USA-PATRIOT—The Debate Congress Doesn’t Want to Have
Update: On Tuesday, the House failed to pass H.R. 514 as the Republican leadership had expected. This symbolizes that support for the USA-PATRIOT Act is weaker in their caucus than they thought, but it will not prevent the bill from passing, probably later in the week. The bill was brought to the floor under a procedure called “Suspension of the Rules,” which limits debate but requires a 2/3rds majority vote. When several Republicans broke ranks to vote against the bill, it did not get that 2/3rds majority. The leadership can bring the bill back to the floor and get a majority vote any time. Here’s more from the Washington Post.
Just over a month after the September 11th attacks, Congress passed the USA-PATRIOT Act. It was a time when Americans were still shocked by the images of the World Trade Center towers in New York City collapsing. We don’t know whether another shoe would soon drop.
Even then, many recognized that the new powers being given to the federal government were draconian. So they were made temporary. The USA-PATRIOT Act had “sunset” provisions, recognizing that the peril Americans felt just after 9/11 would give way. Normal life and normal liberties would be restored.
Since then, Congress has extended the sunset several times. Currently, the sun will set on many PATRIOT Act provisions on February 28th.
So the question is joined: Are the emergency powers Congress gave the government still needed? Or is the problem Congress meant to address in USA-PATRIOT largely under control?
Because of the obscurity of USA-PATRIOT, what it does, and how it is used, these are very hard questions to answer. And most people do so with their guts. So go to your gut: Thinking of how you felt after 9/11, is that fear still with you? Or has your confidence in the security of our country increased? Do you prioritize the modern problem of security against terrorism, or the classic problem of security against having a too-powerful government?
These are tough questions to answer—heck they’re tough questions to ask! But it might be time for Congress to actually debate the USA-PATRIOT Act powers rather than kicking the can down the road.
This week, the plan is to kick the can. H.R. 514, which is slated for debate in the House this week, would extend the sunset date on several USA-PATRIOT Act provisions from February 28th to December 8, 2011. If it passes both houses of Congress, we might have a Christmas-time debate about USA-PATRIOT. Or we might have another kicking of the can…
Here’s the current vote on H.R. 514. Click to vote, comment, learn more, or edit the wiki article on the bill