In July of 2013, a one-paragraph amendment was proposed to “The Department of Defense Appropriations Act of 2014”. This amendment became the crux of an overnight political crisis in Washington that revealed a terrifying fact: bipartisanship is still possible in Congress, as long as it is in support of illegal domestic surveillance.
The now-infamous “Amash Amendment” was co-sponsored by Representatives Justin Amash (R-Mich) and John Conyers (D-Mich). Its stated purpose was: “Ending authority for the blanket collection of records under the Patriot Act. Bars the NSA and other agencies from using Section 215 of the Patriot Act to collect records, including telephone call records, that pertain to persons who are not subject to an investigation under Section 215”. In short, this amendment would have closed the loophole that the NSA has been using to justify systematically violating the 4th Amendment’s prohibition on “unreasonable searches and seizures.” This amendment should not have met with a single vote of dissent, especially considering the American nation’s outrage over recent revelations of domestic mass surveillance. Instead, both of the major party establishments, under the leadership of the President, united to fight against it, and preserve the NSA’s un-Constitutional programs.
On July 24, we learned that “White House spokesman Jay Carney came out against the proposal last night, and the government has dispatched NSA Director Keith Alexander to Capitol Hill to lobby against it”. The irony here is tremendous. The President campaigned for election with the promise to end un-Constitutional mass surveillance. In 2007, he said: “no more illegal wiretapping of American citizens. No more national security letters to spy on citizens who are not suspected of a crime. No more tracking citizens who do nothing more than protest a misguided war. No more ignoring the law when it is inconvenient”. After making those promises, it is staggering that President Obama would fight to defend the NSA, which we have discovered is actually committing much worse crimes than we believed in 2007. Further, it is absolutely stupefying that he would tap Keith Alexander as his envoy, who recently lied to Congress about the NSA’s spying while under oath – a crime called perjury that President Obama’s administration has simply not prosecuted.
The President’s desperate defense of the NSA succeeded. The Amash Amendment failed in a close vote of 205 to 217 (the amendment would have succeeded if only 7 nay votes had been aye votes). It was a victory for the political establishment. Party leaders like Republican House Speaker John Boehner, Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Democrat House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, and Democrat House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer all voted in favor of NSA spying. Presumably they were not pleased with the party members that defied them.
Notably, anti-NSA voters from both parties tended to be moderates. The more politically extreme Representatives in both parties, who also tend to be in leadership positions, tended to vote in favor of the NSA. Upon further research another fascinating dynamic was discovered.
MapLight, a non-profit organization dedicated to “revealing money’s influence on politics,” conducted an analysis of the campaign donors of those who voted on the Amash Amendment. They found a startling trend. The Representatives who voted in favor of illegal NSA spying received an average of 122% more money from the defense industry. Pro-NSA voters received an average of $41,596 from the defense industry. Anti-NSA voters received an average of only $18,739. It seems that political contributions played a central role in preserving the NSA’s illegal activities.
What is terrifying about the vote is that the parties, perpetually deadlocked, united on this issue – on the wrong side. The 217 pro-NSA votes included 134 Republicans and 83 Democrats. In a Congress where party-line votes are commonplace, a bipartisan vote on an extremely controversial issue is extraordinary. Democrats were expected to support the Obama administration. Republicans were expected to take the opportunity to deal the administration a sound political defeat. Instead, if anything, the opposite happened.
The Republican Party couldn’t even be counted on to oppose the President when supporting one of its own. Justin Amash was left stranded by his own party – 57% of Republicans followed party orders and refused to support his amendment. The majority of Amash’s votes came from the 111 Representatives of the Democrat Party who crossed party lines, in defiance of their leadership, to do the right thing. It is not often we see bravery in Congress. Those men and women of the Democrat Party deserve great credit.
Posterity will not be kind to the 140 Republicans who left Amash to swing in the wind. They stand on the wrong side of history. Reckless, illegal, unchecked statism cannot go on forever.