This week: Surveillance fight sets early test for House’s proxy voting
A revised surveillance bill will serve as an early test of the House’s new proxy voting system.
The House is set to return to Washington on Wednesday for the first time since taking the historic step of allowing for members to vote remotely. The Senate is out of town this week and will return to Washington on June 1.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) announced the House would take up the USA Freedom Reauthorization Act of 2020 and additional coronavirus-related legislation shortly after the lower chamber passed along party lines the rules change to allow for proxy voting.
Republicans have largely been highly critical of the rules change, arguing it bucks tradition and places too much power in the hands of certain lawmakers. Democrats say the change is necessary and will allow for secure and safe voting amid the pandemic.
While lawmakers will be allowed to vote by proxy, Hoyer said he expects a sizable number of lawmakers to be in Washington for the vote.
“We expect a good turnout of members on both sides of the aisle to be in the chamber when we meet,” he said. “We do know, however, there are members who for health reasons — either their own health or the health of one of their family members — [or] transportation issues … [will be unable to meet in-person], but our expectation is there will be a good number of members.”
“We do not expect there to be 20 members here; [we] expect there to be many more,” he said on the floor earlier this month.
One of the first non-suspension bills expected to get a vote under the new system is a bill that would reauthorize lapsed sections of the USA Freedom Act, a 2015 intelligence reform law, and make some changes to the court created by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).
The bill initially passed the House in a 278-136 vote in March. But the Senate amended the measure to add more legal protections for certain individuals targeted by the FISA court. The changes force it to be bounced back to the House, which will need to pass it a second time.
Under a deal struck with leadership, the House is expected to consider an amendment, brought by Reps. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) and Warren Davidson (R-Ohio), that would block law enforcement from being able to access web browsing data without a warrant.
“I’m glad that we’ll get to vote on this important measure to protect Americans’ Third and Fourth Amendment rights,” Davidson said in a statement. “This reform — while just the tip of the iceberg — is a major step forward in protecting Americans’ right to privacy.”
If the House amends the bill, it will need to be sent back to the Senate.
The bill reauthorizes lapsed provisions of the USA Freedom Act: One dealing with “roving” wiretaps that track suspects across multiple devices and one on “lonewolf” individuals that have no ties to a known terrorist organization. It also reauthorized Section 215, which allows the government to request “tangible things” relevant to a national security investigation, but made changes including ending a controversial phone records program.
The legislation also made some changes to the FISA court. Progressives and libertarian-minded Republicans have warned for years that the court’s structure did not provide enough transparency or legal protections for individuals targeted.
As part of a deal struck earlier this year by Attorney General William Barr and House leadership, lawmakers included several changes including requiring the attorney general to sign off on applications tied to an elected official.
As part of the Senate’s debate on the bill, senators also voted to add an amendment from Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) that increases the role of outside legal experts in FISA court hearings, including allowing them to weigh in on some FBI surveillance requests.
Despite the months-long debate over the legislation it remains unclear if Trump would sign the legislation, either as originally drafted by Barr and House leadership, or with the additional changes added through amendments.
And in a potential speed bump, the Justice Department said after the Senate changed the bill that it no longer supported the legislation.
“We appreciate the Senate’s reauthorization of three expired national security authorities. As amended, however, [it] would unacceptably degrade our ability to conduct surveillance of terrorists, spies and other national security threats,” a Justice Department spokesperson said in a statement.
The House is set to take up legislation to change the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) to give small businesses more time to spend loans.
The legislation would change the window from the eight weeks established in Congress’s third coronavirus relief package to 24 weeks.
The House previously extended the time frame in its nearly $3 trillion bill passed earlier this month, but that bill has been declared dead on arrival in the GOP-controlled Senate, where Republicans remain divided over what should come next.
The House’s decision to take up a stand-alone bill to make changes to the PPP, which provides loans to businesses with fewer than 500 employees, comes as lawmakers, administration officials and some industries have warned that companies would not be able to spend the money by the original deadline as some states are being more cautious about lifting social distancing restrictions.
Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) introduced their own fix last week to extend the eight-week window to sixteen weeks. Senators had hoped to clear the change before they left town for a one-week break, but Rubio said on Friday that at least one office had objected.
Asked on Thursday afternoon if the Senate would pass its bill, instead of using the House’s longer time frame, Rubio demurred.
“We’ll have to see if they can amend theirs to reflect ours, or — I don’t think the differences between the House and Senate on this issue are insurmountable. I think they’re semantic and maybe a couple of weeks here or there, but that wouldn’t be the reason why this doesn’t get done,” he said.
In addition to changing the period of time for businesses to spend PPP loans, the House will also take up legislation requiring the Small Business Administration to publicly publish information on recipients of PPP and emergency disaster loans.
Aside from floor action, House committees are scheduled to hold several hearings related to the coronavirus.
The House Ways and Means Committee is scheduled to hold a virtual hearing on Wednesday on “The Disproportionate Impact of COVID-19 on Communities of Color.”
On Thursday, a House Appropriations subcommittee will hold a hearing on the Department of Veterans Affairs’s handling of the coronavirus, and an Education and Labor subcommittee will hold a hearing on the federal government’s actions to protect workers.
On Friday, a House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee will hold a hearing on the coronavirus’s impact on the “maritime supply chain.”
The House could potentially try to override Trump’s expected veto of a resolution rebuking a Department of Education rule that critics argue will hinder student loan borrowers’ ability to seek loan forgiveness from predatory institutions, if they receive the veto message this week.
Congress voted earlier this year to overturn the regulation that would put restrictions on an Obama-era “borrower defense” rule that was meant to regulate the for-profit sector and protect students who had been misled by colleges. DeVos has argued that students should have to prove they were financially harmed.
The more restrictive rule would give full relief only to students who earn much less than students in similar programs. Under the new formula, the remaining students would have no more than 75 percent of their loans forgiven.
The Department of Education projects the rule change — which is expected to take effect in July — could save upwards of $10 billion over the course of the next decade. Democrats have blasted the notion that the rule outweighs the costs on students.
“Instead of easing regulations and oversight on predatory for-profit schools, we need to stand up for students and open up quality, affordable opportunities in education for everyone,” Rep. Susie Lee (D-Nev.) said in a statement earlier this year.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) praised the measure in a tweet earlier this month.
“Proud to send @RepSusieLee’s bipartisan resolution to the President’s desk and protect tens of thousands of defrauded students, many of whom are hurting now more than ever, by blocking DeVos’s harmful student borrower defense rule. @realDonaldTrump must sign it without delay,” she tweeted on May 20.
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