Balancing power

Adam Schiff talks with the Weekly about upcoming elections, domestic spying, impeachment and what it’s going to take to bring our troops home from Iraq

By Justin Chapman, Pasadena Weekly, 2/23/2006

With President Bush’s popularity ratings plummeting and Republican leaders in Washington, DC, awash in scandal, corruption and war, Congress is now poised for historic party power shifts come the fall midterm elections.

With 33 seats open in the US Senate and 435 House of Representatives elections slated for Nov. 7, Democrats are hoping to make Bush more of a lame duck in his last two years in office than anything Vice President Dick Cheney might bring home for dinner.

In Pasadena, the 29th Congressional District has been represented by Democrat Adam Schiff, who replaced Republican former Judge Jim Rogan in 2000 and has held onto his seat for two terms.

A former federal prosecutor, Schiff, like all other members of Congress, faces re-election, first in the June 6 primary if another Democrat decides to run. So far, Bob McCloskey of Monterey Park is the only Democrat running in a field of candidates that includes Republican Bill Bodell of Glendale and Bill Paparian, a former Pasadena City Council member who was registered Independent, but is running as a Green Party candidate.

During his time in office, Schiff has been tough on issues related to law and order, as well as the war on terrorism, co-authoring portions of the PATRIOT Act and siding with keeping American troops in Iraq until that country stabilizes politically, a proposition bitterly opposed by a growing faction of his own party.

Nevertheless, Schiff has remained one of the Bush administration’s harshest critics, especially on domestic issues, and particularly on its handling of the war and its decision to conduct domestic spying on citizens without first acquiring warrants or court approval.

The Weekly sat down with Schiff in his Washington, DC, office recently to discuss such issues as congressional scandals, domestic spying, the country’s ever-widening political divisions and what it’s going to take to bring our troops home from Iraq.

Schiff also touched on the possibilities of impeaching Bush, a process which, ironically, his predecessor, as a member of the House Judiciary Committee, led against President Clinton in 1998. Today, Schiff is a member of that powerful committee.

Pasadena Weekly: How has the culture of Washington changed because of recent scandals?

Adam Schiff: It’s probably too early to tell. There will definitely be reform packages introduced and parts of them will become law. The bigger question is whether there will be anything significant done to change the political environment and campaign finance reform. A lot of the proposals are pretty skin deep at this point.

Do you think the two-party system effectively checks itself, or do you think it would be more effective to introduce more parties to the game?

The problem isn’t with the two-party system so much as that when you have one-party rule every branch of government for too long it tends to become arrogant and corrupt. The Democratic Party was in the majority for 40 years and in 1994 the country decided they’d grown arrogant and corrupt. The GOP seems to have done that in 10. There’ll be a chance in November to change the majority, which is obviously what I’m hoping will take place.

Do you think the president’s excuse for not using the FISA court’s 72-hour loophole is justified?

I have found the administration’s case for avoiding the FISA court to be very unpersuasive, both as a legal matter and as a practical matter. The law is very clear and the congressional intent is very clear about conducting electronic eavesdropping. The authorization to use force against al Qaeda was neither at the time nor after the fact viewed by Congress as authorizing a run around FISA. So his legal arguments are very unpersuasive. His practical arguments are even weaker, and that is the administration’s claim that it was too cumbersome to go through FISA court, that the standard was too high to meet. The FISA court acts very quickly; it approves the vast, overwhelming majority of applications. (Please see a related column on page 9.)

If it’s determined that the president did break the law, would impeachment be considered and would you support that?

The impeachment the country went through with President Clinton was such a disastrous chapter in our national history; we have to be very circumspect about raising the prospect of going through that again. I don’t want to prejudge the outcome of what I hope will be a very thorough investigation of the NSA program and what the consequence should be, but I can say from having studied the law on the subject that the administration’s legal case is very weak.

What issues have you been working on in your home district?

A number of issues. We have what we call the Kids First initiative, which is a whole package of programs, outreach and legislation designed to try to support education, health care and safety for kids. We were successful this year in getting substantial funding for the Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles for pediatric cancer research. I’m very proud of that. They’re doing some phenomenal work at the Core Proteomics Laboratory, which basically, through the use of technology, can now identify the proteins in a tumor in a child and develop a very specific therapy for that child and that tumor that gives it a much greater prospect of success with much less side effects. We hope to get to the point where cancer therapy is individualized, where even two children with the same cancer will have different treatments depending on the protein composition of the tumor. We’re also working on legislation this year to try to better protect the community from sex offenders using GPS technology for people that are on parole or probation. We’re working on the potential expansion of the Santa Monica Mountains recreation area to include parts of the rim of the valley, which go all the way through the Arroyo Seco, the Verdugos, San Gabriel Valley, and others. So we’re working on a panoply of initiatives that have a very strong focus on our kids.

Would you like to see the USA PATRIOT Act extended, revised or made permanent?

I’d like to see the PATRIOT Act extended. There are ways that the PATRIOT Act can be improved to better protect civil liberties and at the same time give the government all the tools it needs to ferret out those who would do us harm. I don’t want it to be repealed or go out of existence, but we can do a better job of striking a balance. Frankly, though, the NSA issue troubles me more than anything in the PATRIOT bill. The administration argued during the discussion about the PATRIOT bill that it did not need to amend FISA, didn’t need to lower the standard of the FISA Act, that it operated just fine as it was. Never disclosing, of course, to the vast majority of members that it was taking a position and by putting it into operation it didn’t need to go through the FISA court at all. That seems to me very troubling. They’re making precisely the opposite argument they made in open hearing. And of course, the whole debate over the PATRIOT Act when you think about it is pretty moot if the administration takes the position that none of this is really binding anyway. I also don’t accept the argument that somehow having a discussion in Congress about FISA undercuts the effort to track down/capture/kill/destroy al Qaeda. Al Qaeda doesn’t care whether the wiretap goes through the FISA court or not, but the American people care. As long as it can be done expeditiously it has no impact on our intelligence gathering. If the argument is being made that al Qaeda is somehow oblivious to the fact that we do electronic eavesdropping, then we’re kidding ourselves if we think they’re that unsophisticated.

When would you like to see the troops come home?

As soon as we see a situation in Iraq that’s stable and won’t disintegrate into civil war, when they have a government that is representative of the people, and that doesn’t become an even worse haven for terrorism. I hope we make enough progress in building up the Iraqi’s security forces where we start to see draw downs of our forces in the near future. This year will be a significant year of transition. I was just in Iraq in December and I have the most tremendous respect for our men and women in uniform. They’re doing everything we’re asking of them. There’s a lot more we could have done to have them better prepared for what they were to encounter, provide them with better equipment, armored vehicles, more body vests. But I’m hopeful that the government that emerges from the elections will include the Sunnis and will lay the foundation for us to be able to draw down our troops.