Tag: judiciary committee

Citizens United Doesn’t Mean What Campaign Finance ‘Reformers’ Think It Does

Building on the excellent fisking of Newsroom by my colleague Caleb Brown and Reason’s Scott Shackford, let me  reiterate that Citizens United has nothing to do with any problems regarding how we regulate political campaigns, perceived or real.  

Perceived: Campaign finance “reformers” think we’d be a lot better off if corporations, particularly foreign corporations, weren’t able to fund candidates and parties.  Of course, Citizens United didn’t disturb the ban on that sort of thing, which has been in place since 1907. 

Real:  Independent political speech – be it individual, corporate, union, advocacy group, neighborhood association, or informal group of friends – is largely unregulated (though you do have to register SuperPACs and disclose donors, be they individuals or corporations) but candidates and campaigns bear onerous burdens regarding contribution limits, disclosure requirements (which scare off small donors rather than large bundlers), and arcane coordination rules.  A Supreme Court ruling is indeed at fault for the bizarre and largely unworkable way in which our laws have developed in this areas, but it’s not Citizens United.  Instead, it’s the 1976 baby-splitting opinion in Buckley v. Valeo, which saw the Court rewrite the Watergate-era Federal Election Campaign Act, creating a piece of legislation much different than the global reform Congress passed (sound familiar?).

I’ve written a law review article about all this called “Stephen Colbert Is Right to Lampoon Our Campaign Finance System (And So Can You!),” which will run in the University of St. Thomas (MN) Journal of Law & Public Policy this fall. 

And Tuesday afternoon I’ll be testifying to that effect to the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution (here’s the link to the hearing site, where you’ll be able to watch).  Here’s an excerpt from my written statement (which isn’t online yet):

The underlying problem, however, is not the under-regulation of independent speech but the attempt to manage political speech in the first place.  Political money is a moving target that, like water, will flow somewhere.  If it’s not to candidates, it’s to parties, and if not there, then to independent groups or unincorporated individuals acting together.  Because what the government does matters and people want to speak about the issues that concern them.  To the extent that “money in politics” is a problem, the solution isn’t to try to reduce the money—that’s a utopian goal—but to reduce the scope of political activity the money tries to influence.  Shrink the size of government and its intrusions in people’s lives and you’ll shrink the amount people will spend trying to get their piece of the pie or, more likely, trying to avert ruinous public policies.

… .

The solution is rather obvious:  Liberalize rather than further restrict the campaign finance regime.  Get rid of limits on contributions to candidates—by individuals, not corporations—and then have disclosures for those who donate some amount big enough for the interest in preventing the appearance of quid pro quo corruption to outweigh the potential for harassment.  Then the big boys who want to be real players in the political market will have to put their reputations on the line, but not the average person donating a few hundred bucks—or even the lawyer donating $2,500—and being exposed to boycotts and vigilantes.  Let the voters weigh what a donation from this or that plutocrat means to them, rather than—and I say this with all due respect—allowing incumbent politicians to write the rules to benefit themselves.

Curiously, there will be six witnesses taking the “get corporate (and maybe even all private) money out of politics” view as against one, me, for deregulation and freedom of speech.  That seems a bit unfair; I’d think that the campaign-finance-reform zealots need at least a dozen people to stand up against my very simple “remove contribution caps but require disclosure for big players” argument.  Should be fun.

In short, while there are (at least) 99 problems with how we manage elections, Citizens United ain’t one.

A Patriot Update

A few developments from a business meeting of the Senate Judiciary Committee held this morning. As I noted last month the new House Intelligence Chair, Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) has already introduced another one-year straight renewal without modification. Since then, Sen. Pat Leahy (D-Vt.) has introduced a bill that would renew the expiring Patriot Act surveillance provisions through 2013, but with some very basic additional safeguards and oversight requirements—many of which the Justice Department has already agreed to implement voluntarily—including most crucially added constraints and a new sunset for expanded National Security Letter powers, which have already been held at least partly unconstitutional in their current form by federal courts, and which the government’s own watchdogs have already found to be subject to widespread abuse.

