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On Censure, Democrats Wait for Godot

While the discussion of the proposed censure of President Bush has largely focused on the Democrats' hesitance to take a position, today's debate actually reveals failures by Congressional leaders in both political parties. Republicans refuse to investigate their President's misconduct while Democrats keep waiting for Godot, hoping for investigations that will never happen.

Many Democrats are stalling on censure with an old Washington tactic: Demand an investigation and wait. While Congressional inquiries can be valuable, they should not substitute for taking a stand. Yet it is the Republicans who control Congress and its investigatory committees. Their failing is graver than inaction -- they are abdicating their constitutional duty to conduct meaningful oversight of the Executive Branch.

Senator Russ Feingold's censure resolution is specific. It says Congress should censure the President for misleading Congress and unlawfully authorizing wiretaps of Americans "without obtaining the court orders" required by law.

There are essentially two parts to the resolution: a description of the President's actions and prescription for what to do about it.

Several Democrats, including leaders on intelligence issues such as Senators Carl Levin and Diane Feinstein, say they need an investigation on the first part before they can decide on the second part. Yet as First Amendment attorney Glenn Greenwald has emphasized, there is virtually no disagreement about the facts in the censure resolution. The Bush Administration has admitted it spied on Americans without warrants. In fact, it is now working with Congress to try to legalize more warrantless spying.

It would be disingenuous for people in either party to claim they don't know if the NSA conducted surveillance without warrants. The second part is, of course, a matter of opinion: Do the President's actions merit censure? Most Republicans have answered clearly. Democrats should do the same.

Yet the battle over a potential investigation goes beyond simply answering that question. The Republican Congress has been either negligent or complicit in each Bush Administration failure, while Democrats keep waiting for investigations that will never happen.

On virtually every major scandal of the Bush Presidency, Republicans in Congress have stifled investigations or turned the oversight process on its head -- manipulating it to cover up failures instead of to expose them. This is not just partisan politics. American history has many instances of a Congress providing legitimate oversight when the same party controlled the Presidency. (In one of the most famous examples, Senator Harry Truman took on a Democratic Administration during war to investigate defense spending.)

Yet every time a Bush scandal breaks, the response of Congressional Republicans follows a similar pattern of complicity: first deny it merits an investigation; if that fails, grant an investigation but stonewall it from both directions -- the White House barely cooperates while Congress runs out the clock; then, if pressure demands it, release a whitewashed report to cover the Administration's failures; finally, declare the issue over.

This sequence has played out in every catastrophe during the Bush Presidency: 9/11, WMDs, Hurricane Katrina and now domestic spying. If you're keeping score, it has worked for them three out of four times.

Today Republicans like Senator Pat Roberts are still preventing the Senate from completing the crucial "phase two" inquiry of the WMD intelligence failure, and the Republican-controlled hearings on surveillance sounded more like White House damage control than an objective inquiry. (Eventually there was a thorough 9/11 investigation, but only after Republicans struck out at the usual ploys and were overwhelmed by the unique coalition of victims' families.)

On censure and surveillance, the Republicans in Congress have made it clear there will be no thorough investigation. We have been down this road before, and everyone knows where it ends.

How to change it? Republicans should stop shirking their constitutional duty to provide oversight and Democrats should stop saying they need an inquiry before deciding on issues like censure.

There is no more time for these "Godot Democrats" to wait for an investigation that will never happen. Because of the Republicans' continued betrayal of their constitutional duty, Democrats must take a position and take action now.

To see an example of such leadership, the Senators considering censure at Friday's hearing need only look down the street to the U.S. House. While Republicans stalled last year, Representative John Conyers conducted an independent inquiry into the Administration's "Deception, Manipulation, Torture, Retributions and Cover-ups in the Iraq War." In December, he released a 273-page report on it and introduced a House Resolution on censure.

After Conyers' leadership, it only took a few more months for the Senate resolution to ignite the censure debate. The public clearly welcomes it. The majority of Americans with an opinion on the issue supported censure at first blush. (An American Research Group poll found initial support was 48 percent to 44 percent.) Hopefully this public interest will wake up the Republicans and motivate the Democrats. It might even be enough to make all of Congress do its job again.

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