Last spring I wrote an article on how a new libertarian coalition between the most liberal and most conservative senators could emerge in the Senate following Rand Paul’s filibuster on drone strikes. I left unresolved whether this coalition would make a difference, but the events of this summer have answered that question affirmatively. In particular, this coalition displayed its power in the vote to restrict NSA surveillance of citizens and in its ability to prevent a war with Syria.
In the spring, the “wing nut coalition”, as Rep. Raul Labrador (R-ID), a member of this group, named this alliance, was quite vocal about their beliefs. Likewise, Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) were outspoken in their opposition to the isolationist, anti-military rhetoric of this coalition. In spite of these differences, there were few significant matters that these coalitions imagined they would fight on legislatively.
However, following the revelation of NSA surveillance on American citizens by Glenn Greenwald and Edward Snowden, Reps. Justin Amash (R-MI) and John Conyers (D-MI) proposed an amendment to the defense appropriations bill that would end the collection of Americans’ phone records by the NSA unless they were actively under investigation. President Barack Obama and top leadership in both parties – including Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) – strongly opposed the amendment and House leadership whipped heavily against the amendment. In fact, House Republican leadership only allowed Amash to bring the amendment to the floor after the threat of several technical and parliamentary procedures.
Given the relationship between the Pentagon and members of Congress, it was expected that the vote would easily fail. After all, defense contractors represent an important Washington lobby, and the leaders of the Intelligence Committee, Rep. Mike Rogers (R-MI) and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), who play an important role in the release of intelligence information to the public, generally protect the interests of the military and intelligence communities. However, in a very narrow vote, the amendment failed 205-217. In one of the most split votes on bipartisan lines since the TARP vote, Democrats voted in favor 111-83 and Republicans voted against 94-134. The vote, looked at on normal partisan lines, shows no relationship with ideology:
The yea coalition was filled with Tea Party conservatives and very liberal Democrats, while the nay column was filled with establishment congressmen on both sides of the aisle and those who have a significant military presence in their districts, such as Adam Smith (D-WA) and Dutch Ruppersberger (D-MD).
Although the NSA amendment failed, it was the talk of Washington up until and after the vote, and it has made clear that it does not intend to go away. It came together once again when President Obama made his intent clear to strike Syria a few weeks ago in order to deter use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime. Amash repeatedly tweeted that the President must, under the Constitution, seek Congressional approval in order to declare war on Syria.
After Obama declared his intent to seek this approval (while simultaneously maintaining that he did not need it), Amash and his libertarian coalition went to work pushing against the war. This time around, many more Democrats (wary of another Iraq) and Republicans (wary to hand the power of war to a president they view as incompetent) favored the libertarian side. It appeared that the war resolution would lose resoundingly in the House despite, once again, support by both Boehner and Pelosi. There is little doubt that Obama’s decision to accept the Russian proposal for Syria’s chemical weapon disarmament was affected by his desire to avoid a humiliating loss in Congress.
On both the NSA amendment and the Syria vote this coalition of libertarian, Tea Party-backed conservatives and liberal Democrats showed their ability to come together across party lines. It increasingly appears that on a number of future issues – including mandatory minimums, foreign policy with Israel and Iran, and restrictions on the NSA’s powers – this group will play a critical role in the Congressional debate.