Washington Post: Obama's privacy and cyber bills are the GOP's first big test at governing
It's the one thing Republicans have to do this year if they want a shot at the White House in 2016: Prove they can govern.
Now, that claim faces an early test. This week, President Obama said he's sending a number of tech-focused legislative proposals to Capitol Hill in one of the year's first efforts at cooperation with Congress. How the nation's gridlocked legislature handles the president's overture will tell us a great deal about what we can expect from Obama's remaining years in office.
Passing the president's initiatives should be relatively straightforward, analysts say. Obama wants Congress to develop a national standard for data breaches, telling companies how quickly they need to disclose a leak of customer data in the event of a hack. He's also proposed a bill that would keep students' electronic data — generated by educational apps and devices — out of the hands of some commercial entities. All of these are relatively popular ideas and have been the subject of discussion among lawmakers. Reps. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) and Peter Welch (D-Vt.) are already working on their own version of a data breach proposal, for example.
"Republicans are clearly acknowledging they need to find areas they need to legislate," said Chris Calabrese, a policy analyst at the Center for Democracy and Technology. "I think privacy is bipartisan; student privacy is something that ... people have always embraced privacy for kids."
The White House this week will also floating legislation that would make it less costly for businesses to share information about cyber threats — malware and hackers — with one another and the government. The effort renews a years-long push on cybersecurity, a popular topic among defense-conscious lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.
Privacy and cybersecurity, in other words, should be low-hanging fruit, said David Vladeck, a Georgetown University law professor. "Both houses of Congress have at various times passed various pieces of legislation on data security," he said. "By and large, these are not contentious issues along partisan lines."
So if Obama and Congress fail to make much progress together on these issues, it would be a foreboding sign. And other factors could make reaching a deal surprisingly more difficult than some realize.
This power vacuum makes it harder to tell who will be the driving force for Obama's proposals on the Hill. And it's still unclear what key Republicans think about the substance of the initiatives, analysts said. In a statement Monday, Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, said he was willing to work with Obama and that he'd be heading to the White House Tuesday to discuss the president's data breach notification proposal, but he offered little else.
Cybersecurity and privacy could even trigger a fight among committees for responsibility for the issues, said Peter Swire, a former Obama privacy adviser who now teaches law at Georgia Tech and serves as a senior counsel at the firm Alston & Bird.
"These inter-committee battles are features of many security and privacy issues," said Swire. "So, for example, for information sharing and cybersecurity legislation, there have been battles between Homeland Security and Armed Services."
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) could play a key role sorting out these battles, assigning primary jurisdiction for a given bill to one committee or another, said Swire. If he does so, it would be an indication that the majority leader is serious about sending a bill to Obama's desk.
Others say that just because the issues attract bipartisan support doesn't mean it'll be easy to strike a bargain. Expect an intense lobbying effort by industry to defeat any new rules that impose burdensome requirements. Alvaro Bedoya is the executive director of Georgetown University's Center on Privacy and Technology and a former staffer for Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.). Bedoya said his experience on the Hill taught him how heavily companies will spend to thwart what they view as onerous privacy regulation.
Still, privacy is an issue that's increasingly salient to ordinary Americans. Given last year's spate of hackings and data breaches, conservative lawmakers may find cooperating with the White House and voting for new regulation easier to swallow than before. And that could give an early win to both Obama and McConnell alike.