Democrats are set to vote this week on who will replace Rep. John Conyers Jr., the powerful top-ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee who resigned earlier this month due to accusations of sexual misconduct from former aides.
The decision will shape the trajectory of the Judiciary Committee if Democrats retake control of the House and, in 2020, the White House. The contest pits the next two senior-most Democrats on the committee against each other: New York City Rep. Jerry Nadler and Silicon Valley Rep. Zoe Lofgren. Both are among the most progressive members of Congress, with strong records on civil liberties. Nadler is considered a friend of the creative community, while Lofgren is close to big tech firms.
The Democrats’ steering committee will vote Tuesday and make a recommendation to the entire Democratic caucus, which will vote the following day.
The chair of the committee, should Democrats take control, would have considerable influence to set the agenda on antitrust policy, law enforcement oversight, immigration reform, gun control, and surveillance. And while Donald Trump is still president, the chair would face pressure from activists and other Democrats to begin impeachment proceedings.
Elected in 1992, Nadler is two years Lofgren’s senior on the committee and assumed the role of acting ranking member when Conyers stepped aside as chair. Nadler has already secured the endorsement of NARAL, a prominent pro-choice advocacy group, which wrote a letter to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi last week calling him a “true leader in protecting women’s constitutional right to reproductive freedom.”
Nadler was also a leading figure in pushing back on warrantless wiretapping after 9/11. Despite the fact that he represented the district where the World Trade Center fell, Nadler voted against the Patriot Act and has repeatedly tried to reform its surveillance authorities. Lofgren is a more recent convert to the cause and voted for the Patriot Act, but has since said she regrets it.
Nadler’s office did not respond to request for comment, and Lofgren’s office declined to comment.
Since Edward Snowden leaked documents revealing the scope of the NSA’s warrantless surveillance, Lofgren has overtaken Nadler as the House Democrats leading privacy advocate. Since 2013, she has sponsored multiple measures defunding “backdoor searches” — which allow domestic law enforcement agencies to sift through certain kinds of NSA data looking for evidence of a crime.
Lofgren is also an immigration expert, having taught immigration law before holding elected office. And in 2012, Lofgren led the fight that defeated the Stop Online Piracy Act, which would have placed harsh copyright restrictions on sites like YouTube and Facebook. Nadler was supportive of SOPA.
Lofgren’s close ties to tech companies, meanwhile, have put her on the wrong side of the anti-monopoly politics that have emerged in progressive circles in recent years. During the Obama administration, Lofgren publicly urged antitrust authorities not to go after Google and condemned European authorities when they actually did. But Lofgren has opposed the tech companies in other ways, criticizing them for their lack of diversity and advocating reforms for the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act – a law that harshly and redundantly criminalizes hacking, which tech companies generally want to keep in place. And earlier this month, Lofgren raised concerns about competition among data companies in Silicon Valley.
Update: December 20, 2017, 11:04 a.m.
Rep. Jerry Nadler won the race to become the House Judiciary Committee’s top Democrat in a 118-72 vote Wednesday.