Surveillance Reform Stalemate In Congress Doesn’t Reflect Public Opinion

The ACLU on Monday released a survey that found 60 percent of American voters want to see modifications to the PATRIOT Act, the post 9/11 law that created the nation’s modern intelligence apparatus. The polling comes as the Republican leadership attempts to halt surveillance reform in the Senate.

The debate is becoming increasingly politicized in Congress, as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell calls for clean reauthorization of a PATRIOT Act provision set to expire on June 1, Section 215. This section provided the mandate for the controversial bulk collection of American phone records revealed by former government contractor Edward Snowden almost two years ago.

The House passed a bill that would reform parts of the Patriot Act last week, but a spokesperson for the ACLU criticized that portion for not going far enough. From Snowden’s revelations, we know the government uses other laws — notably Section 702 and Executive Order 1233 — to collect Americans’ communications. This reform would only affect the bulk collection occurring under the Patriot Act.

As other organizations like Pew have found, the survey shows that calls for reform are bipartisan. Fifty-nine percent of Democrats surveyed and 58 percent of Republicans surveyed strongly agreed with modifying the law. That percentage only rose among independents, with 71 percent supporting reform efforts.

In a media call, ACLU legislative counsel Neema Singh Guliani said these findings highlight the disconnect between lawmakers on the Hill and the American people.

“In order to be more reflective of public’s views on surveillance and the Patriot Act, members of Congress should more fully support reforms and can fully support more aggressive reforms,” she said.

The ACLU also noted that surveillance reform could become a key issue during the primaries, especially because voters on the far right and far left are more likely than moderates to support reform efforts. The ACLU said that with the bipartisan support for reform and even greater support among independents, surveillance reform is an issue that could consistently help candidates appeal to voters no matter their political affiliation.

As we’ve seen with past surveys, younger voters were more likely than older voters to support modifying the Patriot Act. Sixty-five percent of 18- to 39-year-olds support reform, as compared to only 59 percent of voters over the age of 45.

The overwhelming majority of respondents — 82 percent — said they were concerned about the government collecting and storing their information. When given specific examples of government surveillance, respondents were most likely to be concerned about the government accessing their personal records without a judge’s permission or collecting information without a warrant for purposes other than stopping terrorist attacks.

This survey of about 1,000 likely American voters comes as the future of surveillance reform remains uncertain in Washington.

Although the reform bill sailed through with a large majority in the House, Senate Republicans seem intent on lining up with McConnell and calling for a clean reauthorization. But privacy advocates on both sides of the aisle say they will filibuster any legislation that reauthorizes the program.

With the clock ticking, lawmakers will have to break this stalemate quickly or risk letting the PATRIOT Act provision expire, and with it the most controversial of the NSA programs.