(I think this is going to be crossposted at the NYU College Democrats blog. I’ll post the link up here if that happens.)
On Monday, Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd will filibuster legislation that would provide retroactive immunity to phone companies that knowingly violated the civil liberties of their clients by turning phone records over to the NSA. If he’s going to successfully block this legislation, he’s going to need help – so it’s important that everyone contact their Senators and ask them to support the filibuster.
But don’t take my word on it. To help explain why this is so important, I’ve recruited a disembodied voice (in bold text) to ask me leading questions so that I can better illustrate my point.
What is this legislation?
The Foreign Intelligence Service Act (FISA) was passed in 1978 and called for the formation of the Foreign Intelligence Service Court (FISC). When the US government wanted to wiretap communications involving “foreign powers,” they had to go to FISC and request a warrant.
How picky were these guys?
Let me put it this way: in 2003, out of 1727 warrant applications, 79 were substantially modified and all but three were approved.
Yep. And here’s the big kicker – if, say, the NSA was really pressed for time, they could just go ahead and tap some phones without a warrant and then later get the warrant issued retroactively.
So where do the telecom companies come in?
Funny story: In 2002, President Bush signed an executive order ordering the NSA to spy on the communications of US citizens without ever consulting FISC. Major telecom companies decided to go ahead and cooperate.
What? How is that legal?
It’s not. It’s exactly the opposite of legal, and when the New York Times reported it in 2005, it caused quite a tizzy.
Huh. I guess I must have missed that impeachment hearing.
Hahah! Good one. Funnier story: when the whole thing got found out, the Bush administration turned around and said that FISA was too strict. So Congress decided to accommodate the White House by coming up with the Protect America Act.
Well I can’t possibly object to a bill with a name like that! What does it do?
Basically it modifies FISA to allow the Attorney General to order warrantless wiretapping with no real oversight. So in effect, there’s nothing in between the NSA and listening in on all your international calls.
Holy crap! And Congress passed this?!
Yessir. But it expires on February 1st, so Congress needs to vote on it again soon.
So that’s what they Dodd’s going to be filibustering Monday?
Sort of. Two bills got written up here – one that was a compromise between the Senate intelligence committee that calls for retroactive immunity and another bill written up by the judiciary committee that leaves it out.
Well if there’s retroactive immunity in one of the bills, I’m assuming there must be some sort of legal or historical precedent for that sort of thing.
Nope – declaring someone immune from prosecution after they break the law is pretty much unheard of.
Surely a Democratic Senate would vote for the one without retroactive immunity, right? Unless all of America has suddenly fallen in love with their phone companies, it sounds like voting against retroactive immunity would be both politically shrewd and a moral imperative.
You’d think so, but apparently Congress doesn’t see it that way. On Thursday, twelve Democrats hopped party lines to vote down judiciary’s bill. That means that it’s on Senator Dodd, who vowed to filibuster any bill that includes retroactive immunity.
Remind me what a filibuster is again?
Basically it’s an attempt to indefinitely prolong debate on a bill so that it never reaches the floor. A senator gets up during the debate and talks for a long, looooooong time. The trick is that since 60 votes are needed close the debate, as long as there are enough senators not voting for cloture, it just becomes a test of endurance for the senator who’s filibustering. That’s how filibusters used to run, but traditionally in the modern Senate, if a Senator declares his intention to filibuster, then the Majority Leader will pull the bill from consideration to avoid wasting time. The Republicans have taken advantage of that quite a bit, and in recent years have threatened to filibuster everything that moves, without having to actually filibuster.
So then we have nothing to worry about, right? Now that Dodd’s declared his intention to filibuster, the bill will get pulled from consideration.
Nope! Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is forcing him to actually filibuster. This is after Reid also refused to honor Dodd’s hold on the bill, even though he continues to honor Republican holds on bills.
Wait, this guy’s the Democratic Majority Leader?
Yeah, I know.
This is an outrage! Surely the courageous Democratic presidential candidates will step in and use their influence to vocally support the filibuster!
Hahahah! You’re a barrel of laughs, lemme tell you. Actually, Clinton’s not supporting it. Obama indicated that he might while still hedging a bit, but neither of them showed up to vote on Thursday, so I’d say whether or not Obama will show up on Monday to vote against cloture is still up in the air.
So what can I do to help?
Well, concerned rhetorical device, if either of your senators are on this list, you can call them. In fact, go ahead and let them know how you feel even if they’re not on the list. The more the merrier. And let’s hope on Monday we can beat this thing.