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House Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer--pictured here at a February 2013 press conference--were among those who voted down a bill yesterday that would have reined in the NSA. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Why Did 83 Democrats Vote to Continue NSA Surveillance?

This time, we can’t blame the Republicans.

BY Cole Stangler

'When push comes to shove and you actually have a chance of winning one of these votes, you’ll usually see a bunch of people who purport to be progressives back with the institutionalists.'

On Wednesday, a bipartisan group of legislators in the House came extraordinarily close to passing an amendment that would have prevented the National Security Agency from collecting bulk data on Americans. The Amash-Conyers amendment would have limited Section 215 of the Patriot Act to apply only to individuals subject to investigation under that law, barring mass surveillance programs like PRISM.

Failing by a 217-205 vote, the amendment earned support from an unlikely coalition of Republicans and Democrats—a group that could perhaps lead future legislative rebellions against the surveillance state.  

A majority of Democrats actually supported the amendment, in defiance of party leadership, the White House and the NSA itself, which, in a moment of panic, organized an emergency meeting the day of the vote in which director Keith Alexander personally lobbied against the measure. At the end of the day, 83 Democrats still voted against it.

Most of the “no” votes came from what Glenn Greenwald characterized as the “establishment” wing of the party. These include figures like Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), once a fierce critic of the Bush administration’s attack on civil liberties, and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.). Hoyer, who sent out an alarmist and factually incorrect email to House Democrats in his efforts to shoot down the amendment, asserting that it would bar the NSA and other agencies to collect records of people who “may be in communication with terrorist groups.” Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.) also voted against the amendment, as did Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chair Steve Israel (N.Y.).

But in addition to the more predictable defenders of the White House and the national security state, the “no” camp included support from some Democrats who typically lean left on a number of issues, from the economy to military spending and even civil liberties. With the Amash-Conyers amendment failing by such a close margin, these key Democrats could have helped swing the vote.

Eight of those votes to defend the NSA’s blanket surveillance came from the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC), the left flank of the Democratic Party in Congress.

While it remains loosely organized as an actual voting block, caucus members are socially liberal, supportive of expanding social programs, and include some of the harshest critics of American militarism. One of the caucus’ four key pillars is centered around civil liberties, and includes a pledge “to protect the personal privacy of all Americans from unbridled police powers and unchecked government intrusion.” On the afternoon of the vote, CPC co-chairs Rep. Keith Ellison (Minn.) and Raúl Grijalva (Ariz.) and Whip Rep. Barbara Lee (Calif.) urged caucus members to vote for the Amash-Conyers amendment in an email.

Nevertheless, CPC members Jan Schakowsky (Ill.), Sheila Jackson Lee (Texas), Lois Frankel (Fla.), Corrine Brown (Fla.), Luis Gutiérrez (Ill.), Eddie Bernice Johnson (Texas), Hank Johnson (Ga.) and Joe Kennedy (Mass.) all voted against the measure. On Thursday, In These Times reached out to all of them for comment, asking them to explain their votes.

A spokesperson for Eddie Bernice Johnson pointed to her speech on the House floor on Wednesday. Bernice Johnson was apparently upset that the amendment limited the government’s ability to obtain surveillance warrants on individuals associated with subjects under investigation.

Without explicitly criticizing the main content of the amendment, two other representatives focused on the legislative procedure.

“The Amash amendment would hastily end the NSA program without the transparency and full Congressional debate needed to consider all alternatives and to make fully informed decisions,” says Schakowsky.

“If the vote had been strictly up or down specifically on NSA telephone data gathering policies, he may have voted differently, but you rarely get that level of precision when using spending bills as the vehicle to change policy,” a spokesperson says for Gutiérrez, who, like Schakowsky, sits on the Intelligence Committee. “He understands that he put at risk his 100 percent rating from the ACLU, but felt this was not the right amendment to do what needs to be done to change NSA policy.”

David Segal, who cofounded the online organizing group Demand Progress with the late Aaron Swartz and helped organize support for the amendment, has a more simple explanation for the “no” votes of those two CPC members.

“If you’re genuinely progressive when it comes to military industrial complex issues, you don’t get on the Intelligence Committee,” he says. “Most people who might usually be economic justice types and who are on that committee are going to vote with the committee, with the institutions, when the rubber hits the road.”

The other five CPC members did not respond to request for comment.

Brad Bauman, the executive director of the CPC, declined to comment on the caucus members who voted against the amendment.

In addition to those CPC members who helped to defeat the amendment, there was another critical group of 13 Democrats who could have been the deciding factor in limiting the NSA’s massive surveillance apparatus. These are the Democrats who voted against extending provisions of the Patriot Act in 2011—among them, roving wiretaps. In These Times reached out to these members for comment. Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.), who is also on the Intelligence Committee, responded:

This legal NSA tool…does not allow the Government to listen in on anyone's telephone calls or authorize the collection of any call content, individual names, or organization names. If Mr. Amash’s amendment had passed, it would have turned off a valuable intelligence tool and immediately made our country more vulnerable to terrorist attacks.

Segal says this apparently dramatic reversal proves that this group, which includes Pelosi, Wasserman-Schultz, Schakowsky and Gutiérrez, was simply posturing two years ago.

What happened in 2011 was largely political. It was a chance for the Democrats to poke Boehner and that’s why at that time, people like Pelosi were leading the charge against the Patriot Act. I think…they were just trying to show strength and jazz up debate. But when push comes to shove and you actually have a chance of winning one of these votes, you’ll usually see a bunch of people who purport to be progressives back with the institutionalists because they don’t actually believe in the cause at hand.

Given the kinds of official justifications Democrats have delivered thus far—which range from unambiguous support for surveillance to concerns about legislative procedure that seem besides the point—this looks to be, unfortunately, a fairly apt conclusion.

Cole Stangler is an In These Times staff writer and Schumann Fellow based in Washington D.C., covering labor, trade, foreign policy and environmental issues. His reporting has appeared in The Huffington Post and The American Prospect, and has been cited in The New York Times. He can be reached at cole[at]inthesetimes.com. Follow him on Twitter @colestangler.

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