Senators weigh online protections for lawmakers’ personal info
Judiciary Committee holds off on adding protections to bill originally aimed at safety of federal judges
The Senate is weighing whether to give current and former members of Congress the power to demand their personal information be wiped off the internet, in response to recent threats and physical attacks against government officials.
Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, at a Senate Judiciary Committee markup Thursday, sought to add lawmakers onto a bill that aims to protect federal judges and their immediate families.
That would allow lawmakers to demand personal information on them or their family — including home address, cell phone number, personal email address, license plate, Social Security number and more — be removed from a website within 72 hours.
If the information remains online, a lawmaker could ask courts to order the removal of the information, and then obtain financial damages from a government entity, business or person that knowingly did not comply with that injunction.
Some members of both parties expressed support for the idea Thursday. But the panel did not vote on Cruz’s amendment over concerns that it would add an element of controversy to a bill that otherwise appears to have a path to Senate passage.
The committee voted 21-0, with one present vote, to send the judge bill to the floor.
Still, Cruz was among those who pointed out that Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul blocked the bill a year ago because lawmakers were not included — so that might be what is necessary to get a floor vote.
Cruz said threats to members “are ongoing and escalating.” He pointed to the 2011 shooting of Rep. Gabby Giffords at an event in Arizona, the 2017 shooting of House Republican Whip Steve Scalise at a congressional baseball game practice and a 2017 attack on Paul by his next-door neighbor.
“Tragically, I think it’s only a matter of time before we see another act of violence in the same tradition that we have seen multiple times,” Cruz said. “I’m confident every member of this committee has received multiple death threats. That is unfortunately a component of serving in elected office now.”
New Jersey Democratic Sens. Cory Booker and Bob Menendez have led the effort to craft the judge bill, which is named after Daniel Anderl, the 20-year-old son of U.S. District Judge Esther Salas in New Jersey. A gunman who impersonated a package delivery driver opened fire at Salas’ home in July 2020, killing her son and wounding her husband.
The bill covers information about immediate family members of current and former federal judges, including a spouse, child, parent or any other relative who permanently resides at the judge’s place of residence. There is an exemption for certain situations, including when the information is relevant as part of a news story, editorial or other public speech.
Booker said Thursday that he would work with Cruz on separate legislation for lawmakers, and said an incident where activists followed Arizona Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema into a bathroom and confronted her is “an indication that we should be doing more to protect our members from the growing threats that we see within our communities.”
But Booker said he was “worried that if we add something like this on it, it’s going to weaken our chances to actually get it done.”
Louisiana Republican Sen. John Kennedy, an original co-sponsor of the judge bill, also said he was worried that expanding the scope would kill it.
“I can see somebody arguing, well, you know, Congress people, here we go again, you know they’re an insular bunch, they’re elitist, they don’t want to even want to be able to have the public contact them,” Kennedy said.
And committee Chairman Richard J. Durbin pointed out that the committee had just rejected an amendment from Arkansas Republican Sen. Tom Cotton to expand protections to all government officials.
“For us to then follow up with an amendment saying, ‘But of course, we’re going to protect ourselves,’ sends a message to the American public which I don’t think we want to send at this moment,” Durbin said.
Cruz’s amendment drew the support of Minnesota Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who pointed out that some higher-ranking senators have security — while others don’t.
“And I think that there are some legitimate threats and things that have happened to people, that people don’t even know about, that aren’t public,” Klobuchar said. “I think for us to pretend this isn’t happening right now is the wrong path.”
Salas, the New Jersey federal judge, attended the markup and, afterward, urged swift passage. Protecting judges’ personal information is urgently needed “so people can’t use it to target us and literally shoot us down in our homes,” Salas said at a press conference with the bill sponsors.
“Every day we wait is a day that perhaps another tragedy will befall another family,” Salas said. “So I stay up at night worried about that. And so I ask that we do this as quickly as we can, that we compromise.”
Last Congress, a version of the bill stalled at the Judiciary Committee. When Menendez took to the floor in December to ask for the Senate to pass the bill, Paul objected because of “a very minor request” to extend the provisions to members of Congress.
“Congress is threatened and families are frightened,” Paul said at that time. “I will tell you that I am willing to compromise on this and willing to work with you to pass it, but I think we should extend it. It is not hard.”