Slow Build Digest
Congressional architecture and more of the week that was
Welcome to Slow Build, a weekly newsletter on the earth-shaping implications of modern technology. There was a lot that went on this week, and we’ll get to some of the headline-generating happenings, but I wanted to start with something that, while it happened at a fairly low volume, could have the sort of lasting importance that some of the sexier stuff sometimes lacks.
The context: the slightly odd House of Representatives select committee that has been charged by Speaker Pelosi with rethinking how that institution works approved a fairly sweeping set of 25 of 26 proposed bipartisan recommendations that would, if adopted by the full House, twist some knobs and tweak some procedures to get the place to simply function better.
The House — and to a somewhat lesser degree, the Senate — is designed as a playing field on which two sports teams battle things out. Beyond that, even within the parties, members and their offices don’t communicate all that well. Much of the recommendations of the select committee are meant to try to improve those situations. No one thinks any of what this select committee can pull off will solve the sort of intense partisanship and lack of collaboration that dominates the chamber. But, the thinking goes, it could help.
One of the proposed changes has to do with Congress.gov, the site that has since 2012 functioned as the clearinghouse for congressional records on the state of the legislative process. The select committee approved a recommendation calling on Congress.gov to “provide a clearer accounting of member contributions to legislation.” The problem that solves? Bills often end up being a mish-mash of different provisions, swapped in with little accountability and sometimes wholly superseded by a chairperson’s mark.
“You don’t know whose fingerprints are on it,” says Bradford Fitch, president of the Congressional Management Foundation. “To put it another way, do you really want to have a bill sponsored by ‘Anonymous’?”
The utility of that change, then, is fairly obvious: the public, reporters, and even Congress itself would have a better understanding of who’s shaping legislation and how.
Now the one proposal that didn’t pass: “Expand sponsor designations for bipartisan bills: The House should permit legislation to have two members of Congress serve as first sponsors, provided that members are affiliated with different political parties.”
You see, as things stand, under House rules, bills are only formally sponsored by one member and one member only — he or she actually signs the bill before dropping it in the hopper. All other backers get listed as co-sponsors. (The Senate’s rules are a little looser, the Senate being the Senate.) If you look at the so-called bipartisan infrastructure bill, for example, it lists one sponsor, Oregon Democrat Peter DeFazio. The recommendation would have provided for DeFazio to have been joined by a Republican, making the bill explicitly bipartisan from the start.
That recommendation got voted down on a near party-line vote. Democratic chairman Derek Kilmer, four other Democrats, and Republican vice chair William Timmons voted for it. Four Republicans voted against it. And the select committee’s operating on a two-thirds rule to pass out recommendations.
Why’d it not make it? Honestly, I’m still trying to nail that down exactly. Fitch floats the possibility that some members thought that that was the sort of change that’s the purview of the House Rules Committee. He also suggests that a change like that makes PR a little more complicated, as members have less wiggle room to claim in public that they’re a “champion” of a bill if they’re not on paper one of the two main actors.
But the end result is that it leaves one more area of Congress that is architecturally partisan from the very start. That’s not a question of technology or something that can be addressed through changes to Congress.gov. It’s about the House and Congress more broadly deciding how it sees itself, and what sort of behavior it’s designing itself to incentivize.
The House Financial Services Committee held a hearing this week that served as a chance to assess the state of thinking about crypto at the moment. The hearing, titled “Digital Assets and the Future of Finance: Understanding the Challenges and Benefits of Financial Innovation in the United States,” featured the CEOs of companies like Circle, Bitfury, and Coinbase.
—“Relatively tame,” is how Yahoo Finance’s Javier E. David described it, and the crypto world was largely thrilled with how it played out. It was, dare we say it, an actual hearing focused on learning about the topic at hand. Chairwoman Maxine Waters said the aim of the committee is on figuring out how it can “support responsible innovation that protects consumers and investors, safeguards our financial system from systemic risks, promotes financial inclusion, addresses environmental concerns.” (Here’s the staff memo that members got to prep for it.)
—Contrast that with the unfriendly session Instagram CEO Adam Mosseri was experiencing over in the Senate, with pointed questions about the platform’s handling of young people. The Washington Post called members of the Senate Commerce subcommittee “unimpressed.” A taste, from Connecticut Democrat Richard Blumenthal: “Self-policing depends on trust. The trust is gone.”
QUOTE OF THE WEEK:
“I was sitting at home in New York and my son calls me to say, ‘Dad, you have to buy the Constitution.’”
— Hedge fund figure Ken Giffin explains why he decided to challenge an ad hoc collective of crypto enthusiasts’ $40 million-plus attempt to buy a rare first-edition copy of the United States Constitution. Griffin added that he reached out to the group, called ConstitutionDAO, to figure out if they could jointly decide on what to do with the document now that he had it: “Ultimately we couldn’t come to an agreement.”
