clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Everyone agrees that NSA reform legislation is needed. So why hasn't it happened?


Last year, Edward Snowden made headlines around the world with news of the extent of the National Security Agency's surveillance programs. You might have thought that Congress would react by passing legislation to address the issue. But with Congress now on break until after the November elections, that's looking increasingly unlikely.

Politico's Tony Romm has an in-depth story examining what happened to the leading reform proposal, the USA Freedom Act. It passed the House in May, and a version sponsored by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, was introduced in July. And then... nothing happened. The calendar ran out without Leahy's proposal getting a vote by the full Senate.

There are a lot of issues where Congress doesn't pass legislation because there are deep partisan divides, or because action is opposed by deeply-entrenched interest groups. But NSA reform isn't like that. President Obama has called for an end to bulk collection of phone records, and his intelligence chief, James Clapper, has endorsed the USA Freedom Act. The intelligence community feels a sense of urgency because the Patriot Act provision they use to justify bulk collection of Americans' phone records expires on June 1 of next year.

Meanwhile, the legislation is also supported by major civil liberties groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, that usually find themselves on the opposite side of the debate from Clapper. The Senate version of the USA Freedom Act places stricter limits on the NSA than the version passed in the House. And civil liberties groups are anxious to get reforms passed before public anger about the Snowden disclosures dissipates.

So why didn't the legislation make it through the Senate? Romm mentions that Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), and Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-GA), leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee and staunch allies of the NSA, had some concerns about Leahy's bill. And others, including NSA critics Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Mark Udall (D-CO), hoped to impose additional restrictions on NSA spying.

But this is the kind of ordinary policy disagreement that accompanies almost every big reform. In the past, Senators would have negotiated a compromise that the majority could live with.

But the Senate of 2014 isn't the Senate of 1994 or 1974. The body has grown so dysfunctional that it rarely passes legislation, even in cases where there's broad consensus that changes are needed. So the public will have to wait another year, when panic over the imminent expiration of some Patriot Act provisions may stampede Senators into action.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.