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Archive for the ‘national defense’ Category

Parties Divided!

Tuesday, May 26th, 2015

FoodFightCongress had a funky week before adjourning for the Memorial Day recess. Republicans were fighting Republicans, and Democrats were fighting Democrats.

The Republicans’ grudge match is over NSA spying and the USA FREEDOM Act. This bill, which has passed the House, would curtail the NSA’s spying programs, which include gathering data about all the telephone calls made in the United States.

Republican leaders like Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY) want to see the authority for this data collection extended. Republican leaders like Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) don’t just want it reformed, as the USA FREEDOM Act would do. They want to see NSA spying go away.

Paul’s filibuster last week sent debate on USA FREEDOM into overtime, and he declined Senator McConnell’s efforts to extend NSA spying even for a short while. The Senate will return for a short time before the expiration of the NSA’s arguable legal authority to spy on Americans next week.

You can watch the video of Senator Paul refusing to allow Senator McConnell’s requests to extend the NSA spying program. It doesn’t look very exciting, but it happened after midnight, and it’s a big deal when senators stay up that late.

On the Democratic side, it’s trade promotion authority that has that party divided.

“Fast-track” authority would ease the path for the Obama administration’s Trans-Pacific Partnership. That’s a major trade package, and the president would be empowered to send it to Congress for a strict up-or-down vote, with no amendments or filibusters. Passage would be on a simple majority—no requirement for a cloture vote requiring 60 ayes in the Senate.

If the president gets this authority, it could lead to the biggest free-trade pact in decades. It’s aggressively opposed by liberal Democrats and labor unions, some of President Obama’s strongest early supporters.

The Trade Act of 2015 is the bill. It passed the House in mid-April, and the Senate passed it last week with an amendment, which means it may go back to the House for final approval, or a House-Senate conference may produce a compromise version of the bill.

Here are the current WashingtonWatch.com votes on these two party-splitting bills.

The USA FREEDOM Switcheroo

Sunday, May 10th, 2015

National Security Agency - NSAIf you supported section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act last week, you probably don’t this week. And if last week you wanted it to expire on June 1st, you may see things differently this week. It’s the USA FREEDOM switcheroo. Read on to see what it’s all about.

The first and still most discussed Snowden revelation was that the U.S. government was collecting data about all our calls from U.S. telecommunications companies. The authority to do this, according to the government, was section 215 of the Patriot Act.

A few times since public discovery of the NSA’s domestic spying program, significant factions in Congress have tried to rein it in without success. But there was always the expiration of section 215, which has long been scheduled for June 1st.

Until last week, the debate had been forming up around that June 1st expiration date. Folks on the extreme liberty wing wanted to let 215 die outright. Folks on the extreme security wing wanted to have 215 reauthorized same as before. And folks in the middle were trying to curtail the power given by section 215 so the National Security Agency can’t collect everything.

But the shape of the debate changed last week when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit in New York ruled that section 215 doesn’t allow the NSA spying program at all.

Section 215 allows broad data collection, yes, but only in service of an existing, particular investigation. It doesn’t allow data collection and data warehousing in service of investigations that might happen in the future or investigations of crime and terrorism generally.

Section 215 doesn’t authorize the NSA’s phone spying program—at least according to one influential court.

That means opponents of section 215 last week probably like 215 today, because it doesn’t authorize all that data collection the government was doing. And supporters of 215 last Tuesday probably want to see section 215 amended this week, because the court found that it doesn’t allow the government to do enough.

The bill getting the most focus right now is the USA Freedom Act, which would prohibit bulk collection of records under section 215, under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Pen Register and Trap and Trace Device statute, and under National Security Letter authorities. The bill would create a new program for the targeted collection of telephone metadata, provide greater privacy and civil liberties protections for Americans, expand existing congressional oversight provisions, and create greater transparency of national security programs operated pursuant to FISA. The cost of the bill’s passage would be about $0.13 per U.S. family.

At this point, passage of the USA FREEDOM Act could increase domestic spying, rather than reduce it.

Given the switcheroo, your vote for or against the bill is going to be hard to read by others in the WashingtonWatch.com community, so more than ever it’s important not only to vote, but also to explain your vote in the comments.

Here is the current vote on H.R. 2048, the Uniting and Strengthening America by Fulfilling Rights and Ensuring Effective Discipline Over Monitoring Act of 2015. Click to vote, comment, learn more, or edit the wiki article on the bill.

