If history is any guide, wartime Congresses are usually
irrelevant. They may thunder and roar, but in the end, the president
decides the conduct of a war - including curtailing cherished
liberties when deemed necessary.
That's a record some members of the 107th Congress are eager to
revise. And today's hearings in the Senate Justice Committee aim to
serve notice to the Bush administration that Congress will not be
left out of this war on terrorism.
Unlike some other wartime legislatures, this Congress has no
doubts on the purpose of this war. Lawmakers passed new anti-
terrorist laws with barely a hitch, including broad new powers to
detain those suspected of a connection with terrorist activity, to
track their funds, and to eavesdrop on private conversations.
But a backlash is brewing on Capitol Hill over steps the Bush
team has taken since then to expand its powers to conduct the war -
all without consulting or even informing lawmakers.
These include new Justice Department regulations that would allow
the government to listen in on detainees' conversations with their
attorneys and an executive order that allows the trial of suspects
in military tribunals instead of US courts.
What bothers some lawmakers isn't just the substance of these
changes, which they say infringe on constitutional protections that
Americans and many noncitizens living in this country have come to
expect. It's the way they were simply announced: no consultation.
Not even any hint in advance that the administration believed it
needed these additional powers.
This lack of consultation is especially galling to the top
members of the Senate Judiciary Committee: Chairman Patrick Leahy
(D) of Vermont and ranking Republican Orrin Hatch of Utah. They had
personally negotiated terms of the new antiterrorist law with the
White House and Justice Department, and then sold it to the Senate.
These senators found out about the new regulations from the news
media. After sending several letters and receiving no reply, the two
senators set a deadline for responses and called on the attorney
general to set aside "several hours" to answer these concerns before
the full Senate Judiciary Committee. Mr. Ashcroft has agreed to
appear on Dec. 6.
At issue will be the extent to which Congress can hold the
executive branch accountable for its conduct of this war.
"One of the themes of the last month or two has been the cutting
out of the Congress and the courts from being part of the new
rulemaking and legislating," says Kit Gage, director of the First
Amendment Foundation, a civil liberties group. "That's why it's
crucial that the Senate hold the Justice Department accountable for
the many dramatic, and in many ways draconian, changes taking