Congress as a Non-Actor in Tech Policy

Adam Thierer
Feb 4 · 10 min read
Image courtesy of Architect of the Capitol

Congress has become a less important player in the field of technology policy. Why did that happen, and what are the ramifications for technological governance efforts going forward?

I’ve spent almost 30 years covering technology policy. There was a time in my life when I spent almost all my time as a policy analyst preoccupied with developments in the federal legislative arena. I lived in the trenches of Capitol Hill and interacted with lawmakers and their staff morning, noon, and night.

In recent years, however, I have spent very little time focused on the Legislative Branch because it has effectively become a non-actor on technology policy. It is not that congressional lawmakers stopped caring about tech policy. Interest actually remains quite high — perhaps higher than ever before. Congress also continues to introduce lots of bills, host plenty of hearings, and issue mountains of press releases related to tech policy issues.

Nonetheless, all that interest and activity has not really translated into much important legislation. While it is hard to track tech-oriented legislative trends statistically because of the complication of defining “technology policy” over time, judged by substantive output, Congress has largely checked out of technological policymaking.

Think about digital privacy. How many years now have people been predicting a comprehensive “baseline” privacy bill would pass in each legislative session? It never happens. Perhaps it will this year, but if you would like to place a wager on it, I will take that bet.

Speaking of bets, for several years now, I have been wagering with friends that Congress will not pass federal legislation creating a national autonomous vehicles framework. Each session I win that bet. Keep in mind, a framework for driverless cars is far less controversial than privacy policy. Still, nothing substantive ever gets done in Congress.

Same goes for cybersecurity with lots of calls for big measures, but no final action. Folks are now also telling me to expect a big artificial intelligence bill one day soon. I sincerely doubt it. Again, I’ll bet on it if you’d like to lose some money!

Let me be clear, there may actually be some very good reasons why Congress should implement a national framework for privacy, driverless cars, and some AI policy issues. But all the wishful thinking in the world will not magically make it happen.

We need to entertain the possibility that Congress has largely checked out of the world of substantive tech policymaking and isn’t coming back. We may get a few big surprise measures here and there, as we did with clumsily-drafted FOSTA-SESTA. If anything, it is more likely that we instead see misguided legislative riders attached to non-germane measures during late night negotiations. But even haphazard efforts like those will be extremely rare. The days of Congress passing big bills like the Telecom Act of 1996 or the Cable Act of 1992 appear mostly over.

Why Congress Is No Longer the Major Player It Once Was

I think there are probably many obvious explanations for why Congress has checked out of tech policymaking, but let me try to boil it down to a couple of interrelated trends:

The “pacing problem” has intensified: The pacing problem refers to the inability of legal or regulatory regimes to keep adjust to the intensifying pace of technological change. There are just more emerging technologies than ever, and they are evolving faster than ever, too. “New technologies that used to have two-year cycle times now can become obsolete in six months, and the pace of change is not slowing,” says consulting firm Deloitte.

A growing multiplicity of technologies means more tech policy issues to cover. And those issues grow more complicated each year. As soon as lawmakers wrap their heads around one technology (if they do at all), another innovation pops up that complicates things further or crowds out their attention.

Technological convergence and blurring governance boundaries: Technology policymaking increasingly involves metaphysical questions about the underlying nature of things. For example, what is a “phone,” a “medical device,” or an “aerial vehicle”? These things used to be relatively easy to define and had well-understood meanings in federal statutes and regulations. But those concepts evolved rapidly in an age of widespread technological convergence and rapid-fire “combinatorial innovation,” with new technologies multiplying and building on top of one another in the symbiotic fashion. Basically, almost as soon as new tech laws or regulations are enacted, they are confronted with new marketplace realities and technological changes that call into question legal classifications or regulatory distinctions.

For example, today’s smartphones combine dozens of different functions that were previously quite distinct, including health tracking capabilities, mobile payment systems, and video distribution, all of which remain heavily regulated by an assortment of federal laws and agencies. But the convergence of all these capabilities in a single device that we can carry in our pockets creates massive governance challenges, not only for archaic legislative frameworks, but even for newer semantic distinctions that may seem current one moment only to be obliterated the next. These factors also make it harder to figure out who in Congress should be driving policy because technological convergence blurs previously distinct governance categories among legislative committees and the laws they have crafted.

