Polls routinely show that a substantial number of Americans do not know which party controls Congress. This is usually taken as an indication of the appallingly low level of political knowledge in the general public. Over the past year, however, it's become increasingly difficult to fault such confusion: Sometimes it really is hard to tell which party holds sway on Capitol Hill. So it was a welcome development when, in February, Nancy Pelosi and House Democrats refused to accede to President Bush's legislative scare tactics concerning reform of the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which governs how U.S. spy agencies operate on American soil.
Some background: Last August, Congress passed the Protect America Act, which loosened restrictions on government monitoring of foreign communications routed through the United States--thereby legalizing warrantless surveillance of the sort that the administration had secretly (and probably illegally) authorized after the September 11 attacks. However, the law included a six-month sunset provision, and Bush insisted American lives would be put at risk were it to lapse. But he also threatened to veto any new version of the legislation that didn't include retroactive immunity from lawsuits for telecom companies that had cooperated with the administration's wiretapping scheme between 2001 and 2005.
House Democrats refused to sign off on immunity and a handful of other provisions the administration insisted upon, choosing instead to let the Protect America Act expire. This is not ideal--some of FISA's warrant requirements are too onerous--but nor is it catastrophic, as Bush has claimed. All spying orders in place under the Protect America Act can continue for up to a year, and any new orders will simply have to be approved by the FISA court, which is now free of the backlog of warrant requests that prompted concerns in the first place.
At root, this debate is not about telecom immunity or even wiretapping: It's about whether the executive branch is to be subject to the congressional and judicial oversight the Framers intended. We like Pelosi's answer. The same day as it stood its ground on FISA, the House also found Harriet Miers and Josh Bolten in contempt of Congress for refusing to testify about the politically motivated firings of U.S. attorneys. House Republicans staged a walkout in protest, but the implication is clear: When Bush leaves office in eleven months, the radical theory of untrammeled executive power propounded by his administration will leave, too.
By The Editors