The Democrats and FISA

Several of my fellow Science Bloggers have come to a strange conclusion regarding the recent FISA vote in Congress. Ed Brayton titles his post on the subject “Democrats Cave on FISA Amendment.” P.Z. Myers concurs, writing, “It’s a perfect example of the failure of the Democratic party: they allowed the FISA bill to pass, and essentially revealed that they don’t give a damn about civil liberties.” Mike Dunford, writes, “Because every time the Republicans threaten them, they drop to their knees and beg for mercy – like they just did in the Senate, with this wiretap legislation. I swear, watching the Democrats in Congress these days reminds me of my dog.”

There’s just one problem with all of this. “The Democrats” didn’t cave.

If we include Joe Lieberman and Bernie Sanders (both independents), then there are 51 Democrats in the Senate. There are 231 Democrats in the House. Only 16 Democratic senators and 41 Democratic House members voted in favor of the amendment. That means that 225 out of 282 Congressional Democrats voted against the amendment. That’s just under 80 percent. It’s hard to argue the party caved when nearly all of them did the right thing.

I would also point out that it is only caving if they voted for the bill out of fear or cowardice. Voting out of conviction is not caving. Most (not all) of the Democrats who sided with the administration are conservative Democrats from red states. I suspect most of them voted for the amendment because they actually believe in it. That is deplorable, but it is not caving, and it does not represent some fundamental lack of character in the Democratic Party.

Over at Effect Measure, revere is so outraged that he is plans to take it out on the DCCC:

I don’t care if they are Democrats or Republicans or Independents. They voted to sell out rights guaranteed to all of us in the US Constitution, rights many generations have sacrificed for. They will not get any of my support. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) solicits campaign contributions to get Democrats elected to congress. They help support these scumbags. I won’t actively work against them because the Republican alternatives are worse or as bad and a Democratic congress is better for most of us who aren’t rich than a Republican one. But I won’t support them, either, and that means I won’t send a goddamn cent to the DCCC.

While I share revere’s contempt for those who voted in favor of the amendment, I can not endorse his recommendations about the DCCC. In every case the alternative to the Democrat who sided with Bush on this one issue was a Republican who would have rubber stamped virtually everything Bush wants to do. I do not know how much money the DCCC gave to the Deomcrats under consideration here, but every penny of it was money well spent. Politics is never pretty, and sometimes you just have to accept the lesser of two evils. Not supporting the DCCC only makes it easier for Republicans to get elected. Out of 251 Congressional Republicans, precisely 2 voted against the amendment. It’s as simple as that.

For example, one of the Democrats who voted for the amendment was my senator Jim Webb. In the last election I happily voted for him over the incumbent George Allen. If I had known then that Webb would go the wrong way on this issue, I still would have voted for him and with only slightly less happiness. Why? Because as annoyed as I am by this vote, Webb is so vastly preferable to Allen that voting for him was a no-brainer. It would take a lot more slaps in the face than this to make me jump ship. When it comes to politics, I am a pure pragmatist. Even the most conservative Democrat will vote the right way more often than all but the most liberal Republicans.

Both Ed and Mike linked to this article from The Washington Post. It’s a typical piece of Democrat bashing from our supposedly liberal media. Here’s how the article begins:

The Democratic-controlled House last night approved and sent to President Bush for his signature legislation written by his intelligence advisers to enhance their ability to intercept the electronic communications of foreigners without a court order.

The 227 to 183 House vote capped a high-pressure campaign by the White House to change the nation’s wiretap law, in which the administration capitalized on Democrats’ fears of being branded weak on terrorism and on a general congressional desire to act on the measure before an August recess.

The article presents not a shred of evidence that the handful of Democrats who supported the amendment were moved to do so out of fear of being branded weak on terrorism. As I’ve said, I doubt highly that description applies to more than a handful of the handful. The article does not even consider the possibility that the amendment’s supporters were motivated by genuine, if misguided, conviction.

Comments

  1. #1 Shawn Wilkinson
    August 7, 2007

    I would like to add a third possibility as to why someone would vote for the amendment. Could it be that they did the democratically correct thing and voted based on their constituents’ desires/convictions? Ideally, Congressmembers ought to be glorified puppets to their constituents. In reality they aren’t, but perhaps some of them actually do what they’re supposed to do based on the ideals of a Democratic state? Just thought I’d throw in a random bit of data.

