U.S. House and Senate leaders have reached a bipartisan backroom deal to push for approval of a four-year extension of the the most controversial components of the USA PATRIOT Act, in a move that rejects calls for responsible reform of the law by civil libertarians on the right and the left.
With prodding from the Obama White House - which has been working for months to secure a long-term extension of the PATRIOT Act -- and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, there will be a full-court press in coming days to win congressional approval for the extension of PATRIOT Act provisions that are set to expire May 27. But there will be opposition from both sides of the aisle to this bad bipartisanship, The toughest test will come in the House, where a coalition of Tea Party conservatives and united Democratic caucus could upset the rush to approve the extension.
It will be tough to block a lobbying push by key congressional leaders, especially in the Senate, where Reid and McConnell are co-sponsoring the extension proposal. But there is no question that there will significant be opposition to this assault on basic constitutional values.
As Shahid Buttar, executive director of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, says: "This agreement reeks of all the worst things about Washington: secrecy, back-room dealing, institutional co-optation, and bipartisan collusion to undermine constitutional rights. The death of Osama bin Laden offered the hope that our nation's leaders might finally restore sanity to the national security establishment in the wake of mounting documented abuses. Instead, they insulated it from debate and rammed the PATRIOT Act down the throats of hundreds of millions of law-abiding Americans. I am, quite frankly, disgusted."
Among the PATRIOT Act provisions that congressional leaders hope to extend without any changes, until June 1, 2015, are sections that (in the words of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee) outline:
1.) The government's power under PATRIOT Section 215 to obtain secret court orders for "any tangible thing"--including Internet, phone, and business records--that the government believes is relevant to a terrorism investigation.
2.) The government's power to use non-specific "roving" wiretaps to monitor any phone number, email account, or other communications facility that the government believes is being used by its target.
3.) The "lone wolf" wiretapping power, which allows the government it to monitor individuals who have no connection to any foreign power or terrorist group.
The leadership deal was decried by the a broad cross-section of civil libertarians, with the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, warning that "the PATRIOT Act is being set up--yet again--to force profound abuses on the American people without any meaningful debate."
The worst part of the deal making on the part of the House and Senate leaders -- with prodding from the Obama White House -- is that it extends abusive components of the PATRIOT ACT that were in the process of being reformed.
The Senate Judiciary Committee has approved legislation sponsored by the committee chair, Senator Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, that would require greater auditing and public reporting of surveillance initiatives.
Now, even those modest attempts to impose a measure of accountability appear to have been abandoned.
"It's shocking that even some of those requirements are now down the drain for another four years," explained Michelle Richardson, a legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union.
If the Congress approves the deal being pushed by the congressional leaders, Richardson said, work by civil libertarians, constitutional scholars and citizens across the United States to address the worst abuses associated with the PATRIOT Act -- and, ultimately, to guard against those abuses -- will end with "no reform and no long-lasting institutional oversight."
Republican leaders in the House are preparing to "whip" members to back the agreement.
But individual Republican members are objecting as this week's debate approaches.
"Americans have an expectation of privacy," says Congressman. Rob Woodall, R-Georgia, who in February voted against a temporary extension of the Patriot Act.
"The provisions up for renewal in the Patriot Act may have legitimate uses in combating terrorism; however, we have a higher duty to uphold the constitutional protections all Americans are guaranteed," says Woodall. "I will certainly keep this duty in mind as I consider the upcoming extension, and I hope that my colleagues will as well."
That's the right response. The question is whether more members of both parties will take their oaths to defend the Constitution more seriously than the pressure from John Boehner, Mitch McConnell and Harry Reid.