When news broke that the Internal Revenue Service was targeting conservative groups, Republicans pounced on the revelations. House Speaker John Boehner memorably suggested that someone face prison time over it.
“My question isn’t about who’s going to resign,” he said last month. “My question is about who’s going to jail over this scandal.”
But not all controversial government programs are created equal. The recent reports, for example, that showed the breadth of the government’s secret data collection have congressional Republicans divided.
Some support the secret programs, arguing they’ve thwarted attacks. Others tack toward the libertarian, saying the programs violate the Fourth Amendment. But leaders have yet to draw a clear line demarcating the party’s positions.
For Republicans, who are hoping to knock President Obama’s agenda off kilter and build momentum heading into the 2014 midterm elections, the stakes are high. “There really isn’t a conference strategy/position at this point,” a Senate GOP aide said.
It’s an assertion that lawmakers back up.
“I don’t believe there is a conference reaction,” said Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo. “You have a number of our members who are concerned about data collection generally. You have others, on the Intelligence Committee, who are more supportive. Then you have some like me. I’ve always been supportive of the [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act] courts, but from drones to the NSA, Obama’s administration has gone further than the Bush administration.”
The genesis for these secret-gathering programs, leaked to The Washington Post and The Guardian by a National Security Agency contractor and former CIA employee named Edward Snowden, reaches back to the George W. Bush era, when Republicans burnished their national security bona fides and helped author the Patriot Act. Boehner and current House Majority Leader Eric Cantor voted for the bill in 2001, along with 355 of their colleagues, as did now-Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and 97 other senators.
A corps of GOP lawmakers has stressed the national-security benefits of the data-collection methods. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers of Michigan said the program thwarted attacks. Senate Intelligence Committee ranking member Saxby Chambliss of Georgia pointed to the success of the NSA’s data collection. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina offered a full-throated endorsement. On CBS’s This Morning, Cantor pointed out that the programs “exist for us to, again, guard against a terrorist threat.”
Other Republicans, notably Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, who helped write the Patriot Act, lashed out against the program. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky introduced legislation that he said would restore the Fourth Amendment’s protections.
Former House Speaker Dennis Hastert, who presided over the House when the Patriot Act passed in 2001, said that as he understands the NSA’s data-collection methods, they fall in line with the legislation, but he suggested the party’s splintering over data collection might be strategic. On Monday, the Pew Research Center released a survey that showed 56 percent of Americans said it’s acceptable for the NSA to track calls to “investigate terrorism.” Picking a political fight on the issue, then, might prove costly.
“As a practical thing, if you have too many investigations, you lose focus,” Hastert said. “So you’ve got to pick.”
This article appears in the June 12, 2013, edition of NJ Daily as Why the GOP Is Holding Its Fire Over Data Collection.