The Soundbite Congress

With three weeks left, Harry and Nancy are setting records for fewest accomplishments and most short tv hits.

The history of this year’s Congress should be written by Mel Brooks. Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi have spent weeks and months flapdoodling on ending the Iraq war, fiddling with FISA, bashing Gen. Petraeus and whining about “obstructionist” Republicans who aren’t joining in their legislative mayhem.

Actually, the script has already been written. In one scene of Brooks’ brilliant “Blazing Saddles,” the not-too-bright but way-too-corrupt Gov. LePetomaine is faced with a crisis in the town of Rock Ridge. His panicked response is to shout to his assembled cronies, “Holy underwear! Gentlemen, we have to do something to save our phony-baloney jobs.” Which reminds me of August 3.

At the end of April, Director of National Intelligence Adm. Mike McConnell asked the Senate to solve quickly a huge problem with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. A still-secret decision of the FISA court had disabled means of essential intelligence gathering. Republicans, led by Senate Select Committee on Intelligence co-chairman Kit Bond (R-Mo) were ready to go with a fix just a few weeks later. But the Democrats wouldn’t move.

Senate Democrats were too busy siding with against our best combat commander. They fiddled and diddled and when Congress was about to leave for the August recess, the president demanded action. Hapless Harry — caught flatfooted again — was asked at a press conference on August 3 if he thought Congress was being stampeded. His answer was to pull out the New York Times’ editorial of that morning (fortuitously entitled, “Stampeding Congress, Again”), hold it up to the attentive television cameras and say that was his answer.

Soundbites, not accomplishments. All Reid needs is a silk vest and a buxom assistant to complete his LePetomaine imitation.

Congress has only three weeks left in this year’s session. Facing them is the mountain of work they’ve neglected all year in favor of Petraeus-bashing and otherwise following the orders of the NYT editorial page and (to the small extent they don’t coincide perfectly).

According to Sunday’s Washington Post, the work Congress should do before it adjourns for the year includes: the energy bill, 11 of 12 annual appropriations bills, a farm bill, the Alternative Minimum Tax (which is about to slap about 23 million American homes with higher taxes) and a more permanent fix to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (the current one expires in February).

WaPo, of course, excuses Harry LePetomaine’s lack of accomplishments on three grounds: a “combative GOP minority,” an “intransigent Republican president” and an “unreliable” Democratic majority. The Dems’ majority is unreliable, of course, because it’s a functional minority whenever Clinton, Obama, Dodd and Biden are off campaigning for president. Tsk, tsk. The only solution, at least to the WaPo, is a Democratic president and a larger Dem majority in the Senate.

Or maybe Democrats who actually take their responsibilities to the nation more seriously than they take their amen chorus in the politically-activist media.

The solution would be for the Democrats to stop wasting time creating soundbites for the evening news and get to the business of governing. The “combative” GOP minority is perfectly willing to work on compromises but the Dems aren’t interested. They want to go on Bush-bashing and really aren’t interested in governing. The best example of that is the FISA mess.

One of the key issues in FISA “reform” — other than the huge Constitutional problems it poses and the absurdities it imposes on the intelligence community — is that the current version doesn’t provide the immunity from civil lawsuits for telecom companies that is essential to enabling them to continue their cooperation with NSA and CIA.

The immunity was left out of the August version because the immediate need to fix the damage done by the FISA court’s decision couldn’t wait any longer. To get another shot at immunity quickly, the FISA reforms were set to expire in February at Republican insistence. (NB: the White House’s insistence that the short expiration date was the fault of the Democrats is disingenuous).

In October, the SSCI passed — by a 13-2 vote — a six-year FISA fix including the civil immunity for telecom companies. The bill was sent over to the Senate Judiciary Committee which has jurisdiction over some parts of it, where Chairman Pat Leahy (D-Vt) took it apart.

In November, the House passed a FISA bill that would create problems as bad as the one Adm. McConnell found intolerable in April. Soon after, Sen. Leahy introduced – and reported one out of the Judiciary Committee — a substitute to the SSCI bipartisan bill, one that creates a whole new set of problems.

Leahy’s committee acted without any consultation with the FISA experts in the intelligence community or at the Justice Department. It’s a disaster.

In a November 19 interview, I asked Sen. Bond if the Leahy bill would interfere with the functions of intelligence agencies and others. Said Bond, “Yes… This could have a very significant effect, perhaps even making [some] grand jury subpoenas require a FISA order.” The Leahy bill makes FISA the “exclusive” means of gathering some intelligence. It’s a direct challenge to the President’s constitutional power to gather foreign intelligence.

Bond told me, “We, in our Senate bill, in our intelligence committee bill, took the definition of ‘exclusivity’ that the original FISA bill had. It claims to be exclusive, but we all know that the President, under Article II, has the foreign affairs power to collect foreign intelligence.

“The president voluntarily put his terror surveillance program under FISA court, and because of change in technology, a ruling this spring shut down the efforts. That’s why [we] passed the Protect America Act [in August]. And we worked for many, many months, for the full committee to understand how they’re collecting it, what they’re doing, what their protections are. We built in additional protections, as a result of legitimate concerns raised by the committee…we came out with a 13-to-2, overwhelming, bipartisan support for the intelligence bill. And the bill that is coming out of judiciary guts the early warning system, so this is not an acceptable means of dealing with FISA.”

And last week, SSCI Chairman Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) released a letter he had sent to DNI McConnell in August, accusing him of double-dealing on the August FISA reforms. It appears Rockefeller is backing away from his own committee’s bill. But he’ll score some soundbites on it.

Harry LePetomaine Reid, Nancy Pelosi and Pat Leahy haven’t done the nation’s business on FISA. And now the WaPo wonders if they’ll get “stampeded” again come February.

There will only be a few days’ legislative time between the day Congress returns from the Christmas recess and the day FISA expires again. And the NYT and WaPo will be shouting from their editorial pages that the White House is stampeding Congress again.

Can cattle stampede themselves? No, but the drovers of, the WaPo and NYT can stampede them any day they choose.