Skip to content
On Wednesday, Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) filed an amicus brief in the American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU) lawsuit against officials in the Obama Administration. The brief argues the National Security Agency’s (NSA) bulk collection of phone records violates the Patriot Act and Congress’s clear intent.

The National Rifle Association (NRA) also filed an amicus brief in the ACLU’s lawsuit questioning whether the Administration could violate our Second Amendment rights under its misinterpretation of Section 215.  A Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) training manual specifically lists gun sales as records the FBI can obtain under Section 215, the so-called business records provision of the Patriot Act.  

Congressman Sensenbrenner: “The NSA’s dragnet collection of data is a violation of Americans’ privacy rights and a misinterpretation of the law.  Bulk data collection has frightening implications.  The Administration believes every phone call that every American makes is relevant to terrorism investigations.  Does it also believe every gun sale is relevant?  The same flawed legal argument could be used to build a national gun database, violating our Second Amendment rights.  

“This misinterpretation of the law threatens our First, Second and Fourth Amendment rights.  Congress never intended this. I will rein in the abuse of both the Patriot Act and the U.S. Constitution with the support of the American public.”

President Obama has sought the approval of Congress to carry-out an airstrike on Syria. Approval for military action was requested in a letter to the President by several members of the House of Representatives, including Congressman Sensenbrenner (R-WI). The House is expected to debate whether to carry out the strike when it reconvenes next week.

Congressman Sensenbrenner: “President Obama set a red line for action in Syria and is now in denial. The actions by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his regime are reprehensible, but Congress did not set a red line for military action in Syria—President Obama did.  And his plan for military force will not help the Syrian people or promote the freedom or security of the United States.  Therefore, I oppose the President’s plan and intend to vote against it when it is considered by the House.”

Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) issued the following statement regarding actions taken by the Justice Department today.

Congressman Sensenbrenner: "I regret that the Department of Justice announced its intent to file a lawsuit against Texas’ Voter ID law citing Section 2 to the Voting Rights Act.  The Texas legislature passed Voter ID, and Governor Perry signed this legislation into law in 2011.  Voter ID laws are an essential element in protecting the integrity of our electoral process and do not have a discriminatory intent or effect.  

"I spoke with Attorney General Holder today and requested that he withdraw his Section 2 lawsuit until there can be a legislative fix of the Voting Rights Act.  The lawsuit would make it much more difficult to pass a bipartisan fix to restore the heart of the VRA that the Supreme Court struck down earlier this year." 

By Jim Sensenbrenner

Published August 19, 2013

On Aug. 9, the Obama administration released a previously secret legal interpretation of the Patriot Act that it used to justify the bulk collection of every American's phone records. The strained reasoning in the 22-page memo won't survive long in public light, which is itself one of the strongest arguments for transparency in government. As the late Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis wrote, "Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants."

Recent revelations by the Washington Post emphasize the need for greater transparency. The National Security Agency failed to report privacy violations that are serious infringements of constitutional rights. Beyond these blatant violations, the foundation of the programs is itself illegal.

Section 215 of the Patriot Act authorizes the collection of certain business records — in this case, phone records — when there are reasonable grounds to believe that the records are relevant to an authorized investigation into international terrorism. The key legal term is "relevance."

Under this relevance standard, the administration has collected the details of every call made by every American, even though the overwhelming majority of these calls have nothing to do with terrorism. Since first learning of the program this spring, I have been a vocal critic of such dragnet collection as a gross invasion of privacy and a violation of Section 215.

The administration's memo begins by acknowledging that its interpretation of the statute is at odds with the plain meaning of "relevance." It argues there is a "particularized legal meaning" of relevance, but it ultimately concedes that it fails to meet this standard as well.

The legal definition grew out of case law related to grand jury subpoenas and civil discovery. In these areas, courts have adopted a somewhat broader concept of relevance, finding that documents can be relevant not only when they directly bear on the subject matter at hand but also when they could reasonably lead to other information that directly bears on that subject matter. Think of it as second-degree relevance.

