managing to hold off an intra-party challenge by ousted former state supreme court justice Roy Moore (he of giant Ten Commandments rock notoriety). A new Mobile Register-University of Alabama poll of likely GOP primary voters showed Riley with a 56-28% lead over the demagogic theocrat Moore.

Riley is also walloping Moore in the fundraising department; he currently has raised more than eight times as much money.

We can hope this trend continues, and that Moore gets the drubbing he deserves at the polls in June. His fifteen minutes were up a long time ago.

Short Takes

Sorry I haven't been posting all that much: between the blizzard this weekend (alright not quite a blizzard because we missed the cutoff for the time requirement by like twenty minutes in Boston, but still quite a storm), having some class work to do, and there not being any big stories that really piqued my interest yesterday I just haven't been feeling the vibe. But I wanted to point out some links and other stories this morning just briefly:

- I've been trying to figure out what to say about the whole Cheney-shot-a-guy-in-the-face thing; I figured if I waited long enough someone would do it justice for me, and Joe Gandelman has come through on that front again. He's got an omnibus post covering the implications, the story itself, and, necessarily, the jokes (including a link to the Jon Stewart coverage last night, which was absolutely hysterical). Now, mainly I just hope that Mr. Whittington is able to make a full and speedy recovery, and I agree with Alan at Maverick Views in thinking this story probably doesn't really have any serious legs (funny ones it's got plenty of, and I assure you it will be around in that capacity for quite a long time to come).

- An Endangered Species Act success story: the bald eagle is on its way to officially being removed from the endangered list. This is good news, both for the birds and in that the legislation did its job and did it well.

- There's a decent article in The Hill today about a couple of the various competing earmark-reform bills taking shape in the Senate.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

A Don't-Miss Read

I can't do the Times Magazine cover story on Senator Chuck Hagel, "The Heartland Dissident," any justice by plucking out quotes from it, so I'll just urge you to read it. Quite a well-written article, really highlighting some important aspects of Hagel's career, past and future.


In a brief addendum to yesterday's post, I've added an update based on today's news stories over at TMV. Some excellent quotes from Lindsey Graham, Chuck Hagel and others about the need for a real, serious debate on this topic instead of empty rhetoric and specious arguments from the Administration.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Cheney: It's All Politics

Speaking at the annual CPAC meeting on Thursday night, VP Dick Cheney suggested that Republicans should use the controversial (to put it nicely) NSA wiretap program as an election issue in the fall campaign. After stating that the debate over the program "has clarified where all stand," Cheney remarked "And with an important election coming up, people need to know just how we view the most critical questions of national security, and how we propose to defend the nation that all of us, Republicans and Democrats, love and are privileged to serve."

Alright Mr. Cheney, you got it. Some of us propose to defend the nation through the rule of law, others of us choose to work around the law when it doesn't work just the way we want it to (instead of requesting changes from Congress). Some of us believe that the executive branch should have certain checks on its power - yes, even in wartime; others of us, well, notsomuch.

Republicans and Democrats alike (and a growing number of the former, I will add) have made public serious concerns they have with the wiretap program, and a number of proposals are being floated to solve the problem (whether by tweaking FISA or some other method). This is not a political issue at hand here, this is a constitutional issue, and as for me, if I were forced to choose between coequal branches or a more powerful executive, I'll take the former every day of the week.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

White House Compromises on PATRIOT Act

Looks like Republican holdouts on the PATRIOT Act renewal forced a compromise from the White House. Good for them. I've got a bit more on this and some excerpts over in my new iteration as co-blogger at The Moderate Voice.

Today's Wiretaps Must-Read

Carol Leonnig in the Washington Post has the most notable story in the papers today: citing two anonymous sources, Leonnig reports that a top lawyer at the Justice Department twice informed the presiding judge of the FISA court that "information overheard in President Bush's eavesdropping program may have been improperly used to obtain wiretap warrants in the court." According to the sources, this "infuriated" said judge, Colleen Kollar-Kotelly. If true, this is a very important development in the debate.

