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Your complete guide to Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s tech-policy views

Kevin McCarthy is the leading candidate to become House Speaker. Here's what that could mean for tech policy.

Feb 29, 2020, 6:13 pm*

Tech

Amrita Khalid 

Amrita Khalid

As House Republicans get ready to nominate their pick for Speaker on Thursday, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) remains the likely choice

Update 11:30am CT, Oct. 8: In a surprise move, McCarthy reportedly dropped out of the House speaker race. The election for the GOP’s nomination has been postponed:

Given that the House Speaker determines which bills go to the House floor for a vote, McCarthy’s ascent could mean either a boon or a bust for various arenas of technology policy. The California Republican is against net neutrality and in support of “fast-track” authority for a trade deal that has implications for Internet freedom. McCarthy voted against an effort to defund NSA “backdoor” encryption standards for companies, but pushed for a renewal of the Patriot Act that would defund the NSA’s bulk phone record collection program.

The well-liked Majority leader’s popularity has taken a hit in recent weeks. McCarthy was criticized after he linked Hillary Clinton’s lagging polls to an investigation on Benghazi led by House GOP. Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) on Monday announced his bid for the role of Speaker, but hinted he would drop out if the internal party vote on Oct. 8 doesn’t go his way. The entire House is scheduled to vote on a replacement for the current Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) on Oct. 29.

“I wouldn’t necessarily assume the power of the House will shift in response to his position on tech issues.”

The Center for Democracy and Technology, an advocacy organization that works on digital civil liberties issues, has not stated a preference for either congressmen to assume the speaker role. Chaffetz, who is chair of the House Oversight Committee, has pushed for legislation important to digital privacy advocates, such as a bill that would require law enforcement agencies to have warrants before accessing an individual’s electronic location data. 

“Mr. Chaffetz has long been a leader,” Chris Calabrese, the vice president of policy at CDT, told the Daily Dot, but he added that both Chaffetz and McCarthy have been very “solid” on tech policy issues. CDT and other digital-rights groups have been pushing House leadership for an update to the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA), which they say is outdated. Under current law, law enforcement agencies are allowed to access emails over 180 days old. While an ECPA reform bill has yet to make the House floor for a vote, Calabrese says that McCarthy is a supporter. 

“The Speaker has a lot of power, but it’s a big House, and he has a lot of things on his mind. I wouldn’t necessarily assume the power of the House will shift in response to his position on tech issues,” said Calabrese. 

Silicon Valley has long seen McCarthy as an ally, dating from when he was a member of the California Assembly in 2002. 

“Though representing a solidly Republican, largely agricultural district hundreds of miles away, McCarthy has a reputation in Silicon Valley for being curious about new technology and responsive to the tech sector’s needs,” said one report from the The Marin Independent Journal. Others are more dubious about McCarthy’s role as “ambassador of Silicon Valley,” noting his limited time in Congress and lack of specific accomplishments in on tech policy. Lincoln Labs co-founder Garrett Johnson told The Hill that McCarthy hasn’t “proven to be a tech leader,” although “results remain to be seen.”

Here’s a rundown on McCarthy’s personal background, as well as his track record on technology policy so far. 

Who is Kevin McCarthy? 

Kevin McCarthy has been a member of Congress since 2006, representing what is now California’s 23rd district. Prior to serving in Congress, McCarthy served in the California Assembly from 2002 to 2006. McCarthy’s district includes Bakersfield, where he was born and now lives, with his wife Judy and two children, Connor and Meghan.

The 23rd district produces over $3 billion annually in crops and is considered one of the nation’s top agriculture districts. Defense and energy are the other two leading industries. McCarthy’s district contains the Edwards Air Force Base, the Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division at China Lake, and the Mojave Air & Space Sport. 

It’s also worth noting that the NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center is in McCarthy’s district. Why? Of the two bills that McCarthy has sponsored in Congress that have successfully been made into law, one was to rename the flight research center. The other bill was to rename a post office. 

McCarthy became House Majority Whip in 2011. House of Cards star Kevin Spacey shadowed McCarthy in order to gain insight on how to play the role of the fictional House Majority Whip Frank Underwood. Later McCarthy said that the real job bore little resemblance to the depiction on the popular Netflix series. “We don’t murder animals or members or anything like that. And we would never be sitting in our office when a vote is going on on the floor,” McCarthy told Business Insider

After then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) lost a primary election to a little-known Tea Party challenger in June 2014, McCarthy, as the third-ranking member in the House leadership, was favored to be his replacement. McCarthy became the least-tenured floor leader in history when he took over the role of House Majority Leader in July 2014, according to Smart Politics, a blog run by the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs. 

If McCarthy can garner a majority of votes from those present (not necessarily 218, which would constitute a majority) when the House gathers on Oct. 29, he will become the least experienced House speaker since 1891. 

Cybersecurity

For many years, cybersecurity in Congress was a textbook example of legislative inertia; bills that stall in committee or are cleared by one house but don’t stand a chance of passage in the opposite chamber. That is no longer the case. 

