Preview of Senate Democratic Chairs

It’s not clear who will end up where, but new Senate chairs will change focus and agenda of committees and debate over the next two years.

With the victories of Senators-elect Rafael Warnock (D-GA) and Jon Ossoff (D-GA), control of the United States Senate will tip to the Democrats once Vice President-elect Kamala Harris (D) is sworn in and can break the 50-50 tie in the chamber in favor of the Democrats. With the shift in control, new chairs will take over committees key to setting the agenda over the next two years in the Senate. However, given the filibuster, and the fact that Senate Republicans will exert maximum leverage through its continued use, Democrats will be hamstrung and forced to work with Republicans on matters such as federal privacy legislation, artificial intelligence (AI), the Internet of Things (IOT), cybersecurity, data flows, surveillance, etc. just as Republicans have had to work with Democrats over the six years they controlled the chamber. Having said that, Democrats will be in a stronger position than they had been and will have the power to set the agenda in committee hearings, being empowered to call the lion’s share of witnesses and to control the floor agenda. What’s more, Democrats will be poised to confirm President-elect Joe Biden’s nominees at agencies like the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the Department of Justice (DOJ), and others, giving the Biden Administration a free hand in many areas of technology policy.

All of that being said, this is not meant to be an exhaustive look at all the committees of jurisdiction and possible chairs. Rather, it seeks to survey likely chairs on selected committees and some of their priorities for the next two years. Subcommittee chairs will also be important, but until the cards get shuffled among the chairs, it will not be possible to see where they land at the subcommittee level.

When considering the possible Democratic chairs of committees, one must keep in mind it is often a matter of musical chairs with the most senior members getting first choice. And so, with Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) as the senior-most Democratic Senator, he may well choose to leave the Appropriations Committee and move back to assume the gavel of the Judiciary Committee. Leahy has long been a stakeholder on antitrust, data security, privacy, and surveillance legislation and would be in a position to influence what bills on those and other matters before the Senate look like. If Leahy does not move to the chair on Judiciary, he may still be entitled to chair a subcommittee and exert influence.

If Leahy stays put, then current Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL) would be poised to leapfrog Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) to chair Judiciary after Feinstein was persuaded to step aside on account of her lackluster performance in a number of high-profile hearings in 2020. Durbin has also been active on privacy, data security, and surveillance issues. The Judiciary Committee will be central to a number of technology policies, including Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act reauthorization, privacy legislation, Section 230 reform, antitrust, and others. On the Republican side of the dais, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) leaving the top post because of term limit restrictions imposed by Republicans, and Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA) is set to replace him. How this changes the 47 USC 230 (Section 230) debate is not immediately clear. And yet, Grassley and three colleagues recently urged the Trump Administration in a letter to omit language in a trade agreement with the United Kingdom (UK) that mirrors the liability protection Section 230. Senators Rob Portman (R-OH), Mark R. Warner (D-VA), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), and Grassley argued to U.S. Trade Representative Ambassador Robert Lighthizer that a “safe harbor” like the one provided to technology companies for hosting or moderating third party content is outdated, not needed in a free trade agreement, contrary to the will of both the Congress and UK Parliament, and likely to be changed legislatively in the near future. It is likely, however, Grassley will fall in with other Republicans propagating the narrative that social media is unfairly biased against conservatives, particularly in light of the recent purge of President Donald Trump for his many, repeated violations of policy.

The Senate Judiciary Committee will be central in any policy discussions of antitrust and anticompetition in the technology realm. But it bears note the filibuster (and the very low chances Senate Democrats would “go nuclear” and remove all vestiges of the functional supermajority requirement to pass legislation) will give Republicans leverage to block some of the more ambitious reforms Democrats might like to enact (e.g. the House Judiciary Committee’s October 2020 final report that calls for nothing less than a complete remaking of United States (U.S.) antitrust policy and law; see here for more analysis.)

