Wednesday's vote in the House to restrain the National Security Agency's surveillance of Americans' phone calls refuted one argument of the agency's defenders, including President Obama: that Congress was aware of what was going on, and the dragnet had bipartisan support from more than one branch of government.
That was never true, as the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit recently found. The overwhelming majority voting for reform in the House shows that congressional support for the program as it was being carried out just wasn't there.
So that question has been answered, but the appellate decision raised others -- particularly about the meaning of the word "relevant," which shows up everywhere in the law of surveillance and intelligence. As Andrea Peterson reported last week in The Washington Post, the court found that the government's interpretation of the word to justify gathering phone metadata was overly broad. The implications for other surveillance programs that also rely on a loose definition of the word are unclear.
What's in Wonkbook: 1) House votes to curb NSA 2) Opinions, including Salam on the deficit 3) Two out of five beehives died last year, and more
Chart of the day: Black unemployment has improved, falling under 10 percent for the first time since the financial crisis. Chico Harlan in The Washington Post.
1. Top story: House approves surveillance reform
The bill to restrain the NSA now goes to the Senate... "The House on Wednesday overwhelmingly approved legislation to end the federal government’s bulk collection of phone records, exerting enormous pressure on Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Senate majority leader, who insists that dragnet sweeps continue in defiance of many of those in his Republican Party. ... While the House version of the bill would take the government out of the collection business, it would not deny it access to the information. It would be in the hands of the private sector — almost certainly telecommunications companies like AT&T, Verizon and Sprint, which already keep the records for billing purposes and hold on to them from 18 months to five years." Jennifer Steinhauer in The New York Times.
... where the Republican leadership must find a compromise by a June 1 deadline. "Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is pushing to renew the Patriot Act without any changes, saying the NSA's bulk collection of records on millions of U.S. phone calls is critical for protecting national security. ... McConnell will force a vote on his bill for a clean reauthorization of the Patriot Act next week... With a 60-vote threshold in the Senate necessary to take any action, it's possible that neither bill will muster enough support to pass. If both sides refuse to back down, the Patriot Act provisions will expire. That's what privacy advocates such as the American Civil Liberties Union are rooting for, along with Sen. Rand Paul, who has said he plans to filibuster a renewal of the Patriot Act. Even if the Senate passes McConnell's surveillance bill, it's not clear if the measure could make it through the House." Kaveh Waddell and Brendan Sasso in National Journal.
Lawmakers also have to take into account the recent appellate decision ruling the program illegal. "Civil liberties groups have challenged the NSA's actions in court, and last week the Second Circuit Court of Appeals gave them a major win. ... After the ruling, one major civil liberties group, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, even decided to oppose the legislation the House passed Wednesday because it didn't go far enough to rein in the NSA. The group says it has supported previous iterations of the bill — 'more reluctantly each time' as it has been watered down to satisfy critics. But after the court ruled the program was illegal, EFF 'decided that Congress can significantly strengthen the bill.' " Timothy B. Lee at Vox.
2. Top opinions
SALAM: It's not about the deficit. "New deficit projections are a reminder that focusing on the deficit alone has always been a fool’s errand. The country faces a number of interrelated challenges. Reforming entitlement programs, and in particular health entitlement programs, are among the most important of these challenges, but not just because they are a driver of future deficits. After all, we could raise taxes, including relatively efficient consumption taxes, to address fiscal imbalances. Rather, the deeper problem is that while some of our institutions work relatively well for most people... a lot of them work really badly for people in the bottom two-fifths." National Review.
COATES: Obama criticizes black morality, but suggests little that would directly help. "When talking morality in the black community, Obama has always been very clear. ... Obama’s policy message to African Americans does not enjoy this level of targeted specificity. Instead he endorses the sort of broad policies which most progressives support... And you will hear no policy targeted toward black people coming out of the Obama White House, or probably any White House in the near future. That is because the standard progressive approach of the moment is to mix color-conscious moral invective with color-blind public policy. It is not hard to see why that might be the case. Asserting the moral faults of black people tend to gain votes. Asserting the moral faults of their government, not so much." The Atlantic.
