Twelve Days of Congress: gifts for the government that has everything (2013 Gift Guide)

How much do you love your country? Enough to shop until you drop, choosing just the right gifts? If you're stumped on exactly what to give your favorite nation, we have the answers. Come on in!
1 of 13 David Gewirtz/ZDNET

The government that has everything...

What does one give the overwhelmed, under-fire superpower that has everything? Let's go through the usual holiday checklist. Nukes? Check. Tanks? Check. A big navy? Check. Custom-made, bullet-proof and bomb-proof presidential transports? Check.

Well, that's too bad. The obvious gifts for your favorite superpower are things already gifted by all of us, the taxpayers. But as we look back at the happy, happy days of 2013, a year the American government distinguished itself on many fronts (few of them good), it's clear that America's leaders need gifts to give them cheer, lift their spirits, and bring them peace and love for their fellow man and woman (without, you know, going all Tony Weiner).

In this guide, we present to you the Twelve Days of Congress, twelve gifts you can share with your favorite representatives, agency leaders, and Executive Branch powerhouses.

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Day 1: A time-travel machine for the NSA

There is no doubt that the biggest, longest lasting, and most soul-sapping story of 2013 was that of Edward Snowden and the information he stole from the NSA and released to accomplices throughout the world.

Although just about anyone who has ever read a news story over the last fifty years knows that the U.S. watches its enemies, this story has completely spiraled out of control. There's probably no way that the usually quiet and shy NSA can put this genie back in a bottle without changing its name to the Department of Phish and Gaming.

In any case, we're sure they'd like to go back before Snowden did his dastardly deed and prevent it from happening. So, to the NSA, we give the gift of a time machine.

Whatever you do, when you travel back in time, don't talk to or touch your grandfather.

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Day 2: A heart for Congress and HHS

There are millions of people without healthcare in the United States. Our health insurance system is the largest in the world. Even though many people have health insurance and have paid for it, when it comes time to file a claim, the insurance companies manage to weasel out of paying.

As a result, the majority of bankruptcies in the US have been health insurance-related, many of them from families who had good, solid health plans.

To a congress and a president who somehow managed to pass a healthcare reform bill and still leave all the paying power in the hands of the insurance companies, we gift a heart. Because the bill that was passed wasn't designed for the benefit of Americans, it was designed to be something the healthcare industry was willing to swallow.

Now, of course, Healthcare.gov has become its own worst enemy. So, if it turns out that our heartless leaders and healthcare industry lobbyists reject the heart, our consolation gift is a working Web site. I hear that kids in their teens can build Web sites. How cool is that?

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Day 3: Get out of work free card for Congress

In an astonishing display of complete incompetence, the United States Congress somehow managed to shut down the operations of the United States government this year for 16 days.

While we can fully understand the desire of almost anyone to stay as far away from politicians as possible, once you run for election and get elected, you're expected to do your job.

Even so, if you're incapable of leading and just can't handle the idea of putting your constituents first, above even your own petty partisan interests, we have a gift for you.

This year, as part of our 2013 gift guide, we're going to give each member of Congress a get out of work free card. Now, we know you all take very long recesses (and does it worry anyone that we use a term reserved for kindergarten children to refer to our leaders' breaks?). Even so, this card will entitle you to leave work for one day during the year in a huff, no matter how inconsequential or damaging your argument might be.

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Day 4: A Jeff Bezos for every agency

Like many of us, our states, agencies, and even the U.S. Postal Service are feeling the pressure. The U.S. Postal Service is hit particularly hard because they're both responsible for managing their own revenue and governed in what they can do by the U.S. Government (ouch!).

Rather than going postal, the always-surprising Jeff Bezos, billionaire founder of Amazon.com, is stepping in with a proposal: if the USPS will deliver packages on Sundays, he'll do a deal with them that will ease the hurt.

Since The Bez seems so able to help indigent postal services and aging newspapers, we gift to every agency, state, and school district their very own Bezos bobblehead. While a bobblehead isn't likely to solve all your monetary woes like a full-sized Bezos could, perhaps being able to look at your own bobbling Bezos-head will help you feel hopeful that someone or something will bail you out of decades of mismanagement.

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Day 5: An army of grad students for the FISC judges

The United States Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court has eleven judges, each serving out a seven-year term. The court is responsible for judging what's an acceptable privacy intrusion and what's not, for each and every request made by the NSA and other intelligence agencies.

These requests number in the thousands, and the court has been accused over and over again of rubber-stamping the requests. Obviously with the level of technical and national security detail each petition contains, it's impossible for the judges to review each in anything resembling sufficient detail.

Our first thought was to gift each judge with one of those always-full stamps, so they wouldn't have to take time to first stamp for ink, then rubber stamp the petitions. But that seemed too small for eleven people with such enormous power. Then we thought we'd just simply let them out of their terms, so they could be subject to the potential of untold surveillance like the rest of us.

But then we hit on it. What they really needed was the ability to research each and every petition down to a level of detail that actually protected American citizens. They needed to do this fast, constantly, and without stopping.

A moment of thought and we realized there's an entire class of people who are used to working constantly, with no appreciation, doing research for others, and even paying for the privilege: grad students. So as a way to increase the FISC output and increase quality, we gift to the the FISC judges as many overworked, underpaid, nearly starving graduate students as they need to keep American safe and our privacy protected.

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Day 6: A copy of the Constitution for all our lawmakers

The NSA disaster seems to have taken the wind from the sails of such inadvisable legislation as another CISPA attempt and a rewritten, renamed SOPA. After all, if the NSA seemingly can spy on everyone and everything (they can't) and can share all that with anyone they want (they can't), why should we have laws on the books that allow the US government to increase its cybersecurity surveillance and communication?

Even though we've had a relatively quiet period of congressional digital legislation stupidity, don't expect that to remain true. Behind the scenes, behind the backs of American citizens, lobbyists are searching for new ways to restrict Americans' rights, reduce our access to fair use, and tie us down to rules never intended by the original founding fathers.

So, to every representative and senator, to every congressional staffer, and even to every scumball lobbyist in Washington and L.A., we gift a copy of the United States Constitution. Not only is it interesting reading (who knew these were our freedoms?), it's the law.

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Day 7: The Cloak of Honesty and the Helm of Accountability for Big Internet

Oh, the challenges of being a Big Internet company. If you consume more electric power than Peoria, if you look at a river and don't think "pretty" but think about how many generators you can use with it, you know you're one of those Big Internet players. You're Facebook and Google and Microsoft and Apple and quite a few others, the companies we've long trusted with all our information, our schedules, our social graphs, and our kitten and baby pictures, not to mention the occasional presidential selfie.

Now, after all the years of building up an almost blind level of trust in your users (who act more like fans and acolytes than mere customers), the news media has seen fit to publish the Snowden documents showing that you're supposedly in cahoots with governments all over the world.

Now, we all know that if any of the Big Internets are cooperating with governments, it's either because they're running government services on their clouds (oh, if only Healthcare.gov had gone that route), or because the law requires them to turn over bits and bytes to Big Brother.

For months now, the Big Internet firms have been fighting to be allowed to disclose just what it is they're being forced to turn in to the government. To these companies, we offer the gift of transparency. As we reach deep into our bag of gifts, we shall provide to you the finest of all cloaks, the Cloak of Honesty and -- for those truly fit to serve -- the Helm of Accountability.

We recommend you put on these wonderful garments and even, perhaps, parade around the streets of Mountain View, Cupertino, and Redmond. Just stay away from people who might confuse transparency with, you know, no clothes.

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Day 8: A silver platter for Snowden investigators

Poor Julian Assange. Rumor has it that he helped Edward Snowden become the household name he has become over these last months. And while Snowden parties it up in Putin's Russia, Assange is still trapped in the Ecuadorian embassy somewhere in London.

And then there's poor, confused, guilty Bradley Manning, who is living out his days in the jail cell he created for himself when he, too, stole documents from the United States government.

Manning is in jail, and Assange pretty much is, in his own way. And yet Snowden has a new job, has probably had his fill of okroshka, coulibiac, caviar, and, of course, some blini. He may yearn for a good pizza, but even so, he's in a far better place than Assange or Manning.

But we don't get gifts for criminals. We get gifts for those who are hunting down the criminals. And to those investigators, diplomats, and, yes, spies, we offer a simple thing. Simply a platter. A nice, pretty, silver platter.

We can't offer you Snowden's or Assange's head on a platter, since there are a whole host of diplomatic and political issues. But when you overcome those issues, now you've got the platter.

You're welcome.

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For years, the annual DEF CON shindig in Las Vegas hosted two very similar, yet very different types of people: spies and geeks. The idea of DEF CON is to show the latest hacks, cracks, and methods of overcoming and defeating security of all kinds, and then discuss how to better protect us all from those hacks.

