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Inside the Horror Show That Is Congress

Page 3 of 6

Amendment 2

As he waits for his chance to address the Rules Committee, Sanders is actually armed with not one but two amendments. The measures are essentially the same, both using identical language to prohibit warrantless searches of libraries and bookstores. The only difference is, the amendment Sanders is trying to get past the committee would permanently outlaw such searches under the Patriot Act. The second amendment takes a more temporary approach, denying the Justice Department funding in next year's budget to conduct those types of searches.

This kind of creative measure – so-called limitation amendments – are often the best chance for a minority member like Sanders to influence legislation. For one thing, it's easier to offer such amendments to appropriations bills than it is to amend bills like the Patriot Act. Therefore, Sanders often brings issues to a vote by attempting to limit the funds for certain government programs – targeting a federal loan here, a bloated contract there. "It's just another way of getting at an issue," says Sanders.

In this case, the tactic worked. A month earlier, on June 15th, the House passed Sander's amendment to limit funding for library and bookstore searches by a vote of 238--187, with thirty-eight Republicans joining 199 Democrats.

The move wasn't a cure-all; it was just a short-term fix. But it enabled Sanders to approach the Rules Committee holding more than his hat in his hand. With the June vote, he had concrete evidence to show the committee that if his amendment to permanently alter the Patriot Act were allowed to reach the floor, it would pass. Now, if Tom DeLay & Co. were going to disallow Sanders' amendment, they were going to have to openly defy a majority vote of the U.S. Congress to do so.

Which, it turns out, isn't much of a stumbling block.

While Sanders was facing the Rules Committee, House leaders were openly threatening their fellow members about the upcoming vote on CAFTA. "We will twist their arms until they break" was the Stalin-esque announcement of Arizona Republican Jim Kolbe.

The hard-ass, horse-head-in-the-bed threat is a defining characteristic of this current set of House leaders, whose willingness to go to extreme lengths to get their way has become legend. In 2003, Nick Smith, a Michigan legislator nearing retirement, was told by Republican leadership that if he didn't vote for the GOP's Medicare bill, the party would put for ward a pimary challenger against his son Brad, who was planning to run for his seat.

Members who cross DeLay & Co. invariably find themselves stripped of influence and/or important committee positions. When Rep. Chris Smith complained about Bush's policy toward veterans, he was relieved of his seat as the Veterans' Committee chairman. When Joel Hefley locked horns with Dennis Hastert during the Tom DeLay ethics flap, Hefley lost his spot as the House Ethics Committee chairman.

In other words, these leaders don't mind screwing even their friends any chance they get. Take the kneecapping of Arizona Republican Jeff Flake, whose surrender on the Patriot Act issue paved the way for the trashing of the Sanders amendment.

Flake, who sits on Sensenbrenner's Judiciary Committee, had been one of the leading Republican critics of the Patriot Act. He was particularly explicit in his support for sunset provisions in the law, which would prevent it from being made permanent. In April, for instance, a Flake spokesman told the Los Angeles Times, "Law enforcement officials would be more circumspect if they were faced with the prospect of having to come to Congress every couple of years and justify the provisions."

When Sanders offered his amendment to deny funding for warrantless searches, Flake was right there by his side. But now, only a few weeks later, Flake suddenly offers his own amendment, aimed at the same provision of the Patriot Act as Sanders', but with one big difference: It surrenders on the issue of probable cause. The Flake amendment would require only that the FBI director approve any library and bookstore searches.

It is hard to imagine a more toothless, pantywaist piece of legislation than Flake's measure. In essence, it is a decree from the legislative branch righteously demanding that the executive branch authorize its own behavior – exactly the kind of comical "compromise" measure one would expect the leadership to propose as a replacement for the Sanders plan.

Flake clearly had made a deal with the House leadership. It is not known what he got in return, but it appears that his overlords made him pay for it. Before the final vote on any bill, the opposition party has a chance to offer what is called a "motion to recommit," which gives Congress a last chance to re-examine a bill before voting on it. When the Democrats introduced this motion before the final vote, the House Republican leadership had to ask someone to stand up against it. They, naturally, turned to Flake, the chastened disenter, to run the errand.

Flake is a sunny-looking sort of guy with a slim build and blow-dried blond hair. He looks like a surfer or maybe the manager of a Guitar Center in Ventura or El Segundo: outwardly cheerful, happy and ill-suite, facially anyway, for the real nut-cutting politics of this sort. When it come time for him to give his speech, Flake meanders to the podium like a man who has just had his head claged between a pair of cymbals. The lump in his throat is the size of a casaba melon. He begins, "Mr. Speaker, I am probably the last person expected to speak on behalf of the committee or the leadership in general...."

When Flake mentions his own amendments, his voice drops as he tries to sound proud of them – but the most he can say is, "They are good." Then he becomes down-right philosophical: "Sometimes, as my hero in politics said once... Barry Goldwater said, 'Politics is nothing more than public business.... You don't always get everything you want."'

It is a painful performance. Later, commenting on the Flake speech, Sanders shakes his head. "They made him walk the plank there," he says.

Flake denies he cut a deal to sell out on the Patriot Act. But his cave-in effectively spelled the end of the Sanders amendment. The Republicans point to the Flake amendment to show that they addressed concerns about library and bookstore searches. Essentially, the House leaders have taken the Sanders measure, cut all the guts out of it, bullied one of their own into offering it in the form of a separate amendment and sent it sailing through the House, leaving Sanders – and probable cause – to suck eggs.

Amendment 1 Redux

Late in the afternoon, after waiting several hours for his turn, Sanders finally gets a chance to address the Rules Committee. His remarks are short but violent. He angrily demands that the committee let Congress vote on his amendment, noting that the appropriations version of it had already passed the House by fifty-one votes. "I would regard it as an outrageous abuse of power to deny this amendment the opportunity to be part of this bill," he shouts. "We had this debate already – and our side won."

In response, Republicans on the committee cast a collective "whatever, dude" gaze.

"Sometimes, you can engage them a little," Sanders says later. But most of the time it works out like this.

Shortly after Sanders finishes his remarks, the Rules Committee members scurry to begin what will be a very long night of work. To most everyone outside those nine majority members, what transpires in the committee the night before a floor vote is a mystery on the order of the identity of Jack the Ripper or the nature of human afterlife. Even the Democrats who sit on the committee have only a vague awareness of what goes on. "They can completely rewrite bills," says McGovern. "Then they take it to the floor an hour later. Nobody knows what's in those bills."

One singular example of this came four years ago, when the Judiciary Committee delivered the first Patriot Act to the Rules Committee for its consideration. Dreier trashed that version of the act, which had been put together by the bipartisan committee, and replaced it with a completely different bill that had been written by John Ashcroft's Justice Department.

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