Commentary

Memo to Congress: Don’t Do Something, Just Stand There

Congress has a golden opportunity over the next six weeks to significantly improve public policy and expand American freedom by doing nothing. In fact, a long vacation would be just the ticket.

The Export-Import Bank’s authorization expires on June 30, after being kicked down the road from last September. Let it expire.

And the Patriot Act’s most controversial provisions — bulk collection of Americans’ phone records stemming from Section 215 (already ruled illegal by a federal court), roving wiretap authority, and “lone wolf” provisions — will expire on June 1 unless they are reauthorized.

A six-week vacation would give a boost to economic growth and our Fourth Amendment privacy rights. It’s a win-win.

This is a great opportunity for Congress to take a long vacation — go back to their districts and find out what’s on voters’ minds, take a fact-finding trip to Paris and Rome, or just relax at the beach — and let these misguided laws expire.

Members should stay on vacation through the Fourth of July and come back to Washington after listening to some speeches about our inalienable rights, free enterprise, and the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.

The Ex-Im Bank is the most visible example of cronyism and corporate welfare, which has lately come under fire from both Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street activists. It has an especially close relationship with Boeing, which receives about 40 percent of the bank’s subsidies.

Free enterprise means that people are free to start and build companies, seek customers, and make profits if they succeed. The system works well if there’s competition. But subsidy programs like Ex-Im put a thumb on the scale. They help some companies at the expense of others. The bank backs only about 2 percent of American exports, with 76 percent of its assistance going to a few big companies such as Boeing, General Electric, and Bechtel. Government shouldn’t be picking winners, it should set a few rules of the road and let companies go out and compete vigorously for customers.

Members of Congress committed to free enterprise and competition should let the Ex-Im Bank die, no matter what the Chamber of Commerce and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) say.

As for the Patriot Act provisions, we’ve heard plenty of dire warnings from advocates of the surveillance state. Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) says vacuuming up all Americans’ phone records is a “critical capability” in combating terrorism. Yet as my colleague Julian Sanchez notes, two groups of experts came to a different conclusion:

A Surveillance Review Group appointed by the president found that information from the NSA database “was not essential to preventing attacks,” and concluded that there was “no sufficient justification for allowing the government itself to collect and store bulk telephony meta-data.” Those findings were echoed by the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, which was unable to find “a single instance involving a threat to the United States in which the telephone records program made a concrete difference in the outcome of a counterterrorism investigation.” Rather, the Board wrote, “the information supplied by the NSA through Section 215 offered no unique value, but simply mirrored or corroborated information that the FBI obtained independently using other means.”

What if the three provisions aren’t reauthorized? Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) says, “I see no reason why we couldn’t use the Constitution for a while.” And then Congress could spend the summer contemplating what sorts of surveillance authorization are really needed. Members can debate the USA Freedom Act, the Surveillance State Repeal Act, or other alternatives.

Congress gets a lot of criticism for “doing nothing.” Considering some of the things that Congresses actually do, doing nothing is often a better idea. In this case, a six-week vacation would give a boost to economic growth and our Fourth Amendment privacy rights. It’s a win-win.

David Boaz is executive vice president of the Cato Institute and author of The Libertarian Mind, just published by Simon & Schuster.