Republicans defeat an amendment meant to stop federal surveillance of libraries, bookstores
On Thursday, July 8, Republican leaders in the House of Representatives defeated a legislative amendment written to undo a controversial provision of the U.S.A. Patriot Act that has drawn fire from civil libertarians. Democrats and other supporters of the amendment, including its main sponsor, Rep. Bernard Sanders, a Vermont Independent, criticized the Republican leadership for extending beyond the standard 15 minutes the time limit on the vote in order to pressure wavering Republicans to defeat the measure.
The time extension allowed Republicans to achieve a tie vote, which spelled defeat for the Sanders’ amendment.
The Freedom to Read Amendment, sponsored by Sanders and C.L. Butch Otter, a Republican of Indiana, would have removed Section 215 of the U.S.A. Patriot Act that allows law enforcement agencies such as the F.B.I. to secretly investigate peoples’ bookstore purchases and public library records, including their Internet usage at library computers.
The amendment was attached to a $43.5 billion dollar appropriations bill for the Commerce, Justice and State Departments, funding the White House had threatened to veto if the amendment were passed.
The measure had gained a vote of 219 in favor and 201 opposed at the end of the regular time limit. Republican leaders then held the voting open for another 23 minutes while some G.O.P. members were convinced to change their votes.
“The democratic process was hijacked. The House leadership is concerned only with winning, and Congress now serves as a rubber stamp for White House policies. Anytime a member votes their conscience, they are forced to change,” said Joel Barkin, a spokesperson for Sanders. Barkin said that despite reservations among members about extending provisions of the Patriot Act, a law that was passed after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Republican Party leaders, led by Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas, turned the vote into a test of partisan loyalty.
“There is significant opposition in Congress to the Patriot Act, but Tom Delay is ruthless, and there are repercussions for those who step out of line,” Barkin added.
Among the Republicans who switched votes at the last minute were Zack Wamp of Texas, Tom Davis of Virginia, and Marilyn Musgrave of Colorado, none of whom returned telephone calls seeking their comment. The three originally joined a total of 27 Republicans in voting in favor of the amendment. Musgrave of Colorado has authored legislation, now referred to as the Federal Marriage Amendment, that seeks to amend the Constitution to permanently prohibit same-sex marriage. By the time the vote was closed, nine of the 27 original Republican amendment supporters had switched their votes.
Jeff Deist, a spokesperson for Rep. Ron Paul, a Texas Republican, who co-sponsored the legislation, said that this was “heavy-handed politics, but that it was not the result of some sinister conspiracy.”
Deist voiced concern, however, that the procedural fury covered up the fact that a lot of Republicans are uneasy with the Patriot Act and are willing to vote against it even in the face of a presidential veto.
“The public has cooled, certainly in our district, on their support for the Patriot Act, and the House is a good reflection of that,” Deist said. “This is a law that is aimed entirely inwards and only gives law enforcement more power over American citizens, not outside threats.”
The Patriot Act was passed quickly after the terrorist attacks as elected officials struggled with responding to Al Quaeda and anthrax-laden mail sent to congressional leaders. The law gives law enforcement agencies increased powers to conduct searches and investigations. Section 215 has received criticism from several civil rights groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union as not only being too intrusive and violating privacy rights, but ineffective as well.
“It was passed so quickly most people didn’t know what was in it, and now they are uncomfortable with certain parts of it,” said Rep. Jerrold Nadler, a Manhattan Democrat and co-sponsor of the Sanders amendment.
Patriot Act proponents contend that without Section 215, libraries would become surveillance-free havens where terrorists, many of whom might be illegal residents, would be able to do research on weapons of mass destruction or use library computers to communicate with their fellow conspirators.
Holding the roll call vote open long enough until sufficient votes were gathered for a win was a successful tactic used by Republican leaders last November on a Medicare prescription drug benefit bill favored by the Bush administration, when more than three hours elapsed between the agreed upon time-limit and the official close of the vote.
Last year, a measure sponsored by Rep. Otter that would have removed the Patriot Act’s authorization of “sneak and peak” searches that are conducted without the target’s knowledge and without standard warrants easily passed a House vote, but was later removed during a conference committee with Senate counterparts.
“For some reason they didn’t want to wait for that to happen with this one,” Rep. Nadler said. “The G.O.P. leadership chose to make it all-or-nothing here and really twisted some arms to get their way.”
Nadeam Elshami, spokesman for Rep. Jan Schakowsky, an Illinois Democrat who opposes extending the Patriot Act provisions, said, “It was very clear from the start that a majority of members favored the Sanders amendment. But because Pres. Bush is running for re-election on the Patriot Act as one of his major accomplishments, the House leaders couldn’t let him lose this part of it.”
Nadler echoed that political analysis of the importance to the Bush-Cheney campaign of the importance of defeating the Sanders amendment on the House floor.
“The White House wants to show that Democrats are soft on terrorism. [Pres. Bush is] running on the Patriot Act as a major accomplishment in fighting terrorism that the Democrats want to repeal, despite the fact that, many Republicans are against it as well,” said Nadler.
Next year, after the presidential election, the law’s original deadline expires. Nadler said that the heated fight over the Sanders amendment is an indication that other parts of the Patriot Act will have a tough time surviving when the entire law comes up for renewal.