All month the media has bombarded people with sound bites about the National Security Agency surveillance. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) tried to make citizens aware of this for two years; Edward Snowden managed to do it in two minutes. Quick to blame President Obama—again—several GOP legislators in Congress have bitterly complained about being left out of the loop.
Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-CA), chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, organized briefings to better inform the senators. The most recent was last Thursday afternoon with NSA Director Keith Alexander, the FBI, Justice Department, FISA Court, and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, who denied in a Senate committee hearing only three months ago that there was no surveillance of the U.S. people. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) recessed the Senate for an hour so that everyone could attend this important briefing. Over half the senators left early on Thursday to catch their planes home. Only 47 of them attended the briefing.
Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) claimed that the administration is abusing the law through the NSA surveillance activities and expressed surprise at the extent of the surveillance, probably because he failed to attend any of the hearings during the last three years about NSA’s activities. Even more hypocritical, he has called himself the “author of the PATRIOT Act,” the law that makes all this surveillance legal and helped renew it in 2011.
Section 215 of his PATRIOT Act approves an FBI request for NSA to view millions of records from Verizon customers. It also allows the FBI to obtain any records from libraries without court orders. In a Connecticut case, FBI agents demanded “any and all subscriber information, billing information and access logs of any person or entity” that had used computers between 4 p.m. and 4:45 p.m. on February 15, 2005, in any of the 27 libraries whose computer systems were managed by the Library Connection, a nonprofit co-op of library databases. If the librarian told anyone about the letter that the FBI gave him, he could go to jail for five years. No court order was necessary.
Because he discussed the letter with three other librarians, all four of them were bound by the gag order, according to their attorney. They challenged the letter’s constitutionality and the gag order but couldn’t even attend the hearings because government lawyers declared that their presence posed a threat to national security. A year later when the PATRIOT Act was renewed, a federal court ruled that the letter was indeed unconstitutional, but the government appealed the ruling.
Congressional legislators have also decided that it’s not their job to answer questions about Obamacare. They respond to such concerns from their constituents as Medicare, Social Security, and immigration, but they don’t like Obamacare so they won’t bother to provide any assistance. Some said they would flat-out refuse to give any answers while others, such as Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-KS) said he would refer them to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) said, “We know how to forward a phone call.”
House leaders have organized a group known as HOAP—the House ObamaCare Accountability Project—to organize a messaging strategy against the law that will trickle down to constituents. August recess will probably provide the kick-off for this sabotage when some Congressional members may hold town halls.
A recent poll about Obamacare found “a majority [54 percent] of Americans still oppose the nation’s new health care measure, three years after it became law.” Sound bites ignore the section of the poll showing that more than one-fourth of those who oppose think it doesn’t go far enough. Adding the 44 percent of those who support the law and the 16 percent of those who think it doesn’t go far enough means that people against it are actually in the minority of 35 percent. Half the people polled are unfamiliar with the law. All they know is what far-right conservatives and media have told them.
In looking at polls about the unpopularity of Congress, House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) claims that Congress has always been unpopular. He’s wrong. Forty years ago, confidence in Congress was 42 percent, a far cry from today’s 10 percent.
Steve Benen wrote, “I tend to think 10% confidence is a little on the high end. Indeed, I’m wondering what those satisfied folks are thinking.” The 112th Congress was the worst seen since the 1700s, and the GOP obstructionism is making the 113th Congress just as bad only six months into its two-year session. It can become much worse as the GOP threatens to intentionally crash the economy this fall in the next debt-ceiling crisis.
The solution to improving the Congress would be for the GOP to pass the immigration reform bill, stop the deliberately harmful sequester, reduce gun violence ever so slightly, perhaps debate a bill or two that could create jobs, and rein in Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) from his incessant manufactured “scandals.”
Conservatives, however, are sure to follow this recent advice from the Heritage Foundation, formerly a think tank and now a policy-making group:
“We urge you to avoid bringing any legislation to the House Floor that could expose or highlight major schisms within the conference. Legislation such as the Internet sales tax or the farm bill which contains nearly $800 billion in food stamp spending, would give the press a reason to shift their attention away from the failures of the Obama administration.”
[Note: The $800 billion covers ten years; using that amount makes it look much larger.]
Charlie Cook followed that up with a National Journal piece late Thursday:
“Republicans would be much wiser to pursue a third option: Dig up as much damaging information as they can about the Obama administration and leak it to reporters they know will write tough stories that won’t be traced back to the source. That way, the public won’t see the GOP as being obsessed with attacking the other side and playing gotcha at the expense of the big issues facing the country—the ones voters really care about.
“Meanwhile, everyone in Washington will watch polls for signs of blood in the water, indications that the controversies or scandals—depending upon your perspective—are taking a political toll on Obama’s job-approval numbers.”
Meanwhile, 70 GOP representatives, led by Rep. Matt Salmon (R-AZ), have set out to lower Congress’s popularity, and the Tea Party is cheering them on. Their goal is to make Boehner follow the “Hastert rule”: only bills with majority GOP support are allowed on the House floor.
There actually is no “Hastert Rule.” Its author, GOP strategist John Feehery, said that it is “situational advice, never a hard-and-fast rule.” He sees insistence on this “rule” as counterproductive for conservatives, encouraging ideological rigidity and eliminating any compromise with Democrats, meaning that Boehner must work with the opposing political party to pass any bills other than renaming post offices.
After Issa’s letter to Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD), scolding him for demanding the release of full transcripts of the IRS investigation, the Democrats on Issa’s House Oversight Committee responded. They set Monday as the deadline for Isssa to explain why he refuses to release these transcripts of witness testimony or they will release the transcripts themselves. Issa’s problem is that the transcripts will most likely indicate no evidence of White House involvement in the process of selecting IRS audits.
Issa is most likely looking forward to the August town hall meetings where he has total control. Recess will make little difference in the Congressional level of activity; it just means that they cannot do any harm.