It's nice to see at least some Republicans still fighting for fiscal restraint. House Republicans are taking issue with the $1.7 trillion spending bill being rushed through Congress this week. They're objecting to specific provisions—$70 million for salmon?!—and to the massive size of the measure in general, as well as the fact that there's scarcely enough time for lawmakers to read through the whole 4,000 page bill before the vote.
Republican fiscal restraint can be a fair-weather thing, popping up when Democrats are in power and disappearing when conservatives reign. There are some indications that's what's going on here now. But it's still nice to see pushback against both the omnibus appropriations bill itself and the absurd manner in which it's being considered.
The worst people in politics from both parties have teamed up to demand Congress rubber-stamp a 4,155-page blank check—many times the length of the Bible.
A check for $1,700,000,000,000 of your money.
And they want it stamped before anyone can actually read it.
— Edward Snowden (@Snowden) December 20, 2022
In yesterday's Roundup, we looked at some of the topline numbers in the bill, as well as the add-on proposals that were included (like a ban on TikTok on government devices) and left out (like a bill to make banking accessible for legal marijuana businesses). And since then, Reason writers have highlighted other facets of the bill, including the absence of a measure to fix the unjust disparity between penalties for offenses involving cocaine and those involving crack, and the inclusion of a pro-housing reform measure that seems likely to be ineffective.
Today, I'll highlight a few more measures that did or didn't make it into the bill, as well as some political controversy surrounding its passage.
JCPA Out, Antitrust Bill In
Let's start with some good news: the dreadful Journalism Competition and Preservation Act (JCPA) was kept out of the bill. That's good news for the press, media consumers, tech companies, and anyone who uses the internet. "The JCPA is a highly-controversial piece of legislation that did not belong in any end-of-year spending packages, and we are thankful Congressional leaders recognized this basic fact and successfully kept the JCPA out of the omnibus and all other lame duck legislation," said Joshua Lamel, executive director of the copyright coalition Re:Create, in an emailed statement.
Included, however, is a measure to give more money to antitrust enforcement, called the Merger Filing Fee Modernization Act.
????: The only antitrust bill that Democrats could cram in the omnibus spending package was the "Merger Filing Fee Modernization Act" (H.R. 3843), a bill that hands over a billion dollars to federal antitrust agencies. https://t.co/5FvuBa4IY6
— Open Competition Center (@OpenCompCenter) December 20, 2022
"While the most controversial antitrust bills considered in the 117th Congress didn't make it into the omnibus package, H.R. 3843 is still a misguided bill that conservatives should reject," said the Open Competition Center, an affiliate of Americans for Tax Reform.
Money for Fish, bee-friendly highways, and Opera fire alarms
As folks have been highlighting more specifics from the spending bill, it becomes clear how we reach such an astronomical price tag. The government is trying to do way too much, and funding things that may be worthwhile but could be better left to private investment or state and local funding.
For instance, the bill allots $750,000 for fire alarm modernization at the metropolitan opera. There's $3 million for an LGBTQ museum in New York, more than $3.6 million for a Michelle Obama Trail, and authorization for the creation of a Ukrainian Independence Park.
The bill sets aside $200 million for the Gender Equity and Equality Action Fund and $7.5 million for studying "the domestic radicalization phenomenon."
The word salmon appears in the bill 48 times, Rep. Dan Bishop (R–N.C.) noted, and $65 million is allotted for Pacific coastal salmon recovery. There's also an additional $5 million for studying the impacts of culverts, roads, and bridges on salmon populations, and $65.7 million for international fisheries commissions.
Bishop also noted the bill's allotment of "$410 million towards border security for Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, Tunisia, and Oman," $1,438,000,000 to be part of global multilateral organizations, and "$3 million for bee-friendly highways."
Some House Republicans are waging war on the bill and those who vote for it. On Tuesday, a group of 13 lawmakers issued a threat to conservative colleagues in the Senate who vote in its favor.
"Due respect for Americans who elected us would call for not passing a 'lame duck' spending bill just days before Members fly home for Christmas and two weeks before a new Republican majority is sworn in for the 118th Congress," they wrote. "Senate Republicans have the 41 votes necessary to stop this and should do so now."
It's over 4,000 pages long.
Does anyone know of anybody who can read 4,000 pages in less than 48 hours?
This is absolutely ridiculous in every way.
— Congressman Cliff Bentz (@RepBentz) December 20, 2022
"The American people did not elect us—any of us—to continue the status quo in Washington," the letter continued, signed by 10 current members of Congress and three members of congress elect. "They didn't elect us to borrow and spend more money we do not have as interest rates skyrocket in response to government spending fueled inflation," nor to "increase spending or even continue spending at current levels as higher interest payments consume an increasing percentage of our budget, and our $31 trillion national debt eclipses the size of our economy."
Specifically, the disgruntled lawmakers call out spending on the FBI, the National Institutes for Health, the IRS, and "blank checks to Ukraine."
Despite all this high-minded language, the burst of fiscal responsibility seems at least partially wielded as a bribe. The ability to stop the spending bill is "the one leverage point we have" to demand stronger border security policies, the letter says. The signatories oppose "any omnibus bill that further empowers Democrats and disregards this crisis."
Some of the letter's language makes it seem like they would be OK with massive spending so long as they also get more things they want. But it's also full of spicy statements like this:
If Senate Republicans refuse to give the House Republican majority the opportunity to take the pen on FY23 appropriations to enact fiscal restraint…then what purpose is there to the Republican Party outside of an urge for more power, perpetuation of grift, and show hearings?
A great question!
