A bill that would curtail the government’s broad surveillance authority is unlikely to earn a vote in Congress before the November midterms, and it might not even get a vote during the postelection lame-duck session.
The inaction amounts to another stinging setback for reform advocates, who have been agitating for legislation that would rein in the National Security Agency ever since Edward Snowden’s leaks surfaced last summer. It also deflates a sudden surge in pressure on Congress to pass the USA Freedom Act, which scored a stunning endorsement from Director of National Intelligence James Clapper last week.
The hard-fought bill has a wide array of backing from tech companies, privacy and civil-liberties groups, the White House, and even the intelligence community. But multiple sources both on and off Capitol Hill say the measure is not a top legislative priority on a jam-packed Senate calendar filled with other agenda items, including unresolved fights over a continuing resolution and the Import-Export Bank.
“Extremely unlikely,” one Senate staffer said when asked whether the bill would be considered in September.
The failure to move on NSA reform doesn’t stem from a lack of effort. Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy spent months updating the USA Freedom Act, an omnibus reform package originally authored by Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner that passed the House back in May. Amid complaints from the tech lobby and privacy groups alike that the House version was too weak, Leahy introduced a souped-up version of the bill in July, just before Congress broke for the summer recess.
The bill would effectively end the government’s bulk collection of phone metadata—the numbers and time stamps of calls but not their actual content. Phone companies such as Verizon would instead retain those records, which intelligence agencies could obtain only after being granted approval from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. The bill would also usher in a host of additional privacy and transparency measures, including a more precise definition of what can be considered a surveillance target.