  2. #2 revere
    August 7, 2007

    Jason: You note I suggest not sending you money to the DCCC because their only interest is seeing the Democratic Party in power and instead send your money to Act Blue, a progressive Democrat PAC that will take your money and see that it goes to Democrats who reflect my (and your) values. Jim Webb is now a safe incumbent. Maybe you have so much money you can send it to DCCC and also even more money to the many, many potential true Democrats (not Blue Dog Democrats that the DCCC will also support). I don’t. For me it’s a zero sum game. Every penny I send to the DCCC that they send to Ellen Tauscher is a penny that won’t go to Darcy Burner, a progressive candidate who has a good chance in WA-08.

    I specifically said I wouldn’t oppose the cowardly lot who voted for this. If they voted for it because they thought their constituents wanted it (I’m not sure exactly how they would know), then they should say that and also say what they think of it and why. If they voted for it because they thought it was the right thing to do (which is their stated reason), then to hell with them. I won’t support them. I’ll support those people who have the values I have, all Democrats. When hyou send money to the DCCC you are sending money to Blue Dog Democrats and not sending it to progressive Democrats that could use it (because the DCCC is a zero sum game).

    In other words, I don’t think you have not accurately represented my position.

  3. #3 Aaron
    August 7, 2007

    “Because as annoyed as I am by this vote, Webb is so vastly preferable to Allen that voting for him was a no-brainer.”

    I definitely share your sentiments there. PA’s Bob Casey may have voted yea on the FISA bill, but I’d still vote for him in a heartbeat over *shudder* Rick Santorum.

  4. #4 JBL
    August 7, 2007

    I think you’ve missed the point: this is an issue where the caving happened before the vote took place. There was no reason this bill needed to be considered right now — they could have simply not brought it to the floor. If you think blaming “the Democratic leadership” is fundamentally different than blaming “the Democrats,” I suppose that’s your business (I would tend to disagree), but it’s clear that the sin was allowing this bill to come up, be voted on, and pass, not the actual act of voting for it.

  5. #5 Gerry L
    August 7, 2007

    What JBL said.

    What was the rush? And why didn’t we hear more debate on this important legislation? The only somewhat positive aspect is that it must be reconsidered in 6 months. So how do we get this the attention it requires before then? (My local Dems in Washington all voted ‘no’.)

  6. #6 Coin
    August 7, 2007

    (So I’m as sure about what follows as I can be, but I’m having a lot of trouble getting hard information on this– so please excuse me and correct me if I make any factual errors in the following. But:)

    No, most of the democrats didn’t vote for this. That’s not what people are complaining about. (Although it’s something I’m complaining about, because one of the Democratic Senators that voted for this was mine.)

    The fact is the Democrats could have stopped this, but they didn’t. Pelosi could have pushed through HR 3356, which had a majority, instead of barring 3356 from a vote under a normal rule, but allowing the Senate version. She could have raised a fuss, actually challenged Bush to make his rhetoric in public, and raised a fight over whether the Republican or the Democrat version of FISA reform is better. She could have said “wait two weeks”, then worked for a better deal at that time. She didn’t do anything of this sort. Indeed, she actively went out of her way to get this bill passed and prevent the consideration of the Democratic alternative.

    The Democrats did not just stand by helplessly idly here while the Republicans joined the 20% edge of right-wing Democrats to pass something; the Democratic leadership played hardball to get this bill passed. The Democrats shoved this through forcibly with practically no warning to or involvement by the citizenry– the ACLU found out about this from a cable news show, the votes didn’t even appear to show up on Congressional schedules I could find on the day of, and the whole thing was rammed through coincidentally the exact weekend the Democratic “base” was busy off at a convention somewhere. The Democrats used a level of tactics against their own base that they’re generally reluctant to use against even the Republicans. And they did this for a bill that, in the majority, the Democrats voted against.

    Several of my fellow Science Bloggers have come to a strange conclusion regarding the recent FISA vote in Congress [that they "caved"].

    Well, several of your fellow science bloggers came to this conclusion, and also basically the entire community of even marginally pro-Democrat political bloggers, and also the Washington Post, and well, essentially every single independent observer except you came to the same conclusion. The Democrats caved on this. If this hadn’t been a cave, among other things maybe they would have cared to come forward and present their side of the argument. Instead they did this practically in hiding in the dead of night, and are still practically in hiding over this– hiding from their own base, even.

