Washington Watch: Congress lurks toward new low

The public can endlessly debate what private contractor and Moscow airport resident Edward Snowden has or has not accomplished by leaking government surveillance records.

But, if nothing else, he certainly succeeded in creating one of the most bizarre mixes of bipartisan U.S. House votes this past week when a measure by Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., was narrowly defeated on a 205-217 vote.

Amash, a tea party and libertarian favorite and a thorn in the side of the GOP House leadership, pushed his amendment to largely stop the National Security Agency’s collection each month of millions of cellphone records of Americans and more.

Amash was joined by 111 Democrats and 93 other Republicans.

Out of the Louisiana delegation, Amash had the backing of Reps. Bill Cassidy, R-Baton Rouge; Steve Scalise, R-Jefferson; John Fleming, R-Minden; and Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans.

Reps. Charles Boustany, R-Lafayette; and Rodney Alexander, R-Quitman, sided with the GOP and Democratic House leadership in opposing and, ultimately, defeating the effort.

Scalise argued the amendment would have narrowed the NSA’s pursuit only to suspected terrorists rather than the “blanket collection of information of American citizens.”

While Scalise said he still supports the 2001 Patriot Act and its reauthorization, he said the federal government’s authority has expanded beyond the intent of the legislation, even if laws are not being broken.

“We’re trying to put more protections in place,” Scalise said, adding that “this issue isn’t going away.”

On the other hand, Boustany noted that he has attended more confidential intelligence hearings than the other members of the Louisiana House delegation and that the amendment “would have really put our national security at risk.”

Boustany said the programs have stopped 54 terrorist plots in their implementation phases and that no Americans have claimed their civil liberties were specifically infringed.

“Certainly, I share everyone’s concern about our security and our civil liberties,” Boustany said. “But I believe this program is structured with the proper safeguards to meet both ends.

“This program is targeted at foreign nationals and not U.S. citizens,” he said.

Congressional oversight is already in place, Boustany said, adding that he is open to increasing the levels of oversight.

The NSA is certainly a hot topic and the Amash fight drew a lot of attention and unusual alliances. But the end result is the House passing a defense appropriations bill that is opposed by the White House and many Democrats for its spending levels.

One key measure is expected to be sent to the president’s desk this week to become law.

That bill is the retroactive fix to undo the doubling of interest rates on subsidized Stafford student loans that occurred July 1 for more than 7 million new borrowers this fall, including about 85,000 in Louisiana.

In terms of dumbing down the argument, Republicans called it a win and Democrats called it the best deal they could get after the GOP and President Barack Obama, though disagreeing on a lot of details, both backed market-based approaches.

A lot of student groups and more liberal Democrats still opposed the deal, arguing that it is good for new college students now, but bad for those who will enter college in a few years.

The gist is the interest rates for undergraduate college students, who are new borrowers, jumped from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent when Congress was unable to reach a deal last month. The new bipartisan plan overwhelmingly approved by the Senate last week will bring those rates down to 3.86 percent.

The rates are fixed and capped at 8.25 percent in the future, but critics contended that projections point to new students paying 7 percent interest rates in five years – more than the current doubled rate.

Still, it seems House Republicans are ready to adopt the Senate compromise.

Scalise criticized the Senate for taking so long, but he said he plans to vote for the bill under the argument that he it is close enough to what the House previously had passed.

Jordan Blum is chief of The Advocate’s Washington bureau. He can be reached at jblum@theadvocate.com.