Congresspedia Review: This Week in Congress (June 13-20, 2008)

By Congresspedia assistant editor Avelino Maestas

Last week the House capitulated to President Bush on giving immunity for breaking privacy laws to the telecom companies, passed the Farm Bill (again), and Maryland elected its first black woman to Congress.

After months of back-door negotiations, Republican and Democratic leaders in the House and Senate brokered an update to 1978’s Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. FISA is the legal framework under which the government collects electronic information about foreign nationals that threaten U.S. national security.

With the advent of the Internet and following the 9/11 terror attacks, President Bush pushed Congress to weaken the standards of proof and warrants required for surveillance. In 2005 the issue exploded again with revelations that agencies had been engaged in telephone surveillance of Americans without FISA court approval and that most of the major telecom companies had aided the surveillance. Subsequently, individuals and civil liberties groups brought more than 40 lawsuits against telephone companies that helped the government’s warrantless eavesdropping.

Congress spent much of late 2007 and early 2008 considering FISA reform in the form of the RESTORE Act. The House approved a version of the bill that included tougher oversight of intelligence gathering and required a full review of telecom companies’ involvement in the warrantless spying. The Senate matched that and further loosened FISA oversight while granting retroactive immunity to the telecom companies for violating the rights of Americans and breaking privacy laws.

Unable to reconcile their differences, the House and Senate shifted debate behind closed doors. There, Democratic and Republican leaders negotiated (H.R.6304), the FISA Amendments Act of 2008. The legislation requires some judicial review of new surveillance activities, and orders lawsuits against the telecom companies dismissed if the Bush administration certifies that it requested the surveillance and told the telecom companies it was legal. The House approved that new bill on Friday.

The Farm Bill continues to lurch towards becoming law when the House and Senate again approved the bill this week. Both chambers had already passed the bill (and overrode it when President Bush vetoed it in May), but a glitch had omitted a section on trade policy that included funding for foreign aid shipments to Ethiopia, Myanmar and Somalia.

The Farm Bill clocks in at $290 billion and authorizes many agriculture related programs for a five-year period. Congress spend almost 18 months negotiating the legislation, which President Bush has again threatened to veto for its cost and the continuation of some farm subsidy programs.

In election related news, voters in Maryland's 4th congressional district chose Donna Edwards during a special election Tuesday. Edwards defeated incumbent Rep. Albert Wynn in a February primary election, and in May Wynn tendered his resignation. Edwards will still have to face Peter James in the November general election. Like Edwards, James won his party's nomination in February, and was chosen by party convention to take part in Tuesday's special election.

Another recent special election victor will have a much easier time come November, following news that his opponent has withdrawn from the race. Rep. Andre Carson (D-Ind.) was elected to fill the remainder of the term for Julia Carson, who passed away last year. Republicans in the district nominated John Elrod, but he read the writing on the wall and decided to try and return to the state legislature in Indiana.

Finally, Congresspedia staff editors confirmed this week that Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) is running for re-election this year. Weiner is viewed by many as a likely candidate for New York City mayor in 2009, but the five-term congressman is for now focused on retaining his seat in the 21st congressional district.

You can find more information about these campaigns in our Wiki the Vote project, a continuing effort to track every congressional race in the country. In addition to incumbents in the House and Senate, our citizen journalists have helped create more than 800 profiles of challengers this election cycle.