The House and Senate versions of the bill renewing provisions of the Patriot Act are now in conference. Without a final bill, the Administration's authority to employ critical counterterrorism tools will expire at the end of the year and the Congress will lose an opportunity to regulate homeland security grant spending in a manner that prevents assistance to states and cities from becoming yet another "pork-barrel" giveaway. The two chambers should work quickly to resolve their differences on this important legislation.
A Tool Against Terrorism
The Patriot Act provides means to facilitate information sharing, allows law-enforcement authorities employed to combat other crimes to take part in terrorism investigations, and establishes mechanisms for conducting surveillance of modern technologies, like cell phones. The law stated that these provisions would expire unless reauthorized by Congress this year. Both proposed bills to do that.
The difference between the two bills is narrow. Even though the Patriot Act has become an iconic symbol-reviled by civil libertarians and revered by prosecutors-the truth is that there is little that is controversial remaining in the Patriot Act. In fact, the Senate version of the bill passed out of the normally partisan Judiciary Committee by a unanimous vote.
Both the House and Senate bills, for example, would make permanent all but two of the expiring provision, and their main point of dispute is whether the remaining two provisions should be renewed for four years or ten.
Fixing Homeland Security Grants
The Patriot Act also created a formula for disbursing homeland security grants. The formulas that drive the grant process are turning homeland security initiatives into state entitlement programs. Current funding formulas guarantee each state .75 percent of the funds available. As a result, 40 percent of funds are immediately tied up, leaving only 60 percent for discretionary allocations. Money should be distributed based on national priorities, not giving every state an equitable slice of federal dole. The House version of the bill would fix this problem, establishing a spending framework based on strategic needs.
Time to Act
The House and Senate should move quickly to resolve their differences before the Patriot Act provisions expire in December 2005. After dozens of hearings in both chambers of Congress, both parties recognize that the Act poses little threat to civil liberties and provides useful tools for combating terrorism and making all Americans safer.
James Jay Carafano, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow for National Security and Homeland Security, and Alane Kochems is Policy Analyst for National Security and Defense, in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.