Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to reflect that the patent office’s 16-page telework report did not come from the Commerce OIG’s office.
While members of the technology industry were hopeful that Congress would quickly confirm Michelle Lee, the administration’s pick to lead the patent office, a high-ranking lawmaker said Wednesday that it might not happen this session.
During a Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing, the panel’s senior Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley said there isn’t enough time for Lee’s nomination to go through before Congress adjourns at the end of the year.
“When the new Congress is sworn in, this committee will have new members, and those members should have an opportunity to participate in a hearing,” said Grassley, the Iowa lawmaker who is poised to take the committee chairman’s gavel when Congress changes hands next month.
Though, after being pressed by the current committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., Grassley said it was “reasonable” that the committee could take up Lee’s nomination in January.
During the otherwise congenial confirmation hearing, the nominated chief of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office discussed some of the perennial issues facing the patent office: improving patent quality, reducing the backlog of patent applications and addressing criticisms of the once-lauded telework program that came under fire this summer.
Already, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has already taken a chunk out of its looming backlog of patent applications, said Lee, who currently serves as the agency’s deputy director. Indeed, since 2009, the patent office has cut its backlog by 20 percent, though and accumulation of more than 600,000 applications still remains.
And as several major technology companies have cried foul over so-called patent trolls attacking their intellectual property — and amid Congress’ stalled efforts to thwart the trolls’ attempts — the patent office has focused its efforts on improving the quality of patents its examiners issue, she said. Lee told lawmakers that bolstering patent quality would be the patent office’s top challenge going forward.
“The very next priority beyond [addressing the backlog] is to make sure we issue the very best quality patents,” she said. As part of the mission, Lee said the office planned to hire additional patent examiners. She said this year the office has hired 1,000 new examiners and hopes to bring on at least 750 more in 2015.
She also said the office was encouraging examiners to identify reasons for rejection early so there can be “a more informed discussion earlier on.” Lee also talked about working with patent offices abroad to process applications filed in multiple countries. In the past, she’s also pointed to information technology as a means of improving patent quality.
Lawmakers asked questions about a series of reports over the summer that found workforce issues, particularly time and attendance fraud, within the agency’s ranks.
During the summer, the Washington Post reported that investigators found significant problems with USPTO’s award-winning telework program, even though the final report sent to the Commerce Department’s Office of Inspector General presented a more sanitized view. A separate report from the inspector general found that paralegals at the agency’s Patent Trial and Appeal Board were getting paid to shop online and do laundry because they were not given enough work by supervisors.
“As I understand, when theses issues came to the attention of PTO management, they immediately took action to implement additional controls, policies, procedures and training,” Lee said.
She said in September that patent managers received additional training on time and attendance abuse. She also said she established two cross-agency bureaus to prevent abuse and intervene early on. The National Academy of Public Administration was recently asked to review the entire telework program.
President Barack Obama nominated Lee earlier this fall to officially lead the office, much to the delight of technology groups. Lee was a deputy general counsel for Google before she joined government, first as the director of the Silicon Valley patent office before moving into her current job.
The support among tech groups remains strong. Indeed, during the hearing the Consumer Electronics Association tweeted out a link for followers to sign a petition asking lawmakers to confirm Lee.
During the hearing, Grassley commended both Lee and Daniel Henry Marti, who was nominated to be the intellectual property enforcement coordinator in the Executive Office of the President, on their strong credentials. Though, at the same time, he cautioned the nominees against having “false expectations” about when they’d be confirmed.
“It’s not meant to detract from what I said about your qualifications and the fact that we’re glad that the president nominated you,” he said.