Bipartisan wins are there for the taking
September 10, 2021 | By Bruce Mehlman
Reports of the death of bipartisanship in Washington are greatly exaggerated. From making drinking water safer to improving surface transportation to declaring Juneteenth a federal holiday, lawmakers from both parties continue to collaborate on important policy challenges, large and small.
These successes do not mean legislative deal-making is easy, of course. A frustratingly large number of issues in desperate need of action remain mired in partisan posturing, stuck in social media quicksand or sacrificed for fundraising fodder. Yet, below the radar of the angertainment industry’s outrage machine, diligent work and cooperation persist. Three areas in particular seem especially ripe for deal-making in Congress, the ABC’s of bipartisanship:
- broadband infrastructure
Not surprisingly, these three issues are connected.
After a global pandemic in which the digitized thrived and the disconnected failed, when dominant companies extended their influence and geopolitical imbalances in our supply chain highlighted unacceptable risks, lawmakers all agree that digital connectivity is critical to how we work, live, play and learn. Policymakers now turn to the questions of how to make the internet better, more resilient, ubiquitous and competitive. Bipartisan proposals are on offer, with lawmakers working to find compromises across the aisle on each of the ABCs.
Many observers worry about the state of online competition and undue impact of a few data-dominant players. Such concerns are not without justification. Several of the most ubiquitous platforms now exceed trillion-dollar market caps on the strengths of their value, creativity — and dominance.
In response, regulators around the states and around the world are pushing back with ideas to enhance consumer protection (e.g., privacy) and ensure fairer competition. Several bills now before Congress explore the state of market competition, reassessing whether antitrust laws born in the industrial Gilded Age still fit our information era. Almost all of these proposals start with bipartisan sponsorship (if not always majority support), with divisions emerging along economic worldviews more than team red versus team blue.
It is telling that President Biden’s pick to chair the Federal Trade Commission, Lina Khan, received 69 votes in support, more than seven of the 15 Cabinet nominees voted on by the Senate to-date.
So far this Congress, lawmakers have introduced more than 170 pieces of legislation specifically calling-out support for broadband. All agree on the “problem” — persistent digital divides, both in terms of availability and adoption, based on income, geography or education exacerbate inequality and reduce societal resilience.
Most policymakers agree on the set of solutions, at least broadly: support build-out to areas where market forces alone have not incentivized deployment and subsidize lower-income consumers for whom the monthly cost of connectivity competes with housing, health care or subsistence. Of course, differences emerge among lawmakers of different ideologies and geographies, with some emphasizing access and others preferencing affordability, some urging greater government control and others demanding less regulation. But room exists for constructive compromise, especially if Congress follows the core principles that powered three decades of American global broadband policy leadership: technology neutrality (avoid picking winners and losers); private sector leadership (trust competitive markets to innovate faster and operate more efficiently than government entities); and bipartisanship (the Telecom Act of 1996 passed with 91 votes in the Senate and 414 in the House).
After decades of bipartisan support for “constructive engagement” with China, Washington policymakers increasingly believe policies of cooperative accommodation failed to induce desired results. Admitting China into the WTO did not catalyze the promised economic, social and political liberalization, with the bilateral relationship growing more fraught for American workers, businesses and regional allies.
A new bipartisan consensus emerged, marrying more direct confrontation (over trade, cyber, IP protection, market access, human rights) with more aggressive efforts to improve America’s competitive capabilities. A large, bipartisan Senate majority recently passed legislation to advance the latter, critically including $52 billion for domestic semiconductor manufacturing and $1.5 billion to accelerate deployment of open-RAN 5G networks.
The partisanship that so often paralyzes us has many causes and overcoming it will take significant reforms, most especially to our political processes. But most members of Congress ran for the right reasons. They share the public’s frustration with the hyper-partisanship pervading too much of our modern society. And they want to get things done to improve the lives of their constituents. Opportunities for progress exist, starting with the ABCs.
Bruce Mehlman served as assistant secretary of commerce for technology policy and co-founded the DC-based Internet Innovation Alliance (IIA).