Imagined Crypto: Senators’ Misunderstandings and Projections on Digital Assets. Narrative Analysis of Hearings Held by the Senate Banking Committee (113th – 117th Congress)

Alexandra Bucher

In November 2022, FTX, the third largest crypto exchange platform collapsed and its CEO, Samuel Bankman-Fried, underwent trial in October 2023 for seven different charges of fraud. How did this happen? How could one of the main actors in the crypto industry not comply with U.S. laws? The answer is that there is no federal regulation for digital assets and exchange platforms in the United States. Some states have issued crypto-specific legal frameworks, and federal agencies — mostly the SEC, CFTC, and FinCEN — are doing enforcement based on legislation on securities and commodities that they apply to cryptocurrencies on a discretionary basis. But since the first hearing held in the Senate in 2013, a status quo has remained in which no coherent federal legislation was passed for digital assets.

The U.S. Congress is well known for this legislative status quo. In a typical two-year Congress, 8,000 bills are introduced, and only 400 are passed into law. Overall, two explanations for the gap between introducing and passing policy are salient: the fragmentation of power in Washington and the scarcity of attention (Baumgartner and Jones 2005). Policy is more likely to change when attention is brought to a specific question by external events, and how this question is framed in committee hearings and discussions in the meantime influences its ultimate policy trajectory (Baumgartner et al. 2009).

The digital assets industry has been attracting Congress’ attention for a long time. Hearings were held after the dismantling of the fraudulent Silk Road platform in 2013, in 2019 when Facebook announced their cryptocurrency project, and with the collapse of FTX in 2022. More than 50 bills have been introduced on taxation, central bank digital currency, and for regulatory clarity, but no law that legislates digital assets uses, markets and platforms has been enacted. In this study, I focus on the framing of digital assets in Congress. I hypothesize that if external events, which are the main reason for undermining the status quo, have not triggered policy change in Congress yet, then perhaps looking into the internal framing of the question will be of some help. Here, I argue that digital assets are subject to narratives and representations so incompatible with each other that they participate in blocking the policy-making process in Congress. I show that these representations are fueled both by uncertainty towards the future, and the technicality and pliability of cryptocurrencies that both confuse policymakers and make it possible to insert these objects in a variety of different narratives that support diverging political goals. I use narrative analysis as a tool to understand both the representations held by Senators and how these narratives reveal the visions of economy and finance that Senators and witnesses display. Understanding the issues involved in regulating digital assets is necessary to be able to defend everyone’s interests in the face of this new financial instrument.

Focusing on economic representations of the future, Beckert argues that “imaginaries […] are a crucial element of capitalist development” (2016:6). As the future is uncertain, representations become “interpretative frames that structure situations through imaginaries of the future states of the world and of causal relations.” Because framings guide actors’ actions, they can be shaped into narratives of the present and the future to encourage certain types of actions over others. Blockchain communities, exchange platforms, and interest groups use disruptive terms such as “financial revolution” and “innovation of the future” and thereby construct a narrative where digital assets would considerably improve everyone’s life (Faustino 2019). They propose narratives of the development of technology, the economy, of finance, and define what Congress should or should not do to allow the realization of this projection. While digital assets advocates view blockchain and cryptocurrencies as a profitable innovation and miracle solution to a series of problems (underbanking, financial crime…), its critics point out that it is precisely the type of innovation that can bring fragility to the financial system. For this reason, carrying out a narrative analysis is crucial to understanding the representations of digital assets and the economy at stake in the policy-making process of digital assets.

What are digital assets?

Digital assets rely on blockchain, a principle that was created with Satoshi Nakamoto’s Bitcoin white paper published in 2008. Central to blockchain is the asymmetrical dual key system which supposedly allows blockchains to be transparent, and the system of blocks also makes it impossible to modify, hence the appellation “trustless” — there is no need for trust since the system ensures that the transaction will occur.