Cyber Week in the House

Sunday, April 19th, 2015

cybersecurityThe upcoming week is Cyber Week in the House. The House of Representatives will debate two bills that are meant to improve cybersecurity. Many federal cybersecurity proposals have raised concerns about their effects on privacy.

H.R. 1560 is called the Protecting Cyber Networks Act. It would establish a center within the Office of the Director of National Intelligence that would analyze and integrate information from the intelligence community related to cyber threats.

The bill would require the government to establish procedures for sharing information and data on cyber threats between the federal government and nonfederal entities. The bill would also allow information shared with the government to be used in certain criminal prosecutions.

H.R. 1560 would make the government liable if an agency or department were to violate the privacy and civil liberty guidelines required by the bill.

Passage of H.R. 1560 would cost about $1.63 per U.S. family. Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) introduced the bill.

H.R. 1731 is the National Cybersecurity Protection Advancement Act of 2015. It would codify the role of the National Cybersecurity and Communications Integration Center in the Department of Homeland Security, which exchanges information about cyber threats with other federal agencies and nonfederal entities.

H.R. 1731 would require that certain procedures be followed when information is shared, such as checking for and expunging personal information. The bill would require several reports to the Congress on cybersecurity information sharing.

Passage of H.R. 1731 would cost about $0.22 per U.S. family. The bill was introduced by Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX).

Here are the current votes on H.R. 1560 and H.R. 1731. Click to vote, comment, learn more, or edit the wiki articles on the bills.

Dealings Over a Deal with Iran

Sunday, April 5th, 2015

Iran flagA nuclear deal between Iran and international negotiators meeting in Switzerland may be scuttled by the U.S. Congress if Senator Bob Corker (R-TN) gets his way. And we may see something unusual: an override of a presidential veto.

If you’ve been too busy enjoying springtime and Easter, here’s the background: Intense negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program have made progress, and they’ve reached the point where the outlines can be revealed (and handily summarized). The summary summary is that Iran would curtail its nuclear program in exchange for relief from international sanctions.

Israel hates the idea, as do many Republicans. The deal would be a significant achievement for President Obama.

And here’s how it’s playing out in Congress.

Senator Corker, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is leading the charge on legislation that would give Congress tight oversight of any final deal. The leading bill is S. 625, the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015. (It’s not clear from reading the bill that Congress would actually get the final say, but it would have more influence.) Corker also has his own bill, S. 615.

Senator Corker is working to assemble a veto-proof majority of supporters in the Senate to help make sure that the bill will become law, even if President Obama rejects it.

Should the Iran nuclear deal go through? Should the bill go through?

One side says that the deal offers a new hope for peace in the Middle East. The other side says that this would strengthen Iran’s hand and its ability to threaten its neighbors.

If the bill goes through, Congress may scuttle the deal. Or it may have beneficial influence over the process—but, again, maybe not control.

As usual, the right answer is up to you. It’s up to you to let your representatives know how they should deal with this sensitive and important geopolitical issue.

Here’s the current vote on S. 625. Click to vote, comment, learn more, or edit the wiki article on the bill.

NSA Spying: The Vote that Wasn’t

Sunday, November 23rd, 2014

National Security Agency - NSALast week saw an important debate fail to reach finality. That’s the debate on the NSA’s program meant to gather data about every American’s phone calling. Revealed in June 2013, the NSA’s phone call monitoring has been a subject of significant controversy.

Recall that last summer, an amendment to defund the NSA phone program nearly passed the House. The debate this time was on the “Uniting and Strengthening America by Fulfilling Rights and Ending Eavesdropping, Dragnet-collection, and Online Monitoring Act”—also known as the USA-FREEDOM Act.

H.R. 3361 is the House version. It was introduced by the author of the USA-PATRIOT Act, Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI). It passed the House in May. The Senate version, S. 2685, is Senator Patrick Leahy’s (D-VT) bill.

The intention is to restore some of Americans’ privacy. The bill is meant to end the bulk collection of metadata about Americans’ activities, end the secret administration of law in the FISA court, and introduce a “special advocate” to represent the public in privacy-related matters. All this could come at a cost to security.

In the Senate last week, the bill came up for an important procedural vote called “cloture.” According to Senate rules, bills can’t proceed to final consideration unless they have 60 votes approving that. As often as not, a cloture vote is the vote that decides whether a bill lives or dies, because a bill that gets a vote in favor of floor debate is pretty likely also to pass.

