House Leaves Patriot Act As Is
The Republican-led House bowed to a White House veto threat Thursday and stood by the USA Patriot Act, defeating an effort to block the part of the anti-terrorism law that helps the government investigate people’s reading habits. The effort to defy Bush and bridle the law’s powers lost by 210-210, with a majority needed to prevail. The amendment appeared on its way to victory as the roll call’s normal 15-minute time limit expired, but GOP leaders kept the vote open for 23 more minutes as they persuaded about 10 Republicans who initially supported the provision to change their votes.
“Shame, shame, shame,” Democrats chanted as the minutes passed and votes were switched. The tactic was reminiscent of last year’s House passage of the Medicare overhaul measure, when GOP leaders held the vote open for an extra three hours until they got the votes they needed. “You win some, and some get stolen,” Rep. C.L. Butch Otter, R-Idaho, a sponsor of the defeated provision and one of Congress’ more conservative members, told a reporter.
Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn., said he switched his initial “yes” vote to “no” after being shown Justice Department documents asserting that terrorists have communicated over the Internet via public library computers. “This new world we live in is going to force us to have some constraints,” Wamp said.
The effort to curb the Patriot Act was pushed by a coalition of Democrats and conservative Republicans. But they fell short in a showdown that came just four months before an election in which the conduct of the fight against terrorism will be on the political agenda. Besides successfully fending off the effort to weaken the law, the veto threat underscored the administration’s determination to strike an aggressive stance on law enforcement and terrorism.
Supporters of the law said the Patriot Act has been a valuable tool in anti-terror efforts. The law, enacted in the weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, gave the government stronger powers to conduct investigations and detain people. “I would say, in my judgment, that lives have been saved, terrorists have been disrupted, and our country is safer” because of the act, said Rep. Porter Goss, R-Fla., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and a man President Bush is considering to be the next director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
Otter and Rep. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., led the effort to block one section of the law that lets authorities get special court orders requiring book dealers, libraries and others to surrender records such as purchases and Internet sites visited on a library computer. They contended the provision undermines civil liberties and threatens to let the government snoop into the reading habits of innocent Americans. “We are all in that together,” Sanders, one of Congress’ most liberal lawmakers, said of the anti-terror effort. “In the fight against terrorism, we’ve got to keep our eyes on two prizes: the terrorists and the United States Constitution.”
Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., read a letter from the Justice Department stating that “as recently as this past winter and spring, a member of a terrorist group closely affiliated with al-Qaida” had used Internet services at a public library. The letter mentioned no specifics, Wolf said. “If we can stop what took place in my area,” said Wolf, whose district is near the Pentagon, a Sept. 11 target, “then I want to stop that, because we’ve gone to enough funerals.”
Critics of the Patriot Act argued that even without it, investigators can get book store and other records simply by obtaining subpoenas or search warrants. Those traditional investigative tools are harder to get from grand juries or courts than orders issued under the Patriot Act, which do not require authorities to show probable cause. “We don’t want tyranny,” said Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y.
According to a list read by a House clerk, lawmakers switching their votes from “yes” to “no” included GOP Reps. Michael Bilirakis of Florida, Rob Bishop of Utah, Tom Davis of Virginia, Jack Kingston of Georgia, Marilyn Musgrave of Colorado, Nick Smith of Michigan, Thomas Tancredo of Colorado, and Wamp. Some Democrats switched from “no” to “yes,” including Robert Bud Cramer of Alabama, Rodney Alexander of Louisiana, and Brad Sherman of California.
While the House, unlike the Senate, traditionally uses hardball tactics to ram bills through that the majority party supports, changing the rules after the fact seems beyond the pale–although I don’t know precisely what the Rules Committee had stipulated.
Zach Wamp was briefly my Congressman (I lived in Chattanooga for 18 months during his Freshman term) and Frank Wolf is my current Congressman; both are quite conservative and their votes don’t surprise me. I’m a bit surprised that Bud Cramer, whose voting record is also quite conservative, was persuaded to vote the other way–it’ll hurt him in Alabama, although he may be sufficiently entrenched as to be bulletproof.
Substantively, I find it hard to get worked up about the specific Patriot Act provisions in dispute here. While I find the declaring of American citizens as “enemy combatants” unconscionable, that’s not at stake here. Giving Federal agents the ability to look at Internet records and whatnot with judicial authority under “reasonable suspicion” rather than “probable cause” doesn’t both me. Those things aren’t particularly intrusive and we already use the lower standard for such things as vehicular searches–which strikes me as much more problematic than looking at library records.