You are browsing the archive for Sheila Jackson-Lee.

Obama’s Willing Executioners of the Fourth Amendment

12:06 pm in Uncategorized by Norman Solomon

It’s now painfully clear that the president has put out a contract on the Fourth Amendment. And at the Capitol, the hierarchies of both parties are stuffing it into the trunks of their limousines, so each provision can be neatly fitted with cement shoes and delivered to the bottom of the Potomac.

Some other Americans are on a rescue mission. One of them, Congressman Justin Amash, began a debate on the House floor Wednesday with a vow to “defend the Fourth Amendment.” That’s really what his amendment — requiring that surveillance be warranted — was all about.

No argument for the Amash amendment was more trenchant than the one offered by South Carolina Republican Jeff Duncan, who simply read the Fourth Amendment aloud.

To quote those words was to take a clear side: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Edward Snowden’s heroic revelations have made it possible for some House members from both parties to blow away the fog that shrouds so much tap dancing on Capitol Hill. When the Amash amendment went to the floor, there was no place left to hide.

To their historic shame, 134 Republicans and 83 Democrats voted against Amash’s amendment (while 94 Republicans and 111 Democrats voted for it). That’s how the measure lost, 217-205.

The record of the House vote tells us a lot. Top Republicans—including Speaker John Boehner, Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy—voted with Obama policies to keep smothering the Fourth Amendment. So did top Democrats, including Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer.

The stench at the pinnacle of GOP power hardly surprises most Democrats. But on civil liberties—as on so many other profound issues—a similar odor is emanating from the upper reaches of Democratic power on Capitol Hill, where Pelosi and Hoyer are far from the only Democrats who have become reflexive servants of indefensible Obama policies.

Consider some of the other Democratic luminaries in the House who voted against the Amash amendment: The Democratic National Committee’s chair, Debbie Wasserman Schultz. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s former chair Chris Van Hollen. The DCCC’s current chair, Steve Israel.

Some of the other Democrats who voted no on the Amash amendment include progressive-aura lawmakers like Ami Bera (Calif.), Joaquin Castro (Texas), Luis Gutierrez (Ill.), Marcy Kaptur (Ohio), Joe Kennedy (Mass.), Annie Kuster (N.H.), Nita Lowey (N.Y.) and Louise Slaughter (N.Y.)

Deserving special mention for their deplorable votes against Amash’s amendment are Sheila Jackson Lee from Houston and Jan Schakowsky from Chicago. Both are vice chairs of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

I’ve been critical of the Progressive Caucus for enabling Obama’s rightward moves by doing scant pushback. But credit where due: on Wednesday, aside from Jackson Lee and Schakowsky, the other six officers of the Progressive Caucus and a large majority of its more than 70 members supported the Amash amendment. Eloquence in the floor debate came from John Conyers (the lead co-sponsor of the Amash amendment), Jared Polis, Zoe Lofgren and Jerrold Nadler.

Yet they were no match for the White House, with its media spin machine and behind-the-curtain arm twisting.

President Obama has a firm grip on levers of power, and anyone who thinks that his administration has been chastened enough to tread more carefully on civil liberties is engaged in wishful thinking.

While the House has grown somewhat restive, the Senate has remained notably pliant for the surveillance state. An egregious—and, for some, surprising—example is Al Franken, who declared his support for the NSA surveillance program when news of it broke in early June. “I can assure you, this is not about spying on the American people,” Franken said. From his Senate office, one press release after another has been packed with blather like overstuffed sausages.

Franken is now saying he’ll introduce a bill for “transparency” because the public will support the current surveillance programs if they grasp what’s really involved: “I think that if there were greater transparency, Americans would have a better understanding of these programs.” Count on transparency to be a buzzword cloak for more of the same.

Another Democratic senator, Ron Wyden, has been vastly more candid. At a forum the day before the Amash amendment vote, Wyden said that for surveillance, as far as the Obama administration is concerned, “the authority is essentially limitless.”

