The primary struggle of American politics is the struggle to balance liberty and peace, freedom and security.
With full knowledge that power is often needed to secure peace, and awareness that power is the eternal enemy of liberty, our Founding Fathers sought to construct a political society that could maintain peace and prosperity with both liberty and longevity. To achieve this end, they framed a Constitution that separated specific powers between different branches and with particular limits.
Now, politicians are actively working to remove these safeguards. By failing on Thursday to pass an amendment to the defense appropriations bill spearheaded by Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.), Congress is once more curtailing the rights of American citizens in the name of security.
On Wednesday, the House of Representatives passed the 2014 Defense Appropriations Bill by a 315-109 vote, spending nearly $600 billion on security. With its, partner the National Defense Authorization Act ("NDAA" for short), the defense appropriations not only fund the American military and intelligence agencies but also help establish security policy. Questionable expenditures, controversial foreign policy goals, and dangerous curtailments of American rights are often tucked away in these massive spending bills.
Americans have recently been much more vocal in opposition to excessive powers claimed by the Bush and Obama administrations in the War on Terror. The 2012 NDAA authorized indefinite military detention without trial of individuals that the federal government suspected of being involved with terrorism. While an effort was made by Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Rand Paul (R-Ky.), and Mike Lee (R-Utah) to restrict this widespread power, they failed. Legal challenges were mounted against the indefinite detention clause, and a judge granted an injunction against the authorization last year. The Obama administration appealed the ruling, and this month a U.S. court granted the appeal. According to the court, the president may detain U.S. citizens without due process. Activists are hoping to take the fight to the Supreme Court.
If the fight over the NDAA's scary detention powers makes it to the Supreme Court, civil liberties advocates might not like the response. Chief Justice John Roberts has been responsible for reshaping the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which is the secret court that grants the government legal permission to spy on Americans. Roberts has been appointing hardliners sympathetic to the executive branch to the FISA court, and these judges have approved the widespread NSA spying powers currently causing waves of controversy — which brings us to the latest iteration of the defense bill's problems.
The National Security Agency is spying on the private phone records of innocent American citizens. According to polls, most Americans have a problem with this. Representative Amash, the libertarian Republican from Michigan, presented an amendment to strip the NSA's funding for dragnet spying on innocent Americans. Representative John Conyers, the 25-term Democratic from Michigan who is the Ranking Member of the House Judiciary Committee, co-sponsored the amendment. What happened next was astounding.
The White House, obviously concerned, issued a rare statement in opposition to the amendment.
"This blunt approach is not the product of an informed, open, or deliberative process," wrote White House Press Secretary Jay Carney.
To reiterate: the Executive Branch, which has decided the best way to save Americans is by indiscriminately gathering information on all of us with permission from secret courts and for reasons that are kept secret, thinks the amendment targeting a specific line-item in the massive budget and being openly debated in Congress is too blunt and not open enough. These are the same people throwing whistleblowers in jail.
Then it got bizarre.
After a spirited debate on the House floor, Congress defeated the amendment in a remarkably narrow 205-217 vote. To those who believe that bipartisanship does not exist, look at the roll call for this vote. This was establishment politicians versus a growing chorus concerned with the unruly nature of the government's power in the wake of 9/11. House Republican leaders John Boehner and Eric Cantor joined Democrats Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer in defeating the amendment. Republicans Michele Bachmann, Darrel Issa, and Steve King spoke passionately in defense of the Obama administration. Conservative stalwarts like Mick Mulvaney, Jim Jordan, and Tim Huelskamp joined liberals like Henry Waxman, Jerry Nadler, and rising star Tulsi Gabbard in supporting the amendment. GOP Congressman James Sensenbrenner, the primary author of 2001 PATRIOT Act, stood up and said that the NSA must be reined in.
With the bipartisan defeat of the Amash amendment, defense authorization continues to be a vehicle for excessive government power. As power is the enemy of liberty, so too are the NDAA and these defense bills. America has enemies and responsibilities. There are people in the world who seek to do us and our allies harm, and we must remain vigilant in our efforts to protect our nation from threats both foreign and domestic. However, a line must be drawn. Politics is about finding that line through open and honest debate.
Definitionally, terrorists commit violent acts in order to induce fear and subsequently change behavior. Those who cry "national security" and "remember 9/11" whenever questioned about any limits to executive power, the ones who refuse to engage in open and honest debate, are the ones giving in to fear. While we must remain vigilant against threats to our peace, we must also remain vigilant against threats to our liberty. The greatest threat to our liberty is this nation's growing security apparatus; it can do far more damage to American freedoms than any madman with a bomb.
The defeat of the Amash amendment was a disappointment, but we can take solace in the fact that it was only narrowly defeated and that it enjoyed widespread, bipartisan support. If enough Americans speak up and let their representatives know that it is time for these curtailments of our rights to stop, it may be enough to push things over the edge. It is time for Congress to make amends and give the executive branch the rebuke it deserves.