Amendment to Restrict the NSA's Snooping Power Fails in the House by 12 Votes

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
July 24 2013 7:12 PM

Amendment to Restrict the NSA's Snooping Power Fails in the House by 12 Votes

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John Conyers co-wrote the failed amendment restricting the NSA.

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

Earlier this week it became clear that a libertarian/liberal-backed amendment to restrict the National Security Agency might actually pass. Michigan Reps. Justin Amash and John Conyers (a Republican and a Democrat) wrote the amendment, intending to add it to the Defense Appropriations Bill and restrict the NSA from collecting metadata on Americans not under suspicion of terrorist activities.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

Polls showed the idea—depending on how you describe it—playing incredibly well. Members of Congress read polls. With that in mind, and with other anti-NSA amendments in the offing, the agency actually met with select members of Congress to lobby them. Last night the White House released a statement to "urge the House to reject the Amash Amendment, and instead move forward with an approach that appropriately takes into account the need for a reasoned review of what tools can best secure the nation."

The amendment finally came up for debate early this evening. "They'll tell you there's no expectation of privacy in documents that are stored with a third party," said Amash, attempting to pre-empt his critics. "Tell that to the American people!"

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For seven minutes he paraded out a series of Republican and Democratic allies beseeching the Congress to geld the NSA. "We should be doing the balancing," said South Carolina Rep. Mick Mulvaney. "We were elected to do that. We should pass this amendment so we do the balancing, not people we don't know who we did not elect." Texas Rep. Ted Poe appealed to a revolutionary spirit: "No judge would ever sign a general warrant, like the British did, allowing each home on the block to be searched."

All helpful stuff, but not as helpful as the endorsement of Wisconsin Rep. James Sensenbrenner. As chairman of the Judiciary Committee after 9/11, he helped pass then defend the Patriot Act. "This amendment does not stop the collection of data under Section 215," he said, "people suspected of involvement in a terrorist plot."

The opposition blew past all that. The current House Intelligence chairman, Mike Rogers, accused the Amash-ites of ignorance. Had they been in the room, learning how the program worked? "So 14 different judges are wrong, and 800 cases are wrong?" Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann spent two and a half minutes attacking the amendment, insisting that "a false narrative has emerged that the federal government is taking in the content of the American people's emails."

"It's not true," said Bachmann, a fan of definitive statements. "It's not happening."

The anti-amendment side gave its closing-remark time to Arkansas Rep. Tom Cotton, a freshman and Iraq War veteran who's being urged to run for U.S. Senate. Once again, more in sorrow than in anger, he wondered why the Amash side was so naive. "This program has stopped dozens of terrorist attacks," said Cotton. "That means it's saved thousands of American lives." Metadata was merely "an Excel spreadsheet with five columns"—brave soldiers collect this sort of data on thumb drives, on the battlefield.

"To find a needle in a haystack, you need a haystack," said Cotton—paraphrasing Obama administration Deputy Attorney General James Cole. "This takes a leaf blower and blows away the entire haystack."

Most Republicans applauded Cotton when he finished—then on to the vote. It was set up in a manner that would give them some cover back home. Kansas Rep. Mike Pompeo had offered a rival anti-NSA-looking amendment, which received little attention because it largely just reiterated current law. The House voted on that amendment first, passing it by a landslide.

Then came Amash's language. In just three minutes, it went straight down—217 members voted against it, and 205 voted for it. Most Republicans who voted went against Amash, 134-94. Most Democrats went with Amash, and Conyers, on a 111-83 vote. Had seven members of any party switched their votes, the amendment would have been adopted. But the speaker of the House wanted this sucker to go down. He voted against it, something he doesn't have to do unless a bill's in trouble, and as the vote came in, he could be heard saying, "I like all those 'no' votes!"

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter.