Mark My Words: Lack of Public Debate in Congress Called Into Question

The contemptible practice of passing sweeping legislation without any public debate was brought starkly into the public eye this week as only a single Senator demanded the opportunity to debate the re-authorization of the constitutionally questionable PATRIOT Act.

Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) held the Senate floor for hours on Tuesday in opposition to passing a renewal of the 2001 PATRIOT Act without public debate.

Paul’s action was quickly and unnecessarily criticized by the Democratic leadership as holding up the bill over “controversial” amendments proposals. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) even went so far as to accuse Paul of “fighting for an amendment to protect the right – not of average citizens, but of terrorists.”

One such controversial amendment required law enforcement to receive a judge’s approval before searching an individual’s credit cards, personal e-mails, library books, bank statements, and business records without notification, as required by the Fourth Amendment. Another proposed the elimination of warrantless wiretaps, requiring them instead to receive court approval.

The most controversial element, it seemed, was Paul’s demand that he be given time to engage in public debate, on the record, over the merits of the bill’s re-authorization. Back in February, Reid promised Paul that there would be at least a full week of debate concerning the PATRIOT Act and proposed amendments. Senator Reid has since reneged on that promise.

This promise of debate seemed long-overdue. Discussion seemed an obvious necessity prior to the re-authorization of a law that gives unprecedented power to the executive branch to spy on Americans.

The PATRIOT Act was a knee-jerk reaction to a national post-9/11 panic that created a plethora of unconstitutional practices that have and will continue to be abused. The Bush administration used the PATRIOT Act to engage in warrantless surveillance of U.N. diplomats and U.S. journalists. To suggest that the Obama administration only uses PATRIOT Act powers for their intended purpose is to embrace naivety. Surely, such potential for unconstitutional abuse deserves at least some debate on the floor of the Senate.

Reid, along with a majority of the Senate, doesn’t think so. Instead of allowing the previously promised debate, Reid killed the bill Paul was attempting to amend and instead snuck the re-authorization into a small-business bill that was procedurally immune from forced public debate and filibuster. This will allow the Senate to sweep re-authorization under the rug and avoid the necessary debate on whether re-authorizing the PATRIOT Act without question is really such a good idea. The re-authorization is expected to pass before the end of the week.

It’s no surprise that public debate has become less and less frequent, particularly on controversial legislation. In the era of the 24-hour news network, each and every phrase uttered by an elected official can and will be taken out of context and spread to the masses. Elected officials, wanting to protect their re-election chances, have effectively agreed with one another to do business out of public view, only turning to the press with personal press releases and prepared speeches.

The risk to re-election should not be a sufficient justification to eliminate public debate. Congressmen and Senators are elected to represent their constituents. The only way to ensure that such representation actually occurs is through increased transparency.

Congress is a deliberative body meant to debate and discuss the benefits and costs of legislation and policy. Without debate, there can be no accountability. Backroom political deals and underhanded procedural maneuvering with the express goal of hiding information from the American people is despicable and should be called out for what it is, corrupt and authoritarian.

Bring the PATRIOT Act and other controversial laws to the floor and let our elected representatives say their peace. Preventing public debate or threatening meritless filibuster to score political points is a depraved practice that mocks the democratic principles that underlie this country’s founding. Hiding from public accountability to ensure re-election should not be allowed nor tolerated. If there is merit to a law, let it be shown to the American people.

Photo CreditWikimedia Commons

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Mark Kogan

Mark is a lawyer and Mic contributor living in Washington, D.C.

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