An ACLU staff attorney, Alexander Abdo, was driving at the same point when he wrote days ago: “Perhaps the most fundamental problem with the NSA’s constitutional theory is that it has no limit. If the constitution is blind to the collection of our data and limits only the NSA’s later uses of it, then the NSA truly can ‘collect it all’ now and ask questions later. Our emails, phone calls and internet activities would all be very simple for the NSA to collect under the NSA’s theory. But it could go much further. It could put video cameras on every street corner, it could install microphones in every home and it could even remotely copy the contents of every computer hard drive.”

All three branches of the U.S. government are now largely under the control of forces with stunning contempt for basic legal processes required by the Bill of Rights. Mere words and mild reforms from members of Congress may mollify the gullible, but only a direct challenge to the Obama administration’s policies can rise to the level of the current historic imperative to restore civil liberties in the United States.

Clarity from Snowden — But Murky Response from Progressives in Congress

2:31 pm in Uncategorized by Norman Solomon

House Speaker John Boehner calls Edward Snowden a “traitor.” The chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Dianne Feinstein, labels his brave whistleblowing “an act of treason.” What about the leadership of the Congressional Progressive Caucus?

As the largest caucus of Democrats on Capitol Hill, the Progressive Caucus could supply a principled counterweight to the bombast coming from the likes of Boehner and Feinstein. But for that to happen, leaders of the 75-member caucus would need to set a good example by putting up a real fight.

Right now, even when we hear some promising words, the extent of the political resolve behind them is hazy.

“This indiscriminate data collection undermines Americans’ basic freedoms,” Progressive Caucus co-chair Keith Ellison said about NSA spying on phone records. He added: “Our citizens’ right to privacy is fundamental and non-negotiable. . . . The program we’re hearing about today seems not to respect that boundary. It, and any other programs the NSA is running with other telecom companies, should end.”

The other co-chair of the Progressive Caucus, Raul Grijalva, was blunt. “A secretive intelligence agency gathering millions of phone records and using them as it sees fit is the kind of excess many of us warned about after the Patriot Act became law,” he said. “Continuing this program indefinitely gives the impression of being under constant siege and needing to know everything at all times to keep us safe, which I find a very troubling view of American security policy.”

And Grijalva said pointedly: “We’re being assured that this is limited, supervised and no big deal. When we heard the same under President Bush, we weren’t comfortable taking his word for it and moving on. I feel the same today.”

The five vice chairs of the Congressional Progressive Caucus are a mixed civil-liberties bag.

Judy Chu of California put out a vapid statement, calling for “release of unclassified reports by the administration on how FISA powers are used” and offering the bromide “need to strike a balance between clandestine efforts and transparency.”

Rhode Island’s David Cicilline called the NSA spying on phone records and the Internet “very disturbing.” But he went on to merely state that “the federal government has a responsibility to both ensure our national security and maintain every citizen’s essential right to privacy.”

Michael Honda, who faces a corporate challenger next year in his digital tech-heavy district in the San Jose area, had this to say: “I am deeply disturbed by the National Security Agency’s wholesale surveillance of phone and online activity of Americans without just cause. . . . I believe all Americans should be extremely wary of this type of large-scale data gathering of personal, private online data.”

Sheila Jackson Lee of Houston, who sits on the Homeland Security Committee in the House, displayed her proficiency at national-security babble while sidestepping huge violations of civil liberties. She touted a need to reduce use of private contractors and “repair deficiencies in the security clearance system.”

Jan Schakowsky, a representative from Chicago who’s a member of the House Intelligence Committee, put out a statement saying: “I have had longstanding concerns with the broad surveillance powers Congress has given intelligence agencies, including the National Security Agency.”

But nice-sounding statements don’t cause big changes in policies.

If the past is any guide, leaders and other members of the Progressive Caucus will periodically say things that appeal to progressive constituencies back home — without throwing down the gauntlet and battling an administration that has made clear its contempt for essential civil liberties.

The potential and the problem are perhaps best symbolized by the Progressive Caucus whip, Barbara Lee of California, arguably the strongest progressive in the House.

