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House Votes to Extend the PATRIOT Act, Bill Now Moves to the Senate

February 15, 2011 - by Donny Shaw

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. 

Even though the bill was done under regular order yesterday, it was still carefully controlled by the Republican leadership who chose to debate it under a closed rule allowing for just one hour of debate and no chance for representatives to propose amendments. As Rep. Louise Slaughter [D, NY-28] said in the Rules Committee last week about the lack of openness in the legislative process this year, “we have not had a single open rule and we haven’t considered a single bill that has gone through regular order in committee.” Yesterday’s PATRIOT Act vote extends that trend.

Here’s the ACLU’s summary of the programs that will be extended under this bill:

  • Section 215 of the Patriot Act authorizes the government to obtain “any tangible thing” relevant to a terrorism investigation, even if there is no showing that the “thing” pertains to suspected terrorists or terrorist activities. This provision is contrary to traditional notions of search and seizure, which require the government to show reasonable suspicion or probable cause before undertaking an investigation that infringes upon a person’s privacy. Congress must ensure that things collected with this power have a meaningful nexus to suspected terrorist activity or it should be allowed to expire.
  • Section 206 of the Patriot Act, also known as “roving John Doe wiretap” provision, permits the government to obtain intelligence surveillance orders that identify neither the person nor the facility to be tapped. This provision is contrary to traditional notions of search and seizure, which require government to state with particularity what it seeks to search or seize. Section 206 should be amended to mirror similar and longstanding criminal laws that permit roving wiretaps, but require the naming of a specific target. Otherwise, it should expire.
  • Section 6001 of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004, or the so-called “Lone Wolf” provision, permits secret intelligence surveillance of non-US persons who are not affiliated with a foreign organization. Such an authorization, granted only in secret courts is subject to abuse and threatens our longtime understandings of the limits of the government’s investigatory powers within the borders of the United States. This provision has never been used and should be allowed to expire outright.

It’s a little unclear what will happen with this in the Senate. The PATRIOT Act provisions are scheduled to expire on February 28th, so there is a limit on how long the debate can last. To save floor time, Majority Leader Harry Reid [D, NV] would probably prefer to pass this, as is, under a unanimous consent agreement by voice vote. But at least one senator, Rand Paul [R, KY], appears to be ready to block such a motion. In a letter to his colleagues this morning, he called for more deliberation on the bill. “I call upon each of my Senate colleagues to seriously consider whether the time has come to re-evaluate many—if not all—provisions of the PATRIOT Act,” he said. “Our oath to uphold the Constitution demands it.”

Under the Senate rules, a single senator can block a bill from passing quickly and require a full debate and a series of cloture votes. In that case, under the gentlemen’s agreement between Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell [R, KY] regarding filibusters and amendments, the debate would be left open to any and all amendments, giving senators like Paul a chance to force votes on reforms. But the gentlemen’s agreement is, obviously, non-binding, and given Congress’s predilection for protecting the federal government’s authorty to spy on terrrist suspects without a warrant, it’s totally possible that Reid could go back on his end of the deal and block amendments from folks like Paul by filling the amendment tree himself.

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