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House to take up three bills to curb cryptocurrency abuses

One measure would create interagency task force

Rep. Ted Budd, R-N.C., is cosponsoring a bill that would create an interagency task force led by the Treasury secretary to research financial crimes and terrorism, including those using cryptocurrency. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Rep. Ted Budd, R-N.C., is cosponsoring a bill that would create an interagency task force led by the Treasury secretary to research financial crimes and terrorism, including those using cryptocurrency. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The House is expected to take up and pass a trio of bills that focus on cryptocurrency’s ability to facilitate illicit activities.

The three bills were introduced in the last Congress and easily passed the full House with bipartisan support before stalling in the Senate. Two of the bills center on how new financial technology, or fintech, could be used by terrorists, and the third looks at fintech’s use in sex and drug trafficking.

Fintech in general, and especially cryptocurrencies, have drawn the ire of law enforcement officials and financial regulators because they make it harder to detect and prevent certain crimes. Also known as digital or virtual currencies, they use open, online digital ledger systems to facilitate and track transactions among anonymous users. Before cryptocurrencies, bad actors could ship money quickly, but not anonymously, through financial institutions, or could send money anonymously, but slowly, using hard cash.

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The proposals have the fintech industry’s backing, said Kristin Smith, the Blockchain Association’s director of external affairs.  

“While some criminals have attempted to use blockchain technology for illicit purposes, there’s been consistent collaboration between industry and law enforcement agencies and many technologies have been built to find these bad actors,” Smith said. “These bills push that collaboration forward, and we’re pleased Congress continues to take a serious look at these issues.”

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The most far-reaching of the three bills would create an interagency task force led by the Treasury secretary to research financial crimes and terrorism, including those using cryptocurrency, and develop regulatory and legislative proposals to counter those illegal activities. The group would consist of top federal law enforcement officials and private sector appointees with relevant financial experience.

The bill’s co-sponsors, Reps. Ted Budd, R-N.C., and Stephen F. Lynch, D-Mass., said in a joint statement that they hope the measure can move forward in the Senate. That bill was also co-sponsored last year by then-Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., who now sits on the Senate Banking Committee.  

The bill aims to improve coordination between law enforcement and the private sector on preventing and pursuing bad actors using fintech means for illicit ends, said Tyler Haymore, Budd’s senior legislative assistant.

“We think financial technology — not only cryptocurrency, but the underlying blockchain technology — really has potential to benefit everybody in the financial services space,” Haymore said. ”But this is a nascent technology: If we find more widespread use that terrorist organizations and illicit actors are using cryptocurrency as a main tool to carry out attacks, Congress will potentially respond in a way that harms this new technology and industry. We need to give the private sector [and] academia tools to address the problem and get them a seat at the table with regulators.”

The legislation would also create a Fintech Leadership in Innovation and Financial Intelligence Program, which would supply grants to U.S.-based academics, companies, nonprofit organizations and others for the development of tools and programs to detect terrorist use of cryptocurrency. Additionally, the proposal would establish a fund to pay a maximum reward of $450,000 for information that leads to the conviction of someone who uses cryptocurrency for terrorism.

The other two bills could be taken up as early as this week. 

Rep. Kathleen Rice, D-N.Y., wants the Department of Homeland Security to conduct a threat assessment on terrorists’ use of virtual currencies.

“I don’t know what the future of cryptocurrency is, but — right now — if it’s here to stay, we need to get ahead of it,” Rice said. “It’s allowed terrorist organizations to finance their operations using the darkest corners of the internet.”

Rice’s bill calls on the undersecretary for Intelligence and Analysis to develop the threat assessment in coordination with other federal agencies within 120 days of enactment. It would then be shared with state and local law enforcement.

“I have never been briefed on, or learned of, any comprehensive strategy for addressing this issue,” said Rice, who sits on the House Homeland Security Committee. “I think one of the first steps to coming up with one is learning what you’re dealing with.”

The sex and drug trafficking bill  introduced by Rep. Juan C. Vargas, D-Calif., would direct the Treasury Department’s Comptroller General to study how virtual currencies and online marketplaces can facilitate those illegal activities. Vargas said he is troubled by how cryptocurrencies can help bad actors keep their transactions hidden.

“The anonymity behind virtual currencies has made them a preferred payment method to carry out harmful and illegal activities,” Vargas said in a statement. “Congress must understand the full extent of how virtual currencies are being used to facilitate drug and sex trafficking and propose effective legislative solutions to fight these crimes.”


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