Congress needs to rethink its approach to tech policy

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COMMENTARY | The spider's web of congressional committee jurisdiction creates problems when it comes to technologies like artificial intelligence and quantum computing.

Schoolhouse Rock may have taught a generation of Americans how ideas become laws, but when it comes to technology policy, the I’m-Just-a-Bill approach is not the right strategy. 

Under Schoolhouse Rock rules, a member of Congress submits legislation to the one specific committee that has jurisdiction of the topic. This can work for many issues, but not for technology, which impacts many sectors and crisscrosses congressional committees’ jurisdictional lines. For that reason, policy guiding technologies like quantum computing and artificial intelligence, require a holistic approach that explores how critical technologies can work together to benefit our economy, the public sector, and U.S. innovation. 

Consider the invention of the internet. At first, it was categorized as a secure military communications tool. But over the decades this technology has evolved to become ubiquitous, used by every government agency, business, and consumer, regardless of sector, entity size, or demographic. The internet is also the backbone of enabling cloud access to cutting-edge technologies like AI, machine learning, and quantum computing. 

Just as the internet cuts across all manners of businesses and industry, the ubiquitous nature of technology policy also crosses congressional committee jurisdictions. For example, committees charged with national security view technology through one lens, while intellectual property concerns reside within a different committee. Technology can also play a role in drug discovery, infrastructure development, and electric grid resilience, all of which are under different congressional committees. This spiderweb of committee jurisdictions is why Congress cannot pigeon-hole technology policy into siloed government programs. Such limitations will hamper program effectiveness and the government’s ability to best address public sector challenges.

To most effectively tap the power of technologies to solve problems such as emergency management and response, supply chain, and sustainability, Congress must look beyond traditional committee jurisdictions. A new bipartisan Task Force on AI is taking a step in the right direction by consulting with multiple committees at one time. The task force will produce a report of guiding principles, forward-looking recommendations, and bipartisan policy proposals to help Congress and the Administration more efficiently and effectively champion important technology policy.

This broader approach should be applied to all technology policy. For example, the National Quantum Initiative Act, enacted in 2018, focuses only on quantum. However, during the 2023 reauthorization process, a House committee expanded the bill to include quantum-classical hybrid technologies (which is where quantum computing works synergistically with classical computing). The bill also encouraged greater cross governmental coordination between federal agencies to identify use cases for quantum-hybrid technology. 

Some bills currently do not have an integrated approach, which can lead to siloed programs. The CHIPS Act created hubs for 10 technologies, including AI, robotics, and quantum technology, but it did not consider how they could work together. Another example is evident in the latest Technology Modernization Fund’s call for AI projects. The administration and Congress must ensure these programs support how technologies interact with each other instead of focusing on one siloed technology. 

Congress is beginning to include hybrid technology for a more holistic approach to technology policy. For example, the Senate introduced the Future of AI Innovation Act, which authorizes public-private partnership testbeds of technologies such as quantum-hybrid computing, robotics, and AI. In the House of Representatives, the Wildfire Tech DEMO Act created a testbed program for wildfire mitigation that includes technologies like AI, quantum computing, and quantum-hybrid applications.  

It’s clear that the I’m-Just-a-Bill approach does not work for technology policy. While we may not be able to dramatically change the legislative mechanics that create congressional committee jurisdictional overlaps, it is possible to adjust lawmakers’ approach to technology policy and the administration’s implementation of hybrid technologies into federal programs. Considering how these innovative tools can work together will ignite the adoption and deployment of critical emerging technologies today to tackle public sector problems facing our nation.