Jeff Flake on Earmarks

Rep. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) has a very good op/ed in the NYTimes this morning on the politics of earmarking and the need for reform. If you can, read the whole thing, but here's a small section:

"In Congress these days, you establish your priorities by getting money for them. When the carefully designed process of authorization, appropriation and oversight is adhered to, these policies and priorities are given a thorough vetting. But earmarking circumvents that cycle: the Appropriations Committee ensures that earmarks escape scrutiny by inserting them into conference reports, largely written behind closed doors.

By the time appropriation bills reach the House or Senate floor, passage by a lopsided margin is virtually assured because every member who got earmarks is obligated to vote for the entire bill. Further, the scope of debate is substantially narrowed, with even partisan arguments that would otherwise occur hushed as Republicans and Democrats find common cause: protecting their pork. ...

Solving the earmark problem will require transparency — a requirement that earmarks be included in the actual text of legislation (where they can be seen and challenged) rather than hidden in committee and conference reports. I've introduced such legislation in the House and my Arizona Republican colleague John McCain has introduced companion legislation in the Senate. Debate on these measures should begin as soon as possible."

The Flake and McCain bills are a good start on the road to earmark reform. Let's keep talking about them, and continue to urge a debate on these measures. It'll be a very hard first step - many in Congress (I'm thinking of at least a couple members from Alaska right now in particular) will fight tooth and nail to protect earmarking privileges. Those of us on all sides of the aisle who want reform on this must join together now and make our voices heard, because (as I think I've said before) the lobbyists who desperately oppose these measures certainly won't be sitting back and watching them happen.

It's time to end the Earmark Era. Let's get it done.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Short Takes

First, some good ones from today's NYTimes:

- Carl Hulse on the earmark-combating efforts, noting some recently-unveiled specific proposals to deal with the issue. Particularly noteworthy are a measure introduced by Rep. Flake in the House that would "require that earmarks be included in the legislative language of bills rather than accompanying Congressional reports, and he would create a procedure to challenge the spending on the floor" and one from Senators Lott and Feinstein in the Senate to "allow senators to object to any earmarks added in the final stages of negotiations and force sponsors to win at least 60 votes to retain them." The Senate measure would also "require that the final version of legislation be available for at least 24 hours before a floor vote and that the sponsor of each earmark be included along with a justification." While I favor a longer sunshine period (72 hours would be more appropriate, in my view), 24 would be better than nothing.

- Rep. Heather Wilson of NM, who chairs the House Intelligence Subcommittee on Technical and Tactical Intelligence, called Tuesday for a full-scale inquiry into the Administration's wiretapping program. Wilson, a former National Security Council aide, said she has "serious concerns" about the program, and wants the House Intelligence Committee to undertake a "painstaking review" of the whole thing. I agree with Rep. Wilson, and hope she can persuade others on the Intel Committee.


- Haley Barbour will not run for president in '08.
- Alan at Maverick Views has a good post on the wiretapping controversy.
- Joe Gandelman covers the latest exit from NASA orbit.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Yet Another End-Run

Back in November, Congress overwhelmingly passed legislation banning the slaughter of horses for meat consumption. Technically, the new rule blocked funding for federal inspectors in charge of overseeing the slaughters, thereby making the slaughters themselves illegal (can't be done without the inspections). However, the Bush Administration has once again decided that what Congress passes as the law just doesn't really matter. Joe Gandelman has the full scoop.


The Gonzales Hearings

I watched just about all of the Judiciary Committee hearings [full transcript starts here] on wiretapping yesterday (thank goodness for multi-tasking), and have to say I was much more impressed with the senators this time around than I was with the Alito hearings. For the most part, they kept the speechifying to a minimum and actually asked questions of AGAG.

