Updated May 22, 1:38 p.m. | After a year of global criticism of the reach of American phone and data surveillance programs, the House approved new restrictions Thursday that critics dismissed as watered down.
The USA Freedom Act — backed by Republicans and Democrats and supported by President Barack Obama — would shift the collection and storage of phone metadata from the National Security Agency to private phone companies.
The measure passed 303-121, with critics on both sides of the aisle saying the bill would not do enough to curb potential abuse and provide legislative oversight of intelligence agencies.
Some privacy advocates pulled support for the measure this week, calling it hollow and riddled with loopholes.
Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., who led the battle to end the NSA's bulk metadata collection last summer and was a co-sponsor of the Freedom Act, posted a lengthy explanation why he was voting against the bill. Amash said the bill on the floor Thursday didn't look much like the Freedom Act he was involved with drafting.
"This morning's bill maintains and codifies a large-scale, unconstitutional domestic spying program," Amash said. "It claims to end 'bulk collection' of Americans' data only in a very technical sense: The bill prohibits the government from, for example, ordering a telephone company to turn over all its call records every day."
He added that the bill was so weakened in behind-the-scenes negotiations over the past week that the government could still order — without probable cause — a telephone company to turn over call records.
The Michigan Republican joined a band of libertarian-leaning conservatives and liberal Democrats to vote against the bill. In total, 51 Republicans joined 70 Democrats in opposition.
While those lawmakers suggested the bill did not go far enough in curbing metadata collection, many did note that the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that approves government surveillance would be forced to publish its most significant opinions, giving Americans some insight into the government's surveillance. And the bill would authorize, though not require, the FISA court to appoint lawyers to argue for Americans' privacy rights. The court currently hears from just one side before ruling.
Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio said the bill maintains an important national security program while addressing concerns that the NSA had overstepped its authority.
“People are a lot more comfortable that the government is not storing all this metadata that we were,” he told reporters. “And I think we also in this bill make it clear that there’s no access to this data without a court decision, and the standards for that decision are higher than what they were.”
He said he wished the bill did more, he said he shared in the disappointment of privacy groups over lost provisions, and he said that “perfect is rarely possible in politics — and this bill is no exception.”
Sensenbrenner suggested that in order to preserve core operations of the intelligence and law enforcement agencies, the White House demanded a broadening of certain authorities and a lessening of certain restrictions.
According to sources familiar with the negotiations, the White House insisted that the bill that passed out of the Judiciary Committee 32-0 on May 7 was a non-starter. When Sensenbrenner and Judiciary Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte, R-Va., sat down with the White House this month, General Counsel of the Director of National Intelligence Robert Litt made it clear to the House negotiators that a true and complete end to phone metadata collection was not going to happen.
Furthermore, to win back some of the defense hawks who were not yet on board with the bill, an extension of a controversial portion of the Patriot Act, Section 215, was added.
That only angered conservative lawmakers more. Paul Broun, R-Ga., said he was "adamantly" opposed to the two-year extension of Section 215. "This section of the Patriot Act widely expands the FBI’s ability to spy on Americans without probable cause, violating our Fourth Amendment rights," he said.
Still, even as Sensenbrenner acknowledged that "some of the changes raised justifiable concerns," he said, “this bill does deserve support.”
“Don't let the perfect become the enemy of the good,” he declared in what would become a common refrain.
The new regulations were approved by the chairman and ranking member of the Intelligence Committee, Republican Mike Rogers of Michigan Maryland Democrat C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, respectively.
“At the end of this," Rogers said on the floor Thursday, "I hope that people take away from this debate that those who believe that the first round of negotiations meant that our national security was in peril and those who believe the first rounds of negotiation that our civil liberties and privacy were in peril found that right balance today.”
During a press conference following passage, lead sponsors and architects of the legislation acknowledged that sacrifices had to be made in order to garner bipartisan support, especially as they see bright prospects for eventual passage in the Senate and, then, the signature of the president, who endorsed the bill earlier this week.
"I wish the bill went farther," said Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y. "It went farther when it was originally introduced. I hope the Senate will take it a little farther."
Nadler added, however, that this was the first time since 1978 that the House advanced a bill to rein in government surveillance, and he disputed the argument that it was appropriate to vote against the bill because it lacked as broad a reach as its earlier incarnation.
Goodlatte had similar, if not familiar, argument.
"Don't make the perfect the enemy of the good," he said.
Rep. John Conyers Jr., the ranking member on Judiciary, pointed out that the resounding bipartisan victory for the USA Freedom Act might have even been larger had there not been a wave of vote-changing at the last minute.
"Many switched their votes from 'yes' to 'no,' and we think we would have gotten an even larger show of support had they not realized, as most of us did, that it was going to pass overwhelmingly, and so they decided to vote 'no,'" Conyers said.
Emma Dumain and Daniel Newhauser contributed to this report.