Monday, December 12, 2005

''Fixing The Patriot Act''-Russ Feingold

"To start, I want to go back briefly to what happened in 2001 during the Patriot Act debate. I was the only Senator to vote against the Patriot Act, but I wasn't the only one back then who worried that some parts of the Patriot Act went too far. For one thing, the three amendments I offered on the floor got between 7 and 13 votes each! But more importantly, to help convince people to support the bill, the House and Senate negotiators who hammered out the final package created a four-year "sunset" for sixteen of the provisions that expanded the government's surveillance powers. They did this over the strong objection of the Administration, which wanted to take advantage of the immediate post-9/11 atmosphere to make permanent changes to the law.

Some of the sixteen provisions set to expire at the end of this year are really not problematic, but some surveillance sections not subject to the sunset are highly contentious. Those of us in Congress who want to make changes to the Patriot Act have now focused on the most critical issues, some that sunset and some that don't, and several of which were the very issues I was raising on the Senate floor back in 2001.

Often proponents of the Patriot Act respond to critics by pointing to non-controversial provisions that I support, like those that helped to facilitate information sharing between law enforcement and intelligence agents as proof of why the Patriot Act is so valuable. I agree that the Patriot Act contains important provisions, and no one is arguing that they should be allowed to expire or even that they should be subject to a new sunset provision.

Just this past summer, we worked hard in the Senate Judiciary Committee to hammer out a bipartisan bill to reauthorize the expiring provisions of the Patriot Act, while including new protections against government overreaching. We passed that bill unanimously in the Committee, and the full Senate adopted it without debate. That was an extraordinary result, and it gave me real hope that we had turned a corner on this issue and that people of good will could put aside political posturing and go about the serious business of protecting our national security and our constitutional freedoms at the same time. But we have to remember that the Senate bill was itself a compromise. It is not the bill that I and the other bipartisan sponsors of the SAFE Act would have written. But we accepted it because we felt it addressed some of our major concerns in a reasonable way.

Unfortunately, the House passed a very different bill and the Patriot Act conference report that was announced last week after the House and Senate conferees met doesn't do enough to protect the rights and liberties we all hold dear. None of the Democratic conferees signed the report. They deserve great credit for that. In addition, I'm very proud to be working closely with five of my colleagues, three Republicans and two other Democrats, to stop a conference report that doesn't make the changes to the Patriot Act that we believe are critical and justified.

I will do everything I can to prevent this bad conference report from going forward. But no one is trying to force the Patriot Act to expire. The President could sign Patriot Act reauthorization legislation into law tomorrow if the House would just take up and pass the compromise Senate bill that was approved unanimously in the Senate earlier this year - a bill that includes important and reasonable privacy protections. This isn't about stopping Patriot Act reauthorization, it's about getting it right this time around.

So, what happens next? The way things stand right now, it looks like the House will take a vote on the conference report on Tuesday or Wednesday of this week, and then it will come over to the Senate. That's when things could get very interesting.

Sorry for the long initial post, but I wanted to make sure that that everyone has the background and context to follow the show this week. Of course, if I'm busy on the floor, I may not be able to post here as often as I would like, but I will follow your comments and try to keep you up to date on the latest developments.

I'm looking forward to hearing from everyone on this and other issues this week."-Sen. Russ Feingold on TPMCafe.

U.S. Senators, as you may know, tend to be long-winded. Some of things I learned from this post: It is hard to get your hands on a copy of the legislation being proposed. It appears that there are some "secret laws" on the books. Feingold never tells us what the objectionable provisions are.

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