Blog of Rights

Checks and Balances In the House

By Lisa Graves, Legislative Counsel at 10:02am
On Wednesday, the House of Representatives bucked intense pressure from the Bush administration and refused to support a ten-year extension for some of the Patriot Act's most controversial powers.

By a voice vote, with no members dissenting to back the White House plan, the House instead supported a four-year expiration date to three sections, including the infamous Section 215, which gives the FBI "secret search" power to get secret court approval to look for "any tangible thing" it wants in intelligence investigations.

This vote, on instructions to the conference committee finalizing the Patriot Act renewal recommendations, is a huge win for the bipartisan group that seeks reform, not blanket renewals and extensions.

Behind the scenes, Republicans and Democrats in the House had been waiting for weeks to vote against the administration and in favor of shorter sunsets.

The bill forced through the House this summer extended some provisions for ten years. Members of Congress know well that extending the sunset for that long would have removed any leverage for Congress to get information about how this administration or its successor, Republican or Democratic, uses these powers.

Even before this week's Washington Post article on the dramatic increase in secret records demands, advocates of reform in Congress were working hard to set the stage for Wednesday's vote. Last month, allies in the right-left coalition had counted heads and found a solid majority of House members in support of the shorter sunset provisions in the Senate bill. But House leadership refused to allow the vote. This time around, with a solid majority still in favor of reining in these powers, the House had no choice but to allow the vote.

We heard that opponents of reform had been trying to pressure lawmakers to change their votes, and that, as late as today, the administration had been calling members to pressure them not to vote for short sunsets.

But, with so many members ready to stand up to the White House, it seems the House leadership decided to support the motion, rather than look like they lost the vote. When members took the floor to cast their votes, not a single lawmaker spoke against it.

Even House Judiciary Chairman James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin spoke in favor of the motion, although the House bill he worked on adopted the ten-year sunset approach. Representatives from astoundingly diverse political perspectives, from Democrat Rick Boucher of Virginia to Republican Dana Rohrabacher of California, and from Democrat Jerry Nadler of New York to Republican Connie Mack of Florida-all spoke out in favor of short sunsets for these controversial powers.

The Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi and the Ranking Member John Conyers of the Judiciary Committee generously allowed this motion - which is one of the few procedural rights of the House minority - to become a bipartisan effort.

As we waited for the debate to begin, we were still counting votes. Soon after lawmakers started speaking, however, it was clear that reformers had the won the day.

It was only a few months ago that the Justice Department had strongly opposed any sunsets, suggesting that federal agents wouldn't use temporary powers. That was a flimsy argument and one that the House wisely rejected.

Without your efforts, however, our Congressional representatives would not have had the support to stand up to the arm-twisting of the White House, which was determined to make President Bush's dream of an entirely permanent Patriot Act a reality.

We should savor our victory in this pitched battle for the protection of our civil liberties. Clearly, however, much more needs to be done. The inherently abusive powers of the Patriot Act need to be reformed.

There's no doubt that the Post article highlighted the potential for abuse. It describes a hundredfold increase in "National Security Letters" issued annually by the government. The Patriot Act opened the floodgates to the extensive use of these secretive search tools by eliminating the requirement for facts connecting records sought to a suspected foreign terrorist. We have a great deal of work ahead of us to bring that power and the others in line with the checks and balances of our Constitution.

In the coming days, we will report back to you with news as the conference committee meets. The bottom line is that your commitment to the Constitution helped move this process from a nearly blank check to the executive branch to a bipartisan effort to honor our values of privacy, liberty and due process.
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