Surveillance Reform Bill Clears House Only To Face Obstacles In Senate

The House of Representatives today passed the USA FREEDOM Act on a 338-88 vote. Despite receiving overwhelming support in the lower chamber, the bill will have to overcome considerable hurdles as it moves to the Senate.

The 2015 FREEDOM Act would effectively end the NSA’s bulk collection of Americans’ phone records. It would instead require phone companies to hold records. The move increases political pressure on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to drop his push for a clean reauthorization of the PATRIOT Act provision that allows the government to collect the phone records.

The House vote on the legislation comes as Congress comes ever closer to June 1, the date the PATRIOT Act provision that allows the NSA’s bulk phone data collection is set to expire. Defense hawks like McConnell are pushing for the provision to be reauthorized without reform, whereas privacy advocates are calling lawmakers to simply allow the provision to expire.

Supporters of the FREEDOM Act say the measure represents a compromise between the two groups — one that protects both national security and privacy interests. It’s impossible to fairly weigh both. Critics say this year’s version does not do as much as earlier iterations of the FREEDOM Act to rein in the intelligence apparatus, but it’s better than a straight reauthorization. Tech companies have thrown support behind the measure. 

As the clock winds down on the PATRIOT Act, the debate has only been complicated by a recent Circuit Court decision, which ruled the bulk collection of Americans’ phone records to be illegal. With so much uncertainty, it’s possible lawmakers may compromise with just a short-term reauthorization. However there’s still hope. Privacy hawks like Senator Ron Wyden have said they will filibuster any reauthorization.

Today’s vote represents significant progress on a debate that’s been raging on the Hill since former government contractor Edward Snowden first revealed the surveillance practices to reporters in 2013. At this point, lawmakers have had almost two years to grapple with the privacy and national security issues at stake. Hopefully this reform effort will not be a repeat of the first FREEDOM Act push, which found support in the House only to die in a Senate procedural vote.