Had an amendment to the Department of Defense Appropriations Act that would have halted the National Security Agency’s collection of metadata of phone calls passed last night in the House of Representatives, it would have been a major blow to efforts to defend the country against Islamist terrorists. However, the narrow defeat of the measure by a vote of 217-205 that Max Boot rightly praised raises as many questions about whether a consensus on the vital nature of such national security efforts still exists as it answered. The back story of how this proposal championed by uber-libertarian Republican Rep. Justin Amash was able to get a floor vote for a proposal that was opposed by House Speaker John Boehner and didn’t have the backing of a majority of Republicans deserves some scrutiny.
According to Politico, even though Boehner, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy all opposed the amendment, their “top aides … spent the week holding Amash’s hand, helping him turn an unworkable amendment into language that would effectively quash one of the spy agency’s most effective tools.” They bent over backwards to help him get a floor vote even while he continued to publicly blast Boehner while making empty threats about derailing funding of the Department of Defense. Knowing that a lot of their members wanted an opportunity to vote against the NSA program, the GOP leadership thought it was worth their time to work with someone they all describe as a “child” so as to let members of their caucus blow off steam even though it ran the risk of causing real harm to national security. In the end, Boehner had to cast a vote himself and had to rely on the votes of a substantial minority of Democrats including Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to ensure the defeat of an amendment that they helped get to the floor.
Confused? You’re not alone. But here’s another question. If, as we have been told over and over again by the House leadership, that the so-called “Hastert rule” (named after former Speaker Denny Hastert) prevents any bill, including immigration reform, from being brought to the floor without the support of a majority of Republicans, why did Boehner allow Amash’s amendment a vote?
The parties both split on the NSA vote. Republicans voted no by a margin of 134-94. Democrats voted yes by a 111-83 margin. But rather than put out the whip on the measure, the House GOP leadership relied on committee chairs like Mike Rogers to make the argument against Amash’s attempt to throw a monkey wrench into national security. They clearly felt that suppressing his proposal without a vote would have been more dangerous in the long run to their political futures if not to the country than the damage done by the narrow margin on the amendment.
However, this also gives the lie to their insistence that a vote on immigration is impossible because of the sentiments of the GOP caucus. As the vote demonstrated, the libertarian surge against national security efforts is real, but it does not command anything close to a majority of Republicans. Under the Hastert rule, that should have meant it didn’t merit a vote. But faced with a rebellion by one of the noisiest Republicans in the House, suddenly the Hastert rule got swept under the rug.
This paints the leadership as both hypocritical and cowardly. The common denominator between the NSA vote and immigration is that in both cases Boehner is afraid to challenge the squeaky wheels in his caucus. The next time we’re given an explanation as to why a comprehensive immigration reform bill can’t be given an up-or-down vote (which would almost certainly result in its passage since a sizable number of Republicans would combine with Democrats to ensure a majority) because of the Hastert rule, let’s remember what happened with the NSA and understand that this is a flimsy excuse that doesn’t hold water.