Talking Tech Policy with Flynn Rico-Johnson

The Complete Conversation highlights insights and advice from leading policymakers, senior congressional staff, and thought leaders on tech politics and policy.

This week, our guest is Flynn Rico-Johnson. Flynn is Deputy Chief of Staff for Congresswoman Doris Matsui — lead Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications and Technology.

September 12, 2023

THE COMPLETE CIRCLE: You’ve worked on tech policy in Congress for many years, on both sides of the Capitol. How has Congress’s approach to tech policy changed during the time you’ve been on staff?

FLYNN RICO-JOHNSON: We’re in the middle of what feels like a broader reevaluation of the role of industrial policy, especially in tech. The traditional party dogmas regarding free trade and globalization are changing quickly. As concepts like “weaponized interdependence” are better understood, the connection between national security and economic policy has become clearer among members of Congress and their staff.

The CHIPS Act is a prime example of this – but it’s not the only one. Ranking Member Matsui also secured $1.5 billion to help deploy open, interoperable telecommunications networks (Open RAN) to serve as a counterweight to Huawei and other entities of concern. And the Hill has been more engaged in the upcoming World Radio Conference than any in recent memory. On aggregate, this has elevated the role of tech policy in Congress and the Administration.

It’s now been almost a year since Congress passed the CHIPS and Science Act, which you worked on from the beginning. What are your thoughts on the implementation of the law so far?

As Congresswoman Matsui said on the one-year anniversary of President Biden signing the CHIPS and Science Act; “The CHIPS Act has only been law for one year, but it has already laid the foundation for a more dynamic economy and durable national security.” The bill’s passage has spurred more than $231 billion in private sector semiconductor industry investments and we haven’t even begun distributing incentives.

This initial success is a credit to Secretary Raimondo and the incredible team she’s assembled. They’re moving with urgency, are true subject matter experts, and have a profound respect for the process. As we head into the Fall, I’m confident we’ll see major announcements on the National Semiconductor Technology Center and incentives, among other things.

The “Science” component of the law has gotten short shrift thus far, with relatively small amounts of annual funding going to the new Directorate for Technology, Innovation, and Partnerships at the National Science Foundation. Do you believe there’s a path for future Congresses to prioritize this funding?

It’s no secret that CHIPS formed the substrate for the broader CHIPS and Science Act. It addressed a pressing economic and national security threat, but alone, it won’t fulfill the goals of the statute. Half measures and unrealized funding authorizations throughout the remainder of the bill leave a vacuum that our global competitors will happily fill.

Comprehensively implementing the CHIPS and Science Act will also mean job creation in places that have too long been left out of the innovation boom. The Tech Hubs Program is a prime example. It is, by statutory requirement, going to spread research, commercialization, and jobs to rural areas that need it. That proposition can and should be bipartisan.

What’s one aspect of federal policy involving AI that you believe is being overlooked?

While there’s been quite a bit of focus on the disaster scenarios with AI, I hope more offices will start to understand the discreet application potential to improve industries they already know and understand. The Communications and Technology Subcommittee has advanced language to ensure AI is being considered to improve spectral efficiency and Chairwoman Rosenworcel is working hard to ensure the FCC is doing the same.

While the global, horizontal discussions around AI are important, I think there are untapped opportunities for committees to lean on their existing jurisdiction to find tailored ways to improve AI within the industries they oversee. These bills might not be the exhaustive AI bills many Members want, but I think it’s the right way to approach governance in a fast-moving technological environment.

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