Congress didn’t pass bill named for their slain daughter. Why not?
Nathan Leamer, a senior policy analyst for the R Street Institute, a conservative research center in Washington, was driving home on Sunday, May 22, the night before the Kelsey Smith Act was scheduled for a vote, when his cellphone rang.
The caller was a Republican lawmaker on the House Judiciary Committee. Members of the panel were angry they didn’t get a chance to weigh in on the bill’s constitutionality, Leamer was told.
Maybe he should take a closer look at the measure.
“He asked me, ‘What would prevent a police officer from spying on their wife with this legislation? They wouldn’t even need a warrant.’”
Leamer pulled over to the side of the road and scanned the text of the bill on his phone. To his surprise, something was missing.
An earlier version, passed by the committee last year, required authorities to provide a sworn statement that someone risked death or bodily harm before obtaining the location data. It also required them to seek a court order within 48 hours of requesting someone’s cell coordinates.
Both protections had been removed from the bill headed to the floor the next day.
The changes had been made, congressional aides say, because law enforcement authorities in some members’ districts thought the rules were too restrictive.
“The gears started shifting in my head about how we were going to fight this,” Leamer said.
But he would have to act quickly.
Republican leadership had fast-tracked the bill in a legislative maneuver known as “suspension of the rules,” a move usually reserved for uncontroversial pieces of legislation such as naming post offices. Under suspension, a bill needs a two-thirds vote to pass, and amendments are prohibited.
It’s so rare for legislation to fail under suspension that no staffers or lawmakers McClatchy interviewed could remember the last time it had happened.
“The idea was hey, this is a layup,” said one Republican aide who spoke only on the condition of anonymity, lacking the authority to speak publicly.
That calculus didn’t take into account growing conservative and liberal opposition to the measure.
The next morning, Leamer’s organization blasted out an alert by email, urging a “no” vote. The American Civil Liberties Union fired off a similar letter.
Both organizations, along with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a California-based digital liberties group, began bombarding lawmakers’ offices with phone calls.
By the time Kelsey’s photo went up in the House chamber that afternoon, it had become clear to Yoder, the bill’s sponsor, that the bill was in jeopardy.…But R Street’s Leamer, who had counted the votes, knew the bill would fall short. He urged House leadership to pull it from the floor, to no avail.