Yesterday the House of Representatives narrowly defeated an amendment that would have quashed the NSA’s ability to issue broad warrants to collect telephony metadata.
Co-sponsored by the bipartisan Michigan tag team of Rep. Justin Amash and Rep. John Conyers, the amendment blurred the usual party-lines votes of the House, with Republicans opposing the measure 134 to 93, and Democrats supporting it 111 to 83. In the GOP, the vote seemed to spark a grass-roots revolt, with leadership and key committee chairs in opposition, and Tea Party rank-and-file supportive. The Obama administration dispatched NSA head Keith Alexander to the Hill in an attempt to kill the amendment.
Despite the defeat, the measure garnered praise from both conservatives and liberals. Breitbart.com called it a vote to “protect the American peoples’ 4th Amendment right against a general warrant to view all phone records” while Salon.com’s David Sirota hailed it as a “trans-partisan uprising” in favor of civil liberties.
But was this really an authentic back-bench revolt? Shortly after the counts were in, Politico ran a suspiciously timed item headlined “How the Justin Amash NSA amendment got a vote”:
On Monday, the speaker’s office told Amash to approach Boehner in the House chamber to chart a course to offer the amendment to limit the phone data program. After that phone call, before he spoke to Boehner, Amash still took to Twitter to threaten leadership that he would bring the entire bill down.
Boehner opposes the NSA amendment. Leadership doesn’t care much for Amash. But they were listening to complaints from a broad swath of Republicans who wanted to vote against the spying program that Snowden revealed.
And even after GOP leadership privately determined Amash’s threats were likely empty — that he didn’t have the votes to keep the defense appropriations bill from coming to the floor — top Republican aides spent the week holding Amash’s hand, as they turned the unworkable amendment into language that would have limited one of the spy agency’s most effective tools.
Politico then reached deep into its storage closet of anonymous Republicans and pulled out a sighing extollment of establishment wisdom: “The reality is [leadership was] twisting ourselves in knots for a week trying to craft language that was germane and got at the issue.”
Washingtonians, and especially those who are well-connected, use Politico as a bulletin board with which to communicate with each other. In this case, it’s pretty transparent what happened. The House GOP leadership opposed the idea of disempowering the NSA. But their voters are hopping mad about the spy agency and Tea Party members wanted a vote. So Boehner and company played both sides, helping Amash craft his amendment, allowing a debate, then promptly voting to kill it. And even if the amendment had passed, so what? The Senate is impervious to anything that can’t clear a filibuster and its members are more supportive of the NSA than the House’s.
The message: See, we give your issues a fair hearing, even if we vote against them. And by the way, if it weren’t for procedure wonks like us, that amendment wouldn’t have even been floor-ready. YOU’RE WELCOME.
None of this should detract from Amash’s efforts or the Republican congressmen who supported his amendment. It’s great that, in the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations, Congress is finally doing something to restrain the NSA, and it’s refreshing to see a bipartisan coalition emerging in support of civil liberties. But we should understand that, what for us was a principled vote, was also a political opportunity for House leadership.
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