This piece is part of a weekly series in which WAL Contributor Ryan Ripley follows the moves of libertarian Republican Justin Amash.
Congressman Justin Amash (R-MI) just had the biggest week of his political career. He took on the White House, the Intelligence Community, and establishment Republicans and almost won. By a narrow vote, the House rejected the Amash Amendment (205-217) that would have prevented funds from being used to illegally spy on innocent American citizens under the Patriot Act.
Initially, the House leadership sought to block the bill from reaching floor, fearing the ramifications of forcing members to vote on the very complicated issue of surveillance in America. Ultimately, Amash successfully argued to the Rules panel that he was only seeking to limit the NSA’s “blanket authority” to collect records and metadata under the Patriot Act.
“In order for funds to be used by the NSA, the court order would have to have a statement limiting the collection of records to those records that pertain to a person under investigation,” Amash explained to the panel. “If the court order doesn’t have that statement, the NSA doesn’t receive the funding to collect those records.”
With a vote eminent, the White House made an unusual move and spoke out against the Amash Amendment. “We oppose the current efforts in the House to hastily dismantle one of our Intelligence Community’s counterterrorism tools,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said. “This blunt approach is not the product of an informed, open, or deliberative process.”
The White House also mobilized members of the administration in to action. Director of National Intelligence James “I forgot the Patriot Act” Clapper and NSA director Gen. Keith “Collect it All” Alexander called for emergency meetings with members of congress to lobby against the amendment. Ironically, the meetings were held at the “Top Secret” level, preventing the attendees from disclosing what was discussed.
Amash posed the question of liberty to the members and started something that has not happened in a very long time –a true bi-partisan debate on the house floor.
“We’re here today for a very simple reason – to defend the Fourth Amendment, to defend the privacy of each and every American,” Amash said. He then warned that those opposed to the amendment will use fear as their weapon and asked the key question, “Do we oppose the suspicionless collection of every American’s phone records?”
Speaking against the bill, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-MI) invoked 9/11 and begged members to not revert our security level back to where it was on 9/10/2001. He also urged the House to ignore “Facebook likes” and vote for the “security” of the nation, apparently unaware that “likes” come from constituents.
Michelle Bachman (R-MN) likened the data collected by the NSA to what’s available in a phone book. If that’s the case then why doesn’t the NSA just check under ‘T’ for ‘Terrorist’ to catch the bad guys? Tom Cotton (R-AK) won the boogeyman award with his impassioned reminder to members that America is “at war” and that passing the Amendment would cost lives – which caused many to question “with whom?” and “where is the declaration of war from Congress?”
On the other side of the isle, Amash orchestrated an impressive line-up of bi-partisan supports including James Sensenbrenner (R-WI), the creator of the Patriot Act. Sensenbrenner strongly supported the Amash amendment, saying that the current interpretation of the law is far from what it was meant to be.
Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) reminded the member that congressional oversight was seriously lacking on these matters. She pointed out that the last oversight report to Congress about activities under Section 215 of the Patriot Act was “eight sentences” long – apparently that is sufficient for those who wish to capture the information about billions of phone calls and emails every day.
Jerry Nadler (D-NY) encouraged members to stop the government from misusing Section 215 of the Patriot Act to engage in the dragnet collection of all of our phone records. “Congress did not grant the executive the authority to collect anything that it wants so long as it limits any subsequence search of that data.”
While the amendment did not pass, it did manage to draw together some unusual allies. Libertarian Republicans found themselves standing next to many House Democrats, while President Obama and Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) found new allies in John Boehner (R-OH), Eric Cantor (R-VA), and Michele Bachmann (R-MN) to defeat the measure – strange bedfellows indeed.
Aside from exposing the new breed of Obama-Republicans currently occupying seats in the House, the Amash amendment has redefined the narrative about surveillance in the United States. When the White House opposed the amendment, President Obama claimed ownership of the practices at the NSA. The days of blaming former President Bush are over.
House members were also forced to reveal their position on the 4th Amendment of U.S. Constitution. We now know that there are 217 members of congress who are willing to violate the law and their oath of office. They made a false choice between security and liberty. Security is a myth, while liberty is a natural right guaranteed by the Constitution. Fortunately, this problem is an easy one for the voters to fix. After all, the mid-term elections are just around the corner.
Watch the video below to see Congressman Amash lead the debate on national surveillance: