Tuesday, February 15, 2011

GOP House Rams Through Patriot Act - Rejects Surveillance Comply with Constitution

I've always been just a little bit more than amused (or disgusted?) by the irony of today's GOP calling themselves a "small government", or worse, "Constitutionally concerned" Party.

This irony was on full display yesterday as the GOP House not only OVERWHELMINGLY voted to pass the Patriot Act extension (even though it gives their arch nemesis President Obama a victory!), they nearly unanimously voted again the Democrats efforts to require that Patriot Act surveillance be conducted in compliance with the Constitution.

That's right, the Party that can't stop misrepresenting the Constitution, or forcing it to be read on the House floor, also can't bring themselves to uphold it - at least when it comes to government snooping on average citizens (among MANY other examples).

Just last week I posted about the surprising and TEMPORARY blocking of the extension of some of the worst components of the Patriot Act. The surprise came in large part because a large majority of Democrats were willing to buck their own President's demands, and a very small minority of Republicans were willing to buck their leadership in the House. Of course, the real reason it didn't pass was because, due to procedural issues, it needed a super majority vote.

This time around, a majority was all that was needed. As such, we got the extension of those Patriot Act "unconstitutional greatest hits", including provisions allowing broad warrants to be issued by a secretive court for any type of record, from financial to medical, without the government having to declare that the information sought is connected to a terrorism or espionage investigation; the continuation of so-called “roving wiretaps”, allowing the FBI to obtain wiretaps from the secret court, known as the FISA court, without identifying the target or what method of communication is to be tapped. Finally, the so-called “lone wolf” measure that allows FISA court warrants for the electronic monitoring of a person for whatever reason — even without showing that the suspect is an agent of a foreign power or a terrorist.

This time around, while most Democrats opposed the extension of the surveillance authorities, rejecting aggressive lobbying by the Obama administration and its allies in the House GOP leadership, the overwhelming Republican support won approval of the legislation on a 275-144 vote.

As John Nichols of the Nation rightly points "Thus, the supposedly Constitution-obsessed House has endorsed a measure that is widely seen -- not just by Democrats and progressives but by Republicans and conservatives -- as a constant threat to privacy protections outlined in the document's 4th Amendment." 

Michelle Richardson, the legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, noted: “It has been nearly a decade since the Patriot Act was passed and our lawmakers still refuse to make any meaningful changes to this reactionary law. The right to privacy from government is a cornerstone of our country’s foundation and Americans must be free from the kind of unwarranted government surveillance that the Patriot Act allows. If Congress cannot take the time to insert the much needed privacy safeguards the Patriot Act needs, it should allow these provisions to expire.

For those keeping score, the 275 votes for extending the surveillance authorities came from 210 Republicans and 65 Democrats. The 144 votes against extending the authorities came from 127 Democrats (including Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California, and Michigan's John Conyers, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee) and 27 Republicans.

What's more astounding than the GOP so overwhelmingly voting against the Constitution and WITH President Obama, was the Party's near unanimous vote against a motion offered by the Democrats seeking to recommit the bill with instructions to add language ensuring that surveillances would only be conducted in compliance with the U.S. Constitution. That motion lost on a 186-234 vote.

All 234 "no" votes came from Republicans, including two dozen members who minutes later would vote against extension of the surveillance authorities. The 186 "yes" votes came from 184 Democrats and 2 Republicans -- Ron Paul and South Caroilina Congressman Walter Jones Jr., a pair of stalwart civil libertarians who refused to put partisanship ahead of the rule of law.

As Nichols notes, "The message from the Republicans, aside from Paul and Jones, was clear enough: For all their talk about how much they revere the Constitution, they're cool with violations of the 4th Amendment."

Breaking News Update: Interestingly, after the House passed the above 10-month extension of key provisions of the Patriot Act last night, it was assumed that the Senate would follow suit quickly. And they will vote on the measure tonight. However, they will narrow the extension to three months, in a move with bipartisan support.

It's unclear exactly why this is, but, as David Dayen points out, "Ultimately, this probably only means that the Senate will spend a week of debate three months from now and then extend the whole thing past the Presidential election. But it’s so rare that civil libertarians see even a minor speed bump in the rush to deprive liberty, and even with the three-month extension, that’s what this represents. If we just changed the name of the Patriot Act to the “emergency law,” do you think we could get the President to call for lifting it, like he did with Egypt’s?"

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