Defining Tyranny Down

Anyone tempted to take seriously Republican complaints about the "rushed" and "secretive" process by which health care reform was finally passed (the subject of John Boehner's tantrum on the House floor) should consider the "process" by which a Republican administration rammed the Patriot Act through Congress in October 2001.  This far-ranging bill, including dramatic expansions of unchecked, executive authority to spy on Americans, summarily detain people, and designate political protesters as terrorists was enacted a mere 6 weeks after its introduction, in the fear filled days following September 11th and anthrax attacks on leading Senate Democrats (Tom Daschle and Pat Leahy); the Patriot Act was not read and reportedly not even distributed to many members of Congress (which didn't stop Boehner from supporting it).  


Nat Hentoff described "the undemocratic breakdown" that won passage of a bill that includes many more indicia of tyranny than a barely punishable, civil mandate to buy health insurance:
   
"Attorney General John Ashcroft had pressed for passage of his anti-terrorism legislation within a week. But on the House Judiciary Committee, an unusual bipartisan coalition--Barney Frank and Maxine Waters in collaboration with Bob Barr and Majority Leader Dick Armey--put some elements of the Bill of Rights back in the bill. And in the Senate, Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy at first resisted the intense pressure from Ashcroft and the White House to ram the bill through. Leahy later went with the crowd."
   
"By a 36-to-0 vote, the House Judiciary Committee did pass a somewhat improved version of the bill; but late at night, behind closed doors, House Speaker Dennis Hastert, other Republican leaders, and operatives from the White House scuttled that legislation and crafted a new bill.  On October 12, right after that coup, the House voted, 337 to 79, for a 175-page bill that most of its members hadn't even had time to read.  Democratic congressman John Conyers said on C-Span that only two copies of the bill were available to his side of the aisle...Barney Frank said it plainly: 'This was the least democratic process for debating questions fundamental to democracy I have ever seen.  A bill drafted by a handful of people in secret, subject to no committee process, comes before us immune from amendment.'"
    
"Another sneak attack on the democratic process had put a quick fix on the Senate Judiciary Committee's anti-terrorism bill.  Present at that closed-door session were Senate leaders and emissaries from the administration.  Swiftly, the Senate passed that much harsher legislation by a vote of 96 to 1 on October 11.  Again, most members of the 'world's greatest deliberative body' did not have time to read the entire 243-page bill."
    
Need it be said that the health care bill was not presented to Congress as a fait accompli and enacted in 6 weeks but cobbled together by Congress into a centrist compromise during about a year of negotiation, or attempted negotiation? (It was not at the urging of Democratic leaders that Republicans chose posturing over negotiation; as David Frum suggested in his widely circulated post, Republicans could have and should have tried deal-making over obstructionism.)                                                                    

But, unlike HCR, the Patriot Act passed with strong bipartisan support, critics of reform will point out.  Only one senator, Democrat Russ Feingold, had the nerve to vote against it; 66 members (including 3 Republicans) voted against it in the House.  The failure of Democrats to oppose the Patriot Act, or, at least, require members to read it first and debate its passage second, was not, however, a testament to bipartisanship or the merits of the act.  It was a measure of political cowardice: "(T)he Attorney General warned that further terrorist acts were imminent, and that Congress could be to blame for such attacks if it failed to pass the bill immediately," the Electronic Privacy Information Center recalls.  Today, Democrats and Republicans who know better (including the president) continue to resist amending the Patriot Act and restoring checks on executive power (as the failure of recent amendments showed).

So it's fair to blame Democrats as well as Republicans for dramatic expansions of government power, but foolish to blame health care reform. I'm more or less agnostic on the costs and benefits of the House/Senate bill, but I don't doubt that freedom from health care is a lot less fundamental than freedom from warrantless surveillance, summary imprisonment, and an unchecked, unaccountable, imperial president.
   
Why does HCR arouse so much more passion than expansions of the national security state? Put aside the fear mongering that fueled opposition to reform and support for the Patriot Act, and other excesses of the war on terror. Health care is personal: most voters expect to be affected by reform while relatively few expect to be targeted by the national security state. When people suspected of terrorism are presumed guilty of terrorism, it's easy to believe that innocence is a defense to imprisonment or "enhanced interrogations." Voters are also apt to be unaware of the ways in which they've been targeted. (A 2007 report by the Lawyer's Committee for Civil Rights described "How a Treasury Department Terrorist Watchlist Ensnares Everyday Consumers." Sometimes people find out that they've been denied a mortgage or a job because their names appear mistakenly on a government watchlist, and sometimes they don't.) The apparatus of the security state is mostly invisible, making its threat to ordinary, law-abiding Americans seem mostly theoretical--until it's not.  If I were intent on trampling individual liberty, I'd encourage people to look over here at HCR.
Presented by

Wendy Kaminer is an author, lawyer, and civil libertarian. She is the author of I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional.

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.

Video

Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.

Video

The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.

Video

Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.

Video

Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses

Video

Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Politics

From This Author

Just In