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A modest step forward on cyber policy with DHS bill passage in the House

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All of the various cyber legislative pieces have a long way to go before getting to President Trump's desk.

Cybersecurity policy issues are inching forward on Capitol Hill as Congress lumbers through the dog days of summer.

Bills on issues like data security in the communications sector, encouraging or mandating the use of federal cyber standards across government and industries, and the cybersecurity of inter-connected and self-driving cars are languishing with little prospect of action in the near-term.

But House passage on July 20 of a first-ever reauthorization of the Department of Homeland Security — which plays a key role in securing federal computer networks and protecting critical industries — was a landmark achievement for multiple congressional committees, and a particular victory for Homeland Security Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas.

McCaul helped orchestrate a deal among eight House committees that claim some share of DHS jurisdiction, which allowed the sprawling measure to advance following years of stalemate among the panels.

McCaul and Homeland Security ranking member Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., each put out glowing statements about both the content of the bill and the bipartisan process that produced it.

"Today's reauthorization of the Department is a major bipartisan accomplishment and an example of what Congress can achieve when we put the safety and security of our country ahead of partisan politics," McCaul said in a statement.

DHS Secretary John Kelly chimed in, "I truly believe that it's time to do this. … The name of the game is coordination within our government at every level… and then fantastic partnerships with the commercial tech industry."

That's perhaps a sign that core cybersecurity issues can still be addressed in a bipartisan fashion even as the highly charged Russian hacking probe continues — and mostly eclipses discussion of other cyber policy matters.

For example, the House has also passed a defense authorization bill that contains cyber deterrence and U.S. Cyber Command provisions, and an intelligence authorization measure that discusses cyber.

DHS reauthorization has yet to move in the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, and that panel's chairman, Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., hasn't said where this topic ranks on his priority list. So the ultimate fate of DHS reauthorization remains uncertain.

But the House-passed bill contains a series of important elements on cybersecurity.

It mandates steps for shoring up DHS's internal cybersecurity with new auditing and other requirements, enhanced information sharing and sector-specific elements such as improving cybersecurity throughout the transportation system and at the nation's ports. It also would bolster grant programs for states.

What it doesn't include is McCaul's prized proposal for restructuring and elevating DHS's cybersecurity functions into a stand-alone agency that would sit at the top of the federal bureaucracy's flowchart on cyber authority.

Naturally, that hasn't been fully embraced by House committees that oversee other agencies, like the Office of Management and Budget, that share cyber authority with DHS.

Sources say talks continue to smooth out these jurisdictional wrinkles, but it's unclear if or when McCaul will be able to get his cyber agency bill to the floor. And, as on DHS reauthorization, the creation of a DHS cyber agency hasn't topped Sen. Johnson's agenda at the Senate homeland panel.

McCaul will continue to push though — this is his last term as homeland chair and completing his work on DHS's cyber role is a major piece of unfinished business for the Texan.

All of the various cyber legislative pieces have a long way to go before getting to President Trump's desk.

But as August nears, the important thing for policymakers like McCaul is ensuring that their priorities advance sufficiently over the summer in order to have a chance at making the always crowded House and Senate floor agenda this fall.

Charlie Mitchell is editor of InsideCybersecurity.com, an exclusive service covering cybersecurity policy from Inside Washington Publishers, and author of "Hacked: The Inside Story of America's Struggle to Secure Cyberspace," published by Rowman and Littlefield.