Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner found out the power of language the hard way.
As a lead sponsor of the USA Patriot Act in 2001, he supported the bill's reauthorization five years later — including the insertion by the Bush administration of one small word that made a very big difference.
"When we did the reauthorization, the request came from the administration that the word 'relevant' be inserted in Section 215," Sensenbrenner said. "I can say that all of us that worked on the reauthorization thought that putting 'relevant' in where it didn't exist before was limiting verbiage."
But in the time since, both the Bush and the Obama administrations have used that word to vastly broaden the scope of National Security Agency surveillance activities, using it as a justification to collect phone and Internet records from millions of Americans who are under no suspicion of terrorist activity.
"They asked for one thing and did another," Sensenbrenner said. "Frankly, they didn't get caught until all the investigations and revelations following [Edward] Snowden's departure."
Now, the Wisconsin Republican argues that the Bush and Obama administrations both abused the NSA's surveillance powers, stretching them far beyond congressional intent. And he is fighting to rein in the very law he helped create.
Sensenbrenner, the former chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, is championing the USA Freedom Act with Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., meant to apply the brakes to the NSA's powers. It would end the agency's bulk-data collection practices and provide an avenue to appeal decisions of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which approves surveillance requests.
Sensenbrenner argues that poor oversight in Congress enabled the abuse of powers to go unchecked — and he's determined to do something about that, as well.
While the revelations about the NSA were a wake-up call to many on Capitol Hill, an amendment from Michigan Republican Rep. Justin Amash to end the bulk-data collection failed on a 205-217 vote in July.
Sensenbrenner is not seeking a complete reversal of the USA Patriot Act. He says that certain surveillance activities are necessary. He says he wants to better align the balance between personal privacy and national security.
"I was always concerned about opportunities for abuse," he said, "and I stated repeatedly that when we are dealing with an issue like this there has got to be a balance between security and respect for civil liberties."
Sensenbrenner has amassed at least 107 cosponsors, but it is unclear whether House leadership, which has defended the NSA's actions as vital for national security, will allow a vote on his bill. Leadership has favored an approach taken by the House Intelligence Committee to protect the NSA, and it pulled an Intelligence Committee markup on it last month, in favor of moving the bill directly to the floor.
Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., has made it clear to House leaders that he expects his committee, which has primary jurisdiction over FISA, to put its imprint on any NSA reform. Goodlatte has even called Sensenbrenner's bill a "good first step." But he is looking to build consensus and is noncommittal about marking up the bill, acknowledging the shared turf.
"We don't know yet, because we have another committee, the Intelligence Committee," he said. "We have a lot of work to do to make sure we have something that achieves the right balance between protecting peoples' civil liberties and protecting them from terrorism."
Still, Sensenbrenner has a backup plan. When surveillance provisions in the current law expire in 2015 and those under FISA run out in 2017, he is counting on lawmakers to reevaluate surveillance authorities.
"I made it quite plain, Congress is not going to renew either of those authorities unless they are amended," he said. "My message to the NSA and its supporters is, you had better wake up and agree to amendments to both of these sections, because time is going to run out. And if the attitude is one of stonewalling "¦ the NSA will have none of the legal authority that they currently have."