Congress Returns to the Headlines Next Week
When the House and Senate release their anticipated schedules for the year, Congressional staffers and lobbyists alike immediately scan the calendars and highlight the “recess weeks” – those weeks that the House or Senate are not in session to allow members and senators to spend time back home with their constituents. For the elected official, these weeks are often more hectic than those they spend in Washington. Whereas at the Capitol their day exists within a half-mile bubble -- attending hearings, hosting meetings in their offices and shuttling to the House or Senate floor for votes – a day back home often involves crisscrossing a Congressional district or state to participate in public events, walk in parades, glad-hand voters and campaign for re-election. To wit: The nonpartisan, nonprofit Congressional Management Foundation calculated in 2013 that the average member of Congress spends 60 hours a week working while back home. This is why, then, the official House calendar no longer refers to weeks spent back in the district as recess weeks but rather “district work periods.”
For the Congressional staffer and the lobbyist, neither of which is required to march in parades or kiss babies, the district work period has always been and continues to be a welcome recess week.
Both the House and Senate have been in recess for the last two weeks to allow members of Congress to spend time with their families and constituents during the Passover and Easter holidays. Though congestion in downtown Washington hasn’t abated – we’re at peak cherry blossom – it has been a relatively quiet fortnight. But that will change quite quickly when Congress returns to Washington next week and holds two hearings that are sure to make headlines beginning on Tuesday.
In the wake of the news that Cambridge Analytica, a UK-based consulting firm, improperly mined nearly 90 million Facebook user profiles for data to deliver political and communications services to several Republican presidential campaigns, including President Trump’s, during the 2016 elections, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was called to appear before Congress. Zuckerberg will testify before a rare joint hearing held by two Senate committees on April 10: the Senate Judiciary Committee and the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. The following day, Zuckerberg will travel to the South side of the Capitol complex and appear before the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Neither appearance will be pleasant for Zuckerberg. With their constituents – and likely voters – clamoring for Facebook to pay some price for exposing their data, Republicans and Democrats alike in both chambers, very aware that the cable news channels will be covering the hearings live, are sure to use the opportunity to question Zuckerberg to score political points.
Facebook’s advisors, themselves aware that the short-term objective of the Congressmen, Congresswomen and Senators before whom Zuckerberg will testify is to be perceived as delivering punishment rather than crafting and enacting federal legislation that would bolster consumer data security rules in the United States, are likely to counsel Zuckerberg to apologize for Facebook’s malfeasance and outline the steps it plans to take to protect its users moving forward, with great humility and recognition that it should have done better. Zuckerberg may even endorse some minimal level of government intervention or regulation of how data is collected through social media platforms. In the lead up to the first hearing next Tuesday, look for Facebook to incrementally and systematically leak information regarding new protections it will voluntarily put in place to protect its users in an effort to mitigate as much damage as possible emanating from Congress. The dance is as old as our Republic. Expect round-the-clock press coverage but, given the partisan divide on Capitol Hill and the ever-closer November mid-term elections, the likelihood of Congress legislating on this score is ultimately quite low.
As Mark Zuckerberg starts his second day of Congressional testimony, another hearing in the halls of Congress will demand attention. Acting Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Director Mick Mulvaney will appear for the first time since he was appointed to the role by President Trump in November before the House Financial Services Committee. Under the Dodd-Frank Act, which created the Bureau, the CFPB is required to deliver to Congress two reports each year summarizing the agency’s activities. The first-ever Mulvaney era report, which was released earlier this week, is already making waves. In his inaugural testimony to Congress in his new role, Acting Director Mulvaney asserts that the CFPB “is far too powerful, and with precious little oversight of its activities.” In his testimony before the House Financial Services Committee on Wednesday, Mulvaney will call on Congress to change the Dodd-Frank statute to give Congress significantly more control over CFPB activities, including the power to approve or reject Bureau rulemakings before they go into effect, and to provide the President with the ability to fire the Director of the CFPB for cause. While the notion that the GOP would like to rein in the CFPB is hardly a new development – Republicans have argued that the Bureau is too powerful since its inception – next week’s hearing will mark the first time that a Republican head of the agency will argue for its authority to be weakened. The hearing is therefore sure to be contentious.
Like the Facebook hearings, though, the odds of CFPB reform being enacted by Congress appear to be quite low. The Senate recently passed, on a bipartisan basis, the first significant Dodd-Frank reform bill the chamber has considered since the financial reform legislation was enacted in 2010, and it was deliberately silent on nearly all matters related to the CFPB. The 17 Democrats who supported that bill have been clear: the House can either take or leave the legislation the Senate passed, but not amend it. The Senate Democrats intend to vote en bloc to reject any expansion of the reforms included in their bill, including any addition of CFPB-related reforms.
Thus, Congressional hearings will dominate the headlines next week, but don’t except much activity beyond them.