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On the Patriot Act, a Lesson in Knowing When to Fold 'Em

Leadership is not always about winning. Sometimes it comes down to knowing when you are on the losing side of a collision and swerving out of the way.

That’s what happened this week. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wanted to extend expiring provisions of the Patriot Act without amendment. Despite broad bipartisan support for the House-passed limits on the National Security Agency’s (NSA) bulk collection of phone records in the new USA Freedom Act, Leader McConnell called the Senate back for a rare Sunday night vote hoping to push through an extension of the Patriot Act, a law enacted shortly after 9/11.

His apparent strategy was a classic game of political chicken. With the clock ticking down toward a May 31 midnight expiration of the Patriot Act provisions, McConnell pushed all of his chips into the center of the table, daring opponents to limit the NSA’s capacity to fight the war on terror.

They called his bluff and McConnell demonstrated a critical trait in effective leadership—he folded.

Some argue that McConnell should have forced the issue to the Senate floor sooner. However, there is a good chance that strategy would have resulted in more floor time expended with the same result. Looking back at the path to securing Department of Homeland Security funding, McConnell spent considerable procedural time trying to clear the bill well in advance of the deadline, and it still came down to the wire.

The Bipartisan Policy Center’s first quarterly installment of the Healthy Congress Index suggested that the new Congress is showing signs of improved functioning and resilience. While Congress keeps stumbling into ditches, it appears to have regained the capacity to get out of them. Despite the temporary setback for the Senate leader on the NSA surveillance issue, the passage of the USA Freedom Act with its broad bipartisan support is another victory for deliberative democracy.

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