Russ Feingold and the Patriot Act

As you most likely know, Senator Russ Feingold was the only senator who voted against the USA PATRIOT Act in 2001. Feingold, as part of the Senate Judiciary Committee, spent the last year leading reform of the Act before its 2009 reauthorization. That should be great for those of us who like having civil liberties, but unfortunately, in what is becoming a trend of the Obama Adminstration, reform did not happen.

Senator Feingold wrote a piece for Daily Kos in which he explained what happened. While Feingold had hoped for the JUSTICE Act, he still felt that milder reforms to the PATRIOT Act would still be an improvement. Publicly, the Obama Administration had talked big about reforms and civil liberties and President Obama has a strong record as a proponent of civil liberties. However, behind closed doors, things were quite different. The executive branch, according to Feingold, nosed into the Judiciary Committee and pushed its positions that the members of the committee accepted unquestioning. This despite the fact that the legislative branch is supposed to be (as explicitly stated in the Constitution) a check on the (ever expanding) power of the executive branch. Feingold writes:

“[I]f the administration wanted to further water down the already limited reforms in the bill that was on the table, they should have said so openly. Instead, at our only public hearing we were told that the Justice Department did not have positions on the crucial issues about to be discussed. Then, over the past week, in classified settings, the Department has weighed in against even some of the limited reforms that Sen. Leahy originally proposed.”

I agree with Senator Feingold that it is not right of the Judiciary Committee to agree to changes the executive branch proposes just because the President is a member of their party. Or because he is popular. Senators are supposed to be working in the interest of the American people, which includes our safety as well as protecting our freedoms. As Benjamin Franklin famously stated: “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” Liberty and safety are not mutually exclusive and they need to stop being treated as such. We need more Senators working to hedge the power of the government and restore the liberties which were stripped from us in the name of safety.


About Sylvia Fredericks

Second-Year MPA student at the La Follette School for Public Affairs (University of Wisconsin - Madison)
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