Less Than Meets The Eye

The headline “House rejects extensions of Patriot Act provisions” is a little deceptive. It would tend to lead one to think that members of Congress suddenly re-discovered the Constitution, that a principled opposition arose to a law intrusive upon the civil liberties of American citizens and which has not been demonstrated to have gathered a single piece of useful evidence actually deployed against an actual terrorist, and that the new “Tea Party” Republicans demonstrated that when they said they wanted to get Americans out from under the heavy foot of government authority, they meant it.

Turns out that 277 out of 425 votes, much more than a majority, were cast in favor of renewing the USA Patriot Act, but because the House leadership brought the issue up in a particular manner, renewal of the law would have required a two-thirds majority instead of a simple majority. It also turns out that all but 26 Republicans voted in favor of renewing the law.

And it also turns out that the expiration of the law is not of the entire USA Patriot Act. Rather, only the provisions permitting “roving wiretaps” on multiple phones, the provision of the law that allows the searching of library records or any other tangible thing on the government’s say-so that it’s relevant to terrorism, and a rather obscure law not passed within the original Patriot Act, which authorized secret surveillance of non-citizens who were not known to be affiliated with any particular terrorist group. If we need to monitor someone who isn’t a citizen, there are already other means at our disposal to do so anyway.

So when the ACLU attorney claims at the end of the linked article that this is evidence of “bipartisan opposition to the Patriot Act” she is rather significantly overstating the case. I particularly liked this bit:

Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., the former Judiciary Committee chairman who authored the 2001 Patriot Act, urged his colleagues to support the extensions, saying they were needed as a stopgap until permanent statutes could be agreed upon.

Congressman, it’s been nearly ten years since the USA Patriot Act was adopted — in haste and in panic, mere days after 9/11. I think that if Congress had wanted to consider “permanent statutes” it would have done so by now.

What’s really going on here is an obscure bit of parliamentary procedure resulting in a few relatively unimportant provisions of what by all evidence remains a rather popular law sunsetting — and that, most likely, was completely inadvertent. There is little principled opposition to the slow creep towards a security state, and today’s action on Capitol Hill provides no evidence to contradict that contention.

Burt Likko

Pseudonymous Portlander. Homebrewer. Atheist. Recovering litigator. Recovering Republican. Recovering Catholic. Recovering divorcé. Recovering Former Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. House Likko's Words: Scite Verum. Colite Iusticia. Vivere Con Gaudium.