McCarthy voted for the divisive Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA) in both 2012 and 2013.

McCarthy voted for a cybersecurity bill back in April that would ask companies to share access to their networks and records with federal investigators. The legislation, which passed in the House, included liability protections for companies that share such records and the requirement that they redact the personal information of costumers. The bill came in reaction to a series of high-profile data breaches over the past year, including those of Sony Pictures, Target, and Anthem

McCarthy also backed a bill that month that would create a hub within the Department of Homeland Security for companies to share information on cyber threats. Both bills had the support of the White House and various tech industry groups. 

On his blog, McCarthy wrote that both bills were “critical to protecting our national computer networks and ensuring that America can meet the growing cyber challenges that are likely to arise in the coming years.”

McCarthy voted for the divisive Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA) in both 2012 and 2013. Both American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation have criticized CISPA as being an attack on user privacy. 

Net Neutrality

McCarthy is a staunch opponent of net neutrality. Back in February, he tweeted his disappointment at the Federal Communications Commission’s vote to approve net neutrality. Like others in his party, McCarthy saw the move by the FCC as a gross example of governmental overreach.

McCarthy wrote the following in his blog after the FCC vote

“The FCC has just taken the internet—arguably the most dynamic contributor to a growing economy and higher quality of life in the world—back in time to the era of landlines. Today’s vote by the commission to regulate the Internet as if it were Pac Bell is discouraging and risks the freedom of a system that puts instant information and communication at millions of fingertips.”

Export-Import Bank 

Following former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s unexpected primary loss in June 2014, the looming expiration of the Export-Import Bank’s charter fell by the wayside.  The Ex-Im Bank found a rare Republican ally in Cantor, and with his loss few were willing to stick up for the little-understood financial institution, which partly relies on funds from appropriations to give loans to foreign companies looking to purchase U.S. goods and services, including American-made technology products. Business groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers have long rallied to keep the Ex-Im Bank open, insisting its importance to the global marketplace.

The Ex-Im Bank’s charter officially expired on July 1, 2015, and it has ceased processing new applications and engaging in new business. McCarthy is in strong opposition to the Ex-Im Bank, telling Fox News last year that it’s “something the government does not have to be involved in. The private sector can do it.”

McCarthy warned the Senate this summer not to tack on an authorization for Ex-Im Bank onto a highway bill. “I am one who has always believed in the principle that you should just deal with the subject that’s before you,” McCarthy said during a debate on the House floor.

NSA

As far as surveillance goes, McCarthy’s record has been mixed. He’s shown reluctance to sign on to sudden legislative fixes proposed on the floor. McCarthy voted against an amendment offered by Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) to end the National Security Agency’s collection of phone records in July 2013, an effort that fell short by 12 votes. McCarthy also voted against an amendment to the defense appropriations bill in June that would cut off funding for NSA efforts to build “backdoors” (intentional weaknesses) in encryption technologies. 

As far as surveillance goes, McCarthy’s record has been mixed.

Chaffetz, McCarthy’s challenger, has been vocal about the NSA encryption standards for companies, which he sees as a security threat

Still, McCarthy could hardly be characterized as favoring surveillance. When the House in June passed a renewal of the USA Patriot Act that would also repeal the NSA’s bulk data collection, McCarthy urged the Senate to pass the House version of the bill as soon as possible. 

Patent Reform

Lack of traction with patent reform is sure to be another mark on McCarthy’s record with the tech community. McCarthy optimistically told Silicon Valley CEOs at a leadership lunch in December 2014 that patent reform was one “of the few bills we’ll get done quickly in the next Congress.” McCarthy then failed to bring patent reform legislation to the floor this summer, despite promising a vote on a bill known as the Innovation Act as a part of his office’s July agenda. 

Tech companies have pushed for a legislative fix to costly litigation from patent trolls for years, but they are facing opposition from the pharmaceutical industry and universities that do not wish to weaken the rights of patent holders. 

Trade Promotion Authority

McCarthy voted for the “fast track” Trade Promotion Authority bill that cleared the House back in June, and he was a key player in ushering its passage. The countries of the Trans-Pacific Partnership reached an agreement on the trade deal earlier this week. Congress will review the TPP pact over the next several months, and McCarthy on Monday signaled he was hopeful they would approve of the White House trade deal. 

Wrote McCarthy in his blog

“As we review the agreement just finalized, I will be looking to see if it is a strong deal that also reaches the guidelines set out by Congress. A good deal would open up new markets to American goods and services while creating new jobs and increasing take-home pay for American workers. I will be discussing this agreement with my constituents and Congressional colleagues to ensure that it lives up to the high standards of a 21st century trade agreement that safeguards and promotes innovation, expands access for agricultural producers, and ensures that U.S. standards and protections are upheld.”

Photo via DonkeyHotey/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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*First Published: Oct 8, 2015, 9:53 am