Two committee chairmen with jurisdiction over the hot issue of data security, Reps. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and John Dingell (D-Mich.), have reached an impasse. They even disagree on whether they disagree, illustrating another growing pain for House Democrats in their new roles in the majority.
Frank had suggested creating a multi-committee task force to draft a single bill to address data security. The issue, with which Republicans wrestled unsuccessfully last year, became more prominent this month when discount retailers Marshalls and T.J. Maxx — both owned by the same parent firm, Massachusetts-based TJX Companies — revealed that they potentially had lost to theft millions of customers’ financial information.
Frank said the task force would help avoid a stalemate later this session when Democratic leaders prepare legislation for a floor vote. But Frank said he dropped the idea after Dingell objected. Dingell also has opposed a special committee on energy policy that Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) recently proposed to her colleagues.
The failure of Frank and Dingell to agree on a task force on data security means that Pelosi may find herself refereeing a bigger committee turf fight several months from now. The failure of Republican leaders last year to resolve such a squabble doomed data-security legislation last year, according to two House Democrats.
“I asked for a task force on data privacy and Dingell objected so I told him to forget it,” Frank said.
Dingell said he does not recall objecting to Frank.
“Frank mentioned something about this at a meeting and I made no comment whatsoever,” Dingell said. “I never knew it was any kind of formal discussion or offer or proposal or anything else. Mr. Frank is not talking to me about it so I’m not able to talk to you about it.”
Frank said that “three or four committees” could invoke jurisdiction over data security: Financial Services, Energy and Commerce, Ways and Means and Judiciary.
“We have jurisdiction over financial institutions and they have jurisdiction over consumer affairs and the FTC [Federal Trade Commission]. There’s a lot of overlap,” Frank said of his panel and Commerce.
He said Ways and Means has jurisdiction over the use of Social Security cards and the Judiciary Committee would be responsible for legislation criminalizing the misuse of data.
The chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), said his panel likely would insert itself into the debate as well.
“We have a strong interest,” Waxman said. “I think it’s a big issue, a very important issue. The more input we get from committee, the better off we’ll all be.”
Frank said it would be more efficient if the new committee chairmen coordinated with each other before drafting legislation to skirt potential roadblocks later this year. He said a task force would promote such cooperation.
“You can work together before egos engage,” Frank said. “Once you have completed bills, people have been arguing and have made compromises.”
He explained that staked-out positions make it more difficult to compromise in the future, arguing that was the reason the Republicans could not reach agreement on data-security legislation in the last Congress.
A Democratic aide on the Commerce Committee said that in the 109th Congress, Republicans on the Financial Services Committee crafted a bill that then was referred to the Commerce panel. Once Commerce got a hold of it, it simply replaced the bill’s text with its members’ own work, according to the aide.
“It never quite got through,” he said of the bill.
When asked why Dingell opposed his multi-committee approach, Frank said, “I think John unwisely resists cooperation.”
Dingell made waves last week by vocally criticizing Pelosi’s idea of creating a special task force on energy.
“These committees are as useful in relevance as feathers on a fish,” Dingell told reporters.
After Democrats captured the majority, Dingell said he thought Commerce should regain the jurisdiction over accounting, insurance and securities it lost during Republican control. Frank resisted any realignments of jurisdiction and Pelosi decided that committees House-wide should not reevaluate their boundaries.
But lawmakers who have worked closely with Dingell say that he has a deserved reputation for fairness.
“When he was chairman over 12 years ago, he was a fair chairman,” Waxman, who is the second-ranking Democrat on Commerce, said. “He let the legislative process work its will. There were hearings and markups.”
“It made the last 12 years even more difficult,” he added, alluding to the Republicans’ practice while in the majority of sharply limiting Democrats’ ability to offer amendments and help craft legislation.
Frank said that without a multi-committee task force, the various committees of jurisdiction would move ahead on their own on data security. He said he does not foresee a race among panels to write legislation first.
His panel colleague, Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), is expected to have jurisdiction over the issue when she takes over the Financial Institutions and Consumer Credit Subcommittee. But she has not yet been formally named to the post.
“This is certainly a priority for consumers and the industry itself,” Maloney said. “T.J. Maxx may have lost 20 million identities. We certainly need to have hearings.”