Friday, March 31, 2006

The Schumer NSA Bill and the Feingold Censure Resolution

Marty Lederman

There's a hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee today on Senator Feingold's censure resolution, dealing with the NSA's extra-legal electronic surveillance program. As I explain below, I think the legal substance of the Feingold Resolution is unassailable, and the emergence of the censure resolution certainly plays a valuable role in keeping the issue in the public eye. Beyond that, I don't have enough information or political acumen to calculate whether the Feingold Resolution is a politically astute tactic -- but the one thing I'm fairly certain of is that, although it's well-intentioned, it will not lead to cessation of the NSA program, or to any serious and effective assertion of congressional war-powers prerogatives.

Accordingly, I return to the question I asked two months ago: What can Congress do about this conflict, anyway? I continue to think that what I wrote then was correct: The only way for Congress to prevail in this important war-powers stand-off is if the Supreme Court declares the President's conduct unlawful. Assuming that's correct, the only worthwhile thing for Congress to do is to pass a statute such as that proposed by David Barron, establishing statutory standing for parties reasonably chilled by the NSA program, and facilitating expedited Supreme Court review.

Enter Senator Schumer's new bill, S.2468, which would do just that. This is the bill that should be the top legislative priority. The bill is very simple:

Most importantly, it would create a statutory cause of action -- and thus statutory standing -- for certain persons with a "reasonable fear" that their communications are being intercepted, authorizing them to file an action asking a court to enjoin or declare unlawful the NSA program. A reasonable fear would be established by evidence that the plaintiff either has regular wire communications from the U.S. to Afghanistan, Iraq or Pakistan, in the course of paid employment involving research pertaining to terrorism or terrorist groups, or commercial transactions with a bank or financial institution in those countries.

The bill would provide that a three-judge court in the District of Columbia would hear such a suit, and would be required to handle the action with dispatch. Appeal from a final judgment would be directly to the Supreme Court, by way of a jurisdictional statement filed within 30 days after judgment.

As David Barron explains here, this bill would at the very least remove the very formidable statutory obstacles to suit that the current FISA may currently impose, and it might well have a significant effect, as well, on any Article III argument that the government would raise against the plaintiffs' standing. (See more from David here on why it's a good idea to tee up the question for the Court.)

If the bill were, by some miracle, to become law, it would lead to a judicial resolution of this landmark dispute -- the only sort of resolution that will affect the Administration's conduct -- and become a very important doctrinal marker affecting the allocation of powers between Congress and the President, alongside Youngstown, U.S. v. Nixon, the Pentagon papers case, Nixon v. Administrator, and Morrison v. Olson. It would also permit the Congress to consider amendments to FISA on a clean slate, with the current statutory and constitutional framework firmly established. (See, e.g., David Kris's proposal that I discuss here.)

More likely, the Schumer bill would be defeated on roughly a party-line vote. Or, it's possible the Schumer bill might pick up sufficient Republican support for passage -- it's very difficult to publicly articulate a compelling reason for opposing such legislation -- in which case presumably the President would veto it. This would, alas, mean that the bill would not become a law; but in that case, the Administration's constitutional hardball would be clearly seen for what it is -- so dedicated to opposing any checks on untrammeled Executive power either by statute or by the independent judiciary that the President is willing to cast his first veto to prevent any evaluation by the other branches of the lawfulness of his conduct. Such exposure would, I hope, be chastening, and a very important signal to the public of the profound constitutional distinctions between the President and his critics.

OK, so a few quick words on the Feingold Resolution: There has been a great deal of discussion and debate in the blogosphere, including by Jack on this blog, with respect to two questions: the merits of the Feingold resolution and the politics of it. Actually, there's not much serious debate about the merits. Thus, as I've discussed in several posts, there's very little question that the President has authorized systematic violations of FISA. And unless I missed something, no one in Congress has so much as suggested otherwise. (If anyone has examples of any legislator agreeing with the Administration's AUMF argument, please let me know.) Therefore, as far as I can tell, everything in the Feingold Resolution is true. The only question even under serious discussion on the Hill -- obliquely raised by Senator Specter and more unequivocally embraced by Senator Roberts and, more recently, by Senator Hatch -- has been whether FISA (or any other law regulating intelligence-gathering and interrogation) is unconstitutional to the extent it constrains the President's discretion on how best to gather intelligence against the enemy. And even on that question, there hardly seems to be majority support in either the Republican Senate caucus or with the public for the Commander-in-Chief prerogative to circumvent statutory limits.

So the real issue, among those debating the Feingold resolution, has reduced to the politics of the matter--i.e., whether pushing for and voting in favor of the Feingold motion would be good or bad for Democratic electoral prospects. See, for example, numerous posts on Unclaimed Territory, and Kevin Drum here. I don't have much of anything to add to what others have said in this respect: It doesn't seem like a political liability to me . . . but what do I know about such things -- particularly the politics in specific states and districts that will be competitive come November?

