The legislative knowledge gap


You can say this much about Green Party activist and (now perennial) U.S. Senate candidate Mike Cavlan: He may not have a clue about the realities of Beltway politics, but at least he has some grasp of the realities of their real-life consequences.

Yeah, I know this is the same guy who a while ago proclaimed that he would not have sex until the U.S. abandoned its occupation of Iraq and suggested those who shared a bed with congressional leaders similarly restrain themselves. But a missive Cavlan circulated this morning is worthy of more consideration and has me thinking about how easy it is for the politicians we send to Washington to forget why we send them there.

In a statement released today, Cavlan lambastes Sen. Norm Coleman and Sen. Amy Klobuchar for their recent vote in favor of extending President Bush’s wiretapping program. The vote, he argues, gives Bush “virtually unlimited access to the private lives, liberties and pursuit of happiness in direct contravention to our 4th Amendment right to protection against unreasonable searches and seizures. Given the record of abuses of power that this administration has shown, this is unforgivable.”

Cavlan goes on to respectfully request that both Coleman and Klobuchar resign their seats “in order that someone who has a deeper understanding of the critical importance of defending the Constitution during this national crisis can step forward and take your place as our senators in Washington, D.C.”

The FISA vote has been an embarrassment for the Senate’s majority Democrats, who in the rush to adjournment declined to give the bill the scrutiny it deserves. But it says something about the disconnect between activists like Cavlan, who study the intricacies and consequences of these pieces of legislation, and lawmakers who are deluged with paper and seldom even read the laws on which they are voting.

Years ago, during the height of the NAFTA debate, Ralph Nader offered to donate $5,000 to any legislator’s favorite charity if he or she would take the time to read the bill. Only one House member took him up on the offer. Not surprisingly, he voted against it.

I don’t have $5,000 to offer Klobuchar or Coleman to study the bills they are voting on, but, like any other citizen, I can send them a note soliciting their position on particular legislation. I did so recently, asking each of them whether they supported the privatization of Iraq’s oil industry, one of the primary obstacles preventing the Iraqi parliament from passing its so-called Oil Law — a vital benchmark defined by Congress and the Bush administration.

Sen. Coleman’s office responded with an opinion piece he wrote several weeks earlier, describing his efforts to support U.S. troops in Iraq. A few weeks later, Sen. Klobuchar’s office sent me a similarly irrelevant response, highlighting a recent trip she took to Iraq and her opposition to the invasion and occupation. “As your Senator, I have repeatedly voted in favor of a new strategy in Iraq,” she wrote. “After four years, an open-ended American combat presence sends the wrong message to the Iraqi government about its own responsibility to take control and secure a basic level of stability for the country. They need to move forward with the political, security, economic and diplomatic solutions to end their own civil war and overcome their dependency on America’s military presence. I will continue to press for a change in strategy that focuses on a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops and the transfer of authority to the Iraqi government.”

Great. But does that mean she’d support the Iraqi parliament’s decision to retain government control over its oil industry and, thus, refuse to meet one of the primary benchmarks it must meet before U.S. troops can be redeployed?

This is not the kind of thing that gets a lot of play on the Sunday political talk shows, nor is it likely to come up when Coleman or Klobuchar are out pressing the flesh in Cold Spring or Eden Prairie. It’s the kind of thing that keeps political junkies and activists awake at night, but these are not the kinds of people politicians need to satisfy in order to win elections.

So, the question becomes: Are Coleman and Klobuchar and the rest of our lawmakers actually misinformed about these vital issues, or do they know the specifics but understand the potential minefields such informed debate represent?

In the months leading to the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, for example, anybody who had even a passing interest in Saddam’s inventory of WMDs or his connections to Al-Qaeda knew that no inventory or connections existed. You could find solid evidence backing that conclusion in a host of reputable British newspapers and on several Internet news portals. Yet, a solid majority of senators, including Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, and John Edwards swallowed the Bush administration’s “briefings” and voted to authorize the invasion. Only later did they admit they were hoodwinked.

These are people of enormous intellectual capacity, whose senate offices are staffed by dozens of well-informed, energetic aides. So, it stretches the bounds of credulity to imagine that neither the senators themselves nor a few influential staffers had come across the kind of reputable reportage that disproved everything the administration had concocted in its run-up to the invasion.

So it’s hard not to conclude that their vote then, and Kobuchar’s FISA vote on August 3 is simply a product of a Beltway political culture that has less interest in rational debate than in a prolonged electoral cage match in which the only thing that matters is which party triumphs in November.

Until that dynamic changes, we can look forward to an endless performances of entertaining political theater, but no real progress. It’s almost enough to make me want to vote for Cavlan.