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  CONGRESS, WHERE SHOWING UP IS HALF THE BATTLE.  
   
   
 

Under the Patriot Act, the government can call up your local library and bookstore and see what Websites you've been using and what books you've been buying without getting a search warrant or even letting you know they're doing it.

This is, supporters say, designed to keep us safe from terrorism. If it wasn't such an egregious violation of civil liberties, this portion of the Patriot Act would be almost comical, really, a cousin of the same line of logic that maintains ketchup is a vegetable. Sure, terrorists could set up their attacks using America's public libraries and books from Borders, but the bigger threat -- especially given the groupthink march to war in Iraq -- is that the measure could usher in a new era of McCarthyism where anyone who doesn't support the war is said to support terrorism. After all, you are either with us or with them, in the eyes of George W. Bush.

So last Thursday, Congress attempted to strike this little part of the Patriot Act and appeared likely to pull it off -- when the vote was about to close, the electronic vote tally board had the vote at 219-201, with a majority voting "yes" to exempting bookstores and libraries from the Patriot Act. But in an election year, the Republican Party wasn't about to allow Congress to so publicly rebuke the President, so they bent the rules and held open the voting for an extra 23 minutes.

And in the time it would take to watch a sitcom without commercials,

 
 

a total of eight Republicans were browbeaten into switching their votes.

According to the Associated Press, one of them, Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.) justified his vote switch because the Justice Department said terrorists were using computers at local libraries to communicate over the Internet. Now, nevermind the fact that a person under the age of 67 visiting Arab-language sites at a public library in Wamp's home state of Tennessee would stick out like a sore thumb; Wamp is concerned about the possibility, arguing: "This new world we live in is going to force us to have some constraints."

In the end, the vote came in at a tie, with 210 voting to change the Patriot Act and 210 voting to keep it as-was. And in Congress, where bills have to pass by a majority, tie goes to the rule-bending Republicans. The move prompted the Democrats to chant "For shame!" at their vote-switching colleagues. One of the supporters of the amendments, Rep. C.L. Otter (R-Idaho), summed it up best: "You win some, and some get stolen."

Sure, politicians have wide-ranging, somewhat nebulous job descriptions that require them to kiss babies and hug the elderly, attend functions with high-powered people and take meetings with deep-pocketed lobbyists. But essentially, politicians are supposed to be representing the people who elected them. But politicking has

         
 

 

The Eight Who Flopped.

During a 23-minute voting extension, the following eight Republican members of Congress changed their minds, ensuring that the Patriot Act remained the same.

  • Mike Bilirakis, R-Fla.
  • Rob Bishop, R-Utah
  • Tom Davis, R-Va.
  • Jack Kingston, R-Ga.
  • Marylin Musgrave, R-Co.
  • Nick Smith, R-Mi.
  • Tom Tancredo, R-Co.
  • Zach Wamp, R-Tenn.

 

The Nine Who Did Nothing.

As Republicans circled the wagons, the Democrats went out to pasture, with a number of Representatives not voting at all, including one potential vice-presidential candidate.

  • Marion Berry, D-Ark.
  • Peter Deutsch, D-Fla.
  • Alcee Hastings, D-Fla.
  • Sanford Bishop, D-Ga.
  • Julia Carson, D-Ind.
  • Richard Gephardt, D-Mo.
  • Maurice Hinckey, D-N.Y.
  • Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore.
  • Chris Bell, D-Texas

 

 
     
 

replaced conviction. As last week's Patriot Act vote shows, representing people isn't nearly as important as representing the party. But you probably knew that.

It would be nice if the story ended there, with the evil politicking Republicans playing Lucy to the Democrats' Charlie Brown. But the Democratic Party, so eager to yell "For shame!" at their colleagues, should point the finger at themselves: A total of nine Democrats didn't even show up to vote.

And the worst offender?

Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.), who just two days earlier was the New York Post's "exclusive" choice as John Kerry's running mate, didn't even bother to show up for a close vote that could have put the Bush Administration on watch. This is nothing shocking for Gephardt. From January 7 to July 25 of last year, according to a study by Congressional Observer Publications, Gephardt missed 89.9 percent of the votes, including a number of votes on vital issues like energy (he missed every vote here), taxes, education, healthcare, homeland security and welfare reform.

If you're bagging groceries and you don't show up, you're fired. If you're a plastic surgeon and you skip a few consultations, patients go elsewhere. If you're a baseball player who hits .101, you're being booed out of the stadium and sent to the Cactus League. In any other industry outside of this one, this kind of reliable unreliability would result in termination.

The Republicans may have bent the rules and subverted the idea of representative politics by engineering an outcome that favored the party, but Democrats can't even show up to do the one, basic, fundamental thing they're eagerly giving themselves raises to do: vote.

For shame.