In an attempt to prevent Washington lawmakers from having to publicly declare their position on the National Security Administration's mass surveillance, will congressional leaders formally snuff out one of the last embers of democracy in the U.S. House? This is one of the big questions this week in Washington, as the Republicans who control the House are resorting to brass knuckled tactics in an effort to thwart one of their own.
Before getting to that stunning story, it's worth reviewing how the Congress actually operates.
As I learned from four-plus years working in the Capitol's lower chamber during President Bush's first term, the U.S. House of Representatives runs like a politburo did in a typical Soviet satellite state. Decisions about what even gets voted on -- much less passed -- usually happen behind closed doors, with a handful of party leaders handing down orders to the rest of the body's loyal apparatchiks. That means most legislative drama can't be seen by voters, and it means congresspeople rarely have to cast public votes on anything the House Speaker doesn't want them to vote on. By design, this system (which differs from the Senate, where all members can force votes on almost anything) deliberately protects majority party House members from having to cast embarrassing campaign-ad-worthy public votes against the minority party's proposals.
Repressive as the House is, tradition provides lawmakers with a few ways to hack the system -- that is, if they happen to know what they are doing (which most lawmakers and staff, alas, don't). The best of these hacks is what's known as the appropriations "rider" -- or what can alternately be called the Amendment Hack.
For various reasons, any lawmaker of either party has -- up until now -- been permitted to go the floor of the House and offer an amendment to any annual spending bill, as long as the amendment is germane to the bill. Translated from legislativese: roughly speaking, any House member of either party can get an amendment to an appropriations bill ruled in order -- and thus force a vote on it -- as long as the amendment doesn't add to the cost of the bill, and either transfers money from one program in the bill to another in the bill, or simply blocks funding for something in the bill.
Because these parameters for getting a piece of legislation ruled in order tend to (by design) obscure the legislation's ostensible goal, there is a distinct art to writing the best of these kinds of amendments. And, if you are one of the relatively few working in Washington who actually wants to challenge the establishment, I can attest that there is little that’s more professionally satisfying than succeeding in the craft of getting a bill ruled in order and preserving its intent. Indeed, one of my most cherished experiences in my four years working in the House was helping then-Rep. Bob Filner, D-Calif., successfully sculpt an amendment that -- somehow -- was both germane to an annual appropriations bill yet forced every member of the House to publicly disclose whether or not they supported Social Security privatization (the vote was later used in campaign commercials against the GOP's pro-privatization lawmakers).
The contemporary era's Picasso of the Amendment Hack was my old boss Bernie Sanders -- indeed, so successful were his maneuvers against the Tom Delay-run Congress that they became the subject of a Rolling Stone profile identifying the Vermont lawmaker as "the amendment king" of the House. Today, that distinction may go to Florida Rep. Alan Grayson on the Democratic side, and, soon, to Michigan Rep. Justin Amash on the Republican side.
Now, let's stop for a moment because I can sense you wondering: Why would a lawmaker from the House's majority party like Amash ever use the Amendment Hack? It's a good question because normally, lawmakers from the House's majority party don't have to -- or want to -- resort to the Amendment Hack. Usually, because they ideologically agree with the Speaker, they can convince the Speaker to embed their priorities in legislation at the committee level so that their priorities never face real scrutiny when the larger bill comes up for a final-passage vote. And in the rare instance when they diverge from the Speaker on a given issue, majority-party legislators often just back down and avoid the Amendment Hack, for fear of punishment for disloyalty. Indeed, a majority-party legislator using the Amendment Hack against his own leadership is seen as the ultimate form of apostasy.
This brings us to Amash, the simmering fight over mass surveillance in America -- and just how committed transpartisan Permanent Washington is to preserving that surveillance.
According to The Hill, Amash is openly defying his party's leadership by championing a simple amendment to the annual Defense Appropriations Bill based on the larger bill he's co-sponsoring with Democratic Rep. John Conyers. As National Journal suggests, Amash's amendment would ostensibly get his legislation ruled in order for an up-or-down vote by simply barring funds in the bill from going to the NSA for the purpose of "collecting telephone and other records from anyone who is not the subject of an investigation."
It's a brilliant example of the Amendment Hack, raising precisely the questions that Washington doesn't even want to talk about. Do lawmakers support an NSA that inherently presumes all Americans are guilty and worthy of surveillance? Or do they want surveillance resources aimed only at those who truly warrant probable cause? Amash's amendment would tell us exactly where each member of the House stands on those critical queries -- which is why, of course, Permanent Washington is in a tizzy and why the House leadership is now hustling to figure out some way to stop the amendment from even being voted on.
Yes, in reaction to Amash's amendment, Republican leaders are considering a set of radical procedural moves to limit the total number of amendments on the defense spending bill -- all while National Journal reports those leaders somehow insist "they are not abandoning the open amendment process they promised when they took the majority in 2011." Obviously, they are abandoning that promise -- and they are abandoning it out of sheer fear that Permanent Washington is losing control of the national security debate. More specifically, they are apparently so afraid that public outrage over NSA surveillance will result in the amendment passing that they are trying to prevent it from even being voted on in the first place.
"Trying," though, is the key word. Amash's office told Politico on Friday that it believes enough Republicans will join with Democrats to procedurally stall out the entire Defense Bill if Republican leaders proceed with their plans to block a vote on the amendment. Calling Amash the leader of a bipartisan "insurrection" against civil liberties abuses by the Obama administration and NSA, Politico noted that this threat is why action on the Defense Bill was delayed last week -- and why its future remains cloudy.
Assuming Amash and the bipartisan coalition around his amendment doesn't back down, there should be little doubt that Permanent Washington and supporters of mass surveillance will soon pivot to the "support our troops" frame. As they always do, they will insist that any delay of any bill relating to the military -- in this case the Defense Appropriations Bill -- is akin to not supporting the troops. Appealing to the most cartoonish mantras of militarism to try to force the bipartisan coalition to back down, the assertion will be that Amash's amendment is unpatriotic and treasonous because it might delay the passage of the bill, which would supposedly then leave American troops naked and unarmed on various battlefields across the world.
Not surprisingly, it's an absurd claim on two levels. Budget-wise, on top of the Pentagon's already huge appropriations, there are built-in "feed and forage" safeguards protecting resources for troops. Likewise, in terms of oversight, this inevitable "support the troops" argument on Defense appropriations bills effectively implies that there shouldn't be any oversight at all and that lawmakers shouldn't take extra time to even debate and vote on the specifics of what the bill actually funds -- even if it happens to be funding an illegal and unconstitutional surveillance program aimed at millions of Americans.
Amash's amendment says the opposite -- that Congress needs to have an open debate over that program. In the process, he and his bipartisan coalition have engineered a big moment in the fight over liberties and rights -- and that includes Americans' basic right to know where their own elected officials stand on issues as fundamental as privacy and mass surveillance.
Should lawmakers respond to such a critical moment by blocking a vote on the amendment and then passing a defense bill funding more surveillance, the harrowing message should be clear: Congress will be saying that We the People shouldn't be permitted to see where our government officials stand on key public policy questions, but government officials should be allowed to continue surveilling, collecting and datamining the most intimate details of all of our lives.