The libertarian right and the liberal left — coming together to limit government surveillance — nearly succeeded last week in blocking the National Security Agency from collecting huge troves of phone records.
The attempt to curb NSA spying came in an amendment, to the annual Defense Department spending bill, drafted by Republican libertarian Justin Amash from western Michigan and John Conyers, a 25-term liberal Democrat from Detroit. The amendment went down in a closer-than-expected 205-to-217 vote which split both parties.
Republicans voted against the amendment 134-94, while a majority of Democrats, 111-82, supported the attempt to limit NSA phone surveillance to specific targets of interest while eliminating broad dragnets.
No doubt some conservative Republicans voted for the Amash-Conyers amendment out of anti-Obama pique and because they believe every action the president takes is an abuse of power. But others come from the burgeoning libertarian wing of the party, represented by Amash, who is known to his friends at the “chief wing nut.” This faction of the GOP united in an odd and uneasy alliance with liberal Democrats long fearful of intrusive government intelligence surveillance.
The Obama administration relied on the House Republican leadership to block passage of the amendment, which aimed at reining in the NSA following disclosures by Edward Snowden last month of secret programs, to collect phone and email data, created following the September 11 terrorist attacks.
Lawmakers in both parties have become increasingly leery of allowing the government virtually unlimited and secret power to spy on Americans. Representative Jerry Nadler, a New York Democrat, says the section of the Patriot Act — passed under George Bush in post-9/11 fervor — authorizing such snooping will expire in 2015, absent a vote sooner. “It’s going to end — now or later,” Nadler said. “The only question is when and on what terms.”
While the amendment divided both parties and while the Obama administration is no doubt displeased that a majority of Democrats opposed it on this issue, it’s the Republicans who most fear debate on national security issues.
Many Republicans who voted against the amendment last week championed the Patriot Act. “Have twelve years gone by and our memories faded so badly that we forgot what happened on September 11?” asked Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican who chairs the House Intelligence Committee. His fellow Republican from Wisconsin, House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, responded pointedly: “The time has come to stop and the way we do [that] is to approve this amendment.”
The internal GOP debate over NSA snooping reflects a split between libertarians and those whose security concerns would permit collection of so-called metadata. But the debate also reflects long-running GOP divisions between isolationists from the American heartland and Eastern, establishment interventionists. The origins of this GOP split go back to the 19th century, but the rift reached its apotheosis in the years before World War II when the party divided over how to respond to the Axis threat.
This faultline within the GOP will play out in the 2016 primary campaign, a foretaste of which emerged last week when New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, weighing a bid for the Republican nomination, challenged libertarians in his party such as Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky.
“These esoteric, intellectual debates — I want them to come to New Jersey and sit across from the widows and orphans and have that conversation,” Christie said. “And they won’t. That’s a lot tougher conversation to have.” The governor added, “This strain of libertarianism that’s going through both parties right now and making big headlines I think is a very dangerous thought.”
Paul retorted: “I don’t mind spying on terrorists. I just don’t like spying on all Americans.”
Libertarians vs. national security hawks, deficit hawks vs. social conservatives, isolationists vs. neoconservative interventionists, there is no end to divisions within the Republican Party.
It should make for a lively 2016 GOP primary fight.