Congress Returns Next Week With A Tech-Heavy Agenda

Congress is back from a recess this week, and with lawmakers we’ll see the return of some familiar issues.

We will see Congress address patent reform and cybersecurity in the coming weeks. Once lawmakers finish with cybersecurity, it’s possible we could even see legislation related to National Security Agency (NSA) phone record collection before the end of the month. 

These are all issues Congress has tried and failed to address before. Patent reform died in the Senate last spring, controversial cybersecurity legislation never saw a floor vote last year and a NSA reform bill could not pass a Senate procedural vote last December.

As these issues return to the Hill, we’ll also be tracking challenges to net neutrality. The Federal Register will likely publish the Federal Communication Commission’s rulemaking on Monday, making it officially open season for telecoms and other opponents to file lawsuits against the agency.

Patent Reform

Patent reform is up first, with a House legislative hearing on Tuesday. This session, we’ve seen House bills addressing patent reform introduced. We’ll see a another introduced on the Senate side this week.

In the last session, we saw Congress grapple with patent reform for about a year before it was killed last spring by Democrats and trial lawyers. Reform is aimed at limiting patent trolls, patent holders who file broad patents and then attempt to extort money from American businesses through expensive lawsuits.

With the net neutrality fight behind them, tech companies represented by groups like the Internet Association are rallying around the Innovation Act. The Innovation Act aims to reduce patent trolls by requiring lawsuits to include more detailed information about what kind of infringement is occurring and streamlining the discovery process.

For years tech companies have faced off against pharmaceutical companies, trial lawyers and higher education when it comes to the issue of patent reform.  Republicans blamed Democrats for blocking patent reform last year. Now that Republicans are controlling both chambers, could we see progress for tech? (There’s a sentence you don’t write that often when talking about the tech lobby)


In a memo to members, the Republican House majority leader said the House will likely see a vote on cybersecurity the week of April 21.

CISA, the Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act, faced sharp criticism from privacy advocates last year. They argued that the bill, which allows companies to share information about cyber threats with other companies and the federal government, would result in further overreach of the American intelligence apparatus. The White House said it would not sign the bill into law, and it never saw a Senate vote.

But this year, CISA is back, and in the wake of high profile breaches in the private sector and government, there is increasing political pressure for Congress to act. An amended version of CISA passed the Senate Intelligence Committee last month, with only one dissenting vote from the ardent privacy advocate Ron Wyden. Another cybersecurity bill passed the House Intelligence Committee unanimously last month. Obama’s chief of staff Denis McDonough said with the amendments, the Senate bill would likely have the White House’s support. But privacy advocates said recent hacks are causing legislators to “recklessly” push through cybersecurity legislation too quickly.

Surveillance Reform

Republicans have maintained that they must first address cybersecuirty before turning their attention to the NSA. But with cybersecurity legislation likely to receive a vote in two weeks, it’s possible we could see NSA surveillance legislation before the end of the month.

It’s not a second too soon. Congress is approaching an important deadline, the June 1 sunset of Section 215 of the Patriot Act. The provision allows the NSA to collect records of Americans phone calls in bulk. But despite that looming deadline, we’ve seen little action on the Hill to either reauthorize, reform or kill the program.

The issue has gotten a boost this week from a viral John Oliver sketch on HBO that made the issue of surveillance reform more accessible. A group of privacy advocates also reignited calls for reform, campaigning for an end to the bulk phone metadata collection program.

As we watch these issues return, it’s important to not forget the many obstacles tech faced last year in pushing its agenda on the Hill. Although the new lay of the land in Congress could work in tech’s favor on issues like patent reform, privacy advocates face an uphill battle when it comes to cybersecurity policy and surveillance reform.