A Sea Change in Congressional Attitudes on Surveillance

About two years ago I posted an analysis of the vote in the House of Representatives on the so-called “Amash Amendment,” an attempt to restrict the bulk collection of telephone records by the National Security Agency. Observers at the time were startled when, despite widespread opposition from the Obama Adminstration and House leadership, the amendment failed on a close vote of just 217 to 205 in July, 2013.

This past week the House had another chance to vote on the question of NSA surveillance, and this time the House voted to put new restrictions on the mass collection of telephone data. In particular, the telephone and Internet providers will retain the data and provide it only in response to government requests. This so-called USA FREEDOM Act of 2015 passed the House by a vote of 338 to 88. Perhaps the May 7th decision by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruling the entire NSA program illegal encouraged the lop-sided outcome.

Opponents of the surveillance programs were quick to argue that this Act does not go far enough in terms of reining in the activities of the FBI and NSA. Justin Amash himself, the author of the 2013 amendment, voted against the FREEDOM Act, arguing that:

H.R. 2048 threatens to undo much of the progress resulting from the Second Circuit’s opinion. The bill’s sponsors, and unfortunately some outside advocacy groups, wrongly claim that H.R. 2048 ends “bulk” collection. It’s true that the bill ends the phone dragnet as we currently know it—by having the phone companies themselves hold, search, and analyze certain data at the request of the government, which is worse in many ways given the broader set of data the companies hold—but H.R. 2048 actually expands the statutory basis for the large-scale collection of most data.

Even House leaders who opposed his 2013 amendment supported the FREEDOM Act.  This included both House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.  (The Speaker typically does not cast roll-call votes and did not vote on the FREEDOM Act.  He did choose to vote against the Amash Amendment, perhaps to indicate his strong opposition to that provision.)

I have compared the votes on the FREEDOM Act with those on the Amash amendment two years ago.


The top half of the table presents the actual votes; the lower half presents the percentages based on the Members’ votes on the Amash Amendment.  Only seven Members voted against both provisions.  Those who opposed the Amendment in 2013 voted overwhelmingly, 94 percent, in favor of the FREEDOM Act.  Most of the opposition to the Act came from the supporters of the Amendment.  Nearly two out of five of those Members opposed the Act as did Amash himself.  New Members of the House also voted heavily in favor of the Act; only eleven of the 67 new Members in the 114th Congress voted no, or just 16 percent.

Technical Appendix: The Model for Voting on the Amash Amendment

I took a more conventional, less spatially-oriented approach than that used on Voteview.  I used logit analysis to estimate a model using the two DW-NOMINATE scores and a variety of dummy variables to measure other possible influences like when the Member was elected and the committees on which the Member serves.  The dataset consists of the 342 Members who served in the 112th Congress (and thus for whom the DW-NOMINATE scores are publicly available) and voted on the Amash Amendment.

It soon became clear that the relationship between support for the amendment and ideological position was more complex than a simple linear model would predict.  What piques our interest in this vote is how the two parties divided over the amendment more than the division between the parties themselves.  I thus included separate terms for each ideological dimension within each party.  After doing so, including a dummy variable for party has no independent effect.

I also examined various measures of seniority in an effort to see whether there is any truth to pundits’ observation of a generational divide between older and newer members over the issue of domestic surveillance.  It turns out that the generational divide is especially pronounced for Republicans.  Those who were first elected to Congress in 2008 or 2010 were more likely to vote for the Amash amendment regardless of ideology.  For the Democrats, the results are more muted.  Those Democrats who were voted into office alongside President Obama in 2008 were especially likely to oppose him on domestic surveillance.  However the few Democrats who were first elected in 2010 were no more likely to support the amendment than Democrats elected in 2004 or before.

Finally there is a strong effect for committee memberships.  Members who serve on the House Armed Services or Select Intelligence committees were much more likely to vote against the Amash amendment.  The effect was especially pronounced for members of the Intelligence Committee.

Favored Amendment to Cut Funds for NSA Metadata Collection
Logit, 342 observations

             coefficient   std. error      z      p-value 
  Constant    −4.11799      0.699829    −5.884    4.00e-09 ***

DW-Nominate Scores

Dimension 1 ("Liberal-Conservative")
  Dems       −12.2661       1.82358     −6.726    1.74e-11 ***
  Reps         5.13557      0.972324     5.282    1.28e-07 ***
Dimension 2 (?)
  Dems        −0.879454     0.662692    −1.327    0.1845  
  Reps        −0.302442     0.642723    −0.4706   0.6380  

First Elected to Congress
  Dems 2008     3.25482      1.07614      3.025    0.0025   ***
  Reps 2008-10  0.751204     0.334374     2.247    0.0247   **

Committee Memberships
  Armed Srvcs  −1.03730      0.453937    −2.285    0.0223   **
  Intel        −3.15582      0.992305    −3.180    0.0015   ***

Estimated R2 (McFadden) = 0.276671
Number of cases 'correctly predicted' = 258 (75.4%)

While we have come some way to understanding the factors motivating Members’ votes on the Amash amendment, the model still cannot account for the votes of about a quarter of the House.

Voting on the Amendment to Restrict NSA Data Collection

(Revised, July 30, 2013)

In an America where partisan polarization has reached levels unseen since Reconstruction, the vote on July 24th to restrict funding for some of the surveillance activities conducted by the National Security Agency offered an welcome counterpoint.

