A bill to make electronic signatures an official way to bind an online transaction may now make its way to President Clinton’s desk before Congress adjourns for the year. The House Commerce Committee paved the way Thursday by passing H.R. 1714, the Electronic Signatures in Global and National Commerce Act. The bill will now be placed on the full House of Representatives’ calendar for a vote sometime after the legislators return from August recess.
A similar measure, S.761, the Millennium Digital Commerce Act, passed the Senate Commerce Committee July 30th and now awaits a vote by the full Senate. If both bills pass their respective branches of Congress, they will be joined together into one bill for Clinton to sign.
The only remaining hurdle is time. Congress, and therefore the rest of Washington, is set to adjourn today for a month recess, returning to Capitol Hill September 8th. The calendar ends for the year October 29th, but members of Congress will likely try to move that date up to buy a little extra campaigning time in their home districts before the November elections.
Election Year Politics
The electronic signature bills, therefore, must warrant placement relatively high on the House and Senate calendars to be considered before Congress adjourns. Working in the bills’ favor is the fact that neither one attempts to dramatically change any current laws. That makes them an easy sell for many members of Congress – they are relatively uncontroversial, and they give the legislators a chance to publicly back the development of electronic commerce, which many of their constituents are beginning to understand as an important factor in the U.S. economy.
Rather than changing current laws, both bills would simply put the federal government’s stamp of approval on electronic signatures to bind online agreements. The bills would make electronic signatures just as legitimate as current handwritten signatures, and they would make them viable across state lines. Currently, not all U.S. states recognize electronic signatures to bind contracts.
House Commerce Committee Chairman Tom Bliley and Rep. Tom Davis, both Republicans from the Internet-heavy state of Virginia, originally co-sponsored the bill. America Online and several other major Internet companies are based in Virginia. “The Internet is the communications network of the future. Increasing use of the Internet depends on developing and retaining consumer and business confidence in this unique medium,” Davis said. “This is clearly a step in the right direction in Congress’ attempt to reconcile our legal system with modern day technology.”