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Senators Say DOJ is Lying About the PATRIOT Act

September 22, 2011 - by Donny Shaw

It's always nice to see members of Congress challenging secrecy, lies, and privacy violations from the executive branch. As Charlie Savage reports at the New York Times, Democratic Senators Ron Wyden [OR] and Mark Udall [CO] wrote to Attorney General Eric Holder yesterday accusing him of using secret legal opinions to miselad the public on how the PATRIOT Act is really being used.

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Sen. Rand Paul [R, KY] has introduced several amendments to the PATRIOT ACT reauthorization bill that would add oversight to the government's spying powers and rein in their abuses, but it's his amendment to give gun owners special protections that he seems to care about most. According to reports, Majority Leader Harry Reid [D, NV] and Paul are closing in on a deal to allow a vote on the gun amendment, and another minor one on suspicious activity reports, in exchange for Paul dropping his filibuster of the bill and letting it come to a final vote. All of the amendments to reform the PATRIOT Act for all citizens, from Paul and other senators, will be left out of the deal.

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Just as the Senate is about to approve a long-term reauthorization of the PATRIOT Act's surveillance provisions, without any reforms, Sen. Ron Wyden [D, OR] warns that the government is secretly using the provisions to justify surveillance activities that go beyond what we have been told.

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No matter how hard rank-and-file members of Congress may try to reform it, the PATRIOT Act always seems to get special protection from the leadership. In February when the last PATRIOT Act extension was passed by Congress, the House Republican leadership did all it could, including violating a major campaign pledge on procedural openness, to prevent representatives from having their amendments voted on. Now that it's up for extension again, it's the Senate Democrats this time who are using special procedural maneuvers to block senators from offering amendments.

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If you want to break the partisan divide and get Democrats and Republicans in Congress to agree on something, just give them a bill that makes it easier for the government to spy on U.S. citizens without judicial oversight. Yesterday, the Senate voted 74-8, with 18 senators abstaining, in favor of moving forward with legislation to extend three of the most controversial PATRIOT Act surveillance powers for four more years, without any modifications. By contrast, the Senate has had to pull a small business jobs bill and two of Obama's judicial nominees from the floor after the Republicans mounted successful filibusters.

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The Week Ahead in Congress

May 23, 2011 - by Donny Shaw

Back in February, Congress passed a three-month extension of three of the PATRIOT Act's most controversial surveillance programs, with Homeland Security Chairman Sen. Joe Lieberman [I, CT] saying the short extension would give them time to hold a full-fledged debate before passing a longer extension. Well, the three-month bill is set to expire at the end of the month, and, sure enough, on the calendar for both chambers this week is legislation to extend the surveillance programs for four more years, without any modifications. Below is the ACLU summary of the programs, plus complete floor calendar information for the Senate and the House.

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Slow and Unresponsive

April 4, 2011 - by Donny Shaw

Roll Call has a good piece today on the "glacial" pace of the 112th Congress so far and the fact that it's going to get even slower from here on out. The problem, of course, is that neither the Republicans who control the House or the Democrats who control the Senate are working with an eye towards the other chamber. Particularly in the House, the legislative docket is being used more as a political platform than a means to make laws and solve the problems facing the nation.

"Where are the jobs?" is, of course, the relevant question here. So far this year we've seen votes on divisive program cuts, stopgap bills to patch the budget, extending the government's spying powers, and somecheap fluff, but there's been no honest work on legislation addressing the jobs crisis that could pass both chambers and actually help people. Below is a list of the bills that have been signed into law so far this year. We're facing a deeper and longer lasting jobs crisis than anything we've seen since the Great Depression, but you wouldn't know it looking at the output of the federal legislature:

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Since the mid 90s, federal death penalty statutes have been slowly but steadily expanding to include more and more offenses within their reach. With the committee-amended PATRIOT Act reauthorization bill that's headed for floor votes in the next few weeks, Congress appears ready to expand the death penalty once again. This time, they're looking at applying the death penalty to people convicted of providing material support for acts of terrorism that result in deaths.

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Senate passes PATRIOT Act extension, 86-12

February 16, 2011 - by Donny Shaw

The Senate last night took the 10-month extension of the PATRIOT Act provisions, whittled it down to 3 months, passed it and sent it back to the House for a follow-up vote. Democratic and Republican leaders in the Senate agreed to the shorter extension in order to assuage members who want to reform the government surveillance powers, but still keep the authority for the powers in effect in the meantime. This bill, which will now expire in May, gives Congress more time to hold hearings and a full floor debate on the PATRIOT Act, the leaders say.