It seems Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) will be the next chair of the Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Development Committee which has jurisdiction over cybersecurity, data security, privacy, and other issues in the financial services sector, making it a player on any legislation designed to encompass the whole of the United States economy. Having said that, it may again be the case that sponsors of, say, privacy legislation decide to cut the Gordian knot of jurisdictional turf battles by cutting out certain committees. For example, many of the privacy bills had provisions making clear they would deem financial services entities in compliance with the Financial Services Modernization Act of 1999 (P.L. 106-102) (aka Gramm-Leach-Bliley) to be in compliance with the new privacy regime. I suppose these provisions may have been included on the basis of the very high privacy and data security standards Gramm-Leach-Bliley has brought about (e.g. the Experian hack), or sponsors of federal privacy legislation made the strategic calculation to circumvent the Senate Banking Committee as much as they can. Nonetheless, this committee has sought to insert itself into the policymaking process on privacy last year as Brown and outgoing Chair Mike Crapo (R-ID) requested “feedback” in February 2019 “from interested stakeholders on the collection, use and protection of sensitive information by financial regulators and private companies.” Additionally, Brown released what may be the most expansive privacy bill from the perspective of privacy and civil liberties advocates, the “Data Accountability and Transparency Act of 2020” in June 2020 (see here for my analysis.) Therefore, Brown may continue to push for a role in federal privacy legislation with a gavel in his hands.

In a similar vein, Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) will likely take over the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee which has jurisdiction over health information privacy and data security through the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) and the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health Act of 2009 (HITECH Act). Again, as with the Senate Banking Committee and Gramm-Leach-Bliley, most of the privacy bills exempt HIPAA-compliant entities. And yet, even if her committee is cut out of a direct role in privacy legislation, Murray will still likely exert influence through oversight of and possible legislation changing HIPAA regulations and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) enforcement and rewriting of these standards for most of the healthcare industry. For example, HHS is rushing a rewrite of the HIPAA regulations at the tail end of the Trump Administration, and Murray could be in a position to inform how the Biden Administration and Secretary of Health and Human Services-designate Xavier Berra handles this rulemaking. Additionally, Murray may push the Office of Civil Rights (OCR), the arm of HHS that writes and enforces these regulations, to prioritize matters differently.

Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) appears to be the next chair of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee and arguably the largest technology portfolio in the Senate. It is the primary committee of jurisdiction for the FCC, FTC, National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and the Department of Commerce. Cantwell may exert influence on which people are nominated to head and staff those agencies and others. Her committee is also the primary committee of jurisdiction for domestic and international privacy and data protection matters. And so, federal privacy legislation will likely be drafted by this committee, and legislative changes so the U.S. can enter into a new personal data sharing agreement with the European Union (EU) would also likely involve her and her committee.

Cantwell and likely next Ranking Member Roger Wicker (R-MS) agree on many elements of federal privacy law but were at odds last year on federal preemption and whether people could sue companies for privacy violations. Between them, they circulated three privacy bills. In September 2020, Wicker and three Republican colleagues introduced the “Setting an American Framework to Ensure Data Access, Transparency, and Accountability (SAFE DATA) Act” (S.4626) (see here for more analysis). Wicker had put out for comment a discussion draft, the “Consumer Data Privacy Act of 2019” (CDPA) (See here for analysis) in November 2019 shortly after the Ranking Member on the committee, Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and other Democrats had introduced their privacy bill, the “Consumer Online Privacy Rights Act“ (COPRA) (S.2968) (See here for more analysis).

Cantwell could also take a leading role on Section 230, but her focus, of late, seems to be on how technology companies are wreaking havoc to traditional media. released a report that she has mentioned during her opening statement at the 23 September hearing aimed at trying to revive data privacy legislation. She and her staff investigated the decline and financial troubles of local media outlets, which are facing a cumulative loss in advertising revenue of up to 70% since 2000. And since advertising revenue has long been the life blood of print journalism, this has devastated local media with many outlets shutting their doors or radically cutting their staff. This trend has been exacerbated by consolidation in the industry, often in concert with private equity or hedge funds looking to wring the last dollars of value from bargain basement priced newspapers. Cantwell also claimed that the overwhelming online advertising dominance of Google and Facebook has further diminished advertising revenue and other possible sources of funding through a variety of means. She intimates that much of this content may be illegal under U.S. law, and the FTC may well be able to use its Section 5 powers against unfair and deceptive acts and its anti-trust authority to take action. (see here for more analysis and context.) In this vein, Cantwell will want her committee to play in any antitrust policy changes, likely knowing massive changes in U.S. law are not possible in a split Senate with entrenched party positions and discipline.

