GOP Should Side with Civil Libertarians Rand Paul and Mike Lee, Not Mitch McConnell and Tom Cotton, on Patriot Act Provisions

The Arkansas senator's commitment to a national security state and bellicose foreign policy seems like a fan fiction version of Dr. Strangelove.


If and when the history of the current moment gets written, here's hoping that the stand in favor of limited government, rule of law, and goddamned basic decency mounted by Sens. Rand Paul, Mike Lee, and a few others is more than a footnote. And here's hoping that the unbalanced machinations of characters such as Mitch McConnell and Tom Cotton are fully understood as the useless, hysterical reactions they are.

Our story thus far: Earlier this week, the GOP-controlled House of Representatives passed the USA Freedom Act, which hems in certain surveillance practices passed during the Bush years as a way of fighting terrorists. As Scott Shackford noted here earlier, the new bill is better than the Patriot Act provisions it replaces, but it's not without critics, especially among libertarian-leaning members of Congress. Rep. Justin Amash, for instance, was one of eight Republicans who voted against it, explaining

H.R. 2048 falls woefully short of reining in the mass collection of Americans' data, and it takes us a step in the wrong direction by specifically authorizing such collection in violation of the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution. Americans, and members of Congress, should demand that Congress instead pass the original, bipartisan version of the USA FREEDOM Act from 2013, which strengthened—not weakened—Section 215's relevance standard to end bulk collection, while still allowing the government the flexibility it needs to pursue genuine threats against the United States.

In the GOP-controlled Senate, though, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is hell-bent on extending Patriot Act provisions that have rightly drawn criticism for being overly broad, useless in combating terrorism, and destructive of civil liberties. So what, reports Politico:

McConnell made clear his preference for a two-month extension of the current law. And to bolster his case against the House measure, the GOP leadership invited Michael Mukasey to meet with Senate Republicans, and the former attorney general argued in favor of keeping the PATRIOT Act provisions intact.

Jumping Jeebus! This, from the leader of a party dedicated to limited government and individual freedom and all that jazz. Politico further notes

Concerned Senate Republicans are now pumping the brakes while the debate over the PATRIOT Act further exposes a rift within the GOP between its hawkish and libertarian wings.

In an example of the internal party warfare, Sen. Mike Lee, a libertarian Republican from Utah, came to the Senate floor Tuesday to try to force a vote on the House-passed bill. Standing in the way was hawkish Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), who's been organizing briefings for Republicans aimed at pushing them to support a straight extension of the PATRIOT Act. Cotton blocked Lee's attempt, leaving the immediate future of the surveillance program hanging in the balance.

Good for Mike Lee. And for Rand Paul, whose filibuster back in 2013 helped call attention to government abuses under The Patriot Act. This time around, Paul gave a long speech (technically not a filibuster) that shows that at least some of the GOP (not to mention Democrats such as Ron Wyden) actually give a hoot about the Constitution.

Alas, the same can't be said for recent Republican arrivals such as Cotton, who is balls out in favor of a "clean" Patriot Act extension because SYMPHONY ORCHESTRAS. As Cotton told The Washington Examiner:

To put it in non-intelligence terms: A symphony doesn't just have horns or percussion, it takes all of them together to create a harmony. All the tools that our intelligence professional have work together in concert and to deprive them of this critical tool would lead to attacks on the United States.

At least since the rise of a libertarian wing of the Republican Party, the GOP has at least two paths when it comes to foreign policy, the war on terror, and civil liberties. It can side with the Mike Lees and the Rand Pauls of the world, who are serious about extending limited government principles to all aspects of state activity. Or it can continue to lay in with characters such as Mitch McConnell, whose devotion to anything other than his own power to swing deals to his constituents is unclear, and Tom Cotton, whose commitment to a national security state and bellicose foreign policy seems like a fan fiction version of Dr. Strangelove.

I hope the GOP will go in a libertarian direction on this one, but past performance shouldn't make anybody overly optimistic.