The passage of appropriations bills is a seemingly casual process in which any legislator can attempt to hitch his or her hobbyhorse to it as it makes its way slowly to a vote. (And then to a government shutdown.) “Rob Peter/Pay Paul” amendments are offered for quick floor votes, adding millions to one program while siphoning the equivalent amount from another. Other amendments are simply of the “Rob Peter” variety, in which funding is stripped from programs or activities a legislator doesn’t agree with.
Given the recent legislative activity surrounding US surveillance programs and the ongoing exposure of the FBI’s tactics and technology, it’s somewhat unsurprising that lawmakers are taking a shot at defunding some of the more questionable efforts. Darrell Issa, for example, offered an amendment stating that if the FBI wants to deploy its Stingray devices without a warrant, it will need to hold a bake sale to pay for it.
The amendment prohibits funding for federal law enforcement to conduct non-court-ordered “stingray” operations that collect bulk electronic data from individuals. The amendment was adopted on a voice vote.
This is of some import, although the FBI now claims it gets a warrant before deploying Stingrays. It will probably edge around this defunding by claiming it doesn’t use Stingrays to collect data in bulk (sort of true, if used for their intended purpose and with proper minimization) or by pointing at its exemptions to its self-imposed warrant requirements, which are big enough you could fly a single-engine plane bristling with antennas and cameras through them.
In addition to other surveillance-targeting amendments, like defunding of any future NIST/NSA partnerships to backdoor encryption and the FBI/DOJ’s use of backdoor surveillance via wiretapping laws, other interesting amendments were proposed and passed.
Rep. Gosar (R-AZ) – The amendment increases funding for the DOJ Office of the Inspector General by $1.7 million, offset by a reduction to the DOJ General Administration – Salaries and Expenses account.
Michael Horowitz — the Inspector General for the DOJ — has been battling the FBI and DEA for months now over the release of documents his office has requested. So far, the battle has been futile, but some additional funding will help ensure his office will continue to try to hold the DOJ’s agencies accountable for their misconduct and failures. If nothing else, Horowitz has been both dogged and vocal while performing his oversight duties — something that very obviously hasn’t endeared him to the agencies he polices. I see no reason not to give this man, and his office, more funding.
Rep. Castro (D-TX) – The amendment increases the Community Trust Initiative, which provides grants for police body cameras, by $10 million, offset by a reduction to the DEA Salaries and Expenses account.
Body cameras are no panacea, but they’re definitely better than taking no action at all. The best part about this is that it forces the DEA to fund a program many law enforcement agencies are hesitant to adopt. The ironic part is that the worst behavior in law enforcement (i.e., abuse of no-knock warrants, asset forfeiture) is tied to the Drug War. True accountability is still little more than a starry-eyed ideal, but taking $10 million from the DEA for this program is definitely a better use of that money.
Rep. Grayson (D-FL) – The amendment prohibits funding to compel a journalist or reporter to testify about information or sources that they regard to be confidential.
This is interesting, especially in light of the DOJ’s efforts to compel New York Times journalist James Risen to reveal his sources. There’s more to it than just the summation of this amendment, but it’s far too much to cover here. (Hint: define “journalist.” Once again, the government wants to be able to make that determination, probably on a case-by-case basis.)
Rep. Luetkemeyer (R-MO) – The amendment prohibits funding for DOJ’s “Operation Chokepoint.”
If this sticks, Team America: Morality Police™ will have to hold Bitcoin auctions or whatever if it wishes to keep porn performers and other blacklisted undesirables from availing themselves of bank services.
The attendant downside to these easily-passed amendments is that they can just as easily be deleted before the appropriation bill’s final passage, especially if those targeted are able to apply enough pressure to block the bill’s package with these intact.