The cloture vote on the USA-FREEDOM Act was intensely debated. Cloture failed, with 58 senators voting in favor and 42 against.

Senator Leahy blamed its defeat on what he called fear-mongering by opponents, saying, “Fomenting fear stifles serious debate and constructive solutions.” Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY), the Republican leader, argued that the NSA’s bulk collection of Americans’ metadata was a vital tool in the fight against terrorism. “This is the worst possible time to be tying our hands behind our backs,” he said.

You can look at the vote and see what your senators did with it.

Then, of course, click through to comment on the bills so others know what you think. Senate version. House version.

Last week was probably the end of debate on this bill for the year, but next year the part of the USA-PATRIOT Act that allows the phone program will expire without an affirmative vote in favor of it. That’s another point at which we’ll have a big debate about NSA spying.

Here’s how people feel about the two bills. Click to vote, comment, learn more, or edit the wiki articles on the bills.

Congress’s Reactions to ISIS

Sunday, September 14th, 2014

ISIS flagThe so-called “Islamic State,” also known as ISIL, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIS, Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, has drawn a lot of attention to itself lately. And when Congress came back to work last week, a number of proposals went into the legislative hopper.

Let’s take a look at the different proposals and who’s behind them.

Let’s GO!

More than a few members of Congress are ready to send the U.S. military after ISIS, thugs that they are:

H.R. 5415, the Authorization for Use of Military Force against International Terrorism Act, would authorize the use of military force against international terrorism. It’s the product of Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) and a host of Republican co-sponsors, as well as one Democrat, Rep. David Scott (GA).

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) is the author of another such bill, H.J. Res. 123, to authorize the use of United States Armed Forces against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). He has a longer list of cosponsors, all Republican.

A similar bill in the Senate is S.J. Res. 42, introduced solo by Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL).

The Republican version, sponsored by Senator James Inhofe (OK)—also on his own—is S.J. Res. 43. It’s purpose is to “authorize the use of force against the organization called the Islamic State in order to defend the American people and assist the Iraqi Government in expelling the Islamic State from their territory.”

There is a more modest approach to going after ISIS.

H.Res. 718 would call on the Department of Defense to “expedite the delivery of all necessary military equipment, weapons, ammunition, and other needed materials to the Kurdish Peshmerga forces to successfully combat and defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS).” This bills is the brainchild of Rep. David Schweikert (R-AZ), backed by Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) and Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA).

You Have to ASK!

There is an argument that the president can go after ISIS on his own or under the Authorization for Use of Military Force that Congress passed after 9/11. Those who think he can generally haven’t introduced any bills.

On the other side are those who think that the constitution requires the president to have congressional approval, which would be granted or withheld consistent with the War Powers Act.

Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ) has introduced H. Con. Res. 114, urging Congress to debate and vote on a statutory authorization for any sustained United States combat role in Iraq or Syria. He’s joined by fellow Democrats Keith Ellison (D-MN) and Barbara Lee (D-CA). A debate that didn’t result in authorization, they apparently think, would prevent the president from acting.

Rep. Wolf, meanwhile, doesn’t believe that the War Powers Act is working. He’s introduced H.R. 5416, the War Powers Consultation Act of 2014, which would repeal the War Powers Resolution, providing for “proper” war powers consultation.

Terrorism is Un-American!

Some members of ISIS are allegedly Americans, English-speaking non-Americans, or people from countries whose citizens are freely able to enter the United States under the visa waiver program. Another batch of bills is meant to deal with that little challenge.

H.R. 5406, the F.T.O. Passport Revocation Act, would authorize the revocation or denial of passports and passport cards to individuals affiliated with foreign terrorist organizations. (F.T.O. stands for “foreign terrorist organization,” you see.) Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX) is the sponsor, joined by Reps. Jackie Walorski (R-IN) and Doug LaMalfa (R-CA).

H.R. 5408, the Terrorist Denaturalization and Passport Revocation Act, would add certain acts of allegiance to a foreign terrorist organization to the list of acts for which nationals of the United States lose nationality. That’s Rep. Michele Bachmann‘s (R-MN) bill, along with a healthy number of Republican cosponsors.

On the Senate side, Ted Cruz (R-TX) has the same idea. His bill, S. 2779, the Expatriate Terrorists Act, would “deem specified activities in support of terrorism as renunciation of United States nationality.” Back in the House, Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA) has his own bill, H.R. 5450, the Expatriate Terrorists Act, which would do the same.