"If any omnibus passes in the remaining days of this Congress, we will oppose and whip opposition to any legislative priority of those senators who vote for this bill," the letter threatened.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R–Calif.) endorsed the letter, tweeting "Agreed. Except no need to whip—when I'm Speaker, their bills will be dead on arrival in the House if this nearly $2T monstrosity is allowed to move forward over our objections and the will of the American people."
But a number of senators have dismissed the House GOP threat, notes The Hill. Sen. Kevin Cramer (R–N.D.) said he plans to vote against the bill, but nonetheless disagrees with the House GOP tactic, calling it "chest thumping and immaturity."
"If you just think about what they're suggesting, it flies in the face of maturity and the ability to lead," Cramer said.
Sen. John Cornyn (R–Texas) said the House Republican ultimatum "doesn't sound like a recipe for working together in the best interest of the country," while Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R–W.Va.) called it letter "an idle threat."
The Interstate Obscenity Definition Act (IODA) could pave the way for criminalizing porn. We noted this anti-porn bill's introduction in Roundup last week. Now, Reason's Emma Camp has given it a closer read. "The bill is yet another attempt by conservative lawmakers to regulate internet pornography," but "while other attempts have aimed for less direct regulation, this bill goes right to the source—attempting to roll back the First Amendment protections that prevent state regulation of porn in the first place," Camp wrote.
The bill would do this by basically defining all porn as obscene:
While obscenity is not afforded First Amendment protection, the bar for what actually amounts to obscenity is incredibly high—something Lee hopes to change.
The definition of obscenity is based on a stringent, three-part test originating from the 1973 case Miller v. California. According to the Miller test, a given image or video rises to obscenity if "(1) the average person, applying contemporary community standards, would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest; (2) the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by the applicable state law; and (3) the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value."…
The IODA is an attempt to challenge the Miller test's prominence, creating an alternate definition of obscenity. According to IODA, content would be deemed obscene if: "(i) taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest in nudity, sex, or excretion, (ii) depicts, describes or represents actual or simulated sexual acts with the objective intent to arouse, titillate, or gratify the sexual desires of a person, and, (iii) taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value."
That encompasses more than just the hardest core forms of pornography. This new definition would basically render the majority of pornography legally obscene. The change would thus allow for the criminalization of most internet pornography, by removing the requirement that sexual depictions be "patently offensive," as well as the requirement that "contemporary community standards" be used to judge material.
You can find the full text of the bill here.
People love paying more for hotel rooms, right? "I wish I could pay more money for the exact same hotel room and service," said no one, ever. Yet folks on the D.C. city council think that making local hotel rooms more expensive will somehow help with a tourism slump.
D.C. already lobs a hefty tax on hotel rooms. Facing a downturn in tourism, city leaders yesterday voted to raise the tax rate even higher, by 1 percent, for four years. They plan to use the funds to pay for more advertising D.C. as a tourist destination.
That's some serious politician-brain stuff right there. Instead of actually doing things to make the city more attractive to tourists, let's make it less attractive while doing more PR! Sigh…
At present, the tax amounts to about $15 tacked on to every $100 paid for a hotel room, according to WUSA9. With the increase, it'll amount to around $16 in taxes for every $100 spent on lodging. That might not seem like a big deal, but the costs can quickly add up.
A family staying in a $200 per night hotel room (which is the cost of a fairly mid-range hotel in the city) for four nights would wind up paying an extra $128. Or they could choose to stay in very nearby Virginia or Maryland, where hotel stays are taxed at a much lower rate.
If D.C. was serious about boosting tourism, it might consider lowering its hotel tax to the levels of neighboring states.
Hey guys, I won a case! Had to argue under the First (rather than Fourteenth) Amendment to get there, but a win is a win! Buskers are now free to busk in Houston!https://t.co/AYAJ99YF3S pic.twitter.com/O3aA4VmtmX
— A lady (@Anastasia_esq) December 20, 2022
• Police around the world are seizing on technology implemented for public health reasons "to halt travel for activists and ordinary people, harass marginalized communities and link people's health information to other surveillance and law enforcement tools," reports the Associated Press.
• Trump's tax returns have been released. "In his first three years as president, Donald J. Trump paid $1.1 million in federal income taxes before paying no tax as his income dwindled and losses once again mounted in 2020," notes The New York Times.
• "Maybe, just maybe, before we rush to pass questionable new laws about 'protecting children online,' we should look to make use of the old ones?" suggests Mike Masnick, in a post about video game company Epic being fined $520 million for violating the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA).
• Bureaucracy at work:
Here's what out-of-control bureaucracy looks like. The Green card application today (all those pages on the left) v. 2003 (those 4 pages on the right). Understand this: We got no new laws during this time. We just got new bureaucrats https://t.co/9hN6ZOQJsU pic.twitter.com/taniwL5cQf
— David Bier ⬆️ (@David_J_Bier) December 19, 2022
• The University of Oklahoma is now blocking TikTok on university wifi.
• The myth of authoritarian stability in the Middle East.
• Twitter "provided direct approval and internal protection to the U.S. military's network of social media accounts and online personas, whitelisting a batch of accounts at the request of the government," reports Lee Fang at The Intercept.
• Elon Musk says he will step down as the head of Twitter as soon as he finds "someone foolish enough to take the job."
I will resign as CEO as soon as I find someone foolish enough to take the job! After that, I will just run the software & servers teams.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) December 21, 2022
• Australian National University medical professor Peter Collignon on how Sweden—which locked down less than much of Europe during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic—fared in terms of excess deaths:
I was asked how Sweden compared to other Nordic countries (Sweden has less covid restrictions). All Nordic countries do better than the EU average. Sweden was worst in 2020 but after that it had less excess deaths than the EU and other Nordic countries.
(Sweden is the red line) pic.twitter.com/2pfr557CEC
— Peter Collignon (@CollignonPeter) December 20, 2022