A vote in Congress to extend three controversial provisions of the Patriot Act through December 8 failed last week, but it was primarily over procedural issues. Those technicalities should be resolved this month, permitting a new vote that will result in passage. 26 House Republicans voted against the extension, joining 122 Democrats to defeat it by seven votes. The final vote came to 277-148, which was not enough since the Republicans brought the bill up under a special expedited procedure requiring a two-thirds majority. The Republicans had miscalculated and assumed they had two-thirds of the votes required for a rush bill that bypasses House rules. They did not expect the majority of Democrats to switch their votes this year and vote against an extension. Republicans have until February 28th, when the Patriot Act expires, to bring it up for a simple majority vote without the special expedited procedure. From there it goes to the Senate, which has three competing bills to consider.
President Obama is expected to sign the bill, but he wants it extended through December of 2012 in order to avoid it becoming an election year issue. Obama’s left wing Democratic base opposes the Patriot Act. A majority of Congressional Democrats voted against it because it did not include Obama’s additional year. Last year, a similar extension easily passed the Democratic-controlled House 315-97. 36 Democrats switched their vote this year. Obama’s position has been just as inconsistent as House Democrats. In 2003, Obama said in a political questionnaire he would vote to repeal the Patriot Act, according to Fox News. As U.S. Senator, Obama voted to reauthorize the Patriot Act in 2006. When he ran for President in 2008, Obama heavily criticized the Patriot Act and said he would revise it with “real and robust oversight.”
Congress passed the Patriot Act in response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. It authorizes the government to take antiterrorist measures. Critics say it violates constitutional protections against unreasonable searches and seizures, allowing the government too much power to spy on Americans without their knowledge. However, much of the current criticism fails to acknowledge that significant portions of the Patriot Act have been revised to address those concerns.
One of the provisions up for renewal allows the government to place a roving wiretap on a suspect in order to follow him from phone to phone as he changes phones. Civil libertarians claim it is too broad, since authorities are not required to name the suspect prior to obtaining a warrant. But this section has been amended since it was first passed to require probable cause and robust safeguards. A second provision, known as the “library provision,” allows the FBI to apply for an order that would let it examine “tangible things” related to terrorism, such as suspects’ computers or their library, bookstore, medical, banking, tax or gun records without probable cause. A third provision, which has yet to be used, permits surveillance of “lone wolf” suspects who do not have ties to a recognized terror organization.
There are claims that the Tea Party defeated the renewal, but 44 of the 52 members of the House Tea Party Caucus, including chair Michelle Bachman, voted for the extension. Only eight of the 87 new House Republicans voted against it. Far left Congressman Dennis Kucinich’s plea to Tea Party members to align themselves with him fell on mostly deaf ears, “I am hopeful that members of the Tea Party who came to Congress to defend the Constitution will join me in challenging the reauthorization.”
Some accuse Tea Party Caucus members of betraying Tea Party principles of limited government by voting for the bill. Not necessarily. Proponents of limited government are not anarchists, they believe the essential minimal function of government is security and law enforcement. Where to draw the line between adequate law enforcement and government overreach is a legitimate area of debate that does not neatly split down party lines. What constitutes civil liberties, and when do national security interests unconstitutionally encroach upon them? The meaning of the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against “unreasonable searches and seizures” has been haphazardly carved out over the years by judicial whim. Would our founders agree with how it has been interpreted to apply to today’s modern cell phones and other technologies? Who knows. Carelessly throwing around the Constitution to back up faddish political views that do not appear in the Constitution is nothing new.
While 36 terrorist plots have been thwarted since September 11, critics can point to few abuses of civil liberties that have taken place under the Patriot Act. Most of the criticism is hype based on remote speculation – a common Saul Alinsky tactic used to crush opposing viewpoints.
Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI), who sponsored the bill, said that many objections to the extension were misdirected at parts of the law not addressed in the bill. Federal courts have already struck down the most controversial parts of the Patriot Act as unconstitutional, such as the “sneak and peak” searches allowing for delay in the notification of search warrants. Additionally, some Republicans voted against it due to not having fully and thoroughly reviewed it prior to the expedited vote. The 87 new Republicans in the House have not had the opportunity to sit through hearings examining its provisions.
With both parties substantially in agreement, the Patriot Act is likely to be around for awhile longer. While it is important to safeguard our civil liberties, hype and speculation should not be permitted to drown out a thorough examination of whether the Patriot Act has actually caused significant violations of our rights and how it has been revised to reduce those risks.