Archive: December 2005

This Week's Debate: Domestic Surveillance

The founding principle of our great nation is that a government's most fundamental responsibility is to secure the natural rights of the people. Also called inherent or unalienable rights, these include the rights to life, liberty and property. It is this vital governmental role that is at the crux of the debate over warrantless wiretapping of U.S. persons. Are our natural rights best protected by a strong executive asserting wartime powers (in the absence of a formal declaration of war)? Or are they better protected by a system of checks designed to ensure that no one branch of government violates these rights under the guise of securing them? Within this framework, we can examine other key questions: · Where is the line between Fourth Amendment rights and national security? · When, if ever, is it legitimate for the president to bypass the courts in a matter over which they, by...

By Emily Messner | December 30, 2005; 11:09 AM ET | Comments (201)

Judicial Interference Justification Doesn't Hold Water

Some debaters pointed to this Seattle Post-Intelligencer article as the explanation for Bush's decision to circumvent the FISA court. The story says that an unprecedented number of wiretap requests were modified by the court -- 179 of the 5,645 requests from the Bush administration since 2001, plus another six that were rejected or deferred. But read through the second half of the article and it's hard not to notice that the timelines don't match up: 173 of the modifications and all six of the rejections were issued in 2003 and 2004; Bush ordered the warrantless spying in 2002. So even if no modifications were made to warrant requests for the rest of 2002 after Bush issued his directive, that still means he based his decision on a maximum of six modified warrants -- hardly such an overwhelming figure that it should cause a president to take extrajudicial action. Even if...

By Emily Messner | December 29, 2005; 9:28 AM ET | Comments (46)

The Facts: Domestic Surveillance

The Bush administration has asserted that the authorization to conduct warrantless wiretapping on U.S. citizens in the United States was implicit in the legislation authorizing the use of force against al Qaeda, passed by Congress shortly after 9/11. Then-Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle denies that claim, explaining in a Washington Post op-ed that in fact Congress specifically rejected the insertion of a clause that would have allowed the president to use "all necessary and appropriate force in the United States." (See also the news story about Daschle's revelation.) Of course, in order to have an informed debate about this complex subject, we must first have an understanding of the specific facts involved, and the applicable laws. What the Law Says Title 50 of the United States Code, Chapter 36, states: § 1802 (1) Notwithstanding any other law, the President, through the Attorney General, may authorize electronic surveillance without a court...

By Emily Messner | December 27, 2005; 11:00 AM ET | Comments (195)

Attn: Debaters! Your Turn to Lead the Discussion

My big bi-annual vacation is coming up in January, and I'd like to try something a little different. Debaters, I throw it over to you. It's your turn to lead the discussion. Write a blog entry on any issue about which you'd like to start a conversation, send it to me, and I'll post the most intriguing entries while I'm away. I'll still drop in to comment and post as often as I can -- but I'm not banking on wireless Internet in East Timor. (I base that prediction, possibly erroneously, on the fact that there are only two ATMs in Dili.) Your post should follow the usual blogging format, providing lots of useful links to both opinion pieces and factual documentation. I hope to see posts on a wide range of controversial subjects. Humor is most welcome (shout out to Chris Ford for morphing my "rogue banana peel" comment...

By Emily Messner | December 23, 2005; 12:40 PM ET | Comments (15)

Reprioritizing the Federal Budget

In the ongoing effort to find something we can all agree on, I offer this: Our federal budget needs some reprioritizing. The transportation bill, just to offer one example, is so full of pork it sizzles. In most cases, the number of earmarks for a given state went up in conference. Consider Oklahoma -- how did it go from 25 earmarks worth $84 million in the House bill to 66 earmarks worth more than half a billion dollars in the final conference agreement? Then there's Montana, which went from two earmarks in the House bill to 40 in the final version. And what's up with Florida's 232 earmarks, most of which are for very localized road improvements? Does Florida not have its own Department of Transportation? Do they really need $5.8 million of the taxpayers' money to design and reconstruct "the segment of Church Street from Terry Avenue to Westmoreland...

By Emily Messner | December 23, 2005; 10:44 AM ET | Comments (4)

Could a "Fair Tax" Help Fix the Budget Mess?

Note to Debaters: Want to lead the Debate for a day? Click here for details. Earlier in the budget debate, I asked what sort of tax policy would be best for the United States. I admit that's a bit broad, so let's take a look at one tax plan that seems to be gaining support: the so-called "Fair Tax". The idea, which has supporters in the House and in the Senate, is to repeal several taxes, most notably income tax, and replace that revenue with a universal sales tax. (The Fair Tax Blog asks: should you be paying income tax at all?) The proposal calls for a 23 percent tax on all goods and services -- although some have argued that in practice, it would be closer to 30 percent -- and businesses would keep one quarter of one percent of the tax revenue they bring in as payment for...

