Sunday, November 20, 2005

Can congress dispel the hex of fear?

The USA PATRIOT Act (The Act) was up for reathorization in congress this week. At first, it seemed that it was business as usual in the House, with our representatives succumbing to 9/11 hysteria. However, by the end of the week, it began to look like some semblance of rationality might be settling in, particularly in the Senate.

The Act is very intrusive on Americans' right to privacy and has proven wholly ineffective at intercepting and obstructing terrorism. Fortunately, some of the sections of The Act that are most destructive to our civil liberties are set to expire at the end of this year. Unfortunately, some of the rabid-right (ironically, since they traditionally stand for laissez faire government) would prefer that law enforcement agencies continue to have the unfettered ability to intrude on our freedoms. Therefore, they moved to eliminate the clauses of The Act that require the expiration of those sections.

This past summer, the House approved a bill to achieve these ends, believing that the dangers of terrorism warrant suspending our right to privacy (even though The Act has not led to a single conviction on terrorist-related grounds over the four years it has been in effect). Senators, on the other hand, seem to have slowly come to their senses and realized that (as Benjamin Franklin once said), "Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety." The Senate passed a bill that returns judicial oversight to the power of law enforcement agencies to confiscate the personal records of American citizens without their knowledge. Therefore, members of both houses met this week to reach an agreement on a bill that could pass both houses before the end of the year, when some sections of The Act expire.

Repeating the error that happened just before The Act was passed in 2001 of working out the details in secrecy, conferees met behind closed doors and came out with a bill that eliminated the safeguards to our freedoms that the Senate's version of the bill held. According to Bob Barr, former Republican representative from Georgia, "It's very similar to the process in 2001. We believe it's a very inappropriate and dangerous game to play. Politics seems to be driving this whole game. The Senate worked long and hard to fashion a compromise." Lisa Graves, senior counsel for legislative strategy at the American Civil Liberties Union, said: "There's been a lot of pressure by the administration and the Justice Department to refuse to go along with advances in the Senate bill. There's definitely an attempt to railroad this through."

Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed. By Friday, liberals and conservatives from both sides of the aisle in both houses formed a coalition to block the latest version of the bill. They did so by dropping the immediate consideration of the bill and, thereby, avoiding a filibuster in the Senate over the weekend. What this broad coalition indicates is the recognition by many different political affiliations of the serious flaws in The Act. Although some legislators are still under the spell of the terrorist tactics of the Bush administration, there are now enough legislators who have regained their appreciation for the Constitution to stymie those who would surrender our liberties. Let's hope they can do it again at the end of the year when the bill is sure to come up for a vote again before sections of The Act expire.

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