WASHINGTON — After fierce debate over the limits of domestic spying, the House on Wednesday voted to protect the federal government's ability to collect phone records and other data related to U.S. citizens who aren't suspected of terrorism.
By a vote of 217 to 205, members defeated a proposal to restrict the government's data collection. The Oklahoma members split on the proposal. Reps. Jim Bridenstine, R-Tulsa, and Markwayne Mullin, R-Westville, voted to restrict the surveillance program. Reps. Tom Cole, R-Moore, James Lankford, R-Oklahoma City, and Frank Lucas, R-Cheyenne, voted against the proposed changes.
Liberal Democrats joined conservative Republicans to accuse the National Security Agency of violating constitutional protections against illegal searches and to support an amendment that would restrict data collection to cases where a suspected terrorist was targeted.
Rep. James Sensenbrenner, the Milwaukee Republican who helped write the Patriot Act, said the NSA had gone far beyond the limits set by the legislation in pulling records that weren't relevant to an investigation.
Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., who wrote the amendment, said the government “collects phone records without suspicion of every American in the United States.”
The amendment was prompted by revelations by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden about top secret data collection efforts, including the mass collection of U.S. phone records.
The Obama administration lobbied against Amash's amendment, and members of congressional intelligence committees defended the NSA's actions, saying there was no collection of the content of phone calls or emails and that there were multiple levels of oversight.
Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., said it was “a false narrative that the federal government is taking in the content of American phone calls and emails.”
She said there was more information about U.S. citizens in a phone book than in the NSA database.
“Your name, your address is in the phone book,” she said. “Your name, your address is not in this NSA database.”
The proposal was offered as an amendment to the $600 billion military spending bill for the fiscal year that begins in October. That bill was approved Wednesday night. The House overwhelmingly passed a separate amendment that essentially restated the limits on data collection under the Patriot Act.
The legislation includes an amendment by Cole that would prevent potential furloughs next year for about 180,000 civilians working for the Defense Department, including thousands at Tinker Air Force Base.
Cole's proposal would affect those civilians who are paid out of a working capital fund.
Tinker's aircraft repair center operates with such a fund, functioning like a business that is paid by its customers. The money in the funds is not directly appropriated by Congress. Cole, whose district includes Tinker, and several other lawmakers believe that the department is not legally authorized to furlough employees paid from a working capital fund.
Supporters of Cole's amendment argued that furloughing the workers doesn't save money since they are paid from the separate accounts.
“They are a business that performs work and they are paid for it and the money's already there,” said Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.
But Rep. Peter Visclosky, D-Ind., argued against the amendment, saying it wasn't fair to make distinctions among federal employees.
“We ought to value all of their work collectively together,” he said.
About 650,000 Defense Department civilians have been forced to take 11 furlough days through September. That includes about 14,000 workers at Tinker and a total of 20,000 employees at all of Oklahoma's military bases.
Pentagon leaders are waiting on their budget from Congress to determine whether furloughs will be necessary next year.
Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Tulsa, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, praised Cole's amendment and said it would prevent furloughs of 9,500 civilians at Tinker and more than 1,500 at the McAlester Army Ammunition Plant.
“Rep. Cole's amendment proves that recent furloughs are unnecessary and could have been avoided with proper leadership and planning from the Obama administration,” Inhofe said.
The bill includes money for a 1.8 percent pay raise for military personnel. No pay raise is included for civilians, most of whom had their pay cut in the current fiscal year through mandatory furlough days.
The House version of the military spending bill will have to be reconciled with the Senate version, which has yet to be considered.