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Why tech should care when Dingell and Waxman retire

February 26, 2014

The just-announced retirement of Rep. John Dingell (D-MI) is just as emblematic of dramatic shifts in tech policy on Capitol Hill as any recent legislation we’ve seen these past several months.

On its face, Dingell’s retirement looks like the symbolism of out with the old, presumably in with the new. Not to sound so harsh in that assessment, but it can’t be ignored that Dingell (now 87) is the longest-serving member of the U.S. House of Representatives, having been there since 1955.

But, his graceful exit is perhaps the loudest and most representative of a proverbial earthquake of retirements in Congress on both sides of the aisle. Many who are leaving have been in Congress for quite some time, before the Internet, smartphones, Big Data and the cloud became ubiquitous mainstays of the larger social construct. On that note, many might expect the next generation of Washington politicians to be enthusiastic pre-Millenials who grew up during the Information Age and on the cusp of a revolution now being called the Internet of Things.

But, not so philosophically, Dingell’s departure gets into the weeds of how U.S. energy and information security policy is shaping up these days and how that might impact the tech sector. For years, Dingell was the powerful and imposing chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Once Republicans took over, Dingell was relegated to a ranking Democrat and then Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) took that top senior party slot. 

Now, both Waxman and Dingell are retiring.

Next on tap for seniority is Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ), who is third in line behind Waxman and Dingell. While Democrats are the minority in the House, and by virtue of that the minority in the Energy and Commerce Committee, they’re not exactly running things. But, both parties set the tone of conversation on a wide range of issues in any committee, and it will be interesting to watch how this changing of the guard impacts debate on a number of issues that have been before the committee in recent months. 

It will also be interesting to see how changes in the House committee align with major changes in leadership in its big brother, the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. There, Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA) took over as chair only a couple of weeks ago after a chain reaction of musical chairs were set off by the exit of Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT) as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee to become U.S. Ambassador to China.  Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), once presiding over Energy, was suddenly moved over to Finance as its new chair.

How does this have anything to do with tech?

Both House and Senate committees find themselves entangled in a growing web of issues related to information security, the protection of infrastructure and the smart grid, and what the future of U.S. energy policy holds. The House Energy and Commerce Committee’s subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade just held a hearing on the recent Target data breaches, an event that seemed to publicly mark the beginning of congressional focus on how to compel retailers to secure customer data. 

In terms of energy issues, both committees are looking at ways to both enhance and protect the nation’s energy infrastructure, as was covered recently in a heavily attended POLITICO forum on the subject entitled “Energy and the 113th Congress.”  And there is the ongoing controversy and speculation over the fate of the Keystone XL oil pipeline project.   

While debates over issues such as curbing greenhouse gas emissions, Keystone XL and investment in renewable energy sources always leads back to emotional clashes over the environment, there is a consensus on Capitol Hill that no one should expect any sort of climate change legislation anytime soon. Many experts and legislators intimately familiar with energy talks in Washington are fairly resigned or relieved (depending on their side) to the possibility that comprehensive climate change legislation won’t be on any congressional front-burner until well after the 2016 presidential elections.

However, there is emerging enthusiasm for legislation focused on energy efficiency or energy productivity, thereby presenting a wide-open opportunity for the tech sector.  Many lawmakers seem happy to entertain the notion of efficient energy sources and usage so long as there are technological innovations and industry that can support both. Thus, energy efficiency is becoming something of a quiet proxy for climate change. The benefit for tech is that not only will an efficient energy grid require the development of new technologies, but it will also need the STEM-based expertise to build and operate those technologies. Not only do energy generating utilities heavily rely on technology, but they also need the professionals who know how to run the technology and secure it. 

Both committees will have heavy lifts before them on these critical issues. It would be wise for the tech sector to keep an eye on leadership changes and what that means for their business models. 

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