Sen. Mike Lee and Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner are Republicans from, respectively, Utah and Wisconsin.
The proper balance between civil liberties and national security is delicate. Fortunately, our Constitution set up a political system capable of striking the compromises necessary to provide for citizens’ privacy and for the nation’s safety.
In June 2013, we learned the federal government was illegally collecting records of millions of Americans’ calls. A bipartisan, bicameral group of Judiciary Committee members immediately began negotiating a solution. Along the way, privacy groups, technology companies, the National Security Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the House and Senate intelligence committees joined the discussion. The result was the USA Freedom Act — which the Senate should debate and pass before time runs out.
Bulk collection of our phone metadata is an affront to our civil liberties. Metadata can paint vivid pictures of our lives, and bulk collection is at odds with our constitutional system of limited federal government. Those who disagree should remember that the argument underlying this dragnet could be stretched to collect other records — e-mails, retail purchases, doctor visits, Web histories and virtually any other record.
Opponents of reform argue the government needs the haystack to find the needle. But there is an endless number of haystacks, and if we don’t defend the legal and constitutional limits on the government, make no mistake, it will eventually assume the power to comb through all of them.
We are not naive about the risks we face. The Patriot Act was crafted to fill the gaps in our surveillance law that were brutally exposed by the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Key elements of the Patriot Act are set to expire at the beginning of June, and if Congress does not act, three important national security provisions will revert to read as they did prior to 9/11, and we will knowingly re-expose weaknesses in our counterterrorism infrastructure.
The USA Freedom Act renews these important authorities, but it also reforms them to ensure that we end bulk collection, increase transparency and create additional judicial safeguards to protect Americans’ essential Fourth Amendment rights. This bill is the product of nearly two years of work and hard compromises. There is no alternative with even a fraction of the Freedom Act’s support.
Last Congress, the House passed the bill with broad bipartisan support, but a procedural measure in the Senate fell two votes short. With looming expiration dates that we’ve been aware of all along, the House has again passed the USA Freedom Act overwhelmingly, 338-88. Now, all eyes are on the Senate to follow suit.
Some in the Senate believe a simple extension of existing law is the best way to protect U.S. security. But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit ruled the bulk collection of our phone metadata was not authorized by statute. Any extension would be an abrogation of congressional responsibility and would keep the program in legal doubt.
Further, the votes simply do not exist in the House for this irresponsible course of action. Any Senate vote to extend the Patriot Act as is will only ensure that these important Patriot Act provisions expire.
Americans are rightfully fed up with dysfunction in Congress. Constantly passing new extensions to get through old deadlines is no way to govern. We already fund our government by a series of short-term resolutions. We cannot extend this government-by-cliff model of legislating to our national security laws.
And with the USA Freedom Act as the best legislative option available, it is time for Senate Republican leaders to honor their promise to govern by regular order and allow for a full and open debate.
By failing to debate the bill, we are risking an ugly fight that could lead to a sunset of critical national security authorities.
Instead of political gamesmanship, we must restore Americans’ confidence in their government and maybe, just maybe, we as a Congress can regain their trust. As elected officials in the most powerful country in human history, we have an obligation to protect the liberties that separate us from the rest of the world and protect all Americans from those who wish us harm.
Senators, the American people are watching, and their patience is running thin.