Tech issues offer Democrats opportunity to govern, not play games, in Congress

Democrats have an historic opportunity to make America a bit better, beginning with the new Congress in 2019. A record margin of victory in the 2018 midterm elections put Democrats in firm control of the House of Representatives and energized their sleeping-giant grassroots base. While political expectations are high, the policy stakes are even higher. Critical issues ranging from immigration to infrastructure are on the national agenda, and the Democrats cannot afford to tarry with petty partisan politics.

Any currency, goodwill or momentum the Democrats gained through the elections are sure to be tested by a highly partisan, Republican-controlled Senate. A divided Congress can be a recipe for government dysfunction and could portend a period of protracted gridlock. Such an outcome would be bad for Americans and would reinforce the cynical anti-government worldview. To avoid this, Democrats must take the lead and responsibility for delivering bipartisan solutions to some of the real-world problems many Americans care deeply about.

Fortunately, there is no shortage of low hanging fruit — beginning with our broken Internet. If there is any area where bipartisan compromise has its greatest chance, it is in tech regulation.

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Both Democrats and Republicans have come to the same conclusion although for dramatically different reasons. Bad news of misdeeds by Facebook, Google and others in Silicon Valley emerges nearly every week. These reports include enabling election interference, promoting hate, ripping off creators and vendors, and unaccountable surveillance into the lives of everyday people. Consumers are angered by the endless parade of data breaches, privacy violations, and civil rights abuses. Voters in both parties want solutions, and Congress is the best — indeed the only — institution to deliver them. But one House and one party cannot do it alone.

Fixing Net Neutrality — the rule that stops the big players from favoring internet traffic — would be a good place to start. Polling shows that 62 percent of Democratic voters and 63 percent of Republicans like the idea. Over the past two years, both parties have bypassed big opportunities to establish meaningful and lasting legislation that would obviate partisan debates and regulatory mood swings.  Democrats can now fix this with a clean Net Neutrality bill — no games, no exceptions and no poison pills like utility regulations.

A broadened Net Neutrality rule would prevent both internet providers and Big Tech monopolies from interfering with our internet traffic and favoring certain web sites and services that make them even richer.

In fixing the problem, Democrats must look beyond the big cities where they have comfortable majorities to communities where they need to gain ground with voters. This means rural, Red-State America.

Broad swaths of rural and tribal regions remain either unserved or underserved by next-generation broadband networks. Economists warn of a growing economic cleave, which will only deepen our existing cultural divide. Democrats have a chance to champion the economic revival of “flyover country” by positioning rural broadband atop its agenda.

Privacy is also a common denominator for both Democrats and Republicans.

Consumers of all political stripes want more control over their personal data, from sensitive healthcare information to personal financial and lifestyle choices, including click-through permissions and online advertising. Everyone wants big platforms like Facebook, Google and YouTube to be held more accountable for how they treat and trade our most precious information. 

Congress is the only branch that can fashion a durable privacy regime that comports with global mandates to protect consumer data.

The bottom line is that Democrats should set achievable priorities and commit to prudent policy-making when they take their seats in January. Putting the fixable problems like rural broadband, net neutrality and privacy at the top of the agenda —where there is a good measure of agreement already — could establish the tone for a more productive Congress on other matters of major import.

To be sure, none of this will be easy. The thrill of victory and comfort of partisan cloaks will be hard to shake off. But if Democrats are serious about governing this time — as their leaders assert — they will eschew gamesmanship and embrace statesmanship for the good of the nation.  If they succeed, there will be enough for everyone to boast about in 2020.

Adonis Hoffman is chairman of Business in the Public Interest, Inc. He is a former chief of staff and senior legal advisor at the FCC and served in legal and policy positions in the U.S. House of Representatives. He has also served as an adjunct professor at Georgetown University. Follow him on Twitter @AdonisHoffman.