The momentum of this publication, during the 2008 crisis, accentuates the narrative according to which cryptocurrencies and blockchain were created at that moment to defy the traditional trust institutions (banks, insurances, and States). It is however part of a tradition of technological and ideological research in cryptography dating back to the 1990s: the “cypherpunk movement”, computer scientists who invented asymmetrical dual-key cryptography to preserve personal information in the context of a growing numeric environment (De Filippi 2018). The invention of an anonymous and decentralized payment system was meant to be the last block to concretize the cypherpunk ideal of society; multiple projects tried to formulate such payment systems before Bitcoin, but it was the first successful one. It has now spread: in January 2024, the website Statista reported that there exist more than 9,000 cryptocurrencies.

Literature review on digital assets and their regulation

The question of the digital assets regulation policy-making process has received little attention in the literature. However, many legal articles address the issue of existing regulations worldwide (Hughes 2017; Buttigieg and Efthymiopoulos 2018; Chudinovskikh and Sevryugin 2019; Wronka 2021; Bellavitis et al. 2021; Riley 2021; Novaković 2021). Other articles, with a prescriptive focus, consider how to frame their legislation (Afzal and Asif 2019; B. Of England 2020; Nabilou 2019; Yussof and Al-Harty 2018; Shirai 2019; Yanagawa and Yamaska 2019). These articles focus mainly on central bank digital currencies, the IT security of blockchains and exchange platforms, and the cybercriminal economy (Carvalho Silva and Mira da Silva 2022). Finally, other works with varied approaches study the effects of regulations on digital assets markets (Auer and Claessens 2018; Shanaev et al. 2020; Feinstein and Werbach 2021).

Most of the above-mentioned literature is written by lawyers and economists. These articles are descriptive and prescriptive but do not entirely tackle the making of regulations as a social process. There are few works in this vein. Based on a sociological investigation of the sector, Koray Caliskan explains that digital assets are poorly regulated at the U.S. federal level because there is no specific authority for them (2022). In sociology, little work focuses per se on representations in policy-making (Neal 2010; Rajão 2013). However, narrative analysis abundantly nourished policy analysis since the “argumentative turn” in policy analysis in the late 1980s (Fischer and Forester 1993; Van Eeten 2007). In anthropology, the contribution of Inês Faria is remarkable because it tackles the different imaginaries involved in the making of the European legislation Markets in Crypto-Assets (2023). Here, this work focuses on the American situation with the instruments of narrative analysis in sociology.

How to study representations and narratives?

The point of narrative analysis is to question the way a story is told to understand how the actors envision specific issues, and how they build a narrative to share their vision. Advocating for the use of narrative analysis in sociological studies, Franzosi lists six elements to which the researcher should pay attention: chronology, adjectives used, the structure of the narrative, values expressed in the text, and conditions of production (1998). First, chronology can be manipulated to serve an ideological bias (also valid for other dimensions such as space). Closer to the text, the adjectives emphasize some elements and minimize others. More broadly, what constitutes the background and what is put in the foreground of the narrative should be examined, as well as the structure of the story. This can help address the question of the real motive behind the narrative. Asking what morality and set of values are implied in it can also be enlightening. Finally, the question of the conditions of production of the narrative is crucial since they influence its production.

Committee hearings and transcripts

The first formal committee action on a bill might be a hearing to collect information from various actors, from members of executive branch agencies to interest groups. All hearings begin with the readings of the opening statements of the Committee’s Chairman and the Ranking Member, who are then followed by statements of witnesses — generally three: members of regulatory agencies, actors from the industry, interest groups advocates, or researchers — which were previously selected by the Committee. Then opens a moment of questions where Representatives and Senators each have five minutes to address the witnesses with their interrogations.

To target the committees that had the most legislative activity around digital assets, I first listed all the bills and laws on the subject. Digital assets were mentioned in 165 bills, laws, amendments, and resolutions, treated by 19 House Committees and 9 Senate Committees. I chose to begin with the Senate Banking Committee since it is the Committee that held the most hearings, and I studied specifically four. I chose those hearings for their spread over time and their topics but I do not plan to limit my final study to only these four: given this is a limited sample from the same Senate Committee, the visions of digital assets may not be representative of all the other House and Senate Committees.

