Is NSA Reform Too Bipartisan?
German Chancellor Angela Merkel isn’t the only one angry Washington has been listening to her phone calls. The pushback against the surveillance state hasn’t abated since the House came tantalizingly close to voting to defund National Security Agency data collection efforts this summer.
Under the improbable leadership of Wisconsin Republican Rep. James Sensenbrenner, one of the architects of the Patriot Act over a decade ago, House NSA critics are taking another shot. Sensenbrenner backed Reps. Justin Amash and John Conyers, a Republican and Democrat from Michigan, in their efforts to curb bulk data collection in July, but he’s nobody’s idea of a “Snowden Republican.”
“Six members who voted no and two who didn’t vote on the Amash amendment are original cosponsors of the USA Freedom Act,” Sensenbrenner spokesman Ben Miller told National Journal last week. “Had they voted for the amendment, it would have passed 213 to 211.”
This includes Rep. Darrell Issa, a California Republican who chairs the House Oversight Committee and is close to leadership. Shifting the strategy from defunding the NSA to changing the law has attracted more support from Republicans and moderate Democrats who were hesitant to back Amash-Conyers last time.
The Senate version of the legislation was introduced by Sen. Patrick Leahy, the liberal Democrat from Vermont who chairs the Judiciary Committee. This follows a growing pattern of bipartisan cooperation on protecting civil liberties and promoting greater transparency, along with the collaboration between Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul and Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden.
The bipartisan nature of these efforts is starting to get to people. Tom Watson at Salon fretted that libertarians and “hard-right ideologues” were co-opting an anti-NSA rally—an event that merely required people wave signs and give speeches together—because they stand “in direct opposition to almost everything I believe in as a social democrat.”
Accusing libertarians of somehow hijacking the privacy movement is like saying the pro-life movement has been hijacked by Catholics or pro-choice activism has been taken over by feminists. These constituencies are a major reason these larger movements exist in the first place.
But it is also plainly true that liberals, libertarians, and constitutional conservatives working together on civil liberties stand a good chance of accomplishing more—indeed, have already accomplished more—than the left could by itself.
The Church Committee of the 1970s came when liberals were at the height of their power after Watergate and the Democratic Party’s antiwar, civil libertarian wing wielded more influence than today. And it even would have had greater legitimacy with a more diverse political coalition behind it.
Pace Watson, cooperation on surveillance, indefinite detention, and drones doesn’t require agreement on any other issue. In case you haven’t noticed, Sensenbrenner, Paul, and Amash haven’t suddenly converged with Leahy, Wyden, and Conyers on Obamacare or any of the other hotly debated economic and social issues roiling Washington.
But opposing this kind of coalition-building means effectively opposing any kind of practical political efforts to curb surveillance and safeguard Bill of Rights protections for innocent Americans. The alternative to Sensenbrenner and Leahy or the Progressive Caucus and the Tea Party collaborating on these issues is the Bush-Obama status quo.
If that sounds hyperbolic, consider that the Obama administration and House Speaker John Boehner had no trouble working together to defeat the Amash-Conyers NSA amendment. Boehner even sided with the administration on intervention in Syria. Team Bush also reappeared during the short-lived Syria war fever, as Bush officials welcomed the Democratic president’s (initial) unilateralism.
Hillary Clinton, Harry Reid, Joe Biden, John Kerry, John Edwards, Chuck Schumer, and Steny Hoyer could team up with Bush-Cheney, John McCain, and Lindsey Graham on the Iraq war while remaining political opponents on most other questions.
Over the long term, the best way to protect civil liberties is to encourage both Democrats and Republicans to resist exorbitant claims of executive power by presidents of their own parties. Situational constitutionalism, wherein politicians become sticklers for the rule of law when out of power and then channel John Yoo when they get a president they like, won’t do the job.
But that won’t happen if agreement on abortion and marginal tax rates is a prerequisite for working together on what ought to be considered a constitutional duty. Neither could the bipartisan civil liberties coalition coming together in the House, which may yet grow into a majority.
W. James Antle III is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and author of Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?