Congress Should Quit Playing With Appropriations and Do Its Job

If this week is any indication, many of our representatives in Congress have abandoned their responsibility to represent their constituents and uphold the Constitution. Instead of doing their jobs, they’ve made aggressive moves to undo Net Neutrality, block an FCC program designed to connect our most vulnerable communities to the internet, and radically expand surveillance capabilities.

As if what they’re doing isn’t bad enough, how they’re doing it is dangerous too. They’re dodging crucial public debate on their proposals by sneaking them into must-pass spending bills. 

Though they’ve been unable to pass a clean budget over the last five years using normal procedures, the majority continues to load these lengthy spending bills with poison-pill riders. These riders attack not just the open internet and our associated rights and civil liberties but go after everything from environmental protections and reproductive rights to consumer safeguards and the District of Columbia’s right to self-governance.

It’s absurd and it’s irresponsible.

Let’s start with the FCC, which is funded by an appropriations measure called the “Financial Services and General Government” bill. It’s on the House floor today. Republicans keep adding riders to it to interfere with the FCC’s successful Net Neutrality order. Falling back on their tired playbook of trying to undermine the public’s historic win at the Commission and in court, they’re once again disregarding the voices of the 4 million people who called for these protections and pushing Comcast’s agenda instead.

But why stop at attacking common-sense nondiscrimination provisions in the Net Neutrality order? This time these members also decided to go after the Lifeline program, which helps connect millions of low-income households to essential communications services. Lifeline now includes support for broadband internet access, thanks to another big FCC decision earlier this year.

House leadership  caved on the Lifeline rider thanks to public pressure — and after losing a separate bid to gut the program in a vote held last night. But they’ve got even more tricks up their sleeves.

The FCC spending bill will still include votes against Net Neutrality and a rider that would block the agency’s ongoing efforts to protect broadband users’ privacy. And this bill even tries to stall the agency’s attempt at breaking cable’s stranglehold on outdated set-top boxes, which disadvantage diverse content creators while bilking consumers for billions of dollars a year in rental fees.

The rash of riders doesn’t stop with attacks on the FCC’s public interest-driven and pro-competition policies. Congressional leaders have also introduced an amendment to another spending measure, called the “Commerce, Justice, Science” appropriations bill, that would  broaden surveillance authority under the infamous Patriot Act.

By sweeping up what the law calls an Electronic Communications Transactional Record (or “ECTR” for short), this new provision would dramatically expand the type of information collected via National Security Letters (or “NSLs”). These warrantless edicts already let the FBI collect information about your online communications. The rider in question here could give spy agencies even more details about the emails you send, the websites you visit and your physical location too.  

Lawmakers pushing this idea disingenuously refer to the ECTR “fix” as a correction, claiming it was just a typo that kept these records outside the purview of NSLs. Sen. John Cornyn (R–Texas) pushed this same “fix” onto the wildly popular Email Privacy Act, and in so doing he derailed that long-awaited update to our privacy laws.

Aware this ECTR bill would have trouble passing on its own, Sen. John McCain (R–Arizona) (pictured) has introduced this latest amendment. Sneaking surveillance legislation into a budget bill is the same trick certain members used to pass the dangerous cybersecurity bill formerly known as “CISA” in the omnibus spending package that funded the government last December.

Pushing through laws without open debate is unfair and undemocratic. Members of Congress need to stop their sneak attacks on the free and open internet. They must remember their duty to serve the public by safeguarding its rights and liberties, and they must stop hiding indefensible policy inside budget bills.

Original photo by Flickr user Gage Skidmore