  7. #7 MoZe
    August 7, 2007

    JBL is right that there was no real FISA “emergency,” but there was a FISA issue/gap. There was also a first bill (Rockefeller-Levin) which addressed the issue. For some reason the democratic leadership did not insist on passing their own bill, but instead moved swiftly on to the Republican’s 4th Amendment trashing “Protect America Act of 2007.” In fact, the solution was to pass the first bill and then go on break and let Bush throw hissy fits and veto it.

    While the revere piece that you cite may not have provided any evidence for the “fear” explanation, several members of Congress have publicly stated that that is exactly the dynamic that propelled the PAA to passage. These include Feingold, in a statement posted on his website, Dodd in an interview he gave Greenwald at Salon, and Rush Holt in an interview with Ed Schultz.

    So there is definitely some evidence.

    That said, I don’t really find the motivation all that important, as the vote speaks for itself. Even if genuine, the vote is so thoroughly misguided (particularly given that the party caucused all day long and everyone understood the issues, and that there was a far-preferable alternative) that I hardly think it matters.

    To be honest, I don’t find conviction or fear to be satisfying explanations. I think there is something a little more going on here and that the leadership forced the vote to come out as it did.

  8. #8 Tyler DiPietro
    August 8, 2007

    Jason, I think you’re missing the point here. The fact is, as others have already pointed out, that this legislation didn’t even need to be brought to the floor right now. It was shot right through based on little more than Bush’s demands for increased surveillance, and the Democrats had no reason to respond to the whims of a historically unpopular and ineffectual president. “Caving” is a perfect way to describe such shameful capitulation. The fact that most of them voted against it strikes me as little more than a moral fig-leaf.

  9. #9 Jason Rosenhouse
    August 8, 2007

    revere-

    I think you have an unfortunate double negative at the end of your comment.

    It’s also not clear to me which part of your position you think I misrepresented. In your comment you say you will not support the DCCC because they, in turn, support Democrats who do not share your values. Did I say otherwise in my post?

    Those Blue Dog Democrats you so despise are often the only hope for electing a Democrat in very conservative red state districts. I would prefer a real Democrat too, but even a conservative Democrat is preferable to a Republican. Those DCCC supported candidates who cast this misguided vote did, after all, manage to win their elections. Apparently the DCCC did something right in sending some money their way.

    Ideological purity is good, but winning elections is even better.

    One final point. Jim Webb is definitely not a safe incumbent. He won narrowly over George Allen, and Virginia is still a very conservative state.

    JBL-

    You’re making a different argument from the one I was replying to. I’m still not sure I follow the logic, however. If the leadership brought the bill to the floor because they were afraid of looking soft on terrorism if they didn’t, why would they then turn around and vote against it? Doesn’t that also make them look soft on terrorism? Also, the WaPo article describes several recent developments that did make it necessary to raise the issue now. I’m not sure it would have been as easy to table the issue as you suggest.

    Coin-

    I’m not sure what you are talking about. HR3356 was voted down in the House. The rush in bringing the bill to the floor was simply that the Congress is about to recess, and the alternative was to leave the issue hanging during that break.

    As for your accusations that the Democratic Leadership actively tried to get the bill passed, I would ask you the same question I asked JBL. What was the logic behind bringing the bill to the floor, and then overwhelmingly voting against it? Was the idea to try to have it both ways? They wanted the bill to pass, so they could say the Democratic Congress took tough steps to fight terrorism, but also wanted to vote against it, thereby placating their supporters?

    I have not been able to get a clear account of the procedural wrangling behind the bill from the various newspaper accounts I have read. But I would want to see some more evidence before agreeing to the idea that the Democratic Leadership actively wanted this bill to be passed.

    And kindly spare me the bullying about what other people think. I am perfectly aware that Democrat bashing is considered good fun even among other Democrats. I just think that when nearly eighty percent of one party votes to protect civil liberties while almost zero percent of the other party votes that way, the major story is not that the eighty percent party didn’t do more to keep the bill from coming to a vote.

