Tech Policy Inertia Plagues Congress

Posted September 15, 2015 at 4:09pm

Congress is more polarized than ever and the typical differences that separate Republicans from Democrats are playing a role in Congress’s tech policy inertia.

“Across the whole congressional spectrum, it is more difficult to find consensus,” says Rick Boucher, a former House Democrat from Virginia who was a major player on technology policy during his 14 terms. “It affects everything and it affects tech.”

That is most clear in the debate over what requirements the government should place on companies that lose control of customer data to hackers.

In April, the House Energy and Commerce Committee approved a bill to set some federal rules, requiring that companies that lose customers’ financial data inform them within 30 days of stopping the breach and pass on guidance on how those affected can protect their credit and bank accounts.

But the bill hasn’t moved since and Democrats oppose it for reasons that are typical: They favor tougher rules that would protect more types of data, such as medical records, and give consumers and state attorneys general more latitude to sue, or to enforce tougher state rules.

In this case, Congress can honestly say it anticipated the problem. But that doesn’t mean lawmaking has proved easier. Rather, it makes the failure to act all the more glaring.

Six years ago, when Democrats were in charge of the House, they teamed with a senior Republican on the Energy and Commerce panel, Joe L. Barton of Texas, on a bill that would have given the Federal Trade Commission latitude to write rules to protect consumer data and to enforce them.

It passed on a voice vote. But the bill didn’t move in the Senate.

Marsha Blackburn, the Tennessean who is the chief sponsor of the Republican’s current offering, said that with the GOP in charge now the notion of giving the FTC new powers was untenable: “Our bill is narrow. It is narrow for a reason.” That reason, she said, was to give it a chance of enactment.

Yet, it shows no signs of getting that far.