‘We Live to Fight Another Day… Keep Calling,’ Say Privacy Defenders as House Postpones Vote to Reauthorize FBI Mass Spying Powers

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In the face of growing opposition from members of both parties and a pressure campaign by privacy advocates, the House Democratic leadership decided at the last minute Wednesday to postpone a vote to reauthorize several of the FBI’s domestic surveillance powers after it became obvious that the bill lacked sufficient support to pass.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) told reporters late Wednesday that the leadership had not yet made a decision about when, if ever, they will take up the Senate-passed bill again as civil liberties groups urged the public to keep calling their representatives. The House is scheduled to reconvene Thursday morning.

“This doesn’t mean this is over. It just means we live to fight another day,” said Evan Greer, deputy director of Fight for the Future, which is calling for the permanent expiration of the FBI surveillance authorities that the bill would reauthorize. “The House will reconvene tomorrow and leadership will be working hard behind the scenes to strike some sketchy back room deal and try to get this through. We can’t let that happen. Keep the pressure on.”

In a floor speech Wednesday afternoon before the vote was postponed, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) signaled that she will continue working to pass some version of the USA Freedom Reauthorization Act even amid grave warnings about the bill’s lack of civil liberties protections.

“With an intelligence bill, with a FISA bill, nobody is ever really that happy,” said Pelosi. “You always want more or less, as the case may be… In all humility, we have to have a bill. If we don’t have a bill, then our liberties, our civil liberties are less protected.”

Support for the spying legislation collapsed rapidly on Wednesday after Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, put forth a watered-down interpretation of an amendment that purportedly aimed to shield people in the U.S. from FBI surveillance of their internet records without a warrant.

Privacy groups vocally warned against waving through the Senate-passed bill without strong civil liberties protections, a position progressive lawmakers soon echoed—imperiling the bill’s prospects.

“We have grave concerns that this legislation does not protect people in the United States from warrantless surveillance, especially their online activity including web browsing and internet searches,” Reps. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) and Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), the co-chairs of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said in a statement. “We cannot in good conscience vote for legislation that violates Americans’ fundamental right to privacy.”

“For months, we’ve worked to overhaul the expansive surveillance powers authorized in Section 215 [of the Patriot Act],” said Jayapal and Pocan. “There’s no reason to rush through a multi-year authorization that fails to make critical reforms needed to protect the civil liberties of the American public.”

With progressives lining up against the bill, the House Democratic leadership needed Republican support for final passage—but GOP members quickly bolted after President Donald Trump voiced his displeasure with the legislation on Twitter and threatened a quick veto. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) asked Hoyer to pull the bill and whipped Republican members to vote no.

 

Sean Vitka, senior policy counsel at Demand Progress, said in a statement late Wednesday that the bill’s failure stems from the House Democratic leadership’s refusal to allow a vote on a bipartisan privacy amendment authored by Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Steve Daines (R-Mont.), which failed by one vote in the Senate earlier this month.

“Speaker Pelosi and Chairman Schiff have done everything in their power to revive the Patriot Act except support civil-liberties amendments that have bipartisan support and would have worked to rein in Attorney General Barr and the FBI,” said Vitka. “Had they acted in good faith over these past months and allowed the House to work its will and consider pro-civil liberties amendments, this bill would be the law of the land today.”

“Preserving the liberties of people in the United States requires vigilant oversight and strict privacy safeguards,” Vitka added. “It also requires honesty and transparency, which can be in short supply on Capitol Hill.”

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