Meet the American Legislators Bullish on Blockchain

February 19, 2019
In The News

Despite the techno-libertarian ideology that inspired the creation of blockchain and cryptocurrency, a reckoning between decentralized networks, digital assets, and state apparatus has been a long time coming.

The last year has plainly laid out the effect that government intervention — or the lack thereof — can cause. An absence of meaningful guidance on the part of regulatory bodies in the US has played a part in stymying the explosive growth of the token economy stateside, while more lithe city-state, parliamentarian, or authoritarian governments dotted around the globe have sprinted to the front in establishing the early Web3 order.

As regulatory agencies who may lay claim to the jurisdiction of digital assets like the SEC and FDIC are taking a measured approach — as is their wont to do — proactive legislators from around the spectrum of American politics on the local, state, and federal level have taken the charge of advocating for blockchain technology, together forming a formidable nexus of action that is making remarkable progress all over the country.

Nowhere in the US is moving as fast as Wyoming, which has led the charge on the state level with a veritable smorgasbord of pro-blockchain laws, driven by the likes of State Rep Tyler Lindholm with overwhelming support from both sides of the aisle. States like Arizona, led by Governor Doug Ducey, and agencies like the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau have initiated regulatory sandboxes to facilitate growth of blockchain-related startups.

In Washington, the Congressional Blockchain Caucus, launched in 2016 by now-White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney and now-Colorado Governor Jared Polis, is populated by a bipartisan assemblage of vocal proponents of blockchain tech in the House with a powerful base for action. Scores of campaigns, including those of Governors Greg Abbott of Texas and Gavin Newsom of California, accepted cryptocurrency donations on their way to victory. SEC Commissioner Hester Pierce is a noted enthusiast. Even presidential candidate Tulsi Gabbard is a HODLer. The list goes on…

Changing Attitudes in Washington, D.C.

The good news is that the force of blockchain and decentralization is strong amongst many in Washington. “I look at distributed ledger technology as about individual freedoms,” says Minnesota Congressman and Blockchain Caucus member Tom Emmer. “I see this technology as having the greatest potential to take us into the fully fledged technological age. An issue we have in society at the moment: you always have to have somebody in the middle, a facilitator, whether that’s in the private sector, banking services, or when you’re working with governments. This stuff has the potential to completely decentralize the way we live, and make the individual central to the way they live their life.”

Congressman Emmer’s enthusiasm for decentralization seems genuine and palpable: “Think about what blockchain could mean to finance,” he goes on, “the individual’s control of their own data, the protection and dissemination of healthcare records, what it might mean for our elections — this could be the solution to our cybersecurity issues.”

Forays in the House towards blockchain legislation began as early as 2014, but increased in both frequency and urgency in the latter half of 2018. In September, Emmer introduced three bills, including the Blockchain Regulatory Certainty Act(re-introduced in 2019), which “protects blockchain developers and service providers from the regulatory burdens of registering as money transmitters,” and the Safe Harbor for Taxpayers with Forked Assets Act, which Emmer explains as stating that “a taxpayer can only comply with a law when the law is clear. If you act in good faith now, when a tax or regulation is determined to applicable to digital assets or a particular innovation, it will apply going forward and not retroactively. That means innovators can move forward until laws catch up without fear of penalties.”

After some encouraging words from Ohio Rep Warren Davidson that same month, he and Florida Congressman Darren Soto introduced the Token Taxonomy Act on December 20th, 2018. “We introduced the Token Taxonomy Act late last year to start our journey into a taxonomy and jurisdiction regime for digital assets,” explains Rep. Darren Soto, who co-authored the bill. “That was an important piece to see where Congress is moving, particularly in regards to keeping very narrow jurisdiction for the SEC. We’re now working on completing the package over the next six months, which will be probably two bills to determine both the jurisdiction and define the three major digital assets for cryptocurrency: security, digital token, and commodity.”

Both Soto and Emmer are members of the Congressional Blockchain Caucus. In this new session, the Caucus has grown to 17 members with near even representation from both parties, and Soto has taken on the Chairmanship.

“With the Blockchain Caucus, the idea is to increase awareness here in Washington, to get a lot of our members to look beyond the application of blockchain technology in just financial services,” Emmer explains. “Unfortunately, most members of Congress think cryptocurrency isblockchain. They’re starting to understand that they’re two separate things, and we have to get them understanding that government is not the alpha and omega in this matter.”

“The biggest issue we face is that a lot of members of Congress are not familiar with technology,” asserts Congressman Soto. “Look no further than when Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was brought in to Congress to testify. That’s exhibit A of the learning curve for many members of Congress.”

What’s evident amongst those who do get it is a remarkably bipartisan appeal for blockchain. Disintermediating industries ranging from banking to bookkeeping, healthcare, and IP are attractive to small government conservatives, who prefer minimal intervention in the lives and pockets of constituents, and liberals, who are equally wary of legacy institutions and are drawn to the equalizing potential of blockchain tech. In divisive political times, blockchain is proving to be a rare issue that shares growing support across the political spectrum. “I believe it is a bipartisan issue,” says Soto. “Or even a non-partisan issue.”

But is it moving fast enough? Although many on Capitol Hill have clearly gotten the blockchain bug, they share the growing Web3 industry’s anxieties about inaction. “My biggest concern right now is that because of the lack of understanding, because of ignorance on the part of elected officials who have not grown up with technology, we’re going to allow the bureaucratic institutions of government to institute controls and restrictions that will drive the creators and innovators away from the greatest economy on the planet,” says Emmer. “We’re already seeing some of that. That’s not what we want.”

As yet, none of the bills proposed have progressed to a vote in a Congress that’s been distracted by presidential politics and hampered by technological skepticism, a fact that rankles when held in contrast to definitive legislation being passed elsewhere across the globe. “We are in danger of being left behind,” Emmer admits. “A lot of it has to do with uncertainty. It’s a big potential investment for a lot of organizations and companies, but the uncertainty over what our government may or may not do is causing hesitation instead of innovation. But in the meetings I’ve been having back in my state, there are some very big players looking to begin internally applying blockchain technology, so I’m optimistic for the future.”

Action on the State Level…

While developments in Washington are in danger of languishing in an exploratory phase, some state bodies are racing ahead to obtain first mover advantage. Last year, the Wyoming state legislature passed a swath of pro-blockchain bills— some unanimously — that addressed issues ranging from money transmitter laws to securities regulation and taxation of digital assets, making it the most blockchain-friendly state in the US. Wyoming followed up this year with multiple slates of bills— and the plan to attract businesses is already bearing fruit.

“We were successful in attracting blockchain businesses to our state,” says Wyoming State Representative Tyler Lindholm. “In less than a year, we’ve seen over 250 businesses domiciled in Wyoming — and we’re capitalizing on that.” Although those populating the libertarian-leaning halls in Cheyenne may be forging assuredly forward, legislation is often at odds with established federal and bureaucratic norms. Some guile and creativity has been required to move the needle.

Lindholm explains: “Whether it’s blockchain or any kind of innovation, it really depends on state policymakers being willing to think outside of the box. One of the biggest issues we saw was banking, being able to hold checking accounts — simple, basic things that most companies take for granted. It turns out the FDIC is pretty discriminatory. I don’t think anyone at the FDIC can differentiate between cryptocurrency and blockchain. While taking that into consideration, we drafted House Bill 74, which charters a new type of bank that’s 100% reserved, a depository, non-lending institution that also does not have to carry FDIC insurance. The fascinating aspect is that this premise of a 100% reserve hasn’t been done in the United States since 1790!”

States like Wyoming offer a litmus test for potential federal legislation. The state’s turnaround from regulatory backwater to becoming a benchmark of proactive blockchain legislation may portend the way forward for the US. Lindholm admits it took some convincing to get his Cowboy State colleagues on board, but — much like the a ha moment many of us experienced in regards to blockchain — when it happened, it happened fast.

