A Socialist Labor Party Statement—

The S. 1 Menace

Why It Can’t Be ‘Reformed’

With Senate Bill 1 temporarily stalled in committee, its supporters are trying to work out a “compromise” strategy which they hope will steer the bill to passage. In the process they are not only confirming the inherently unreformable nature of the repressive legislation, but are exposing the vacillation of the liberal congressional forces opposing it.

S. 1 is the now-infamous legislative package which contains a host of antidemocratic, repressive measures attacking the freedoms of press, assembly, speech, due process and granting wide-ranging totalitarian powers to government agencies. Ostensibly aimed at codifying the nation’s contradictory maze of criminal codes, the 800-page bill is permeated with brazen measures for suppressing information, persecuting political dissent, and rolling back gains in legal and civil rights.

Though the genesis of S. 1 dates back to the Johnson administration, it had been largely unknown until recently. Its sponsors had quietly guided it through drafting and redrafting stages, into committee, and apparently hoped to push it through without much fanfare.

They had good reason for adopting a strategy of secrecy. The provisions of S. 1 are so outrageous they have drawn opposition in direct proportion to their exposure. Once the word about the bill was out, opposition from the press, civil libertarians and many other quarters spread quickly. Though the bill has already come closer to passing than some once thought possible, growing opposition has forced its backers to rethink their next steps.

Hearings on the bill, which were originally expected in January, have been delayed while S. 1’s sponsors try to work out a deal. Led by Senate majority leader Mike Mansfield (D.-Mont.) and minority leader Hugh Scott (R.-Pa.), a bipartisan effort is under way to diffuse opposition in Congress and still get the measure passed this year.

‘Reforming’ S. 1

This latest effort has two sides: one, a move to split S. 1’s opponents by deleting a few of its “most objectionable features” and winning support for a “reformed S. 1,” and two, an attempt to contain the popular outcry by camouflaging the bill and distorting its intent.

This strategy was spelled out in a February 9 memorandum from Mansfield and Scott to the Senate Judiciary Committee. The memo reminds everyone that they all “recognize the necessity to resort to accommodation and negotiation and whatever to get results. In that context, we recommend the introduction of a brand new bill with certain understandings and having certain agreed-upon characteristics....”

The first of these “characteristics,” which show the kind of changes Mansfield and Scott have in mind, is a change in the number of the bill. “The number S. 1, ” they wrote, “now serves as a battle cry for both the right and left who oppose its most objectionable features. To change its number would help diminish focus on that number which has become a source of pain and controversy. In other words, there would be a brand new criminal law reform and revision bill. S. 1, which in the past served to polarize opposition forces, would be dead and with it the issues its mention raises.”

Of course this cynical act of deception wouldn’t kill S. 1 at all. The “brand new bill” (which would bear the label S. 1563) would be substantially the same. Some of the provisions legalizing warrantless wiretaps, entrapment and capital punishment for certain crimes would be removed. Sections 1121–1128, which contain the broadened espionage statutes and the most repressive attacks on the press, would be taken out. But even these deletions don’t add up to much.

The National Committee Against Repressive Legislation (NCARL), a civil liberties lobby which has been fighting the bill, points out that many of the proposed deletions either reappear in other bills or are so obviously unconstitutional they couldn’t survive court review. For example, the provisions in 1121–1128 substantially reappear in the “Official Secrets Act” which the Ford administration is currently pressing in Congress.

The substance of S. 1, including the expanded conspiracy provisions, the antiriot and sedition laws, the restrictions on assembly and demonstrations, the repression of anything that might “facilitate” overthrow of the government, and many similar measures would remain. Mansfield has already said he could “support a great deal of what is contained in S. 1, perhaps 90 percent of its contents,” which he called “relatively noncontroversial.”

Revision With a Purpose

Here the Mansfield-Scott strategy shows its other side, which is to distort the bill’s purpose. More and more, those endorsing S. 1 present it as an innocuous, long-overdue codification of the legal code. The implication is that S. 1 is essentially a harmless effort to introduce uniformity into the legal system and that a few accidental assaults on democratic rights which “slipped in” can be removed.

This facade is every bit as insidious as the effort to change the bill’s number. To be sure the inconsistent application of existing legal statutes has led to unequal and arbitrary law enforcement. But the harmless rectification of this maze is not S. 1’s major purpose, nor is the task a “noncontroversial,” routine matter for lawyers and bureaucrats.

Two of the nation’s leading lawyers and civil libertarians, Vern Countryman of Harvard and Thomas Emerson of Yale, recently explained this point in an NCARL newsletter. “We do not oppose revision of the Federal Criminal Code,” they said, but “the task is an enormously complex one, involving literally thousands of provisions of law that affect every citizen. Congress should start with a bill that has been drafted by people who are committed to preserving American rights...S. 1 does not supply such a foundation.”

“It would be naive to believe that these countless provisions could be restructured and redrafted one by one....Long before such a process could be completed the pressures would irresistible to make a few changes and let the rest go. S. 1 was designed and drafted upon the basis of philosophical, ethical and political goals that were repudiated by the American people in the Watergate scandals...the bill is permeated with assumptions, points of view, and objectives, finding expression in numerous overt or subtle provisions that run counter to the open and free spirit upon which American liberties are based.”

Countryman and Emerson single out another bill in the House (H.R. 10850) which they say provides an acceptable starting point for codification and revision of the federal criminal code...from the basic viewpoint of manipulating and strengthening democratic institutions.

But whatever the content of the House bill, the continued efforts to get S. 1 passed in some form underscore that revision of the legal code is not what its backers seek most. S. 1’s reason for existence is found precisely in the repressive provisions and police powers it contains.

It is a legislative effort to arm the government of a small, besieged class with the legal tools needed to repress problems it cannot solve.

The backers of S. 1 are not seeking uniform legal perfection, they are seeking stiffer repressive power against “criminals,” political dissent, free assembly, speech and press, and in general to erect a legal bulwark against democratic freedoms that are no longer compatible with modern capitalist rule. They want no more Pentagon papers or CIA revelations, no more antiwar movements and no more civil rights protests.

‘Liberal’ Compromise

Though S. 1 is currently bogged down in political haggling, it would be a mistake to underestimate the ability of those now opposing it to accept a reformed version and compromise away democratic rights. Compromise is what liberals do best when faced with reaction. A deal can be especially expected if the most blatant attacks on the press are deleted and the bourgeois media gets behind the bill.

The possibilities for such a development were indicated early in March when The Washington Post said it would support S. 1 if the “worst” provisions were removed. Former California Governor Pat Brown, who headed the Johnson commission that first proposed an S. 1 type measure, typifies the willingness to compromise away democratic rights when he says, “I don’t agree with those who say it cannot be improved upon and we have to start all over again.” Describing S. 1’s reactionary Senate proponents like McClellen and Hruska as “good and reasonable men,” Brown emphasized, “We’re willing to trade too.”

Whether a modified S. 1 passes now, or in a prolonged piecemeal process, the bourgeoisie’s need for a new level of repression and restriction of democratic rights can no longer be doubted. This bill could only be drawn up by the representatives of a class who see the Bill of Rights as a threat. While doing everything possible to defeat it, it should be exposed not just as one bad piece of legislation, but as the movement of an entire class and an entire system toward reaction.



Socialist Labor Party of America, P.O. Box 218, Mountain View, CA 94042-0218 • www.slp.org • socialists@slp.org

Return to SLP Statements and Leaflets
Return to SLP's Home Page