It may seem to many Americans that Washington is entirely consumed by the impeachment inquiry, and that no other important business is getting done on Capitol Hill. But on Tuesday, in a break from televised hearings, the House of Representatives voted to fund the government through December 20. If passed by the Senate, the continuing resolution would prevent a government shutdown and forestall a debate about border-wall funding.
That’s all well and good, except that Democratic leaders had slipped something else into the bill: a three-month extension of the Patriot Act, the post-9/11 law that gave the federal government sweeping surveillance and search powers and circumvented traditional law-enforcement rules. Key provisions of the Patriot Act were set to expire on December 15, including Section 215, the legal underpinning of the call detail records program exposed in the very first Edward Snowden leak.
“It’s surreal,” Representative Justin Amash told me on Tuesday, just before the vote. Amash, an independent who left the Republican Party over his opposition to President Trump, pointed to the hypocrisy on both sides of the aisle. Republicans have “decried FISA abuse” against the president and his aides, he said, referring to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, “and Democrats have highlighted Trump’s abuse of his executive powers, yet they’re teaming up to extend the administration’s authority to warrantlessly gather data on Americans.”
By tucking the measure into a must-pass bill, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi forced many members who oppose the Patriot Act to vote in favor of its extension. “Although I do have serious concerns with reauthorizing Section 215,” Representative Bobby Rush of Illinois told The Hill, “we must focus on the bigger picture here.” In late October, Rush signed a letter co-authored by Representatives Rashida Tlaib and Earl Blumenauer, which read, “We will not support any legislation that extends Section 215’s sunset date if it fails to contain robust reforms that protect innocent people from unjust surveillance.”
On Monday night, Amash submitted an amendment to strip the Patriot Act language from the budget bill, but the amendment was blocked by Democrats on the Rules Committee.
Just 10 Democrats defied the leadership to vote against the resolution, including Tlaib, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley,