Last year, Minnesota congressman Tom Emmer’s deputy legislative director gave him a copy of The Age of Cryptocurrency: How Bitcoin and the Blockchain Are Challenging the Global Economic Order. The book, Emmer says, had a profound impact on him and how he views the world. “I didn’t grow up with the 3-D mind the way my kids have grown up,” says the 57-year-old Republican and father of seven. “A lot of people who come from where I do, we have a tendency to get set in our ways and look at things in two dimensions. Not only did that book allow me to look at something from a different perspective, but it showed me that this whole area is not only transformational to the financial services industry in this country—it goes way beyond that.”
Today, Emmer is one of blockchain’s biggest boosters in Congress. He recently became co-chair of the Congressional Blockchain Caucus and announced that he will be introducing three blockchain-related bills, which he stated would “prioritize accelerating the development of blockchain technology and create an environment that enables the American private sector to lead on innovation and further growth.” BREAKER spoke to Emmer, who is up for a third term in November, about his proposed legislation and how crypto gets a bad rap in D.C.
I get the impression that a lot of your colleagues in Congress view cryptocurrency as very suspect—something you use to buy drugs on the dark web. How are you trying to change hearts and minds?
I get into my committee hearings and started to hear my colleagues, Republicans and Democrats alike, being very one-dimensional in how they looked at this. I have to be careful because I have a personality that tends to just call things out as right or wrong, and I have to remember that the average age of some of these people is much older, and they haven’t been exposed to it except through some of the bad stories that have been written by more mainstream publications that typically have journalists who also do not have a background in distributed ledger technology.
And what I tried to do is point out to the chairman of the Financial Services Committee in the House that it goes way beyond that. And to the naysayers, I’ve recently used the example that the alleged Russian hackers for our last election were able to be tracked because of their involvement with a distributed ledger application. In our last hearing, I also pointed out that cash is still probably the easiest thing to walk around with in a suitcase that you can’t trace. You’re going to have bad guys in [cryptocurrency] just like you do with cash every day. And it’s just a matter of educating my colleagues whenever we get the chance.
You’re about to introduce three blockchain-related bills. How do you drum up enthusiasm for something that, as you’ve said, a lot of your colleagues don’t really understand?
It’s starting the discussion. That’s why these three bills are so important. Starting with the Resolution Supporting Digital Currencies and Blockchain Technology. You have to start putting the positive out there, and then you have to start bringing them in on specific issues, which is why for instance, the Blockchain Regulatory Certainty Act is so important, because what do we hear from businesses across this country every day? The problem that government creates is an environment of uncertainty. When we have capital investment hanging in the wings, because entrepreneurs don’t know what government’s going to do, that’s a bad thing.
The other piece is we need to start to have people who know how to put this in terms that folks without a Ph.D. in writing code can understand. It starts with a conversation. These three bills are important to get that conversation going.
So what is the current administration’s take on blockchain and cryptocurrency? Have you talked to President Trump or anyone within his circle about it?
I have not talked to the president about it. Our office has been in touch with people within the administration. I will say that I did have a conversation with Jay Powell [chairman of the Federal Reserve] about what’s going on. We’ve talked to Mr. [Joseph] Otting at the OCC [Office of the Comptroller of the Currency]. I’ve been a little frustrated because there has been an unwillingness to give the public a definition as to what, in the cryptocurrency space, is the definition of a currency versus a commodity versus a security. Give us specific criteria for entrepreneurs, investors, people working in the financial services industry, so that we can start to actually allow the marketplace to work.
And in your conversations with people in the administration, did they seem to understand that we need some sort of clarity on those issues?
I’ve had great feedback from both the OCC and from the Federal Reserve. Chair Powell said he’s put a group of people, really smart people, together that are working through these issues right now. They understand how important it is to be up to speed on this now, because we get other countries that are stepping into the breach, and it’s really important that the innovation, the investment, the entrepreneurial activity, take place in the United States.