Like Howie Kurtz, I was somewhat disappointed in the lack of t.v. coverage of these hearings; thankfully C-SPAN aired them gavel to gavel. I can understand the cable news stations' decision not to air the hearings in full after the mind-crushing monotony of the SCOTUS confirmations, but yesterday had a very different feel about it. This stems, perhaps, from the fact that basically everybody knew how the Roberts and Alito hearings were going to end up, while on this wiretapping business, that's still very, very much up in the air.

While I didn't entirely understand the kerfluffle at the start of the hearing about swearing Gonzales in (if he'd agreed to be sworn, why not just do it?), I'm glad the Committee members were able to (for the most part) put that behind them and move forward. I was impressed with the questions asked by Senators Specter and Graham, as well as some of the Democrats (Feinstein, Feingold, Leahy) - and I have to say, I continue to find the Administration's justification for this program just doesn't hold up.

Gonzales said yesterday (as the president and he have said before) that the program is necessary because FISA won't suffice. Why won't it suffice, particularly with the 72-hour safety valve? AGAG's response to that question seemed to boil down to "paperwork." Several times he went through the procedure needed to get a FISA warrant, and what I heard was "we don't like paperwork." Fair enough - there's got to be a way to expedite those procedures through an amendment to FISA. But the Administration didn't ask for that, they just went around the law.

AGAG says that the legal basis for the program is found in the use of force resolution passed by Congress right after 9/11 ... but when it is suggested that Congress certainly didn't mean to overrule FISA in that resolution, the Administration then resorts to "Oh, well, then the president has the power to do it anyway under the Constitution's commander-in-chief provision." Senator Graham and others tried to get at the heart of this issue yesterday by asking just what else this president thinks he can get around by hauling out the commander-in-chief card, but of course AGAG wouldn't bite at those.

As Joe Gandelman notes over at TMV, a rift seems to be opening in the GOP over this issue. There are those who will defend the president (whether because they agree with him or because he's the leader of the Republican Party), and there are those (Specter, Graham, me) who will continue to demand answers to the big questions about this program regardless of the fact that the president happens to be a Republican.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: we all support every legal measure to go after the terrorists who would do us harm. But reliance on nebulous justifications for warrantless searches just doesn't cut the mustard, and no amount of word-mincing is going to make it right. I hope that skeptics of this program will continue to speak out, and that the Administration will resume a course of action better suited to our constitutional system.

Other centrist voices on this topic: Mighty Middle on "trusting" the government; NeoMugwump with a great simple synopsis of the tension at hand; Rafique Tucker at Centerfield on creating a consensus; Stygius on AGAG's "red herring."

Monday, February 06, 2006

Second Verse, Same as the First?

John Boehner has much to prove about his abilities to lead the GOP caucus in the House of Representatives back from the brink. His comments yesterday on the talk shows about his commitment to serious reform of lobbying and earmarking practices left a great deal to be desired.
Boehner said he "has doubts about" a blanket-ban on lobbyist-funded travel in favor of simply tightening disclosure rules. Why not do both? As for earmarks, Boehner remarked "we need to reduce the number, but I don't know that it's appropriate to eliminate all of them." Once again, why not? And who decides which get "reduced" away?

Majority Leader, prove thyself.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Wiretapping Roundup

In preparation for the start of Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on the president's law-skirting wiretap program on Monday, there are a few articles worthy of a read in the papers this morning.

- Maura Reynolds in the LATimes has a semi-analytical piece discussing the quandary faced by many Republican legislators: support the president because he's the leader of the GOP, or stand up for Congress' rights to pass laws and not have them circumvented by the executive branch?

- Over in the NYTimes, David Johnston and Michael Janofsky examine the role of AG Alberto Gonzales in the whole business, and how his own credibility as well as that of the Adminstration will be on the line as he goes before the Committee to defend the wiretaps.

- The best article is in the WaPo - by Barton Gellman, Dafna Linzer and Carol Leonnig, it reveals that of all those surveilled under this program, a miniscule number (if any) have actually been connected with terrorist activity. They take issue with the president's justification of the program as "if you're talking to a member of al Qaeda, we want to know why," writing "officials conversant with the program said a far more common question for eavesdroppers is whether, not why, a terrorist plotter is on either end of the call. The answer, they said, is usually no."

