With the 2004 presidential election over, the political horse race is likely to head back to the stables until the mid-terms, to be replaced in the headlines by more substantive matters of policy. One of the most significant controversies that will have to be addressed over the next year is the fate of the 2001 counter-terrorism bill known as the Patriot Act. And it promises to be a real brawl.
At issue are a series of provisions in the 2001 law that many lawmakers in Congress point to as one of the primary reasons why they were willing to vote for the Patriot Act. Known as the "sunset" provisions, they require Congress to reconsider many of the most sweeping sections in the law by the end of 2005. If they do not, the "sunseted" provisions expire.
The basic idea behind having the sunsets in place, especially for those members who uneasily voted in favor of the bill, was to have some mechanism that would force Congress to give the Patriot Act a long, sober second look, a look that they felt to be essential in a democracy.
Interestingly, the battle lines over the sunsets break down into unusual camps. On one side, in favor of removing the sunsets and making the entire law permanent, is a veritable who's who of anti-checks-and-balances conservatives, who feel that the president's power in America should be expanded greatly at the expense of the courts and Congress. These opponents include former U.S. Attorney General Ed Meese and Judge Robert Bork.
On the other side, however, is not just the usual coalition of progressive, good-government organizations and lawmakers, who favor retaining and expanding the sunsets. It includes a large cadre of conservative constitutionalists strongly critical of Patriot Act provisions that make it easier for the government to intrude on personal privacy rights and civil liberties without judicial review or Congressional oversight.
These conservative critics of the Patriot Act include, among many others, firebrand former Georgia Congressman Bob Barr, the American Conservative Union, Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform and the entire Republican Congressional delegation from Idaho.
The Patriot Act absolutists, in arguing for a blanket removal of the sunsets, basically make one substantive argument. The Patriot Act should be made permanent, they contend, because it broke down the "wall" preventing criminal and intelligence investigators from sharing information, and now allows the federal government to...