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After the Election: Key High Tech Issues

Rick White
TechNet President and Chief Executive
Tuesday, November 23, 2004; 12:00 PM

Congress may consider a number of issues relevant to the technology industry next year, ranging from taxes and trade to telecommunications. Former Washington Rep. Rick White (R), head of the TechNet policy group, was online to discuss technology in next year's Congress and in the second term of the Bush administration. The discussion was moderated by washingtonpost.com Filter columnist Cynthia L. Webb.

A transcript of the discussion is below:

Rick White (Courtesy TechNet)

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


Cynthia L. Webb: Rick, Thanks for joining us today to talk about your organization and important tech policy issues facing Congress and the Bush administration. Can you give us a primer of what TechNet does? And what differentiates your group from other high-tech trade organizations, such as the Information Technology Association of America and others?

Rick White: TechNet is a CEO organization for the technology community. Our job is to get tech CEOs to spend a little time focusing on politics and policy. If left to their own devices, most tech executives would rather focus on the technology than on government.


Cynthia L. Webb: Congress has just decided to expand the high-tech visa program to allow more foreign tech workers to work in the United States. A lot of tech companies, including Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard, were part of a coalition that backed this new expansion of the H-1B visa program. Was TechNet active in lobbying for this and what do you say to critics who claim that allowing more visas like this takes away jobs from U.S.-based tech workers?

Rick White: We supported raising the visa limit. We have a great work force in the US, but even here it is hard to find enough highly skilled, highly talented people. For us to keep our leadership in technology, we have to get the best people in the world to come to the US and work in our companies.


Cynthia L. Webb: Here is more information on the H1-B visa program: http://uscis.gov/graphics/howdoi/h1b.htm


Washington, D.C.: What happened to the stock-option accounting issue this year?

Rick White: It's still unresolved. FASB will probably issue it's standard in the next month or so, but it won't take effect until 6/15/05, and the SEC may well push it back further. In the meantime, Congress has made it pretty clear that the current approach isn't acceptable. So if FASB and/or the SEC don't make some significant changes, I think Congress will get involved again early next year.


Portland, OR: Why are manufacturers that are chosen to supply electronic voting equipment reluctant to make public their schematics? For machines that serve the public interest, does it seem right to you for them to be privatized? Who's to blame here?

Cynthia L. Webb: Rick, we have several questions from readers on e-voting companies. How involved has TechNet been on e-voting issues and any plans to help your members take part in reform plans for continuing to use technology to help the voting process?

Rick White: We haven't been too involved in the electronic voting debate, although we have been following it pretty carefully. My own view is that the technology will turn out to be a major improvement over what we have now, but we will have to go through a few cycles to work out all the bugs. All in all, I thought electronic voting performed pretty darn well this year.


Arlington, Va.: How closely is TechNet and its members working with the Department of Homeland Security on national cyber-security preparedness?

Rick White: We've been very involved in the cybersecurity process, and there is a lot of info about it on our website, www.technet.org. Our focus has been to raise the bar for acceptable security practices at private companies, and I think we are making some progress. But there still is a long way to go. We are hoping that the cyber security function will end up with a little higher profile at the Department of Homeland Security after the current 9/11 bill works its way through Congress.


Washington D.C.: Hi Rick,

From an industry standpoint what were your biggest "wins" and "losses" on the Hill in 2004? Can you point to a couple of concrete examples?

Rick White: Stock options was our main focus this year, and also our biggest accomplishment. I think we helped people understand that the proposed standard really does have some serious problems, and that it would be a real tragedy if we made it harder to give options to rank and file employees. We passed a bill in the House with 312 votes -- a majority of both parties -- and 53 Senators wrote to FASB and the SEC expressing concerns about the current proposal. So I think we made some real progress, but there will be more to do next year.


New York NY: SBC and BellSouth have announced they are building networks in the 6-30 meg. speed range, not the 100 meg that TechNet set as a primary goal. What will TechNet do about that, or has 100 meg by 2010 been put aside without a public comment?

Rick White: We said 100 mgbs was the goal for 2010, and we still think that's true. The technology is still moving very quickly, with wimax and other new approaches showing some great promise. But we're still encouraged by what SBC and BellSouth are doing. We won't get 100 mgbs all in one chunk, so going to 30 mgbs represents a step in the right direction.


Cynthia L. Webb: Here is a link to more information on TechNet's position and work related to the stock option expensing issue: http://www.technet.org/technetissues/BielsteinLetter6_04/


Cynthia L. Webb: Can you talk about the status of the federal government's funding efforts to fund technology research? What industries are poised to benefit the most from Uncle Sam's funding and what areas do you think need the most help to get more funding?

Rick White: The level of research funding has been a disappointment. There are only two or three proactive things the government can do to help the US keep its technology leadership, and funding for basic research is probably the most important. NSF funding will actually go down in fiscal 05, so that is a bad trend. We will try to fix this next year.


Cynthia L. Webb: A link to the National Science Foundation's funding information: http://www.nsf.gov/home/grants.htm


Cynthia L. Webb: We have 30 minutes left in our discussion with Rick. Readers, thanks for all your questions and participation so far.


Cazadero, CA.: This may be a bit off point, but here goes anyway. I have heard some leaders in the high tech industry suggesting that current policies regarding immigration and some elements of the Patriot Act may have a chilling effect on the future of the tech industry. Historically, many of the leaders in this industry were immigrants who came here for education and after or during their schooling created many successful applications and business models and stayed here to contribute further. It was suggested that if a student makes the commitment to be educated here they should automatically be issued green cards to be encouraged to stay here to be contribute to the industry. Currently they are not given that option and urged to go home.

