Texas Two-Step

Texas House Democrats wave to supporters gathered on the south steps of the Capitol in Austin, Texas Friday, May 16, 2003. The Democrats, who have been in Oklahoma since Monday in order to prevent quorum in the House and stop a controversial redistricting bill, were welcomed home after their arrival early Friday morning. AP

In her latest Political Points commentary, CBS News Senior Political Editor Dotty Lynch takes a look at the recent drama over the fugitive Texas Democrats.

The Texas Democratic legislators are back home after leaving their terrorist cell in a Holiday Inn in Ardmore, Okla., and declaring victory in this round of the battle over redistricting.

The heavy use of military metaphors and tactics in American politics hit ground zero last week when someone (an overly zealous member of the Texas Department of Public Safety or else a political thug controlled by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, take your pick) contacted the part of the Department of Homeland Security that searches for terrorists to track a plane carrying the missing legislators.

Texas Democratic Congressmen Martin Frost and Lloyd Doggett saw DeLay, the Velvet Hammer himself, behind this transgression.

"Not since Richard Nixon and Watergate 30 years ago has anyone tried to use law enforcement for domestic political purposes," Rep. Frost said. "This is an abuse of criminal and terrorist fighting resources of the U.S. government for a domestic political matter…There should be a complete investigation."

Sixteen Democratic members and Sen. Joe Lieberman, ranking Democratic on the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, in fact, asked Tom Ridge for one; Ridge, in turn, appointed his acting Inspector General to lead the probe. The problem is that the acting IG turns out to be Clark Kent Ervin, a Houston Republican and former assistant to Texas senator and ex- Texas Attorney General John Cornyn, which opens the agency to further charges of political game-playing.

Officials at the Department of Homeland Security told CBS News they were outraged that they were called into the political search, but skeptical Democrats are not convinced. The line between politics and privacy, between safety of citizens and infringing on civil liberties is one that is gaining much attention in Democratic circles and in communities around the country. The Texas case gave it new prominence.

The American Civil Liberties Union is running a campaign to get local communities around the country to pass resolutions expressing concern over the 2001 Patriot Act and the potential for the government to tread on civil liberties in its zeal to combat terrorism.

So far, 107 communities representing about 11.3 million Americans have passed versions of these resolutions. The state legislature in Hawaii was the first statewide body to pass a joint resolution that instructed law enforcement to "uphold the human rights, civil right liberties and constitutional protections of Hawaii people," and called on the Hawaii congressional delegation to "work to repeal sections of the USA Patriot Act."

In early May, the Tucson, Ariz., city council voted 4-3 along Democratic-Republican party lines for a resolution stating that government efforts to root out terrorism should "not be waged at the expense of the civil rights and civil liberties of the people." In addition, commissioners in Broward County, Florida passed a resolution backing up county officials who "take actions against federal or states orders that violate" the Constitution...

Will Harrell, executive director of the Texas ACLU, called the actions in Texas last week a clear example of how susceptible "expansive government spying" is to abuse. "Surveillance authority invariably follows one rule: if you build it, they will come. Be it accidental or deliberate the DPS's success in getting the Homeland Security surveillance assets involved in the political hunt for the missing state lawmakers demonstrates the extreme likelihood that unchecked surveillance powers will eventually be abused for political reasons."

The actions of the legislature were a matter of fun and games and high comedy until the Department of Homeland Security was brought into the act. Civil libertarians and Democratic politicians are on the lookout for strong-armed tactics as a way of drawing attention to the abuse of power issue. Whether Tom Delay was involved or not, this action last week has given fodder to those who are trying to alert citizens that their rights may be threatened by a law that was passed overwhelmingly in the emotional tide following Sept. 11.
  • Joel Roberts

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