Conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats rarely agree on anything, but they did come together in the House of Representatives Wednesday in opposing far-reaching -- and constitutionally troubling -- electronic surveillance by the National Security Agency.
In scrambling the usual political alignments, with the Obama administration backing GOP leaders, the debate on security measures was largely a case of buyer's remorse. Wider surveillance that seemed like a good idea to members of both parties in the feverish aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks now seems more an affront to the Fourth Amendment's prohibition of unreasonable searches.
For Republicans who made a fetish of the war on terror, distrust of the government is spurred anew by the fact that President Barack Obama, who can do no right for them, is now in the White House instead of President George W. Bush, whom they thought at the time could do no wrong.
But whatever the causes of this new feeling, it is based on a legitimate suspicion. The revelations made by Edward J. Snowden, the former NSA contractor, have made that clear. The House vote came on an amendment to an annual defense spending bill and centered on a provision of the USA Patriot Act. It would have ended the broad sweep of information searches, limiting NSA phone surveillance to specific targets of investigation.
Despite national security officials' past and present warning of dire risks to national security if the NSA activities were curtailed, the amendment lost by a margin of only 12 votes, 217-205. This unease with the status quo in Congress mirrors the thinking of the country at large.
The problem is that merit exists on both sides of the argument. It would be foolishly irresponsible not to use technology to fulfill a basic function of government -- to protect the people from the nation's enemies. But it is just as foolish to let secret courts set secret precedents that make the Fourth Amendment into a historical curiosity, not an active principle in the modern age. The NSA's activities cry out for more guidelines and scrutiny.
Resolving those contradictory goals must be the work of Congress and the administration going forward. The Patriot Act section in question expires in 2015. House Intelligence Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich., who opposed the amendment, promised to draft legislation this fall that would require government surveillance programs to have more privacy protections.
The strange bedfellows on the right and left need to stay together long enough to help him.