Armey leaves House with call for freedom
Conservative from Texas says Americans must not sacrifice liberty for security
Carolyn Lochhead, Chronicle Washington Bureau Thursday, December 5, 2002
Washington -- Departing House Majority Leader Dick Armey warned that the nation must guard against the "awful, dangerous seduction" of sacrificing freedom for safety in the fight against terrorism.
It is no small irony that this Republican conservative firebrand is ending his 18-year House career as Washington's premier defender of individual freedom against alleged incursions by the Bush administration.
And no less ironic, perhaps, is his praise for the San Francisco woman he battled in many a floor fight -- Rep. Nancy Pelosi -- who now assumes the leadership of House Democrats.
In a Capitol all but deserted on a cloudy and cold Wednesday, Armey reflected for The Chronicle on the trade-off between security and liberty, the rise of partisanship, and Pelosi's advantages and challenges as the prominent face of her party now that former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle has been temporarily eclipsed by the Democrats' loss of the Senate.
"Personal liberty is critically important, and it should be important to all of us, irrespective of party affiliation, or even philosophy," Armey said, explaining his battles with Bush over the USA Patriot Act, passed by Congress in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and the new Homeland Security department. "That's the essence of America to me, more than any other thing. What makes us unique in the history of the world is our devotion to personal liberty."
Armey said it was his belief that personal liberty must be protected -- even as the nation wages its fight against terrorists -- that caused him to insist that many of the surveillance provisions of the Patriot Act expire, unless Congress votes again to allow them. And that belief spurred him to fight -- often successfully -- Attorney General John Ashcroft's controversial efforts to increase domestic spying of American citizens.
ACLU JOB OFFER
Armey has a job offer from the American Civil Liberties Union but has had not yet decided to accept it.
Armey calls it the duty of Congress to protect Americans from government incursions into personal freedom, whether from red-light traffic cameras he has fought, or the Justice Department's Operation TIPS proposal, since withdrawn, which would have enlisted bus drivers, truckers and other workers as citizen spies.
"It falls under the category of, the price of liberty is eternal vigilance, " Armey said. "I am charged with the protection of the liberty of my constituents. Maybe the Justice Department doesn't have that charge that I have."
The Department of Justice, no less than the Environmental Protection Agency,
he said, has a natural inclination to "bureaucratic zealousness," and congressional oversight is the only way to keep them in check.
Noting his "long and colorful career" scrutinizing government agencies, Armey said the only way to keep them in line is to force them to come back to Congress for reauthorization. Hence his insistence on sunsetting the Patriot Act surveillance provisions, which will die unless Congress votes for them again in the future.
THOUGHTS ON PELOSI
Retiring as majority leader with his reputation as a combative ideologue firmly intact, Armey dismissed critics who call the equally ideological Pelosi too liberal to lead her party.
"Too liberal for whom?" he retorted. "My theory is a party leader must embrace the central, core values of the party. I believe Nancy does that for her party.
"Why did Nancy walk away with that election on her side of the aisle?" he asked. "Because a clear majority of the Democratic Party is liberal."
Armey noted that Pelosi's opponent, Texas Rep. Martin Frost, "spent an entire weekend pretending to be Dick Armey," instead of a Democrat.
Scorning efforts by Clintonian Democrats to move to the middle, Armey praised Pelosi as an unapologetic liberal, just as he is unapologetic conservative.
Pelosi makes clear, he said, that " 'This is who I am. These are my values. I fight for them. I make no pretense about that. I have no reservations about that.' And that allows her to be a leader."
That is not to say Armey agrees with Pelosi's philosophy.
"I have had the luxury in my life of living by the slogan, 'Good policy makes good politics.' " he said. "Nancy's problem is that she can't come up with the first part of the slogan."
Oddly enough for a partisan deeply identified with the rise of the vitriolic, take-no-prisoner battles that now characterize the House, Armey said that as majority leader, he has "been more partisan than I wanted to be, I felt of necessity. And Nancy will be, I believe, as minority leader more partisan than she'll want to be, of necessity."
Partisanship has increased over the past decade, he said, because Republicans are still a young majority who ended roughly four decades of Democratic reign in 1994. It has taken time for Republicans to learn how to be the majority, just as Democrats have needed time to learn the skills of the minority.
Armey said the Republican majority is so narrow, even after gaining six seats last month, that Democrats feel they are just one election away from the majority, and Republicans feel they are just one election away from the minority.
That, he said "has caused us to introduce higher levels of partisanship in daily life than if we had a comfortable majority and they had an inevitable minority."
On the Republican side, he said, members urge leaders to "draw a line on these guys, we've got to show a difference, we've got to maintain control, because they'll get the upper hand for the campaign. On their side, it's 'look,
we can't concede anything, . . . we've got to be the voice of resistance so we can gain some advantage for the campaign.' Now when the stakes are as high as switching from majority to minority, that is an ever-present consideration."
E-mail Carolyn Lochhead at clochheadsfchronicle.com.