Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner introduced the first in a series of bills to rein in laws and policies he believes "over-criminalize" many activities.
His first target is the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Earlier this month Sensenbrenner reintroduced legislation to eliminate the agency and divvy up its responsibilities between the Drug Enforcement Administration and FBI.
"The ATF is a scandal-ridden, largely duplicative agency that lacks a clear mission," the Menomonee Republican said. "Its 'Framework' is an affront to the Second Amendment and yet another reason why Congress should pass the ATF Elimination Act," Sensenbrenner added, referring to the agency's recent proposal to ban some armor-piercing bullets.
As part of his work on the House Judiciary Committee's Over-criminalization Task Force, Sensenbrenner concluded the nation's criminal system needs overhauling, and that eliminating the ATF is one step in that process, according to his spokesman.
Rep. Reid Ribble, R-Sherwood, has already signed on as a co-sponsor. The idea is not strictly a Republican one, however. Rep. John Conyers Jr., the Michigan Democrat who's dean of the House, is a long-time member of the House Judiciary Committee and has teamed up with Sensenbrenner on other matters, most notably updating the Voting Rights Act. He previously proposed rolling the ATF into other departments as well.
On Jan. 9, Conyers and GOP Sens. Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Mike Lee of Utah joined Sensenbrenner in penning a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder urging him to reform federal asset forfeiture programs.
"[W]e have concerns that the government is not using the process fairly and instead is infringing on the rights of small business owners and motorists, some of whom are our constituents," the quartet wrote Holder.
Speaking about "adoptive seizures" and the "Equitable Sharing" program, the four lawmakers said current policy encourages local authorities to zealously seize property from people suspected of crimes, often without warrants and ultimately requiring citizens never charged with a crime to fight to get their cash or property back.
"Under this arrangement, state and local law enforcement agencies bring property seized under state law to a federal seizing agency for federal forfeiture and then can receive up to 80 percent of the proceeds of the resulting forfeiture," they wrote. "We are concerned that these seizures might circumvent state forfeiture law restrictions, create improper incentives on the part of state and local law enforcement, and unnecessarily burden our federal authorities."
Holder listened and a week later limited the Equitable Sharing program.
Nonetheless Sensenbrenner wants to see more progress in the asset forfeiture department and plans to introduce legislation further reigning in law enforcement's ability to seize property. He also plans to pen a bill that would revise and reorganize the federal criminal code, among other things.
WASHINGTON -- Some of the most controversial provisions of the USA Patriot Act expire on June 1, and Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner thinks he has a solution that will satisfy both federal intelligence officials and privacy advocates.
Congress, in the waning days of the 113th session, almost passed the update and partial rewrite of the law enacted in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The House passed the USA Freedom Act authored by Sensenbrenner, but the Senate fell just two votes shy of taking up the companion version written by Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., before adjourning in December.
Revelations that the National Security Agency was collecting telephone "metadata" from Americans' phone records in bulk leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden beginning in June of 2013 prompted calls to reign in the spy agency's surveillance powers. The NSA and other intelligence agencies relied on a broad interpretation of Section 213 of the Patriot Act for their power to sift through the timestamp information of Americans' phone calls. Sensenbrenner and Leahy worked on an update, the USA Freedom Act, that eventually won the support of the Obama administration, the intelligence community, the technology sector and privacy advocates.
After the Senate version couldn't overcome a filibuster in December, bill supporters worried their window had closed. The rise of ISIS over the summer and incidents of homegrown terrorism the radical Islamic group inspired in Europe bolstered the rationale that underpinned the Patriot Act in the first place. Many lawmakers have grown wary of any perceived relaxation of national security.
Sensenbrenner, Leahy and other key lawmakers are undaunted, however, and plan to reintroduce the USA Freedom Act again as soon as this month. But now they face an uphill battle even in the House, where Speaker John Boehner has shown no appetite for bringing it to the floor again. Many provisions of the Patriot Act have been made permanent, but three very controversial provisions, including Section 215, sunset June 1.
