Not all of these votes are created equal, in that not every vote communicates much in terms of how members really stand on the important issues before Congress.
Conservative Review takes on the task of scoring the most important and most revealing votes in our online scorecard. By design, only a handful of the hundreds of votes each year are counted toward a member’s Liberty Score®.
But while the Liberty Score provides an excellent rating of who actually fights for conservative ideals in Congress, the raw number doesn’t always tell the story behind the most difficult votes: Key fights over limiting the government’s power are lost in committee markups; amendments to a bill are denied any chance at a vote by leadership; and multiple bills are tied together to create dilemmas for members who like some of the final package but not the rest.
By the time a whole bill comes up for a final passage vote on the House or Senate floor, the legislative sausage has often already been made and cooked, and members face an often impossible task of deciding whether to swallow what’s put on their plate.
Hopefully, I can help fill that gap. In combing through the nearly 800 roll call votes taken in 2016 (622 in the House and 163 in the Senate), here are a few of the votes that stood out.
1. House: Resolution to Impeach IRS Commissioner John Koskinen (H.Res. 828 — Motion to Refer to Committee passed, 342-72)
This vote should have been easy. IRS Commissioner Koskinen gave demonstrably false testimony before Congress on his lackluster efforts to fix the agency in the aftermath of the IRS targeting scandal against conservative groups. He also oversaw the destruction of evidence that had been subpoenaed by Congress during its investigation of the scandal. While impeachment is a serious proceeding to be used sparingly, Koskinen’s conduct made about as clear a case for his removal as one could hope to find.
Leadership — and even a few conservatives opposed the impeachment — mostly argued that it was futile and a waste of time. Part of rediscovering lost Congressional authority is just going ahead and doing the right thing and not worrying about what the Senate or the president might do. The precedent should have been set that appointed bureaucrats should think twice before acting in contempt of Congress; instead, the impeachment motion fell flat on its face.
Even the vote itself was a leadership cop-out — a motion simply to refer the impeachment resolution back to the House Judiciary Committee. But every member who voted “Yes” to refer knew full well that doing so would de facto kill the effort for the year.
2. House: Massie Amendment to defund warrantless mass surveillance. (H. Amdt. 1204 — failed, 198-222)
The Massie/Lofgren/Poe amendment was a bi-partisan attempt to restore Fourth Amendment due process boundaries by defunding the use of mass digital surveillance to access information on Americans without a warrant. This vote is particularly interesting because the exact same amendment passed the House in 2014 and 2015 by huge margins. What was the difference this year? A terrorist shot up the Pulse nightclub in Orlando just days before the vote was scheduled.
Never mind that the unconstitutional surveillance that this amendment would have stopped wouldn’t have caught the Orlando killer, or that getting a warrant to surveil an actual terrorist suspect is really easy. This amendment went from getting 293 votes in 2014 to only 198 in 2016, with Republican support dropping from 135 to 72.
It just goes to show how skittish members of Congress become when it involves putting limits on defense or the surveillance state. For many members, when an actual emergency happens, the Constitution takes a back seat.
3. Senate: McCain Amendment to allow expanded use of National Security Letters to collect user data en masse (S. Amdt. 4787 — Cloture motion failed, 58-38)
Senator John McCain offered up this amendment to expand greatly the FBI’s ability to demand that companies turn over information about their users without a court order, using what’s known as a “National Security Letter” or NSL. You can read more about the dubious legality of NSLs (and how the FBI got caught using them illegally shortly before this vote happened here).
If anything, the way that NSLs are used to ignore basic due process should be restricted or eliminated, instead of dramatically expanded as McCain’s amendment would have done. Fortunately, the amendment was subject to a 60-vote threshold and narrowly failed, with only a handful of Republicans resisting this egregious breach of the Fourth Amendment.
4. Senate: Energy Policy Modernization Act (S. 2012, passed Senate, 85-12)
This innocently titled bill was sort of a technocratic work of art. Federal energy policy is indeed convoluted, with grant programs, regulations, direct subsidies, and a network of laws meddling in nearly every facet of what should be a free market in the industry. But the solution, according to this bill, was for the most part merely to streamline existing federal structures — to modernize them, make them more efficient. And, of course, to shift federal subsidies around to the kinds of energy the authors of the bill preferred.
In addition, a permanent reauthorization of funds used to buy up more federal land to add to the government’s already massive holdings was tacked on to this bill, which was likely the straw that broke the camel’s back for some senators who already found the bill unattractive. Only 12 senators voted against it in the end, and stunningly only six representatives voted against it in the House. Congress ran out of time and failed to finish up the bill, however.
5. Senate: Blunt Amendment to provide extra funds to the CDC to research the Zika virus (S.Amdt. 3900, passed, 68-30)
Part of resisting the inexorable growth of government is refusing to just shovel more federal funding out the door every time a new crisis hits the news. Politics being what it is, it’s far easier to vote for said funding than to explain to voters why it’s wasteful or unnecessary or should have been paid for with existing funds. Such was the case with Zika virus research in 2016.
The CDC had tens of millions of dollars sitting in a research slush fund, left over from the Ebola scare in 2015. But Zika was an excuse to beg for more money rather than adjusting the priorities of the CDC appropriately, and this amendment was an attempt to give it to the agency. To their credit, 30 Republicans failed to take the bait, but the amendment passed (although the underlying bill was eventually vetoed by Obama). Ultimately, $387 million in additional funds for Zika research were sent to the CDC via another bill.
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Josh Withrow is an Associate Editor for Conservative Review and Director of Public Policy at Free the People. You can follow him on Twitter at @jgwithrow.