House Casts Shadow on Sunsetting Provisions of Patriot Act

February 9, 2011

By a vote of 277–148, the House defeated reauthorization of the “library” provision of the USA Patriot Act February 8 for the first time since its enactment 10 years ago. Section 215, which allows federal authorities conducting a counterterrorism investigation to seize someone’s library records or business records unbeknownst to the individual and without a court order, is due to expire February 28 along with two other provisions: federal agents’ authority to place roving wiretaps on individuals and to observe anyone they suspect of being a dangerous “lone wolf” even though he or she is not believed to have ties to a terrorist group—and without specifying to a court the identity of the surveiled party.

Backers of H.R. 514 had sought to win passage by seeking a two-thirds majority vote in a parliamentary maneuver reserved for bills considered noncontroversial, according to the February 8 Capitol Hill newspaper The Hill. Instead, H.R. 514 lost by 23 votes as representatives eschewed party loyalty: 26 House Republicans opposed reauthorization alongside 122 Democrats, while 67 other Democrats joined with 210 Republicans to support extending the provisions until December 8.

However, if the bill returns to the House floor for a simple-majority vote, as expected, it could pass easily. [UPDATE Feb. 9, 6:15 p.m. Eastern: A vote on procedure regarding H.R. 514 has been scheduled for Feb. 10; the House seems poised to consider the bill again sometime during the week of Feb. 14.]

The American Library Association’s Washington Office has gone on record opposing passage of H.R. 514, arguing that it would “make no improvements to protect our civil liberties, including the reader privacy rights.” Instead, ALA and the Association of Research Libraries have urged support of S. 290, the USA PATRIOT Act Sunset Extension Act of 2011, which is seen as increasing oversight of the government’s counterterrorist operations to safeguard the civil liberties of innocent individuals.