114th Congress: We're updating with new data as it becomes available.

OpenCongress Blog

Blog Feed Comments Feed More RSS Feeds

8 Controversial Bills That Congress Still May Pass

September 5, 2008 - by Donny Shaw

When Congress returns from recess on Monday, they’ll enter the homestretch of this session. Several extremely controversial bills have made significant progress in the legislative process, but haven’t quite been completed and passed to President Bush to be signed into law. Will Congress find time before they adjourn to push them through?

Here is a list of some of the bills that have been called out by concerned citizens (and OpenCongress users), but are in a good position to quickly become law. Track these bills with “”">My OpenCongress" to keep up with anything and everything that happens with them as the current session of Congress winds down.

1. “Thought-Crime Legislation”

According to its sponsors, the Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act is designed to study “what causes an individual or group to, first, coalesce around a set of radical principles or a charismatic leader – activities permitted by our Bill of Rights – but subsequently to embrace a violent agenda, intended to inflict maximum pain and disruption on his neighbors.”

But to its critics, it’s thought-crime legislation that would allow the authorities to make a crime out of any politically dissident speech that could possibly cause a disruption of the status quo. The concern comes, mainly, from the bills broad definitions of the terms “homegrown terrorism,” “radicalization” and “ideologically-based violence.”

As the IntelStrike blog writes, “It would take just one fight between union members and their employer, or with police, scabs or strike breakers for a union to be labeled a ‘violent radical organization with an agenda, terrorists.’” The ”">ACLU issued a statement saying, “law enforcement should focus on action, not thought. We need to worry about the people who are committing crimes rather than those who harbor beliefs that the government may consider to be extreme.”

The bill passed the House in October 2007 by an overwhelming vote of 404-6. The Senate version has yet to be brought to the floor for a vote, but if the House vote is any indication, it will pass easily if it does. Senators Joe Lieberman (I-CT) and Susan Collins (R-ME) have been showing this scary movie at Capitol Hill press conferences in order to drum up support for passing it through the Senate:

2. The SAFE Act

John McCain’s Securing Adolescents From Exploitation-Online Act of 2007 (SAFE Act) is the most prominent legislative attempt at the national level to crack down on child pornography. The bill, known for short as the “SAFE Act,” seeks to reduce child pornography on the internet by increasing criminal penalties against electronic communication service or a remote computing service providers that fail to report any violations of child pornography laws that they come across. According to the readablelaws wiki, this appliess to “anyone who provides a telecommunications service over a system capable of conducting interstate or foreign business.”

While just about everyone can agree that combating child pornography is a good thing, serious questions about the bill’s implications for privacy and the availability of broadband have been raised.

For example, on c|net news, Declan McCullagh writes that the bill requires “anyone offering an open Wi-Fi connection to the public [to] report illegal images including ‘obscene’ cartoons and drawings.” He goes on to say that the bill would cover “individuals, coffee shops, libraries, hotels, and even some government agencies that provide WiFi.” I’d add bloggers, message board admins and email providers like Gmail and Hotmail to that list.

While the bill explicitly state that it does not require anyone to actively monitor web surfing or emailing, it does offer a big reward for those that report possible child pornography violations that they happen to notice. Internet service providers that comply in full with the reporting requirements are granted immunity from civil lawsuits and criminal prosecutions by the bill.

The House of Representatives passed <a href">their version of the bill by a vote of 409-2 in December 2007 and it’s now awaiting action from the Senate.

3. Perpetual War on Terror

According to sponsors Joe Lieberman (I-CT) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC), the Enemy Combatant Detention Review Act of 2008 “provides Congressional guidance on the procedures for federal courts to follow when considering petitions for habeas corpus filed by detainees held at Guantanamo Bay Cuba.”

But, as Eric Lichtblau pointed out in the New York Times, by using language that directly recalls the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force, the bill, which closely mirrors a recent administration proposal, also seeks to protect the broad wartime powers that were finagled by President Bush and used to justify some of his most unpopular policies.

