The U.S. House of Representatives voted this evening to renew three provisions of the Patriot Act that are due to expire this month. The renewal passed by a vote of 275-144, extending the provisions through December 8, 2011.
Last week, the House succeeded in blocking the renewal. Twenty-six Republican members, including seven Tea Party-backed freshman members, joined Democrats in an unusual alliance opposing the law. Votes of the Tea Party freshmen were decisive because the fast-tracked bill needed a two-thirds majority to pass.
The Tea Party Republicans support the protection of Americans’ Constitutional rights from government intrusion, and their commitment demanded a vote against the bill.
Last week Representative Rehberg voted against renewal. But he later backed Republican leadership in voting for a rule change to allow passage with a simple majority, making it easier for the law to pass. Then tonight, in a paradoxical switch, he again voted against renewal.
One objectionable provision of the Patriot Act is the so-called “roving John Doe wiretap,’’ which allows the government to obtain authority to conduct intelligence surveillance without identifying either the individual or the site to be monitored. This broad authority makes it far easier for intelligence agents to obtain search warrants. The roving wiretap provision violates search-and-seizure protections by not requiring the government to tell a judge exactly what it wants to search or seize. The government should at least have to name a particular target.
Another provision allows the government to seize “any tangible thing’’ – such as library or financial records – without having to disclose how that thing might be relevant to terrorists or terrorist activities. The government should have to show probable cause.
The third provision, the “lone wolf provision”, to be granted only in secret courts, permits surveillance of people who aren’t US citizens and who have no connection to foreign terrorist organizations. This power has never been used. It could establish a worrisome precedent if ever used. Congress should let it expire.
The Republican leadership was taken by surprise that Tea Party newcomers opposed renewal. Now the three troublesome provisions will move to the Senate, where Rand Paul and other Constitutionalists promise a fierce opposition, arguing that the government, under the cloak of anti-terrorism, is exercising powers unsanctioned by the Constitution.