H.R. 5434, the Visa Waiver Program Suspension Act of 2014, would suspend the visa waiver program in order for the Comptroller General of the United States to assess the national security risks posed by the program. Nobody wants members of ISIS coming into the United States. Rep. Doug Collins (R-GA) is the author of this bill.

Let’s. Get. The Bastards.

Sorry for the coarse language. A few members of Congress want to try and reel in the perpetrators of the awful beheadings that have been portrayed in videos released by ISIS.

S. 2778 would require the Secretary of State to offer rewards totaling up to $10,000,000 for information on the kidnapping and murder of James Foley and Steven Sotloff. The author of this bill is Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), along with a bipartisan list of Senate cosponsors.

Then there’s keeping ISIS from getting money…

H.R. 5431, the Isolating ISIS Act, would impose sanctions on foreign financial institutions that engage in certain transactions with ISIS. The bill has been put forward by Rep. Michael Fitzpatrick (R-PA).

So Sorry

THe response notwithstanding, the House and Senate each have a bill that expresses the sorrow that the nation feels for the journalists that ISIS has killed.

S. Res. 538 would express the condolences of the Senate to the families of James Foley and Steven Sotloff, and it would “condemn the terrorist acts of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.” Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) introduced the bill, and a bipartisan list of cosponsors support it, including Foreign Relations Committee chairman Sen. Robert Menéndez (D-NJ).

H. Res. 720 would express the condolences of the House of Representatives to the families of James Foley and Steven Sotloff, and it would condemn the terrorist acts of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. It’s the product of another New Hampshirite, Rep. Carol Shea-Porter (D-NH).

There are Congress’s early reaction to ISIS. What’s yours?

The Iron Dome Thickens…

Monday, September 1st, 2014

iron domeIsrael’s “Iron Dome” anti-missile defense system would be that much thicker if H.R. 5235 passes. The bill proposes to spend more to support the anti-missile defense system.

The spending in H.R. 5235, the Emergency Iron Dome Replenishment Act, is $176,000,000, or $1.66 per U.S. family. It would join the spending in Public Law 113-145, the Emergency Supplemental Appropriations Resolution, 2014. That law spent about $225,000,000, or $2.18 per U.S. family.

The Congressional Budget Office also estimates that the Department of Defense has transferred $634 million to the government of Israel to develop and procure interceptors and components for the system since 2011. So that’s, maybe, another $6.00 per family.

We’re nearing about $10.00 per U.S. family on the Iron Dome, small potatoes compared to other U.S. government expenditures. But it’s interesting potatoes, given the turmoil in the Middle East and the long relationship between Israel and the United States.

The bill was sponsored by Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), and it has bipartisan cosponsorship. It has been referred to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.

Is it $10.00 you’d like your family to spend?

As always, the choice is yours. Below is the current vote on H.R. 5235. Click to vote, comment, learn more, or edit the wiki article on the bill.

Government Accounting

Sunday, December 1st, 2013

It’s hard getting good numbers about what the government spends. Part of the reason is that the government doesn’t have an official organization chart. How are you going to know where the money goes if you don’t know how you’re organized?

But there are other reasons, and they’re on display in the cost estimate for H.R. 3381, the Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2014.

Here at WashingtonWatch.com, we primarily use reports from the Congressional Budget Office for producing our cost estimates. CBO takes the gross amount of spending authorized by a bill and estimates how much will actually be spent over time. Authorization to appropriate $601 million in a given year, for example, might result in $595 million being spent over five years. Usually, the bulk gets spent in the first year, and then a decreasing amount over the ensuing years. CBO estimates usually only go out five years, though some go ten.

But when the spending is done by the intelligence community, the estimating stops. The cost estimate for H.R. 3381 says “CBO does not provide estimates for classified programs.”

There have been estimates of government spending in this area for many years, and the government has released overall estimates of spending on intelligence activities since 2007. This year information on the so-called “black budget” was leaked. The intelligence budget for fiscal year 2013 was $52.6 billion. That’s a little over $500 per U.S. family, $165 per person in the United States.

The CBO does provide estimates for the unclassified sections of the bill, such as the “Intelligence Community Management Account.” That’s spending on coordination, overseeing budgets, and managing the intelligence agencies. The bill for that is $601 million, producing $400 million in spending in fiscal 2014 and $195 million in the four years after that.

