By a vote of 280-138, the House of Representatives has agreed to renew the USA Patriot Act with only minor new safeguards for civil liberties and several troubling new items. As the Senate had already voted 89-10 to renew the act, the legislation was quickly signed by President Bush.
When the Patriot Act was signed in 2001, it included “sunset” provisions for several of its components, meaning that, unless reauthorized by the end of 2005, they would lapse. By the end of the 2005 congressional session, no such agreement had been reached, so twice in succession the deadline for renewal was extended.
The House of Representatives had quickly voted to extend the act, but in the Senate, enough Republicans, as well as most Democrats, had expressed doubts about the act to prevent the upper house from agreeing. There were threats from Senate Democrats to filibuster the act, so the compromise of extending it was agreed to.
Meanwhile, there were shocking revelations about warrantless spying on the U.S. population by the National Security Agency, which had been authorized by Bush in evident violation of both the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. There had been many other revelations about abuse of power by the government, including last week about “mistakes” made in FBI surveillance of the “wrong” people.
Many asked why on earth the president needed the Patriot Act in the first place, as he seems to think that because there is a “war” and he is “commander in chief,” he can do anything that tickles his fancy anyway. Meanwhile 397 city and county councils had passed resolutions calling for repeal of all or part of the act, as had eight state legislatures. (You can see a complete list of the resolutions at bordc.org, the web site of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee).
Yet in the end, there were not quite enough votes in the Senate to either support a filibuster or to insist on more than minor changes in the act. Although some Republican lawmakers were critical of the act, not enough of them were willing to buck the president. In the final House vote on March 8, 13 Republicans voted not to extend the act, joining 124 Democrats and one independent. But 66 Democrats joined 214 Republicans in voting to extend.
In those congressional districts where anti-Patriot Act resolutions had been passed, it was much more likely that the House member, irrespective of party, would vote not to extend. So organizing, agitating and speaking up turn out to be worth the trouble! Who’d have guessed?
So the act was extended with a few positive modifications, most notably that libraries functioning “in their traditional capacity” will no longer be forced to hand over client information in response to federal “National Security Letters,” and there are new four year sunset provisions attached to the Patriot Act’s authorization for “roving wiretaps” (i.e. the blanket right of the government to wiretap any phone that a terrorism suspect might use) and the power to seize business records with minimal due process.
But some new negative things were also added. The Secret Service will be able to arrest peaceful demonstrators at “special events of national significance.” (We are guessing that this is wherever Bush or Cheney show up.)
And very disturbingly, the version of the act signed by Bush sets up a new procedure that potentially limits the time available to people on death row for the filing of federal habeas corpus petitions, shifting the power of decision from the federal courts to the U.S. attorney general. This is of a piece with the Bush administration’s campaign to undermine judicial review.
And if you need hay fever medicine, you may have to leave your name with your pharmacist, depending on the ingredients. (No, we don’t know what that has to do with terrorism, either.)
Some of the most dangerous aspects of the Patriot Act were not even up for discussion this time around as they had no sunset provisions. One of these is the way the act defines terrorism: As any dangerous and illegal act that “appears to be intended” to change government policies or public opinion. This could be used against labor or civil rights demonstrations, for example.
And the Bush administration and Republican right want even more restrictions on our freedoms. The ink was not dry on the renewed Patriot Act before the Republicans were plotting to create a new class of warrants which the executive could issue without even going to a judge.
Whether these antidemocratic measures can be stopped and rolled back depends on the outcome of the November 2006 midterm elections. If the current public dissatisfaction with the Republican administration produces a change in the majority in either house, and especially if it brings more progressive Democrats to office, it will help stop new repressive legislation. With a bigger victory and continued pressure, the rollback of things such as the USA Patriot Act become possible.