Meeting the New Boss: Outlook for Technology Policy in the Next Congress

The outcome of last week’s election is now clear with the Democrats taking over the legislative branch. The dust, however, is far from settled. Democrats have the opportunity to make a profound and lasting impact on technology policy. What shape this will take is unclear, because much of it will be dictated by the new House and Senate Chairpersons who have not organized or set any agendas yet. Speculation will usually get you into trouble (or make you look foolish), but that won’t stop us from making some guesses about how technology policy issues will be shaped by the new Democratic Congress. These are in no particular order, but are areas that USACM has focused on in the past few years.
Competitiveness/Innovation Policy
The Democrats have been much more open to arguments that strengthening the research and development enterprise, especially through funding basic research, is vital to fostering innovation than the Congressional Republicans ever were. In fact, incoming Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, was recently quoted in The Washington Post saying that the “Democrats would like to take up Bush’s proposals to expand funding for basic research …”
But the Democrats face two challenges. First, “competitiveness” and “innovation” policy means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. Different groups have advocated a competitiveness agenda that includes for stronger math and science education programs, relaxing Green Card and H1B Visa restrictions, less regulation of domestic business, extending the research and development tax credit, and patent reform, just to name a few. Democrats are likely to embrace the education and research pieces and distance themselves from calls for less regulations or more high-skilled immigrants. Second, Democrats have a long list of items they argue the Republicans underfunded that they have to balance against a campaign pledge of fiscal restraint. They face many of the same difficult choices the Republicans struggled with these past few years.
Update: For a deeper look at the research funding aspects of this issue, see Peter Harsha’s entry on the Computing Research Association’s blog.
Technology Industry Offshoring and Globalization
It is likely that the Democrats will put new emphasis on the impact trade has on highly skilled labor. In particular, the incoming Chair of the House Science Committee, Bart Gordon (D-TN) has stated his intention to holding hearings of offshoring in the knowledge-based industries (Information Technology, Pharmaceutical, Chemical, etc.) Many approached the issue of globalization by advocating stronger math and science education and research programs. As stated above, the Democrats are likely to continue these efforts but put new emphasis on the impact offshoring has on wages and the risks to personal information.
Beyond opposing trade agreements, it is unclear what legislation dealing with these issues might look like. As ACM’s report on the globalization of the software industry pointed out, the factors impacting offshoring are complex, interconnected, and are likely to be persistent, regardless of policy.
Privacy Legislation
We can look at privacy issues through two lenses: consumer and law enforcement. Congress started work on legislation to protect consumers’ personal information by mandating stronger business data security practices. The legislation quickly stalled and died. Key Democrats, such as Congressman Markey (D-MA) and Senator Leahy (D-VT) were strong advocates of more stringent regulation of personal information held by corporations. It is unlikely they will drop their cause now that they hold power.
Other legislative efforts such as trying to deal with spyware or phishing are likely to resurface, but it is too early to tell if these will become top priorities.
When it comes to privacy and law enforcement, things are less clear. President Bush has already called for the lame-duck Congress (which will meet starting this week) to approve Republican-drafted legislation to authorize the National Security Agency’s domestic wiretapping program. That effort seems largely doomed, as we are sure the Democrats will want more say than they got this year. However, they must balance a campaign pledge to stay “tough on terrorists” with the anger of the party’s base at perceived overreaches by the Bush Administration. Further, public polling of this program is largely split, so we suspect that the program will continue, but Bush and the Democrats will find some common ground.
Another idea that surfaced this year was data retention legislation intended to force ISPs to log and retain more user data for longer times for law-enforcement purposes. This legislation was pushed by the Justice Department but proposed in Congress by a Democrat. With Europe mandating data retention, and Republican and Democrats arguing these records are needed to go after child predators, it seems this issue has momentum regardless of who is in power.
Copyright and DRM
Fights over copyright and technology tend to transcend partisan bounds. The biggest issues in this area are fights over whether to mandate a broadcast flag on digital television and digital radio, how to restructure music licensing for the digital age, and mandating content protection technology in new equipment. Technology groups tend to oppose these measures and media companies tend to support them. But all these issues have champions, supporters and opponents on both sides of the aisle. The most significant change could be the elevation of Congressman Rick Boucher (D-VA) and Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) into positions of power on the key House Judiciary Committee. Both have criticized the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which is within the Judiciary Committee’s jurisdiction, and both are known to be open to pro-technology arguments.
Rush Holt (D-NJ) is the champion of e-voting reform in Congress. His current legislation (H.R. 550) would, among other things, mandate a voter-verified paper audit trail. The bill has 219 cosponsors (one more necessary than to pass the House), 89 percent of whom are Democrats. This legislation looks like a clear winner from Tuesday’s elections; however, its fate is also likely tied to how e-voting performed in the elections. There are still some stories about e-voting problems that are slowly coming out, which may provide more momentum for Holt’s legislation. But beyond what seem to have been serious problems with Colorado’s voter database there were no reports of massive meltdowns.
Its prospects are likely to hinge on two issues. The first is whether the incoming chairs of the House Administration and Senate Rules Committees, which have jurisdiction over elections issues, believe that reform is needed. Congress could take the view that because there wasn’t a massive e-voting meltdown, fighting over this legislation is not worth it. Notably, the likely Chair of the House Administration Committee, Juanita Millender-McDonald, is not a cosponsor of Holt’s proposal, and gave USACM’s arguments a chilly reception during a hearing on the subject where our members testified. Another factor influencing e-voting reform is whether the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) will be reopened to deal with other voting issues, such as provisional ballots or vote-by-mail proposals. If HAVA is reopened, Representative Holt would have a golden opportunity to incorporate his legislation into a broader package of voting reforms.
Internet Regulation
Regardless of who is in power, the days of a laissez-fair approach toward the internet by policymakers are over. Like privacy, we can look at internet regulation through a couple of lenses: the regulation of providers and the regulation of content.
Congress tried to pass telecommunications reform legislation earlier this year, but it quickly stalled because of conflicts over so-called “Network Neutrality” rules. Democrats were much more supportive of having the Federal Communications Commission set strict Network Neutrality rules that would have prevented ISPs from charging content providers for preferred service. Republicans, in general, opposed these so-called rules. Another contentious issue was requiring that broadband providers “build out” their networks to serve entire communities in areas where they were granted franchise agreements. Democrats generally supported efforts to force ISPs to expand services, and Republicans generally opposed these proposals. Both of these efforts did not attract unanimous support from Democrats, but both will be in a much better position next year than they were this year.
The new Chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Rep. Dingell (D-MI), has already stated that he plans to work on “fixing the problems of the 1996 Telecommunications Act.” Many lobbyists have said that any major telecommunications legislation will not move next year, but it is hard to see the new Chairmen in the House and Senate just dropping this issue.
When it comes to regulating content, Democrats as well as Republicans have supported efforts to eliminate minors’ access to harmful content. Earlier this year the House passed overwhelmingly the Deleting Online Predators Act of 2006, which would have required schools and libraries to block minors’ access to social networking sites and chat rooms. The legislation stalled in the Senate, but the issue is likely to be back after a series of high-profile hearings about predators using social networking sites to find children.

Cameron Wilson is ACM’s Director of the Office of Public Policy in Washington, D.C. This blog can also be found at the ACM Technology Blog.

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