The memo correctly points out that Congress was familiar with this legal standard when it adopted the Patriot Act and therefore intentionally invoked this legal interpretation when passing the act. That's true as far as it goes, but the administration's bulk-collection program goes far beyond this broader definition of relevance. The phone records of innocent Americans do not relate to terrorism, and they are not reasonably likely to lead to information that relates to terrorism. Put simply, the phone calls we make to our friends, families and business associates are private and have nothing to do with terrorism or the government's efforts to stop it.

The arguments to the contrary are not compelling. As the administration explains it, all of our phone records are broadly relevant because potential connections between the individual data points are of value. This is where it relies on the tired metaphor of the needle in the haystack, arguing that it needs the haystack to find the terrorism needle.

But our private connections contained in the bulk data are only of value if they in some way relate to terrorism. To the extent they don't, the government has no right to collect them. The government may need the haystack to find the needle, but gathering the haystack without knowledge that it contains the needle is precisely what the relevance standard and Section 215 are supposed to prevent.

Although the secret FISA court has gone along with this, no public court has ever upheld document collection that is remotely close to the dragnet at issue. The administration concedes as much: "To be sure, the cases that have been decided in these contexts do not involve collection of data on the scale at issue in the telephony metadata collection program, and the purpose for which information was sought in these cases was not as expansive in scope as a nationwide intelligence collection effort designed to identify terrorist threats."

The administration therefore admits that its bulk collection is unprecedented, but it nonetheless has the audacity to argue that because Congress knew of the more limited civil and criminal concepts of relevance, it should have known it was authorizing bulk collection under the Patriot Act. Why would the existence of a more limited definition put Congress on notice that it was sanctioning a more expansive view?

The administration actually goes further and reasons that Congress essentially sanctioned the abuse of the Patriot Act by failing to stop the administration from abusing it. This last point deserves to be quoted in full:

"Moreover, information concerning the use of Section 215 to collect telephony metadata in bulk was made available to all members of Congress, and Congress reauthorized Section 215 without change after this information was provided. It is significant to the legal analysis of the statute that Congress was on notice of this activity and of the source of its legal authority when the statute was reauthorized."

As I have said numerous times, I did not know the administration was using the Patriot Act for bulk collection, and neither did a majority of my colleagues. Regardless, the suggestion that the administration can violate the law because Congress failed to object is outrageous. But let them be on notice: I am objecting right now.

Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) has been a member of Congress since 1978 and is the former chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. He is the primary author the Patriot Act.

View online: here.
Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) introduced the Business Activity Tax Simplification Act (BATSA) today, which would limit state attempts to collect taxes from out-of-state businesses and codify the physical presence standard for state taxation of business activities.  

Congressman Sensenbrenner: “Per the Supreme Court, the Commerce Clause forbids states from levying taxes against individuals who lack a “substantial nexus” with the state. But the Court left many states unsure about what constitutes a “substantial nexus” and the extent of their ability to levy certain taxes on out-of-state businesses.

“This bipartisan bill aims to clear up what the Court left vague and ripe for misinterpretation. Some states have misconstrued their authority to levy business activity taxes, which has resulted in uncertainty for small businesses and state governments alike. BATSA resolves the existing ambiguity by establishing a clear and concise rule for when a sufficient connection exists to justify taxation.”  

The Voting Rights Act (VRA) is one of the most important pieces of civil rights legislation ever passed. It began a healing process that ameliorated decades of discrimination and is vital to our commitment to never again permit racial prejudices in our electoral process.

At a time of social upheaval and political inequality, the VRA helped distinguish America as the world's premier example of democracy. Free, fair and accessible elections are sacrosanct, and the right of every legal voter to cast their ballot must be unassailable. In contrast to past attempts to end discrimination, the VRA required federal preclearance of changes to voting laws in areas with histories of discrimination. Section 5 of the VRA was the only federal remedy that could stop discriminatory practices before they impacted elections.

