My Year on The Hill as an IEEE-USA Congressional Fellow

My Year on The Hill as an IEEE-USA Congressional Fellow
Pictured: Senator Maria Cantwell (Wash.) and 2019 IEEE-USA Congressional Fellow Ethan Keeler.

As an IEEE-USA Congressional Fellow, I worked in the office of Senator Maria Cantwell (Washington State) and for the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, on which she is now the ranking member. I advised the senator and senior staff on numerous technology issues, ranging from artificial intelligence and rural broadband to electromagnetic spectrum allocation and 5G cellular technology. In this role, I contributed legislative text and analysis, drafted policy and briefing memos, met with numerous stakeholders and constituents, staffed the senator at hearings, wrote speeches for public events and hearings, and developed a deep understanding of the legislative process, both from the perspective of a personal office and from the Senate committee with the broadest jurisdiction. While this year burned fast and hot, I was excited to have made lasting contributions to several of Cantwell’s bills that either were introduced or will see introduction in the coming sessions.

The move to the Commerce Committee was a fortuitous development for my fellowship, given my interest in technology policy. In the turmoil of committee takeover, it was highly understaffed for a significant period, which facilitated exciting responsibilities where I took an active role in committee affairs. I wrote committee memos, helped vet and select hearing witnesses, pre-questioned witnesses (on a few occasions by myself), and met with offices before they planned to introduce new bills that would be referred to Commerce by the parliamentarian.

During the fellowship, my most labored contribution focused on privacy and cybersecurity for consumer data, given Senator Cantwell’s authority on the relevant committee. This issue is an increasingly important topic in the era of big data, artificial intelligence (AI), and the Internet of Things (IoT), where protecting consumers is central to the debate. Currently, consumers wade through a dizzying number of consent buttons, terms of service, privacy options, and notices in an ecosystem where consumers often trade their privacy and digital security for digital innovation. Further, consumers are frustrated by the nefarious uses of their data and the almost daily data breaches that are often met with inadequate remedies; they demand action. In fact, even industry is pressuring the federal government to enact a harmonizing and unifying law, in light of the implementation of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in Europe and the soon-to-be-effectuated California Consumer Protection Act (CCPA). The solution will require balancing how we best protect consumer data in the digital age without being overly prescriptive of technology and stifling innovation. Being at the center of these negotiations and deliberations was thrilling, as Congress grappled with the many complexities and facets of modern data systems. Even more, it was exciting to see our actions play out in numerous news cycles.

Aside from my privacy and cybersecurity efforts, I reintroduced Senator Cantwell’s Smart Cities and Communities Act and contributed to her FUTURE of AI Act. Both bills seek development and adoption of new technologies to improve lives, and importantly, the AI legislation targets discrimination and bias in the application of AI algorithms, especially for consequential determinations that affect people (e.g. financing, housing, education, law enforcement, etc.). Additionally, I worked on several ideas for new legislation to address IoT security, facial recognition, data sharing, and STEM workforce, just to name a few; however, we were not able to introduce any new bills during my tenure. Since Senator Cantwell assumed leadership of Commerce, she has been very careful about her legislative agenda on relevant matters. Nevertheless, it is likely that these ideas and the ground work I laid might make it into future bills that are more comprehensive, and I look forward to monitoring these developments well beyond my fellowship.

I learned many important lessons during my time on the Hill. It is no surprise that the legislative branch is slow to act, which is problematic in the context of technology and its rapid development/adoption. Congress is often playing catch-up, and more often than not arrives on the scene when practices have become entrenched in industrial practices and products. This makes change very challenging and requires tremendous effort to pass meaningful legislation. It can also be difficult to juggle protecting public interests with clearing a path for technology innovation and advances. Sometimes these two ideals are synergistic, and other times they experience significant friction, a lesson I learned very well. In fact, it is a friction by design—Congress is charged with fully debating and thoughtfully negotiating our laws. Not all bills should become law, and given its finite bandwidth, the laws that do pass often cannot be revisited for many decades. Therefore, it behooves Congress to be thoughtful; nonetheless, for better or worse, the age of rapid technological advancement pays no heed to such a pace of action. The executive agencies can run nimbler rulemaking processes to various extents, but their authority is limited to that delegated by Congress, and it still takes a significant effort.

One important avenue for Congress to get in front of some of these issues is through commissioning of advisory committees or research programs that serve as vehicles to guide technology and to better understand its implications. I had many first-hand experiences understanding this process working on issues ranging from artificial intelligence and IoT to industry practices regarding consumer privacy and data security. In the void of comprehensive congressional action, it is paramount that scientists and engineers within industry also consider societal implications, such that they can implement protective and prudent practices by design, and standard-setting bodies help tremendously to fill this gap. All of these lessons will certainly join me on my journey to industry.

I can now appreciate just how much representative offices care and think about their constituencies. It drives everything they do and every decision they make, at least in my experience. It is also no surprise that Congress has become highly polarized, especially on key issues and values. The American public increasingly blames Congress for its divisive politics, but this experience has solidified one important lesson—that Congress is a reflection of the people, and its polarization mirrors a polarization in the United States. Voters forget just how much power they have in a government by the people, and in my view, depolarizing Congress starts with conversations and grassroots efforts among voters to reach compromise and consensus—certainly no easy task.

Want to spend a year in Washington?

IEEE-USA is seeking qualified U.S. IEEE members to spend a year in Washington working as advisers to the U.S. Congress and to the U.S. Department of State or U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). The fellowship program gives U.S. IEEE members an opportunity to learn firsthand about the public policy process while imparting their knowledge and experience to policymakers. The deadline to apply for 2020-2021 Fellowships is 13 December 2019 at 5 PM ET

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Ethan Keeler completed his Ph.D. as a NSF Graduate Research Fellow at the University of Washington where he studied electrical engineering, optics, and micro/nano-technology. His research aimed to enhance the precision of devices in their ability to weigh single biological cells, a parameter that has important implications in biology and cancer/disease therapeutic development. He completed his undergraduate degree at Montana State University (MSU) where he worked to realize optical elements on the nano-scale, and he previously served as chair of the Montana State University IEEE student branch.

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