Rep. Allyson Schwartz is the frontrunner in a crowded field of Democrats seeking to take on abysmally unpopular Republican Gov. Tom Corbett. But Schwartz upset progressives last week when she joined a bipartisan coalition of national-security hawks to vote down legislation aimed at blocking the National Security Agency’s dragnet collection of American phone records. And, though it is unclear how the vote would reflect decisions Schwartz might make as governor, upset they should be.
Her Philly colleagues, Reps. Bob Brady and Chaka Fattah, both voted “yes” on the amendment, joining progressive Democrats and libertarian-leaning Republicans (including four from Pennsylvania) in challenging President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner. Schwartz’s vote mattered: The measure, which would have barred the NSA from surveilling any American who is not a specific target of a law-enforcement investigation, failed by a slim 205-217. Nonetheless, it now seems likely that some reforms are inevitable.
“I think we should go after bad guys, but I don’t think we should infringe upon the rights of law-abiding citizens,” Fattah says. “It was a close vote, and I think it made a statement.”
Schwartz, on the other hand, issued a statement explaining that the bill “did not achieve the critical balance between national security and civil liberties. Congress must engage in ongoing oversight and review of our national security activities so that we adequately protect both the security of our nation and the civil liberties of all Americans.” But Congress has not prioritized that balance in the past. In fact, the only reason politicians like Schwartz are even publicly acknowledging the issue is because whistleblower Edward Snowden released the theretofore-classified information. Obama has also said he “welcomes” such a debate. But Snowden is currently hiding from the president’s prosecutors in a Russian airport, trying to find asylum.
I don’t know what Schwartz’s hardline, war-on-terror mindset would mean in the Governor’s Mansion. But perhaps this vote will provide all candidates an opportunity to address two other wars that also pit civil liberties against public safety, have no end and create more problems than they solve: the “wars” on drugs and crime. Candidates should commit to being “smart on crime” and downsizing the state’s bloated and destructive prison system.
Hopefully, that conversation will begin soon. Voters deserve an opportunity to subject candidates to tough questions and make up their minds. That is, after all, what elections are for.
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