What does the House retirement wave mean for tech?
- By Derek B. Johnson
- Feb 26, 2018
A wave of House retirements is thinning the tech and cybersecurity policy leadership ranks of powerful committee chairman in Congress.
Thus far, nearly 40 House Republicans have either stepped down this session or announced they will not seek reelection in 2018. That group so far includes seven committee chairs: Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) of the House Oversight and Government Reform committee, Lamar Smith (R-Texas) of the House Science Committee, House Appropriations Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.), Ed Royce (R-Calif.) of the House Foreign Relations Committee, Gregg Harper of the Energy and Commerce Committee, Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) of the House Judiciary Committee and Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), who chairs the Financial Services committee.
A few of these legislators would be losing their gavels even if they chose to seek reelection, thanks to the six-year term limit Republican rules put on individual members serving as committee chairs or ranking members.
Additionally, some individual members with significant tech policy legacies -- such as Reps. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Dave Reichert (R-Wash.) – have also announced their impending retirements, raising the specter of potential brain drain around government technology policymaking in Congress after 2018.
Gowdy's committee is often the most active on government technology policy issues, providing oversight of the Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act, data center optimization and IT modernization. However, the committee has already seen change in chairmen this session after former Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) stepped down in 2017; the stability in priorities between the two tenures has convinced some that the impact there will be more limited.
"There will be a new [chair] there next year, but that's an area where you've already seen a lot of turnover and yet still seen continuity on a policy basis," said Kevin Cummins, a former Senate staffer on the Homeland Security committee.
Cummins and others, however, said the potential for a parallel exodus of committee staffers could exacerbate any impact.
A former senior Obama administration cybersecurity official speaking on background told FCW that the wave of retirements could significantly impact the government technology policy space, and that he expects to see a similar exodus among committee staff over the next year.
"We will see a larger turnover in staff," the official said. "If the House changes hands [to Democratic Party control], it will be even greater."
A current House congressional staffer speaking on background agreed with that assessment, saying that if Republicans lose the House in 2018, the retirements "will matter, but they will matter a lot less." Chairs determine how proactive the committee tends to be on certain policy subjects, while committee staff provide the intellectual and policy expertise that underpin those priorities.
As an example, he pointed to the Foreign Affairs committee, saying it could become much more focused on cybersecurity issues if someone like current Homeland Security Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas) takes over the gavel after Royce leaves.
Yet even if Republicans hold on to the House, who gets picked to replace the outgoing chairs will have an impact on staffing continuity.
"Some chairmen come in, they kick out all the staff, they say 'I want a clean slate, no one's going to be left,'" the staffer said. "In that case, there can probably be a pretty drastic shift if you lose both the chairman and all the staff...that can upend a lot of initiatives."
Other chairs have used their perch to push cyber and tech policy issues not typically associated with their committee's purview. Those pet projects may not register as high priorities under new leadership.
Goodlatte, for example, has spent his tenure pushing the Judiciary Committee's jurisdiction over encryption policy and FISA surveillance. Smith, chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, will also step down after 2018. Smith's committee had a hand in a number of tech issues this year, most notably approving a bill to audit the effectiveness of the NIST cybersecurity framework and overseeing a pair of hearings on the Department of Homeland Security's ban on Kaspersky Lab products.
Not everyone is convinced the departures will have a major impact on congressional policy. Before Gowdy announced his retirement, Trey Hodgkins, vice president of the Information Technology Alliance for Public Sector, told FCW that turnover at the member and staff levels is "nothing new," and that he's not worried at this point about brain drain in Congress around government technology policy.
"While this could lead to a change in institutional knowledge among members and staff, few government technology issues come before the committees you mentioned," said Hodgkins.
Cummins said that while it's very likely that many of the new chairs might not have the experience or broad view of the chairs that are leaving, the onus is on staff and members of industry to educate new leadership and bring them up to speed.
"It's not a crisis, but it's certainly something the [federal IT] community needs to pay attention to," said Cummins.
Derek B. Johnson is a former senior staff writer at FCW.