The Senate on December 21 voted to extend the provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act that are scheduled to expire on December 31. Now it is time for the House to do the same.
Last July, the Senate unanimously approved bipartisan legislation to reauthorize the 16 provisions that are due to sunset shortly. The Senate bill included many improvements that would alleviate longstanding civil liberties concerns. By the time the bill emerged from a House-Senate conference this fall, however, most of those improvements had vanished without a trace.
The White House and the House of Representatives demanded that the Senate accept this seriously flawed legislation. Last week, the White House threatened to veto any effort to extend the expiring provisions rather than try to reach an accommodation.
On December 16, the Senate called the president’s bluff. A bipartisan coalition in the Senate rejected the conference report and offered to extend the expiring provisions for three months to allow time to negotiate improvements. At that time, citing the veto threat, the majority leader refused to allow that proposal to come to a vote.
Fortunately, the majority leader and the president have now reversed their positions. They have accepted the will of the Senate that it is better to get agreement on an improved bill than to let the PATRIOT Act powers expire on December 31.
Now the fate of the PATRIOT Act is in the hands of the House of Representatives. The correct choice is for the House to agree to the six-month extension before the end of the year.
The importance of that extension has been made excruciatingly clear in recent days. Non-stop revelations have shocked the country about large-scale wiretaps by the National Security Agency of U.S. citizens on U.S. soil. The federal criminal law states that “the exclusive means” for such wiretaps in the U.S. is by court order, but no such orders were sought in any of these cases.
The rules for wiretaps and other secret surveillance are at the heart of the PATRIOT Act debate. Congress clearly needs time to exercise its oversight powers before deciding what checks and balances are needed against runaway executive power. That oversight should result in major improvements to the law.
The Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee has thus far refused to consider anything less than continuing all current powers for at least four years. The time for such posturing has now ended – the House should pass the six-month extension of the PATRIOT Act.
Mark D. Agrast is a Senior Fellow and Peter P. Swire is a Visiting Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.