Thursday, November 13, 2014

Lame-Ducks Take One Last Quack at Change

Today, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid-(D) took a major but unexpected move in an attempt to pass the USA Freedom Act, before the end of this term’s Congress. Reid filed cloture, a parliamentary procedure which will bring the bill to the floor and expedite a vote, which could come as early as Monday if the initial vote is passed.  The cloture motion requires 60 votes to pass, which will be its largest hurdle moving forward. This is surprising because just two months ago, congressional insiders were saying that the bill was not a “top priority” and it would be unlikely to get passed before the end of the term.

The bill has been supported by the members on both sides of the political spectrum, the intelligence community (IC), as well as many civil liberties groups because it would roll back the NSA’s bulk data gathering capabilities and introduce public advocates in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. It passed the House in May with bipartisan support with a vote of 303-121, despite the fact that IC lobbying successfully watered down some of the language in the bill. This led to many more dissenting votes because many representatives felt as though the extent of loopholes in the language did not effectively end the ability of the IC to engage in mass surveillance programs.

Graph indicates positive (darkest green) to negative (darkest red) support for NSA reform (Fig. 1)

Nevertheless, many believe that this bill is a major step in the right direction in curbing the surveillance capacity of the IC on its own citizens. James Sensenbrenner-(D) said in statement “There is no excuse not to pass this fundamental piece of legislation during the lame duck,” which indicated that, after a long string of failures, lawmakers really want to show that the can get something accomplished by the end of the term. The general public overwhelmingly agrees with NSA reform as well, as showin in Figure 1. This legislation could serve to appease the critics of the bulk data gathering program and if not end the debate, at least postpone it for a while. 

It is possible that the bill could not pass as there are some high ranking senators, such as Diane Feinstein-(D), who have spoke in favor of bulk information programs. Some on that side of the debate believe that scaling back the NSA's capability could be detrimental to our nations security efforts. The initial preliminary vote takes place on Friday so it will be clearer then whether or not the Senate will have the necessary 60 votes in order to move the vote to the floor, which with then only require a simple majority for the bill to move from the floor. 

The implications from this bill are definitely a major step in a positive direction for all those wanting more transparency and accountability in government surveillance capability. If the bill can get passed, it would be a fantastic bipartisan precursor to the incoming congress in January. It would also be a win for the IC and civil liberties community, who have a long history of coming to blows on many legislative issues, as the majority of both sides agree that this bill, while flawed on many accounts, would still be a major step in the right direction. Let's hope congress seizes this opportunity to create some positive momentum going into 2015. 

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