Enter Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, who played a key role in killing the same mild reforms last year. She’s already introduced legislation of her own, which would provide for an extension through the end of 2013, without any modifications, of not only the provisions set to expire this year, but also the highly troubling FISA Amendments Act, which in effect legalized the Bush administration’s illicit programmatic wiretapping with an added sliver of judicial oversight. Even this was not quite enough for Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who announced he would introduce a bill making the expiring provisions permanent—effectively removing an important impetus to continuing oversight.

Feinstein, interestingly, purported to be theoretically supportive of Leahy’s reformist impulses, but argued that the “time crunch” created by the end-of-February sunset deadline makes this the wrong time to consider reforms. (In order to hurry things up, a Hill contact tells me, Feinstein’s bill will be fast-tracked to the floor under Senate Rule 14, circumventing the committee process.) This really makes very little sense. Leahy’s bill is essentially the same proposal reported out favorably by a bipartisan Judiciary Committee majority; the point of doing a one-year reauthorization in 2010 was supposedly to allow Congress to consider reform alternatives in the interim. Moreover, the Justice Department has already effectively agreed to accept the reforms that bill contains. If there’s nevertheless a need for further deliberation, Congress can do exactly what it did last time around and extend the sunset by a few weeks or months to allow for additional debate.

The time constraints here are wholly of Congress’ own making. And while the Leahy bill doesn’t go far enough by any means, there is just no good excuse to delay at least the beginning of needed reforms any further.

The Sun Never Sets on the PATRIOT Act

A year ago, the protracted wrangling in Congress over the re-authorization of several expiring provisions of the PATRIOT ACT made plenty of headlines. Most observers expected the sunsetting powers to be extended, but civil libertarians hoped serious and sorely needed reforms might be part of the package. The House and Senate Judiciary Committees held multiple hearings on the topic, and an array of competing reform and reauthorization bills (PDF) were proposed, adding extra safeguards (of varying stringency) to the greatly expanded surveillance powers Congress had approved in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

But Congress had a full plate, and so it punted—approving a straight one-year reauthorization without any modifications at the last minute. (You’d be forgiven for not noticing: The extension passed under the heading of the “Medicare Physician Payment Reform Act.”) As I
noted in December, however, the Justice Department has promised Congress that it will voluntarily adopt some of the measures that had been floated in those reform bills—which would be a fine thing in itself, but I worried that the move seemed calculated to reduce the impetus for binding legislation.

Well, I’ve just noticed—quite serendipitously, as there doesn’t appear to have been a whisper in the press—that the new House Intelligence Committee Chair, Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), has introduced yet another one-year extension, which would push the sunset of the expiring provisions back to the end of February 2012. Given the very limited number of days Congress has in session before the current deadline, and the fact that the bill’s Republican sponsor is only seeking another year, I think it’s safe to read this as signaling an agreement across the aisle to put the issue off yet again. (I’ve asked Rogers’s office for a comment and will update this post if I hear back.)

In the absence of a major scandal, though, it’s hard to see why we should expect the incentives facing legislators to be vastly different a year from now. Heck, we’ve had a pretty big scandal involving the misuse of National Security Letter powers, but even right on the heels of the Inspector General’s report documenting those abuses, the mildest reforms proffered last year died on the vine. I’d love to be proven wrong, but I suspect this is how reining in the growth of the surveillance state becomes an item perpetually on next year’s agenda.

Judiciary Committee Approves Big-Government Advocate

Elana Kagan has just sailed through the Senate Judiciary Committee on a party-line vote (except Lindsey Graham, of course, who maintained his respectable but – to my mind – overly deferential “elections have consequences” line).  This vote comes as no surprise to anyone who’s been keeping half an eye on the Kagan nomination.  The only senator whose position wasn’t obvious after the confirmation hearings was Arlen Specter, who continued his self-serving ways in criticizing the nominee for the majority of an op-ed before announcing that her approval for televised Supreme Court hearings and Thurgood Marshall constituted “just enough” to win his vote.  (This is clearly an attempt to curry favor with the administration and become an envoy to Syria—call it a conversion on the road to Damascus.) 

The statements made by those opposing Kagan show that this opposition is based not on petty partisanship or the politics of personal destruction but on principled concerns over the nominee’s being a rubberstamp for any assertion of congressional authority.  Senator Hatch particularly stands out as someone who’s struggled with the choice before him and honorably decided that Elena Kagan was a bridge too far.  Senator Coburn also continued the sound line of reasoning that led his “fruit-and-vegetable” questioning to be the highlight of the confirmation hearings. 

Kagan is eminently qualified but it is not at all clear that she sees any constitutional limits on government power.

Accountability for ‘Exigent Letter’ Abuse At Last?

It is more than three years since the Office of the Inspector General first brought public attention to the FBI’s systematic misuse of the National Security Letter statutes to issue fictitious “exigent letters” and obtain telecommunications records without due process. Nobody at the Bureau has been fined, or even disciplined, for  this systematic lawbreaking and the efforts to conceal it. But the bipartisan outrage expressed at a subcommittee hearing of the House Judiciary Committee this morning hints that Congress may be running out of patience—and looking for some highly-placed heads to roll. Just to refresh, Committee Chairman John Conyers summarized the main abuses in an opening statement:

The IG found that more than 700 times, such information was obtained about more than 2,000 phone numbers by so-called“exigent letters” from FBI personnel. In some cases, the IG concluded, FBI agents sent the letters even though they believed that factual information in the letters was false. For more than 3,500 phone numbers, the call information was extracted without even a letter, but instead by e‐mail, requests on a post‐it note, or “sneak peaks” of telephone company computer screens or other records…. In one case, the FBI actually obtained phone records of Washington Post and New York Times reporters and kept them in a database, leading to an IG conclusion of “serious abuse” of FBI authority and an FBI public apology.

It’s probably actually worse than that: Since these letters often requested a “community of interest” analysis for targeted numbers, the privacy of many people beyond the nominal targets may have been implicated—though it’s hard to be sure, since the IG report redacts almost all details about this CoI mapping.

And as Rep. Jerry Nadler pointed out, the IG report suggests a “clear pattern here of deliberate evasion,” rather than the innocent oversight the Bureau keeps pleading.  Both Nadler and the Republican ex-chair of the committee, Rep. James Sensenbrenner, expressed frustration at their sense that, when the FBI had failed to win legislative approval for all the powers on its wish list, it had simply ignored lawful process, seizing by fiat what Congress had refused to grant. Sensenbrenner, one of the authors of the Patriot Act, even declared that he felt “betrayed.” But we’ve heard similar rhetoric before. It was the following suggestion from Conyers (from my notes, but pretty near verbatim) that really raised an eyebrow:

There must be further investigation as to who and why and how somebody in the Federal Bureau of Investigation could invent a practice and have allowed it to have gone on for three consecutive years.  I propose and hope that this committee and its leadership will join me, because I think there may be grounds for removal of the general counsel of the FBI.

That would be Valerie Caproni, one of the hearing’s two witnesses, and an executive-level official whose dismissal would be the first hint of an administration response commensurate with the gravity of the violations that occurred. Caproni’s testimony, consistent with previous performances, was an awkward effort to simultaneously minimize the seriousness of FBI’s abuses—she is fond of saying “flawed” when le mot juste is “illegal”—and also to assure legislators that the Bureau was treating it with the utmost seriousness already. Sensenbrenner appeared unpersuaded, at one point barking in obvious irritation: “I don’t think you’re getting the message; will you get the message today?” The Republican also seemed to indirectly echo Conyers’ warning, declaring himself “not unsympathetic” to the incredulous chairman’s indictment of her office. Of course, the FBI has it’s own Office of Professional Responsibility which is supposed to be in charge of holding agents and officials accountable for malfeasance, but apparently the wheels there are still grinding along.