The Authorization of Military Force resolution authorized President Bush “to use all necessary and appropriate force against” the terrorists responsible for 9/11. This authorization, which, at the time, Congress assumed would apply only to the use of military force against the Taliban, was also used by the Bush administration to justify such controversial and possibly unconstitutional practices as listening in on domestic communications without a FISA warrant, torturing terrorist suspects and detaining suspects indefinitely without filing charges, holding hearings, or entitling them to a legal consultant.

“This seems like a final push by the administration before they go out the door,” said former CIA lawyer Suzanne Spaulding. The language is embedded in a somewhat less controversial bill that addresses some confusion resulting from Boumediene v. Bush. If the Protect America Act is any indication of how Congress responds to an alleged legal grey area related to national security, this bill may well be pushed to passage.

4. The “Iran War Resolution”

A pair of non-binding resolutions that are quickly gaining bipartisan support and sponsorship in the House and Senate call on the President to block all oil imports to Iran. As the bills themselves state, “Iran must import around 40 percent of its daily requirements for refined petroleum products,” which makes the sanctions a potentially effective economic incentive to keep the country from pursuing nuclear weapons capability.

The problem is that the resolutions would require an all-out naval blockade, an action that is widely considered an act of war. Here’s part of the action clause of the House resolution:

>That Congress—

>demands that the President initiate an international effort to immediately and dramatically increase the economic, political, and diplomatic pressure on Iran to verifiably suspend its nuclear enrichment activities by, inter alia, prohibiting the export to Iran of all refined petroleum products; imposing stringent inspection requirements on all persons, vehicles, ships, planes, trains, and cargo entering or departing Iran; and prohibiting the international movement of all Iranian officials not involved in negotiating the suspension of Iran’s nuclear program.

Both versions of the bill have huge lists of co-sponsors – the Senate bill has 50 and the House bill has 261 – and the lists grow each day that Congress is in session. On July 30th, for example, the last day before the Senate adjourned for recess, eight senators added their names to the Senate co-sponsor list.

Since late June, this bill has been expected to come to a vote in the House any day, where it’s expected to “pass like a hot knife through butter.” So far, outspoken and concerned citizens have kept the House leadership from moving it forward. But by the trend in co-sponsorship, lawmakers are eager to throw their support behind this bill and want to see it passed before Congress’ final adjournment this year.

5. Colombia Free Trade

In April 2008, House Democrats passed a bill that helped them slow down the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement that President Bush was trying to fast-track into law without the usual process of congressional consultation. Traditionally, Democrats have opposed free trade agreements, arguing that they only increase downward pressure on the economies of poor countries.

There has been suspicion that House Democrats are actually more than willing to pass Bush’s free trade agreement; their just delaying it as a matter of political convenience. The delay lets them to look good to their Democratic constituents, set up a bargaining chip with the White House and save the vote on the bill for when it may be more palatable to House Democrats (i.e. after the November elections).

On Open Left, David Sirota points to some evidence that the House Democratic leadership is actually trying to protect the free trade agreement:

>First, we have Pelosi’s own statement yesterday:
>>"I thought there was a risk, the President sending [the trade deal] to the Congress now. If brought to the floor immediately, it would lose. And what message would that send?"
>So there it is, right from Pelosi’s mouth. The trade deal isn’t being delayed because it would pass now – it is being delayed because if it came to a vote now, it would probably lose because populist Democratic forces are better organized right now. In other words, Pelosi is maneuvering to thwart the will of the rank-and-file members of her caucus, all to keep a lobbyist-written trade deal alive.
>This isn’t a conspiracy theory – it’s all out in the open being discussed by corrupt Democrats in the press. Rep. Greg Meeks (D-NY), one of the CAFTA 15, had this to say in Roll Call:
>>Meeks backed Pelosi’s move, saying it “is actually going to save it instead of kill it” because it would have been defeated on the floor otherwise.

6. Draconian IP Policy

We’ve all heard the file-sharing horror stories. The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) randomly picks a file-sharer out of the crowd to use as an example and proceeds to sue them for life-shattering amounts. Last year, for example, a Minnesota woman was forced to pay $220,000 to the major record labels after a federal jury found her guilty of illegally sharing 24 songs on Kazaa.

