John A. Tures: Did the dog eat their homework?

June 28, 2013 

In the Frank Capra movie "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," Jefferson Smith, a "Boy Ranger" leader, is appointed to an open seat in the United States Senate. When he gets to Washington, the first big shock he receives from his mentor, Senator Paine, is that not all senators actually read the bills and briefings. The look of horror on Senator Smith's face is priceless. We all chuckle at the naïve statesmen, knowing full well that nobody reads all the information they are given in Congress.

But maybe they should.

When Edward Snowden "leaked" the details of the National Security Agency surveillance program, it hit the United States like a bombshell. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor claimed to be "shocked" by the revelations.

But he didn't really need to be stunned. After all, our members of Congress are usually pretty well-briefed on what was going on. The question is how many actually did their homework and read their briefings and the bills passed on the subject, including the revisions.

Much of the information Snowden leaked was already made available to Congress. An alert local in LaGrange let me know that two members of Congress wanted to find a way to get that information to the public, but were blocked by national security concerns. The question is whether or not others were reading their updates.

For an analogy, take the case of drones being used on American soil.

There was a chorus of outrage on Capitol Hill when this was "revealed" in the press. But it turns out many of those booing this revelation voted on using these in bills, such as a prior border security package.

So why is Congress treating this like it is a copy of the second coming of the Pentagon Papers? Most didn't do their homework. Even after the "shocking" leak, more than half of the members of Congress on relevant committees chose to skip a secret briefing with the NSA director, General Alexander, who would explain the details and answer questions. Why? It was nearly the weekend. Folks wanted to get home or do fundraisers. Senator Dianne Feinstein, the Senate intelligence chair, was furious at the many empty chairs.

Only one member of the House of Representatives voted against the Authorized Use of Military Force, giving the president any means to defeat terrorism (which has been very broadly interpreted by our presidents). No, it was not Texas Congressman Ron Paul (though he sure talks like he did). It was Congresswoman Barbara Lee of California. She was rewarded with a tough primary challenge.

Paul voted against the Patriot Act, though. How many voted for, renewed, or even sponsored the Patriot Act, even as they now decry the surveillance tactics approved in it? I had one speak at my class, and he admitted that he didn't read the whole bill before he voted for it. He now opposes it.

Nowadays, a lot of former surveillance supporters are watching the way the wind blows, and are expressing their "outrage." A rare exception is Congressman Lynn Westmoreland, who not only wrote in support of the NSA provisions, but seemed to have studied the issue, unlike many of his colleagues.

Maybe we need more people like him who actually read the bills and attend briefings, whether they support or oppose them.

John A. Tures, associate professor of political science, LaGrange College; jtures@lagrange.edu.

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