Congress organizes (mostly): IT policy implications

By mid-February in any normal year a new Congress is completely organized. This is not a normal year as numerous changes in the Senate and organizational fights between the House of Representatives and Senate have delayed the process. Congress has finally (although not completely) organized itself enough to provide a picture of how it will deal with information technology (IT) and computing policy issues.

The major story is what changed in the Senate – arguably elevating IT policy – contrasted against the relative status quo in the House. Several key Senate chairmanships changed hands, which, in turn, led to two new IT related subcommittees. The opposite was true in the House, where key chairmen from the 108th Congress hold roughly the same power in the 109th. Below is a more detailed discussion of how these changes will impact issues relevant to USACM’s interests.

One of the biggest changes, a complete reorganization of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees, is still in limbo because of an ongoing disagreement between the House and Senate. Peter Harsha at CRA has put together a good analysis of the implications this reorganization has for IT R&D spending.

In short, it will be a busy year. Congress will have to grapple with some high-priority pieces of legislation like the rewrite of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which touches on many IT policy issues. It will also have to respond to external events like the inevitable fallout from the Supreme Court’s decision in MGM Studios Inc. vs. Grokster Ltd.

Innovation and Intellectual Property Balance

Two of the most important Senate committees dealing with IT policy are the Judiciary Committee and the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. Both have new chairmen, and both have been restructured to raise the profile of IT policy.

Senator Arlen Specter (R-Penn.) takes over the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee. While judgeships will likely dominate the committee’s agenda, a new Intellectual Property Subcommittee chaired by former full committee chairman Orrin Hatch (R-UT) will give IP issues their own forum. Senator Leahy (D-VT) remains the Ranking Member of the Committee and will continue his work from last year on IP issues. The Committee will likely wait on almost all IP issues until the Supreme Court hands down the Grokster decision.

Senator Ted Stevens (R-AK) takes over the helm of the Commerce Committee and immediately made two important changes. First, he elevated the reform of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 to a full committee responsibility and posed 10 pretty specific questions (the questions are about halfway down the page) that give us context for the Chairman’s thinking about telecommunications reform – note his questions about preserving technological innovation, privacy, and preventing piracy. Second, he created the Subcommittee on Technology, Innovation, and Competitiveness, which doesn’t have a specific agenda yet, but seems ripe for work on IT policy.

In contrast to the Senate, the corresponding committees in the House only had minor changes. Chairman James Sensenbrenner (R-Wisc.) and Ranking Member John Conyers (D-Mich.) continue to lead the Judiciary Committee. Chairman Joe Barton (R-TX) and Ranking Member John Dingell (D-Mich.) continue to lead the Energy and Commerce Committee. We can reasonably expect that the IP issues important to these members from last year – including database legislation – will continue to be important to them this year.

(I would note that both the Senate Commerce and Senate Judiciary haven’t officially organized yet, but the changes noted above have been widely reported.)

Privacy

The strength and weakness of privacy issues are their ubiquity on the Hill. Because privacy is inherent in multiple policy areas it always garners attention, but with so many actors and committees all looking at the issue from different angles, it makes it almost impossible to deal with an “overarching” privacy agenda.

We have already seen evidence as last week the House passed the Real ID Act, a controversial and high profile bill with privacy and “national ID” implications, and the House Commerce Committee passed the SPY Act this week. Further external events like the recent revelation of fraud and ID theft at ChoicePoint may catalyze a legislative reaction from Congress.

The four committees and powerbrokers mentioned above (House and Senate Judiciary and Commerce Committees) will likely dominate privacy issues. For the most part, privacy issues will be embedded in their policy efforts instead of driving them. The newly created House and Senate Homeland Security Committees and the House and Senate Banking Committees will also likely wade into privacy issues at some point.

Security and Reliability of Systems

The House Administration and Senate Rules Committee, as well as the House Science Committee, play key roles in developing voting legislation. For the most part, the organization of these committees will remain essentially the same as last Congress. The only major change is on the minority side of the House Administration Committee with newly appointed Congresswoman Juanita Millender-McDonald (D-Calif.) becoming the Ranking Member and Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), a strong technology advocate, also joining the committee. While several Members of Congress have already introduced voting related bills (more on that in another post), any wholesale reopening of the Help America Vote Act would likely be controversial and certainly an uphill battle.

One of the most interesting fights so far this Congress was over which House committee has jurisdiction over cybersecurity policy. In early January it looked as if the newly created Homeland Security Committee would preside. However, the ground quickly shifted and now at least four House committees claim jurisdiction: Energy and Commerce, Government Reform, Science, and Homeland Security. It is very difficult to see how these actors will coordinate cybersecurity policy (likely diminishing prospects for overarching legislation), but cybersecurity will nonetheless be a high-profile topic for this Congress. These committees may be spurred into action once PITAC’s cybersecurity report hits the Hill, but it is unclear who would take the lead on its recommendations.

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