WALDMAN: Republican candidates haven't learned the lessons of Iraq. "With the exception of [Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.)], none of the candidates seems willing to grapple with the possibility that there are unintended consequences to military action that we need to be wary of. At most, they think the problems come only when you stick around too long after reducing a nation to rubble. And when you listen to them talk about Barack Obama’s foreign policy record, the word they use over and over again is “weak.” The problem is never that some situations we confront offer no good options, or that our decisions can backfire, or that there are places where America may not be able to set things right to the benefit of all. The problem is always weakness, and strength is always the solution." The Washington Post.
Amtrak isn't to blame for this week's wreck, or for its overall incompetence, writes the author of a book on trains worldwide, Tom Zoellner. "Passenger trains outside the Northeast Corridor... must lease their lines from big Class I freight carriers, many of them now hauling crude oil, which means delays are as much a part of the experience as the soggy breakfast sandwiches in the snack bar. ... The agency known as Amtrak has an impossible mission. Congress must approve its annual budget — at a rate of subsidy that lags far behind that granted to European railroads — which barely pays for maintenance, let alone the kind of costly improvements that would make it a genuine alternative to the car or bus in places outside the Boston-Washington corridor. ... The high-speed disappointment known as the Acela must run along a right-of-way first surveyed in the early 19th century with many anachronistic curves, including the one jumped by the train [this week]." The Washington Post.
Hillary Rodham Clinton must support free trade. "While her opponents for the Democratic nomination populistically posture, all she has mustered are a couple of anodyne remarks. ... Clinton’s dash for the tall grass is transparently inconsistent with the position she embraced as Mr. Obama’s secretary of state. ... Indeed, given this well-known record, her avoidance now rather insults the electorate’s intelligence. With the president’s agenda embattled in the Senate, this would be a good time for Ms. Clinton to abandon her political caution and speak up for what she said so recently were her principles. In refusing to take a stand, Ms. Clinton is not only abandoning the president she once served but also missing an opportunity to help define the values of the party she would lead in November 2016. Will Democrats look backward, in the vain hope of sheltering America from global economic forces? Or will they confidently embrace change and competition?" asks the editorial board of The Washington Post.
3. In case you missed it
Obama's trade initiative has another chance in the Senate. "After briefly standing up to Republicans and President Obama on free trade, Senate Democrats stood down Wednesday, desperately clutching a few concessions. ... Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell broke the Democratic filibuster by offering a plan that would grant some shiny objects up front—votes Thursday on a customs-enforcement bill and another bill designed to strengthen trade agreements with developing countries—followed by the essential legislation... Separating the first two bills out of the package sharply reduces their chance of passage in the GOP-led House, which may not even bother to take them up." Alex Rogers in National Journal.
American beekeepers are still losing hives. "Since April 2014, beekeepers lost 42.1 percent of their colonies, the second highest loss rate in nine years, according to an annual survey conducted by a bee partnership that includes the U.S. Department of Agriculture. ... 'Most of the major commercial beekeepers get a dark panicked look in their eyes when they discuss these losses and what it means to their businesses,' said Pennsylvania State University entomology professor Diana Cox-Foster. ... A combination of mites, poor nutrition and pesticides are to blame for the bee deaths." Seth Borenstein for the Associated Press.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) is apparently very impressive in person. "Cruz is winning praise from some potential Wall Street donors, including bankers and hedge fund managers, who told Reuters there is more to him than the conservative firebrand of the campaign trail. He has been courting financiers in their homes in New York and Greenwich, Connecticut, they said. But the praise does not appear to be translating into cash donations... Financiers who have met with Cruz said he demonstrated a firm grasp of specific policy issues and was able to discuss them at length and offer specific ideas of his own, without dodging tough questions or resorting to rhetorical flourishes. ... Others who have met Cruz in private settings say he comes across as a brainy politician whose most hardline statements seem like popularity-seeking varnish that will eventually be scraped away." Emily Flitter for Reuters.