When it comes NSA surveillance, the Senate has a decision to make. The upper chamber could settle for the House’s watered-down version, which the Obama administration is willing to live with. It could also keep pushing for a temporary extension of the status quo.
Whatever the Senate’s preference, it will have to decide fairly quickly – Congress has until June 1 to extend the provision of the Patriot Act that authorizes the collection of telephone records, and lawmakers are supposed to be out all of next week.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has clearly made his preference clear, but National Journal today takes a closer look at his intra-party allies pushing aggressively in the other direction (via Greg Sargent).
Driving that strategy are Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr, and a handful of others. Their ranks include Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, a freshman Republican who voted for a version of the reform bill – known as the USA Freedom Act – last year but has since come out strongly in favor of the NSA’s authorities due in part to “hours and hours” spent with members of the intelligence community and increased access to information as a new member of the Intelligence Committee.“My preference would be to permanently extend all three authorities,” Cotton said in an interview, referring to the bulk-collection power as well as a provision allowing surveillance of “lone wolf” suspects not linked to any formal terrorist group or government, and another allowing “roving wiretaps” to target individuals instead of a specific device.
Wait, did he say “permanently?
Mitch McConnell seemed ambitious when he unveiled a plan to extend spying powers under Section 215 of the Patriot Act through 2020. Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) soon after endorsed McConnell’s proposal.
And to be sure, that’s problematic enough. Given the controversy surrounding the surveillance program, simply kicking the can down the road, keeping the status quo through the end of the decade, is the sort of move that should generate considerable debate.
But the right-wing Arkansan, unless he misspoke, apparently has a far more ambitious approach in mind: a permanent surveillance state.
In the wake of a 9/11-style emergency, a familiar dynamic kicks in: policymakers, responding to a crisis, propose controversial measures that would otherwise be rejected. “Don’t worry,” they say, “this will only be temporary. When the crisis passes, we can go back to the way things were.”
But Cotton’s position is a reminder that once these programs are in place, they become entrenched and institutionalized, making the promised repeal difficult, if not impossible.
The status quo has its flaws, but the reauthorization process at least allows lawmakers to give this periodic thought. Members are confronted with opportunities to ask important questions and consider possible changes.
Tom Cotton, however, is apparently convinced that periodic reviews aren’t necessary, and an extension through the end of the decade is too modest. He wants a “permanent” change in federal law.