Tuesday, Sept. 25, 1 p.m. ET

K Street

Jeffrey Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 25, 2007; 1:00 PM

K Street columnist Jeffrey Birnbaum was online to discuss the intersection of business, politics and government on Tuesday, Sept. 25, at 1 p.m. ET.

A list of Birnbaum's columns can be found here.

A transcript follows.


Jeffrey Birnbaum: Hello everyone.

Thanks for writing in. Congress is really heating up, and so is lobbying of big issues. I see we have lots of questions about those issues, so let's get started straight away.


Lindon, Utah: Jeff - While you're usually In the Loop, your column today was very much Out of the Loop.

Patent Reform is not about Tech vs. Pharma, it's about a few big tech companies vs. little tech companies, pharma, biotech, manufacturers, universities (who license the patents their research generates) and even some other big tech companies (Texas Instruments and Motorola to name two).

I work for a little tech company that is strongly opposed to the current patent reform bill. Think for a minute - Who sues big tech companies for patent infringement? Pharma? No, other tech companies, small and large, who hold tech patents are the most frequent plaintiffs in these suits.

I agree that Microsoft, Intel, Oracle and their lobbyists have pursued a brilliant strategy to reduce or eliminate the judgments they pay for "borrowing" other people's inventions. The question that I haven't heard anyone in Washington ask is, "Why are the biggest supporters of patent reform also frequent defendants in anti-trust suits?" The answer to that question illuminates the real reason for their support of patent reform.

washingtonpost.com: Tech Industry Builds Lobbying Machine for Patent Fight (Sept. 25, 2007)

Jeffrey Birnbaum: Well, that's certainly another angle. As you can see, though, it is a very complicated topic. My goal with today's column was to introduce the lay reader to the issue, not to touch every part of it. Thank you, though, for adding another layer.


Allentown, Pa: Why does the media leap to embrace any grievance the black community whines about? We had months of trashing the Duke lacrosse team, and now the real victim in Jena is ignored while we parade around the gang of thugs who viciously attacked him. Where's the justice here?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: The media tries to identify controversies and to explain them. Where there is passion, and conflict, there is news. That's basic in story-telling, which at heart journalism is. I think participants on both sides of the Jena controversy want justice. Reporters want to lay out those points of view and let readers, and viewers, decide. You have obviously chosen. Others might choose differently. A good newspaper story or stories will give enough information to allow that kind of informed decision.


Palo Alto, Calif.: I was a Microsoft Division President, and an Apple Principal Scientist, and I've run 8 startups and my technology has produced billions in revenue. I've seen both sides of this patent debate and it is NOT between tech & pharma. It's between parties that don't rely upon patents and parties that do. Last week 2 inventors, Dean Kamen (440 patents: Segway, portable dialysis & insulin devices, etc.) and myself (72 patents: QuickTime, WebTV, etc.), presented to Senate staffers and explained how tech companies with high market power do not need patents to survive, but tech startups, tech universities, and tech companies with proprietary technology (like Texas Instruments with DLP projector technology) do. The Patent Reform Act is characterized as anti-troll legislation. It doesn't address trolls. It's anti-innovation legislation that just weakens patents to better secure the positions of existing tech stakeholders. Ironically, many of them, notably Intel, litigated their patents aggressively to get to the position of power they are in. Now the shoe is on the other foot. -Steve Perlman, President & CEO, Rearden Companies, www.rearden.com

Jeffrey Birnbaum: Thank you for taking the time to write in.

Yes, yours is another way to look at the patent debate, and a useful one at that. But in a basic, political way, the debate is seen in Congress as largely between tech and pharma. Or at least in its broad outlines. Yes there are other ways to look at it. Yours is an example. But for the average fella', mine isn't a bad short hand. Yours is also very useful, and I thank you for it. I was hoping with my column to introduce the topic to readers, not to give anything close to the final word.


Lindon, Utah: Another twist on patent reform has not been covered very thoroughly. The IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) and AIPLA (American Intellectual Property Law Association) are not partisan organizations and both oppose the current patent reform bills. IEEE is a very large professional association of engineers working in a wide variety of organizations. The AIPLA is the largest professional group of intellectual property attorneys in the country and includes large firm, small firm, plaintiff, defendant, large company, small company and every other kind of IP lawyer.

These groups don't fit into the tech/pharma split that the pro-reform lobbyists are trying to sell.

Jeffrey Birnbaum: Well, this may be the last time I try to make simple a complicated topic. No good deed goes unpunished, I guess.


Washington: I see you're the K Street columnist. Is there anything you can do about the traffic on that street? At rush hour it's crazy.

Jeffrey Birnbaum: Thank heavens, a non-patent attack. And not even an attack! Well, I'm afraid I don't have much say over traffic patterns. In fact, I don't actually have a say about anything to do with lobbying; I'm only an observer. But I agree with your criticism. Traffic is terrible. I wish the city fathers would get rid of those islands that separate the regular traffic from the local lane, freeing up another lane for traffic to flow better. Now it's a mess, and not many folks use those local lanes. Maybe I should write a column on this. Whadya' think?


