The Republican congressional leadership didn’t even want to bring Michigan Rep. Justin Amash’s anti-surveillance amendment up for a vote. The Obama administration certainly didn’t want it to pass.
Yet last week, Amash managed to force a debate on the House floor that should have happened more than a decade ago in the aftermath of 9/11. His amendment would have denied funding to the National Security Agency’s vast data-mining program.
Amash’s opponents hid behind classified information and misguided emotionalism. “Have 12 years gone by and our memories faded so badly that we forgot what happened on Sept. 11?” asked Rep. Mike Rogers, a fellow Michigan Republican who chairs the House Intelligence Committee.
“We oppose the current effort in the House to hastily dismantle one of our intelligence community’s counterterrorism tools,” White House press secretary Jay Carney echoed in a statement.
Wisconsin Rep. James Sensenbrenner, a past chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and a co-author of the Patriot Act, was one of the 93 Republicans who voted with Amash. Sensenbrenner argued that Congress never intended for the government to sweep the phone records of all Americans.
“The time has come to stop it,” he said.
South Carolina Republican Rep. Jeff Duncan read the Fourth Amendment aloud on the House floor. The entire South Carolina delegation—from Republicans Mick Mulvaney and Mark Sanford to Democrat Jim Clyburn—voted in favor.
While the Tea Party was split down the middle, with many conservatives bucking the party leadership, civil libertarians on the left also revolted. John Conyers, the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, teamed with Amash. A majority of Democrats and 80 percent of the Progressive Caucus backed the amendment.
Despite winning the votes of 111 Democrats, Amash’s gambit ultimately failed. But in many respects, it was a success. Not only did it spur debate about the federal government’s surveillance powers, it also put members of the House on record. By one estimate, more than 300 congressmen released statements expressing concern about NSA practices—but only 205 were willing to do something about it.
NSA officials were forced to lobby Capitol Hill to preserve their powers. For the first time since the early Bush years, they feel public scrutiny bearing down on them—and that constitutional checks and balances like congressional oversight are a real thing. This could well influence their behavior going forward.
Republican leaders can’t control the libertarians in their midst and are starting to conclude it’s better not to try. Civil libertarians in the Democratic Party are no longer allowing Barack Obama’s presence in the White House to keep them silent.
Clearly, Amash gets under the party bosses’ skin. “This kid has made his bed, and he’ll have to sleep in it,” one groused to Politico. Karl Rove called the Club for Growth top scorer the “most liberal Republican.” Three times in recent months, this writer has heard senior Republicans complain about Amash unbidden, when he wasn’t even germane to the subject being discussed.
But he’s unmistakably having an impact, coming close in fights that pit him against the White House, John Boehner, Eric Cantor, Nancy Pelosi, Steny Hoyer and the entire national security establishment all at the same time.
Party elders once leveled similar complaints against Newt Gingrich and other backbenchers who would go on to supplant them. And unlike some of those predecessors, Amash is engaged in weightier stuff than mere partisan hijinks.
The Amash amendment vote revealed that even many conservative lawmakers who claim to venerate the Constitution remain situational constitutionalists at best, unable to apply the Bill of Rights in hard cases. National security is a vital function of the federal government; so too is securing individual rights.
Blowback from conservatives who don’t want to be reminded of such questions is already underway, with Bill Kristol sneering about “Snowden Republicans.” (It’s an upgrade from the “Code Pink faction” of the GOP, one supposes.)
Many politicians in both parties would like nothing better than for Amash to go away.
It’s an uphill battle for Amash and his allies in the Republican conference, to be sure. But that’s a vast improvement from most of the last decade, when there was virtually no battle at all.
W. James Antle III is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and author of Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?