June 2019

Congressional hearings about tech policy can be hard to watch. It’s often painfully obvious that members of Congress know little or even nothing about the internet, cryptography, streaming services—or even just a typical user’s basic experience on social media. How confident can we be that such people will craft appropriate policies for these increasingly important aspects of our lives?

This month we ask what Congress needs to know about tech policy. We also ask what institutional support, if any, Congress may need as it seeks to regulate a wider and wider array of products and services that its members often seem not to understand. Joining us this month are Kevin Kosar, Vice President of Policy at the R Street Institute; Betsy Wright Hawkings, director of the Governance Program at Democracy Fund; William Rinehart, Director of Technology and Innovation Policy at the American Action Forum; and Berin Szóka, the founder and president of TechFreedom.

We will discuss throughout the month, and we welcome readers’ participation in the comments, as well as letters to the editor.

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Lead Essay

  • Kevin Kosar argues that Congress has a clear disadvantage in crafting tech policy. Its elected nature makes it responsive to the people, which is a good thing, but its members may still lack the expertise needed to understand the things they propose to regulate. Kosar suggests that reviving the congressional Office of Technology Assessment may help close the gap—and produce tech policy that is responsive to popular opinion, but also well-informed by rapidly developing facts.

Response Essays

  • A congressional office for tech policy would necessarily be caught in a partisan tug-of-war. While there may be good reasons to support greater congressional responsibility—which would require greater congressional knowledge—still, both the appearance and the reality of partisan bias remain serious problems. Even pursuing perfect neutrality risks making such an office invisible and irrelevant.

  • Betsy Wright Hawkings argues that congressional tech competence needs to start with the members’ own office software and social media experiences. For as long as anyone can remember, Congress has been a tradition-bound institution, slow to modernize its own offices and official procedures. Hawkings points to one key counterexample, however: The Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, which, she argues, did real good and should be emulated.

  • Decades ago, the Supreme Court allowed Congress to give much of its legislative authority to unelected executive agencies and their bureaucrats. Congress happily gave away its responsibilities—even as federal spending levels exploded. Now, says Berin Szóka, a newly conservative Court looks ready to undo that change, and Congress is ill-prepared to resume its rightful constitutional responsibilities.

The Conversation

Coming Up

Conversation through the end of the month.