BTW Talks With Congressman Bernie Sanders

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Rep. Bernie Sanders

When Rep. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) introduced the Freedom to Read Protection Act (H.R. 1157) -- legislation that looks to amend Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act -- back in March 2003, very few people, aside from maybe booksellers and librarians, knew how the USA Patriot Act could potentially infringe upon their First Amendment rights. With the constant threat of another terrorist strike looming and the Patriot Act promoted by the Bush administration as a crucial tool of law enforcement's fight against terrorism, H.R. 1157 had all the markings of a bill that would be ignored by the House, the media, and Americans.

A year and a half later, it's safe to say that Sanders' efforts to amend Section 215 have been heard. H.R. 1157 has garnered bipartisan support in the House, with 151 co-sponsors, and -- with the help of a the grassroots movement that sprang up to call attention to his legislation and possible effects of the Patriot Act -- Sanders’ bill has garnered much attention in both the national and local media.

Last month, Sanders added the Freedom to Read Amendment to the Commerce, Justice, State (CJS) Appropriations Bill appropriations bill. The amendment would have barred the Justice Department from using any of the money appropriated under the CJS bill to search bookstore and library records under Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act. On July 8, the amendment died in a controversial tie vote in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Recently, Bookselling This Week spoke with Sanders via phone about the future of H.R.1157, the controversial July 8 vote in the House, and the Campaign for Reader Privacy, a petition drive sponsored by ABA, the American Library Association, and PEN American Center.

BTW: Even though your amendment to CJS did not pass on July 8, your goal to amend Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act clearly has garnered widespread support in the House. When you first introduced H.R. 1157, I don't believe this was the case. What factors do you think have caused so many Representatives to support your bill?

Sanders: I think there are a number of reasons. Number one, the truth is, that the booksellers and the librarians and other grassroots organizations have done a tremendous job in raising consciousness on this issue.

As you know, the USA Patriot Act was passed five or six weeks after 9/11. Many members of Congress were not fully aware of what was in the bill. But over time, people have become more aware and conscious of some of the onerous provisions, including Section 215. So, for a start, the fact that we have important national organizations like the librarians and booksellers -- and many others -- speaking out [and] mobilizing people on this issue, has had a huge impact on members of Congress.

As part of that process, we're looking at hundreds of communities throughout America who have voted to pass resolutions expressing concern about Section 215 and the USA Patriot Act, in general. You have four states in the country that have passed similar resolutions. So I think what the Congress is perceiving is that there is a great deal of concern at the rank and file level about Section 215, and they responded accordingly.

BTW: So here's a great example of a grassroots movement working very effectively…

Sanders: Absolutely. It has been phenomenal. And you've asked me why we have made so much progress, and let me be very clear -- it is precisely because of librarians, booksellers, and whole lots of other people who are speaking out on this issue and demanding that their member of Congress go on record in opposition to 215.

The truth of the matter is that not every member of Congress is 100 percent aware of every issue facing America. In fact, let's be clear: No member of Congress is.

So what happens is that a member of Congress is sitting in his or her office, and suddenly they get e-mails, they get petitions, they hear that a town in their district has gone on record passing a resolution in opposition to 215. You know what? It wakes them up!

And if they're hearing opposition back home, they're going to look at this issue, and then what you find is, that upon looking at this issue, many members of Congress are saying, "Hey, the grassroots are right. We can do better than this. We should repeal Section 215." And that is what is happening.

Certainly, the petition drive [the Campaign for Reader Privacy] is one of the positive factors working in our favor.

BTW: There's a new session of Congress coming up. Is this petition drive still just as important now as prior to the July 8 vote?

Sanders: It sure is. It's absolutely imperative that we keep the pressure on. What the vote on July 8 indicated is that we had a pretty strong majority.

Now what you have to understand, it's not just that [Rep.] Tom DeLay [R-TX] and the Republican leadership went about twisting arms for 21 minutes to get a number of Republicans to change their vote. You also have to understand that -- just coincidentally, no doubt -- the day before there was a major hearing on terrorism, where I think Tom Ridge was on Capitol Hill just talking about all of the benefits of the USA Patriot Act. And, just coincidentally, the President of the United States happened to say that he would veto that $40-plus billion bill if we managed to pass that amendment.

So, there was tremendous pressure at that moment on members to vote against us, and yet we still had a majority before DeLay and friends starting arm-twisting.

