By Sam Sabin
October 6, 2020 at 1:10 pm ET
With House Energy and Commerce ranking member Greg Walden (R-Ore.) retiring at the end of the year, the race is on to determine the next Republican leader for a committee that oversees much of the tech industry’s most-pressing policy issues.
“Energy and Commerce is a critical committee that helps to develop and road test important policies impacting the tech and telecom sectors — two industries at the forefront of the American economy and world,” said John Murray, a partner at Momentum Advocacy and former deputy chief of staff to Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) when he served as House majority leader.
In interviews with Morning Consult, each of the three candidates for the position — Reps. Michael Burgess of Texas, Bob Latta of Ohio and Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington — point to their years of experience as either leaders on multiple Energy and Commerce subcommittees or in other Republican congressional leadership roles as proof that they can tackle legislating the ever-growing technology industry.
While the lawmakers won’t know if they’re running for the committee chair position or ranking member role until after the November elections, a former congressional leadership aide said even being the ranking member on Energy and Commerce holds significant influence, especially when it comes to crafting legislation that could pass through a Republican-held Senate.
Morning Consult spoke with each of the candidates about their tech priorities and how they’d lead the wide-reaching committee ahead of the House Steering Committee’s leadership votes at the end of November:
Dr. Michael Burgess (R-Texas)
For Burgess, the most senior, eligible Republican member for the Energy and Commerce Committee post, the increased reliance on internet access and connectivity across the United States is informing his approach to legislating on tech. That means a heavy emphasis on expanding rural broadband access, a renewed focus on pushing forward a comprehensive privacy bill and looking ahead at crafting rules for emerging technologies like autonomous vehicles.
Burgess, the ranking member on Energy and Commerce’s health subcommittee and a member of its consumer protection and oversight panels, also sees potential to dive into finding ways to lower the barrier of entry to telehealth for both providers and patients in the long term, especially given its success during the pandemic. Relatedly, he also intends to examine issues surrounding health privacy, with so many pieces of personal information about patients now being collected and stored.
Although Burgess said he doesn’t have the legislative solution mapped out yet, he’s certain that ensuring that medical providers and patients still have an easy time accessing telehealth will continue to be a main priority, especially since the Trump administration’s rule waivers that allowed many Americans to access such services are only temporary, including those that now allow doctors to use more accessible tools like Apple Inc.’s FaceTime to call patients.
“This is something that consumers are going to demand and require, and they will not understand if the waivers and the flexibilities that have been granted to telehealth were to evaporate at the end of the public health emergency,” Burgess said. “It would be very startling to people.”
Bob Latta (R-Ohio)
Latta, who has served on every subcommittee during his 10-year tenure on Energy and Commerce, is especially known for his work in the communications sector, as well as his continued push to pursue autonomous vehicle legislation. Latta re-introduced the SELF DRIVE Act last week, a version of which passed a full House vote in late 2017, and he’s also the current communications subcommittee ranking member.
Heading into the next congressional session, he would focus on pursuing “light-touch regulations” to help entrepreneurs pursuing new emerging technologies, while also weighing any potential consumer protection ramifications. Latta said that while entrepreneurs need to be able to work quickly to help the country’s global innovation standing, he’s also concerned that most consumers don’t fully understand how large tech companies work, especially how their data is collected and stored.
For instance, Latta’s approach to legislating self-driving cars was informed by asking companies and experts across the country if they were currently where they thought they’d be five years ago. He said most of them replied, “No, we’re much farther.”
And while Latta said he also prioritizes telecommunications policies that would free up more spectrum bands for 5G deployment — as seen in several pieces of legislation he’s introduced or sponsored, like the Spectrum IT Modernization Act of 2020 (H.R.7310) — none of his other tech priorities can happen without first finding solutions to America’s digital divide.
“When you go out and look at what’s happening with the technology, it’s absolutely amazing,” he said. “But we’re not happy if we don’t have broadband.”
Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.)
McMorris Rodgers views her tech policy agenda through the lens of fostering innovation and supporting startups, in part because of the ever-growing competition with China. But McMorris Rodgers also said she agrees with growing bipartisan consensus on scrutinizing the power of large technology companies, noting that “one of the best ways that we hold Big Tech accountable is to ensure that there’s competition and that startups and entrepreneurs can continue to enter the marketplace.”
In August, McMorris Rodgers, the ranking member on the consumer protection subcommittee and chairwoman of the House Republican Conference from 2012 to 2018, worked with Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) to introduce the American COMPETE Act (H.R.8132), a package of nine previously introduced bills that includes a range of new policies for emerging technologies like artificial intelligence, Internet of Things and quantum computing. The bill passed a House voice vote on Tuesday and now sits in the Senate.
McMorris Rodgers said one of the “big disappointments” from the current Congress has been the lack of progress on a national privacy standard. Although she released draft legislation with Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) late last year that laid out many bipartisan agreements for a federal privacy standard, lawmakers across party lines continue to be stuck on whether a national law should override state laws like the California Consumer Privacy Act or give consumers the ability to sue companies for data abuses.
“The politics, especially driven out of California, has limited our ability to move forward on a national standard, even though there’s a lot of support for a national privacy standard,” she said.