July 5, 1999
Computers and Clout Strong Encryption, More Visas on Agenda
Among the attendees at "Geek Week" were Federal Reserve Chairman Alan
Greenspan, right, and IBM CEO Louis Gerstner, here after a Senate hearing.
(AP Photo/Joe Marquette)
By Mary Deibel
Scripps Howard News Service
W A S H I N G T O N , July 5 - The computer industry demonstrated its
growing political savvy with back-to-back victories last week on two
priority items on its legislative agenda.
First, President Clinton and Congress agreed to limit the liability of
companies that take legitimate steps to clear up year 2000 computer
Then Clinton announced he would ease restrictions on computers that U.S.
companies can sell to China, Russia and other nations to whom sales have
been restricted for fear the high-speed chips could be converted to military
Both accomplishments came less than two weeks after the Silicon Valley Boys
blew into town for a high-tech summit they jokingly called "Geek Week," and
made it clear-in case anyone missed it: They came, they saw and conquered.
'A Good First Step'
Lewis Platt, chairman of Hewlett-Packard, along with a consortium of
industry CEOs who led the lobbying blitz, assessed the federal action as "a
good first step." Then they turned around and hosted a California
fund-raiser for Texas Gov. George W. Bush in what usually is thought of as
Al Gore territory.
It was one of seven California fund-raisers staged for Bush during a
three-day sweep of the Golden State to fatten a campaign war chest that the
Bush camp said already stood at a record $36 million, leaving rivals for the
Republican presidential nomination stunned.
Bush is not the only one paying court in computer land: Senate Commerce
Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., staged his own fund-raising visit
to the Valley Boys last week to add to the $6.1 million he has raised for a
Former GOP Vice President Dan Quayle and former Democratic Sen. Bill Bradley
of New Jersey also have found their way to the computer fund-raising
circuit, and Gore has been a frequent visitor, too.
The flurry of presidential fund-raising during the three-month period ended
June 30 won't be reflected in official figures until the Federal Election
Commission releases the latest reports on July 15. The FEC does report that
for the first three months of 1999, presidential hopefuls in both parties
collected $21 million overall. Of that total, only 1 percent-slightly more
than $200,000-came from the computer industry, which gave $75,250 to Gore
and $67,750 to Bush with the rest of the total going to other candidates.
Not Just Clinton-Gore Country
Meantime, Holly Bailey, spokeswoman for the Center for Responsive Politics,
a nonpartisan watchdog group, says that it's wrong to think that "Silicon
Valley is Clinton-Gore country" alone.
It's a far cry from where the computer industry was in 1996, when it barely
registered a blip on political contributions, let alone the Washington
lobbying scene, due to its preference for laissez-faire and impatience with
the political process.
Now that the industry has learned it wants or needs help from Washington,
more than 20 computer companies have their own capital lobbying shops along
with two umbrella trade groups: the Business Software Alliance and the
Information Technology Industry Council, which represents hardware firms.
High-tech also has its own Political Action Committee, the Technology
Network, or TechNet.
Its new president, Roberta Katz, a former Netscape general counsel, used
last month's high-tech summit with Congress to remind Washington that "a
third of the total growth in U.S. economic production the last seven years
has come from high-technology industries."
Losing Competitiveness in Encryption?
The industry agenda does not stop with Y2K liability limits and relaxed
rules for computer exports. Computer experts also are pushing the politicos
to let the industry:
Adopt tougher data-scrambling codes than the U.S. law
enforcement community wants when there are multiple foreign sources for this
kind of computer software. "We're losing jobs and we're losing our
competitiveness," complains Network Associates CEO Bill Larson.
More visas for computer engineers to come to the United
States from overseas. The 1999 cap of 65,000 on H1B worker visas was reached
June 15. At the same time 350,000 high-skilled positions are going unfilled,
complains Cybase CEO John Chen.
A permanent tax credit for research and development.
"Absolutely essential," says TechNet's Katz.
Is the computer industry succeeding in getting its message across? Yes,
according to Microsoft Chairman and founder Bill Gates.
"There's no question there are more members of Congress who understand our
problems today than did this time last year," he says. "But the question is
whether we have another year to wait."
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