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As expected, by a 275-144 vote, the House of Representatives has passed a 10-month, unmodified extension of the most controversial surveillance provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act by a simple majority vote. The House had failed to pass the bill last week when the Republican leadership tried to push it through quickly under a procedure that limited debate and amendments, but required a 2/3rds majority to pass. In the end, 65 Democrats and 210 Republicans voted in favor, sending the bill to the Senate where it's likely to be approved quickly so it can be signed into law before the provisions expire. 

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The Week Ahead in Congress

February 13, 2011 - by Donny Shaw

The House kicks things off this week with a quick vote on extending three government surveillance powers from the PATRIOT Act. It's going to be done under a closed rule so it's expected to pass without any hiccups, though it's going to be interesting to see what kind of motion to recommit the Democrats go with on this. Once that's all set, the House will transition to budget land, with debate beginning on the Republicans' budget proposal for the rest of the year just one day after President Obama is scheduled to officially his preferred plan for next year. The 2011 budget was left unfinished by the Democrats last year and is being handled as a continuing resolution. A copy of the cuts Republicans are proposing can be downloaded here.

The Senate, meanwhile, will continues debating that left-over FAA Authorization bill that they've been on for two weeks already. Remember, this passed the Senate last year by a vote of 93-0. It's not a controversial bill, it's just taking forever because Majority Leader Harry Reid [D, NV] has left it open to amendments as a test run of his gentlemen's agreement with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell [R, KY]. There's no way of knowing how long this "debate" will last.

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Just in case you need more evidence that the floor of the House of Representatives has devolved into little more than a political sideshow, let's take a look at how they're allocating their time these days. On Wednesday the Rules Committee got together for 10 minutes to decide that extending the three most controversial provisions of the PATRIOT Act would be allowed 1 hour of debate on the floor. The day before that they met for more than an hour and decided to give 9.5 hours of debate to …wait for it... a non-binding resolution directing committees to hold hearings on regulations that businesses don't like.

That's right. One hour for debate on allowing the government to continue demanding that libraries and businesses turn over individuals' private records without being allowed to notify the individual, but 9.5 hours for debating on a non-binding bill requesting committees to hold hearings. One hour for debate on allowing the government to continue using "roving" wiretaps on multiple phones and devices that suspects may possibly use, but 9.5 hours for debating on a non-binding bill requesting committees to hold hearings. One hour for debate on allowing the government to surveil supposed terrorist suspects that aren't part of a terrorist group, but 9.5 hours for debating on a non-binding bill requesting committees to hold hearings. You get the picture.

 

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Protecting the PATRIOT Act

February 10, 2011 - by Donny Shaw

The House Rules Committee met for about 10 minutes yesterday afternoon to decide how to handle the PATRIOT Act extension bill that was defeated earlier this week when the Republicans tried to bring it to the floor under an expedited process with only 40 minutes of debate and no amendments. Their decision, which does not come as too much of a surprise, is to bring the bill back to the floor under a closed rule that will still not allow any amendments and will still keep the debate very brief. The rule, however, will allow for the bill to pass by a simple majority, so unless dozens more members turn against the extension at the last minute, it will pass easily.

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House Republicans have now lost three straight attempts to pass bills in the past 24 hours.

As you've probably heard already, last night the Republican leadership was caught off guard when 26 of their rank-an-file members joined the Democrats to reject an attempt to extend the PATRIOT Act provisions under an expedited procedure, known as "suspension of the rules," that limits debate and does not allow amendments to be offered. Before that vote, the leadership was forced to pull another bill from the floor that would have provided job training to people who have lost their jobs due to trade issues when it became clear that they didn't have the votes to pass it under the same procedure they tried for the PATRIOT Act bill.

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PATRIOT Act Extension Fails, For Now...

February 8, 2011 - by Donny Shaw

House Republicans tried this evening to pass a bill extending three of the most controversial provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act by using an expedited procedure that allowed for just 40 minute of debate and no amendments. But the rules of the procedure also required that 2/3rds of the House vote in favor for the extension to pass. So, even though a strong majority of the House voted in favor, they were still 7 votes short and the attempt failed. The bill will, however, be brought back to the floor for another vote under standard rules, probably in the next few days, and since only a simple majority will be needed it is expected to pass then. 

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