Sunday, July 28, 2013

ROUNDHOUSE ROUNDUP: NSA Vote Jumbles Party Lines

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican 
July 1, 2013

In this corner, Ben Ray Luján, Michelle Lujan Grisham and Steve Pearce. And in this corner, John Boehner, Michele Bachmann and Barack Obama …

I love an issue where the normal, predictable partisan lines are jumbled and strange bedfellows are the order of the day. And that’s exactly what happened with last week’s vote in the U.S. House of Representatives on a measure that would have defunded the National Security Agency’s domestic mass surveillance program.

All three members of New Mexico’s delegation — Democrats Luján and Lujan Grisham as well as Republican Pearce — voted in favor of an amendment to the Defense Department’s annual appropriations bill sponsored by Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., and co-sponsored by his Democratic home state colleague, Rep. John Conyers.

The amendment failed by only 12 votes. It got the support of 94 Republicans, which is a pretty major chunk of the House GOP and 111 Democrats, which was a majority of their caucus.

All of this is fairly amazing when you consider that the leadership of both parties, not to mention the White House, fought hard against it. All three New Mexicans can brag that they stood up to their party bosses.

In case you’ve been held hostage by space aliens for the past few weeks and missed all the news and commentary about the issue, the NSA has routinely over the past several years collected the daily phone records of millions of Americans. It’s “metadata” which means they’re not actually listening in on all these calls (or so they tell us), they’re just looking at who and where we’re calling.

One surprising aspect of the Amash Amendment vote is that none of this state’s congressional delegation — who normally are not shy about flooding reporters’ in-boxes with statements about their positions and votes on all sorts of issues big and small — sent news releases on this one.

So I contacted the press spokesmen for all three to get the reasons for their vote.

“I have long been opposed to the overly broad powers established by the Patriot Act,” Luján said. “This amendment would have prevented the widespread collection of information regarding the telephone calls of Americans here at home. This program raises serious concerns that the NSA has gone too far toward infringing upon the privacy of American citizens.”

Lujan Grisham said, “While Americans recognize that we must make some sacrifices in the interest of national security, the NSA’s broad surveillance practices go too far. We owe it to the American people to ensure that intelligence agencies have the tools they need to keep us safe without spying on law-abiding Americans.”

And Pearce said, “The Amash Amendment protected the rights, liberties and freedoms of each and every American by prohibiting the NSA and other agencies from blanket collection of every American’s information — while still providing the agencies with the ability to protect our nation from terrorists both foreign and domestic.”

His spokesman, Eric Layer, told me this doesn’t contradict Pearce’s support of the Patriot Act and other legislation dealing with counterterrorism surveillance. “This amendment would have gotten the Patriot Act back to its original purpose and limits,” he said.

By the time you’re reading this, I’m sure nearly all members of Congress have gone back to their regular corners and resumed their obligatory partisan head-bonking. But it’s heartening to know that there are some important issues that can throw a monkey wrench into business as usual.