Anti-tax guru Grover Norquist would be nearly the last person you’d expect to share a stage with traditional liberals. Unless, of course, the forum was the Jerry Springer show and fisticuffs were supposed to erupt before the first commercial break.
Norquist, after all, is often credited as the predominant Capitol Hill lobbying influence behind the Bush tax cuts. He recently likened the “injustice” of higher tax rates on the rich to the Holocaust, because, as with death camps, the majority acquiesce to injustice because the highest tax rates don’t apply to them.
But when the ACLU brought Norquist to Los Angeles this fall, it was to link arms, not to stone him. For Norquist has become a key ally in a left-right coalition seeking to undo the most sweeping provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act.
“I am a strong supporter of the president in many ways,” said Norquist in an interview. “I wish him well and want to see him re-elected.” But when it comes to the PATRIOT Act, he added, it’s especially important for conservatives to speak out so that the Bush administration can’t respond with: “This is just politics and they don’t like me.”
This month the Bush administration and its congressional allies will battle opponents over measures to limit the scope of the PATRIOT Act. And they’ll also engage over other bills that would increase these law-enforcement powers. The best shot for PATRIOT opponents is the SAFE Act (which, like the USA PATRIOT Act, is written in all caps because it’s an acronym).
So what’s so bad about the PATRIOT Act?
And how would the SAFE Act make things better?
The PATRIOT Act, in essence, gives law enforcement a variety of tools that, taken together, makes it easier for the government to search any of your records without ever telling you. These records can include your computer files, business records, medical records, school records, genetic information, library reading habits — you name it. Before the act, the government could conduct such searches only in an emergency or in a handful of other limited circumstances, typically with the approval of a special court. Now, however, the government can bypass court oversight entirely. In other instances, court approval is merely a formality. And by the way, it’s also against the law for a librarian to disclose that the FBI stopped by to see who checked out the latest biography of Karl Marx.
“Our experience historically is that when government has had these powers, it has abused them,” said ACLU legislative director Laura Murphy, citing the spying on and dirty-tricks campaigns against Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders. What’s going on now behind closed doors is hard to say, and Attorney General John Ashcroft ain’t telling.
The SAFE Act would turn back the clock, making it harder to approve secret searches and requiring the government to cite specific justifications — once every seven days — for withholding notice that the searches have taken place. SAFE’s Senate co-sponsors are conservative Idaho Republican Larry Craig and Illinois Democrat Richard Durbin.
A bill by long-shot presidential hopeful and Congressman Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) would limit potential government abuses beyond the PATRIOT Act. It would, for example, forbid the indefinite detention without charges of immigrants and prevent local police from acting as immigration officers without an act of Congress. The Kucinich bill and some others have little prospect of getting through Congress this year. SAFE does have a chance, especially if it’s attached to the budget bill, which President Bush would be more reluctant to veto. This year’s session is likely to end before Thanksgiving, which could push all these bills into next year.
The congressional agenda cuts both ways. It also includes a bill to give police even more authority to bypass court oversight during searches and investigations. And other legislation would require local police to enforce federal immigration laws or else lose federal funds. Many local police chiefs oppose this proposal for fear immigrants would be reluctant to cooperate with officers.
Critics don’t assault the entire PATRIOT package. They don’t object to more border guards and translators or updated technology. For its part, the Justice Department defends all its new tools as valuable aids for fighting terrorism. Attorney General Ashcroft clearly would rather take heat for denying civil liberties than for blowing the chance to stop the next 9/11. The department makes a point of listing the names of those in Congress who voted for PATRIOT. Only one senator, Russ Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat, voted against it.
Norquist recounted how he thanked Feingold in person, but also wanted to know what happened to the other Democrats. Norquist said that Feingold pointed to then–Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, who was standing nearby. “He said, ‘Daschle told us we had to cave.’”
The House Judiciary Committee provided greater scrutiny, working for a week to modify PATRIOT’s more onerous provisions, such as the “sneak and peek” secret searches. In the end, the same bitterly divided committee that brought America the Clinton impeachment trial unanimously approved its amended PATRIOT Act. Thus, impeachment-trial manager Bob Barr, a Georgia Republican, joined with Maxine Waters, the staunch Clinton defender and liberal Los Angeles Democrat.
When it came time for the entire House to vote, however, the leadership allied with the Bush administration and refused to consider the amended PATRIOT Act. They forced a floor vote at 3:45 a.m. on the original 342-page bill, one that most members of Congress had not even read, said Barr in an interview. Barr conceded that he too caved in. “In light of what happened, I would not do so again,” he added. Post-9/11, post–anthrax scare, “it was very difficult to get members of Congress to go against an administration who says its primary mission is to fight terrorism,” said Barr. “There is a great hesitancy to vote against something that could be portrayed as anti-patriotic.”
Barr lost his re-election bid in the Republican primary. His opponent did, in fact, question Barr’s patriotism because of his increasing outspokenness against the PATRIOT Act. These days, Barr, too, has become part of the ACLU’s anti-PATRIOT road show.
It’s striking how far both Norquist and Barr will go in their criticism of Attorney General John Ashcroft, a former partisan ally, who just completed a national tour defending PATRIOT.
“All attorney generals want this level of power,” said Norquist.
Said Barr: “The government already had sufficient powers to stop those terrorists. Ashcroft believes the sole focus of his job is preventing terrorist attacks and not what it should be, which is protecting our way of life. The Bill of Rights is under assault like never before in our history.”