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USA FREEDOM Act Thoughts

[ Posted Tuesday, June 2nd, 2015 – 17:00 UTC ]

So the USA FREEDOM Act is now on its way to President Obama's desk to be signed into law. I have a few disjointed thoughts on the process this bill went through, so bear with me because this means I'm about to write a rather disjointed column about it.

The first thing which strikes me is the name. Earlier this year, as an April Fool's joke, Congressman Mike Honda put up an amusing press release for his new "Accountability and Congressional Responsibility On Naming Your Motions (ACRONYM) Act," to spoof the popular tactic of coming up with cutesy names for bills to spell something out. You can see why I was reminded of this upon news of the passage of the "Uniting and Strengthening America by Fulfilling Rights and Ending Eavesdropping, Dragnet-collection, and Online Monitoring Act." Even properly using the acronym is painful, because both the USA FREEDOM Act (and the USA PATRIOT Act it replaces) are jarring to the eye -- the online equivalent of "shouting," due to all the capital letters. Most news organizations have just given up and gone with "Patriot Act" or "Freedom Act," even if it does break the style-book rules. I'm more of a stickler for detail, but that doesn't stop me from cringing every time I have to write USA PATRIOT Act (and, now, USA FREEDOM Act). Maybe passing Honda's bill wouldn't be such a joke after all. And maybe they should have gone for something more descriptive, perhaps the "Stopping NSA's Orwellian Warrantless Data Eavesdropping Now Act." The "SNOWDEN Act" certainly would more properly give credit where credit is due, wouldn't it?

Trivialities aside, the big thing which I found notable about how the bill made its way through Congress was the sheer ineptitude of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Imagine for one moment that partisan control of the Senate was in Democratic hands, and the process had played out exactly how it just did. Imagine what Republicans (to say nothing of Fox News) would be saying about Democrats right now. "Democrats aid terrorists by playing politics with America's safety" would probably be the leading talking point from the right. The patriotism of every Democrat in the Senate would be loudly called into question, and the vitriol heaped upon both the filibusterer and the majority leader would be at hurricane-strength, that's my guess. Since Republicans are in control and the entire fracas was an intra-party fight, of course, we are not hearing such talking points from Republicans (except for a few rhetorical blunt objects being tossed both by and at Rand Paul).

Rand Paul was right about one thing. The drama surrounding the deadline -- and the two-day expiration of certain parts of the USA PATRIOT Act -- was entirely the fault of Mitch McConnell. It was his ineptitude which led to the gap. There's no other way to put it, really. McConnell tried to force his will on both his chamber and the House, and he failed spectacularly, from beginning to end.

In the first place, McConnell didn't have to wait until the deadline. This entire fight could have been fought weeks ago, or even months ago. There was nothing stopping this from happening, since McConnell controls the pace of legislation in the Senate. If he had scheduled enough time for all the maneuvering, then there would have been no lapse over at the N.S.A., plain and simple. The programs wouldn't have shut down for one single minute, if McConnell had acted earlier.

McConnell waited, however, and spent his time on getting fast-track trade authority through the Senate (an issue with no deadline, it's worth noting). Because of this, when the N.S.A. legislation did get to the floor, it was very late at night right before a Senate vacation week. Again, McConnell could have either forced the Senate to stay in session (putting congressional vacations at risk is one of the biggest motivators on Capitol Hill, in fact, and was used brilliantly as a tactic by Harry Reid for years), or he could have even called them all back with enough time to counter any parliamentary tactics Rand Paul could come up with. He decided not to do so, and instead called the Senate back with only hours before the deadline -- setting Rand Paul up perfectly to do what he did.

McConnell was trying to pass a straight-up reauthorization of the contentious surveillance programs. He wanted to just rubber-stamp the full USA PATRIOT Act, and push the deadline far down the road. However, House Republicans did not agree with this plan, and they were never going to. McConnell thought that by grandstanding he'd bend them to his will. He was wrong. The House passed the USA FREEDOM Act and went home on their own vacation, leaving McConnell the choice of passing it or letting all the surveillance programs completely expire. But nobody helped paint him into that corner -- he did it all on his own.

Even today, McConnell was still fighting his losing battle. He tried amending the USA FREEDOM Act (which, incidentally, would have caused a longer gap in surveillance, since any changes would have had to go back to the House). The House held firm, however, and said any Senate changes would not even get a vote in the House. This put McConnell back in the same painted-in corner: pass the USA FREEDOM Act as-is, or let all the surveillance programs expire. None of the amendments McConnell was pushing passed in the Senate today, which can be chalked up as a further failure of McConnell to impose his will on Congress.

In the end, McConnell was forced to do what he had been avoiding all along: pass the House's version of the USA FREEDOM Act, untouched. But this all could have been accomplished quite easily with no gap in surveillance coverage. If McConnell had told the Senate that they would stay in session for as long as it took, right before the Memorial Day weekend (which kicked off the entire Memorial Day week of vacation for Congress), then all of this would have happened a lot faster. If he had brought the bill up for initial votes a week before that, then they wouldn't even have had to cut into their precious vacation time at all.