How Senators view digital assets

The stake here is to understand how Senators address digital assets. What are their concerns? What, according to them, represents a regulatory challenge? What, in the industry, caught their attention? What should be regulated, and what should not?

One of the most recurrent questions asked by Senators is the definitional one: what type of economic object are digital assets? This question is regularly posed by Senators over the years even though the hearings were meant to address their regulation, which shows the lack of effort of this committee to seriously address the question. The definition itself is important to regulate — the misunderstanding of the blockchain system led the Arizona state to pass an uninformed and ambiguous law in February 2017 (Walch 2017a) — but also because it is related to the question of the authority in charge of enforcement. Out of the three agencies currently in charge of enforcement, not two share the same definition of digital assets: the SEC considers them as securities; the CFTC considers them as commodities; and the IRS as properties (Caliskan 2022). Each agency regulates them inside the scope of their competencies. The only crypto-related product over which the SEC has jurisdiction is the initial coin offerings; the CFTC can regulate derivative markets, and surveil and take enforcement action for fraud and manipulation on the underlying spot markets, but they are not entitled to set the standards on those markets. Neither the SEC nor the CFTC can regulate the digital assets markets. When Senator Rounds asks him if Bitcoin is a commodity, a security, or both, the then-CFTC Chairman Christopher Giancarlo offers an ambiguous answer:

One of the phrases that is often used is that Bitcoin is a medium of exchange, a store of value, or a means of account. If it is a medium of exchange, then it is a currency-like instrument. And yet, as we have seen, a number of means of exchanges have been closed to Bitcoin […]. But yet it is still spoken of as perhaps a means of account. And in that case, it has implications from the Fed and currency. From our point of view, when it is used as a store of value, then it is very much like an asset, like a commodity. And, in fact, what we hear a lot of is people buying and holding.

With this answer, Chairman Giancarlo does not reply to Senator Rounds. He does not mention securities when it was part of the question, and implies that the dilemma would rather be between currency or commodity; it is currency-like because it can be used to buy and sell but at the same time it can be refused as a means of payment. It can be used as a store of value and then can be viewed as a commodity, but the Chairman specifies that it is “from [the CFTC’s] point of view”, and the volatility of digital assets is often pointed out as an obstacle to assuming a function of store of value (Figuet 2016; Lo and Wang 2014; Velde 2015; Yermack 2013). This answer shows both the pliability of digital assets, and the lack of comprehension of supervisors, as digital assets can be but are not any of these definitions (Caliskan 2022), and is unfortunate because it does not bring clarity to Senators who keep asking the definitional question in later hearings. The pliability of digital assets uses and definitions is also used to preserve the industry’s interests. In the same hearing, Jerry Brito, the Executive Director of CoinCenter, managed to present them as an infrastructure (“While we may not yet have the Wikipedia or Netflix of cryptocurrency, that does not mean that we never will”) and as a currency (“prodemocracy labor activity in Belarus and antipolice violence protesters in Nigeria successfully turned to the Bitcoin network to accept donations because local banks would not bank them”) in his opening statement; but answering to Senator Toomey that points out that they are a systemic risk for the financial and economic system, Brito answers that “cryptocurrencies ultimately are commodities” and that “this thing could be said for any commodity, right? […] You can imagine an investment in orange juice, and you can imagine a literal bug that wipes out the orange crop could have a systemic effect”. The intrinsic complexity of digital assets and blockchain, doubled with crypto-actors’ lexical manipulations, the constant evolution of the system with the apparition of new features, and the rebranding effectuated by exchange platforms to avoid negative associations (Walch 2017b), participate in confusing regulators around their definition, how they act and how to regulate them.

Second, Senators interrogate digital assets’ potential to be used for illegal activities. The first hearings held in the Senate were gathered after the Silk Road scandal; the hearing with the SEC and CFTC Chairmen was organized after the hack of the international exchange Coincheck in 2018 for the equivalent of $530 million; another was held by the House Financial Services Committee after the FTX collapse that involved fraud and embezzlement. In every hearing, Senators mention cryptocurrencies as potential canals for money laundering and terrorism financing due to the pseudonymity allowed by the blockchain, but also as potential means for some countries to evade United States sanctions, like Russia, Iran, North Korea, and Venezuela.

