Sunday night marked the first time that Congress has limited the executive branch’s surveillance authority since the terror attacks in 2001 set off a dystopian explosion in the government’s ability to spy on people inside and outside its borders.
But it was not so much a glorious moment of constitutional rebalancing for the legislative branch as it was parliamentary farce as usual. Faced with the long-planned expiration at midnight of three contentious provisions of the Patriot Act, the Republican-controlled Senate was simply unable to get it together and vote to renew the surveillance powers.
That failure to act was consequential. One of the three provisions had been used — improperly, it turns out — as legal justification for a National Security Agency program that collected phone records on millions of Americans without a warrant or any probable cause, along with other business records.
So as of today, for the first time in 14 years, you can make phone calls without the NSA hoovering up the records of who you called and for how long.