With the 1998 election completed and there being several weeks before the start of the 106th Congress, this is a prime opportunity to examine what will be my legislative priorities for the coming session. To paraphrase a conservative activist of the 1960s, a priority should be erasing the bad laws, not creating new ones.
Perhaps the most pressing issue before our nation is that of personal privacy. The last several years have seen a dramatic rise -- though certainly not discussed by the press or in politically polite company -- in attempts by the government to claim greater privileges in violating the privacy of American citizens.
For a Republican Member of Congress like me, it would perhaps be more comforting to claim that these incidents were all being perpetrated by the "liberal Democrats." While accusing the Republicans of violating his privacy, President Clintonís Administration has indeed been at the front of the charge to increase the governmentís ability to pry into our personal affairs and monitor our movements, he has had many willing allies in the so-called "conservative" camp.
From a national database containing the private medical history of every American to a national identification card and granting broad new authorities to the FBI in wiretapping, many on both sides of the political aisle have been working to erode our tradition of privacy.
This past year saw several minor victories for those of us wanting to turn-back this trend toward a more intrusive government. We succeeded in forestalling implementation of the national medical database and the national ID for one calendar year.
Under the guise of "preventing fraud," the medical database would require that every aspect of an individualís medical history be linked together and easily accessible to government officials and researchers. And what is accessible to government officials and researchers for "good" purposes is also accessible to computer hackers. Suddenly companies would pay for "illegal" information on your medical history, to determine the risk you pose to their benefits package. Or, a political opponent brings up an embarrassing tidbit from your medical past. Or ... the possibilities are endless, including the likelihood that patients will stop confiding in their doctors if it is possible that those remarks could be transcribed into a computer database. Of course, the ultimate solution is to exclude government from its unconstitutional role as a health care provider.
A national ID poses no less serious a threat. Under the 1996 legislation authorizing the creation of this new monstrosity, no American can travel by air between the states or internationally without a national ID card after October 1, 2000. Further, doctors will be required to see the ID before offering care, and no one will be allowed to receive federal benefits without their card.
A fundamental question that must be addressed is this: why does the government need to know our every move? Without fail, the answer is always "fighting crime." But at what point does the "fighting" of crime become itself a crime?
We were unsuccessful in stopping the Administration from implementing "roaming wiretaps." It has been the case up until now that the FBI or other agency can only tap those phone lines that are approved by a court once probable cause has been shown. While some (including myself) believe that the courts have been too liberal in allowing taps, at least there has been a passing acknowledgement that violating privacy, even of someone suspected of engaging in criminal activity, is not a trivial matter. Now, however, these agencies want the power to tap any phone a suspected criminal may use.
How would this work? If someone you know is suspected by the government of doing something criminal, and that friend comes over for dinner, the FBI wants the authority to tap your line without a court order -- just in case the criminal uses your phone.
How long would the tap be in place? What if they heard something they would not otherwise hear (say, you and your brother-in-law in another state making a casual $1 bet on a college football game)?
Benjamin Franklin once wrote that those who give up essential liberty for temporary security deserve neither liberty nor security. The application of this quote to the privacy issue is unmistakable. We have become so consumed as a nation with "fighting crime" that many are willing to give up their liberties, those precious gifts of our creator secured by the blood of soldiers, to secure the illusion of eliminating criminal behavior.
Criminal law enforcement, of course, is reserved to the state and local governments by the Constitutionís Tenth Amendment.
We as a nation must jealously guard our constitutional rights and American heritage of liberty. To assume we can at the same time be a nation of liberty and have a government which monitors our every move and word is foolishly inconsistent.
The restoration and protection of personal privacy is, and will remain, a key issue for 1999, for the 106th Congress, and for our nation.