On Friday, July 19, on the House floor, Majority Leader Eric Cantor pulled Representative Justin Amash aside, ushering him into a meeting with whip Kevin McCarthy and three of Amash’s congressional allies.
Cantor pressed Amash to withdraw his amendment to stop the National Security Agency from collecting logs of every American’s phone calls and said he would work to provide a vote on the issue in a future bill.
But several of Cantor’s top aides, who were also present, gave what Amash thought was a more threatening overture: There’s bound to be a procedural technicality we can use to kill the amendment, they said, and we’re going to find it.
The meeting, which has not been previously reported, underscores the efforts of some in House leadership to stop the proposal, which was offered as an amendment to the Department of Defense appropriations bill, from coming to a vote, according to documents reviewed by National Review
and to interviews with participants.The amendment had already been through the procedural wringer, with the House parliamentarian’s office giving an initial approval that it was “in order” to change its mind only as outside parties, including GOP leadership, weighed in.
Indeed, prior to an all-important Rules Committee meeting that would decide whether the amendment ever got to see the light of day, the measure was headed for a premature death.
It was Speaker John Boehner who ultimately saved it, giving the amendment the green light after discussing it for the first time with Amash on the House floor on Monday night — minutes before the Rules Committee had been slated to kill it.
Boehner never told Amash why he would give the Michigan Republican, of all people, the privilege of the vote. Amash had helped lead a failed coup attempt against the speaker in January, and Boehner was so deeply opposed to the amendment he took the rare step of voting against it. (By tradition, the speaker doesn’t usually vote.)
But one animated and colorful conversation later, the amendment was en route to the House floor, prompting panic from its opponents on the House Intelligence Committee, who later that night announced an emergency classified briefing with General Keith Alexander, the NSA director, the next day.
The vote, once it was finally permitted, exposed a large bipartisan coalition with concerns about the NSA’s aggressive use of the Patriot Act to collect vast amounts of “metadata” from phone companies.
Despite President Obama’s pleas to vote against the amendment, 111 House Democrats — 55 percent of the caucus — voted for the amendment. Over 80 percent of the Progressive Caucus backed the proposal, which was cosponsored by Representative John Conyers, the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee.
Alexander, the NSA chief, was forced to personally lobby members, calling their cell phones and opening with a joke that, yes, he already had their number.
But the final tally, 217–205 against, also showed the resilience of the intelligence establishment. Tuesday morning, as Intelligence Committee chairman Mike Rogers of Michigan surveyed his task ahead, it was daunting: According to an internal tally, over 300 members had issued public statements of concern about the NSA’s data-collection program, which was first revealed by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden in early June.
Amash first began working on the amendment the first week of July, asking his deputy chief of staff, Will Adams, to work up some language they could use to stop the mass collection of phone records while leaving the government’s other authorities intact.
Aides to Conyers, who with Amash had cosponsored a bill on the issue a month earlier, caught wind of the effort and quickly signed on. Soon Representative Thomas Massie of Kentucky, a fellow libertarian Republican and one of Amash’s top allies, and Representative Jared Polis, a liberal Democrat from Colorado, had joined as well. Another young conservative firebrand, Representative Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina, joined soon after.
Amash’s staff began working with experts from the Congressional Research Service, Congress’s in-house think tank, to craft an amendment that would address the issue and stay within the lines of House rules that govern which types of amendments can be considered on certain types of bills — in this case an appropriations, or spending, bill.
The referee for those kinds of questions is the House parliamentarian’s office, where nonpartisan lawyers decide what to allow based on 224 years of precedent found in 28 bound volumes. The parliamentarian’s office, or “parls,” in congressional-aide vernacular, is so inside-baseball that even the vast majority of aides and Capitol Hill reporters never really think about or discuss its role in the process.
But, in the case of the Amash amendment, the parliamentarian’s office turned out to be a major battlefield — and the means its enemies used to try to kill it.
On July 16, the parliamentarian’s office gave its initial preliminary approval, ruling that Amash’s amendment was “in order.” About 24 hours later, that decision had changed. Amash’s aide Adams was told that outside parties had weighed in and raised previously unforeseen procedural arguments against the amendment.
Amash’s office worked with the CRS expert and Rules Committee staff, who appear to have been a neutral force throughout the debate, to rewrite the amendment.
From this process, two competing narratives have emerged. In one, leadership is bending backward to help Amash’s amendment come to the floor. In the other, plugged-in aides kept throwing up constant roadblocks to try to suppress the amendment.
The night of the vote, Politico first reported on the leadership view, quoting a Republican who said GOP leadership had been “twisting ourselves in knots for a week trying to craft language that was germane and got at the issue.”