“We started out with a lot of trust being extended by my colleagues, but now they’re seeing the fruits of their labor,” Lindholm explains. “Folks that were a little wary before are seeing companies come into their communities, calling them about bringing their business to Wyoming. That’s jobs, that’s tax revenue, all from setting up a regulatory structure didn’t cost the taxpayers a thing.”

That kind of upside is what has most states around the country following in Wyoming’s wake. In fact, Lindholm notes that a sense of competition has emerged amongst state legislatures aiming to get ahead of the pack. So far,39 state bodies have introduced laws that in some way relate to cryptocurrency or blockchain. Many address money transmitter laws, and a 2018 report from the Brookings Institute identified over 32 states that have introduced or enacted pro-blockchain laws.

…Who Really Pulls the Lever?

Although the flurry of activity on state level is encouraging, many in Washington believe that blockchain law must eventually come of age under federal jurisdiction. “It’s the internet. This is interstate commerce,” says Congressman Darren Soto. “The only reason the states are legislating right now is because the federal government has failed to act. Like with commodities, securities, and currencies in general, the federal government would preempt state law in all appropriate ways when this is done. However, states are great laboratories for legislative ideas, and they’re not preempted yet, since there is no federal legislation. Certainly, we are looking at the work going on in Wyoming, New York, and other states, so it’ll be persuasive to us. It’s helpful to get the spectrum of political ideas from the states as we construct an overarching policy.”

Similarly, although much of the focus in the wider blockchain community is on awaiting guidance from regulatory bodies like the SEC, Soto argues that it’s Congress that will ultimately define policy on blockchain and digital assets. “Congress has supremacy over any agency,” explains Soto. “The SEC plays an important function in safeguarding consumers and making sure that folks who are doing public filings are acting in a scrupulous manner, but it’s also an extensive review and a very complicated process. We want to make sure only digital assets that are true securities go through that process. Right now, it’s critical, given the technical nature and high stakes of the situation, that we listen to everybody and do or best to get this right.”

By now, it’s evident that discourse on blockchain legislature is nearing a tipping point. The cessation of this round of the crypto craze has allowed a refocus on the substantive impact of blockchain technology as it relates to everything from financial services to data privacy to government processes. Much to the ire of futurists and technologists, the mechanisms of American government can often move at a laborious pace — that’s by design. But if modern politics in the US has taught us anything, it’s that the people and their vote can drastically change the pace and direction of any political tide.

What we often overlook is that success and failure on a legislative agenda often transpire at a razor’s edge. Nowhere has this been made more evident than in Colorado last year. House Bill 1426 laid out clear direction on tokens, securities, and money transmitter policy. It passed emphatically in the house, 57–8, and lost narrowly by 1 vote in the senate, mostly because some Senators just didn’t have the knowledge to vote confidently. State Senator Lucia Guzman voted no, saying: “these are new ideas and possibly good ideas, but I’m not comfortable with it.”

Here’s What You Can Do.

With all this in mind, there’s something you can do to move blockchain legislation forward. All of these elected officials work for you. Call your federal representative. Call your state representative. Email them. Tweet them! Let them know the importance of blockchain technology, and that they can chat with Darren Soto, Tom Emmer, or any of the other 17 members of the Congressional Blockchain Caucus to understand what’s really at stake. Sensible regulation of blockchain technology is a critical issue with growing bipartisan support, and it is essential to our economy that the United States is not left behind as a Web3 world is being built.

Your elected officials are listening. “We look at emails that are coming in,” says Congressman Darren Soto. “We’re always checking out ideas that come in through other means like Twitter. The feedback from the blockchain industry has been helpful. I understand a lot of folks are eager to get this done, but we’re equally eager to get it right. We anticipate to have our bill, which would be the first step, in the first six months of this Congress. This is a key part of continuing to have the United States be a global leader in international transactions, and for promoting innovation and technology, so we are absolutely set on having a friendly jurisdiction with a light regulatory touch to ensure that happens.”


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