In Pennsylvania, it’s Republicans who are leading on NSA pushback

Flag_of_the_National_Security_AgencyAlmost a month after the U.S. Congress, led by Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI), attempted to reign in the National Security Agency on domestic spying—and narrowly failed—it’s Pennsylvania’s Republicans who are continuing to lead the way in an attempt to quell Americans’ privacy concerns through forthcoming legislation.

The NSA’s overreach on civil liberties has been at the forefront of the national conversation as of late, especially since Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald began reporting on it and whistleblower Edward Snowden admitted his role in the document dump and left the country. Since then, Americans’ concerns have grown over the Obama Administration’s use of spying powers on the American people.

After a narrow vote of 205-217 on a bill that would have reigned in the NSA, the “yays” of which consisted of both civil liberties-supporting Democrats and libertarian-leaning Republicans, U.S. Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick (R-PA) is looking to introduce legislation that would tighten rules on the NSA, and U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA) wants congressional hearings.

“Federal law enforcement deserves all the tools it needs to keep Americans safe at home, keep Americans safe abroad, but we cannot sacrifice personal liberty for the illusion of security,” Fitzpatrick said in a conference call with reporters, according to the Inquirer. “I need to have an answer for my neighbors who have asked me during this August work period what I am doing to stand up against massive government overreach.”

Fitzpatrick—who voted for Amash’s amendment—has detailed his legislation as such that would require the NSA to only target Americans’ who have created “a reasonable suspicion that a citizen is engaged in wrongdoing” around themselves—and violations of this would result in the Agency’s defunding, which we’ll have to see to believe.

U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, meanwhile, issued this statement, in part, on his website:

“The latest revelations about privacy violations by the NSA raise important questions and warrant a congressional hearing. Clearly, mistakes were made and further steps are likely needed to make sure they do not happen again,” Toomey said in a statement. “While it does not initially appear that these violations by the NSA were intentional, Congress must redouble its oversight efforts to better protect the privacy of those we represent while also maintaining intelligence operations that are critical to national security.”

Sure. Both are vague, and both politicians are terrible on almost every other issue, but at least they’re saying something. U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz (D-PA), on the other hand, not only voted against the Amash amendment (and was the only Pennsylvania Democrat to do so), but the 2014 gubernatorial candidate’s vote is now part of a trend.

Earlier this year, she changed her mind on Internet security, voting in opposition to her Philadelphia colleagues Bob Brady and Chaka Fattah, by “yay”ing Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act.

Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) has remained mostly silent on the issue, often accused of (surprise) attempting to play both sides. Most recently, a letter Casey wrote to a constituent was posted to Reddit showing the vagueness of Casey’s own stance on this issue. That letter can be read here, but this paragraph basically sums it up:

I have concerns about how the administration has interpreted Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which makes it easier to obtain business records deemed relevant to a national-security investigation. On June 13, I attended a classified briefing with administration officials to discuss these issues and Section 215 of the Patriot Act. I look forward to continue examining this issue in the current session of Congress to ensure that we are not sacrificing our fundamental values and ideals in the face of critical threats.

To which one Redditer responded: “He’s going to keep you in mind when he suggests to the NSA that they might want to investigate you. After all if you’re against the program then you must have something to hide, therefore you need to be investigated.”

That’s a little harsh, maybe, but the issue remains: Democrats have acted weak in the face of their president, especially on the privacy issue. The last time the National Security Agency was mentioned on Casey’s own website? 2007.

Which isn’t to say the people of Pennsylvania or the U.S. should think it’s the Republican party who’re the real fighters for the Fourth Amendment. Rather, the quiet shift is more likely a product of who’s in charge. Presidents get their party to go along with their ideas, and that’s sort of how it’s always been.

After all, both Fitzpatrick and Toomey voted for the Patriot Act and/or continued to do so for extensions of the law as it came up under both the Bush and Obama Administrations. During eight years of the Bush Administration, Republicans found two real instances to stand up to their president: Once on amnesty for illegal immigrants, then again on the first bank bailout vote.

Chaka Fattah and Bob Brady, moreover, voted against the Patriot Act when it came up in the first place—and have continued to vote (mostly) for civil liberties protections.

Given there probably won’t be a Republican in the White House until 2021 at the earliest, though, and Republicans getting into local and state offices seem to increasingly have a libertarian bend, it’s hard to imagine Democrats leading on this issue at any point over the next decade, save the party shattering into several wings, the way it did in 1968.

Follow Randy on Twitter: @RandyLoBasso

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