Surveillance Reform Update: On Filibusters, Sunsets, and Reauthorization

By Elizabeth Holland

Yesterday afternoon, Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) took to the Senate floor to lambast government surveillance programs. Over the course of 10.5 hours, he was joined by members from both parties who spoke at length about their opposition to the USA PATRIOT Act and called for substantial reform to protect Americans’ privacy from government intrusion.

Whether Senator Paul’s talk-a-thon qualified as a true filibuster is unclear; though his control of the floor prevented Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) from filing cloture on both the AALL-supported USA FREEDOM Act (H.R. 2048) and a bill to extend the expiring provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act for two months (S. 1357),  it’s not certain that Sen. McConnell ever intended to do so on Wednesday. Nonetheless, Sen. Paul’s extended floor speech came as the Senate comes down to the wire, making the chance of a clean reauthorization of the expiring USA PATRIOT Act  provisions before the June 1 deadline increasingly improbable.

Senators are now scrambling to avoid a sunset of Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act (the “library records” provision). This morning, McConnell filed cloture on H.R. 2048 and S. 1357, setting up a probable Saturday vote. However, the House has already adjourned for its Memorial Day recess, meaning the provisions will expire before their scheduled return unless the Senate passes the House-approved USA FREEDOM Act. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) held his ground today saying, “The House has acted. It’s time for the Senate to act. If they act, we’ll take a look at what they do and make a decision on how to proceed.”  If the Senate passes a short-term reauthorization, the out-of-town House would need to agree to it next week under unanimous consent during its pro forma session.

As the clock ticks, more Senators have announced their support for the USA FREEDOM Act, which would effectively end the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of Americas’ telephone data, including Senator Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), the lone Democrat to oppose the bill last year when it fell two votes shy of cloture. A report released today by the Department of Justice’s Office of the Inspector General shows the expiring Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act has been used by the Federal Bureau of Investigation to collect “telephone records of U.S. persons who were not the subject of or associated with the subjects of authorized investigations.” The Second Circuit Court of Appeals already ruled the program unconstitutional and an April 2015 poll commissioned by the ACLU shows Americans believe the USA PATRIOT Act should not be reauthorized in its current form by nearly a 2:1 margin (60 percent modify, 34 percent preserve).

AALL urges the Senate to pass the USA FREEDOM Act, without weakening amendment, before the upper chamber leaves town for the Memorial Day recess. Use our Legislative Action Center to contact your members of Congress in support of privacy reform and urge your Senators and Representative to oppose any legislation that extends the USA PATRIOT Act without amendment.

The timing and strategy of Congressional action on this issue are in flux and subject to change. Stay tuned to the Washington Blawg and follow us on Twitter @AALL_GRO for the latest.

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