Rand Paul versus Patriot Act
The reviews are mixed. In the end the vote on extending the Patriot Act may have been delayed by a day or so. But one thing was abundantly clear: Paul was forcing the Senate to consider some fundamental issues, while other presidential wannabes couldn't be bothered...
Jeb Bush was spending the evening in New Hampshire, stumping for votes in his as yet undeclared campaign. John Kasich was in New York City, working over donors for his as yet undeclared campaign. Senator Rand Paul, the presidential candidate who has pledged to smash “the Washington machine,” was on the floor of the U.S. Senate, asking the world’s greatest deliberative body to actually show up and deliberate the renewal of the Patriot Act.
For 10 hours and 31 minutes, Paul and three fellow republicans">Republicans joined seven democrats">Democrats to debate terrorism, privacy and the Bill of Rights. The Kentuckian promised not to rest "as long as my legs can stand," daring President Obama to end bulk data collection, and attempting to delay the debate on Patriot and the USA freedom">freedom">Freedom Act—the legislation that divides civil libertarians. From time to time, Oregon Senator Ron Wyden would take the floor to praise Paul and explain why the anti-terror law could not be rushed through.
That's what the Senate is designed to do -- debate the big issues, for as long as necesary, in order to prevent a head-long rush into bad public policy. It doesn't always work out that way, and frequently, the Senate can be as slap-dash as the House on some issues. But for a few hours, at least, Paul and a handful of his fellow Senators were raising questions about our need for security versus our rights as free citizens. It even produced some good theater:
Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who like Cruz and Paul is running for president, presided over the debate for its final hour. He pored over a foreign policy magazine, showing no reaction as two people who may share a debate stage with him argued that the NSA was out of control. And even Cruz disagreed with Paul on the USA Freedom Act. Like Wyden, like the ACLU, he preferred that the bill be amended by civil libertarians before getting a vote. Paul seemed to be alone in worrying that a compromise would undo all of the work of privacy advocates.
It should be noted that Rubio is not alone in his desire to renew the Patriot Act in total. Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, who has made a name for himself as a leader of the "populist conservatives" in the Senate spoke with passion about the need for renewal:
Senator Sessions’ conclusion – that it ought not be more difficult to investigate terrorism than it is to investigate a common felony case was echoed by the Editors of National Review, who said in a complimentary editorial supporting the renewal of the Patriot Act, “The gathering of bulk metadata also allows intelligence analysts to track the organization and funding of terror networks in a way that would be much more tedious, if not outright impossible, under the USA Freedom Act. The president has made only a half-hearted case for these powers, but given their obvious utility and vanishingly small effect on privacy, congress">Congress ought to renew them.”
The split among Republicans is profound and the ultimate fate of the Patriot Act's renewal is still up in the air. However, we all ought to agree that it ws refreshing to see the Senate of the United States engaged in a discussion of the limits of federal power. Far too often, such fundamental matters are never given so much as a second thought.
And yes, there were plenty of presidential politics involved in this debate. Paul managed to put one of his campaign issues front-and-center, and televised, while fellow contenders like Cruz and Rubio played secondary roles. That's good for Paul strategically, and his campaign tried to take full advantage of it. Will it hold up over time? We shall see.
In the short-term, however, all eyes were on Rand. And in a long, expensive presidential campaign, such attention is a big help.