09 February 2011

Patriot Action: the majority and the opposition

The USAPATRIOT Act has suffered a temporary setback in the House of Representatives, where last night a "fast-track" bill extending certain controversial provisions of the notorious bill fell short of the two-thirds majority required for passage. The extension is expected to be resubmitted in a manner that allows a simple majority to approve it. Had that been the rule last night, the extension would have passed easily. These facts make me wonder whether the Republican leadership called the fast-track vote in order to expose those in their own ranks who were unlikely to go with the program. Those dissident Republicans are the focus of news coverage today, since their 26 votes would have put the bill over the top. They are, however, only a minority of the entire negative vote, most of which consists of Democrats defying "their" President, who favors extension. Nearly two-thirds of the Democratic contingent voted against the bill, while only 67 voted aye. Technically, then, House GOP leaders are right to blame Democrats for yesterday's defeat, though some have also grumbled about freshmen Republicans who supposedly "don't understand the Patriot Act."

Analysts have been quick to point out that last night's vote was not the well-anticipated first skirmish between the GOP establishment and the Tea Party. As this report explains, only eight of the Republican naysayers belong to the Tea Party Caucus, a strong majority of which voted for extension. The GOP dissidents are a diverse lot. Going through the list alphabetically, I found one of the youngest Representatives, who's also an Arab-American, and one of the oldest, a rabid reactionary against Obamian "socialism." If there's a common thread among the dissidents, it's more likely to be affinity with Ron Paul than with the still-inchoate Tea Party agenda, but I don't have time to verify that hunch this morning.

What about the Democrats? Some Republicans are complaining that the usual hypocritical partisanship has led many of them to oppose measures that they had supported just last year, when Democrats controlled the House? But who the hell is they? NPR notes that the attrition of retirements, primaries, and elections has left the House with fewer "centrist" Democrats of the sort who voted for extensions in the recent past. There may well also be Democrats who've changed their minds over the past year, whether because they feel the "war on terror" has wound down to the point that Patriot measures are no longer required or simply in order to make a statement on what will prove to be a purely symbolic vote.

In any event, last night's vote gives us a new picture of the House. It has a comfortable but not veto-proof national-security majority, though it's unlikely that they'll have to override a veto of a national-security measure. It also has a sizable but containable minority that converges on civil-libertarian concerns from a wide range of ideological starting points. Majority and minority alike are bipartisan in composition. Leaders can blame unreliable people in either party for what happened last night, and the vote may well have been taken in order to expose those people to various forms of pressure from both parties. Ordinary Americans who distrust the Patriot Act and the expanded national-security apparatus it sustains should learn from this episode that they shouldn't look to any one of the major parties for protection from potentially abusive surveillance. The only way that last night's victorious minority can become a majority is by drawing from both parties. More to the point, opponents of the Patriot Act need to find more congressmen for whom party dictates count less than civil liberty.

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