Congress Poised To Pass Yet Another Extension Of Bush’s PATRIOT Act

Several key provisions of the Bush-era PATRIOT Act are set to expire at the end of this month: language that gives the FBI authority to use roving wiretaps; a “lone wolf” provision that allows the government to monitor targets who are not connected to an identifiable terrorist group, and most troublingly, a provision allowing the government to access, without judicial review, “any tangible items” such as library records that it deems relevant to an ongoing terrorism investigation.

Potential reforms to these provisions, and the overall bill, have been debated every year but never enacted. Now, with only weeks left in which to act, the Republican House leadership has fast-tracked an extension that doesn’t contain any reforms. In a move announced late Friday, Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA) scheduled a vote this afternoon on a reform-less extension, which would be effective until December 8, 2011. There will be no opportunity for amendments and very limited debate. OpenCongress explains:

That’s right, the Republicans’ bill to extend a few controversial surveillance programs that are set to expire at the end of this month…has been rushed to the floor calendar without a single committee hearing or a proper mark-up….They are trying to pass it under the suspension of the rules procedure, which means that there will only be 40 minutes of debate allowed and no amendments can be offered.

This, of course, violates (yet again) Republican pledges to have a more open and transparent legislative process. The vote will happen at 2 p.m.

In the Senate, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) has put forth a bill that would extend these provisions, but with some very basic safeguards — for example, “when library or bookseller records are sought via a Section 215 order for business records, a statement of specific and articulable facts showing relevance to an authorized investigation must be produced.” The Department of Justice has already agreed to enact most of these reforms voluntarily. Leahy’s bill would also sunset the use of National Security Letters, a dangerous practice that “radically expanded the FBI’s authority to demand personal customer records from Internet Service Providers, financial institutions and credit companies without prior court approval.” Government watchdogs have already uncovered widespread abuse of this provision.

Unfortunately, according to Julian Sanchez, Senate Democrats are prepared to fast-track a bill by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) that extends these provisions without any reforms, under a rule that allows them to bypass the committee process. The White House announced in a statement today that it also endorses this approach.

With leadership in both parties, along with the White House, favoring a reform-less extension, opposition is coming from an unusual place: conservative Tea Party members of Congress. Last week, Rep. Dennis Kucinich challenged Tea Partiers to adhere to their professed desire for limited government, and it appears some might. Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) says he’s not sure how he will vote today, and Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) is warning against any future efforts to make such extensions permanent. “There need to be sunsets on the bill after that in order to have adequate accountability and oversight,” he said. “Until sunsets come up, it is often difficult to get the answers we need to do necessary oversight to avoid abuses.”