The ironically-named PRO-IP Act would take these exorbitant statutory damages and make them bigger – way bigger. “Under the new limits proposed by the PRO-IP Act, someone who downloads each individual track from Guns N’ Roses’ 12-track Appetite for Destruction album could face a maximum statutory penalty of $360,000; as opposed to the current limit of $30,000 for the album,” writes Richard Esquerra of EFF. The bill would also establish a new IP Czar position within the White House to co-ordinate anti-piracy efforts across the government.

The bill, which has an evenly bi-partisan list of co-sponsors, passed the House in May by a vote of 408-11 and is currently awaiting action from the Senate.

Is this bill laying the groundwork for the i-Patriot Act that Stanford Law Professor Larry Lessig warns of in this video?:

7. A “Global Poverty Tax”

Barack Obama’s Global Poverty Act is the most commonly criticized piece of legislation that either of the presidential candidates have introduced in the Senate. It has the distinguished position on OpenCongress of being the most opposed bill of all time, and almost all of the 117 comments left by users are extremely negative.

Opponents of the bill call it a global poverty tax. Even the Republican National Committee recently said that the bill "would raise the amount of American tax dollars allocated to United Nations’ redistribution efforts to $845 billion.”

However, the bill doesn’t actually call for any new spending (the CBO recently scored it as costing less than $1 million per year.). It’s primary focus is on improving the efficiency of existing United States initiatives related to international poverty reduction.

But there is one line in the bill that could lead to increased foreign aid spending. It directs the global poverty reduction strategy to make available “additional overall United States assistance levels as appropriate.” The case could be made that, if the bill is passed into law, our next President will use this line to justify a drastic increase foreign aid.

The Global Poverty Act passed the House by unanimous consent last September and is awaiting action from the Senate. Will Obama’s high profile help to get it through the Senate and signed into law?

8. Rescuing Orphans, Orphaning Artworks


>An orphan work is a copyrighted work where it is difficult or impossible to contact the copyright holder. This situation can arise for many reasons. The author could have never been publicly known because the work was published anonymously or the work may have never been traditionally published at all. The identity of the author could have been once known but the information lost over time. Even if the author is known, it may not be possible to determine who inherited the copyright and presently owns it.

Congress’s Orphans Works Act of 2008, which suddenly burst onto the scene in April, would limit the amount of damages a copyright holder could collect from an infringer of an orphan work if the infringer performed a “diligent search” (see bill text for definition) for the copyright holder before using their work.

Professional artists are outraged that this bill even exists.

“Under this orphan works legislation, nothing you do would be protected. Not a single thing – not a sketch, not a finished picture, not a snapshot, not a home video,” said artist Brad Holland in an interview with Mark Simon of the Illustrators’ Partnership. Holland adds:

>Suppose you do a sketch – suppose you do a job for a client and send them five sketches. They pick one. You have to register the other four too because there’s no telling that the art director might let the sketch sit in a drawer, somebody else could find it, it doesn’t have a name on it, and suddenly it’s their idea, it’s their sketch. They can use it however they want. That would be the premise of this new orphan works legislation. In effect, it would orphan ever work that you’ve ever done, including work that you’ve registered with the copyright office over the last 30 years.

Larry Lessig came out against the bill in a NYT op-ed, saying it is “unfair because since 1978, the law has told creators that there was nothing they needed to do to protect their copyright.” He also calls it “unwise” and claims it won’t be effective. “The uncertain standard of the bill doesn’t offer any efficient opportunity for libraries or archives to make older works available, because the cost of a “diligent effort” is not going to be cheap,” he says. “The only beneficiaries would be the new class of “diligent effort” searchers who would be a drain on library budgets.”

I find this comment from an anonymous OpenCongress user especially poignant:

>Isn’t it funny how music is getting huge, sledgehammer like protection in HR 4279 and visual art is getting devalued and made worthless by this bill, HR 5889? Music must just be soo much more valuable. It’s all about the corporate interests. Artists need to band together for our own protection and fight this dangerous bill. I’m an art student, and while I will never stop making art I’m worried I’ll be unable to make a living at it. It’s never been easy to be an artist without this kind of stuff coming along and making it impossible for us.

(If you liked this post, consider subscribing to our RSS feed).

Like this post? Stay in touch by following us on Twitter, joining us on Facebook, or by Subscribing with RSS.