Outlook: Zuckerberg Heads to the Hill

The Facebook CEO is set to face tough questions from lawmakers on the company's failure to protect users' personal data.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg
AP Photo/Jeff Roberson
April 8, 2018, 8 p.m.

Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg will make his Capitol Hill debut this week, though perhaps under different circumstances than the once-rumored presidential candidate would have preferred.

The social-media mogul will appear Tuesday before a joint hearing of the Senate Commerce and Judiciary Committees, where he’ll be grilled by lawmakers over Facebook’s role in the ongoing Cambridge Analytica scandal. Zuckerberg then heads to the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Wednesday for what’s sure to be similar treatment.

Questions will likely include why Zuckerberg failed to inform the public immediately after learning, over two years ago, that the data of up to 87 million users was transferred without authorization to the British political consultancy—and, for that matter, why Facebook still can’t seem to get its story straight about how many users were affected (initially it was reported that only up to 50 million users were affected).

Lawmakers may also push Zuckerberg to address legislation that would mandate greater disclosure for political advertisements seen on Facebook and other platforms, as well as the company’s activities surrounding potentially invasive technologies such as facial-recognition software.

A joint statement released last week by Energy and Commerce Chairman Greg Walden and ranking member Frank Pallone suggests some lawmakers hope to use the Zuckerberg hearings to highlight concerns about the tech industry’s use and protection of consumer data more broadly. Many of the same privacy concerns raised by Facebook’s relationship with Cambridge Analytica are present on other platforms, and any attempt by Congress to create new privacy standards in response to this scandal will need to take the practices of other companies into account.

Meanwhile, just weeks after passing a $1.3 trillion omnibus spending bill and months after cutting taxes for most Americans, House Republicans will vote on a balanced-budget amendment, which would amend the Constitution to state that the federal government cannot spend more than it collects. The legislation has little chance of passing the Senate, and an even smaller chance of being ratified by the states. Still, the vote could give some Republicans a chance to show they voted to balance the budget even while Congress as a whole increased the deficit.

The House will also vote on a bill to exempt some community banks from the Volcker Rule, which prohibits them from making some speculative investments. Finally, the House will vote on a bill increasing the maximum prison sentence for anyone who stalks a minor and a measure directing an existing anti-human-trafficking task force to recommend to Congress ways to stop traffickers from laundering money.

And the Senate will continue to churn through the Trump administration's nominations, starting with a procedural vote Monday night on Claria Horn Boom to be a judge for a U.S. district court in Kentucky. Other nominees who may get a vote include John Ring to be a member of the National Labor Relations Board, Patrick Pizzella for deputy Labor secretary, and Andrew Wheeler to be Environmental Protection Agency deputy administrator.

Here’s what else is on tap this week:

DEFENSE AND FOREIGN POLICY

CIA Director Mike Pompeo’s confirmation hearing for secretary of State will be held on Thursday before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. It's likely to be contentious, and Sen. Rand Paul, who sits on the committee, has previously said he opposes President Trump's decision to move Pompeo to the State Department.

Defense Secretary James Mattis and Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, are slated to testify before the House Armed Services Committee Thursday on the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal 2019.

On Wednesday morning, the panel will hold a hearing with former government officials on cyber operations, and in the afternoon it will hold its annual member-day hearing.

The Senate Armed Services Committee is set to hold posture hearings for the U.S. Transportation Command on Tuesday and the Army on Thursday in review of the defense authorization request for the next fiscal year and the Future Years Defense Program.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday is scheduled to consider the nominations of Kirsten Dawn Madison to be an assistant secretary of State for international-narcotics and law-enforcement affairs and Thomas Hushek to be ambassador to South Sudan. The same day, the House Foreign Affairs Committee will meet for a hearing on financing overseas development.

The Senate Intelligence Committee will also hold two closed briefings this week.

ENERGY AND ENVIRONMENT

Another week of legislative activity is bringing more testimony from Energy Secretary Rick Perry. The DOE chief was a fixture on Capitol Hill in the two weeks before recess, and he will again try to sell the Trump administration’s fiscal 2019 budget before a Senate Appropriations subpanel Wednesday and the House Energy and Commerce Committee Thursday.

The administration is requesting $30.6 billion for DOE in fiscal 2019, nearly $2 billion below current funding levels. That request includes an increase in appropriations for weapons activities and a nearly $100 million line item to stand up a new cybersecurity office, following an intelligence report last month that Russian hackers infiltrated the U.S. grid.

But Congress has largely flouted the administration’s plea for cuts. The DOE budget request calls for a dramatic, $1.3 billion cut to the Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy office. Lawmakers rejected a similar request in the fiscal 2018 omnibus, instead boosting appropriations for that office by 15 percent.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke will also head to the Hill Wednesday to testify on that department’s FY19 budget before a House Appropriations subpanel. The administration is requesting a roughly $1.6 billion cut for Interior, which would downsize the department’s budget to $11.7 billion.

Embattled EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, however, is showing no sign of following suit and publicly defending the agency’s budget before Congress. The administration is requesting $2.6 billion in funding for the EPA, which would bring the agency’s budget to $6.15 billion.

But the EPA may get some time in the Senate-floor limelight this week. Andrew Wheeler, the nominee for deputy administrator at the agency, is currently fourth in line for a confirmation vote. Democrats are forcing Senate leadership to expend all processing time to move many nominations, so the Wheeler nomination could be pushed to next week or beyond. The EPA currently has no deputy administrator, following the retirement in early April of a career official who was serving as acting deputy—a reality that would rear its head if Pruitt is forced out.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee, meanwhile, will hold a hearing Wednesday on efforts to fully restore Puerto Rico’s power grid, which currently is serving more than 90 percent of households and businesses. A slew of administration officials—including Assistant Energy Secretary Bruce Walker—will testify, along with witnesses from the private sector, as the recovery process in Puerto Rico trudges on seven months after Hurricane Maria.

