The Congressional Killswitch

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Sometimes a story is just so perfect that the immediate response is suspicion, even skepticism, that such a thing could be. Even when backed by unimpeachable evidence, even to relate the story in another context, a reporter (this reporter, anyway) feels he must get the caveats out of the way, even at the expense of burying the lede, because it’s simply too easy to proceed any other way.

So then.

Eleanor Holmes Norton is a Delegate to Congress representing the District of Columbia in the House of Representatives. Though allowed to serve on committees as well as speak on the House floor, DC reps cannot vote on legislation and thus have only symbolic power—hence the District license plate legend, “No Taxation Without Representation.” Holmes was first elected to Congress in 1990 and has faced no substantive opposition to the renewal of her term since, nor will she until she retires.

Google is a very, very large company. Despite early attempts to avoid governmental entanglement, combined with a motto, “Don’t Be Evil,” that is warm and fuzzy by big-biz standards, Google is nonetheless one of the most politically involved corporations in the world, donating many millions to causes such as gay marriage rights and alternative energy sources—as well as to the Democrats, where such ideas are on the whole more welcome. However, in recent years (and in particular, after a potentially nasty antitrust suit) Google has been hedging its bets, courting the Republicans as well to make sure that whoever happens to be on top, Google can still prevail.

If they weren’t so quick on the killswitch, maybe Google wouldn’t need to spend so many of its resources lobbying for approval.

One of Google’s main ongoing projects is the creation of a driverless car—something that can hook into an overarching traffic grid and speed passengers to their destinations without the limitations of human frailty or curiosity: no more merge delays, no more fender benders, no more rubbernecking. Clearly hoping for congressional money to be shoved their way, Google hosted an event for the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee to showcase their new toy. And as a ranking member of that committee, Holmes was not only invited along, but also given pride of place as the first occupant of the shotgun seat, with results I highly recommend you watch in the video on this page.

For no sooner does she sit down than she wrecks the whole show: “It says Emergency Stop,” she says, while tapping and then smashing a big red button marked with exactly those words. And the Google spokesman (and Carnegie Mellon engineer), trying valiantly to control his panic, replies “Oh, no, don’t press that, it shuts everything down, and it takes some time to, um, recover from that.”

And with all the above caveats out of the way, how perfect an image is this of how legislators interfere with progress in technology and markets? A company wishes to test out a new product, and instead of going to the customers to see if it will succeed, they must first kowtow to those in authority (the representative of all Washington, D.C., as a matter of fact), who promptly misunderstand the device and render it useless—and then have the gall to take some sort of perverse credit for the deed, as implied in the newscasters’ comment: “Norton does think that cars like that could have a future so long as they have safety features like that kill switch.” Thanks, Delegate! Without you we’d never have known how to murder promising technology in mere seconds.

As the further exchange shows, even as a constitutionally powerless member of the House, Norton can still cast a formidable shadow:

“And you know, if they ever get that started, it could be a cool little ride.”
“I guess it still needs a little work.”
“Still needs a little work, yes.”

But despite their gentle, demagogic mockery, the newscasters save for the end a shrewd observation, one that calls into question the very idea of a large-scale federal government: if you are to build such a thing, “Be careful who you put in it—Delegate Norton may not be invited next time around.”

Would that we could all disinvite Delegate Norton, and her 535 cronies actually charged with lawmaking in this country! If they weren’t so quick on the killswitch, maybe Google wouldn’t need to spend so many of its resources lobbying for approval—and the rest of us wouldn’t have to bide our time waiting for advances that would’ve been possible decades ago, apart from the reticence and hesitance of our so-called leaders.



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Comments

Visitor

I may be mistaken, but I'm.pretty sure DC license plates say "taxation without representation", ommitting the word "no". That's kind of the point of the thing. It's notable for it's sarcasm, not something you see often on a government-issued document.

Visitor

I wasn't aware that the D.C. member(s) could serve in committees. Do they VOTE in those committees? If so, wouldn't that be, at best, a grey area that should have been avoided, in keeping with the spirit of the Constitution?

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