The Central Intelligence Agency Retirement and Disability System is another part of the bill that the CBO can estimate, but take a look at what they do here: “[B]ecause the authorization is the same amount as the CBO baseline, CBO does not ascribe any additional cost to that provision relative to the baseline.”

Many programs in the federal government are accounted for using the assumption that spending on them will rise—they have a “rising baseline.” So even if the number of dollars spent on the program increases from one year to the next, the CBO will report no change. It will report a cost only if a bill increases spending beyond the increase that CBO already assumed! That’s one of the wackiest parts of government accounting, and something of an insult to the millions of Americans who can’t assume a “rising baseline” in their budgets.

Because CBO told us what the increase in the baseline is, we’ve added that to our estimate of the costs for H.R. 3381. The Intelligence Community Management Account and the Central Intelligence Agency Retirement and Disability System cost about $10 per U.S. family. The other $490 in spending is classified.


Sunday, June 9th, 2013

Most representatives and senators will be figuring out this week what they think about the massive domestic surveillance program revealed through leaked documents reported in the Guardian last week.

They’re sitting on the sidelines, listening to the advocates on both sides, and they’ll come forward when they see which way the wind is blowing strongest.

Oh—you know who else they’ll be listening to? You. …and we don’t mean listening in on your calls. You have to phone them.

The number for the Capitol switchboard is (202) 224-3121.

You can call right now. (Look up your member of Congress and senators here!) And say your piece.

The story continues to unfold, but it’s fairly clear that the government is requiring all the major telephone companies to turn over data about every call made in the United States or from within the United States to a foreign country. That data isn’t the content of your conversations, but the date and time of the call, who called who, how long each call continued, and the location of the callers. Washingtonian magazine national security writer Shane Harris says that this data “can be more useful than the words spoken on the phone call.”

There were other releases last week. One showed that the National Security Agency has a program called “PRISM,” which accesses information from major Internet service providers, including Microsoft, Apple, Google and Yahoo!. A third showed that President Obama has ordered cyberattack plans to be drawn up. The leaker of the information came forward on Sunday. He’s Edward Snowden, who until recently worked for a contractor to the NSA.

Defenders of the call collection program point out that it is authorized by law. Congress permitted it under the USA-PATRIOT Act. A secret court approves the collection of this data, and Congress reauthorized that secret court just last December—you can see the votes on the page for the FISA Amendments Act Reauthorization Act of 2012. And they say there are many protections in place to appropriately protect privacy and civil liberties. Abuses like those that surfaced in the IRS scandal won’t happen with this information.

There are many more dimensions to the debate, but chances are you already know what you think. Your job is to make up your representatives’ minds. They can’t know what you think unless they hear from you. Make that call now. That call will go on your permanent record, but it’s probably worth it.

Kim Jong Il is Dead

Sunday, December 18th, 2011

And it couldn’t happen to a nicer guy. Here’s hoping North Korea is soon released from the grip of totalitarian rule—and peacefully so. A strange reminder of his strange legacy can be found at the Tumblr site “Kim Jong Il Looking at Things.”

A number of bills in Congress deal with North Korea.

H.R. 2105, is the Iran, North Korea, and Syria Nonproliferation Reform and Modernization Act of 2011. The bill would consolidate and modify existing law related to the transfer of certain sensitive goods, services, or technology to Iran, North Korea, and Syria. It would increase the frequency of reports required under current law identifying any foreign country, corporation, or individual that has engaged in such transfers. The reports would be more extensive and come out three times a year. The bill also would require the President to impose sanctions (including the denial of visas) for not less than two years against those responsible for transfers or to report the reasons for not doing so.

The cost of implementing H.R. 2105 would be about $0.25 per U.S. family.

S. 1048, the Iran, North Korea, and Syria Sanctions Consolidation Act of 2011, would expand sanctions imposed with respect to the Islamic Republic of Iran, North Korea, and Syria. The bill hasn’t had a cost estimate yet.

H.R. 1321, the North Korea Sanctions and Diplomatic Nonrecognition Act of 2011, would continue restrictions against and prohibit diplomatic recognition of the Government of North Korea (at little or no cost).

H.R. 1464 and S. 416 are both called the North Korean Refugee Adoption Act of 2011. They would cause the U.S. government to develop a strategy for assisting stateless children from North Korea. The cost of their passage would be minimal.