Republicans are poised to take majority control of the U.S. House of Representatives after Tuesday's election, but it will be business as usual for many technology policy issues in Congress.
Most polls and political pundits expect a split Congress, with Democrats hanging on to a slim majority in the Senate. A change in majority party in the House may not mean a major reverse in tech policy, however, because IT-related issues coming before Congress in recent years have largely avoided partisan squabbles, except for network neutrality and privacy debates.
Congress has also avoided action on many tech issues during the past two years, with lawmakers focused on health care, the economy and other issues. Republicans and Democrats have worked together on cybersecurity, copyright and spectrum issues, even though few tech bills have passed.
Even with little recent action on cybersecurity, there's widespread interest in Congress. "There's some agreement out there that something needs to be done," said Liz Hyman, vice president of public advocacy at the Computing Technology Industry Association (CompTIA), an IT trade group and certification provider.
A major exception to the bipartisan nature of tech issues in Congress has been an ongoing debate over net neutrality, with many Democrats supporting new rules prohibiting broadband providers from selectively blocking Web traffic, and many Republicans opposing new rules.
Then again, a change related to net neutrality would be more in approach than in substance. Democrats have been in control of both chambers of Congress, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, and the White House for the past two years, and neither Congress nor the FCC has come close to creating new rules.
Current House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman, a California Democrat, put out a compromise net neutrality proposal in September, just before Congress recessed for campaign season. The proposal fell through when Joe Barton of Texas, the senior Republican on the committee, said he could not support it without longer deliberations.
Little will change for net neutrality under a Republican-controlled House, said Art Brodsky, communications director for Public Knowledge, a digital rights group in support of strong net neutrality rules. "Nothing happened before," he said. "It's hard to get diminished from zero."
Still, some people worry that a Republican House could kill any chances of stronger net neutrality rules passing in Congress or at the FCC.
"As the owner of many small domains that don't have a lot of capital to purchase bandwidth, I might not be in business if not for net neutrality," said author and marketing consultant Shel Horowitz.
FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski and other Democrats pushed for formal net neutrality rules after a U.S. appeals court in April struck down an FCC attempt to enforce informal principles in a case involving Comcast slowing peer-to-peer traffic. Neutral routing of traffic across the Internet created an environment new startups could grow, Horowitz said.
"The Republicans have made very clear their disdain for net neutrality and their eagerness to hand the Internet over to the Comcasts and AT&Ts of the world," he said. "However, because so many people have experienced the benefits of an open Internet, I suspect they will encounter major push-back, including from small business owners who support them on other issues, and that either they will come to their senses on this or some creative entrepreneurs will develop work-arounds."
Unless the FCC tries to reclassify broadband as a regulated service, as Genachowski has proposed, a Republican House would mean the odds of a net neutrality bill passing would become even slimmer, said Rob Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), a Washington, D.C., think tank. If the FCC acts to reclassify broadband, then House Republicans would likely move to stop the agency.
"Absent that, their motto would be, 'If it's not broken, why fix it?'" he said.
A Republican takeover of the House could also lessen the odds of online privacy legislation passing, Atkinson added. Democratic members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee unveiled proposals this year that would require websites and online advertising networks to disclose how they use personal data they collect, but Republicans generally voiced support for self-regulation by industry.
With the possibility of a split Congress, lawmakers may be stalemated on partisan issues, but committees will be able to exercise their oversight functions. Brodsky and Jot Carpenter, vice president of public policy at mobile trade group CTIA, expect the House Energy and Commerce Committee, under Republicans, to give more scrutiny to the FCC, which will still have a Democratic majority.
"If you want to have hearings four days a week, and bring in witnesses, and send up data requests ... one house can do that without the cooperation of the other," Brodsky said.
Several tech policy experts see a greater focus in Congress on the FCC's national broadband plan, released in March. Large parts of the plan enjoy bipartisan support, although lawmakers have questioned some of the details.
Republicans would be ready to move forward on parts of the plan, if Genachowski and congressional Democrats can set aside net neutrality, said a staffer for a House Energy and Commerce Republican. "The problem is that we've wasted all this time on net neutrality, and we're not getting anything else done," the staffer said. "We've spent all this time on something that's not a problem, and there's not a material positive impact. In fact, it will harm jobs, investment and innovation."
The broadband plan calls for the FCC and Congress to redirect US$15.5 billion over the next decade from the $7-billion-a-year Universal Service Fund, which now subsidizes traditional phone service in hard-to-serve areas, to broadband subsidizes. Barton, who's not a shoo-in to regain the committee chairmanship he once held, questioned in May whether the USF is still needed, with broadband available to about 95 percent of households in the U.S.
People live in rural areas "because they want to," he said in May. "It's at least possible that they don't want all the encumbrances and accoutrements of the modern Internet Age."
Since then, Barton has indicated he may be willing to keep a broadband fund in place, if it's accompanied by a large-scale reform of USF. The reform would have to include a cap on the fund, he has said.
On many other parts of the national broadband plan, there's little controversy among lawmakers. A proposal that would allow TV stations and other spectrum holders to share in the auction proceeds if they surrender unused spectrum met some resistance from broadcasters, but lawmakers from both parties have generally embraced the idea.
Both parties seem to understand a need to bring more spectrum to market, Carpenter said. CTIA has pushed for new spectrum because of predicted spectrum shortage, as more mobile customers move from voice to data-based services. The broadband plan's incentive auction proposal is a key ingredient in an expansion of available spectrum, he said.
Even with a large U.S. government budget deficit, there doesn't seem to be major concerns among Republicans about sharing the auction profits, the Republican staffer said. Some money for the U.S. treasury is better than no money, he said.
If the FCC does not push ahead with net neutrality and a proposal to reclassify broadband as a regulated service, "the [FCC] chairman has an opportunity to work constructively on issues that make a real difference," the Republican staffer said.
Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.