Tech Industry

A new Congress, a new approach to technology?

With a supportive administration behind it and some reshuffled leadership, the next Congress may make more progress on tech legislation, for better or for worse.

Presidential elections may capture the public's attention, as Barack Obama's victory did last week, but the less glamorous work in the U.S. Congress tends to prove more important for technology topics.

In general, much of today's current congressional leadership will continue unchanged into the next, albeit with some complications such as Obama's departure and some narrow Senate races including Minnesota's. Whatever the outcome, Democrats are likely to be newly emboldened and may be eager to approve legislation that stalled in the 110th Congress, including spyware regulations and a shield law that would protect some bloggers.

The outlook is complicated by some shuffling in House and Senate committee leadership, which is expected to take place next week. Two politicians are jockeying over chairmanship of the Energy and Commerce Committee, which includes green tech and Internet regulation in its portfolio. And increased interest in intellectual property issues in the House Judiciary Committee has led John Conyers (D-Mich.) to reorganize a key subcommittee.

Same issues, new players
Energy-related legislation will be one area of expected focus, though a continued economic downturn could divert attention or Treasury funds.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi "has taken a personal leadership role in identifying and advancing a house innovation agenda, which didn't really get as far as it should have," said Robert Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. "Republicans are generally less oriented to pro-active policies to spur innovation--they're more interested in reducing barriers to innovation."

Other issues expected to be addressed again next year include Net neutrality, consumer privacy issues such as regulation over electronic medical records, and patent reform.

Kay Hagan, the incoming Democratic senator for North Carolina, touted Net neutrality on the campaign trail.

In the House, look for Conyers and Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), chairman of the Telecommunications and the Internet panel in the House Energy and Commerce Committee, to take the lead. On the Senate side, senators like Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) are likely to remain focused on tech-related issues.

Some new members are expected to bolster the Democrats' commitment to tech issues, "particularly Mark Warner who is very technology savvy," said Atkinson. Warner, the former Democratic governor of Virginia, was elected to fill the seat of retiring Republican Senator John Warner.

After the election, Computer and Communications Industry Association President Ed Black praised the new Democratic senators for their tech-friendly platforms, noting that Mark Udall of Colorado and Kay Hagan of North Carolina both pledged their support for Net neutrality during their campaigns.

Some uncertainties exist on the tech policy front, like who will chair the Senate Republican High Tech Task Force since Chair Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) lost his seat last week. A senior aide to the task force said Republican leadership has yet to determine who will chair the group, but its agenda will remain focused on issues like broadband deployment, immigration reform, and securing U.S. competitiveness in the global high-tech marketplace.

Additionally, some Democratic agenda items, which call for more spending, and presumably higher taxes to fund those projects, could fall by the wayside if moderate Democrats insist on maintaining a pay-go system.

Musical chairs
It will be more clear how Congress intends to address tech policy once the Democratic caucus decides upon committee chairs next week.

"In both chambers, the committee makeup plays a significant role in what issues come forward," said Betsy Mullins, vice president of government and political affairs for TechNet, a bipartisan technology lobbying group. "Having certain champions and people who understand your issues can only help you."

In the senate, Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii) is expected to replace Senator Robert Byrd (D-W.V.) as chair of the Appropriations Committee, leaving open his chairmanship of the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee.

Sen. John Rockefeller (D-W.V.) would logically assume the leadership role of the Commerce Committee, though his office declined to comment on the subject. In that position, he would assume responsibility for Congressional oversight of the digital television transition, which many expect to be fraught with complications.

Sen. John Rockefeller (D-W.V.), a longtime broadband proponent, is likely to be the new Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee chair.

The committee has jurisdiction over a number of tech issues, and Mullins said Rockefeller would probably push forward broadband deployment legislation, as he has tried to do for years, and would encourage public-private partnerships in scientific research.

Critical subcommittees in the Senate Commerce Committee could face big changes as well. The science, technology, and innovation subcommittee is currently chaired by Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), who is rumored to be a potential candidate for a cabinet position in the next administration.

It's also possible the next Commerce chair could reinstate the communications subcommittee, which Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) eliminated in 2005, greatly reducing the influence in the committee of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). Kerry would be in line to assume that leadership role, but Dorgan--a strong Net neutrality proponent--could be a more likely choice, some have said.

Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) has been a natural Silicon Valley ally as chair of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. The committee may function differently even if Bingaman remains in that role, however, with the retirement of ranking Republican member Pete Domenici who, as the other senator from New Mexico, worked closely with Bingaman. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), as the next-most senior Republican member of the committee, may fill the GOP leadership role.

Power play
On the House side, a battle is brewing over the chairmanship of the Energy and Commerce Committee. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), who currently chairs the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, is bidding to replace Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) as head of Energy and Commerce. Dingell, who has chaired the committee for 28 years, is defending his seat with strong support from other Democrats.

Waxman's challenge is a "stunning" development, said a representative from the communications industry, given Dingell's longstanding history in the committee. While both congressmen are considered to be smart and tough politicians, he said, Dingell is more business-friendly, which could be important, given the state of the economy.

As an ally of the auto industry, Dingell does not always win the approval of environmental groups but is seen as being able to work across party lines. In October, he introduced legislation to cut greenhouse gas emissions with Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.).

"Dingell has a long record of fostering communications and technology issues," said an Energy and Commerce Committee spokesperson, that includes promoting competition among communications service providers and overseeing preparation of the digital TV transition.

Still, Waxman said in a statement (PDF), "My record shows that I have the skill and ability to build consensus and deliver legislation that improves the lives of all Americans."

The House Judiciary Committee is also in flux, now that Conyers has decided to restructure the courts, the Internet, and intellectual property subcommittee. Intellectual property will now be under the jurisdiction of the full committee; antitrust topics get their own subcommittee.

Subcommittee Chair Howard Berman (D-Calif.) announced earlier this year he would give up his position to chair the House Foreign Affairs Committee instead, so the vacancy created an convenient time to restructure the subcommittee.

A Judiciary staff member said interest in intellectual property issues has grown dramatically in the full committee, so the change gives more members a chance to weigh in on the issue. He said it is still undetermined who will chair the subcommittee.

There has been speculation that another leadership role critical to technology could end up changing hands in a House Energy and Commerce Committee subcommittee.

Ed Markey (D-Mass.), a politician prone to grandstanding on topics like the iPhone and AT&T, may be interested in giving up that spot in order to chair the energy and air quality subcommittee, some insiders believe. The move would allow him to more effectively work on energy legislation. Markey also chairs the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming. Markey's office declined to comment about the chairmanships.