It’s also worth noting that Inspector General Glenn Fine, who also testified, specifically urged Congress to look into a secret memo issued in January by the Office of Legal Counsel, apparently deploying some novel legal theory to conclude that many of the call records obtained by the FBI were not covered by federal privacy statutes after all. This stood out just because my impression is that OIG usually limits itself to straight reporting and leaves it to Congress to judge what merits investigation, suggesting heightened concern about the potential scope of the ruling, despite FBI’s pledge not to avail itself of this novel legal logic without apprising its oversight committees. Alas, the details here are classified, but Caproni did at one point in her testimony conclude that “disclosure of approximately half of the records at issue was not forbidden by ECPA and/or was
connected to a clear emergency situation.”  There were 4,400 improperly obtained “records at issue” in the FBI’s internal review, of which about 150 were ultimately retained on the grounds that they would have qualified for the emergency exception in the Electronic Communications Privacy Act.  Since that tally didn’t include qualifying records for which legitimate process had nevertheless been issued at some point, the number of “real” emergencies is probably slightly higher, but that still suggests that the “half” Caproni alludes to are mostly in the “disclosure…not forbidden by ECPA” category.  Since ECPA is fairly comprehensive when it comes to telecom subscriber records—or at least, so we all thought until recently—we have to assume she means that these are the types of records the OLC opinion has removed from FISA’s protection. If those inferences are correct, and the new OLC exception covers nearly half of the call detail records FBI obtains, that would not constitute a “loophole” in federal electronic privacy law so much as its evisceration.

Of course, it’s possible that the specific nature of the exception would allay civil libertarian fears. What’s really intolerable in a democratic society is that we don’t know. Operational facts about specific investigations, and even specific investigatory techniques, are rightly classified. But an interpretation of a public statute so significant as to potentially halve its apparent protections cannot be kept secret without making a farce of the rule of law.

Wednesday Links

  • Senate Judiciary Committee abandons hope of bringing any real change to the Patriot Act. Julian Sanchez in The Nation: “The Obama administration makes vague, reassuring noises about constraining executive power and protecting civil liberties, but then merrily adopts whatever appalling policy George W. Bush put in place.”

Contempt of (Secret) Court?

At last week’s House Judiciary Committee hearing on the PATRIOT Act, Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA) raised an interesting question I haven’t seen discussed much: What happens to someone who willfully violates an order of the highly secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court? (FISA)

Generally, courts have the right to enforce their own orders by finding those who disobey in contempt, and a line from a rare public version of an opinion issued by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court of Review suggests that the same holds here, noting that a service provider who challenged the (now superseded) Protect America Act “began compliance under threat of civil contempt.” (There is, interestingly, some redacted text immediately following that.) Contempt proceedings normally fall to the court that issued the original order.

A finding of civil contempt will typically result in the incarceration of the offending party until they agree to comply—and on the theory that the person “holds the keys to their own cell,” because they’ll be released as soon as they fall in line, normal due process rules don’t apply here. Of course, there are ways of violating the order that make it impossible to comply after the fact, such as breaching the gag rule that prevents people from disclosing that they’ve been served with orders, or (getting extreme now) destroying the records or “tangible things” sought via a Section 215 order. In those cases, presumably, the only recourse would be criminal contempt, for which you’re supposed to be entitled to a jury trial if the penalty is “serious” and involves more than six months incarceration.

That obviously raises some interesting problems given the extraordinarily secret nature of the FISA Court. In the public version of the opinion I linked above, the name of the petitioner and all identifying details are redacted, even the ruling was released six months after it was handed down, so as to avoid tipping off targets about specific providers that have received orders.

Now, I’m going to take a leap of faith and assume we’re not at the point of “disappearing” folks off our own streets, but it is a puzzle how you’d actually carry out enforcement and penalty, if it ever came to that, consistent with the secrecy demanded in these investigations.