The other concerns around digital assets are whether they consist of risk for customers — customers could lose all their assets because of volatility or exchange platform hacks — and whether they represent a systemic risk for the financial system or not— surely a lesson learned from the 2008 crisis. However, very few Senators take these risks seriously. They are mostly only mentioned in arguments where the main question is innovation: how to build a regulation that protects customers against those risks but that above all is “comprehensive” and fosters a beneficial environment for the digital assets industry? In most cases, the protection of customers is mentioned but then set aside. The best example of this is Senator Crapo’s opening statements. Senator Crapo, a Republican from Idaho, was Chairman of the committee from 2017 to 2021 which therefore gives him the prerogative of opening the hearings. The pillars of his opening statements are his presentations of blockchain as a flawless system, and of digital assets as “inevitable”. From there, he assumes that “they could be beneficial” and that “the U.S should lead in their development”, but that “that cannot happen without clear rules of the road”. Let us decorticate this presentation. This vision of digital assets as a technology whose rise is “inevitable” is part of the representation of innovation as an ever-forwarding march, shared by both cypherpunks and transhumanists (Caccamo and Bonenfant 2021). This conception of technology as a tool for liberating individuals from hierarchical and state structures made its way from hippie culture to Silicon Valley’s startup culture (Turner 2006). In a morose economic environment at the beginning of the 1990s — declining purchasing power, low productivity, stagnation of life conditions —, the Clinton administration saw that the concurrence preserved in the informatics industry fostered the U.S.’ dominance over the rest of the world, and concluded that to preserve this worldwide advantage, it was necessary to preserve these markets’ self-regulation. Even after the crash of the Internet bubble in the early 2000s and the 2008 crisis, this vision was still supported because innovation was seen as an engine of economic growth that relies on what Schumpeter calls “creative destruction”. This vision forms what Durand calls the “Silicon Valley consensus” (2020:31). Since the beginning of the 2000s, legislators have considered that technology needs to be lightly regulated to protect entrepreneurship and flexibility of the market, labor, and capital. This is how an innovation first called to defy institutions in the Bitcoin white paper is not seen as threatening by Senators, but as an opportunity of which “the U.S should lead [the development]”. Senator Crapo’s representation of digital innovations as “inevitable” is therefore rooted in cypherpunk ideology but is also actually self-referential: if digital innovations are inevitable it is because Congress’ position on innovative technologies has been to poorly regulate them since the beginning of the 1990s —and not because technology and innovation are inevitable per se.

From there, the Senators’ concerns around digital assets and innovation appear more clearly: their top priorities are to ensure that the U.S. maintains its lead in technology in the international economy; and that this technology is not used against the U.S. government through money laundering or sanctions evasion. Financial crisis history appears in their concerns under the form of the mention of systemic risk and protection of customers, which leads Senators to use the term “responsible innovation”, but what remains is the will to implement a “comprehensive regulatory approach” that fosters the development of blockchain technologies in the U.S to ensure their economic domination. These representations are stable over time. Senators of this committee are not much more informed on digital assets in the 117th Congress than they were during the 113th, and their concerns remain the same even if technology evolved and raised new regulatory challenges: because ultimately, what matters for certain Senators is that regulation should foster innovation.

The construction of narratives

In the hearings, each intervention can be related to certain representations of the economy, technology, and its future, and carry ideological biases with them. However, some interventions are plainly in the form of stories where the actors in question develop narratives that anchor digital assets in specific pasts, presents, and futures. Next, I examine two opposed narratives: Senator Sherrod Brown’s and crypto-advocate Jeremy Allaire’s. I chose these two actors because they are often present in the hearings of this committee — Senator Brown as a member and Allaire as an active lobbyist — and vividly participate in the discussions.

