Less than a month after making a show of reading the US Constitution into the Congressional Record, the leaders of the Republican-controlled House of Representatives engineered a vote to extend the surveillance authorities that both the Bush and Obama administrations have used to conduct “roving surveillance” of communications, to collect and examine business records and to target individuals who are not tied to terrorist groups for surveillance.
While most Democrats opposed the extension of the surveillance authorities—rejecting aggressive lobbying by the Obama administration and its allies in the House GOP leadership—overwhelming Republican support won approval of the legislation on a 275-144 vote. Thus, the supposedly Constitution-obsessed House has endorsed a measure that is widely seen—not just by Democrats and progressives but by Republicans and conservatives—as a constant threat to privacy protections outlined in the document’s Fourth Amendment.
As Michelle Richardson, the legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, noted Monday night: “It has been nearly a decade since the Patriot Act was passed and our lawmakers still refuse to make any meaningful changes to this reactionary law. The right to privacy from government is a cornerstone of our country’s foundation and Americans must be free from the kind of unwarranted government surveillance that the Patriot Act allows. If Congress cannot take the time to insert the much needed privacy safeguards the Patriot Act needs, it should allow these provisions to expire.”
The 275 votes for extending the surveillance authorities came from 210 Republicans and sixty-five Democrats.
The 144 votes against extending the authorities came from 127 Democrats (including minority leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California, and Michigan’s John Conyers, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee) and twenty-seven Republicans.
The left-right coalition that prevented passage of the extensions last week held on the final vote Monday, with "no" votes coming from across a spectrum that extended from Ohio Democrat Dennis Kucinich to Texas Republican Ron Paul. But because speaker John Boehner and his allies in the GOP leadership managed this vote so that a two-thirds majority was no longer required, it has now passed the House and will go to the Senate for consideration on a timeline that seeks to get the process finished before the surveillance authorities expires February 28.
The determination of the House Republicans to deliver for President Obama on what is seen as a national security issue was somewhat remarkable.
More remarkable was the House vote on a motion offered by the Democrats, which sought to recommit the bill with instructions to add language ensuring that surveillances would only be conducted in compliance with the Constitution.
That motion lost on a 186-234 vote.
All 234 "no" votes came from Republicans, including two dozen members who minutes later would vote against extension of the surveillance authorities.
The 186 "yes" votes came from 184 Democrats and two Republicans—Ron Paul and South Caroilina Congressman Walter Jones Jr., a pair of stalwart civil libertarians who refused to put partisanship ahead of the rule of law.
The message from the Republicans, aside from Paul and Jones, was clear enough: for all their talk about how much they revere the Constitution, they’re cool with violations of the Fourth Amendment.