March 20, 2014



Time is rapidly running out for Congress to do something, anything, to secure the Internet for consumers and to protect critical infrastructure like the electric grid from cyber attacks launched by foreign adversaries or terrorists.

President Obama last month said nothing less than "America's economic prosperity ... and our individual liberties" are at stake in the battle to secure cyber space.

Three influential Senate chairmen have introduced bills to help protect consumers' credit and debit card data in the aftermath of the breaches affecting Target Inc. and other retailers.

The House Homeland Security Committee has passed a bill to help secure the nation's critical infrastructure, and the leaders of the Senate Homeland Security Committee just last week pledged a similar effort.

But the odds are against anything significant happening in Congress this year.

For one thing, lawmakers will be in session for only 17 more weeks prior to Election Day.

That may sound like plenty of time to pass legislation that, in theory at least, should enjoy support from members of both parties.

But the calendar will evaporate before you know it. The reality is, Congress probably has less than 10 weeks to deal with policy issues such as cybersecurity because the House and Senate floors will be given over to the annual appropriations bills in the summer and fall.

And other priorities always seem to trump cybersecurity, even when lawmakers say it is the most urgent issue facing the nation.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., has been advocating for a consumer data-protection bill for years. But his committee will turn to patent reform in the coming weeks and staff say they have no idea if or when Leahy's data-breach bill will be considered.

Iowa's Republican Sen. Charles Grassley serves on the Judiciary Committee and has called for bipartisan action on the issue, but his focus is on other matters as well.

The Senate Banking Committee, which shares jurisdiction over data breaches affecting consumers, has yet to announce any plans for legislation.

The Senate Homeland Security chairman, Tom Carper of Delaware, is eager to work on cyber issues and recently introduced a consumer data-breach bill that falls under the jurisdiction of the banking panel.

Going forward, Carper has pledged to work with the Homeland Security Committee's top Republican, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, on bipartisan legislation. However, Carper and Coburn seem likely to focus in the near term on securing the government's own computer networks rather than addressing vulnerabilities in the nation's critical infrastructure.

In the House, the data-breach issue has been largely ignored.

But legislation to protect power plants, water supplies and other infrastructure is ready to go.

Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, who chairs the House Homeland Security panel, fashioned a bill that won unanimous support from Republicans and Democrats alike on the committee and was praised by major industry groups and privacy advocates.

Sounds like a sure bet for action on the House floor, right?

Not so fast. House Republican leaders want to hold votes that highlight differences with Democrats in the run-up to the election. Cybersecurity doesn't fit that definition.

Potomac Watch asked a senior member of the House Republican leadership whether the McCaul bill was heading to the floor.

"We'll see," the lawmaker said. His tone and his expression said "fat chance."

Lawmakers have good, bipartisan ideas on what should be done to protect cyberspace. They also know they are taking a huge chance with every week that goes by without putting those ideas into action.

*****

Jim Mowrer got some good news this month when the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee selected the political newcomer for its "red to blue" program.

The program provides financial and logistical assistance to Democratic candidates for House seats currently controlled by Republicans.

"Jim Mowrer is showing he can put this race in play with his powerful commitment to public service, whether it's his service in Iraq or his time working in the Pentagon to cut wasteful spending," said DCCC Chairman Steve Israel.

Assistance from the DCCC will help Mowrer in his bid to unseat 4th District Republican Rep. Steve King, but what may help even more is King's tendency to weigh in on any subject with a rhetorical bombshell.

Over the past month King has tweeted that his own leader, House Speaker John Boehner, is in league with Obama on immigration, boycotted a prominent annual conservative convention and offered his allegedly scientific view that gays don't deserve constitutional protections.

Republicans have a numerical advantage over Democrats in the 4th District that seems insurmountable to some political analysts in the nation's capital.

However, nonpartisan analyst Charlie Cook recently moved the King-Mowrer race from "solidly Republican" to the slightly more unpredictable "likely Republican" category.

It's still a long shot and Obama's sinking public-approval numbers won't help Mowrer at all.

But as long as King keeps talking, Mowrer has a puncher's chance to score an upset.