Legislative dysfunctionalism: Policymaking processes move slowly by design. Constitutional constraints and other legal requirements demand it. But things move even slower today because of what Jonathan Rauch calls “demosclerosis,” or the “government’s progressive loss of the ability to adapt.” “[A]s layer is dropped upon layer,” he argued, “the accumulated mass becomes gradually less rational and less flexible.”

Inadequate resources are also part of the problem with Congress facing a complex, rapidly-evolving set of issues but devoting only limited resources to technical staff or studies to better understand these developments. This combined with the factors cited above has led to a never-ending “competency trap,” with lawmakers and their staffs seemingly always one step behind technological developments and societal demands or expectations.

Meanwhile, partisanship increases and the work load on many other fronts grows alongside it. There’s just a lot more on Congress’s plate than ever before. Plus, tech policy matters seemingly always take a back seat to tax, budget, entitlements, defense, and other issues.

Many people hope that boosting technology assessment efforts might help correct these problems. Perhaps better technical advice could help lawmakers ask less ignorant questions at tech-oriented congressional hearings, which have become showcases for the staggering lack of congressional understanding of modern technologies. But just adding new technology assessment capacity, such as in the form of a revived Office of Technology Assessment, won’t likely move the needle much in terms of actual legislative output. More serious structural reforms will be required.

Globalization: Many modern technologies “are truly global and call out for policy approaches that do not respect traditional national borders,” note former NITA officials Lawrence E. Strickling and Jonah Force Hill. Congress only has so much control over technologies that defy national boundaries, further complicating tech governance questions.

Yet, one would think that when America’s global competitive advantage was on the line, Congress would have greater reason to assert itself and craft frameworks to ensure US firms are not disadvantaged by a lack of policy clarity. That has not proven to be the case, however. Congressional lawmakers do plenty of huffing and puffing about the tech governance choices made by Europe, China, and other governments, but they then leave the field wide open to them (as well as lower levels of government) to craft policies that govern national markets throughout the United States.

Endless delegation: Speaking of passing the buck, Congress has been doing it for decades on tech policy by delegating massive and quite amorphous authority to technocratic administrative agencies. Over the past half century, scholars from various disciplines — economics, law, political science, history, and others — have explored the growth of what has been alternatively called the “interest group society,” “receivership by regulation,” “iron triangles,” and “client politics.” This literature identifies the way Congress has increasingly abdicated its constitutional role as lawmaker by shifting hard policy questions to regulatory agencies and then hoping that bureaucrats could figure out all the answers.

Delegation is even more common for the most technical policy matters, and that trend has only accelerated in recent years as the complexity increases and overwhelms lawmakers and their staff.

Ramifications for Tech Governance Going Forward

If Congress remains largely incapable of ever getting the ball over the goal line on important tech policy matters, what are some of the ramifications? There are many, but I will identify just a few of the most obvious ones:

· More tech-oriented legislative activity will shift to the states: In fact, it already has. For each of the tech policy issues I identified earlier (privacy, driverless cars, cybersecurity, and even some AI-related issues like facial recognition), states are — for better or worse — picking up the slack. We should expect that trend to accelerate. This will create an increasingly confusing patchwork of policies that will potentially raise serious barriers to entry and innovation. Nonetheless, I can’t see this trend reversing anytime soon. Perhaps Congress will finally act on privacy or driverless cars legislation if for no other reason than to preempt a crazy-quilt of contradictory policies. Of course, that’s what people have been predicting for years, and it never happens.

