Congressional Republicans need a legislative victory, and so does President Donald Trump. And they need one badly. As both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue gear up for the midterm elections, if they have little to hang their hats on voters could hand Congress back over to Democrats if they have nothing to show for the control with which they have been trusted. Health care and tax reform seem unlikely, infrastructure is in doubt, but there’s another area where the American people want to see action that isn’t getting much attention – privacy.
Obamacare repeal has been a disaster, a total embarrassment. The House passed a bill that didn’t so much repeal the federal takeover of the health insurance industry as it tweaked it. But it was something.
That something was celebrated at the White House with an end zone dance where President Trump praised it and urged the Senate to act. Shortly afterwards, the President called the bill “mean” and called on the Senate to make it more generous.
The Republican-led Senate, even with carte blanche from the president do anything, no matter how cosmetic, couldn’t do anything. So-called “skinny repeal” was torpedoed by John McCain’s mood swing and two squishy senators who want to use taxpayer money to solidify their hold on power.
Tax reform is slowly morphing into tax cuts, which would be nice but is hardly tackling the ominous US tax code filled with special interest carve-outs molded in backroom deals with lobbyists. Lower rates are good, a sane system would be better. But considering people who campaigned for 7 years on repealing Obamacare couldn’t do that, it’s not too far a stretch to think they didn’t really mean any of that tax reform talk either. Especially when Democrats and the media are poised to hammer them over how much of those cuts would go to the logical place they’d have to go to (the people who make money and actually pay taxes) compared to the people whose taxes you can’t cut (the half of the country who don’t make enough money to pay taxes).
So don’t hold your breath.
On infrastructure, there’s an outside chance some Democrats will get on board, but they won’t come cheap. They are in “oppose everything mode” when it comes to Donald Trump. So even if the President proposed giving everyone who voted for Democrats $1000, there would be some who’d vote against it out of reflex.
So where do Republicans go to claim some kind of victory for the American people ahead of the 2018 midterms?
Privacy is an unmined political opportunity.
With all the unmasking stories coming out about the Obama administration and the fear Americans have (not without cause) that their government is reading their emails and listening to their phone calls, this could be a no-brainer for Republicans and be a great wedge issues against Democrats in the midterms.
No party is innocent here, administrations from both sides have abused the government’s authority on surveillance. None worse than section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).
The Heritage Foundation says the “program targets non-U.S. persons reasonably believed to be located outside the United States, in order to acquire foreign intelligence.” That sounds all well and good until you realize this is where the unmasking comes from.
The federal government’s ability to monitor communications of non-Americans not in the US is virtually unlimited. And a lot of Americans communicate with people all over the world on a regular basis for any number of reasons. Those Americans are ensnared in that surveillance.
That vast majority of Americans ensnared in that broad net are not doing anything illegal, they’re simply communicating for work, with friends, family, etc. Their identities are supposed to be protected from anyone seeking them. But as we’ve seen in the waning days of the Obama administration, those identities can be “unmasked” for reasons that, at best, are nebulous, and at worst are nefarious and political.
Section 702 is set to expire at the end of the year. Since it’s an important counterterrorism and intelligence tool, it should be continued. But it needs significant reforms and restraints put on it.
President Obama loosened those restraints at the end of his term, allowing significantly more government officials access to the identities of Americans coincidentally captured by the intelligence community. Since this was done in his final days, the logical conclusion is it was done to disseminate the names of Trump supporters as widely as possible so partisans would have the ability to leak that information to the media.
Liberals think that was a grand idea, Republicans were rightly outraged. Under the current configuration of the law there is little to stop Trump administration officials from returning that favor to Democrats, which would ensnare even more Americans. If it’s not stopped now it inches toward an ever-widening circle of government power being weaponized for political purposes. While temping, it’s un-American and should be nipped in the bud now.
Americans need to be protected from their government, our privacy must be respected. Section 702 needs to be reformed to be unambiguous on this point. Or it must be allowed to die.
Forcing a vote on protecting the privacy of American citizens could be an easy and popular win for a GOP in need of one, and it would force Democrats to either get on board or defend unethical practices of the Obama administration. In a midterm election where Republicans could have little to run on, and Democrats will only be running against everything, FISA reform could help move the needle. As an added bonus, it’s the right thing to do. And doing that is something of an anomaly for Washington these days.