Big tech sweeps up Hill staffers — just when Congress needs them the most

The Democratic hiring wave reflects the industry demand for veteran policy experts from the party that controls the House, Senate and White House. But their loss deprives Congress of the staffers’ specialized knowledge of how social media giants use consumer data, the spread of artificial intelligence and the implications of spending billions of dollars to expand broadband internet access.

It comes as lawmakers are debating House antitrust bills aimed at defanging Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon, as well as proposals for the first comprehensive federal law on data privacy, and strategies for competing with China in technologies like 5G and regulations for reviving net neutrality for internet providers.

“There has always been a dearth of people that understand technology and its interaction with society in Congress — at the member level, at the staff level,” said former Rep. Will Hurd (R-Texas), who led efforts to regulate artificial intelligence and other tech-related issues during his time in Congress. “So the departure of anyone who has that kind of experience and expertise makes this problem even more acute.”

Hurd, who retired from Congress last year, is now a managing director at the private investment bank Allen & Co.

Liz Hempowicz, director of public policy with the watchdog group Project on Government Oversight, said the wave of departures “doesn’t bode well for future congressional efforts to engage in a fruitful way on tech policy.”

“In these fights to regulate telecom and tech, the tech side is coming with a much bigger and deeper army than the civil society side, and certainly much deeper pools of people than these congressional offices that are charged with writing this legislation, carrying out hearings, asking the right questions and zeroing in on the right issues,” Hempowicz said. “[Congress] is dramatically outmatched.”

Klobuchar, who leads the Senate Judiciary antitrust subcommittee, complained Oct. 5 that legislative action on tech has stalled because of the sheer volume of lobbyists that the companies have hired. “Every time I think I’ve got something done, some other lobbyist pops up,” she said in an interview during a break in a hearing with Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen.

Later the same day, Klobuchar’s deputy legislative director and counsel April Jones announced in an email to Senate staff that she is leaving to join Apple’s government affairs team. “I’m excited about my next chapter,” the tech and telecom expert wrote in the email obtained by POLITICO.

Jones is far from alone. An exodus of top tech staffers has particularly struck the Senate Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction over most tech and telecom issues.

John Branscome, the panel’s leading Democratic tech staffer, joined Facebook’s federal policy team this month. Shawn Bone, his deputy, left for Verizon. And Lara Muldoon left the office of committee Chair Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) this year to join the Information Technology Industry Council, a tech trade group, as its senior director of government affairs.

Such departures can make passing complicated legislation more difficult.


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