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Feingold and the Censure Resolution: 2006 and 2008

 Hi, it’s Scott back from Lawyers, Guns and Money for a cameo appearance.

As a follow up to ReddHedd’s post below, yesterday I wrote a post about Ryan Lizza’s baffling claim, in response to Russ Feingold’s proposed censure of the President, that "[c]hanging the FISA law is the way to address Bush’s overreach." Ann Althouse objects, arguing that I am not "the best person to be deciding who’s ‘vacuous.’" The merits of the ad hominem I will leave to the reader, but I think that Althouse is missing the fundamental point here, and I don’t think that what’s at stake can be emphasized often enough. There are two issues here: the politics, and the merits. The former issue I see little point in discussing, because whether it’s a net positive or negative the political impact of a censure resolution on mid-term elections in November will be negligible in any case. I will only point out another contradiction in Lizza’s argument. His argument that the resolution will be politically damaging rests on his assertion that "providing a check on Bush and the Republican dominance of Washington is a key Democratic talking point, but it’s being advanced subtly by candidates who still often must distance themselves from national Democrats." But, if a Democratic victory rests on red-state Democrats being able to distance themselves from the Senate leadership–a plausible enough claim–then how can the fact that Feingold’s resolution has not produced a unified Democratic caucus be damaging? Lizza’s argument gets more puzzling the more you think about it.

But the more important point, which I think Althouse also misses, is that Lizza’s claim that supporters of the resolution have the policy wrong is just a transparent non-sequitur. Changing the FISA law is hardly an adequate response to presidential overreaching, given that the administration has asserted the authority to ignore any statutory restrictions placed on its authority to conduct domestic searches. The value of Feingold’s resolution is that it draws attention to the point that pundits like Lizza seem unable to grasp: this dispute is not only about the best policy to gather information about terrorists, but is about central questions of the President’s constitutional powers and the rule of law. The key issue here is that the President acted–and continues to act years after 9/11, and therefore with plenty of time to request changes in the statute if it was inadequate–against a law passed by Congress. And, as ReddHedd says, claims that FISA is unconstitutional because the President has unconstrained authority over foreign policy are exceptionally weak. It’s worth repeating my quote from Cass Sunstein about how contrary to our Constitutional framework such claims of plenary presidential power are:

Yoo emphasizes Blackstone and British practice, arguing that the United States closely followed the British model, in which the executive–the king!–was able to make war on his own. But not so fast. There is specific evidence that the British model was rejected. Just three years after ratification Wilson wrote, with unambiguous disapproval, that "in England, the king has the sole prerogative of making war." Wilson contrasted the United States, where the power "of making war and peace" is in the legislature. Early presidents spoke in similar terms. Facing attacks from Indian tribes along the western frontier, George Washington, whose views on presidential power over war deserve special respect, observed: "The Constitution vests the power of declaring war with Congress; therefore no offensive expedition of importance can be undertaken until after they have deliberated on the subject, and authorized such a measure." As president, both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams expressed similar views. In his influential Commentaries, written in 1826, James Kent wrote that "war cannot lawfully be commenced on the part of the United States, without an act of Congress."

That’s the issue. The administration is claiming powers to act unilaterally with respect to a conflict with no logical end, powers far beyond what Lincoln claimed at the height of the Civil War. Changing the FISA statute not only doesn’t address this crucial issue–which the censure resolution, at least, foregrounds–it compounds it by legitimating the President’s lawbreaking and contempt for constitutional restraints retroactively. Feingold, unlike Lizza, actually understands the crucial issue at stake. As long as Congressional Republicans refuse to assert congressional prerogatives there’s nothing Democrats can do policy-wise, but at least they should be making this point as often as possible. One area where I agree with Lizza, however, is that this is more about 2008 than 2006, and that’s where I’ll throw open to the discussion to FDL readers. This probably won’t make me a very popular in these parts, but as much as I admire Feingold I think that, ideally, the Democrats would be better served by running a red-state governor than a blue-state Senator. On the other hand, if Matt is right that this strengthens Feingold’s odds against Clinton, that can only be good news. If it comes down to Clinton/Feingold, then I think there shouldn’t be any contest: Clinton–who ran well behind Gore in New Work, while Feingold ran well ahead of Kerry in Wisconsin–has electability issues that are just as or more serious, and Feingold is much better on the merits. To the extent that it weakens Clinton by highlighting her unswerving commitment to a disastrous and increasingly unpopular war, this is a good thing for the Dems in ’08.

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Scott Lemieux

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