Here’s a tech-friendly cheat sheet to understanding Congress


After Wednesday’s passage of a bill aimed at reforming the Federal Communications Commission, I realized it could serve as a good example to help show technologists and entrepreneurs how D.C. works in terms they might relate to. Since D.C. is clearly getting more interested in regulating technology this should come in handy for those who want to get involved.

In reading an article covering the bill’s passage in the House, I noticed the almost identical statements from the CTIA, which represents the wireless industry and the National Cable and Telecommunications Association. Both used almost the exact same language to describe the benefits of the bill. So did Greg Walden (R-Ore.), the bill’s sponsor. This is hardly an accident and below, I’ll explain why.

DC insiders use jargon too, they just call them talking points. And that jargon is just as expertly crafted as the end-to-end solution a software provider is offering. Like the example above, anyone scanning political documents or coverage has to be able to identify and spot the jargon and then understand what’s behind the words. In the reform bill the key words are predictable and transparent, but hiding behind them are the means to force the FCC to jump through hoops to get things done. In the acquisition of T-Mobile, AT&T used job creation as its jargon, a strategy that backfired when it couldn’t actually prove it would create any.

DC isn’t binary even though it pretends it is. Partisanship rules the TV airwaves and media because conflict makes a great story. And while most politics is theater, designed to get a politician ratings and curry favor among his or her base, real compromises can and do happen behind the scenes. Unfortunately an outsider won’t see that happen and probably won’t get invited to the table. The solution may be brute force, such as the action against SOPA earlier this year, but more likely it will involve coming to the table with an organized presence. Call it a lobby or perhaps the tech industry can come up with its own spin, but to break through the talking points you have to get inside.

Legislation doesn’t follow if-then statements either. In programming you can tell a computer that if item A happens, then it should implement Item B and D. But when it comes to legislation and regulation there’s no guarantee it will play out like you want. First there’s the inevitable compromises, but there’s also the issue of seen and unforeseen loopholes that might be a result of careless language. Or perhaps a court will strike it down. As a reporter covering policy it can be hard to write definitively about politics because there are so many potential consequences depending on who is enforcing a law and how it gets interpreted.

No one talks about tradeoffs. In the tech world there are very clear tradeoffs that most engineers will admit. If you want faster memory, you might have to pay more for Flash. If you want a brighter display your battery life will go down. In DC the tradeoffs are there, but no one talks about them (see the talking points). So the key to understanding political debates isn’t in focusing on the hyperbole and talking points, but in figuring out who’s giving up something in each exchange. Once you figure that out, you can assess how a bill or regulation will affect your business or personal life.

These may be flamingly obvious, but after a few years of reluctantly covering Washington, I realized that much of my disgust with the process was tied to me wanting it to be like something it wasn’t. If you can accept what it is, and get in there knowing what you want out of it, then you can settle in to try to get it. Cynical? Maybe, but just look at DC as playing by a different set of rules.

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