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What's the fall fashion in Washington?

As Congress returns from a month vacation, CNET News.com's D.C. watcher Declan McCullagh has the scoop on what the politicos are planning for tech legislation in the new session.

WASHINGTON--When the U.S. Congress reconvenes Tuesday after a month recess, let's remember what a New York judge said in 1866: "No man's life, liberty or property are safe while the legislature is in session."

Sure, Judge Gideon Tucker may have exaggerated a trifle. But it's still a good rule to keep in mind as politicos use the anti-terrorism campaign and the Sept. 11 anniversary to inflate budgets, widen deficits, and hand police more eavesdropping powers.

The danger of Congress being unusually profligate in discarding both money and Americans' privacy is especially real right now. First, it's an election year. Second, the war on terror has eliminated most of the usual obstacles to fiscal extravagance. Third, the Bush administration seems determined to reduce Americans' protections against government snooping--all in the name of protecting America from terrorists.

One of politicians' favorite ways to grease the rails for such proposals is to use the appropriations process. That's how Congress enacted a law requiring schools and libraries to install filtering software and a law restricting online erotica. Because the federal government's fiscal year begins Oct. 1, and because not one of the 13 necessary appropriations bills has been signed into law, this is a likely vehicle as the deadline nears.

Another favorite underhanded tactic is to call votes on bills without telling members of Congress what's in them. And if a proposal is touted as an anti-terrorist bill, who dares vote against it?

That's what the House Republican leadership did with last fall's USA Patriot Act, which awarded police new Internet spy powers and permitted secret searches of homes and offices. Democratic Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., said at the time, "We're told we should vote right now, before we've had a chance to read the bill." Nadler, who represents part of New York City, can hardly be accused of being soft on terrorism.

Advanced "asparagus technology" in Washington state got $260,000, while a fat $3 million goes to promote "private sector technology start-ups" in Georgia--not the state, but the ex-Soviet republic.

A few things to look for this fall:

Budget items
President Bush has asked Congress to grant federal police hundreds of millions of dollars to build fatter databases, share more information, and conduct more surveillance. The Justice Department would receive a budget increase of $1.8 billion to a total of $30.2 billion, not counting $539.2 million it already received as part of an emergency spending package last year.

The FBI would receive $61.8 million and 201 more employees or contractors to support the agency's "surveillance capabilities to collect evidence and intelligence." That would permit the FBI to devote more resources than ever to controversial spy technologies like Carnivore, keyboard logging devices and Magic Lantern.

Watch for how this develops in the Commerce, Justice, State budget bill, which is the one that includes cash for the FBI.

Homeland defense
House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, to his credit, made sure there was a privacy czar included in the House version of the bill to create a Department of Homeland Security.

But the Senate version doesn't have that requirement. Senators are scheduled to meet at 9:30 a.m. ET Tuesday to begin debating the bill.

Technology programs of dubious necessity lard up each year's federal budget.
Pork spending
Technology programs of dubious necessity lard up each year's federal budget. One analysis of last year's round of federal spending said politicians were vying to route dollars to their home states by pitching them as ways to launch Internet firms or to bridge the so-called digital divide.

Advanced "asparagus technology" in Washington state got $260,000, while a fat $3 million goes to promote "private sector technology start-ups" in Georgia--not the state, but the ex-Soviet republic. Armenian schools got $8 million for computer equipment and Internet access.

With the usual spending limits lifted and the war on terror and the recession as dual excuses, watch for the pork to grow fatter than ever this year.

Another thing to look for
Rep. Howard Coble, R-N.C., chairman of the House committee overseeing copyright law, is planning to convene a hearing this month on a controversial bill that would permit peer-to-peer hacking. In a recent opinion article, Coble pledged to "conduct a hearing on the issue of piracy on peer-to-peer networks"--indicating he may be serious about enacting his bill this year.

Also sponsored by Rep. Howard Berman, D-Calif., the proposal would permit copyright holders to perform nearly unchecked electronic disruptions if they have a "reasonable basis" to believe that piracy is taking place.