Russ Feingold is my new political hero. The Wisconsin senator has risen above the political calculations of his party to challenge the president, calling on the US Senate to censure President George W. Bush for his program of warrantless wiretapping of American citizens.
Under the program, the president ordered the National Security Agency to begin eavesdropping on the phone conversations of Americans without seeking a warrant for the wiretapping -- in contravention of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
The program and the theory pushed by the administration that the president has "inherent authority to authorize whatever surveillance he thinks is necessary" is a threat to the US Constitution, Sen. Feingold says.
"Under this theory," he said in March during a US Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on his call for censure, "we no longer have a constitutional system consisting of three coequal branches of government, we have a monarchy."
Censure is a purely symbolic tool, unlike impeachment, one that lacks the force of law. Only one president -- Andrew Jackson in 1834 -- has been censured and he ignored it.
But censure offers the Senate an opportunity to remind President Bush -- as the Republican Congress reminded Bill Clinton during its impeachment proceedings -- that "no president is above the law."
Republican critics, however, are singing a different tune this time. They are using Sen. Feingold's censure resolution as a rallying point, accusing him of trying to score political points in preparation for his presidential bid and calling him reckless and irresponsible.
Whether or not Sen. Feingold has presidential ambitions is irrelevant here. And the question of censure should not be viewed through the prism of partisan politics (the Democrats' reluctance to follow Sen. Feingold should suffice as proof of this).
What Sen. Feingold is doing, or at least attempting to do, is raise real questions about the Bush administration's reliance on secrecy, its consolidation of presidential powers under the guise of military necessity and the half-truths and lies that led us to war in Iraq.
The warrantless wiretaps are only the latest example of what essentially adds up to a usurpation of power by the president. The Boston Globe calls it "part of a growing trend by Bush toward unilateralism in domestic as well as foreign policy," while the columnist Tom Teepen, writing in the St. Paul Pioneer Press, accuses the president of "claim(ing) for himself and his successors a right to rule by fiat."
This presidential power grab -- part of the conservative "unitary executive" theory that views the presidency as preeminent and not as one of three coequal branches of government -- has met little resistance in Washington. There have been some rumblings and discontent but, when push has come to shove, Congress has been all too willing to go along.
This is where the Feingold resolution comes in. Sen. Feingold, Marianne Means wrote in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer last month, "has elevated the spreading general criticism of the Iraq war and the president's insistence on secrecy into a serious discussion of whether Bush broke the law."
The problem, however, is that political Washington has no interest in actually participating in the discussion. Yes, the Senate Judiciary Committee has taken up hearings, but they are likely to go nowhere as long as one party controls all three branches of government. Republicans, after all, are unlikely to challenge a Republican president -- especially the current crop of lockstep Republicans -- while the Democrats lack the power or the backbone to do much of anything.
"In a healthy two-party system," Gregory Stanford wrote in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Congress would have held, if not an impeachment inquiry, at least sober hearings on a host of administration misdeeds, from stifling scientific data that don't fit its views to failing to plan for a postwar Iraq."
Sen. Feingold's resolution, therefore, while not going as far as some Bush critics might like (i.e., impeachment), does at least raise the possibility that offers that rare hope that someone in Washington might actually ask a tough question.
In the end, as Jon Stewart told the senator in March on "The Daily Show," the resolution "feels like some attempt at accountability."
For that, he deserves our gratitude.
Hank Kalet is a newspaper editor and poet in central New Jersey. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. A version of this column appeared in the South Brunswick Post and the Cranbury Press.