WASHINGTON — With U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King holding two of the 15 seats on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Maine’s senators will play a role in shaping any congressional reforms to the nation’s spying tactics.
The two senators’ reactions to President Obama’s speech Friday on the National Security Agency show that while they agree on some potential steps as well as the need for a broad intelligence-gathering effort, there are also nuances between the two on a few critical issues.
One notable difference is over who should hold on to the so-called “metadata,” the massive troves of phone records compiled by the NSA. Obama on Friday directed officials to explore having phone companies or even a new entity maintain the metadata and then give the NSA access to specific records.
Collins said Obama’s decision on who holds the metadata “requires considerable scrutiny,” but she voiced skepticism of the plan.
“Having the telephone companies or other non-governmental entities responsible for holding this information might well make it far less private and secure than it is currently,” Collins said in a statement.
King has, in the past, been an advocate for such an arrangement.
“The principle should be don’t put too much power in the hands of the government because it can and probably at some point will be abused,” King told MSNBC back in June. “It makes me nervous that all of those phone records are in the possession of the [NSA].”
But King was also the author of what he said was a compromise on the issue that would require authorities to log every time the government accesses the metadata and file quarterly reports with Congress detailing those incidents. The Senate Intelligence Committee unanimously endorsed that amendment.
King is slated to discuss the NSA reforms on Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union” program with Candy Crowley.
Obama’s list of recommended legislative changes also included something similar to what Maine’s two senators proposed late last year.
Working with Sens. Mark Warner of Virginia and Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, King and Collins successfully added language to a bill to allow the super-secret Federal Intelligence Surveillance Court to consult with approved outside experts when dealing with new or complicated legal questions. Obama called for the creation of a panel to serve as public advocates for the court.
One other thing worth noting:
Although Collins is widely viewed as a safe bet for re-election in 2014 – with strong approval ratings even among Democrats and independents – her Democratic opponent, Shenna Bellows, plans to make the NSA and its sweeping information-gathering programs a major focus of her campaign.
Civil liberties issues often make strange political bed fellows, bringing together far-left liberals, tea party Republicans and hardcore libertarians outraged by what they see as dangerous government infringement on private lives.
As the former executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, Bellows is obviously hoping that she can peel off enough of those disenfranchised tea partiers and libertarians to boost her numbers.
Whether Bellows will be able to make a large dent in Collins’ armor remains to be seen. On Friday, she said Obama’s proposal “falls short of real reform.”
“I’m running for United States Senate to stand up against the Washington pattern of sacrificing our liberties for a false sense of security,” Bellows said in a statement. “We need to stop dragnet surveillance and restore our constitutional freedoms to protect individual liberties and restore trust in our government again.”
OTHER TIDBITS IN THE BUDGET BILL
Following are a few other items potentially of interest to Mainers that were included in the massive spending bill approved by Congress last week but didn’t get much attention:
• Language requiring the U.S. Department of Agriculture to essentially take another look at including fresh white potatoes in the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program. While the language doesn’t require potatoes to be included in WIC, it directs the USDA to explain why not if they are excluded. This is a big issue for potato-growing states such as Maine and Idaho.
• $149 million for the Essential Air Service program – a $6 million increase – that helps pay for regular flights to smaller communities that might not be considered economically viable routes for airlines otherwise. The Augusta, Bar Harbor, Owls Head/Rockland, and Presque Isle are all included in the Essential Air Service program.
• A prohibition on the U.S. Department of Energy from spending money to phase out the incandescent light bulb. The language prevents the Energy Department from enforcing rules that banned the manufacture or import 40-watt or 60-watt incandescent bulbs, rules that were intended to force the American public to switch to more energy-efficient bulbs.
LOBSTERS AND CLIMATE CHANGE
Sen. King said last week that climate change skeptics should talk to Maine lobstermen – or a Maine lobster, for that matter – for perspective on the issue.
Speaking during a press conference of Senate Democrats announcing a new push on climate change legislation, King excitedly told reporters that he didn’t understand why global warming had become a partisan issue.
“You know what? Congress may not know what’s going on, but the Maine lobsters know what’s going on because they’re moving north,” King said, referring to the dramatic drop in lobster populations off the coasts of places such as Long Island and Rhode Island.
“The Maine lobstermen are about as conservative a bunch of people that you can find on this planet, but they know that something is changing out there,” King said. “They are finding seahorses in their lobster traps. That’s change. It’s climate change.”
About 20 senators have formed the Senate Climate Action Task Force in hopes of moving forward – if incrementally – on climate-related legislation. The group faces long odds, however, because of staunch opposition from House and Senate Republicans either skeptical that humans are causing global warming or opposed to regulatory changes they predict will harm businesses.
Kevin Miller can be contacted at 317-6256 or at:
Twitter: @KevinMiller DC