The National Security Agency (NSA) and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) domestic surveillance program suffered a near-death experience on the floor of the House of Representatives July 24.
Although an amendment to the 2014 Defense Appropriations Act by Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) was narrowly defeated 205 to 217 in a truly bipartisan vote, the fact it even came up for a vote was a victory.
The amendment would have defunded any collection of communications data including phone call, email, and other records on U.S. persons “if such things do not pertain to a person who is the subject of an investigation.”
Amash and Republican backers of his amendment threatened to join Democrats in blocking the entire legislation funding the military if it was not brought to the floor, forcing the Rules Committee to allow it and leadership including House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) into the roles of mere bystanders.
The consideration of the amendment itself was considered such an emergency that the White House scrambled to send NSA head General Keith Alexander to Capitol Hill to lobby against it — holding a top secret meeting with lawmakers to persuade them of the utility of the program. This too was a victory, for it compelled the national security apparatus to defend wide scale intelligence gathering on all persons in the nation, confirming it views pretty much everyone as a potential threat.
Even though the amendment failed, this may only be a lost battle in a war that will eventually won be against the domestic surveillance of millions of Americans not suspected of any crime.
A mere seven vote swing would have secured a major victory for opponents of the spying program. That is the narrowest of margins in the House of Representatives with elections every two years.
We are already in the midst of a paradigm shift in public attitudes toward homeland security policy. The first signs could be seen in the filibuster mounted by Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) against now-Central Intelligence Agency Director John Brennan. Then, the issue was over drone policy, and whether the White House felt that lethal force could be used against a U.S. citizen on U.S. soil.
Eventually, Paul relented and Brennan was confirmed. In the process, not much changed about U.S. policy on the matter, with the Obama Administration still claiming that it possesses the power to use military force against any person, any place, any time dubbed by the government to be an enemy combatant.
What did change dramatically, however, was the politics on security issues. The American people, quite overwhelmingly, supported Paul’s filibuster and were deeply disturbed over the prospect of war powers being used against citizens on the homeland.
In a similar vein, in light of the disclosures by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, the American people are again asking questions about what sort of surveillance state is being built right under their very noses.
If nothing else, the Paul filibuster and the Amash amendment — and the strong grassroots support they have already generated — stand as proof that the nation expects their elected representatives not only to protect them against foreign threats, but against vast government intrusion and overreach.
Importantly, they have at least given the American people a political problem that can now be dealt with — by holding members accountable who voted to fund the domestic spying establishment.
These are the types of discussions we all expect Congress to have, and yet they are all too rare. When they do occur, we are reminded of just how important having them really is. And that too is a victory.
Robert Romano is the Senior Editor of Americans for Limited Government.