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy is waiting on the Supreme Court to decide whether to hear his attempt to overturn the House’s rules allowing on proxy voting. McCarthy et al are arguing that “[p]ermitting proxy voting does violence to the Constitution’s text and tradition” and that “face-to-face deliberation is part of the House’s very DNA.” (A look at the messy politics of Congress working remotely.)
As attorney general in California, Kamala Harris fixated on digital crimes — including launching a mobile digital forensics lab-slash-converted van that equipped local prosecutors with the tools necessary to crack phones and the like. (Here's Harris inside the van.) “Criminals are operating online with alarming sophistication,” she said at the time.
—As vice president, Harris avoids Bluetooth headphones. Paranoid? Marc Ambinder says she’s right.
—Worth remembering that Hillary Clinton wasn’t the first female president of the United States in large part because she was seen as insufficiently concerned about digital security.
—At least as late as 2013, cabinet officials had safe rooms in their rooms lined with actual foil.
—Random aside: Bluetooth is named for King Harald “Bluetooth” Gormsson, who around the year 100 united Norway and Denmark and Norway. He was none for having a dead, and thus discolored, tooth. One of the technology’s inventors has said they picked the name because the king was “famous for uniting Scandinavia just as we intended to unite the PC and cellular industries.” They always meant to replace it with something more serious.
Wednesday’s New York Times: “How Tech Is Helping Poor People Get Government Aid.”
Ben Smith examines TikTok’s algorithm, which the company has long sold as its secret sauce — so valuable that transferring that code was one of the major roadblocks in former President Trump’s attempts to get the company bought by a U.S. operator. Said one source close to those negotiations at the time, “The car can be sold, but not the engine.”
—About that magical engine: turns out it plays upon our boredom and natural attraction to new stuff to get us to spend a lot of time on the app.
Tish James has decided she’d rather have another go at being New York attorney general than try to become the state’s next governor. (One supporter: “Her heart just wasn’t in it.”) James has been an energetic critic of the tech industry, and may well be better positioned as AG to advance that agenda.
—It does complicate the near future of Zephyr Teachout, an antitrust advocate who’s been hoping to be AG.
—Teachout is out today with a well-timed new piece in The New Republic, headlined “Look Out, Big Tech, We’re Coming for You.”
The Senate Judiciary Committee passed a bill Thursday that would eliminate fees on PACER, the federal court’s document system.
—The federal judiciary says those costs have to get paid somehow. GW’s Seamus Hughes has called PACER a “judicially approved scam.”
Block (née Square) has hired Tom Manatos to head federal policy. It’s a sign that Block isn’t going to ignore DC as it delves more deeply into crypto, and that it isn’t betting everything on the Crypto Council for Innovation that has yet to get off the ground.
—Manatos has been around Washington so long that he’s how whole generations of D.C. people got their jobs.
The circulation of Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo saying some fairly standard commerce-secretary-type things about Europe’s approach to regulating U.S. tech companies was enough to trigger Elizabeth Warren. (Never say the tech lobby doesn’t still have a few tricks!)
Past tweets are still hanging over the head of FCC nominee Gigi Sohn.
—Of course, as one thoughtful reader points out, Republicans upset over incendiary tweets hits differently in the post-Trump era.
—Still, it’s easy to frame Sohn’s tweets as undercutting her role as a thoughtful regulator. And the longer this goes, the less likely Sohn ends up on the commission.
Here’s a look inside the messy – and now delayed — launch of the White House’s “Alliance for the Future of the Internet.”
—Even would-be allies said the thing was half-baked, and rushing to get it ready in time for this week’s Biden administration “Summit for Democracy” was a case, says one source, of “false deadlines.”
Devin Nunes is leaving Congress to run Trump’s (social) media venture. California’s redistricting doesn’t seem to be going well for him, is one thing, but Nunes also has his own reasons to dislike Twitter.
Going to want to see the photo brief for Bloomberg’s Businessweek’s Dogecoin shoot.
—Vanity Fair’s Nick Bilton profiles Amazon CEO Andy Jassy, with a look at the warmer-than-Bezos public face he presents to Congress and beyond. (For what it’s worth, a couple years ago Jassy was telling industry conference-goers that he didn’t think much about Washington.)
—And the New Yorker’s Sheelah Kolhatkar profiles FTC chair Lina Khan. One fun tidbit, on her law school education: “The main antitrust course at Yale was taught by George L. Priest, who had worked as a consultant for Microsoft in the early two-thousands, after the Justice Department filed an anti-competitive-behavior suit against the company.”
Innovation of the week:
—Miyoko’s vegan liquid pizza mozzarella, made from “cultured cashew milk.” Now, this plant-based Jersey Italian had her doubts, but it’s good.