Some members of Congress who support reigning in the NSA and other intelligence agencies' capabilities believe just allowing those provisions to expire is the best path. However, as the deadline approaches, the NSA, CIA and other agencies likely will ratchet up their case for extending bulk data collection, roving wiretaps and the so-called "lone-wolf" provision.
Sensenbrenner, R-Menomonee Falls, and Leahy think the USA Freedom Act addresses everyone's concerns and that ultimately Congress will have to consider it if leadership wants to prevent any expiration of those Patriot Act powers.
Former U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold urged the United States and the rest of the international community to continue providing "sustained attention" to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) as part of his final speech as special envoy to the central African region.
Feingold, speaking in Washington, D.C., touted diplomatic successes in the region during his 18-month tenure, such as reduced threats from the M23 armed rebels, better economic integration and an improved attitude toward the U.S.
But Feingold said he remains worried about deep-rooted problems, including violence against women as a weapon of war by other armed rebel groups, such as the FDLR, a rebel Hutu group believed to be responsible for numerous terrorist acts, including the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
"The time is now to end the threat of the FDLR," said Feingold, saying it's in the "security interest of the United States" to stop armed groups from "creating cracks in society" that provide openings for extremism.
The longtime former senator from Wisconsin warned against viewing aid to the DRC as "of moral and humanitarian obligation alone."
Feingold said he's made 15 trips to the region in the past year and a half. He also touted a trip in November to Beijing, where he said he invited China, for the first time, to participate in U.S. efforts to work with "like-minded groups, traditionally Western countries," to "harmonize strategy and messaging and to share information."
Feingold said most Americans are unaware that China has long been active in the African region, but stressed, "As a major partner of Africa, China's voice is to be welcomed on messaging on peace and security issues in the Great Lakes, particularly on the need to eliminate threats to regional security, such as that posed by the FDLR."
Feingold said his Wisconsin roots made him highly aware of the potential of Africa's Great Lakes area as a source of healthy food and water-related industries, but also as an area with potential environmental concerns, similar to those faced in the U.S. Great Lakes region.
He called for "careful stewardship" of what he says represents half of the world's freshwater resources.
Feingold promised his continued support and involvement in DRC issues, quoting Pope Francis: "Peace is possible but we have to seek it."
Near the end of his speech, Feingold dropped a line that several media outlets interpreted as a hint of an upcoming Senate campaign.
He thanked "my once, current, and I hope, future Chief of Staff Mary Irvine," saying she "brilliantly held the ... operation together."
Irvine worked with Feingold in the State Department and, before that, in his U.S. Senate office.
Not even two months into their stewardship of Congress, Republicans are already playing a game of fiscal chicken with President Obama that could shutter the Department of Homeland Security by week's end.
Republicans, furious over Obama's November executive order on immigration, refused in December to include DHS in a package funding the federal government for fiscal 2015. Democrats had to settle for a two-month extension of the department's spending authority. Conservative Republicans hoped that once the GOP assumed control of Congress in January, it could force Obama to back away from his orders that halt deportation of some undocumented immigrants by holding the Homeland Security funding over Democrats' heads.
Although Republicans are pursuing a course Sen. Ron Johnson advocated even before winning the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee's chairmanship--effectively reversing Obama's executive immigration orders by denying the programs' funding--the Oshkosh Republican is now espousing a less confrontational tact as Friday's midnight deadline rapidly approaches.
"Responsible members of both parties must work together to find some way to fund DHS without further delay," Johnson said Monday. "I will work to make certain the Department of Homeland Security is operating at full strength during these dangerous times."
The House already approved a spending bill that blocks implementation of Obama's orders. Senate Democrats filibustered that legislation for the fourth time on Monday, saying they would continue doing so until Republicans stripped the provision. Johnson, echoing GOP leaders, blamed Democrats for the impasse.
