The Electric Commentary

Thursday, December 09, 2004

F. James Sensenbrenner Jr.

My Congressman for most of my life was Jim Sensenbrenner. He's a stubborn old goat who likes impeding legislation more than anything else and for that reason I actually sort of like him. Wisconsin has a tendency to produce representatives who stick to their own ideas rather than caving in to special interests or party pressure, and Sensenbrenner is one of them. He reminds me a bit of Sen. Russ Feingold in that respect. I don't agree with Sensenbrenner on everything, but he is generally a moderate Republican and for the most part he doesn't put up with extremist crap.

The New Republic has an article in today's online edition by Michael Crowley (subscription required, d'oh) profiling Sensenbrenner, one of the few representatives to oppose the intelligence reform bill. Oppose is probably not a strong enough word. You see, Sensenbrenner chairs the House Judiciary Committee and therefore has a lot of power to kill legislation. Sensenbrenner believes that the biggest holes in the security of the US can be found in our immigration policy and enforcement, and he introduced legislation to deal with this, but:

Those provisions, equally unpopular with Democrats and Republicans who are wary of alienating Latinos, would have brought down the entire bill. But the famously bullheaded Sensenbrenner refused to budge. Personal appeals from President Bush and Vice President Cheney couldn't sway him. Nor did the eventual capitulation of other Republican holdouts--Duncan Hunter in the House and John Warner in the Senate--who had complained that the bill might threaten military intelligence-gathering.

His biggest sticking point is with drivers' licenses for illegal aliens. Licenses function as ID for security purposes nationwide in almost all places where security is necessarily tight. A driver's license will get you on an airplane, and into most government buildings. Sensenbrenner's plan called for the licenses of legal aliens to expire with their visas, which seems sensible enough. In the end, none of his ideas made it into the bill. As TNR goes on to point out, you don't want to be on Sensenbrenner's bad side:

He is not part of the clubby leadership gang that revolves around Majority Leader Tom DeLay. But he's not friendly with many Democrats, either. "He's not the warmest guy. Jim has a distrustful nature," says a senior GOP aide. "He's curmudgeonly," adds a Democratic Judiciary Committee member. "He's not a pleasant guy. There's not a moment where you feel like he's someone you want to hang out with." One manifestation of this is Sensenbrenner's obsession with order and procedure. Since taking over the committee from its former chairman, Henry Hyde, in 2001, Sensenbrenner has insisted on punctuality, and calls on committee members based on their arrival time rather than seniority. He once canceled an appearance before his committee by Attorney General John Ashcroft because Ashcroft failed to submit his written testimony at least two days in advance.

Heh. I thought the Attorney General was more organized than that. And then there's this:

Although the Judiciary Committee tends to be a home for crusading extremists--"the crazies of the left and the crazies of the right," as one Democratic member puts it--Sensenbrenner has been relatively moderate, willing to stand up to the GOP's right-wing base. For instance, he infuriated pro-gun conservatives in 2002 when he blocked a bill that would have allowed current and former police officers to carry concealed weapons even in jurisdictions with laws against doing so. Saying the bill infringed on states' rights, Sensenbrenner refused to hold hearings. Only after a whopping 275 co-sponsors had signed on did House Republican leaders finally force the chairman to act. (Still, Sensenbrenner pointedly declined to invite the bill's sponsor, Representative Randy "Duke" Cunningham, to testify at the hearing.)

He was also a harsh critic of the Patriot Act (especially the wiretapping and surveillance provisions):

When his committee was charged with writing the first incarnation of the Patriot Act, Sensenbrenner started by complaining that Ashcroft's proposed measures were draconian and "sacrificed civil liberties." Sensenbrenner then worked with Judiciary Democrats to add a two-year sunset provision to the bill's expanded police-wiretap and surveillance powers. The resulting bill passed the committee unanimously, an amazing feat for a bunch of ideological "crazies." Sensenbrenner's role led to a strange outcome in which the Democratic Senate's bill was far closer to Ashcroft's request (a "rubber stamp," Sensenbrenner grumbled) than the House version. Though the measure was toughened up some during a House-Senate conference, the sunset remained, albeit as a four-year rather than a two-year clause.

The entire article is very interesting and I recommend reading the whole thing. I will throw in one last tidbit though:

Now, Sensenbrenner may be the face of immigration reform on the Hill. Speaking on the House floor before the intelligence reform vote this week, he vowed to rejoin the fight again next year: "I can assure you that this issue is not going to go away." Hastert has said immigration reform will now be a top priority next year. And, if Sensenbrenner doesn't get his way, he might take out his anger by blocking other Bush administration priorities. For instance, the Judiciary Committee will hold hearings next year on renewing the Patriot Act, which expires at the end of 2005. Sensenbrenner has already vowed to place "the burden of proof" on the administration to defend each of the act's provisions--including the wiretap and surveillance powers he was skeptical of back in 2001.


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