Prior to the 2006 reauthorization, the Judiciary Committees held multiple hearings examining the VRA. Congress amassed a legislative record of over 15,000 pages, documenting invidious discrimination and demonstrating "the continued need for federal oversight."

In Shelby County v. Holder, the Supreme Court severely weakened the VRA's election protections. In a 5-4 decision, it eliminated the formula for determining which areas are covered by section 5. The result is that preclearance requirements remain, but only apply in the handful of locations subject to a court order.

The ruling suffers from one glaring oversight: it fails to account for the bailout procedures in the VRA reauthorization. Chief Justice Roberts recognized that the VRA "employed extraordinary measures to address an extraordinary problem." But while the majority chastised Congress for failing to update Section 4's coverage formula, it ignored the fact that, far from punishing areas for distant history, any covered jurisdiction could bailout of coverage by demonstrating a 10-year period without discrimination. The coverage formula, coupled with the act's bailout procedures, ensures a fluid and current response to discrimination. The very fact that these jurisdictions have not bailed out is evidence that the VRA's "extraordinary measures" are still necessary.

The Court's decision ensured increased litigation. The prohibitions against voter discrimination are still intact, and state and local governments will have to defend against more such litigation. While the Court struck down Congress's coverage formula, courts still have the ability to "bail-in" jurisdictions to the VRA's preclearance procedures if they find evidence of discrimination. The Department of Justice has already announced it will pursue such coverage in Texas.

By striking down Section 4, the Court presented Congress with both a challenge and a historic opportunity. While it is too early to say how to best restore the formula struck down by the Court, any solution must be politically palatable and comply with the Court's interpretation of the Constitution. It will require extensive legal expertise and political input as this is not an easy puzzle to solve.

Voter discrimination still exists, and our progress toward equality should not be mistaken for a victory.
The House of Representatives passed H.R. 1911 on Thursday, May 23, with the support of Congressman Sensenbrenner (R-WI). This bill would link the base interest rate to the 10-year Treasury Note. All outstanding loans would reset to the current 10-year Treasury Note rate once per year.  And upon or subsequent to graduation, students could consolidate and lock in fixed rates for the life of their loans.

On July 24, the Senate incorporated a substitute amendment by Senators Manchin (D-WV) and Burr (R-NC). The House of Representatives passed H.R. 1911, the Bipartisan Student Loan Certainty Act, as amended by the Senate, yesterday with the support of Congressman Sensenbrenner.  

“This legislation is a step toward fiscal stability and helps students relying on loans to further their education. House Republicans recognize the additional stress our struggling economy is putting on graduates, especially those with student debt. This bill would prevent student interest rates from doubling this fall and provide a permanent fix to the student loan program while protecting taxpayers by not adding to the deficit. It’s unfortunate Democrats held up this effort, but I am glad to see the House approve a bill with the proper urgency to move from a plan dictated by politics to one that is market-based.”
President Obama invited the principal author of the Patriot Act, Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI), Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR), Mark Udall (D-CO), Dick Durbin (D-Il), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Saxby Chambliss (R-GA), House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), House Intel Chairman Mike Rogers (R-MI) and Ranking Member Dutch Ruppersberger (D-MD) to a meeting in the Oval Office today to discuss National Security. 

Congressman Sensenbrenner: “It is becoming increasingly apparent the balance between security and liberty has been tainted. Amidst public outcry, the President invited members from both sides of the debate to discuss this important issue. The conversation was productive and everyone agreed something must be done. 

“Washington must ensure our homeland is protected, as is our right to privacy. Therefore, following the August recess, I intend to introduce legislation to ensure Section 215 of the Patriot Act is properly interpreted and implemented. The bill will ensure the dragnet collection of data by the NSA is reined in, safeguards are established to significantly increase the transparency of the FISA Court and protections are put in place for businesses who work with the government.
“As a result of the meeting at the White House, I was unable to cast my vote on H.R. 1582, the Energy Consumers Relief Act. If I were present, I would have voted in support of ensuring greater transparency and oversight of the EPA, and am extremely pleased it passed the House.”