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Capitol Hill Update, 11 May, 2015
House & Senate/Schedule: Both chambers are back in town this week, and both will recess next for the week of Memorial, 25-29 May.
Legislative Highlight of the Week: This Wednesday, the House is scheduled to vote on the USA FREEDOM Act, H.R. 2048. Sponsored by Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI), this bill reauthorizes section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act for over 4 years. However, USA FREEDOM does attempt to rein in the mass collection of Americans’ telephone data, which the NSA has been conducting using Section 215 as its legal justification.
While USA FREEDOM does make some measurable progress towards limiting one aspect of the government’s mass spying on Americans, it leaves open possibilities for the NSA and other agencies to still access data on millions of innocent Americans. While there should have been a robust and open discussion about ways to improve this bill, instead House leadership stepped in and sabotaged the amendment process in committee, and does not appear poised to allow any significant amendment when the bill comes to the floor Wednesday.
House/Spending: On Thursday and Friday, the House will vote on amendments and final passage of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), H.R. 1735. This annual bill authorizing specific spending on national security activities would spend $620.2 billion during Fiscal Year 2016.
Of this, $89.2 billion is “Overseas Contingency Operations” (OCO) funding, which is supposed to be off-budget “emergency” spending to support actual combat operations overseas. Instead, over $38 billion of the OCO spending is not even for war-related activities. Each year, Congress is shifting more DoD spending over into OCO to increase defense spending without having to actually pay for those projects, which strongly undermines efforts to rein in overall federal spending.
Senate/Trade: This week, Senate Republicans will attempt to move fast-track trade authority, which would limit the amount of time that the Senate could spend considering any free trade agreement reached by the executive branch. While fast-track does not guarantee that any trade agreement would be ratified by the Senate, it does at least require that the agreement get an up-or-down vote, and restricts the Senate’s ability to amend the agreement. Senate Democrats are fighting hard to delay this fast-track authority, and are demanding that they get votes on several of their priorities instead.
House/Surveillance: Last week, Representatives Ted Poe (R-TX), Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), and Thomas Massie (R-KY) introduced the End Warrantless Surveillance on Americans Act, H.R. 2233. This bill would end the backdoor search loophole under Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act, which is being used to collect the emails, web browsing histories, and other electronic communications of innocent Americans, instead of just individuals suspected of ties to terrorism. It would also end the harmful practice of forcing companies to build vulnerabilities into their electronic products so that the government can more easily exploit those devices for surveillance. An amendment containing very similar protections to those in this bill passed the House by an overwhelming bi-partisan majority in the House last year, 293-123. You can read FreedomWorks’ letter of support for this bill HERE.