Congresspedia Preview: This Week in Congress (Jan. 26 - Feb. 1, 2008)

By Congresspedia Assistant Editor Avelino Maestas

With the State of the Union address out of the way, all eyes should return to Congress’ most pressing issues: FISA reform and an economic stimulus package.

It looks like Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), is going to spoil the stimulus party, introducing his own economic stimulus bill to rival the compromise version reached by President Bush and the House of Representatives. Baucus — the Senate Finance Committee chairman — said rebates for seniors, extended benefits for the long-term unemployed, and tax relief for businesses were the key components of the Senate plan, which is backed by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

The Senate bill would issue rebate checks for most Americans: in this case $500 for just about everybody or $1,000 for couples, rather than the tiered system favored by Bush and the House. That bill would begin phasing out rebates for individuals making more than $75,000, and for couples making more than $150,000.

The House is expected to vote on their version of the package this afternoon, meaning a conference committee will have to sort out the differences before the bill can move on to the White House. Bush urged quick passage of a stimulus bill during his State of the Union address on Monday.

Prior to the president’s speech, Senators continued their legislative tug-of-war over electronic intelligence reform. More on the debate, and the history of FISA legislation, after the break.

Yesterday, the Senate resumed debate of the RESTORE Act, a reform of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Two cloture votes — one to proceed with the Intelligence Committee version of the RESTORE Act, and another to extend the Protect America Act — were defeated. The Senate will therefore continue consideration of the Intelligence version (it tabled the Judiciary version last week) before the PAA expires Friday. It will also have to decide on four amendments:

  • Sens. Chris Dodd and Russ Feingold will drop an amendment to strip telecom immunity from the bill
  • Sen Diane Feinstein’s first amendment would transfer lawsuits against the illegal wiretapping program to the secret FISA court
  • Sen. Arlen Specter’s amendent to substitute the government as the defendant in lawsuits directed at the telecoms
  • Feinstein’s second amendment would make FISA the sole legal basis for any U.S. electronic intelligence gathering

We’ve talked about FISA reform quite a bit lately, but let’s step back a bit and get our bearings.

In 1978, Congress adopted the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, intended to help the intelligence community gather information on foreign individuals and Americans suspected of espionage or international terrorism against the United States. Unless an American was involved, agencies could conduct intelligence gathering without a warrant for a period of one year. If an American was targeted for intelligence gathering, a special court could issue a secret warrant. Agencies had to seek approval from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court for the warrant, as long as it was done within three days after the inception of surveillance.

The court provided an oversight function until the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001, reviewing requests and, with few exceptions, issuing warrants. Under the Bush Administration, the federal government increased its use of electronic surveillance, culminating in a wiretapping program begun by the National Security Agency in 2002. The program was conducted without a court order, and critics accused the administration of violating the terms of FISA.

In 2007, Congress moved to reform FISA, which President Bush had called “out-dated.” In August, both chambers approved the Protect America Act, which considerably loosened restrictions on electronic surveillance. It no longer required a warrant for the collection of information, as long as the FISC was notified of the surveillance.

In addition, the PAA allowed the surveillance of American citizens and residents — without a warrant — as long as the target of any relevant communications was a foreign subject.

The PAA was passed with a 6-month lifespan, meaning Congress would have to reconsider the bill or reauthorize the PAA. The catch: it expires on Friday.

So, will the House and Senate adopt 30-day extensions, or will the PAA lapse and the country return to electronic surveillance governed under the original FISA legislation? We should know by the end of the week.

And sorry, no committee schedules this week: we'll have them for you again on Monday.