And, for years, the suits from the various federal agencies concerned with information security partied quite well with the geeks from the various Internet companies, universities, and parents' basements all over America.

But not this year. This year, the geeks put their feet down and banned the feds. There were to be no spies, no suits, no shadowy government types at this years DEF CON. After all, with all the noise about the NSA spying, and all the one-upsmanship spying that goes on at DEF CON just for fun, the Snowden revelations clearly put the government spies on one side of the game and the geeks on the other.

They could not be seen together anymore.

While this was disappointing for the geeks who wanted government money or government jobs, it was devastating to the suits who looked forward to DEF CON for the opportunity to let down their hair, take off their ties, and hack like it's 1999.

As former and occasional suits ourselves, we feel bad for the ban. So, as our gift to you, we give you permission to listen in to the planning conferences for next year's DEF CON, and our recommendation that you swipe the plans for the identification cards that will let you into the event. After all, if you can hack the event, you deserve to get in, don't you think?

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Day 10: A Fiverr for Department of State

Wow, this has just not been the best year for America's top diplomatic institution, the United States Department of State. First, there was the whole "blame-it-on-YouTube" incident in Benghazi a year or so ago. And then, apparently, there's just not enough love (or at least "Like") in the Department of State (which abbreviates, disturbingly, as DoS, which we all know as Denial of Service). Hmmm...

In any case, some very lonely officials at Foggy Bottom decided that they wanted to froth up their reputation, and decided to go about spending $630 thousand on acquiring Facebook "Likes". Yep, almost a million bucks to raise their likability on Facebook. Using our tax dollars.

After this, State's own inspector general put together a 57-page report on how much money was wasted on getting Facebook "Likes," because writing a 57-page report at government speed was an excellent way to throw good money after bad.

So, to both the State Department itself as well as State's Inspector General -- and, hey, let's be generous and include Hillary and John Kerry as well -- we gift a free registration to Fiverr.com. You can get almost anything from Fiverr for five bucks.

You want a pile of useless Facebook Likes? Rather than spending nearly a million bucks, pull out a Lincoln and you got it. Want a 57-page report on something? Another five bucks. We estimate that with this gift, we can save State millions of dollars.

Not spending our money? Hmmm... I wonder if people will "Like" that?

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Day 11: Cybersecurity policy with the wisdom of Franklin, Jefferson and Adams

What a difference a year makes. We opened up this year with a big (and very necessary) push to increase America's cybersecurity defenses (and, less publicly, it's offensive capabilities as well). We ended the year with the government on the defensive about its own data gathering practices, with barely a mention made anywhere about the ongoing, terrible threat of cyberattack.

It's hard to find a gift for the gift that keeps on giving, and that's what cyberwar is. Whether it's for espionage, money, or damage, cyberattacks and penetration attempts are constant, both against government and civilian targets.

Worse, it's not just the big players fighting with each other. Cyberattackers are aiming their digital arrows at moms and dads, grandparents, teachers, students, and even little kids. They're trying to break into and steal information, credentials, and identities of anyone they can -- and they're succeeding.

While we already have laws on the books for cyberdefense, we don't have good comprehensive laws. As is always the case in a union, the various agencies and operations don't play all that well with each other. Yeah, I know. It's a surprise to me, too.

Our gift to the United States government would be all the funding needed to fight cyberattacks, but only if it employs the wisdom of a Washington or a Jefferson or a Franklin while doing so. We encourage the government to work with the likes of Larry Lessig, the EFF, and other outspoken proponents of both digital rights and digital safety.

If our public servants can put Americans' interests first (and that means not taking any more calls, lunches, or favors from lobbyists), then comprehensive cybersecurity operations are possible.

13 of 13 David Gewirtz/ZDNET

Day 12: No Internet sales taxes for you!

You know how you sometimes make those wish lists and fill them with everything you'd like, even when you know it's not advisable? You know how you really want five bags of Cheetos even though you'll be sick for a week?

Well, sometimes, the very best gift is the gift of saving you from yourself by protecting you from your own worst instincts. That's what this last gift, on the Twelfth Day of Congress is all about.

On this, the Twelfth Day of Congress, we give you the gift of not taxing Internet sales. Oh yes, I know you want to let every state and municipality go wild on sales and use taxes, you want to beat the heck out of Amazon for making so much money, and you really want to get extra cash for the states, not from the federal coffers, but from consumers.

But Internet sales tax would be bad for everyone. Our gift is to take that away from you. No Internet sales tax for you. Merry holidays and all that!

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