Congress Prepares Empty Assault On Government Porn

If you thought Congress would fend off a government shutdown without implementing three meaningless riders targeting government porn, well: You thought wrong.

The so-called cromnibus, which will fund most of the federal government's operations through next year, includes a host of provisions that are hard for members of Congress to swallow. It will deregulate risky Wall Street derivatives, cut Pell Grants for low-income college students and defund the District of Columbia's new marijuana legalization. It will not defund President Barack Obama's executive order shielding millions of undocumented immigrants from deportation. Such controversies have been the focus of intense backroom squabbles and discussions over the past two weeks.

But there is one issue nobody on Capitol Hill is fighting over, because it has absolutely no legal significance.

Pornography, eternal scourge of social conservatives, has largely disappeared from Beltway politics since the 1980s. It has not, however, evaded the attention of the House Appropriations Committee. And House Republicans have seen fit to include an anti-porn rider no less than three times in an appropriations bill that will likely soon become the law of the land.

"None of the funds made available in this Act may be used to maintain or establish a computer network unless such network blocks the viewing, downloading, and exchanging of pornography," read three separate sections of the cromnibus.

In defense of the House GOP, most citizens are unenthusiastic about the prospect of bureaucrats watching porn on the job. But alas, the cromnibus language has no functional significance.

Government computer networks already include filters intended to block pornography. Filters are notorious in tech circles for not being reliable -- they tend to lump loads of non-pornographic websites in with pornographic URLs, or let a lot of porn through, or both. Nothing in the legislation sets any standards for how the filters should work, and it doesn't require agencies to police their implementation.

Every now and then, bureaucrats do actually get busted for watching porn on government computers. In 2010, the inspector general for the Securities and Exchange Commission investigated about three dozen employees and contractors for doing so. The networks had filters in place, but employees simply disabled them.

Actually laying out filter standards, of course, would be a tricky business, because there is no existing definition of the word "pornography" under federal law. The closest it gets is the vague definition of "obscenity.

"It's just a layperson's term," James Tyre, special counsel with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told HuffPost in September. "It's not a legal term."

In other words, the anti-porn rider offers a faulty solution to a problem it does not define. The rider was originally the brainchild of former Rep. Chet Edwards (D-Texas) and Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), who put the phrase into an appropriations bill in the summer of 2010, shortly after the SEC inspector general report. The rider didn't make it into law until 2012, when Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas) copied and pasted the phrase into an appropriations bill for the Department of Veterans Affairs. Since then, it's spread to several subcommittees.

Under the cromnibus, it will accomplish absolutely nothing at the Department of Veterans Affairs or at the National Institutes of Health. It will also not do anything for the Departments of Homeland Security, Health and Human Services or Justice and Commerce.



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