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Senators voice skepticism about Schumer's AI summit

“These tech billionaires want to lobby Congress behind closed doors with no questions asked. That’s just plain wrong,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., during a hearing in 2023.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., at a hearing in March. Samuel Corum / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — Senators are expressing skepticism about Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s high-profile, bipartisan forum on regulating artificial intelligence scheduled for Wednesday, with a member of his own Democratic leadership calling it “just plain wrong” for wealthy tech executives to privately talk to lawmakers.

The all-day summit is closed to the media and the public. And senators won’t have the ability to directly ask questions of participants, who include tech billionaires Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates and other CEOs. Instead, they will be able to submit written questions.

“These tech billionaires want to lobby Congress behind closed doors with no questions asked. That’s just plain wrong,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., a vice chair of the Democratic conference, said in an interview.

“They want to shape regulation so that the current tech billionaires are the ones who continue to dominate and make money,” she continued. “They should not have a forum to do that, especially a closed-door forum.”

While Schumer’s inaugural AI Insight Forum is bipartisan — co-hosted by Sens. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., Todd Young, R-Ind., and Martin Heinrich, D-N.M. — so is the criticism. Senate Minority Whip John Thune, R-S.D., reiterated his frustration with the forum’s format, saying “it’s not efficient, for sure,” as committees hold hearings and draft legislation on the subject.

“I mean, this is all fine and good, and it’s, you know, flashy and high-profile and all that, but senators can’t ask questions, you know — there’s no opportunity to be heard on any of this stuff,” Thune said, “It’s not efficient, for sure.

“I think everybody’s trying to shine a light on this subject, but I hope in the end that we use a regular order process,” Thune said. 

Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., who recently proposed a bipartisan legislative framework to regulate AI with Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said it was “ridiculous” that the summit is closed to the media.

“I think it’s ridiculous that all these monopolists are all here to tell senators how to shape the regulatory framework so they can make the maximum amount of money,” Hawley said. “I mean ... they ought to be answering questions about what they’re doing with people’s private data.”

Schumer has clarified that any AI bill will eventually go through the regular committee process, but he said a new format is needed to rise to the challenge of regulating such an expansive topic.

In a floor speech Tuesday, Schumer defended his series of forums, which will run through the fall and include a “balanced and diverse” group of experts. In addition to tech executives, participants will include ethicists, academics, national security experts and labor and civil rights leaders.

“All of these groups, together in one room,” Schumer said on the floor, “talking about how and why Congress must act, what questions to ask and how to build a consensus for safe innovation.” 

Aides said the forum discussion will be moderated by Schumer and Rounds, with Heinrich and Young also participating. And Rounds said the gathering is closed to the public to avoid “grandstanding” in front of cameras and ensure lawmakers feel “comfortable” asking about a topic they may not know much about.

Certainly, not everyone is upset about the closed nature of the forum. A pro-labor progressive like Warren, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said, “Bringing folks together and having an exchange of ideas is fine.” And Blumenthal said Schumer has supported his and Hawley’s bipartisan AI framework. 

“No senators have to show up. If they feel it’s not an efficient way to use their time, they don’t have to be there, but we’re going to continue,” Blumenthal said. “Sen. Schumer has been very encouraging. When he announced this forum, he said on the floor of the Senate legislation has to go through the committee’s structure. We’re not supplanting the committee structure.” 

Asked whether she has told Schumer about her concerns, Warren — who has sparred with Zuckerberg numerous times — replied, “He knows my views on it.” But she said she still plans to attend Wednesday’s forum to hear opening pitches.