The Sun Never Sets on the PATRIOT Act

A year ago, the protracted wrangling in Congress over the re-authorization of several expiring provisions of the PATRIOT ACT made plenty of headlines. Most observers expected the sunsetting powers to be extended, but civil libertarians hoped serious and sorely needed reforms might be part of the package. The House and Senate Judiciary Committees held multiple hearings on the topic, and an array of competing reform and reauthorization bills (PDF) were proposed, adding extra safeguards (of varying stringency) to the greatly expanded surveillance powers Congress had approved in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

But Congress had a full plate, and so it punted—approving a straight one-year reauthorization without any modifications at the last minute. (You’d be forgiven for not noticing: The extension passed under the heading of the “Medicare Physician Payment Reform Act.”) As I
noted in December, however, the Justice Department has promised Congress that it will voluntarily adopt some of the measures that had been floated in those reform bills—which would be a fine thing in itself, but I worried that the move seemed calculated to reduce the impetus for binding legislation.

Well, I’ve just noticed—quite serendipitously, as there doesn’t appear to have been a whisper in the press—that the new House Intelligence Committee Chair, Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), has introduced yet another one-year extension, which would push the sunset of the expiring provisions back to the end of February 2012. Given the very limited number of days Congress has in session before the current deadline, and the fact that the bill’s Republican sponsor is only seeking another year, I think it’s safe to read this as signaling an agreement across the aisle to put the issue off yet again. (I’ve asked Rogers’s office for a comment and will update this post if I hear back.)

In the absence of a major scandal, though, it’s hard to see why we should expect the incentives facing legislators to be vastly different a year from now. Heck, we’ve had a pretty big scandal involving the misuse of National Security Letter powers, but even right on the heels of the Inspector General’s report documenting those abuses, the mildest reforms proffered last year died on the vine. I’d love to be proven wrong, but I suspect this is how reining in the growth of the surveillance state becomes an item perpetually on next year’s agenda.