July 9, 2004
BUZZFLASH GUEST CONTRIBUTION
Anyone watching C-SPAN on July 8th, when Congressman Bernie Sanders I-VT and a bipartisan coalition took to the floor to protect the privacy of what Americans are reading and viewing on the internet, got one hell of a civics lesson. In an extraordinary display, the usually placid floor of the United States House of Representatives erupted as the Republic majority demonstrated once again that winning is their only goal. And democracy shouldn't be allowed to stand in the way.
Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act -- a law hastily passed in the wake of the horrendous 9/11 attacks -- greatly expanded the government's authority to seize "business records" without any showing that the person whose records are being seized is involved in any kind of wrongdoing. These "business records" include files about what books innocent Americans are borrowing from libraries and buying from booksellers.
So, the amendment would have prevented the government from using section 215 to go to the federal secret court to get an order -- which the court is essentially powerless to deny -- requiring the disclosure of Americans' reading records. The amendment was supported by a broad cross section of members -- from progressives like Congressman Sanders, John Conyers (D-MI) and Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) to conservatives like Butch Otter (R-ID) and Ron Paul (R-TX).
But the day before the vote, the White House significantly upped the ante when the Administration issued a rare veto threat against the bill in our amendment to protect readers' privacy passed. This was Bush throwing down the gauntlet and his foot soldiers in the House Republican leadership got the message. This was a must win.
When the vote finally occurred on the amendment, the typical 17 minute time limit expired and the amendment had won 219-201, with almost 30 Republicans voting for the amendment. But wait! The Republican presiding over the House didn't end the vote. Then the House Republican leaders began the process of "persuading" errant Republicans that supporting the President is more important than supporting our most fundamental Constitutional rights. A couple of votes changed. Then supporters of the amendment took to their feet demanding that the vote be closed.
Shouts of "Shame, Shame, Shame" echoed through the House Chamber as scores of angry members on the Democratic side took to their feet. But the Republicans are apparently immune to such public shaming, having become experienced at overturning fair votes in Florida and on the floor of the House last year during the Medicare vote after keeping that vote open for three hours.
Finally, after keeping the vote open twice as long as scheduled the Tom DeLay and company had threatened, cajoled, and enticed enough Republicans to tie the vote at 210-210. To the jeers of the amendments supporters the presiding Republican let the gavel fall and the amendment was defeated on a tie vote.
Ironically, the Republicans had subverted the most basic underlying principle of a democracy -- that the will of the majority as evidenced by a fairly taken vote should prevail -- in order to protect the Bush Administration's abridgement of American civil liberties under section 215 of the Patriot Act.
Win at any cost. What a sad civics lesson for America's children and for foreign countries who are supposed to look to America as an example of democracy.
A BUZZFLASH GUEST CONTRIBUTION
Joel Barkin is the Communications Director for Congressman Bernie Sanders I-VT.
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"Bush Wins; House Leaves Patriot Act As Is" (New York Times)
Video of Bernie -- http://bernie.house.gov/multimedia/2004-7-8-motion.ram
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