The scope of domestic spying conducted by the NSA has shocked and horrified many Americans, including one of the lawmakers who made it possible: Sen. James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin — one of the principal proponents of the Patriot Act. Federal authorities have stretched the language of the act to cover a host of activity Sensenbrenner says he never intended. Let that be a lesson to aspiring lawmakers everywhere.

Now Sensenbrenner has joined Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy in sponsoring new legislation to roll back some of those excesses. Their USA Freedom Act would end the bulk collection of Americans’ telephone records. It also would add some transparency to activities conducted under the aegis of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, tighten restrictions on National Security Letters, and adds a special advocate who would argue on behalf of privacy rights before the FISA court. That provision is necessary because, at present, the court hears only one side: the government’s. As a result, it routinely grants approval to surveillance requests.

This is a much better bill than its competitor, the FISA Improvements Act — which would codify current practices that should be reined in and, according to some privacy advocates, potentially make matters worse in other ways as well. The principal sponsor is Sen. Dianne Feinstein, an aggressive proponent of the surveillance state who probably wouldn’t shrink from putting a tracking collar on every U.S. resident if that were feasible.

The debate illustrates a broader point about government generally, which not only tends to retain powers long after a crisis has abated, but also tends to push the boundaries of its legal authority — sometimes to the breaking point.

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