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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.

“We have not had a single open rule and we haven’t considered a single bill that has gone through regular order in committee,” said Ranking Members Rep. Louise Slaughter [D, NY-28] during the meeting. Slaughter made a motion to report an open rule that would allow for more debate and amendments to be offered, but her request was rejected by Republicans on the committee by a vote of 3-6. The Republicans pledged in their 2010 campaign documents to use open rules and allow more amendments if they took the majority.

As David Waldman notes, the Republicans’ insistence on using a closed rule makes it clear why this was tried under the suspension of the rules in the first place. “They didn’t want to allow Democrats to have any opportunity to offer amendments (which isn’t allowed under suspension of the rules), but they also didn’t want to use a closed rule (which has the same effect) so soon after swearing that they weren’t ever, never, never gonna do that.” This is about protecting the PATRIOT Act from members of Congress with concerns about privacy and individual liberties. Both parties have gone to great lengths to keep the annual extensions away from the public eye and sheltered from attempts at reform.

The rule that was pushed through by the Republicans yesterday will allow one hour of debate, equally divided between the Democrats and Republicans, no amendments, and waives all points of order against the bill. It will, however, allow one motion to recommit. That will give the Democrats one final chance to send the bill back to committee to be amended based on whatever language they choose to put in the motion. They could, for example, use the motion to ask that language be added to the bill requiring the F.B.I. to show probable cause before they demand a library to turn over private records. But these motions are viewed as procedural, so members who support the PATRIOT Act extension will mostly ignore the substance of the motion and vote it down as a matter of course.

The bill in question would extend for 10 months, without modification, three controversial provisions of the PATRIOT Act that are set to expire at the end of the month. They include the authority for “roving” wiretaps that allows the government to monitor computers that may occasionally be used by suspected terrorists, the “tangible records provision” that requires banks, telecoms and libraries to hand over any customer information the government requests without informing the customer, and the “lone wolf” provision allowing the government to track international terrorist groups.

According to schedule posted by the House Majority Leader, the House will vote on the rule today, but not the actual bill. The date and time of final vote on the bill have yet to be announced.

Rules Committee Chairman Rep. David Dreier [R, CA-26] is pictured above.

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