Senator Brown: digital assets as a repetition of the subprime crisis

Sherrod Brown is a Senator from Ohio and a member of the Democratic Party. He has been a member of the Senate Banking Committee since 2015, and Chair of the Committee since February 2021. In all the hearings he participated in, he offered incisive storytelling around digital assets. He anchors his narrative in a reminder of the 2008 financial crisis that was partly caused by financial innovation. His opening statement in the S.116-104 hearing is particularly interesting. This hearing was held two weeks after a hearing about Facebook’s cryptocurrency project, Libra (abandoned since), that visibly marked the Senators since they consecrated a good amount of the hearing focusing on Libra, while the topic of the hearing was “Examining Regulatory Frameworks for Digital Currencies and Blockchain”. In his opening statement, Senator Brown does not mention other digital assets than Libra, and builds his intervention around the term “innovation”. He argues that “big tech companies and Wall Street banks are hiding behind innovation as an excuse to take over important public services that we all benefit from and should all have a say in”. He draws a parallel between the current digital assets and the derivative product that was at the roots of the 2008 crisis: “Before they blew up the economy in 2008, bankers were pitching an innovative new product called ‘subprime mortgages'”. As we know, the 2008 crisis ended with thousands of families evicted from their homes and a big systemic economic crisis: he, therefore, uses the similarities between the innovation-based marketing of these two products to suggest that digital assets have the potential to provoke a crisis of similar impact.

Senator Brown also constructs the figure of a villain in his story: the “big tech companies and Wall Street banks”. For him, the problem is not innovation — he explains that he is “all for innovation” and that he looks up to John Glenn, former astronaut and Senator, who “was an innovator” — but that “big tech companies and Wall Street Bankers” innovate “for profit”. He therefore criticizes profit-driven innovation that threatens “public services” and “ordinary Americans” and their “hard-earned paychecks” — who are built as the victims of those greedy innovators.

Senator Brown does not suggest regulatory advice but Congress and regulatory agencies appear as the saviors in his statements: “If we do not move quickly to improve important infrastructure […] we will end up with big corporations that have broken our trust again and again and again, and that does not make any sense”.

Jeremy Allaire: the imagined future of blockchain and digital assets

Jeremy Allaire is the cofounder, CEO, and chairman of Circle Internet Financial Limited, the firm that issues the stablecoin Circle, and participated in the hearing S.116-104 on behalf of the Blockchain Association, one of the most active digital assets interest groups. In his argumentation, he overturns a lot of the criticism made around blockchain and digital assets, which are not presented as potentially fostering problems but as the solutions to these problems. He begins with defaults of the financial system: money laundering, privacy violations and data breaches, limited access to capital for small businesses. This allows him to introduce digital assets and blockchain as a solution: thanks to the “security, efficiency, transparency and enforceability” of blockchain that allow “much safer use of digital services and which will radically improve […] privacy while more effectively thwarting financial crime”. Using repeatedly the future tense, he depicts a world where blockchain will have brought “a series of profound changes”:

Digital currencies will proliferate and become usable by billions of people on mobile devices. A new set of internet-based global capital markets built on digital assets will emerge, opening up capital markets for businesses and investors everywhere, scaling from today’s thousands of companies to a world where every person and business can directly access global capital markets with the same ease that they access e-commerce market place. Blockchains will transform the global economic system.

Here, contrarily to Senator Brown’s narrative, Allaire’s is anchored in the future that blockchain and digital assets would allow. He depicts an imagined future (Beckert 2016) where trade and business opportunities would be completely reconfigured thanks to technological innovation. However, past roots are not evicted from pro-digital assets narratives: at the beginning of this statement, the Internet is cited as a milestone to which regulators should refer to remember that tight regulation could prevent innovation from bettering everyone’s lives. The arguments of the possibilities brought by technology find their roots in the cypherpunk and transhumanist imaginary of technology.

