Congress slithered out of town Friday for its August recess with the budget in shambles, a government shutdown looming and another bloodbath over raising the debt ceiling on the horizon. Small wonder that Congress boasts an approval rating so low that its popularity is rivaled by terminal diseases and middle seats on trans-Atlantic flights.
That, at least, is the conventional portrait of partisan dysfunction in Washington.
Under this interpretation, the fractious Republican House can do little more than pass meaningless bills to rescind Obamacare — the legislative equivalent of King Canute ordering the tides to recede. And, until recently because of the filibuster, the Senate was too paralyzed to even carry out its basic constitutional responsibility to vote on presidential appointees.
But this obsession with the usual gridlock misses one of the most stirring developments in Washington in years — the rebirth of bipartisanship during the past month.
The cause that dramatically has brought right and left together does not fit on the grid of familiar partisan positioning over spending and taxes. It has nothing to do with social issues, immigration or health care. In fact, back at the time of President Barack Obama’s second inauguration, no one would have even predicted that this would become a major issue in Congress.
Enough with the guessing games.
What I am referring to is the odd-couple alliance between the tea party right and the civil-liberties left over the National Security Agency’s monitoring of our phone calls, our emails and our Internet searches. Without in any way lionizing Edward Snowden, the revelations from this rogue NSA contractor have upended the traditional deference of Congress to the White House on national security questions.
Last week, the House narrowly defeated an amendment by Michigan Republican Rep. Justin Amash to cut off funding for the NSA’s vacuum-cleaner collection of telephone data. What was stunning about the House vote — beyond its hairbreadth 217-205 ratio — was that Amash won the support of 111 Democrats and 93 other Republicans.
Then Wednesday, senators from both parties excoriated top intelligence officials at a Judiciary Committee hearing. Democrat Committee Chairman Sen. Pat Leahy bluntly challenged as wildly exaggerated the NSA’s claims that its secret phone surveillance programs had stopped dozens of terrorist plots. And Sen. Chuck Grassley, the committee’s senior Republican, reiterated his anger that James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, had lied to Congress about the NSA programs.
This insurrection is at odds with the American political tradition since the September 11 attacks. For the past 12 years, all that was needed to end a public debate on national security was for an administration official to say the word “terrorism” or to invoke the memories of 9/11. Until recently, few in Congress were willing to challenge the continuity of Bush-Obama policies on drone attacks, Guantanamo, government secrecy and NSA surveillance.
Maybe this fledgling movement will flicker and die without fresh revelations about governmental invasions of Americans’ privacy. But, more likely, five weeks at home listening to their more passionate constituents will increase the moxie of skeptical legislators. Polling since the Snowden revelations indicates that voters are pretty evenly divided on the question of what takes precedence — civil liberties or fighting terrorism.
The fault lines in this debate over the NSA and, by implication, America’s long-term strategy against terrorists do not fit conventional political categories. An illustration: Obama, Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, John McCain and Mitt Romney are all on the side of the status quo. Arrayed against this establishment are foreign-policy outsiders, either on the fringes of congressional power (NSA critics like Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden and Republican Sen. Rand Paul) or political activists.
Since World War II, there have been only about a half dozen major citizen uprisings against the foreign-policy establishment. This populism can take a vicious turn as it did during the McCarthy era when foreign-policy luminaries such as George Kennan were hounded out of the State Department and others were falsely accused of being Communists.
The Democratic left famously rebelled against the supposed “best and brightest” who led America into the Vietnam quagmire under Lyndon Johnson. And a variant of the same rage — minus the military draft and the mass demonstrations — was directed at the architects of the folly that was the invasion of Iraq.
Probably the closest analogue to the current furor over the NSA were the CIA abuses that gave rise to the Church Committee investigation in the Senate during Jerry Ford’s presidency. Triggered by the investigative reporting of journalists such as Seymour Hersh, the Church Committee detailed a history of CIA misdeeds from assassination plots to domestic spying.
But for the most part, these challenges to national security orthodoxy were driven by a single political party. While there were Democratic fellow travelers fanning the fears of McCarthyism and liberal Republicans (George Romney) who were early critics of Vietnam, these were not truly bipartisan crusades. In fact, reflecting the bitter partisan divide of 21st century politics, no more than a handful of major Republicans publicly opposed Bush’s Iraq attack.
That is why the bipartisan nature of the current challenge to the NSA is so bracing. At minimum, it suggests that there is a civil-liberties, protect-our-privacy constituency beginning to assert itself in American politics. A more hopeful interpretation is that there are other emerging issues, beyond the NSA, that can serve as the basis for political alliances that move beyond the current partisan paralysis on Capitol Hill.
The witty Republican economist Herb Stein famously proclaimed about trends, “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.” Those who care about a functioning government have long wailed that life on Capitol Hill cannot go on like this. Maybe, just maybe, we have just seen the first signs that these unsustainable trends in partisan warfare in Congress are coming to an end.