Rep. Jared Huffman joined an unusual coalition of House members from both parties and opposite ends of the political spectrum in backing a bill that would end the dragnet collection of Americans' telephone records.
"It's time to swing the pendulum back in the direction of protecting privacy and civil liberties," said Huffman, D-San Rafael, who represents the North Coast in Congress.
He's among the 87 co-sponsors — 44 Republicans and 43 Democrats — supporting the USA Freedom Act, introduced this week by Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, the Wisconsin Republican who authored the USA Patriot Act implemented 45 days after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Sensenbrenner, chairman of the House Crime and Terrorism Subcommittee, said the Patriot Act "helped keep Americans safe" by "enhancing the tools" needed to track terrorists.
"But somewhere along the way," he said in a press release this week, "the balance between security and privacy was lost."
Huffman, who joined Congress in January, said the nation "granted sweeping authority to the intelligence agencies" after 9/11 and now needs to make "intelligent changes" to the law.
Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, an eight-term House veteran, wrote a competing bill — the Intelligence Oversight and Accountability Act of 2013 — endorsed by all his fellow members of the House Intelligence Committee.
"Our government has a responsibility to both protect American lives and our citizens' civil liberties," Thompson said, adding that his bill would strengthen "Congress' aggressive oversight of our Intelligence Community."
Thompson's bill requires the attorney general to report to Congress certain orders and opinions of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the secret panel that gives intelligence agencies the legal authority for electronic surveillance.
The attorney general currently has discretion over whether to share the court's decisions with Congress, and Thompson's bill makes such disclosures mandatory for decisions that include a denial or modification of a surveillance request or results in any change of the law that authorized the process.
The court has approved 99.9percent of the 33,949 surveillance requests it has received from the attorney general since 1979, according to the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a nonprofit research group.
Thompson's bill is silent on the National Security Agency's mining of telephone records, revealed in June by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, prompting a national uproar.
Sensenbrenner's bill would "change wholesale how the NSA does business," said David McCuan, a Sonoma State University political scientist.
Thompson's measure, in contrast, is "incremental reform, at best," McCuan said, underscoring why it gained backing from the bipartisan House Intelligence Committee.
Eleven other California Democrats joined Huffman in co-sponsoring the Freedom Act, along with four California Republicans: Reps. Dana Rohrbacher of Huntington Beach, Duncan Hunter of San Diego, Darrell Issa of Vista and Tom McClintock of Granada Hills.
The bill united both "civil libertarians on the left" with "anti-big-government conservatives" on the right, McCuan said.
But even with that support, McCuan said, the Sensenbrenner bill is unlikely to move forward "against the wishes of the intelligence committee" and probably wouldn't get President Barack Obama's signature if it cleared Congress.
If Congress approves any intelligence-related measure, McCuan said, it would probably resemble Thompson's bill.
The Freedom Act covers the major thrust of Thompson's bill by requiring the attorney general to disclose all the intelligence court decisions issued after July 10, 2003, that "contain a significant construction or interpretation of law."