Although it was in some ways a tribute to Congress’ bumbling ways, the outcome for the USA Patriot Act — an extension for only five weeks, until Feb. 5 — was an unalloyed defeat for the Bush administration.
The president had repeatedly said he would not accept a “short-term extension.” But in the end he was forced to yield to congressional doubts about certain provisions of the act, with the White House even intervening with House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner to get him to agree to the short extension the Senate preferred.
The refusal to rubber-stamp the controversial Patriot Act was a victory for the American people. It suggests that finally, four-plus years after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Americans have impressed on their legislators the idea that they are not willing to accept any and all expansions of government power that some official can dream up in the name of a safety that can never be 100 percent guaranteed.
It is useful to remember the original Patriot Act, which was passed within weeks of the 9/11 attacks. It was not a tailored response to the specific terrorist threats we face — about which U.S. intelligence agencies obviously knew very little. It was a pastiche of off-the-shelf measures to extend government power, many of which had been proposed by the Clinton administration but rejected by the Republican Congress.
This was hardly a perfect piece of legislation whose alteration would cause the republic to fall. Many supporters recognized this by agreeing to allow 16 provisions of the bill to “sunset,” or expire, after four years, which was what brought on the legislative imbroglio this month.
Most of the act will remain intact even if Congress decides not to renew the 16 controversial provisions. Investigations begun under the authority of those provisions — even investigations into alleged actions begun before the end of this year — will be allowed to continue even if the provisions expire.
So the idea that failure to renew the entire Patriot Act in all its confusing glory will set the stage for a terrorist attack is a scare tactic, plain and simple.
It might be expecting too much of Congress, but the stage has been set for a sober discussion, informed by experience and the passage of time, of the perennial problem of balancing liberty against safety. The fact that it will come at a time when the Senate is slated to hold hearings on the president’s authorization for the National Security Agency, which had been previously confined to overseas surveillance, to conduct surveillance within this country without judicial oversight, should widen the discussion in a healthy way.
Ever mindful of the danger a large and ambitious government poses to the liberty of the people, the American founders wrote a Constitution designed to keep government limited.
During times of war and conflict the executive branch always seeks and usually gains more power. If Congress is really showing more assertiveness in questioning the executive branch, that is a healthy portent for the long-term survival of constitutional government.