Representative Justin Amash (R-MI) proposed an amendment to the defense appropriation bill that would have blocked funding for the wholesale collection of telephone calling records, so-called “metadata,” by the NSA. Despite heavy lobbying from the President, senior members of his Administration, and the leadership in Congress who all favored the amendment’s defeat, in the end it lost by only twelve votes, 205-217.


Fully a majority of Democrats voted in favor of ending the policy of indiscriminate NSA collection of telephone records despite admonitions by the President that the program be maintained while undertaking “a reasoned review of what tools can best secure the nation.”  Over in the House both Speaker John Boehner and former Speaker Nancy Pelosi voted against the amendment, with Boehner delivering a especially forceful defense of the current surveillance programs.  (Usually the Speaker refrains from voting in roll calls, so Boehner must have thought this an important vote to cast.)  Despite their leader’s strong opposition to the amendment, about two out of five Republican Members also voted to end the surveillance program.

All sorts of theories have been suggested by the pundits for the pattern of votes on this amendment.  Since the usual left-right dimension fails to predict the divisions within the parties, we must look elsewhere for explanations.  One common theory is that surveillance and other civil liberties issues form a “second dimension” of political conflict.  This view pits civil libertarians on both the left and the right against those who believe that, in some circumstances, the demands of national security outweigh individual privacy rights.

To examine these theories we would need a way to determine the position of each Member of Congress on these dimensions of political conflict.  Luckily some smart political scientists have devoted quite a bit of their professional lives to developing a method of scoring legislators based on the roll call votes they cast.  The scores for every Congress through the one that just ended are available on the Voteview site.  That limits my analysis to the 342 Members who served in the preceding Congress and voted on the Amash amendment.*

In an earlier blog posting, these analysts suggested that the second dimension their method identifies might be correlated with voting on domestic surveillance issues.  In a reply to a posting by Nate Silver, they analyzed two votes from the last Congress, one to renew the Patriot Act in 2011, and one to renew FISA in 2012.  In this posting they suggested that the mysterious “second dimension” might help differentiates Members’ votes on security and surveillance issues:

Previous conflicts like civil rights in the mid-twentieth century and bimetallism in the late-nineteenth century emerged as “second dimension” conflicts, meaning that the underlying (first) liberal-conservative dimension is insufficient to explain cleavages over these issues. It is too early too tell whether the second dimension is truly capturing an “establishment vs. outsider” divide over issues like domestic surveillance and the debt ceiling in contemporary congressional voting or merely fitting noise on a special subset of roll call votes, but the evidence so far is suggestive that the second dimension may be real and important.

However Voteview’s analysis this week of the Amash vote found little evidence of this second dimension influencing Members’ votes on the issue.  Rather they saw a pattern of support among more extreme Members on both sides of the aisle.  Using the approach I describe in detail in the Technical Appendix, we can plot the estimated probability of voting for the Amash amendment by ideological position like this:


This chart is based on estimating the influence of ideology separately for Democrats and Republicans.  The median members of each party are represented by blue and red vertical lines respectively.  The model predicts the chances that the median Democrat would vote for the amendment at about two-to-one; the median Republican opposes the amendment with about the same two-to-one odds.  The much narrower range of opinion within the Democratic delegation helps explain the much steeper slope we see for Democrats.  The horizontal lines along the X-axis represent the range of ideology scores within one standard deviation of the median. A change of 0.1 on the ideology measure represents a larger difference of opinion within the Democratic delegation than it does among the Republicans.

We can also identify two groups, one within each caucus, that display higher predicted rates of voting for the amendment.  Among Democrats, those Members elected alongside President Obama were substantially more likely to favor restricting the NSA.  Of the fourteen Members elected for the first time in 2008, twelve of them voted in favor of the amendment including the most centrist member of the group, Bill Owens of upstate New York.

Across the aisle, the equivalent contingent of 2008 Republicans were also more likely to favor the amendment as were those Republicans elected for the first time in the 2010 landslide.  There are many more Members in this group, 88 in all, with DW-NOMINATE scores running from 0.386 for Jon Runyan of New Jersey to a 1.0 for South Carolina’s Mick Mulvaney, both members of the class of 2010.  (Mulvaney voted in favor of the amendment as did the only other Member of the House scored to Mulvaney’s right, Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, the author of the PATRIOT Act.  The New York Times reports that Sensenbrenner’s brief floor speech in favor of the Amash amendment strongly influenced wavering Members.)

This analysis shows clearly the generational divide within both parties, and particularly within the Republicans.  The few Democrats elected in 2010 showed no greater support for the amendment than other Democrats with equivalent ideological beliefs.  For Republicans, those elected in 2008 and those elected in 2010 were both more likely to favor NSA restrictions at a statistically identical rate.

Two other factors not shown in the graph also influenced votes on the Amash amendment.  Members of both the House Armed Services Committee and, especially, the Select Intelligence Committee were substantially more likely to oppose the Amash amendment than Members with equivalent ideological positions.

For details of the model, see the Technical Appendix for this posting.


* People who know how high House re-election rates are might be surprised that only 349 Members of those voting or absent Wednesday night were returning incumbents.  The turnover rate for the 113th Congress was the highest it has been for decades.  The rate of retirements skyrocketed, while the re-election rate for incumbents declined. Redistricting played a role especially in states like California where incumbents were forced to run against each other. The substantial influx of newcomers in 2013 led one observer to call this Congress one of the “most inexperienced in history.”