Allaire then focuses on the main obstacle that he sees to the concretization of this future: “regulatory uncertainty and the application of laws that do not contemplate digital assets [that] has led to the loss of significant opportunity”. The use of the term “opportunity” tickles the Senators’ concern about missing out on an opportunity to lead the markets of this innovation. Allaire then explains that this “has had a material impact on the competitiveness of U.S companies, with Asian-based companies beginning to dominate the market” and uses the example of his own company that he chose to base in Bermuda that provides a “comprehensive regulatory framework for companies in the industry”. The use of this example, therefore, clarifies the expression “regulatory uncertainty”: Allaire suggests that digital assets companies are looking for a “comprehensive regulatory framework” that “define[s] and establish[es] digital assets as a new asset class, including appropriate rules and exemptions”. Without this comprehensive regulation, he gloomily predicts that “the United States will not be the world leader in this critical new technology, it will continue to fall behind and it will not fully reap the benefits of economic transformation that digital assets will bring”.

Allaire’s statement can be seen as a funnel that progressively narrows. This conclusion is only allowed by the structure of the narrative that unrealistically describes blockchain as transparent and accessible. He presents these two elements as granted but they are not precisely true: the functioning of Bitcoin relies on a technocratically organized governance of core developers that gives certain developers the power to change the blockchain code (Rolland and Slim 2017). Furthermore, as the witness Professor Baradaran brilliantly explained in S.Hrg.116-104, cryptocurrency markets are not easily accessible to everyone, which disrupts the argument that cryptocurrencies favor financial inclusion. He takes the example of Nevada, the State with the largest proportion of un(der)banked, which would therefore be, theoretically, one of the largest exchange platforms’ targets. However, it is impossible to buy digital assets without a bank account, and a large part of Nevadans do not have one. Therefore, comprehensive regulation is not the only necessity for the thriving of blockchain because its functioning is not what Allaire depicts.

This argumentation is in line with the narratives that the Blockchain Association presents in its answers to regulatory agencies’ consultations. The themes of social justice and accessibility are present in all documents: “Crypto networks operate twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week and are available to anyone with a phone or computer and an internet connection […] While a large investment firm may be able to do off-book trades with another large counterpart, a mom-and-pop retail trader in the U.S must wait until 9:30 a.m. EST to act on her decision market”. In all documents, digital assets and blockchain are depicted as trustless and transparent technology. Concerning the obstacles to digital assets development, the same expression can be found in some documents: “The largest obstacle that U.S crypto businesses face when competing globally is legal and regulatory uncertainty”.


The FTX collapse that revealed the fraud empire that Samuel Bankman-Fried had built — while being very active on the hill to help Representatives and Senators tackle the question of digital assets’ regulation — shook Congress. In 2023, no less than four bills were introduced to regulate the sector. Maybe that is what it took to make them realize that the digital assets industry is not as serious as it pretends to be and that pro-crypto narratives like Allaire’s dangerously threatened customers and the economy. In the hearings that I have studied, several Senators treated crypto like another financial asset while FTX did not even comply with corporate law.

Narratives like Allaire’s that refer to the “Silicon Valley consensus” favor a position where Senators should flexibly regulate digital assets to maintain American technological edge but are based on misrepresentations about what blockchain technology can do. Very few witnesses bring a realistic eye on cryptocurrencies and few Senators are interested in what they are saying. Even the main digital assets detractor in the Senate, Senator Brown, does not seriously explain the specific risks of cryptocurrencies: he merely draws a parallel between digital assets and subprime derivatives. He does not offer any guidance for regulation and has never introduced a bill on digital assets.

The complexity of cryptocurrencies results in the simplification of how they work and what they are; their similarities to already defined economic objects such as currencies, commodities, securities, and properties favor errors and manipulations. For all these reasons, the narratives built around digital assets by policymakers and the ones supposed to advise them, by inserting these objects in debates that oppose Senators more broadly — what should be the main criteria of worth between protecting citizens or maintaining American economic position — participate in distorting the policy-making process. Based on a false idea of what digital assets and blockchain are, these narratives contribute to regulatory blindness and ignorance and foster the regulatory gridlock by politically antagonizing the debate.


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