Cynthia L. Webb: Rick, what are your comments for this reader? It would seem the recent H1-B visa program expansion is one acknowledgement of concerns like this.

Rick White: This is an area of concern. We have the best university system in the world, but fewer than half of the graduate students in math, engineering and science are US citizens. We need to increase the interest of US students in these areas, but we also need to attract the most talented people from around the world to make up the difference. And we are definitely hearing that the post 9/11 turmoil in our immigration system has made it a lot harder for foreign students to attend our universities. Once foreign students have come to the US and been educated here, it would be better for us if they would stay here, work at US companies, and help our economy grow. Instead, we often force them to go back to their own country and compete against us.


Arlington, VA: For the most part, the high-tech industry's legislative agenda over the past few years has been a negative one -- don't tax the Internet, don't regulate the Internet, don't change a thing. Is that likely to remain the case or will the tech industry need Congress' help at all in the coming year?

Rick White: There are only a few positive things the government can do to promote technology -- improve education, fund basic research, keep the economy on an even keel -- and most of them aren't specific to the tech industry. Most of the rest of tech policy is trying to prevent the government from making mistakes (usually inadvertently) that will hurt tech development. That's why we find ourselves spending most of our time doing things like fighting the battle on stock options. But you are absolutely right that we should do a better job of promoting education, research, and other positive ideas, and that will be a priority next year.


Cleveland, OH: I will graduate from a Kaplan University Distance Learning degree program in 2005. Many of my classmates are enrolled in Law Enforcement (more so than IT). Will the new administration's focus on terrorism push IT security and law enforcement to merge forces for national security in the near future? Would it be most probable that career prospects will be better in private or government positions?

Rick White: I think there are lots of opportunities in the intersection of technology and security. And I would advise you to focus on the private sector first, and then go into government after you have some experience (and some financial resources).


San Francisco, CA: Given that the outsourcing of programming, testing, and other general technological roles is going to be the norm, what is the education plan to ensure that US citizens will have the proper technology skills that are less likely to be outsourced? Whose responsibility is it to have that vision?

Rick White: There are two pieces to the outsourcing issue. First, we need assistance for people whose jobs may be lost to foreign countries so they can transition to a new jobs. That is mainly a government responsibility (and much of it is already in place), but there is a role for private companies, too. The second piece is to make sure we don't focus so much on keeping the jobs we have that we don't create the jobs of the future, which has been the great genius of our economy for 200 years. This means the government has to resist the temptation to overreact when there is political pressure from parts of the economy that are going through a difficult transition.


Cynthia L. Webb: During the election season, the main candidates in the race for the White House and specifically the final two players, Sen. John Kerry and President Bush, focused a lot of attention on the economy overall, the Iraq war and homeland security issues. However, there seemed to be a lack of discussion about technology issues or solid platforms by either Kerry or Bush on tech policy concerns. What's your commentary on this and do you think technology will take more of a center stage now that the election is over?

Rick White: One of the things I noticed when I was in Congress is that, even in my district in Seattle, one of the most tech savvy districts in the country and home to Microsoft, tech issues don't move many votes. That's probably a good thing, since it means tech issues don't really break down on partisan lines. But it also means that tech issues usually don't get much focus in elections. And I also think that the importance of specific issues to the tech community is sometimes overrated. If the government can improve our education system, fund basic research, and keep the economy moving in the right direction, that is 90 percent of what we care about.


Bethesda, Md.: There has been much hand-wringing over the past decade regarding the state of basic science research in the U.S. Outside of human health, the federal government does not attach a high priority to funding pure research and discovery. Does TechNet have a position on this? Is your organization pressing the science committees and appropriators to correct this?

Rick White: We absolutely have a position, and it is that the NSF budget for basic research in non health areas should double every five years (at least for the next decade or two). We focus on this every year, and we have had some modest success, but this year was not successful. We will have a renewed focus on this issue next year.


Cynthia L. Webb: Rick is staying online for about 5 more minutes to take as many questions as he can before signing off.


Los Alamos, NM: Rick,

I have a small company dealing in drug discovery. I work with biotech, pharma, government, and academic organizations. Mostly, my company deals in sensitive instruments and decision support software. I talk with my congressman and senators (or at least their staffs) regularly and have done this for years. I have helped to modify tech related Senate bills. I do not have a big company nor a large budget for lobbying. Where do people like me fit into TechNet? Thanks.

Rick White: You are the perfect candidate to be a member of TechNet. While we do have most of the big tech companies as members, we also need CEOs or senior executives from smaller companies who care about policy issues. And the dues scale down with revenues, so it's a bargain for smaller companies!


New York, New York: Could you mention what technology issues you believe the Bush administration will tackle first and what issues you think it should tackle first?

Rick White: National security issues are paramount, of course, but beyond that I would love to see them help us preserve stock options for rank and file workers, raise the level of research funding, and fix some of the problems in telecom/internet regulations. And we will have a longer list after our TechNet retreat next month.


Cynthia L. Webb: Here is information on TechNet's members: http://www.technet.org/who/index.html


Cynthia L. Webb: We are out of time to take more questions. Rick, thanks for taking so many questions and talking about a variety of tech policy issues. Readers, thank you for your participation. We hope we can do this again once the new congressional session gets underway and hope you can join us in the future.

Rick White: This was great. I enjoyed it a lot and hope I can do it again soon.

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