By Tom Still
WASHINGTON – The nation’s capital can be a sports-crazy town, with professional football, baseball, hockey and basketball all on the docket. But the biggest spectator activity of them all is also a participatory sport – politics.
Much of the talk on Capitol Hill during this presidential primary season revolves around the races for the Republican and Democratic nominations: “Can Trump really win?” “Will Hillary outlast Bernie? “Is Cruz as annoying as other Republicans insist he is?”
Not forgotten, however, are the real issues facing Congress, the White House and the nation as the hard work of governing marches on.
That’s why representatives of two-dozen state-based technology groups – including the Wisconsin Technology Council – joined with industry leaders in Washington last week to trade ideas and “talk tech” with members of the Senate and House of Representatives.
The agenda included updating a 1986 law to better protect personal electronic records from warrantless searches; better sharing of cybersecurity threat data; freeing unlicensed wireless spectrum for rural broadband and Wi-Fi; helping keep highly skilled immigrants in the United States; and providing incentives for research, development and private investment.
Republicans hold strong majorities in the House and the Senate, but lack the super-majorities needed to ignore Democrats – and President Obama still holds a veto pen in the White House. That means this spring and early summer could be the last chance for bipartisanship before the November election sucks most of the air out of the marbled rooms of Congress.
While the end of 2015 brought progress on some legislative fronts, there’s a short window to get things done this year.
“The polarization of the two parties in Congress and the upcoming elections will make it difficult to pass bills that lack broad consensus now,” said Elizabeth Hyman, executive vice president of CompTIA, an industry coalition that worked to bring various state tech groups and associations to Capitol Hill.
One item high on the tech industry’s “to-do” list was passed Thursday. The U.S. Senate placed a permanent ban on the ability of states to tax Internet access, voting 75-20 to send the bill to Obama for signing into law.
A temporary ban was passed in 1998 to keep an array of governments from taxing Internet access or assessing multiple taxes on electronic commerce. The rise of the Internet as the defining economic disruptor of our time is proof enough of how well the moratorium has worked. The ban had been extended six times, most recently last year.
The law will affect Wisconsin, in time. When the original law was passed, more than a dozen states were allowed to continue charging taxes for online access. In the intervening years, many opted to drop these taxes. Today, only Hawaii, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, Texas and Wisconsin still collect taxes for going online. Those states must stop doing so by June 30, 2020.
The legislation does not resolve the hotly contested issue of taxes for online purchases. While the retail industry has pushed for a federal law that would resolve state-by-state sales tax rules, that “bricks” versus “clicks” argument must wait for another day.
Likely to pass this year is the Electronic Communications Privacy, which was enacted 30 years ago when email was a curiosity and texting was virtually unknown. The 1986 law deemed all stored electronic communications more than 180 days old to be “abandoned,” which means law enforcement and civil government agencies can acquire older messages from a service provider without a warrant.
About 310 members of the House have signed on to a bill (H.R. 699) that would require agencies to obtain a warrant before asking service providers to disclose the contents of stored emails, text messages and other private communications. That’s the largest number of co-sponsors of any bill yet to see a floor vote this session, and committee action is scheduled for March as a precursor to a floor vote.
“If a letter is stored in a desk drawer or “in the cloud,” there is an equal expectation of privacy before the law,” Hyman said.
Unlikely to see action this year are bills dealing with immigration reform, data breach notification in the event of cyber-attacks and patent reform. Look for the elections to better define those issues and many more before the next president and Congress take office in 2017. That’s why everyone has a stake in the “game” of politics.