President TrumpDonald TrumpYoungkin ad features mother who pushed to have 'Beloved' banned from son's curriculum White House rejects latest Trump claim of executive privilege Democrats say GOP lawmakers implicated in Jan. 6 should be expelled MORE’s tech industry regulators are likely to face much more vigorous oversight under a Democratic House in the next Congress.
Democrats won control of the chamber in the Tuesday midterms and will now have more power to go after Republican Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai, with whom they have repeatedly clashed over his repeal of net neutrality. And they will be able to use control of panels such as the House Energy and Commerce Committee to spotlight issues like media and telecom mergers and, in particular, data privacy violations.
In addition to beefing up oversight of regulators they believe have been too lax on the tech and telecom industry, Democrats are also making it a top priority to craft internet privacy rules.
There has been increasing bipartisan support for a national privacy law in recent months following a string of massive data scandals and breaches at major companies.
Democrats will only have control of the House, but they aim to push tougher consumer protections they believe are popular with voters.
Last week, as political pundits were widely predicting the Democrats’ House takeover, Rep. Frank Pallone Jr.Frank Joseph PalloneHouse Democrats announce bill to rein in tech algorithms House Democrats ramp up probe of FDA approval of Alzheimer's drug Intercept bureau chief: Democrats dropping support of Medicare for All could threaten bill's momentum MORE (D-N.J.), the ranking member on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said that oversight and consumer protections will be among the party’s top priorities.
“We plan to put the consumer first by pushing policies that protect net neutrality, promote public safety, and provide meaningful privacy and data security protections that are seriously lacking today,” he said in a statement.
And Pallone made it clear that Democrats would have tough questions for administration officials.
“It’s also important that the committee get back to conducting real oversight of the FCC, and that means regular oversight hearings with all commissioners,” he said.
Democrats have long complained that current Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Greg WaldenGregory (Greg) Paul WaldenEx-Sen. Cory Gardner joins lobbying firm Ex-Rep. John Shimkus joins lobbying firm Lobbying world MORE (R-Ore.) has failed to adequately oversee the FCC.
In a June letter to Walden and Rep. Marsha BlackburnMarsha BlackburnTikTok, Snapchat executives to make Capitol Hill debuts Senator asks Facebook's Zuckerberg to testify at hearing on kids' safety TikTok, YouTube, Snapchat executives to testify at Senate hearing on kids' safety MORE (R-Tenn.), the head of the tech and communications subpanel, Pallone and Rep. Mike DoyleMichael (Mike) F. DoylePennsylvania Republican becomes latest COVID-19 breakthrough case in Congress House passes bills to secure telecommunications infrastructure The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Uber - Biden, Democrats dig into legislative specifics MORE (D-Pa.) demanded more hearings on the agency’s actions.
They noted at the time that a delayed February hearing had not yet been rescheduled.
“We believe it is long past time to reschedule this important oversight hearing to follow through on a commitment from the Republican leadership of this Committee that it would hold quarterly Federal Communications Commission oversight hearings,” they wrote.
The panel ended up holding an FCC oversight hearing in July.
Democratic criticism of the Trump administration’s deregulatory agenda is nothing new. But now, after the midterms, they have the power needed to push back, with Pai as one of their top targets.
Pallone on Wednesday asked his fellow Democrats for their support in making him the new Commerce chairman, listing net neutrality and “vigorous oversight of the Trump Administration” as among his top priorities.
Democrats have been butting heads with Pai throughout his tenure as chairman over his aggressive deregulatory approach. His repeal of the FCC’s Obama-era net neutrality rules last year sparked massive backlash and opposition from Democrats.
But with Republicans in control of the House and Senate, there was little they could do to stop the effort. With their newfound oversight and subpoena powers, however, Democrats will be able to drag Pai into the spotlight regularly.
Democrats have a host of other issues they want to press Pai over, including how the FCC handles comments during the rulemaking process, as well as the agency’s review of the now-terminated Sinclair-Tribune merger deal and the proposed T-Mobile-Sprint merger.
The focus on data privacy could also bring another agency, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), under tougher congressional scrutiny.
After scrapping the net neutrality rules, Pai said the FCC would work in tandem with the FTC to address online consumer privacy practices. But critics say that agreement largely cedes authority to the FTC, which they argue is ill-equipped to deal with regulating privacy practices.
“Chairman Pai congratulates all who were elected yesterday and looks forward to working with the new Congress,” an FCC spokesperson said when asked by The Hill about the possibility of facing tougher scrutiny from a Democratic-controlled House.
The new scrutiny follows a well-worn playbook. Using committee gavels to disrupt regulators of opposing parties is a common tactic. It gives opposition lawmakers the opportunity to highlight their issues of choice and antagonize the administration.
“The entire goal is to keep you from your doing work,” said Gigi Sohn, a former adviser to Tom Wheeler, who served as FCC chairman under the Obama administration.
In 2015, Wheeler pushed through the net neutrality rules requiring internet service providers to treat all web traffic equally. He also implemented privacy rules — later overturned by Congress — for broadband companies and broadcast ownership restrictions designed to curtail consolidation in the media industry.
But the GOP-controlled Congress made his work the subject of frequent oversight hearings.
“The Republicans did that so effectively against Wheeler,” Sohn said. “Everybody and their mother took a shot at Tom Wheeler.”
“And if Democrats are smart, they’ll do the same thing,” she added.