Senator Wants Commerce Committee to be Big Player in Cybersecurity Legislation

Toby Brusseau/AP File Photo

On cybersecurity, transportation and other key topics, Thune wants his committee to throw its weight around.

In a partisan climate that spells doom for the vast majority of issues, there are at least two policy arenas left where Republicans, Democrats, and the White House can plausibly come together on important legislation this year—cybersecurity and infrastructure.

It just so happens that the Senate Commerce Committee owns a piece of each issue, sharing turf with several powerful panels, and Chairman John Thune is intent on having his committee play a major role in both debates—more so than it has in other recent high-profile fights.

The South Dakota Republican is adopting the theatrical adage that there are no small parts, only small actors. "Part of it's being proactive. You can kind of sit back and let the game come to you, or you can try and create. I've always believed that offense wins games," Thune said in an interview.

This is the new Commerce Committee, headed by a new chairman in Thune and a new ranking Democrat in Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida. Freshman Sen. Cory Gardner, a Republican from Colorado and a junior committee member, marveled that the Commerce Committee deals with everything from Fitbits to supercookies to drones to refrigerators that tell you when your milk goes bad.

"Fitbits, that's what you need after the supercookies," he joked.

Committee staffers like to say that they oversee oceans and space and everything in between. That's not far off, considering that they have worked on issues as diverse as domestic violence in professional sports, protections for passengers on tourist cruises, and exploding air bags. And then there's this little thing called the Internet.

Yet over the past few years, the Commerce Committee was essentially a bit player in the biggest legislative developments. The Environment and Public Works Committee took the lion's share of the work (and credit) for the two-year surface-transportation bill in 2012, even though the Commerce Committee has jurisdiction over the Transportation Department generally, road and bridge safety, and rail. Of five cybersecurity bills signed into law last year, just one came from the Commerce Committee.

Thune, who assumed the Commerce Committee chairmanship from Sen. Jay Rockefeller, who retired last year, is laying the groundwork for his panel to contribute substantively to cybersecurity and infrastructure, both expected to be big debates. While Commerce won't take the lead on either bill, Thune sees the committee's work as critical to the advancement of each policy.

For cybersecurity, the committee will put together a proposal on data-breach notification and information-sharing to be ready when the Senate Intelligence Committee comes out with its broader bill on protecting the nation's major technology networks.

Thune has unfinished cybersecurity business left over from last year. He was a key player in passage of legislation that codifies a partnership between the National Institute of Science and Technology and the private sector to develop voluntary cybersecurity standards. But he says a crucial piece of that puzzle is still missing: an industry-government partnership to share information about cyberthreats.

Ever the team player, Thune is waiting for the Senate Intelligence Committee to develop cybersecurity legislation before diving in with his own information-sharing proposal. But he wants to make sure that piece isn't ignored as legislation moves forward.

"We also have a fairly important role because the FTC is under our jurisdiction. And so the Federal Trade Commission is the hook that draws in the Commerce Committee on that discussion," Thune said. On data-breach notifications and information-sharing, he said, "we'll have an active role."

One key area of disagreement has already popped up—a proposal to preempt state law on notifying customers about breaches in data. Democrats don't want strong state laws to be superseded by weaker federal protections, while Republicans are angling for a uniform standard across the country. Even here, however, Thune is emphasizing the need to find agreement with Democrats as a way of moving legislation forward, rather than picking partisan fight.

"I think we can all agree that there's probably going to be a really important role for the [attorney general] in each of these individual states," he said, in a nod to the states' role in protecting consumers' data.

For infrastructure, the Commerce Committee will prepare language on freight rail, which is long overdue, and highway safety. If all goes well, those isolated parts will be inserted into a surface-transportation bill that must be reauthorized by May 31.

Here again, advance planning is critical to keeping up with an evolving policy conversation. "My argument has been, May 31 is not far out there. The sooner we start thinking about how we're going to do this, the better off we're going to be," Thune said.

Committee Democrats are happy to engage in this kind of forward thinking, understanding that is how they win critical seats at the negotiating table down the road. Both Thune and Nelson are veterans when it comes to legislating, and they are well aware that active committees can have a big impact on issues that may be flying under the radar now but will rear up before the entire Congress later, and probably at a crisis moment.

"I've liked the focus on transportation and infrastructure," said Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat from Minnesota and veteran committee member. "Hopefully, this will turn into some legislative action."

Thune sees the "crisis" moments in Congress as opportunities. On infrastructure, he is already trying to convince his Republican colleagues that some type of tax reform could be linked to infrastructure spending to move both priorities now, rather than waiting and hoping for a Republican president to rework the corporate tax structure.

Without the hook of highway funding, it's hard to imagine that tax reform happens under the Obama administration if there isn't an incentive for Democrats to play ball.

Thune is well aware that taxes are far away from the Commerce Committee's jurisdiction, but he also believes that committee members should pay attention to the broader dynamics playing out elsewhere in the chamber so they can jump into the debate when the time is right.

Nelson was quick to point out that both he and Thune also sit on the Finance Committee, which governs the federal tax system. He smiled knowingly when asked about Thune's tax-for-infrastructure idea. "It sounds like he's enlightened," Nelson said.

Nelson and Thune like each other, and their staffs get along, too. (Many of them are holdovers from previous chairmen and ranking members, which helps with continuity on complex issues.) Nelson says the friendly relationships among members gives the committee an edge when it comes to big issues that tend to cross party lines, such as surface transportation.

"That might be a good place where the two top members, if they got along (wink), can direct the staff to get along (wink), and get some progress going," he said.

As it happened, Nelson was conducting his interview with National Journal in the anteroom outside the Finance Committee, which was holding a hearing on the Internal Revenue Service's budget. As Thune walked in, Nelson acknowledged him. "There's the big man now. Hey John, we're talking about you!"

Thune just smiled, "Uh-oh."

Nelson had been saying that he and Thune have a good relationship (Thune later concurred) and that they had agreed last year that they would conduct the committee in a bipartisan manner, focusing on areas where Democrats and Republicans could reach agreement. That doesn't mean they won't tackle big issues—Thune wants to rewrite the Telecommunications Act, after all—but it does mean they are looking for ways to work through the gridlock.

There are a lot of seeds to be planted early in the year, and it's just a matter of time before the members see which ones bear fruit.

"I realize you can't do everything, and you have to pick and choose," Thune said. "Already in our hearing schedule, we're covering an awful lot of bases."

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.