By Emily Messner | December 21, 2005; 11:14 PM ET | Comments (153)

War on Christmas Inspires Congressional Poetry

Note to Debaters: We'll be wrapping up the budget debate this week, but I couldn't resist getting a start on the "War on Christmas" -- conveniently, the two issues collide in the pages of the Congressional Record... Having decided that after roughly two millennia, safeguarding Christmas has become too big a job for God to do all by himself, the U.S. Congress stepped in last week with a House resolution to help protect this sacred holiday. Officially titled "Expressing the sense of the House of Representatives that the symbols and traditions of Christmas should be protected for those who celebrate Christmas" (the resolution was amended to tack on those last five words), H. Res. 579 passed by a vote of 401-22, sending a clear message to the anti-Christmas commies that the jig is up. These liberal, secular Americans -- among them, anyone who dares alienate the Christian majority by saying...

By Emily Messner | December 19, 2005; 9:43 AM ET | Comments (187)

The Law of Supply and Demand

When members of Congress left for their August recess, they fully expected to come back to vote on a number of tax cuts, including the permanent repeal of the estate tax. Hurricane Katrina changed all that. A week after the hurricane, Matthew Gardner wrote in the San Diego Union-Tribune about what the slow response to the disaster revealed. "This glaring failure should be a wake-up call for anyone who still believes that the administration's tax cuts have not hampered its ability to effectively prosecute multiple wars while providing basic services to its own citizens." Gardiner says Congress "can confront the horrible reality of a nation that is incapable of caring for its most vulnerable citizens in their time of greatest need -- or they can continue to pretend that tax cuts for the wealthiest few impose no costs on the nation as a whole." But why would the ruling party...

By Emily Messner | December 18, 2005; 9:25 PM ET | Comments (10)

Update: The Torture Debate

The news that the new version of the Army Field Manual will include a secret 10-page list of interrogation methods (including examples of what methods are acceptable under what circumstances) isn't going over well among supporters of the McCain Amendment. Some are understandably concerned that this is an attempt to undermine the amendment, which would require interrogations of prisoners held abroad to be subject to the same rules as interrogations conducted on U.S. soil. Opponents argue that McCain himself undermines the amendment by his acknowledgment that there are circumstances in which using prohibited techniques on prisoners might be necessary. (More on that below.) What's really at issue here is definitions. Clarity is severely lacking in rules on interrogation. In an online discussion today, former JAG Victor Hansen wrote, "I think there is a dangerous perception problem if more than one set of rules are even in existence. In spite of...

By Emily Messner | December 15, 2005; 2:33 PM ET | Comments (22)

Point of Interest: How the U.S. Burns $14,166 a Second

The American Interest asked in its winter issue (subscription required), "Has there ever been a power as great as the United States that has been a debtor as opposed to a creditor nation?" We are, indeed, a nation of borrowers, and that might not be inherently bad. I have to admit, though, when I look at the interest piling up by the minute on U.S. debt, I get a little queasy. Across the 30 days of November, we spent nearly $27 billion just on interest payments. Put another way, the United States spent $900 million a day -- a figure higher than the GDP of Leichtenstein -- on interest alone. For fiscal year 2005, we had to cough up $352 billion in interest -- more than the combined budgets of the departments of education, energy, homeland security, interior, justice, labor, state, transportation and veterans affairs. Assuming there were roughly 109...

By Emily Messner | December 15, 2005; 12:14 AM ET | Comments (20)

This Week's Debate: Congress and the Budget

Flashback to 1994: Anyone remember the Contract with America? It was that less-than-1000-word document that outlined what Republicans would do if they gained control of the House. And lo, they rode that contract right into the majority. Item number one of the contract promised "a balanced budget/tax limitation amendment and a legislative line-item veto to restore fiscal responsibility to an out-of-control Congress, requiring them to live under the same budget constraints as families and businesses." As it turned out, they couldn't muster the votes to pass a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution -- which would have been a dangerous limitation in times of crisis when some deficit spending really is necessary -- but that doesn't mean they had to abandon the very principle of a balanced budget. At the least, it would be nice if they produced a budget that was reasonably close to balanced. (Of course the Contract...

By Emily Messner | December 14, 2005; 5:07 AM ET | Comments (40)

The Facts: Congress and the Budget

This week, the Debate will be on Congress's handling of the budget. Last month, the House approved $50 billion in spending cuts, largely from programs aimed at the poor, and just last week, members of Congress cancelled out their own efforts at deficit reduction by passing nearly $95 billion in tax cuts. The tax cuts include some necessary items like another temporary fix for the increasingly misdirected Alternative Minimum Tax, plus tax breaks for certain businesses in the Gulf Coast region. The latest tax bill to pass, costing $56 billion, boasted as its centerpiece extensions of reduced tax rates for capital gains and dividends. CNN summarizes some of the provisions in the latest tax bills. The Congressional Budget Office provided this estimate of how the $50 billion in spending cuts would break down. The CBO's August 2005 (pre-Katrina) Budget and Economic Outlook is worth a peek, even if only to...