Lee provided a good statement to a local newspaper, saying: “The right to privacy in this country is non-negotiable. We have a system of checks and balances in place to protect our most basic civil liberties, and while I believe that national security is paramount, we must move forward in a way that does not sacrifice our American values and freedoms.”

Yet a full week after the NSA surveillance story broke, there wasn’t any news release on the subject to be found on Congresswoman Lee’s official website. She had not issued any other statement on the scandal.

If the most progressive members of Congress aren’t willing to go to the mat against fellow-Democrat Obama over an issue as profound as the Bill of Rights, the result will be a tragic failure of leadership — as well as an irreparable disaster for the United States of America.

And how about speaking up for Edward Snowden while some in both parties on Capitol Hill are calling him a traitor and pronouncing him guilty of treason? Public mention of the virtues of his courageous whistleblowing seems to be a congressional bridge way too far.

So, as in countless other moments of history, “when the people lead, the leaders will follow” — and only then. You can help lead if you sign the petition “Thank NSA Whistleblower Edward Snowden” by clicking here.

Three-Quarters of Progressive Caucus Taking a Dive on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid

12:19 pm in Uncategorized by Norman Solomon

Rep. Alan Grayson

Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL)

For the social compact of the United States, most of the Congressional Progressive Caucus has gone missing.

While still on the caucus roster, three-quarters of the 70-member caucus seem lost in political smog. Those 54 members of the Progressive Caucus haven’t signed the current letter that makes a vital commitment: “we will vote against any and every cut to Medicare, Medicaid, or Social Security benefits — including raising the retirement age or cutting the cost of living adjustments that our constituents earned and need.”

More than 10 days ago, Congressmen Alan Grayson and Mark Takano initiated the forthright letter, circulating it among House colleagues. Addressed to President Obama, the letter has enabled members of Congress to take a historic stand: joining together in a public pledge not to vote for any cuts in Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid.

The Grayson-Takano letter is a breath of fresh progressive air, blowing away the customary fog that hangs over such matters on Capitol Hill.

The Progressive Caucus co-chairs, Raul Grijalva and Keith Ellison, signed the letter. So did Barbara Lee, the caucus whip. But no signer can be found among the five vice chairs of the Progressive Caucus: Judy Chu, David Cicilline, Michael Honda, Sheila Jackson-Lee and Jan Schakowsky. The letter’s current list of signers includes just 16 members of the Progressive Caucus (along with five other House signers who aren’t part of the caucus).

What about the other 54 members of the Progressive Caucus? Their absence from the letter is a clear message to the Obama White House, which has repeatedly declared its desire to cut the Social Security cost of living adjustment as well as Medicare. In effect, those 54 non-signers are signaling: Mr. President, we call ourselves “progressive” but we are unwilling to stick our necks out by challenging you in defense of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid; we want some wiggle room that you can exploit.

In contrast, the House members on the short list of the letter’s signers deserve our praise for taking a clear stand: Brown, Cartwright, Conyers, DeFazio, Ellison, Faleomavaega, Grayson, G. Green, Grijalva, Gutierrez, A. Hastings, Kaptur, Lee, McGovern, Nadler, Napolitano, Nolan, Serrano, Takano, Velazquez and Waters.

If you don’t see the name of your representative in the above paragraph, you might want to have a few words. (For a list of the 54 Progressive Caucus members who haven’t signed the letter, click here.)

It’s one thing — a fairly easy thing — to tell someone else what you hope they’ll do, as 107 House Democrats did recently in a different letter to President Obama: “We write to affirm our vigorous opposition to cutting Social Security, Medicare, or Medicaid benefits. . . . We urge you to reject any proposals to cut benefits.”

It’s much more difficult — and far more crucial — for members of Congress to publicly commit themselves not to vote for any cuts in those programs, which are matters of life and death for vast numbers of Americans.

Even a signed pledge to do or not do something, in terms of a floor vote, is no guarantee that a member of Congress will actually follow through. But in a situation like this, the pledge is significant — and even more significant is a refusal to make such a pledge.

As of now, 54 members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus have taken a historic dive. We should take note — and not forget who they are.

Read the rest of this entry →