The Atlantic Council will hold a discussion Wednesday on the oil-market impact of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and U.S. shale production. Russia and Saudi Arabia, the de facto head of OPEC, are considering a long-term relationship to stabilize oil prices.

HEALTH

Lawmakers may have been out of Washington for two weeks, but work on health care did not cease.

Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander and ranking member Patty Murray released draft legislation last week to respond to the opioid crisis. The measure would encourage development of non-addictive painkillers and packaging options for opioids that could include “blister packs,” and provide support for state Prescription Drug Monitoring Programs. The committee will consider the proposal on Wednesday.

The Senate Judiciary Committee will also be looking at addressing fentanyl, a potent opioid that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said is contributing to the escalation in drug overdoses.

On the other side of the Capitol on Wednesday, the House Oversight and Government Reform panel’s health subcommittee will be looking at local responses and resources to curb the opioid crisis. And the Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee will hold its third legislative hearing to examine possible legislative solutions to the epidemic, with a focus on Medicare and Medicaid.

Also on Wednesday, National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins will be on Capitol Hill for a House health appropriations subcommittee hearing on the fiscal 2019 budget. The same subcommittee will have another hearing Thursday on investments in the health workforce and rural communities.

The Oversight and Government Reform Government Operations and Intergovernmental Affairs subcommittees will convene a hearing Thursday on improper payments in Medicaid.

TAXES

Congress passed its fiscal 2018 omnibus funding bill in March, marking what’s likely the last big piece of legislation to get through Capitol Hill before the November midterms. But tax writers are looking to move a few additional bills, with varied chances of success.

The Senate Finance Committee is set to hold a hearing Thursday on IRS challenges in the 2018 filing season, which will end next week. Acting IRS Commissioner David Kautter is scheduled to testify.

The hearing comes as House tax writers released an IRS-overhaul draft bill over recess. The bipartisan legislation could make it out of Congress if lawmakers keep it free of controversial provisions, and if Senate Democrats get on board, analysts say. The House Ways and Means Committee hasn’t yet announced a hearing for the draft bill yet.

Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady has also proposed another tax-overhaul bill, one that would make permanent some of the temporary tax breaks in last year’s bill. That would include both the individual tax breaks and the temporary provision allowing full and immediate business expensing in last year’s measure, CNBC reported. GOP tax writers hope to hold a vote on the bill by April 17, tax day. That doesn’t leave much time for dealmaking, and it signals that the measure could largely be a midterm-messaging move—both to advertise what could come if Republicans keep the majority and to get Democrats on the record voting against making individual tax cuts permanent.

Democrats have been reluctant to advance more tax legislation without some of their own concessions, as evidenced by GOP tax writers’ efforts to move provisions making corrections to last year’s tax bill. And Democrats may be gearing up for their own tax-overhaul push if they win the House in November. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said at a California event last Wednesday that they would work with Republicans to again rework the tax code after they win the majority, the Washington Examiner reported.

Elsewhere, the clock ticks down for the April 17 Supreme Court oral arguments in South Dakota v. Wayfair, Inc., which could determine whether states can collect sales taxes from online retailers even if they don’t have a physical presence there. Like South Dakota, other states are moving to capture revenue lost to online retail.

TECHNOLOGY

It’s a busy week beyond Mark Zuckerberg’s appearance before the Senate Commerce and Judiciary committees on Tuesday and his stop the next day at an Energy and Commerce hearing.

The House Science, Space, and Technology Committee meets Wednesday to address the danger of foreign spies masquerading as scholars in order to steal sensitive research being developed in America’s labs and universities. Lawmakers will hear from Michael Wessel, the head of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, among other panelists. Wessel's inclusion suggests that Chinese espionage activity within American research institutions will take center stage during the hearing.

The House Armed Services Committee is planning a cybersecurity kick on Wednesday. In the morning, a full panel of lawmakers will discuss the challenges of cyber-operations with three of the top retired cybersecurity officials in Washington—former National Security Agency head Keith Alexander, former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, and former Bush administration official Michael Chertoff are all slated to testify.

Then in the afternoon, the Emerging Threats and Capabilities Subcommittee will hear from outgoing NSA head Michael Rogers and Assistant Defense Secretary Kenneth Rapuano regarding the budget, strategy, policy, and programs for cyber operations and U.S. Cyber Command in fiscal 2019.

WHITE HOUSE

President Trump, who has had only a handful of public events in recent weeks, will be in public a little more this week as he heads to a large meeting of hemispheric leaders. On Monday, he will meet and have dinner with his top military leaders. On Tuesday, he hosts Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, in an effort to resolve the nearly year-old dispute between Qatar and a Saudi-led group of regional nations trying to isolate the country because of its ties to Iran. On Thursday, he will give a speech touting his tax cuts. On Friday, he departs for the Summit of the Americas, a 34-country gathering in Lima, Peru, that may bring him face-to-face with Cuban leader Raul Castro. From Peru, he will go to Bogota, Colombia.

Daniel Newhauser, Alex Rogers, Adam Wollner, Brian Dabbs, Erin Durkin, Casey Wooten and George E. Condon Jr. contributed to this article.
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