In a rare show of bipartisanship last week, the Senate Judiciary Committee passed a bill to combat child sexual abuse material online and establish reporting requirements for online platform providers. The bill also reactivated a decades-old provision obligating certain organizations and professions to report suspected child sexual abuse. But it wasn’t just the bipartisanship of the bill’s passage that made it notable. It was what it took to get to bipartisanship in the first place.
While it was originally littered with problematic language that opened loopholes for tracking and reporting religious entities and parents who might object to “gender transition” procedures or abortions for minor children, conservative senators worked hard across the aisle to make the bill one that both parties could support.
Sponsored by Senate Judiciary Chairman Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the Strengthening Transparency and Obligations to Protect Children Suffering from Abuse and Mistreatment Act, or the “STOP CSAM” Act (S. 1199), creates a user-friendly system for reporting and removal of child sexual abuse material online.
It requires that all internet platform providers report occurrences of child sexual abuse material on their platforms to law enforcement’s cyber-crime tipline within 60 days of discovery. It also creates a civil cause of action against both the perpetrators who create the material and the online platforms that host it if they fail to report the material to the tipline.
STOP CSAM updates the 1990 Stop Child Sexual Abuse Act, which laid the foundation for child abuse reporting, but senators saw a need for certain updates to address new technologies being used to promulgate the prohibited material.
While the central goal of the bill is laudable, the original text contained certain noxious provisions, including the expansion of the definition of child abuse to include “psychological abuse” (including “coercion” or “intimidation”) without clearly defining those terms. As the parent of any teenager will tell you, minors feel “coerced” a lot. We can think of a few who feel coerced into taking out the trash or keeping curfew, for example.
The dangers associated with such an expanded definition of “abuse” aren’t theoretical. Medical journals have already called for parents to be held criminally liable if they refuse permission for their children to get what is euphemistically known as “gender-affirming care” (genital-mutilating surgeries, puberty blockers, and other harmful “transgender” procedures). State delegates in Virginia have introduced legislation to criminalize parents who don’t agree to such procedures.
Additionally, under the STOP CSAM’s original text, parents who choose to counsel teens away from having an abortion could potentially have been flagged for physical abuse under these expanded definitions.
Existing federal law establishes robust child abuse reporting requirements on federal lands and in federally funded or contracted facilities. It also establishes certain categories of professionals required to report suspected abuse—those who would naturally engage with children in the course of their work, such as medical personnel, mental health professionals, teachers, and law enforcement officials.
Beyond that, certain child abuse reporting requirements were narrowly extended only to individuals involved with youth athletics. As Durbin joked in the mark-up of the bill (the committee’s amendment process), existing child abuse reporting requirements applied to baseball teams but not the Cub Scouts. What he didn’t mention was that his original text tried to expand these requirements to many new entities, including religious schools, but not public ones.
The original text of S. 1199 would have expanded the child abuse reporting requirements set up in the 1990 law to any entity that received $10,000 or more in federal funding at any time in history. However, it specifically carved out formula grants to states, and that would have excluded public schools that receive federal grants from these reporting requirements. What’s more, “federal funding” in the original bill text included any grant, contract, subsidy, loan, or insurance received through the federal government by any entity, including faith-based entities.
Therefore, any religious school that received funding from, for example, a reduced-fee school lunch program could be required to report any employees who provide “religious guidance” regarding the harms of abortion or transgender treatments as committing child abuse. Or, for example, if parents take their child to a therapist who participates in the Affordable Care Act insurance program, the therapist might be forced to report those parents if they seek to prevent their minor child from undergoing a medically unnecessary, “gender-affirming” double mastectomy if the therapist considers it “coercive.”
Thankfully, Sens. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Ted Cruz, R-Texas, realized the impact this language could have on well-meaning parents and organizations or employees who provide “religious guidance” and were able to secure a delay in the bill’s mark-up to discuss the problematic provisions.
After a few weeks of negotiations and drafting of various amendments, these senators were able to secure an agreement between Durbin and Sen. Lindsey Graham to apply an appropriate fix. Ultimately, the bill passed out of committee by a vote of 20-1, picking up co-sponsorships from Cruz and Sen. Josh Hawley along the way.
This type of scenario has played out many times before on Capitol Hill but with very different results. In an increasingly polarized Congress, seemingly bipartisan bills addressing commonsense issues like maternal mortality or youth mental health hide obscure textual provisions that have potential widespread, detrimental implications on issues like abortion, gender ideology, religion, and parental rights.
Generally, such provisions that are buried in the text go unnoticed until bills are signed into law. In this respect, getting things done quickly means sacrificing the hard work that ensures things get done “right.”
But the STOP CSAM Act is a perfect example of good political teamwork: Early and clear communication about problematic provisions can lead to truly bipartisan solutions—or at least it can slow the pace of movement of fast-tracked legislation to allow for more deliberation.
It takes members of Congress like Lee and Cruz, however—politicians who are willing to slow down so-called must-pass bills—in order to patiently and deliberately assess the legislation, identify concerns, draft appropriate fixes, and build a coalition for support among committee members.
While it may not be a regular occurrence in the Senate Judiciary Committee mark-up process, bipartisanship is possible.
It just takes determined leaders willing to do what’s right.
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