(updated below - Update II - Update III)
House Democrats are expected to unveil and possibly vote on their FISA bill this week. While they may (or may not) end up securing some additional, mild safeguards against eavesdropping abuses as compared to the Rockefeller/Cheney Senate bill, it is almost certain that they will ultimately end up granting amnesty to lawbreaking telecoms and gutting most of the long-standing, core protections of FISA. The recent, extraordinary revelations of just how sweeping is the administration's spying on domestic calls and emails of Americans seem to have had little effect thus far on what appears to be the inevitable course.
As this week's red-district election to Congress of anti-telecom-amnesty candidate Bill Foster demonstrates, they're not doing these things because it's politically necessary. They're doing it because more than enough Democrats believe in the virtues of telecom amnesty and warrantless eavesdropping -- just as they believe in the continued occupation of Iraq, the abolition of habeas corpus, the "enhanced interrogation techniques" authorized by Military Commissions Act, concealing Bush's illegal eavesdropping programs, and a long array of other radical Bush policies that now have bipartisan Congressional support.
There's absolutely no point in helping to elect Democrats like that to Congress or helping them to stay there. Yesterday, there was some celebration over the fact that Arkansas Sen. Mark Pryor will be re-elected without opposition this year. That's the same Mark Pryor who voted for the Military Commissions Act, for the Protect America Act, for telecom immunity, against every Iraq redeployment measure, and scores of other similar votes. The fact that he's being re-elected with no opposition demonstrates his extremely strong political standing, i.e., that he cast these votes because they reflect what he believes. What's to celebrate about the fact that someone like that -- with that belief system -- is returning to the Senate?
Democrats are never going to change their behavior if there continues to be no price for what they're doing. If even the most pro-Bush Democrats continue to receive reflexive support from other Democrats, regardless of how fundamentally they reject the political values of those Democrats, they will continue on the same course. Why wouldn't they? And if Democrats whose political values are violated by these office holders refrain from ever working against them, solely because they have a (D) after their name, then this process will continue unabated.
The only real prospect for changing any of that is to attach a political price, some form of meaningful punishment, when they do things such as vote to abolish habeas corpus or to vest new warrantless eavesdropping powers in the President or to grant amnesty to telecoms. That needs to be done even if it means weakening the bad Democrat in question. Last October, when six House Democrats announced that they would vote to sustain Bush's veto of SCHIP legislation, a group of blogs -- including FDL and C&L -- raised funds to run negative robocalls in the districts of all six, and five of the six ended up switching their position.
There is now an effort underway to repeat -- and escalate -- that process with the still-pending FISA and telecom amnesty fight. Six generally pro-Bush House Democrats, who have announced that they support telecom amnesty, have been selected. The goal is to raise as much money as possible to run local ads against one or two of them, alerting as many possible voters in their districts of their endless complicity with the most radical, corrupt aspects of the Bush administration's chronic lawbreaking and illegal domestic spying.
The content of the ads will be catered to the specific Representative and the district which are chosen, designed to inflict maximum damage and pressure. Depending on the district and the amount of money raised, the aim is to run as many ads as possible on television, radio and/or newspapers, aimed specifically at the pro-Bush Democratic member.
There is a poll set up to ask everyone interested to vote on which of the six Congressmen should be targeted. The top one or two vote-getters will be the ones against whom the ads will be run. As soon as they are selected, the fund-raising for these ads will commence and they will be running very quickly, to ensure maximum impact over the upcoming FISA votes. You can vote here.
Blogs and online advocacy groups have, to a surprising extent, devoted themselves this year to full-fledged support for one or the other of the presidential candidates. I think this highlights both the ability of blogs to affect political matters as well as their limits. The larger the issue is, the more media attention it is receiving, the less impact blogs can have. That's been the case with the presidential election. In such cases, blogs merely duplicate what is already being done in much larger and louder venues. By contrast, the narrower, more specialized and more focused the effort is, the larger the impact can be.
The issue of telecom amnesty is an excellent illustration of this principle, as it is almost certainly the case that blogs and online groups single-handedly catapulted the issue into national controversy, preventing quick and quiet enactment of this corrupt measure. Other notable blogging successes have typically focused on discrete issues (social security reform), narrow controversies, or specific races (Ned Lamont, Donna Edwards, Jim Webb).
Focusing efforts against specific members of Congress, on discrete issues, can operate much the same way. The scope of the effort is sufficiently narrow and focused to enable real impact, while also providing a good, illustrative lesson that can have an impact beyond just the individual member who is targeted. It can also create a template for how to pursue similar campaigns in the future. You can help the effort with the first step by voting for the most deserving targets here. Those who want to contribute to the ad campaign can do so here.
UPDATE: The New York Times' Eric Lichtblau this morning reports that the current House version of the bill actually contains some relatively decent provisions. The most significant, in my view, is a provision that -- instead of granting amnesty -- would allow telecoms to submit any classified information to the court to demonstrate that they did not break the law.
The primary excuse from telecoms has been that, while they acted legally, they are unfairly barred from proving their innocence in court because the administration has asserted a "state secret" privilege over the exculpatory documents, thus preventing them from using those documents in court to defend themselves. That claim has always been deceitful, because under FISA (50 USC 1806(f)), telecoms are already explicitly permitted to present any evidence in support of their defenses -- including classified evidence -- in secret (in camera, ex parte) to the judge and let the judge decide the case based on it.
But this provision in the House bill would eliminate all doubt and remove the central excuse as to why telecoms need amnesty if they did nothing wrong. In that regard, that provision has the potential to change the nature of the debate. The problem with these improved provisions in the House bill, however, is clear:
With some conservative Democrats in the House favoring immunity for the phone companies, Democratic leaders conceded that the proposal would face opposition even within their own party. And they said that even if it were approved by the House, it was certain to face strong opposition from the White House and probable defeat in the Senate.
"This is not the end of the road," the House Democratic staff member acknowledged. "We're trying to build support for the provision."
It's hard to imagine more compelling evidence for the need for campaigns like the one described in this post than this. Those who want to contribute to the ad campaign can do so here.
UPDATE II: I've now had the opportunity to read the full text of the House FISA bill which they unveiled today. It is actually surprisingly good, though the real question, of course, is how committed they really are to having it enacted, as opposed to this being merely a base-placating measure with the real intention of enacting something virtually identical to the Rockefeller/Cheney bill once it is returned from the Senate.
I've posted the official House Democratic summary of the bill's provisions here. If someone wants to upload the .pdf version of the full bill, please email me within the next 15 minutes (2:15 pm EST) and I'll email it to you and then link to the document. The fact that the House bill is reasonably good, but highly unlikely to pass because of the sizable portion of Congressional Democrats eager to follow Jay Rockefeller and support every one of the President's demands, underscores the central point here. Along those lines, a rather amazing amount of money has been raised in just a few hours this morning -- more than
$14,000 $18,000 $27,000 $35,000 and counting -- in order to target Democrats eager to enable telecom amnesty and warrantless eavesdropping.
UPDATE III: The full text of the House bill is here (.pdf).