Yesterday, the House of Representatives failed to pass House Resolution 514, which would have extended the soon-to-expire surveillance provisions of the Patriot Act until December 8th. Despite this failed vote, there are four reasons why this vote does not mark the defeat of the Patriot Act. First, the House utilized a “suspension of rules” procedure that requires a two-thirds majority to pass a bill. Under this procedure, debate is limited to forty minutes and generally allows for quick passage of non-controversial bills. Yesterday’s tally for HR 514 was 277 yeas to 148 nays – only seven votes short of the two-thirds majority. This vote count shows how the Patriot Act extension has enough support to pass under a simple majority vote. Introducing HR 514 under normal procedures could therefore result with passage in the House.
Second, there is another live bill, HR 67, that also seeks the extension of the surveillance provisions within the Patriot Act. Aside from different sponsors, the only difference between HR 67 and HR 514 is when the surveillance tactics would be up for another renewal. HR 514 extends the provisions until December 8th, whereas HR 67 extends the provisions until February 29th, 2012. As a result, the House may have voted down HR 514 simply because it offered too short of an extension.
Even the White House has said it favors an extension of the surveillance provisions beyond the expiration dates of HR 514 and HR 67. In a statement [.pdf] released yesterday, the Obama Administration said it would approve a renewal of the surveillance provisions until December 2013, or almost three years from now. This clearly shows how President Obama would not utilize his veto power to prevent the renewal of the surveillance provisions.
Though, President Obama has consistently supported the Patriot Act and has never voted against any extension of the controversial bill. Obama approved the first renewal in 2005 when he was in the Senate, as well as the second major renewal when he was President in 2010. This latter renewal was not even a bill expressly for the Patriot Act, but was a late amendment in the Medicare Payment Reform Act.
In addition to President Obama supporting the renewal of the sunset provisions in the Patriot Act, the Senate would also approve such a bill. In the 2010 extension of the Patriot Act, which featured a Democratic majority in the Senate, the Senate passed the extension under a voice vote. Since the President and the Senate would likely approve a renewal of the Patriot Act, this leads to the third reason why the Patriot Act is far from defeat. With passage in the House, the extension of the Patriot Act would be on cruise control.
The fourth reason why yesterday’s vote is minor is because most of the Patriot Act is already permanent. In fact, the extensions only regard two provisions within the Patriot Act. Section 206 allows for roving wire taps, while Section 215 allows seizure of records, as discussed in this previous article. The original Patriot Act passed in 2001 allowed for the expiration of fifteen surveillance provisions, but subsequent renewals, particularly in 2005, permanently enforced a majority of these tactics. Regardless of whether Sections 206 and 215 are extended, there are already plenty of other surveillance tactics available for law-abiding Americans.
Even though the Patriot Act is far from defeat, yesterday’s vote at least showed how an expedited voting procedure failed to garner enough support for the controversial tactics. An implication of yesterday’s vote is the mainstream media mentioning the renewal of the Patriot Act and bringing more attention to the issue. Perhaps more individuals will view yesterday’s vote as motivation to contact elected Representatives and protect the privacy of Americans.
Lastly, keep in mind a recent publication of the Electronic Frontier Foundation that found the FBI violated the civil liberties of Americans far more frequently than previously assumed. Based on 2,500 files acquired under the Freedom of Information Act, the FBI is estimated to have violated intelligence investigation protocols on 40,000 different occasions in the ten years since September 11th.
Update: On February 14th, the House passed HR 514 after a vote of 275-144. After passage, however, the House passed a “motion to reconsider” to suspend the bill and prevent it from going to the Senate. This suspension either involves an amendment to the bill or the consideration of another bill on the same matter. With the President expressing concern for a longer extension, as well as Senate leaders, a foreseeable amendment would involve a later expiration date.
Update #2: The House amended HR 514 to expire in three months on May 27, 2011. The bill proceeded to the Senate, where it passed after a vote of 86-12. President Obama will likely sign the bill within the week. With the relatively short renewal, an extended renewal apparently requires more compromise.
Update #3: President Obama signed HR 514 into law on February 25th.