July 22, 2005

Congress Removes the Sunset Provisions from Patriot Act
Sam Wells

While the majority of the House yesterday passed the new version of the "USA Patriot Act" which (if also passed by the U.S. Senate and signed into law by President Bush) would extend the powers of the Patriot Act indefinitely, some stalwart conservative Republicans voted against the permanent extension and voiced caveats against removing the four-year sunset provisions which were in the original law.

The question of allowing certain provisions to expire, once they are no longer needed, so-called sunset provisions, sparked a sharp exchange between two Republicans, Congressman Sensenbrenner and California Congressman Dana Rohrabacher:

ROHRABACHER: "I gladly supported Patriot Act one, [but] now they have taken out all but two of the sunset provisions, which would make those extraordinary new powers that we gave the government lapse once we have peace in this country. Any real patriot will vote against this expansion of government at the expense of the individual even when peacetime comes."

Despite more than nine hours of passionate debate, the House nearly one-upped the Senate in a surprise revolt at the conclusion of its deliberations. Nine Republicans broke ranks and voted with a united Democratic bloc on a last-ditch effort to make all 16 of the Patriot Act's most sensitive provisions subject to sunset.

"It is not a Republican vote; it is not a Democrat vote," said Rep. Rohrabacher. Instead, he cast his no vote as an attempt to adhere to the limited government envisioned by the Founding Fathers.

"This committee has done its job, it has done its job effectively, and it has made sure that the civil liberties of the people of this country have not been infringed upon. Good oversight is done by congressional leadership, not by sunsets," said Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., who shepherded the bill through the chamber as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.

In other words, according to Sensenbrenner, we are supposed to just trust our politicians away off in Washington, D.C. while some corrupt local cop or half-trained BATF employee or power-tripping federal marshall uses some of these Patriot Act provisions as cover for personal snooping amnd/or breaking and entering homes for no good reason other than their own capricious curiosity.

Thomas Jefferson, one of the most revered of our nation's Founding Fathers, once warned, "Let me hear no more about having confidence in the men of government, but rather bind them down from mischief with the chains of the Constitution!"

The FBI has already admitted it used Patriot Act powers to go after instances of local corruption in Las Vegas.  I don't know anyone who is in favor of corrupt or crooked business operations, but what does prosecuting a crooked business in Vegas have to do with fighting terrorism?

When Congress passed the Patriot Act in the emotional aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, a sunset provision was inserted in the bill that causes certain sections to expire at the end of 2005. The House has now voted to take away those sunset provisions and make the Patriot Act a permanent fixture of American life.

Another Republican congressman, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, has pointed out, "Supporters of the PATRIOT Act argue that its provisions have not been abused since its passage in 2001. In essence, Justice Department officials are claiming, 'Trust us we're the government and we say the PATRIOT Act does not threaten civil liberties.'
But this argument misses the point. Government assurances simply are not good enough in a free society. The overwhelming burden always must be placed on government to justify any new encroachment on our liberty. Now that the emotions of 9/11 have cooled, the American people are less willing to blindly accept terrorism as an excuse for expanding federal surveillance powers."

In describing the powers and potential abuses of the Act, Congressman Paul has written:

"Many of the most constitutionally offensive measures in the Act are not limited to terrorist offenses, but apply to any criminal activity. In fact, some of the new police powers could be applied even to those engaging in peaceful protest against government policies. The bill as written defines terrorism as acts intended "to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion." Under this broad definition, a scuffle at an otherwise peaceful pro-life demonstration might subject attendees to a federal investigation. We have seen abuses of law enforcement authority in the past to harass individuals or organizations with unpopular political views. Congress has given future administrations a tool to investigate pro-life or gun rights organizations on the grounds that fringe members of such groups advocate violence.

"The PATRIOT Act waters down the Fourth Amendment by expanding the federal government's ability to use wiretaps without judicial oversight. The requirement of a search warrant and probable cause strikes a balance between effective law enforcement and civil liberties. Any attempt to dilute the warrant requirement threatens innocent citizens with a loss of their liberty. This is particularly true of provisions that allow for issuance of nationwide search warrants that are not specific to any given location, nor subject to any local judicial oversight.

"The Act makes it far easier for the government to monitor your Internet usage by adopting a lower standard than probable cause for intercepting e-mails and Internet communications. I wonder how my congressional colleagues would feel if all of their e-mail headings and the names of the Web sites they visited were available to law enforcement upon a showing of mere "relevance."

"It's easy for elected officials in Washington to tell the American people that government will do whatever it takes to defeat terrorism. Such assurances inevitably are followed by proposals either to restrict the constitutional liberties of the American people or spend vast sums from the federal treasury. We must understand that politicians and bureaucrats always seek to expand their power, without regard to the long-term consequences. If you believe in smaller government, ask yourself one simple question: Does the PATRIOT Act increase or decrease the power of the federal government over your life? The answer is obvious to those who understand that freedom cannot be exchanged for security."

The Bush Administration says we should trust them with the powers provided by the Patriot Act.  But what about future administrations?  What if an ultra-statist such as Hillary Clinton or John Kerry or Dick Gephardt somehow got into the White House?  It is something Americans, whether they be Republicans, Democrats, or Libertarian, should consider and think deeply about.

There is no question that most or even all those Democrats who just voted against making the Patriot Act permanent would have voted in favor of it if only George W. Bush were a Democrat.  The Democrats are against extending those special powers only because President Bush wants them extended and they oppose Bush because he is not of their Party.  But the conservative Republicans who oppose making those special powers a permanent fixture of American life are right to take a courageous stand even against President and party leadership rather than trusting in the politicians and bureaucrats not to abuse the powers they've been given.