Senator Jack Reed (D-RI) will take over the Senate Armed Services Committee and its portfolio over national security technology policy that includes the cybersecurity, data protection and supply chain of national security agencies and their contractors, AI, offensive and defensive U.S. cyber operations, and other realms. Much of the changes Reed and his committee will seek to make will be through the annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) (see here and here for the many technology provisions in the FY 2021 NDAA.) Reed may also prod the Department of Defense (DOD) to implement or enforce the Cybersecurity Maturity Model Certification (CMMC) Framework differently than envisioned and designed by the Trump Administration. In December 2020, a new rule took effect designed to drive better cybersecurity among U.S. defense contractors. This rule brings together two different lines of effort to require the Defense Industrial Base (DIB) to employ better cybersecurity given the risks they face by holding and using classified information, Federal Contract Information (FCI) and Controlled Unclassified Information (CUI). The Executive Branch has long wrestled with how to best push contractors to secure their systems, and Congress and the White House have opted for using federal contract requirements in that contractors must certify compliance. However, the most recent initiative, the CMMC Framework will require contractors to be certified by third party assessors. And yet, it is not clear the DOD has wrestled with the often-misaligned incentives present in third party certification schemes.

Reed’s committee will undoubtedly delve deep into the recent SolarWinds hack and implement policy changes to avoid a reoccurrence. Doing so may lead the Senate Armed Services Committee back to reconsidering the Cyberspace Solarium Commission’s (CSC) March 2020 final report and follow up white papers, especially their views embodied in “Building a Trusted ICT Supply Chain.”

Senator Mark Warner (D-VA) will likely take over the Senate Intelligence Committee. Warner has long been a stakeholder on a number of technology issues and would be able to exert influence on the national security components of such issues. He and his committee will almost certainly play a role in the Congressional oversight of and response to the SolarWinds hack. Likewise, his committee shares jurisdiction over FISA with the Senate Judiciary Committee and over national security technology policy with the Armed Services Committee.

Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) would be the Senate Democratic point person on election security from her perch at the Senate Rules and Administration Committee, which may enable her to more forcefully push for the legislative changes she has long advocated for. In May 2019, Klobuchar and other Senate Democrats introduced the “Election Security Act” (S. 1540), the Senate version of the stand-alone measure introduced in the House that was taken from the larger package, the “For the People Act” (H.R. 1) passed by the House.

In August 2018, the Senate Rules and Administration Committee postponed indefinitely a markup on a compromise bill to provide states additional assistance in securing elections from interference, the “The Secure Elections Act” (S.2593). Reportedly, there was concern among state officials that a provision requiring audits of election results would be in effect an unfunded mandate even though this provision was softened at the insistence of Senate Republican leadership. However, a Trump White House spokesperson indicated in a statement that the Administration opposed the bill, which may have posed an additional obstacle to Committee action. However, even if the Senate had passed its bill, it was unlikely that the Republican controlled House would have considered companion legislation (H.R. 6663).

Senator Gary Peters (D-MI) may be the next chair of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, and if so, he will continue to face the rock on which many the bark of cybersecurity legislation has been dashed: Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI). So significant has Johnson’s opposition been to bipartisan cybersecurity legislation from the House, some House Republican stakeholders have said so in media accounts not bothering to hide in anonymity. And so whatever Peters’ ambitions may be to shore up the cybersecurity of the federal government as his committee will play a role in investigating and responding to the Russian hack of SolarWinds and many federal agencies, he will be limited by whatever Johnson and other Republicans will allow to move through the committee and through the Senate. Of course, Peters’ purview would include the Department of Homeland Security and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) and its remit to police the cybersecurity practices of the federal government. Peters would also have in his portfolio the information technology (IT) practices of the federal government, some $90 billion annually across all agencies.

Finally, whether it be Leahy or Durbin at the Senate Appropriations Committee, this post allows for immense influence in funding and programmatic changes in all federal programs through the power of the purse Congress holds.

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