05.31.15

Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Ranking Member, Senate Judiciary Committee, On the USA FREEDOM Act of 2015

The Senate must take up and pass the USA FREEDOM Act tonight.  Opponents of this bipartisan, common-sense legislation have run out of time and run out of excuses.  There is only one viable and responsible path remaining.  The Senate should pass the USA FREEDOM Act tonight and send it to the President’s desk.  There is no other choice.  If we do not pass the USA FREEDOM Act tonight, the PATRIOT Act provisions at issue will expire at midnight.

The USA FREEDOM Act of 2015 is a carefully crafted, bipartisan compromise that both protects Americans’ privacy and keeps this country safe.  The legislation would end the NSA’s bulk collection of Americans’ phone records and institute significant new reforms to limit government surveillance, increase transparency, and promote greater accountability and oversight.  The bill is the product of countless hours of painstaking negotiations with the NSA, the FBI, the Justice Department, privacy and civil liberties groups, the technology industry, and other key stakeholders.  That is why the USA FREEDOM Act has garnered strong support, including from groups as diverse as the NRA and the Center for American Progress.  This broad consensus is also reflected by the overwhelming support in the House, which passed the USA FREEDOM Act by a vote of 338 to 88. 

Unfortunately, a minority in the Senate has now twice blocked the USA FREEDOM Act from even getting a debate on the Senate floor.  Last November, we heard complaints that there was no committee process on the bill and that the Senate should wait to address Section 215 under the new Republican leadership.  And yet this Congress there has not been a single public hearing on the issue, and there has certainly been no committee process.  And then last weekend, the Senate was blocked from even debating the House-passed bill and considering amendments.  Yet opponents of reform have failed to introduce any legislative alternative to the USA FREEDOM Act, aside from a clean extension that we know has no chance of becoming law.  So the time for excuses and inaction has passed.  The American people, and the intelligence community professionals that strive to protect them, deserve better.

Fortunately, we still have a few hours remaining to work things out and pass the USA FREEDOM Act – but there is little time and little room for error.  The deadline to act is midnight tonight, and the House will not return to the Capitol until tomorrow – after the deadline has passed.  So if the Senate does not pass the House-passed USA FREEDOM Act, or if we amend it in any way, the authorities will expire. 

I have said repeatedly, and Senator Lee agrees with me, that we would like to have a debate on our bill and consider amendments.  Because opponents of reform have run out the clock and jammed the Senate, we are not left with much time.  But the Senate could consider a limited number of amendments now. We can get this done today.   If we pass the USA FREEDOM Act, the President can sign it tonight.  And the intelligence community can move forward with the certainty it needs to protect the American people.  

Now some may argue that we should just pass a short-term extension of the authorities to give us more time to figure out a compromise.  Let there be no misunderstanding:  the USA FREEDOM Act is a solid, carefully negotiated compromise.  It would be irresponsible to kick the can down the road once again, relying on the false hope that the House will agree to pass a short-term extension, and that we will then somehow be able to agree on a half-baked alternative that has yet to be introduced and that most assuredly would not pass the House.  So do not be fooled or tempted by the promise of a short-term extension.  Passing a short-term extension guarantees nothing – except expiration of the authorities at midnight tonight, more uncertainty and litigation risk for the intelligence community, and a repeat of this chaotic brinksmanship later on down the road. 

I know there are some who worry that the bill does not go far enough when it comes to reform.  But if it passes, the USA FREEDOM Act would be the most significant set of reforms of government surveillance since the USA PATRIOT Act was enacted.  It would not just end the NSA’s bulk collection under Section 215, it would also add new transparency and oversight reforms to other surveillance authorities.  And it would be a solid foundation upon which we can build our future reform efforts.  I have been in the United States Senate for more than 40 years – and I have learned that when there is a chance to make real progress, we have to seize it.  But I also know that we cannot let this be the end of our fight for greater privacy protections, transparency, and accountability – and I remain committed to fighting that fight on behalf of Vermonters and all Americans.

So the choices before us this evening are clear:  either let these authorities expire completely; or pass the USA FREEDOM Act.  There is no more time for political maneuvering, fear-mongering, or scare tactics.  It is time for us to do our jobs – to debate and then to vote.  The USA FREEDOM Act is a reasonable, responsible way forward – and we should pass it tonight.

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