Congress is now in a five-week recess. Some pundits are asking recess from what? because this 113th Congress has passed even fewer bills in its first months between January and August than even the previous lowest-scoring 112th Congress. When they return, they will have only nine legislative days until the government shuts down. Neither side of government (House or Senate) has a plan or path to a plan. The House and Senate have different caps for domestic and defense spending and they are over those caps; the debt limit could be reached in mid-fall; and the sequester stays in place unless the Congress passes legislation to remove or change it (which is very unlikely). In this type of mess, usually little legislation gets passed or even discussed.
But the American Library Association (ALA) and other advocates must still work the issues—like the surveillance and privacy issues—just as if there is a true expectation that bills will be passed when Congress returns. And, it could happen….
With approximately 20 bills related in one way or another to surveillance law reforms, it is unfortunate to be in this current political situation. But there is still hope: we’ll closely follow the congressional surveillance hearings that will examine National Security Agency revelations that leaked in early June.
If you review the surveillance bills, you will see a variety of approaches to reform. Some of the bills would require more reporting and transparency about government data collection as well as more information about the number and type of requests approved by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC). Yet other bills call for requests to FISC be focused on individualized and targeted investigation—not wholesale big data collection on millions of people. Other proposals attempt to use the appropriations process to either limit practices or require changes.
In the closest vote on any type of reform since passage of the USA PATRIOT Act of 2001, a proposal to limit some NSA activities through appropriations cuts by Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI) was narrowly defeated in a 205 to 217 vote recently. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) is using a similar tactic in the Senate. Hope springs eternal within the civil liberties community that some reforms will eventually get passed in this Congress.
What you CAN do on your summer vacation….
Now is the time, when your representatives and senators are back home for recess, to contact them about these important surveillance issues. Call their respective district or regional offices to find out about town hall meetings and other events where you can advocate for reforms to the country’s surveillance laws and practices. With so many bills introduced, and likely more in September, a generalized message is appropriate: “Reform the USA PATRIOT Act and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) to improve the balance between our civil liberties and security. Stop the secret collection of data about innocent people and assure true transparency about what our government is doing in the name of security.
It is also a good idea to sign up for your legislators’ newsletters. Most members of Congress have newsletters and include town hall information in them during district work periods. To find out who represents you in Congress, use the “Find Your Officials” box on the Legislative Action Center. The August recess is also a great time to invite legislators to visit your library. Check out this webinar on how to arrange and plan for such a visit.
You can also advocate for full funding of the Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA) and other library appropriations by telling your local library story—emphasizing the benefits to library users—whether in public, school or academic libraries. To keep up-to-date on all of these issues and for action alerts, please subscribe to the Washington Office District Dispatch and encourage other library supporters to sign up also. Especially encourage library boards, friends of library groups and other supporters to use District Dispatch, we need every voice!