By Emily Messner | December 12, 2005; 5:29 AM ET | Comments (37)

Answering The War's Big Questions

Time to revisit the questions we asked at the start of this debate: 1. Did the administration know more than it chose to reveal? Little of the intelligence supporting the decision to go to war was definitive, and much of it was open to challenge from other, more reliable intelligence. The administration failed to reveal those important qualifications to the case it was making. In a speech in March of 2004, Sen. Kent Conrad of North Dakota noted, "All the evidence we have now shows the administration knew at the time the statements were made that its own intelligence undercut the statements it was making." That might not technically qualify as lying, but omitting those key facts and findings that cast great doubt on the case for war at least counts as dishonest. Richard Cohen writes that none of those pesky facts "mattered to Vice President Cheney, who warned of...

By Emily Messner | December 9, 2005; 11:11 AM ET | Comments (91)

The Iraqi-al Qaeda Connection

In a news conference following Bush's announcement of his plan for Victory in Iraq, Sen. Richard Lugar said: It is not an option simply to say that Iraq doesn't matter. Iraq does matter because, in the worst of cases, not only would there be civil war but there would be intervention by other countries, the possibility for training ground for al Qaeda or others and we've recycled Afghanistan from another time and another place into a very dangerous predicament. And we are in this predicament because we were attacked here in Washington and in New York. The world did not leave us alone. Sorry, but who didn't leave us alone? All those Iraqi hijackers? Oh, wait, they weren't Iraqi. Most were Saudi; not a single one was Iraqi. (Nor were any of the hijackers Iranian. Or Syrian. How again is it that Saudi Arabia isn't a member of the Axis...

By Emily Messner | December 6, 2005; 12:45 PM ET | Comments (154)

Congress and the Case for War

On the campaign trail in 2004, President Bush told a crowd in Kirtland, Ohio, "I said to the Congress, do you see a threat? And members of both political parties looked at the same intelligence I looked at and came to the same conclusion we came to." Did they? Putting aside things like Presidential Daily Briefings, to which none of the members of Congress would have been privy, the president himself ensured that intelligence would be kept from Congress when he issued this presidential memorandum. And did members of Congress reach the same conclusions as the President? The New York Times (text also at Common Dreams) took issue with the part of the claim. As far back as 2002, Sen. Bob Graham was reaching very different conclusions from the intelligence before him than was the president. Here's Graham, not long after Congress approved the resolution authorizing force: Hussein may be...

By Emily Messner | December 5, 2005; 5:14 AM ET | Comments (49)

Veterans Defend War Criticism

"President Bush doesn't have a memory of having gone to a war where your politicians lied to you. I have a memory of having gone to a war where the politicians lied and the consequence was the people received me not as a hero but as somebody who had done something they didn't want him to do." --Bob Kerrey, former Democratic senator from Nebraska and recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor (Los Angeles Times, Jan. 6, 1991) Fortunately, it seems highly unlikely that such a scenario would occur again -- one of the many lessons Americans learned from Vietnam (too late for many of the veterans, unfortunately) was that it's just plain un-American to turn our backs on the troops. They didn't make the policy decisions that started the war; they were simply doing their duty for their country. The misplaced anger at Vietnam veterans is at long last...

By Emily Messner | December 2, 2005; 1:24 PM ET | Comments (62)

Notes From the First Gulf War

While the debate raged over whether to take on Saddam Hussein in 1990 and early 1991, several prominent politicians were offering serious warnings -- warnings that would have been just as apt 12 years later. Here's a sampling: In a Washington Post op-ed on Sept. 24, 1990, then-Sen. William S. Cohen predicted, "With the passage of time, American citizens may become increasingly disenchanted with the notion of their sons and daughters remaining at risk in the Persian Gulf. Budget cuts for domestic programs and higher taxes (sorry, I mean enhanced revenues) are likely to generate an animus that will not respect foreign policy boundaries." Sen. John C. Danforth (R-Mo.) asked in the Jan. 11, 1991 Washington Post, "When we win the war, what happens then? What happens to the balance of power in the Middle East, to the governance of Iraq, to the stability of friendly governments in Egypt and...

By Emily Messner | December 1, 2005; 1:46 PM ET | Comments (45)

What About the War Powers Act?

Blast from the past: On Sept. 24, 1990, then-Senator William S. Cohen (R-Maine, later to become Clinton's secretary of defense) wrote in the Washington Post [see page 14 of pdf] that Congress would be well advised to follow the rules of the 1973 War Powers Act in authorizing the first President Bush to kick Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait. The Modern Tribune argues that although the 2002 authorization of force contained provisions making any subsequent action subject to the War Powers Act, the conditions of the act were never met, rendering the invasion illegal. I don't know enough about the enforcability of such an act to argue this point one way or the other, but that said, I definitely don't see the WPA the same way the author of the Modern Tribune piece does. The MT author interprets the act as requiring evidence of a "clear" and "imminent" threat in...

By Emily Messner | December 1, 2005; 5:43 AM ET | Comments (18)

 

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