By Dustin Hurst | Watchdog.org
HELENA — Locked in a tight race with Republican U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat, wants libertarian-minded Montanans to know that Rehberg supported the much-hated Patriot Act.
He may not want to mention it: Tester called for the law’s repeal during his 2006 senate campaign — but hasn’t done anything to achieve that goal.
In a Sept. 24, 2006 debate with then-U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns, a Republican who supported the Patriot Act, Tester decried the law, warning it undermined American civil liberties.
“It takes away your freedoms,” Tester told the crowd at the Butte debate. “If we take away your freedoms, the terrorists will have won.”
The Democrat then issued a bold political promise: “Let me be clear,” Tester said. “I don’t want to weaken the Patriot Act. I want to repeal it.”
The line won full praise from liberals and civil libertarians.
“Now most Democrats or Democratic candidates would have weaseled and tried to appear somehow strong on terrorism,” blogger Sacramento Democrat wrote on Daily Kos shortly after Tester bested Burns in that debate. “But Tester, having the spine he did, said it as clearly and explicitly as possible, that he didn’t want to weaken it, he wanted to repeal it.”
Tester continued to howl about Burns’ support of the Patriot Act. In a 2006 campaign ad, he condemned Burns as out of touch. The commercial touted 2005’s Senate Joint Resolution 19, a call from the Montana Legislature asking federal lawmakers to end the Patriot Act. Then the Montana State Senate president, Tester supported the resolution.
Nearly six years after taking office, Tester has yet to pursue anything like full repeal of the controversial federal law.
A search of Thomas.gov, the official congressional legislative tracking tool, shows that while Tester has solo-pitched 165 pieces of legislation and amendments since taking office in January 2007, none of them seeks to weaken the Patriot Act, never mind repeal it.
In 2007, he queried then-U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales about federal agents rifling through Montanans’ private information. And last year, Tester voted against the measure twice — an easy gesture when hefty Senate majorities assure the law’s safe passage.
Still, Tester hasn’t sought repeal and that irks at least one progressive who happens to have a very large megaphone.
“It’s easy to remember Sen. Tester’s campaign promise to repeal the Patriot Act,” George Ochenski, a top Montana progressive writer, wrote July 10, 2010. “Yet, despite the complete change in control of the White House and Congress from Republican to Democrat, the Patriot Act has been extended and expanded, not repealed.”
The issue is controversial for fiercely independent Montanans.
Like other Americans, Treasure State residents don’t want federal agents tracking their every move, but Amy Cannata, communications director for ACLU Montana, says the distaste for the surveillance state is particularly sour in Montana.
Montanans “want to do what they do and not be monitored by the federal government,” Cannata told Watchdog.org. “Montanans value their freedom. They value their privacy.”
Cannata says ACLU Montana has “serious concerns” about the act, but are most uneasy about the power it gives the federal government to monitor communications without so much as a warrant.
“There are so many ways it gives the government power to pry into our lives without any sort of check or balance,” she explained. “That really concerns us on a fundamental level.”
Yet, Rehberg can’t hammer Tester on the law because he voted for the measure in 2001 and again in 2005, the law’s first re-authorization. He reversed course, just days after declaring his Senate bid, his staff says, because he listened to Montanans’ evolving views on the issue.
Jed Link, Rehberg’s congressional spokesman, shrugs off Tester’s assertion that Rehberg switched positions only for political expediency.
“There are already enough politicians out there who think they know what’s best for the folks they represent,” Link said in an email message. “Denny’s different. What makes him unique is that he listens to Montanans with an open mind first, and then he acts based on what he learns.”
In short, Link said Rehberg, prompted by numerous statewide listening sessions, voted differently on the measure only because Montanans decided he should. Link also notes that a temporary authorization allows congressmen and senators changing opinions on the measure.
Rehberg says the law needs to be reworked in a way that protects constitutional rights while also granting the federal government the tools it needs to fight terrorists.
“We shouldn’t feel like in order to preserve the benefits of this bill we have to accept those aspects that don’t work or open up Americans to an undue infringement of our individual rights” Rehberg said in a prepared statement. “In recent years, Montanans have grown more uneasy with the provisions of the Patriot Act. It’s going to require some hard work and late nights, but there’s time for Congress to go back to the drawing board and get this right.
“We need to make sure we balance our national security needs with the fundamental civil rights that I have sworn an oath to uphold.”
Contact Dustin Hurst at Dustin@Watchdog.org.