Curbing government surveillance has been a chief Congressional concern since Edward Snowden’s first U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) revelations in 2013. But Congress has struggled to agree on and pass any meaningful reform. And now that the midterm elections handed a sweeping victory for Republicans, Congress has to race against the clock to come together and make good on their campaign promises.
The House passed a severely watered down version of a revised USA Freedom Act in May, causing tech companies, lobbyists and privacy advocates to pull their support. That bill stalled in the Senate and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) introduced his own version in July with key changes from the House bill. Leahy’s bill has yet to be voted on.
Sen. Mark Udall (D-CO), a chief proponent for tighter surveillance restrictions, lost his seat to Rep. Cory Gardner (R-CO) in a surprising upset. “There’s no doubt that we lost a big voice and critic of the NSA,” Mark Jaycox, legislative analyst Electronic Frontier Foundation, told ThinkProgress. “I think it’s certainly been weakened, but there still remains a lot of open questions like who will be chosen to sit on the intelligence committee and whether or not Gardner will be as fierce and as vigorous an advocate as Udall.”
Privacy groups are encouraged by the fact that NSA reform is a bipartisan issue and that Congress must act before the USA Freedom Act sunsets June 1, 2015. “Members who don’t really agree on anything agree on their concern of government intrusion,” said Neema Singh Guliani, legislative counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in Washington, D.C.
For example, Republican Gardner will take Udall’s Senate seat in 2015, and has come a long way from his staunch support of the Patriot Act in 2011. After Snowden’s revelations, Gardner began voting for privacy rights and curtailing the NSA’s spying abilities, Wired reported.
However, due to the strong backlash against the House-passed bill, Congress will essentially have to start from scratch to draft a unified piece of legislation to reign in dragnet surveillance. “I think the House members who voted on that bill really heard the discontent,” Singh Guliani said. “The real question is going to be is whether they take the opp that has bipartisan support that needs to get done and put it on the floor for a vote.”
But reform may not be swift and could continue to be an uphill battle. Part of that fight is in court, with the only ruling condemning the NSA’s telephone surveillance at risk for being overturned. Appeal proceedings just started, but only one of the three judges is amenable to NSA challenges, Politico reported.
That division could translate to Congress despite Republicans controlling both houses. “Because this is an issue that has spanned parties, it could drag on and divide the Republican Party,” Singh Guliani said. Time is short and “we’re looking for a version of the USA Freedom Act that is viable and live. We want to get things to the president’s desk.”
Interest in government surveillance has also waned in recent months, and while many candidates highlighted the issue, voters were less enthused. Poll numbers showed that voters were more concerned with the economy.
Despite those numbers, GOP candidates harped on national security leading up to Tuesday’s election with multiple campaign ads hitting on President Obama’s handling of terrorism. Others advocated to keep the government from prying into citizens’ daily lives, and are pushing for a vote sooner than later.
Republicans critical of bulk domestic intelligence, such as Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI), could become even more prominent voices now that their party is in control. Paul sued the NSA and has been lauded for the some of the tougher reform recommendations. Amash has championed an amendment to the USA Freedom Act that would have defunded the NSA’s phone surveillance program.
“We’ve lost huge personalities,” Jaycox says of Udall and Sen. Mark Begich (D-AK), who lost but hasn’t conceded to Republican Dan Sullivan, “but we haven’t lost the votes.” Now, it’s more of a matter of getting Congress to agree on something.