What no one appears to be writing about, however, is how the Feingold Resolution might affect the institutional interests of Congress and, more generally, the proper checks and balances of the federal government. Of course, it is a sad fact that few politicians in this town (save perhaps for Bobby Byrd) give even a moment's consideration to such factors. But to the extent one thinks such things matter at all, the recent controversies are a fairly big deal: The President is asserting the power to ignore duly enacted statutes whenever they impinge on his judgment about how to best defeat the enemy. Not only that, but he also asserts the right to do so in secret, without meaningful congressional oversight, and without any public knowledge that the laws are being superseded. Indeed, as the Feingold Resolution points out, the Administration has taken great pains over several years to convince the Congress and the public that it is abiding by FISA (just as it publicly insists -- with fingers crossed behind its back -- that it does not condone torture and complies with all international obligations and statutory restricitons on interrogation). And in response to the President's assertions of Executive power, not only is the Republican-controlled Congress not asserting any institutional prerogatives (which might be expected in an era in which partisan considerations greatly outweigh institutional loyalties), but even the Democrats are acting as if this is merely another in a series of policy disputes, rather than a more fundamental, structural challenge to the balance of powers.

Make no mistake, however: The Vice President and others in the Executive branch are very serious about the long-term strategy of Executive aggrandizement -- and, except in the rare cases in which they are rebuffed by the Supreme Court (e.g., Rasul), they are largely succeeding at changing the baseline of the debate--and with very little pushback, at that. And if Cheney, et al. can so thoroughly prevail in this basic separation-of-powers struggle when the President is at a 33% approval rating -- with the Executive ending up significantly more empowered after Congress has responded than it was before its malfeasance came to light -- one shudders to contemplate the executive-imperialist implications if this President ever approaches Clinton-like approval ratings.

OK, but even assuming I'm correct that this is a serious test of the separation of powers, what would that mean for the Feingold Resolution? Frankly, I don't know. Even if all of the Democratic Senators got on board, Senator Feingold must know that a vote on the resolution would fail -- and that would leave things worse than they are now, because it would be perceived by many (including perhaps even some courts) as an implicit congressional rejection of the idea that the NSA program is unlawful (or, at the very least, an implicit congressional signal that the legal question is a difficult one). And, of course, there won't be uniform Democratic support, which would make the results of a vote even more troubling.

Either way, the Resolution would do nothing to stop the NSA program (or bring it into conformity with the law), or to check the Executive power-grab, and would likely only exacerbate the problem. Indeed, even if, by some miracle, the Resolution were to win a majority in the Senate, it still wouldn't accomplish anything, because Cheney and company would respond: "Thanks very much, but we respectfully disagree and will continue business as usual."

Thus, I'm afraid that from the perspective of the future of the balance of constitutional powers, the Feingold Resolution could not improve things any, and might, if defeated, actually set Congress back even further. On the other hand, the Resolution does keep the issue in the public eye, and, frankly, at some point those who are concerned about the President's aggrandizement must do something to assert constitutional principles. In the absence of any other possible congressional options for dealing with the problem, it might well be worth the practical risks.

So, ultimately, I'm fairly agnostic on the tactical wisdom of the Feingold Resolution. But whether or not that Resolution remains viable, I think the efforts of those concerned about the Executive's power-grab -- e.g., Senators Feingold and Specter, among others -- would do well to put their energies to work in support of the Schumer bill. It's not an either/or choice.


Censure alone probably won't solve the problem of executive aggrandizement. Only impeachment will do that. The impeachment needn't be that of Bush; though it should be the President, the Attorney General might suffice.

The scandal here is that the only resolution up for discussion is censure when it should be impeachment.

If the chief rational for such increased executive power is a state of war, why is the question of under what conditions that state of war is over so seldom asked? Are we expected to believe that a state of war will exist so long as there are terrorists on the earth? If that's the case, then it seems to me that any debate regarding what to do about executive power is not particularily relavent, as the state of war argument can be applied on an indefinetly ongoing basis to prevent any balance of powers from checking executive authority.

I don't think Cheney would "respectfully" disagree.

Great post otherwise.

To add to Mark Field's comment: Impeachment would not be sufficient. If Bush were the leader of any other nation, we'd be demanding a war crimes trial before an international tribunal, and that's what we should demand for him too.

"The greatest danger is to be feared from those who mask a secret aversion to any reform under a zeal for such a one as they know will be rejected."
-- James Madison

Katherine said: the Democratic party has been silent, whereas the AmLaw 100 has come through in a big way.

No disagreement on the party. Who are "the AmLaw 100"?

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