Congress, White House Receive Passing Grades for Tech in 2014

It’s no surprise that Congress and the White House aren’t doing well in the court of public opinion. But when asked to grade the two branches of the federal government on some of the biggest issues in tech policy, Morning Consult polling shows that a majority of American voters give both the White House and Congress (barely) passing grades.

tech grades 2014

Our poll asked voters to grade Congress and the White House individually on how well each branch handled the security of personal information online, reforming the National Security Agency (NSA), overhauling the patent process, and internet regulations. While both Congress and the White House got D averages across the board, a deeper dive into the numbers finds that even as a majority of Americans are dismayed with the government’s performance, they have not lost all hope.

This poll surveyed 1,776 registered voters online from Dec. 16 – Dec. 19. Respondents were given the option of giving Congress and the White House a grade ranging from A to F, or to say they did not know or had no opinion on the issue. Average grades were calculated using a 4-point GPA scale. The margin of error is plus or minus 2.3 percentage points.

NSA reform

“What grade would you give when it comes to how they handled…government surveillance reform at agencies like the National Security Agency (also known as NSA)?”

Congress: D+

Edward Snowden’s unprecedented leak of documents detailing government spy programs put overhauling the NSA in the spotlight in 2013. Congress responded this year with legislation to limit the agency’s bulk data collection practices, among other changes. The House passed a version of that bill in October, but with several amendments added in the Senate, the legislation ultimately fell two votes short of passing a procedural hurdle in November.

White House: D+

Following the Snowden leak, President Barack Obama said he would support legislation overhauling the NSA. Of course, it was Obama who extended the NSA collection program in 2011, before it became public knowledge. Obama could extend the program again in 2015 if certain provisions of the Patriot Act are not reauthorized before they expire in June.

Comments: Neither branch scored well with voters, but Democrats were slightly more positive than independents and Republicans in their grades for Congress and the White House. Despite the low average grade, more than one third of voters gave Congress an A, B, or C grade for its work on NSA reform. The White House received at least a C from just less than 40 percent of respondents.

Cyber security

“What grade would you give when it comes to how they handled…the security of your personal information online?”

Congress: D

Major data breaches at JP Morgan Chase, Sony Pictures and Staples in 2014 made it clear to Americans that their personal information can be compromised online. Those public breaches put pressure on Congress to pass legislation setting up a framework for the government and private businesses to share information, with the aim of improving cybersecurity. The bill never made it out of the Senate, despite passing in the House.

White House: D+

Although few cybersecurity measures arrived on president’s desk, the Obama administration in February released guidelines they say will help the public and private sectors prepare for potential cybersecurity threats. The suggested rules made good on the president’s promise in his 2013 State of the Union to directly address security threats online.

Comments: Three in 10 voters gave Congress an A, B or C for its work on cybersecurity this year, and more than one third gave the White House a similar grade. Democrats were slightly more positive than independents and Republicans in issuing grades to the White House and Congress. Younger voters in particular gave Congress better grades, with 18-29 year olds giving lawmakers a C minus.

Internet regulation

“What grade would you give when it comes to how they handled…regulating how internet service providers control the speed of certain websites?”

Congress: D+

Although a decision on net neutrality regulations is currently in the hands of the Federal Communications Commission, the topic is still a fiercely partisan issue within the Capitol. Republicans have voiced their angst at the prospect of the government heavily regulating the internet. Democrats have been less definitive in their approach to net neutrality, with some lawmakers saying there needs to be oversight, but perhaps not to the levels being proposed by the president.

White House: D+

In November, President Obama came out swinging in support of reclassifying internet service providers as Title II companies, which would set them up for greater government oversight. That put FCC Commissioner ADD NAME HERE in a tight spot when it came to the net neutrality regulations, as industry strongly opposes being classified like a telecomm utility.

Comments: Even though the grades for both branches averaged a D+, 35 percent gave Congress an A, B, or C. Thirty-seven percent gave the White House an A, B, or C as well. More than one in five respondents did not know enough or have an opinion on either branches’ work on internet regulation in 2014.

Patent reform

“What grade would you give when it comes to how they handled…reforming how patents are distributed and litigated?”

Congress: D+

Patent reform is an important issue for many tech companies, who argue that they are wasting resources fighting frivolous lawsuits. In response, the House passed a bill from Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) in December 2013 in effort to fix the patent troll problem. Some of the bills key provisions required patents to be more specific, forced losing plaintiffs to pay legal fees and delayed discovery to limit costs especially in cases where patent trolls would unlikely take a lawsuit to trial. The Senate had less success in passing patent reform. Sen. Patrick Leahy’s (D-Vt.) bill overhauling patents was pulled by leadership, reportedly after pressure from trial lawyers and the pharmaceutical industry.

White House: D+

Obama has said he wants to sign a bill that would reform current patent law, but has not received any from Congress. It’s unclear if the president would have signed off on the House bill from Rep. Goodlatte, but he has said patent trolls are one of the biggest targets for his administration.

Comments: More than a third of respondents gave the White House a C grade or better and 30 percent did the same for Congress, but a large number Ds and Fs brought down the averages significantly. In addition, more than one third of respondents did not know enough about or have an opinion on either bodies’ work on patent reforms this year.

Morning Consult