Further Surveillance Legislation Floor Action Unlikely This Year…Unless…

I know a lot of folks are hopeful that we’re finally getting some traction on rolling back NSA’s dragnet surveillance of Americans. Here’s why I think it’s likely the Amash amendment battle on the House floor this week is the last such dust up we’ll see this year (and I’ll get to the “Unless” caveat shortly).

There’s a Guardian story out today in which former House Judiciary Committee chairman Jim Sensenbrenner is quoted as saying that he would introduce a bill through the committee that would rein in NSA’s bulk collection activity (whether he meant just Sec. 215 of PA or Sec. 702 of FAA as well is unclear). Sensenbrenner taking the lead is a huge deal because he authored the original PATRIOT Act and his condemnation of the abuses revealed to date is one reason why nearly a hundred Republicans voted for the Amash amendment. I certainly welcome this development, but here are some hard realities:

Even if a bill makes it out of Judiciary favorably reported, it will still be on a topic that falls within the jurisdiction of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI), whose leadership (on both sides) successfully fought off the Amash amendment. There is little chance of a real NSA reform bill being reported out of HPSCI given the current composition of that committee.

But since we’re in an optimistic mood right now, let’s say HPSCI did clear the bill. It would then actually have to go through the Rules Committee in order to make it to the House floor. Guess who controls the Rules Committee? Speaker Boehner. Let that sink in.

However, let’s been truly pie-in-the-sky upbeat and assume the bill is brought to the House floor for a vote under a closed rule (i.e., no amendments, which is how it’s most likely to happen). The very same forces that worked to defeat Amash are still out there, still ready to beat back the next reform attempt. And unless you get a fundamentally different dynamic working, you’ll get the same outcome: defeat of surveillance reform legislation.

The final complicating factor is the legislative calendar.

July is nearly gone. Congress will be out of session starting at 3pm or so on August 2 and will not return to work in DC until after Labor Day–and then it is scheduled to only be in session for only nine days in September, during which it will face the task of passing a short-term Continuing Resolution to keep the government funded (probably through October) while Congress and the White House come to blows over a long-term spending bill and a debt ceiling increase. So even if all of the other obstacles I’ve described could be overcome, the combination of of the compressed Congressional calendar and the looming budget/debt ceiling battle means that House and Senate members will be almost totally focused on those issues at the expense of just about everything else…unless we see fresh, dramatic revelations about even more domestic surveillance abuses involving the same or even more authorities made possible under the PA and FAA that create the perfect political storm. And at this point, I’m convinced that it will take exactly those kind of additional revelations to make that possible.

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