This article also does a good job of explaining the processes by which the eavesdropping program is carried out, going through the different stages of mechanical analysis that is, if necessary, followed up by human attention.

- There is also a very excellent preview of Gonzales' testimony (with excerpts from his planned opening statement) over at Time. They report that AGAG will tell the Judiciary Committee "I cannot and will not address operational aspects of the program or other purported activities described in press reports. These press accounts are in almost every case, in one way or another, misinformed, confused, or wrong."

He will go on to say that the warrantless taps were necessary because the time involved "may make the difference between success and failure in preventing the next attack." This argument, if it is his major justification, is the epitome of lame: FISA, as we've all learned recently, allows for action and then retroactive permission from the court within 72 hours. So they were free to take the action they needed and then do the paperwork - what's the issue? We'll see how this comes out in the questions tomorrow, I'm sure.

- The hearing is set to begin tomorrow morning at 9:30 a.m. At this point, it appears that C-SPAN will be airing it live. It will certainly be interesting.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

NASA Head Calls for "Scientific Openness"

To follow up on my post from earlier in the week about stifled science at NASA, the NYTimes reports today that Michael Griffin, the current NASA administrator, has issued an email statement to the agency's employees urging "scientific openness." Griffin writes "It is not the job of public-affairs officers to alter, filter or adjust engineering or scientific material produced by NASA's technical staff," continuing "NASA has always been, is and will continue to be committed to open scientific and technical inquiry and dialogue with the public."

Good for Griffin. Now stand let's hope he stands by his words.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Assistance Request

Alright. I realize that I'm not very good at economics, numbers scare me, etc. But I am really struggling with just how it is that Congress (and this president) justify this latest what-seems-to-be fiscal trainwreck.

So the House passes the final form of the budget on Thursday, which cuts $40 billion from the deficit by 2010, yadda yadda yadda, so they say. Fine, I didn't agree with many of the cuts but it passed. Done deal. Now last night the Senate approves a $70 billion package of "business tax credits," "alternative minimum tax cuts," and "new tax breaks for coal-mining safety equipment and new spending on military equipment and veterans' health care." Isn't 70 billion more than 40 billion? Don't those tax cuts totally erase the program cuts just made? So basically instead of decreasing the deficit by $40 billion, we're gonna increase it by $30 billion.

The vote in the Senate for the tax package (which still has to be finalized by the House, meaning it'll probably end up being more than $70 billion all told) was 66-31, with four Republicans (Burr, Chafee, Coburn, Voinovich) voting in the minority. Senator Voinovich spoke out strongly against the tax cut plan on Wednesday, saying "It's time to put the tax-cut medicine back on the shelf" at a time when the federal government is ponying up billions for Katrina reconstruction, the war in Iraq, etc. "We've got to make some tough choices around here," Voinovich continued. He went on to say it's "immoral to bequeath trillions of dollars in debt to our children and grandchildren," and "This will not be politically easy, as I understand. The simple, undeniable fact is that we can't have it all."

I have to come down with Voinovich on this one. I understand, tax cuts don't cost all that they're projected to, and they might stimulate the economy and bring in more revenue, etc. But really, right now, are they in fact the best medicine? I'm not convinced. Feel free to contribute your thoughts in the comments, of course.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Short Takes

- If you read anything from the papers today, make it Peter Slavin's profile of former senator John Danforth in the Washington Post. Danforth, you'll recall, has become a critic of the religious right's control over the GOP, and Slavin's article allows him to continue that trend. Please check out the whole thing, but here's a taste to whet your appetite:

"A man of God and the GOP, he is speaking out for moderation -- in religion, politics, science and government. The lanky figure once dubbed "St. Jack," not always warmly, for the perch he seemed to occupy on Washington's moral high ground, expects people will sour on the assertive brand of Christianity so closely branded Republican.

'I'm counting on nausea,' he says.