    MoZe-

    The Rockefeller-Levin Bill almost surely would not have passed. Every Republican would have voted against it, as would many of the same Democrats who voted with Bush on this one. That is probably why the leadership didn’t fight harder to bring the bill to a vote.

    I did not deny in my post that fear played a role in the decision of some Democrats to support the bill. I just think that was not the primary reason for most of the Democrats who voted for it. For example, I do not believe that Jim Webb was so motivated.

    And I don’t think it’s really fair to say that there was no FISA emergency. The fact is that there was near universal agreement in both parties that steps needed to be taken to update the FISA law to better address modern threats. Every day the issue languishes is a day we lack the proper resources for tracking what our enemies are up to. Sounds like an emergency to me.

  10. #10 Jason Rosenhouse
    August 8, 2007

    Tyler-

    Our comments crossed in the ether, though I think I have already addressed most of your points. I would just add that the fact that a large majority of Democrats voted against it is a pretty big fig leaf.

  11. #11 revere
    August 8, 2007

    Jason; Yes, unfortunate double negative. My error. Now to the substance.

    i. I think I made quite clear that almost any Democrat (the Vile Joe Lieberman is no longer a Democrat) is better than any Republican. To put it in language you will understand, the set of Democrats is an upper bound on the set of Republicans. But why set the bar so low?

    ii. I also made it clear I was not advocating opposing a Blue Dog Democrat (except in a primary and I hope many get challenged). I was advocating not supporting them. Money to the DCCC does support them. Money to Act Blue supports progressive Democrats. It is a more precise way of targeting your money. Would you contribute to the Republicans and Democrats because there are Democrats that you support? No, of course not. You would contribute to Democrats. And if you could support the best Democrats instead of the bets and the worst, how would you prefer to spend your money?

    iii. Jim Webb is now safe. He is an incombent and has the power of incombency and is popular. He may have won by narrow margins but he won’t have trouble being re-elected. Unless he does dumb things like he did last weekend. Anyway, he isn’t up for re-eection for over four years. Not an issue. You don’t think Webb was motivated by fear and I agree with you. So don’t you think you better find out what did motivate him, because it was a very bad vote.

    iv. Your point that the DCCC did something right in the last election is based only on the fact that Democrats won control. Without their interference the Party might have done even better. We’ll never know. As you no doubt know, they supported some very bad candidates in primaries against some very good netroots ones and their candidates lost (e.g., Tammy Duckworth). What they did was spend money in ways they wanted to spend it, which had little to do with Democratic Party values and everything to do with achieving power. Emanuel and Schumer were both pro-war and helped get us into the Iraq mess. They are hopeless asses, IMO.

    v. The FISA “emergency.” I think you have drunk the kool aid. A FISA warrant is a cinch to get. Anyway, even a cursory examination of history will show that we have had these emergencies with regularity, except the danger wasn’t IslamoFascism it was German Huns, Italian Anarchists, Rissian or Chinese Communists, Jewish Radicals, etc. “In Case of Emergency, Break Constitution.”

    I understand your position but disagree with it strongly. It is time to stop giving these assholes a “pass” just because they are Democrats. I’m not asking for purity, but I won’t ignore toxic contamination.

  12. #12 JBL
    August 8, 2007

    Jason wrote:
    “You’re making a different argument from the one I was replying to. I’m still not sure I follow the logic, however. If the leadership brought the bill to the floor because they were afraid of looking soft on terrorism if they didn’t, why would they then turn around and vote against it? Doesn’t that also make them look soft on terrorism? Also, the WaPo article describes several recent developments that did make it necessary to raise the issue now. I’m not sure it would have been as easy to table the issue as you suggest.”

    Well, I admit to not having read the arguments you were responding to :). I also offer no analysis of why the Democrats might have caved on this issue, and my comments don’t depend on any such analysis: there was a choice between letting a bad bill pass (even if primarily on Republican votes) and not letting the bad bill pass (by not bringing it to the floor or by bringing their substitute), and they let the bad bill pass. Whether they did this because they are afraid of being called weak on terrorism, because they were hung over from the night before and weren’t paying attention, or some entirely different reason, I don’t know. What I do know is that they let a bad bill pass when they didn’t have to. That sounds like caving to me.

