Silicon Valley and the telecom industry are snatching up some of the top Democratic policy experts on Capitol Hill — just as Congress gears up for fights with the companies.
The brain drain has seen more than a dozen senior Democratic tech and telecom policy staffers leaving their posts this year, according to a POLITICO review of recent exits, with many taking lobbying roles at powerhouses including Facebook, Verizon, Apple, Charter Communications, the National Association of Broadcasters and the cloud company VMware. They’re leaving members’ personal offices as well as the Senate and House committees that oversee agencies like the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Communications Commission, along with topics like broadband, online speech and data privacy.
The most recent departures include the top tech and telecom staffer for Sen. Amy Klobuchar — who announced her new job at Apple just hours after the Minnesota Democrat lamented to POLITICO that tech companies have “literally hired so many people in this town.”
The Democratic hiring wave reflects the industry demand for veteran policy experts from the party that controls the House, Senate and White House. But their loss deprives Congress of the staffers’ specialized knowledge of how social media giants use consumer data, the spread of artificial intelligence and the implications of spending billions of dollars to expand broadband internet access.
It comes as lawmakers are debating House antitrust bills aimed at defanging Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon, as well as proposals for the first comprehensive federal law on data privacy, and strategies for competing with China in technologies like 5G and regulations for reviving net neutrality for internet providers.
“There has always been a dearth of people that understand technology and its interaction with society in Congress — at the member level, at the staff level,” said former Rep. Will Hurd (R-Texas), who led efforts to regulate artificial intelligence and other tech-related issues during his time in Congress. “So the departure of anyone who has that kind of experience and expertise makes this problem even more acute.”
Hurd, who retired from Congress last year, is now a managing director at the private investment bank Allen & Co.
Liz Hempowicz, director of public policy with the watchdog group Project on Government Oversight, said the wave of departures “doesn’t bode well for future congressional efforts to engage in a fruitful way on tech policy.”
“In these fights to regulate telecom and tech, the tech side is coming with a much bigger and deeper army than the civil society side, and certainly much deeper pools of people than these congressional offices that are charged with writing this legislation, carrying out hearings, asking the right questions and zeroing in on the right issues,” Hempowicz said. “[Congress] is dramatically outmatched.”
Klobuchar, who leads the Senate Judiciary antitrust subcommittee, complained Oct. 5 that legislative action on tech has stalled because of the sheer volume of lobbyists that the companies have hired. “Every time I think I’ve got something done, some other lobbyist pops up,” she said in an interview during a break in a hearing with Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen.
Later the same day, Klobuchar’s deputy legislative director and counsel April Jones announced in an email to Senate staff that she is leaving to join Apple’s government affairs team. “I’m excited about my next chapter,” the tech and telecom expert wrote in the email obtained by POLITICO.
Jones is far from alone. An exodus of top tech staffers has particularly struck the Senate Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction over most tech and telecom issues.
John Branscome, the panel’s leading Democratic tech staffer, joined Facebook’s federal policy team this month. Shawn Bone, his deputy, left for Verizon. And Lara Muldoon left the office of committee Chair Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) this year to join the Information Technology Industry Council, a tech trade group, as its senior director of government affairs.
Such departures can make passing complicated legislation more difficult.
“You always hate to lose the really talented ones that have been there a while, who not only know the policy well but know the potential pitfalls and opportunities and the best way to get your policy moved into law — because it’s not always a straight line,” said former House Energy and Commerce Chair Greg Walden (R-Ore.), who retired last year after spending decades negotiating tech topics.
“I would say these, call them ‘old hands,’ they knew those opportunities really well, to get things done,” added Walden, whose consulting work includes tech and telecom clients. “And the leverage points.”
Blame the atmosphere as well as longtime institutional struggles for retaining this talent, according to longtime watchers of Congress.
