Working backward from popular vote loser Donald Trump’s untethered statement about signing the omnibus spending bill—including his demand for an unconstitutional line-item veto—everything about this spending bill has been a total mess. That includes the five continuing resolutions—and one government shutdown—in six months that led up to it. It’s the latest evidence of how profoundly government has broken down since Newt Gingrich decided to destroy everything about Congress that made it work for the people, and turn it into a purely partisan body.
In 1995, Gingrich started demolishing congressional institutions that stood in the way of his own political and policy agendas, which included the professional and career staff that kept the committee process functioning. Gingrich basically neutered congressional committees, and they’ve never really recovered. Even under Nancy Pelosi’s speakership, the legislative process has been driven not from the bottom up, as the old Schoolhouse Rock “I’m Just a Bill” process taught us, but from leadership down. The committee process—in both chambers—has become a rubber stamp for what leadership has wanted to do. For the most part, legislation doesn’t originate in committees anymore—it’s handed down to them, along with the amendments that will be allowed by leadership. Members don’t debate the merits of policy proposals, of funding priorities, of government programs. They take bills written by lobbyists, maybe tweak them in leadership meetings, then shove them through.
Which is how you end up with a $1.3 trillion omnibus spending bill passing in several days time, well over 2,300 pages that not one single member who voted on it read entirely through. There’s not all bad news in it—plenty of progressive priorities won out. Planned Parenthood and sanctuary cities weren’t defunded. Early childhood programs got a funding boost, as did higher education. There are new, critical funds for helping states secure their voting apparatus and systems. A Trump proposal to allow employers to take workers’ tips was blocked, and apprentice programs will be expanded. On the whole, the budget looks a lot more like one you’d have under President Obama than under Donald Trump. That’s good, considering the plans Trump had made in his budget.
But there are lots of riders—those little pieces of legislation and policy making that aren’t spending, but direct spending instead. And a lot of these riders are harmful and were never publicly debated. Like the one that prohibits the IRS from creating new rules for “social welfare” nonprofits, the dark money groups that accept unlimited donations from anonymous donors. And the one that prohibits the Securities Exchange Commission from finalizing a rule that requires publicly traded corporations disclose their political donations. They did the same with federal contractors—those donations can be kept secret.
Then there’s this, the CLOUD Act, an entire piece of legislation that had nothing to do with spending. It never received a hearing, no committee considered it, took testimony on it, and it never received a separate floor vote. And it’s a problem. Under this new law, U.S. law enforcement officials at any level, from local police to federal agents, can force tech companies to turn over user data no matter where the data is stored. If it’s stored overseas, no matter, law enforcement can get it. Likewise, foreign governments can seize data from other foreign countries. It gives the executive branch the ability to enter into “executive agreements” with foreign nations, allowing each nation to seize user data stored in the other country, no matter the hosting nation’s privacy laws. None of these agreements with other nations require congressional approval.
Because of this failure, U.S. and foreign police will have new mechanisms to seize data across the globe. Because of this failure, your private emails, your online chats, your Facebook, Google, Flickr photos, your Snapchat videos, your private lives online, your moments shared digitally between only those you trust, will be open to foreign law enforcement without a warrant and with few restrictions on using and sharing your information. Because of this failure, U.S. laws will be bypassed on U.S. soil.
Plenty of lawmakers had a problem with this bill. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) was firmly opposed to it. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) warned it “will give Trump—or any president—far too much power to approve surveillance agreements with human rights abusing foreign governments without real oversight by Congress.” As a stand alone bill, it had little chance of passing, so it was quietly shoved into this wholly unrelated spending bill and now it’s law.
That’s not how any of this is supposed to work. But since the days of the Gingrich revolution, it’s what we’ve got. It’s little wonder, then, that we’ve ended up where we’re at with a Republican Congress bending over backward to protect and defend a deeply corrupt, definitely law-breaking, and quite possibly illegitimate president.