Now we know what it takes to nudge Congress’s sense of self-respect into a state of at least semi-consciousness.
Senator Dianne Feinstein, God bless her, is throwing a very public fit over findings that the CIA spied on Congress — on her Select Senate Intelligence Committee, specifically — as part of a campaign to undermine the committee’s investigation into an interrogation program that the agency does not much want to see investigated.
Members of the legislative branch understand that voters have limited spans of attention, a fact that may equal presidential ambition as a force behind our ever-more-imperial and ever-more-imperious executive. The presidency is relatively easy to follow: There’s just the one guy (how many Americans could name the complete Cabinet?), whereas there are hundreds of people in Congress, and all those committees and subcommittees, reconciliation, procedural votes, etc. In a sense, all eyes are on the presidency for the same reason that the Twilight books outsell the works of William Shakespeare or James Joyce: Compared to the 535 members of Congress and the seemingly endless permutations of them, one man is a neurologically bite-sized morsel. Thus our political discourse features such imaginary entities as the “Reagan deficits” and the “Clinton surplus,” even though the production of deficits and surpluses is a congressional matter rather than a presidential one. (O’Neill deficits and Gingrich surplus would be closer to the truth.) It is this dynamic that allowed Democratic senators to lead a pitiless campaign against George W. Bush based on an Iraq War that most of them voted for — in the public imagination, it’s “Iraq War = George W. Bush,” not “Iraq War = George W. Bush + Joe Biden + John Kerry + Hillary Clinton + Tom Daschle + Chuck Schumer + Mary Landrieu + Max Cleland + . . . ”
Which is to say, delegating its power and its place at the center of our constitutional order to a conveniently power-hungry executive is Congress’s way of avoiding responsibility for its actions and, in some cases, of getting done through executive action that which its members could not accomplish through legislative action.
Willing subservience to the presidency is not the mark of a legislative branch that has any meaningful sense of self-respect, or any real understanding of its constitutional role.
And while some Republicans have taken up the issue with admirable vigor, Congress as a whole cannot seem to get itself very much excited about such executive-branch abuses as using the IRS to harass and suppress the president’s political opponents. But spying on Senator Feinstein’s committee computers? That may be enough to get Congress’s attention. After all, we’re not talking about leaning on some obscure tea-party peons in Houston — we’re talking about members of Congress, i.e., the sort of people who are very important to members of Congress.
If Senator Feinstein’s claims are in the main substantively correct, then the CIA has done serious violence to the law and to our constitutional order. And I suspect that she is largely on the money: CIA Director John Brennan has said that the facts will not support her allegations of “this tremendous sort of spying and monitoring and hacking,” the presence of the word “tremendous” in that sentence suggesting that what is really in dispute here is not the CIA’s actions but merely the scale of the CIA’s actions.
Congress has not been very interested in the abuses of the imperial executive when its victims were ordinary American citizens, or even Congress’s own constitutional turf. But now that the CIA is making the matter personal, we ordinary citizens might have some hope that Congress will be spurred into action by its members’ vanity, if not by their sense of duty.
— Kevin D. Williamson is National Review’s roving correspondent and the author of The End Is Near and It’s Going to Be Awesome.