· “Soft law” becomes the dominate governance force for tech: Again, it already has. Soft law refers to informal, collaborative, and constantly evolving governance mechanisms that differ from hard law in that they lack the same degree of enforceability. Soft law can include things like multi-stakeholder processes, industry best practices and standards, agency workshops and guidance documents, and educational efforts. But that just scratches the surface of soft law mechanisms. For better or worse, soft law is becoming the dominant modus operandi for most modern technological governance. We can expect that trend to accelerate to fill the governance gap left by Congressional inaction. For example, we don’t have any formal “rules of the road” for driverless cars, but we do now have four iterations of Department of Transportation guidance on driverless cars. Version 4.0 of the DoT guidance for automated vehicles was just released this month. Expect the “soft law-ization” of technological governance to expand considerably in coming years because it is really the only way for agencies to cope with the pacing problem and those metaphysical issues identified earlier. Because soft law is not boxed in by rigid preconceptions of what a particular technology or technological process is or entails, it is often better able to address new marketplace realities. Soft law can adapt as technologies do. With Congress out of the picture, it will have to.

· The congressional tech policy death spiral accelerates. Some may think (or at least hope) that the situation described here can’t get any worse. To the contrary, it can get radically worse. With our politics increasingly infected with bitter partisanship and rancor, what are the chances that lawmakers can work together to craft comprehensive tech policy measures? I’d say the odds are approaching zero. The Cable Act, the Telecom Act (and Sec. 230), and the Internet Tax Freedom Act all enjoyed broad, bipartisan support when they passed in the 1990s. People reached across the aisle to get things done. It didn’t always work, and sometimes it resulted in misguided policies (like the Communications Decency Act’s provisions trying to censor internet “indecency”). But bipartisan lawmaking scenarios like those seem almost unthinkable now. To the extent many lawmakers even show up at tech-oriented congressional hearings anymore, it is mostly to score points in front of the cameras for Team Red or Team Blue back home. Serious legislative oversight and policymaking is dead; it’s mostly just show-trials and media circuses at this point.

Should I Care about Congress Anymore?

If you believe this miserable thesis is correct but continue to focus on the Legislative Branch for a living, you may be asking yourself: Am I wasting all my time here? Not necessarily. Congress is still actively interested in tech policy matters. For those who hope to limit that damage Congress might do by hastily passing ham-handed, crisis-driven policy measures, your efforts in the trenches will continue to be important in curbing the worst instincts of some lawmakers. In many instances, preserving a perpetual stalemate may go down as a tremendous victory.

For example, as the debate over Section 230 intensifies — with politicians of all stripes looking to gut the most important of all Internet freedom policies — it is vital that smart people work with lawmakers and their staff to beat back misguided and destructive measures. Hopefully this becomes another instance of legislative gridlock winning out! And I think it will.

More realistically, your role will not be to stop Congress from doing insanely destructive things, it will be to just stop them from saying those things. In fact, that seems to be what a lot of people who work with Congress already do today. When I chat with various inside-the-Beltway policy advocates and industry reps today, they usually acknowledge that the prospects for actual legislation on any given issue are quite slim. They will, of course, continue to try to work with lawmakers, their committees, and their staff to either advance or stop legislative measures. Yet, they all seem to accept the utter futility of it all.

Why do they persist? Most obviously, they want to at least preserve the legislative stalemate and not cede the ground to their enemies who might succeed in getting lawmakers to do something if only one side was communicating with Congress.

But the other thing these policy advocates are hoping to achieve is better messaging. Regulatory advocates want lawmakers to use the power of the bully pulpit to put pressure on various people or groups to change behavior, even in the absence of any legislative action. By contrast, many in industry want to make sure that their technologies are understood and not endlessly demonized. Bad press isn’t good for business, even if all the congressional threats never result in final legislation. Also, those defending innovation more generally will want to make sure that even if lawmakers aren’t making any actual laws, they still better understand and appreciate the importance of new technological capabilities for improving human welfare.

Those are all good reasons not to give up your legislative advocacy. For some of us, however, the personal cost-benefit analysis just doesn’t add up. Our focus has shifted to where the real action is at: federal administrative agencies, statehouses and state administrative agencies, the courts, and the growing world of multi-stakeholder governance and other soft law efforts. Congress has checked out, but technological governance lives on in many other forms and venues.