"Democratic senators are currently blocking a DHS funding bill from coming to the floor of the Senate to be debated, possibly amended and voted up or down," he stated.
It is unclear if Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., would bring a "clean" bill to the floor. And even if he did, it is even less clear whether House Republicans would accept it. Whether Republicans are willing to back down now that a federal court is temporarily preventing the administration from implementing Obama's deferred deportation programs is also uncertain.
Johnson's statement seemed to imply that Republicans won the legal battle and can now drop the contentious provisions.
"Fortunately, [DHS] Secretary [Jeh] Johnson has agreed that his department will be bound by court decisions," Johnson stated. "This means, and I expect, that DHS should immediately suspend all actions designed to implement these unlawful programs."
For her part, Sen. Tammy Baldwin is using her Twitter account to pound the administration's message that if Congress allows DHS to shut down, Republicans are to blame.
"Solution to stopping a Homeland Security shutdown is simple: #FundDHS with a clean bill. Stop playing politics & #DontShutDownOurSecurity," the Madison Democrat tweeted Monday.
Rep. Reid Ribble, R-Sherwood, voiced many of his colleagues' frustration with the Senate's procedural hurdles when he began urging senators back on Feb. 6 to act.
"While I understand the need for the Senate to have 60 votes to proceed, the responsible thing for the Senate to do is to pass...something, regardless of whether or not it matches that of the House," Ribble stated then. He continued to press senators Monday, tweeting: "#DHS funding expires in a week. The House has passed a bill to fully fund it. Senate must act."
U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, delivering the Weekly Republican Address, called for legislation that would protect private sector organizations from lawsuits if they share information to help thwart cyber attacks.
Johnson, R-Oshkosh, said such legislation has been blocked in the past, but hoped that would change with the president acknowledging cybersecurity as a priority.
"Cyberattacks may not dominate the headlines every day, but they present a crucial challenge to the safety and security of this nation," said Johnson, chair of the Senate's homeland security committee. Reducing this threat would benefit every American. Ignoring it will guarantee that future attacks will produce headlines describing lasting harm to America. We need to get this done. I look forward to working with my colleagues in Congress and the Obama administration to resolve this issue - this year.
The state GOP today accused U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin of misappropriating taxpayer dollars by offering an aide a severance package that contained a nondisclosure agreement.
Baldwin aide Marquette Baylor was fired over the handling of a report on the prescription practices of the Tomah VA. A Baldwin attorney shot back the complaint filed with the Senate Ethics Committee was frivolous.
The GOP complaint focused on the severance package offered to Baylor, who was Baldwin's deputy state director for constituent services. It cited a media report the package included a nearly six-figure payout for the aide.
"As part of a massive cover-up, Tammy Baldwin wrongly appropriated taxpayer funds to compensate a Senate employee who would not have performed official government duties while also fraudulently offering a contract to silence a former employee in order to save Baldwin's own political career," the complaint charged.
The complaint asks the Senate Select Committee on Ethics to begin an investigation.
"This is a frivolous allegation wholly without merit and nothing more than a political stunt," said Baldwin attorney Marc Elias. "It is unfortunate that the Republican Party has made the choice to play partisan politics with the serious and tragic issues facing the VA and our veterans."
Baldwin, D-Madison, has been under fire for her office's handling of a report detailing the overprescription of opioids at the Tomah VA.
Elias, who has been described as the go-to lawyer for a range of Dem politicians, also said Baylor was terminated because of "her long-term performance on a range of issues did not meet with the Senator's expectations for effective constituent service." That included her handling of problems at the Tomah VA.
Elias said Baylor has turned down the settlement offer and "is free to move forward in any way she so chooses." He said the separation agreement was one "that is standard for a Senate employee of her tenure and seniority" was put together with guidance from the Office of the Senate Chief Counsel for Employment. He said it "included standard confidentiality language."