An Uncivil Administration
July 14, 2004
By Walter Brasch
Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) was furious. Once again, the Bush Administration
managed to subvert not only American civil liberties, but the democratic
process as well. Nadler, one of the nation's leading advocates of
social justice, and whose district includes the area where the World
Trade Center once stood, called the Republican leadership "shameful,"
their tactics "corrupt."
"For all of their talk of patriotism, the Republicans showed something
quite different," said Nadler. It was nothing less than "an abuse
of power more likely to be seen in a police state than in a democratic
society," he said.
In the 15 minutes usually allocated to voting on an issue, the
House apparently had passed legislation to cut off funding for enforcement
of Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act. Section 215, one of the most
controversial sections of one of America's most controversial laws,
permits federal law enforcement, without going through the common
judicial system, to grab "any tangible thing" in any investigation.
This could include taking the sales records from bookstores, demanding
from libraries the records of who checked out which book, and forcing
internet service providers to release e-mails not just from suspects
but from all persons the suspects contacted, thus dragging thousands
of innocent persons into the FBI web. A "gag" order prohibits anyone
from disclosing whether or not the FBI even asked for the information.
In addition to liberals, thousands of prominent conservatives oppose
the act. Among them are Newt Gingrich, former House speaker who
engineered the mid-term Republican victory in 1994, and Bob Barr,
a representative who was one of Bill Clinton's harshest critics
during the impeachment hearings.
In March 2003, Rep. Bernie Sanders had introduced the Freedom
to Read Protection Act (H.R. 1157) that would minimize or repeal
Section 215; within a year it had more than 140 co-sponsors, extraordinarily
high for any proposed legislation.
"One of the cornerstones of our democracy is our right of Americans
to criticize their government and to read printed materials without
fear of government monitoring and intrusion," Sanders said at the
time he submitted his bill. More than three dozen of the nation's
largest organizations of librarians, booksellers, journalists, and
publishers filed a joint statement that declared their support for
the proposed bill.
When it appeared it was stalled, Sanders and Reps. Nadler, John
Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), C. L. Otter (R-Idaho), and Ron Paul (R-Texas)
tried another way to limit the PATRIOT Act.
To the Commerce, Justice, State Appropriations Bill of 2005, they
proposed an amendment to cut off funding to the Department of Justice
for searches conducted under Section 215. The amendment didn't diminish
the government's capacity to investigate possible terrorism. The
federal government could still obtain records, as long as it went
into a court of law and showed there was "probable cause" to request
But, even if the amendment passed, it might only have been symbolic.
In the summer, the House passed legislation proposed by Otter, 309-118,
to cut off funding for Section 213, the "sneak-and-peak" section
that allows the government to raid a business or home, without the
owner present, and to delay for months before even notifying them
that materials were seized. The vote never moved forward in the
As with the Otter Amendment, it was unlikely the Senate would
accept the House amendment about Section 215. Further, the Department
of Justice could use the equally-restrictive National Security Letters,
which weren't subject of the amendment prohibition, to gain access
to records; or, it could also manipulate its own budget in several
ways to disguise use of funding to enforce Section 215, especially
since the Department has an obstructionist attitude, except when
it was politically beneficial to the Bush Administration, to release
of any data about enforcement of that section.
What the Republican leadership did with the Sanders amendment
was indicative of the Administration's tactics. A day before the
vote, the President's budget office sent a memo to House members
warning them if they passed anything to weaken the PATRIOT Act,
the President would veto the $39.8 billion bill. It would be the
first veto in the President's term.
By the end of the 15-minute voting period, even with the President's
assurances of a veto, the amendment had 219 votes for passage, 201
against. But, the Republican leadership at that point held the voting
open for an additional 23 minutes while Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas),
House majority leader, and his aides, bullied Republicans into changing
their votes. (The House leadership had previously extended a vote
by three hours to arm-twist members to reverse their vote opposing
the President's Medicare package.)
Among the tactics on the Section 215 amendment, the leadership
suddenly produced a letter written by the Department of Justice
that claimed a member of a terrorist group tied to al-Qaeda used
the Internet at a public library. There were no specifics. Since
the Department of Justice continually claimed it had "no interest"
in going to libraries, how it learned of computer use at a library
leads one to question if the Department lied to the people or if
it lied to the Congress. The final vote, a 210-210 tie, doomed the
In public statements, members of Congress expressed the same outrage
as Jerry Nadler. "You win some, some get stolen," Otter, a conservative
Republican, said. Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) the House minority
leader, lashed out at "Republican leaders [who] once again undermined
democracy," and declared them to be "thoroughly un-American." Sanders
called the vote "an outrage" and "an insult to democracy."
Another representative was even more hostile to the tactics of
the House leadership:
"[It is] the most heavy-handed, arrogant abuse of power in the
10 years I have been here. . . . [The Speaker of the House is] a
heavy-handed son of a bitch and he doesn't know any other way to
operate, and he will do anything he can to win at any price. There
is no sense of comity left."
However, it wasn't July 2004 but October 1987, and the profane-enhanced
tirade was directed not against current Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.)
but against Speaker Jim Wright (D-Texas), who had briefly adjourned
the House to allow time to "convince" a couple of Democrats to switch
their votes on a pending budget bill.
The man who had scoured Wright, identified by Rep. Steny Hoyer
(D-Md.) after the vote on Section 215, was Rep. Dick Cheney (R-Wyoming)
- the same Dick Cheney who, with George W. Bush, campaigned on a
mantra of bringing civility back to the White House, and who less
than a month before the vote on Section 215, in the Senate of the
United States, told Patrick Leahy to do something anatomically impossible
One thousand Coalition soldiers are now dead; more than 5,000
are wounded, some permanently disabled, because of Bush's lies about
weapons of mass destruction poised to attack America, where terrorists
really were being protected, and of his egotistical belief that
he is the world's commander-in-chief.
This administration's policies about the underclass, the environment,
health care, worker rights, and dozens of other critical and important
domestic issues, has done far more to destroy this nation, and the
respect of the Oval office than anything Bill Clinton ever did.
The tactics used against an amendment to restore civil liberties
is indicative of why this Administration doesn't deserve a second
Walter Brasch, professor of journalism at Bloomsburg University,
is an award-winning journalist and author. A chapter about the PATRIOT
Act appears in the recently-published Big Bush Lies (RiverWood
Books), edited by Jerry 'Politex' Barrett. Brasch's 14th book, to
be published about November by Peter Lang Publishing, is America's
Unpatriotic Acts; The Federal Government's Violation of Constitutional
and Civil Rights. You may contact Brasch at firstname.lastname@example.org.