2021 created a “perfect storm” fueling these departures, said one of the congressional staffers who left for industry this year, who requested anonymity to speak frankly. That ex-staffer tallied the combination of Covid pandemic restrictions, the Jan. 6 insurrection by pro-Trump supporters and the breakdown in camaraderie among Democrats and Republicans. The individual also noted what may be an ideal hiring window for longtime Democrats — they’re in high demand given the party’s leadership role, but that window could soon close given 2022 midterm elections that could put Republicans in charge of the House or Senate.
It’s also hard to avoid the significant pay disparities between Capitol Hill staffers, who typically make anywhere between $35,000 and $150,000 per year depending on their position, and industry lobbyists, who can make significantly more, particularly in the wealthy tech and telecom sectors.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi recently announced that she was raising the salary cap for senior aides to $199,300, more than almost any members of Congress earn. But aides and lawmakers have fretted that such steps may not be enough to stop staff from fleeing.
“It’s hard to keep very talented people here when the private sector is offering so much more money,” Rep. Mike Doyle, the Pennsylvania Democrat who chairs the House Energy and Commerce telecom subcommittee, told POLITICO. “They have families and careers to think about. … You get people that want to come back, they go out for a while and make some money and then they want to come back.”
Pelosi’s move to uncap staff salaries may help, though, Doyle added.
Some lawmakers argue that Congress needs additional ways to build up its dedicated policy expertise, beyond relying on any one staffer or committee, such as reviving the long-dormant Office of Technology Assessment that House Republicans defunded in the 1990s. Such efforts have faltered in recent years, despite attempts to bring back the research arm in light of the Hill’s tussles with tech giants.
Some lawmakers and observers say the staff churn can bring an unexpected upside by uncorking longtime impasses, at least once new employees get up to speed. Departures can “free up the gears and let things move,” Walden argued, pointing to the benefit of fresh eyes.
One Capitol Hill staffer who works on tech issues, who requested anonymity to speak frankly, said many of the recent departures have been “institutionalists” who were wary of aggressive changes, particularly on issues like overhauling the 1996 law that shields online companies from many lawsuits. The staffer expressed optimism that new aides will be less beholden to the status quo.
Another cause of Congress’ talent drain is the Biden administration, which has hired Democratic staffers for White House and agency jobs — though Hill veterans say this too can bring policy benefits. These transitions often give senior lawmakers a familiar ear in the administration on tech and telecom issues and can harmonize approaches between Congress and the executive branch.
Multiple House Energy and Commerce tech staff have landed in such roles: Biden nominated the panel’s telecom and consumer protection chief counsel, Alex Hoehn-Saric, to chair the Consumer Product Safety Commission, while Doyle’s longtime telecom aide Phil Murphy is now a senior adviser at the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which oversees debates about expanding broadband, protecting data privacy and allocating spectrum. Cantwell aides have landed legislative affairs positions at the White House Office of Science and Technology and the Commerce Department.
Some people downplayed the turnover as normal for Congress, saying many smart individuals are ready to jump into the vacant Hill roles.
“People come and go, and the place doesn’t fall apart,” Doyle remarked. “It’s amazing, isn’t it?”
Indeed, Cantwell just announced she is filling a committee telecom staff vacancy with a longtime staffer for Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), and Doyle quickly filled his aide’s role with an ex-staffer who worked for former Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.). Even so, these hires have spent years working for big industry players, a fact that will do little to soothe concerns about Washington’s revolving door. The new Cantwell senior counsel had previously spent years at Charter Communications, and Doyle’s staffer spent years at wireless trade group CTIA.
Walden saw a practical side to this revolving door for staffers, remarking that “so many of them just get so bored” in their industry jobs that “they can’t wait to get back into the middle of things and come back to the Hill for a lot less pay.”
But others warn that Congress needs an unvarnished perspective to properly wrestle with the deep, monied interests at play. Hurd says lawmakers themselves need to develop the “working knowledge” to address these complexities.
“We are in those moments you want your public servants to have the staff and the resources they need to effectively stand up to industry,” Hempowicz cautioned.