In the three weeks since Edward Snowden revealed the National Security Agency’s widespread surveillance programs, the legislative response to his revelations on Capitol Hill has slowed to a glacial pace and public obsession has noticeably shifted from a debate on national security versus privacy to Snowden’s latest whereabouts.
Civil liberties advocates in Congress introduced a slew of bills in response to reports that the NSA has been collecting phone records from millions of Americans and mining electronic communications from nine major Internet companies:
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) proposed legislation would require the federal government to have a warrant based on probable cause in order to seize phone records from Americans;
Sens. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who long warned of the government’s surveillance methods, are seeking to limit the government’s authority to collect data;
Unusual bedfellows Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) co-sponsored a bill that would declassify FISA court opinions;
And this week, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) introduced legislation to revisit the Patriot Act Section 215 and FISA Amendment Act Section 702, under which the NSA programs are lawful.
But the one thing they lack is a timeline for when, or if, anything will actually get done. While the need to address the scope of the NSA programs has been raised in Judiciary committee hearings held by Leahy, none of the bills aimed at doing that has progressed beyond picking up a few cosponsors.
The Merkley-Lee bill has gained the most traction, with 12 cosponsors from both sides of the aisle. Merkley, Lee, Udall, Wyden, Paul and Leahy are joined by Sens. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), Mark Begich (D-Alaska), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Al Franken (D-Minn.), Dean Heller (R-Nev.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), and Jon Tester (D-Mont.). A companion piece of legislation was also introduced in the House of Representatives last week, but with fewer backers.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) told reporters earlier this month that any legislation in response to the NSA surveillance must go through the Judiciary committee. Leahy’s office was unable to provide information on if and when the bill might be marked up.
Even then, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) predicted the FISA declassification bill would be unlikely to pass Congress and even more unlikely to be signed into law by President Barack Obama.
“I encourage this, though I think it is going to be ill-fated,” Durbin said of the bill after its introduction. “I just don’t see a freight train coming down the track.”
Part of the problem is that most members of Congress have shown little appetite to change the nature the surveillance methods. In an era of extreme partisanship that earned the legislative body its “Do-Nothing” label, the one issue bipartisan majorities seem to agree on is that the federal government can employ far-reaching measures in the name of national security.
“It’s not an issue of whether anyone cares or not,” said Jim Manley, Reid’s former top spokesman. “I think that the fact is, based on the intelligence briefings that they have received, that many members support the NSA programs because they honestly believe that the country faces some very real threats from individuals and organizations that want to do real damage to this country.”
The other roadblock to an NSA legislative fix is a combination of timing and the public’s short attention span. The revelations preceded monumental Supreme Court rulings on gay marriage and the Voting Rights Act, and the passage of comprehensive immigration reform in the Senate. With formal federal charges issued against Snowden, discussions around the NSA are now focused on whether the contractor will be extradited or granted asylum by a sympathetic government.
While lawmakers and aides are all too aware that only a minority is willing to debate the NSA revelations, they are nonetheless intent on keeping the issue alive.
“The secret collection of the phone records of millions of Americans reminds us why we need sensible limits on the government’s surveillance powers,” Udall said in a statement to The Huffington Post. “Now is the time to have an informed public debate about how we protect our cherished Constitutional rights while also keeping our nation secure.”
“We need to have a debate over the extent of our surveillance state,” said a Senate Democratic aide. “And if we don’t start that debate soon in Congress, the public’s attention will move on to other matters, if it hasn’t already.”