    As for the notion that they had to pass this bill, right now, I just don’t see it: if passing nothing wasn’t an option, they could have brought up their own version. If Republicans were willing to kill it or Bush was really willing to veto it, this simply provides evidence that it wasn’t actually necessary to do anything right now (and furthermore shifts the blame for doing nothing on to Republicans). If he wasn’t really willing to veto it, they we get a less-bad bill.

  13. #13 Engr Tony
    August 8, 2007

    I live in the Indiana 8th District, and my congressmen, Brad Ellsworth, is one of those “blue-dog” Democrats that supported this legislation. However, during the 2006 election, my choices were either vote to re-elect religious-right Christian-fundamentalist John Hostletter or to vote to elect Ellsworth. At least by voting for Ellsworth, I was able to vote against the ongoing Republican control of Congress.

    Sometimes you have to pick the lesser of two evils. Indiana is a very red state, and typically only conservative Democrats have any chance of winning.

  14. #14 Jason Rosenhouse
    August 8, 2007

    revere-

    Well, I certainly hope you’re right on point three! As for the rest, please see my follow-up post.

  15. #15 JBL
    August 8, 2007

    Engr Tony: sure, and if I were in your district I might have given to Ellsworth. It’s not surprising that some Democrats voted for a crappy bill. The problem is that they were given the opportunity to vote on a crappy bill. The arguments in favor of supporting conservative Democrats (at least, those targeted to those of us who are substantially more liberal or left) are that conservative Democrats are important because they will vote for the (hopefully more liberal) Democratic leadership in Congress, and this will (by control of committees and procedure) allow good bills to be considered in place of the bad bills that would have been made law if Republicans were in control. This argument doesn’t work if the Democratic leadership allows Republican bills to come up for consideration and pass. On this vote, having Ellsworth is exactly as bad as having Hostletter would have been, partially because he voted the way he did but far more importantly because he was given the opportunity to vote the way he did.

  16. #16 Coin
    August 8, 2007

    I’m not sure what you are talking about. HR3356 was voted down in the House.

    HR3356 was voted down in the house, with a 51% majority of 218 to 208 in favor of passing.

    S.1927 was passed in the house, with a 55% majority of 227 to 183 in favor of passing.

    Neither of these bills had a supermajority. Both had a simple majority. The reason that S.1927 passed and HR3356 did not is that HR3356 was considered under a rule that would have required a 2/3 majority to pass, and S.1927 was considered under a rule that only required a simple majority to pass. I do not understand exactly the process by which the rules for these bills were chosen, but the rules were chosen by the Democratic leadership and I find it essentially impossible to believe they could not have done it any other way.

    The votes aren’t what matters here. The point is that the Democratic House leadership had two bills capable of passing, the Democratic HR3356 and the Republican S.1927. The Democratic House leadership chose to kill their own party’s bill and pass the Republican one.

    The rush in bringing the bill to the floor was simply that the Congress is about to recess, and the alternative was to leave the issue hanging during that break.

    Okay. So what? Why not leave it hanging during the break? These beyond-FISA programs have been going on for years. What difference does it make whether the bill extending their legal cover is passed before this break, as opposed to the last break, or the next one? Why couldn’t this bill have been considered a month ago, or a month from now? If they wanted this passed before the break, why did they not take it up before this week?

    I do not think it could be any more clear that the bill was taken up at the last minute before the break precisely because this would engineer a fake crisis where the bill, ready or no, “had” to be passed before the break. And although that timing had more to do with McConnell and White House lobbying than anything, the Democrats offered so little resistance to this before-the-break ploy as to have effectively participated.

    Was the idea to try to have it both ways? They wanted the bill to pass, so they could say the Democratic Congress took tough steps to fight terrorism, but also wanted to vote against it, thereby placating their supporters?

    I would agree completely with this assessment of the situation.

  17. #17 Coin
    August 8, 2007

    Erp, I didn’t notice the posting after this one until after I’d written that comment. Sorry about that.

  18. #18 ikinci el esya
    July 16, 2010

    I would like to add a third possibility as to why someone would vote for the amendment. Could it be that they did the democratically correct thing and voted based on their constituents’ desires/convictions? Ideally, Congressmembers ought to be glorified puppets to their constituents. In reality they aren’t, but perhaps some of them actually do what they’re supposed to do based on the ideals of a Democratic state? Just thought I’d throw in a random bit of data.

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