If Democrats take control of the U.S. Congress lawmakers are expected to make hardly any major changes in technology and telecommunication law but net neutrality and government surveillance programs could be exceptions.
Most tech-related issues in Congress don’t break down along party lines, often making them poor campaign fodder, and debate over the U.S. role in Iraq, combating terrorism, immigration policy and congressional scandals has dominated this campaign season.
Republicans currently control both houses of Congress, but many observers and pollsters expect Democrats to pick up more than the 15 seats they need to gain a majority in the House of Representatives. Democrats need to gain six seats to control the Senate, and most observers say they have to win three of four races in traditionally Republican-voting states to win a majority.
Some observers expect renewed partisan debate on net neutrality and government surveillance after the election. Leaders on both sides of the net neutrality debate tactfully say they believe Congress acts in their favor, but in recent months, the issue has largely divided with most Democrats supporting a law that would prohibit broadband providers from blocking or slowing competing Internet content and most Republicans opposing such a law.
“We think at the end of the day, we’re going to have people come over to our side,” said Ed Kutler, a lobbyist for the It’s Our Net Coalition, which wants a net neutrality requirement written into law. “People tend to overthink what happens if Congress shifts.”
The net neutrality debate has pitted consumer groups and Internet companies such as eBay Inc. and Google Inc. against large broadband providers such as AT&T Inc. and Comcast Corp. Kutler sees growing grassroots support for a net neutrality provision, and Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, has repeatedly said he will hold up a broadband bill that would make it easier for telecom carriers to compete with cable television unless it includes a strong net neutrality requirement.
“We’re pretty confident that leaders on both sides of the aisle understand there’s not enough support to have a telecom bill without a strong net neutrality provision,” Kutler said.
On the other side, Mike McCurry , co-chairman of the Hands off the Internet coalition opposed to a net neutrality law, said he doesn’t believe majority Democrats would push hard for net neutrality, because new lawmakers who win in traditionally Republican strongholds will not want to vote for new regulations.
Many of the challengers likely to win are “pro-business, moderate” Democrats, said McCurry, once the spokesman for former Democratic President Bill Clinton. “When you say to a Democrat, ‘do you want to be the party responsible for bringing substantial regulation to the Internet?’ a lot of them stop and think,” he said.
With government surveillance programs, Democrats such as Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont have repeatedly criticized Republican President George Bush’s warrantless wiretapping program conducted by the U.S. National Security Agency. Democrats will push for better congressional oversight of government surveillance programs, as well as data security and privacy legislation, a Leahy spokesman said.
Several Republican lawmakers contacted for this story declined to speculate on the possibility of the control of Congress changing hands.
Some observers in the tech community hope that a change in the congressional majority will mean more action on a variety of issues. Last week, trade group the Computer & Communications Industry Association (CCIA), while issuing a congressional report card, called Congress “slow-moving” on tech-related issues the past two years.
Cybertrust, a cybersecurity software and service vendor in Virginia, noted that lawmakers during the past two years introduced more than a dozen bills requiring companies with data breaches to notify affected consumers, but none of the bills passed. With new congressional leaders in place, Congress should be able to focus on domestic issues such as identity theft, Cybertrust said by e-mail.
Most tech leaders hesitate to criticize Republicans in Congress, but also say they can work with Democrats who would gain influence if they win the majority.
The technology industry “fared pretty badly” under the Republican Congress, said one tech lobbyist who asked not to be identified. “We couldn’t get them to act,” the lobbyist said. “When some people have pointed to problems [if the Democrats take the majority], I see benefits.”
All 435 seats in the House of Representatives and 33 of the 100 Senate seats are on the ballot on Tuesday, and Democrats expect gains in both chambers.