Congress’ Surveillance Views Have Changed

Posted April 13, 2015 at 1:41pm

When Congress last reauthorized the Patriot Act in 2011, it went fairly easily. A majority of House Democrats objected, but support was strong among House Republicans and in both parties in the Senate. But lawmakers began to have second thoughts last year.

First, in May, the House passed the USA Freedom Act with the aim of restricting the National Security Agency’s collection of phone records. Last-minute changes, negotiated with the Obama administration, opened loopholes that caused privacy advocates, and many of the bill’s co-sponsors, to balk.

Still, the measure, sponsored by one of the principal authors of the Patriot Act, Republican Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, passed overwhelmingly and showed that attitudes about government surveillance have changed substantially in the Capitol.

When the Senate considered a similar measure later in the year, it came two votes shy of cloture.

But lawmakers approved an amendment to the annual House defense appropriations bill by Republican Thomas Massie of Kentucky and Democrat Zoe Lofgren of California that would have barred the NSA from sweeping up Americans’ emails, Web-browsing data and online chats without a warrant. It was later removed when House leaders incorporated defense spending into the year-end omnibus spending law.

Massie last month introduced legislation with Democrat Mark Pocan of Wisconsin to repeal the Patriot Act.

A previous version of this story cited the incorrect year an amendment by Justin Amash to the defense spending bill that would have ended the NSA’s bulk collection of American phone records failed.