Patriot Act needs diligence

Reauthorization of the Patriot Act, first introduced after the 9/11 attacks, permitting the federal government greater surveillance powers as part of enhanced security measures, unexpectedly went down in flames in the House on Tuesday night. But it should not come as a surprise.

A miscalculation in a whip count falsely indicated the measure could pass under suspension of the rules, which requires a two-thirds vote rather than a simple majority. There’s virtually no debate or deliberation, and the measure is tossed in with a handful of other supposedly minor bills that require little more than perfunctory floor action. But even if a whip count had shown at least two-thirds of the U.S. House supporting reauthorization, should something as critical and controversial as extending the Patriot Act be approached in such a cavalier manner? 

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Just because the Congress can, doesn’t mean the Congress should. On Tuesday, the Congress learned it can’t. Let’s keep our fingers crossed it begins to “get it” on the question of “should” for such crucial legislative items.

While Tuesday’s vote has widely been panned as a glitch in the new Republican majority’s ability to connect the dots and properly whip the vote count on its side of the aisle, the real problem is far more serious. The miscalculation and misjudgment was in taking the extension of the Patriot Act as lightly as the name of a post office building.

After the attacks of Sept. 11 nearly a decade ago, Congress voted for this unprecedented expansion of government invasion of privacy with a healthy trepidation. It was to be a temporary, if uncomfortable, measure, designed specifically and solely for the extenuating circumstances the nation faced in our new color-coded world of high-level terrorist threats.

We were never supposed to get used to it, or be comfortable with the invasions of privacy brought on by the Patriot Act, but rather accept it as a necessary blight in the name of national security. It was an unwelcome trade-off, at best. It’s doubtful any lawmaker cast a “yea” vote with the assumption — let alone hope — that the Patriot Act would be accepted as our new permanent reality. Each reauthorization should be viewed as an opportunity for honest assessment of how we are performing in the war against terror. And reauthorization of the Patriot Act should be hard, each and every time, even if it needs to pass. Tuesday should have been no exception.

Every House member should have been afforded the highest level of intelligence briefing allowable, with members on the committees of jurisdiction provided an even greater amount of intelligence on terror threats. Non-committee members often look to colleagues “in the know” with higher security clearances due to their committee status for cues and clues, and gauge their responses as part of their own decisionmaking process.

With such a large freshman class brought to Washington on a Tea-Party wave heavily seasoned with libertarianism, along with similar sentiments streaming through the Democrat minority in Congress, it isn’t at all surprising that a lockstep vote supporting temporary extension of the Patriot Act failed to come to fruition. Bringing it up under suspension of the rules, even if it could score the 290 votes required, is slouching toward complacency. 

Floor debate, and lots of it, is in order, if only so members can let their constituents know they harbor reservations but have done their homework prior to casting a reluctant “yea” vote in the name of national security. Congressional due diligence is rarely punished by constituents back home.

And a simple glance at the committee hearing calendar could have made the difference. Tuesday night the House voted down the Patriot Act. Wednesday morning, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano testified that the U.S. is currently at its highest threat from terrorism since 9/11. Head-thumpingly maddening, isn’t it, that the Patriot Act vote, at a minimum, could not have been scheduled for after Napolitano’s prophetic testimony?

Jacobus, president of Capitol Strategies PR, has managed congressional campaigns, worked on Capitol Hill and is an adjunct professor at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management. She appears on CNN, MSNBC and FOX News as a GOP strategist.