BTW: I was going to ask what exactly happened on July 8 …

Sanders: What [the Republican leadership] did -- and it's above and beyond this particular issue -- is a frightening example of the un-democratic tendencies that we're seeing from the Republican leadership. This was consistent, although not as bad, [with] the three additional hours that they kept the rolls open on the prescription drug Medicare bill -- and after three hours they managed to get a couple of Republicans to change their votes.

In this case, they kept the rolls open, despite the shouts and the request for personal privilege to get information, on the floor of the House … and they just simply kept the rolls open.

The rules are you have 17 minutes to cast your vote. At the end of 17 minutes, as I recall, we were ahead 219 - 201, and then they said, "Hey, we're not going to gavel it down because we're losing. We're just going to keep it open until we can win this thing." And they just went about their business, and DeLay and others just coerced and talked to people, got them to change their votes, and they turned around the number of Republicans [so] that we lost 210 - 210.

BTW: How is it that they could get away with not gaveling it down?

Sanders: Well, that is a very good question that many millions of Americans people would like answered. The answer is, is that you have rules, but the rules are implemented by the majority party who control the Speaker's chair…. [T]here is a Republican person up there who looks around, and he gavels the roll call to a close when Delay or [Speaker of the House J. Dennis] Hastert (R-IL) says they should.

The rules are you have 17 minutes to vote. In most cases -- nine out of 10 cases -- that's what happens. Occasionally, what may happen is that somebody is on his way -- was at a committee meeting, and they keep it open until somebody can come in and cast their vote. In this case, that wasn't the situation…. It was very clear that they used the additional time -- not to wait for somebody who was indisposed or who couldn't get there on time -- but just to twist arms. No one disputes that….

It is an outrage. There was a lot of consternation on the floor of the House, and in the media, I should say, about that.

BTW: Yet, despite all that arm-twisting you still had a tie vote.

Sanders: Yes, despite that we did, and a number of Republicans, to their credit, held on -- not to mention the fact that I was very delighted that we had the votes of almost every Democrat. By the way, there are 435 members, the vote was 420 cast votes and … I checked the names of the people who were not there, and, in fact, most of those would have voted for the bill if they were there.

BTW: You have H.R. 1157, which currently has 151 co-sponsors. In the last session, is it true that they would not hold a hearing on the bill?

Sanders: Yes, that's right. I mean, many people don't understand how Congress functions. When you have 151 co-sponsors, [and] bi-partisan support, one might think that that would solicit enough interest on the part of the Chairman for a serious hearing on the issue, but that has not taken place. What we had to do is to maneuver that vote onto an appropriations bill [CJS], rather than just get a freestanding bill onto the floor. That was the only method that was available to us.

Two things: Number one, we're going to continue our effort to get the bill onto the floor as a freestanding bill. Second of all … [Section 215, among other provisions] is sun-setted in the year 2005, [and] unless Congress re-authorizes it, it's no longer in effect…. So, there will be, no doubt, as a result of that, a very serious debate.

I am feeling fairly confident that we will be successful. I'm more confident in the House than in the Senate, but I'm quite confident in the House.

BTW: If President Bush is re-elected, he's going to push for a repeal of those sunsets, is that correct?

Sanders: It's not only a repeal of those sunsets. I fear very much that -- depending on who controls the House and the Senate -- in my view, Bush and Ashcroft are not great supporters of the U.S. Constitution and not great believers in civil liberties in this country.

I fear very much that not only will we have a very significant fight to end Section 215 -- repeal that section -- but we're going to have to, more broadly speaking, fight against other onerous and anti-civil libertarian provisions that might be brought forth by the Bush administration.

BTW: Congressman Sanders, thanks very much for your time.

Sanders: I just want to thank all of the booksellers and librarians for playing a fantastic role. What you're looking at here is grassroots democracy at its best, and it's people standing up, fighting back, and, in fact, having a huge impact on the process. So, I just want to thank all the booksellers for their help in this. --Interviewed by David Grogan

For answers to frequently asked questions about the Campaign for Reader Privacy, click here.

Booksellers can order additional petition pads by calling ABA's Information Department at (800) 637-0037, ext. 1292 or 1293, or for a downloadable PDF of the petition, click here.

To help participating booksellers garner press coverage for the petition drive, ABA has created a press release template that bookstores can use to bring the campaign to the attention of their local media. To access the sample release, click here.

To read about independent booksellers' efforts in the campaign, click here.