You were recently named a co-chair of the Congressional Blockchain Caucus. What do you hope to accomplish as co-chair and how will you raise profile of the caucus?
Four of us are co-chairing it. The other three are just brilliant human beings. You’ve got Jared Polis from Colorado, you’ve got Bill Foster from Illinois—who I believe is one of the few, if not the only, Ph.D. scientists in Congress—and you’ve got Dave Schweikert from Arizona, who speaks this stuff in his sleep.
The idea of the Blockchain Caucus is just to enhance what you and I have already been talking about, which is to raise the profile of not just the fact that, yes, there have been some challenges in this space, but more importantly, the promise that the distributed ledger technology offers. But beyond that, to get that conversation going so that people understand how great the promise is and do not do things that will snuff out the potential before it’s realized.
"More and more, I hear Republicans and Democrats focusing on the shady things that might allegedly be taking place with these different currencies. It's less than helpful."
What kind of things are people doing to snuff out blockchain’s potential?
They haven’t yet. But when our [Financial Services] chair, Jeb Hensarling, and I talked about our priorities for the second half of the 115th Congress, he asked to borrow The Age of Cryptocurrency. He still has the book, and one of the reasons that it was important that I have this discussion with him is because more and more, I hear Republicans and Democrats focusing on the shady things that might allegedly be taking place with these different currencies within the exchanges. It’s less than complimentary, which is less than helpful because they aren’t focusing on all the good things that are happening and on all the promise that this thing offers. That’s the most important thing: to continue to bring up positive stories, positive applications, so that people realize this is transformational in many different areas before they start regulating.
The House recently passed the Financial Technology Protection Act, which provides for the investigation of crypto and its use in terrorism. How worried should we be about terrorists using crypto?
I think that the distributed ledger technology could be—could be—the answer to what ails us. It could be a solution to our cybersecurity issues, which in turn could also help us in terms of making sure that the bad guys are not only identified but are not funded. Time will tell. I read [the bill’s] language and the way it was drafted, even though, again, I didn’t like the fact that it focuses purely on the potential negative application, I thought it was—gentle is the wrong word. Vague is the wrong word, too. It wasn’t over the line in terms of how it’s going to be used.
So I was supportive, but I’m going to tell you again for about the umpteenth time, I have serious concerns. All we do is focus on the potential negative applications instead of the promise that this technology offers.
Do you own any cryptocurrency yourself?
No, I don’t. But I should, and Landon [Zinda, his deputy legislative director] and I actually had somebody who does own it show us how you can buy it and move it. To tell you the truth, I need to sit in front of that [computer] and be able to play with it myself. So I haven’t yet. I don’t have a wallet to put it in. [Laughs.]
You’re running for reelection. Based on what you’ve been hearing on the campaign trail, do Minnesotans care about the blockchain?
It’s not going to be in my campaign lit—you know, “Jump onboard the blockchain train!” That’s not a campaign slogan by any means. But am I hearing from people? I hear from them all the time. I hear from them in the transportation space about how important that this type of technology is. I hear from them in the healthcare space. And obviously we’re hearing about it in the financial services space, because a lot of mainstream lenders—family-owned banks, community banks, credit unions—they don’t understand this, and they’re worried about how it’s going to disrupt the financial services marketplace. So, yes, I do hear about it from constituents.
How long do you think it will be before cryptocurrency and blockchain become real campaign issues that candidates are actually debating?
That’s an interesting question, and it’s one that I probably don’t have an answer for, other than I would tell you that those who say it’s never going to be a thing never saw it coming in the first place. You can dial it back to the times when people were told, “You can’t sail that way, because you’ll never come back.” You have to let the dreamers dream. And the investors decide which ones they want to want to try and fund because that’s how you create the next great opportunity.
What does it mean for the future? Right now, we have to look at it from the standpoint of allowing people who understand things that some of us do not to work in the space without having government interference that will unreasonably restrict the next great advancement. I know if government will allow this, will get out of the way, it can happen very rapidly.
This interview has been edited and condensed. Photo courtesy Tom Emmer