Sunday, November 27, 2011

US Congress: Very Busy Doing Nothing at All

By William Fisher

While the US Congress is busy doing nothing, the nothing they’re not doing contains stuff that’s really important.

Yes, even more important than naming middle schools and post offices (which they seem to have mastered).

For example, if there’s anyone left in Washington who doesn’t believe that the Republican Party’s opposition to everything is exactly that – even being against non-partisan measures that not long ago drew significant Republican enthusiasm – well just consider the brick wall Senator Jim Webb is crashing into just now.

Last year, Senator Jim Webb, Democrat of Virginia, introduced legislation to establish a bipartisan National Criminal Justice Commission, with support from more than 100 organizations, including the National Sheriffs’ Association, the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the Innocence Project.

Webb’s National Criminal Justice Commission Act would create a blue-ribbon, bipartisan commission of experts charged with undertaking an 18-month top-to-bottom review of the nation’s criminal unfair, cruel and dysfunctional justice system and offer concrete recommendations for reform.

While blue-ribbon commissions are often seen in Washington as ways to sweep serious issues under the rug, we believe this one might have been different simply because of the guy leading the charge.

Jim Webb is no flaming liberal. He is a thoughtful Democrat, refreshingly undoctrinaire on a host of issues. He is as tenacious as a pitbull. He has a good eye for serous problems crying out for serious solutions.

Well, our justice/prison system has no trouble qualifying for that definition. In what much of the civilized world regards as a catastrophic failure of imagination, we have nurtured a love affair with locking people up. At this moment, according to the US Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), 2,292,133 adults are incarcerated in US federal and state prisons, and county jails; thousands of alleged illegal immigrants being held in detention for deportation; and more thousands of young offenders being held in a range of juvenile facilities. The World Prison Brief puts the The United States has the highest documented incarceration rate in the world.

During the past decade, our prison population has grown exponentially. Private for-profit prisons have experienced a windfall, since their revenue comes from the numbers of prison beds they fill. Judges using Federal minimum guidelines impose wildly different sentences for similar crimes.

We have more prisoners than China, North Korea, and Iran, and our rates of recidivism are the highest in the world.

In its first time out of the box, Senate Republicans blocked the passage of Webb’s initiative. In media coverage following the vote, writers from across the political spectrum condemned the Republican filibuster. Why? Just because. Were there substantive changes the Senate GOP wanted to make? If there were we never got to hear about them. Instead, there was the usual vote to bring the bill to the floor. It needed 60 votes to pass. It didn’t even come close.

Conservative columnist Reihan Salam called the vote against the creation of a Criminal Justice Commission an "absolute scandal” in the National Review.

The Virginian Pilot said in an editorial that the vote represented “Senate negligence” and the Roanoke Times said the vote “snuffs out the last fumes of hope that the legislative body can accomplish anything remotely useful.”

Sen. Webb says he is not deterred. He said: “We will keep fighting for a comprehensive review of the justice system, with the help of the thousands of sheriffs, police, mayors and justice advocates who have joined us in pressing for reform.”

Well. Good luck with that Senator. It still takes 60 votes to pass and, for the foreseeable future, all those law-and-order Republicans aren’t likely to do anything to disrupt the Wild West ambience they have come to love. They’ll be the first to tell you: “Inmates Don’t Vote.”

And while we are on the subject of Congress keeping busy doing nothing, The Washington Post reminds us that this week, the Senate is likely to take up a defense reauthorization bill that effectively – and unnecessarily – ties the hands of the President to deal with terrorism cases.

One is a requirement that terrorism suspects who are not U.S. nationals be held in military custody. We agree with the Post, which says, “Military detention should be an option available to the president, but requiring it in all cases prevents him from taking full advantage of some of the country’s most powerful counterterrorism tools.”

The Post reasons, “Law enforcement officials and national security specialists, for example, could be forced to hand over a suspect even if they were making headway in gathering intelligence. This could also thwart the FBI’s ability to surveil a suspected terror ring and gather information for fear that identifying suspects could force it to prematurely capture and hand over these individuals to the military.”

Makes sense to us!

Congress has also constructed yet another hog-tie for the President. Republicans have proposed that the executive branch be forbidden from using Defense Department funds to construct a U.S. facility or adapt an existing one to hold detainees now at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

“This provision,” says the Post, “is little more than fear-mongering and ignores the country’s long track record of imprisoning convicted terrorists, including “shoe bomber” Richard Reid, without incident. Lawmakers should also eliminate onerous restrictions on the president’s ability to transfer detainees to their home or third countries.”

We could not agree more.

Any Senate action would have to be reconciled with the House version of the bill, which Mr. Obama has rightly threatened to veto. A filibuster in the Senate, or any other reason to fail to reach agreement, would dump the whole issue in the lap of the Courts, thus ignoring the traditional role of the other two branches in matters of this kind.

The Post concludes: “The country needs a sensible antiterrorism policy to combat an unconventional and unrelenting enemy. The president and lawmakers should be the architects of such a plan.”

Amen, but don’t hold your breath.

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