McConnell's plan only got 45 votes in the Senate. The USA FREEDOM Act initially got 57. It was pretty plain to see which bill was going to move forward at that point (right before the holiday). Only three more votes were needed to move it along, and those three could have been quickly rounded up with the looming threat of having to work on a holiday weekend. Instead of waiting a week -- pushing everything right up against the deadline -- this all could have been handled earlier. If Rand Paul wanted to grandstand, then the pressure would have become enormous on him from the other 99 senators with vacation plans and airline reservations.

The entire legislative snafu has to be laid at the feet of Mitch McConnell. There's no other way to view it, in fact. Because of his bungling and ineptitude, we had a two-day gap in surveillance programs. There's no other reason for this gap, in fact. Republicans don't have Harry Reid to blame everything on anymore, to put this another way. Mitch McConnell gambled that he could strongarm both Rand Paul and the entire House of Representatives, and he lost that gamble in a big way.

This doesn't exactly bode well for the future, especially since the entire fight really happened within the Republican caucus. There are other deadlines Congress will have to meet this year (such as a debt ceiling raise -- an even more contentious issue within the Republican ranks), so we may find ourselves in these situations over and over again.

Rand Paul isn't the only Republican senator running for president. There are three others, in fact: Ted Cruz, Lindsey Graham, and Marco Rubio. All of these men now have a motivation for future grandstanding -- a whole lot of free media time focused on one of the candidates' pet issues. If Mitch McConnell can't even handle Rand Paul, whose obstructionism was entirely predictable, then he likely won't handle any future deadline crisis any better.

These deadlines are downright pathetic, because there's a very easy way for Congress to get around them: do your job in a timely manner. Don't take 20 or 30 weeks off on vacation every year, if there are scheduling problems. Avoid manufacturing fake deadline crises by passing bills before the last minute. This way we won't find ourselves in these situations where the last minute flies by and the carriage turns into a pumpkin. If Mitch McConnell wasn't so incompetent at his leadership job, then deadline crises would not actually take place. McConnell was incompetent in not taking the initial votes sooner, he was incompetent in the way he used the looming vacation pressure, he was incompetent in using leverage against the House, he was incompetent in calling the Senate back on Sunday (instead of, say, Thursday -- with plenty of time for Rand Paul to grandstand before the deadline), he was incompetent in getting the bill changed in any way, and he was incompetent because he allowed a lapse in surveillance programs that he was arguing were essential to the nation's security and safety. So anyone looking to lay blame for this week's fiasco need look no further than Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's office.

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


8 Comments on “USA FREEDOM Act Thoughts”

  1. [1] 
    Pastafarian Dan wrote:

    John Boehner must be so glad to have another GOP leader to take the heat for the party's complete inability to get anything done (aka "governing" or "doing their job"). This is a nice companion to the Rachel Maddow thesis from a couple of years ago ...."John Boehner is bad at his job".

  2. [2] 
    Michale wrote:

    to spoof the popular tactic of coming up with cutesy names for bills to spell something out.

    "What does S.H.I.E.L.D. stand for, Agent Ward?"
    "Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division."
    "And what does that mean to you?"
    "It means someone really wanted our initials to spell out 'shield'. "




  3. [3] 
    John From Censornati wrote:

    "Imagine what Republicans (to say nothing of Fox News) would be saying about Democrats right now. "Democrats aid terrorists by playing politics with America's safety"

    Actually, McConnell did say something along those lines, but I think he was talking about The Orange One.

  4. [4] 
    TheStig wrote:

    McConnell is an acknowledged expert in using Senate procedure to prevent things getting done. It's probably going to take him a few years to learn how to move legislation along. Expert with the brake, not sure where the accelerator pedal is. Like NYC retirees trolling through Florida retirement communities.

    I'm not sure what teeth USA FREEDOM is going to have. Effective oversight depends on knowing where stuff is, and how it works (knowledge of quantum entanglement is desirable). Plus access to the factory processing the stuff, and whatever passes for file drawers these days. Read The Burglary, and you'll see why this is so.

    Where is the oversight talent pool? Universities and industry perhaps, but I suspect the best and brightest are already working for Government or Government contractors (at very high salaries).

    Here is a modest proposal for staffing the new regulatory agency, based on Middle School Athletics. Gather all the high level Government/Contractor talent in a virtual gym. Coin toss, winner picks first. Alternate picks thereafter until team USA FREEDOM is staffed up.

  5. [5] 
    TheStig wrote:

    I noticed I missed a snark opportunity in 4. Please allow me to insert an amendment.

    I'm not sure what teeth USA FREEDOM is going to have. Hell, I'm not even sure what if any upper teeth Mitch McConnell has!

    By the way, I like CW's "rhetorical blunt objects"
    very much.

  6. [6] 
    Michale wrote:

    McConnell is an acknowledged expert in using Senate procedure to prevent things getting done.

    Is this a good thing or bad thing??


  7. [7] 
    TheStig wrote:

    M - 6

    Good if new legislation is bad, bad if new legislation is good. Both are a matter of political taste.

    McConnell served the Republicans well when they were the opposition. I suspect he'll be disappointing now that they hold the leadership, and are expected to lead. If Republicans think the current situation is hunky dory, than Mitch is the right guy for the job. (Subject to voter approval, read this with your hushed disclaimer voice).

  8. [8] 
    Michale wrote:

    Both are a matter of political taste.

    So you HAVE been paying attention!!! :D


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