In a political year that promises a fresh battle for the national soul, religion is emerging as a tool and a test, with Danforth's words marking a fissure within the GOP. The conservative evangelical Christian movement that helped propel President Bush and congressional Republicans into power has become a big, fat target, even as Democrats and GOP moderates agonize about how to capture more votes from the faithful.

'The Republican Party has been taken over by something that it's not,' Danforth says over a suitably austere lunch of steamed vegetables in a well-appointed 40th-floor St. Louis club overlooking the Mississippi. 'How do traditional Republicans put up with this? They put up with this because it's a winning combination, for now. It won't last.'

Why won't it last?

'It won't stand the light of day,' Danforth says in one of several conversations. 'The more people think about it, the more people will resist it. People do not want a sectarian political party, including a lot of people who are traditional Republicans.'"

- House leadership elections are this afternoon, with the caucus meeting scheduled to begin at 1 p.m. I had thus far resisted picking a horse in the race to replace Tom DeLay, but over the course of the last week or so have become convinced that of the candidates, only John Shadegg of Arizona is committed to serious reform. He is conservative (very conservative) but if had to pick between more conservative or less willing to reform, I'll take the former.

- The White House is apparently resisting requests by the Senate Judiciary Committee for documents related to the warrantless wiretapping issue. I urge the Committee and Chairman Specter to stick to their position on this and demand the information necessary to hold a complete hearing on the legality of this program.

- Joe Gandelman has a great synopsis of the light-speed about-face by the White House on the president's single appealing initiative from the SotU. I can't say I'm surprised.

- Dennis at NeoMugwump offers some support for the endangered DINO (Democrat in Name Only), the RINO's cretacean counterpart in the middle of the aisle. I heartily agree with his post.

- I haven't seen much inked spilled about this Newsweek story, which discusses a mini-revolt among (conservative, Bush-appointed) DoJ lawyers against the Cheney-staff-driven torture and warrantless wiretapping measures. It's worth a read.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Musings on the SotU

I forced myself to watch the president's State of the Union address last night, as I generally do every year even when I don't want to. This was one of those years. But, I thought the speech was basically conventional, without anything particularly striking about it at all.

- Bush's continued the same lame defenses of his end-run around FISA that we've been hearing for weeks ("It remains essential to the security of America. If there are people inside our country who are talking with Al Qaida, we want to know about it, because we will not sit back and wait to be hit again."), still refusing to answer the very basic question of what made it impossible to work within the FISA framework and get the 72-hour retroactive permission if necessary.

- I applaud the president's recognition that "here we have a serious problem: America is addicted to oil, which is often imported from unstable parts of the world." And the additional funding he says he'll seek for new research would certainly be useful. However, we must take immediate steps to reduce consumption, and that means increasing fuel economy standards and enforcing speed limits in the short-run. It's true, we must fund ways to move beyond petroleum, but that's not going to happen overnight (and given this president's track record on following through with pledges for research funding, it's not going to happen anytime soon).

- One of my favorite moments, when I actually laughed, came when Bush was discussing Social Security reform, and said "Congress did not act last year on my proposal to save Social Security...", at which point the Democrats gleefully jumped to their feet and applauded fiercely. Amusingly done. Of course the future of Social Security is a serious problem, and it will be interesting to see which members of Congress are chosen to sit on the announced "commission" to study it and make proposals. I've thought for a long time that a bipartisan panel was probably the only way anything was going to get done in this area, so hopefully they'll come up with something useful.

- Another favorite moment: Bush mentioned "earmark reform" favorably, and almost no one in the chamber clapped. Except for John McCain, on whom the camera focused briefly as he smiled and applauded all alone. Earmark reform certainly is going to be a tough fight, there's no doubt about that.

So all in all, a forgettable speech - not awful, not great. Will it propel Bush's poll numbers any higher? Doesn't seem all that likely.

Joe Gandelman at TMV has a great post of analysis and reaction from across the blogosphere, which you shouldn't miss. The Bull Moose's take is also up.