Congress has extended the three sections of the USA PATRIOT Act that were to sunset on February 28, 2010, for one year without any amendments. The PATRIOT sections on business records, roving wiretaps and lone wolf investigations were originally to sunset on December 31, 2009, but the Senate ran out of time for a floor vote before the holiday recess. At that time a new interim sunset deadline was set for February 28, 2010, but, again, time “ran out”. With health care and other big issues, the Senate agenda has been packed with many contentious bills.
Late on Wednesday, February 24, the U.S. Senate voted on H.R. 3961 by voice vote, extending the expiring provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act until February 28, 2011. While there had been bipartisan agreement in the Senate Judiciary Committee late last year on the USA PATRIOT Act Sunset Extension Act of 2009 (S. 1692), the political dynamics shifted just enough to ward off a Senate floor vote. Contributing factors included the Christmas Day bombing attempt over Detroit and the election of Senator Scott Brown in Massachusetts as well as the lack of closure on health care and other issues.
On February 25, the House took up H.R. 3961 and passed the bill with a vote 315-97 with 20 members not voting.
Some reports have characterized these votes on a one-year extension as a “capitulation” by the Democrats to the Republicans and the White House — both of which wanted no amendments. Yet others look at this is a smart tactical move because it gives more time for negotiations to build up support again for the changes proposed this Fall by Senators Feingold and Durbin, Rep. Nadler and others in both the Senate and House. Further, there is still a sunset in place, for just a year “so that we can live to fight another day” — as one Hill staffer put it.
While ALA lobbied for passage of the bipartisan bill in this Congress, it is apparent that there were far worse alternatives that could have proceeded — such as eliminating the sunsets or pulling out some requirements for reporting and oversight. The many complex issues surrounding the USA PATRIOT Act and potential reforms must be part of a marathon effort, not a sprint. The library community must work for the long haul to achieve the necessary reforms. Hopefully, all can appreciate the current political environment, especially during a mid-term election year, to see these issues and political decisions are part of a larger complicated partisan scenario for supporters of PATRIOT reforms.
ALA has expressed appreciation to Senators Feingold and Durbin and all the others who have sought reforms and supported library issues in these latest debates. More grassroots support from library advocates will be needed this coming year, certainly more than was visible in the past year on PATRIOT issues, if ALA is to succeed in the next go-round.
Director, ALA Office of Government Relations