District of Columbia: Where is all the big money coming from in the presidential campaigns? Won't that ever slow down and is it good or bad for Democracy?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: A lot more of that dough is coming in smallish contributions over the Internet. Fundraising used to be big money from really rich folks. It's still that, of course, but it's also $25 donations posted online with credit cards. That has allowed lots of middle income people to participate in a way they never used to. I think that's generally good for democracy and it doesn't show any signs of slowing down. I say, the more involvement the better when it comes to elections.


New York, N.Y.: Do you think it's right that congressmen can still get all the earmarks they want? I thought that was being done away with last year.

Jeffrey Birnbaum: Earmarks, which are narrowly focused spending programs, were never slated to disappear, just decline a whole bunch because of their overuse and misuse in recent years. Personally, I never had a problem with earmarks; they're what lawmakers hope to provide for their constituents. So I wouldn't be surprised at the end of the year to see nearly as many earmarks as before. Pork buys votes, after all.


Lindon, Utah: I don't mean to monopolize the conversation, but there don't appear to be too many participants today.

Another group that opposes the current patent reform bill is research universities. The president of every Big Ten university signed a letter opposing the bill as being detrimental to the universities' research programs, which rely upon patents to move their discoveries into commercial use.

Jeffrey Birnbaum: ok thanks.


Lindon, Utah: Jeff - You're not the only one who is receiving a rude awakening on this legislation. I am informed that the patent reform bill was sold to many legislators as non-controversial, a slam-dunk, by its supporters.

A lot of congressional offices have been startled by the uproar that this legislation has created and were shocked at how narrow the margin of victory in the House was for this "consensus" legislation.

Jeffrey Birnbaum: I am told that the bill will probably pass in the Senate without too much trouble and in not too long. Not a slam dunk, but also not far from a finished product either. That's why I chose to write about it now.


Detroit: When will the auto workers lose their clout enough not to make a difference with the big strike going on now?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: Well, they have a lot of clout now, that's for sure. This strike could show ultimately how much power organized labor still has in the workplace.


Chevy Chase: Who's lobbying for Dubai now that it's trying to buy some a that stock exchange?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: Dubai's purchase of part of NASDAQ is likely to be controversial, though maybe not as controversial as the Dubai Ports issue of earlier. DLA Piper represents Dubai Bourse, I think, and NASDAQ has several folks including Public Strategies Washington, Akin Gump and Skadden Arps.


Anonymous: How badly did Rudy Giuliani mess up his speech to the NRA with that crazy phone call from his wife right in the middle of it? What was he thinking?

washingtonpost.com: Giuliani's Speech at NRA Doesn't Reassure Skeptics (Sept. 22, 2007)

Jeffrey Birnbaum: He literally phoned in that speech, I'm told. He clearly could have worked harder to woo a key constituency of his party. Giuliani needs to be careful, I think. His poll numbers nationally have been holding up ok but more conservative candidates could surprise him in the early contests and take away that lead in a hurry.


Palo Alto, Calif.: Jeffrey - Please don't give up bringing the patent debate within reach of the average joe. It's a complex issue, but one that will profoundly affect America. Your voice is an immensely valuable one. Startups don't have a lobby. All we can do is reach out through the media.

Jeffrey Birnbaum: Thank you for the kind words. I appreciate them. I will try again, on that topic and others.


San Francisco: What will happen with the SCHIP program? I read that it will expire at the end of this week. The Congress won't let it disappear will it? It's very important to poor kids all over the country. Why would politics get in the way of that good deed?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: Congress plans to pass its compromise bill expanding SCHIP, but President Bush has vowed to veto it. To make sure the children's health program does not lapse at the end of the month, Congress plans to pass a simple, short-term extension. It will then see if the veto can be overridden. At the moment, Democratic leaders do not appear to have enough votes in the House to override. That will mean going back to the drawing board and coming up with an extension of the program that the president will sign. What that will be I don't know. But the program will not lapse.


Boston: Who has Hillary Clinton gone into the tank for with her NEW health care plan? It must be someone or else she wouldn't have backed off the old one, which I liked so much.

Jeffrey Birnbaum: I don't know if it's that way. She is not relying entirely on government to provide health coverage, so maybe health insurers are slightly happier about her new proposal. But I doubt she was trying to please them. Rather she did not want to be labeled as a big government Democrat. Allowing some market coverage also helps reduce the overall cost of the thing.


Berkeley, Calif.: There is a lot of negotiation on revised patent reform language going on behind the scenes in the Senate.

As one example, Senator Feinstein has most of the big tech supporters of the bill in her state, but the University of California has given testimony opposing the bill. The Senator's husband is the president of the UC Board of Regents, so she is hearing a lot of conflicting arguments.

Jeffrey Birnbaum: Thank you for the insight. But I bet Sen. Feinstein would not agree with your assessment of how she chooses her policy positions.


Orlando, Fla.: Why don't you report that Sen. Menendez of New Jersey is behind the hold up in the confirmation of the temporary U.S. attorney in Puerto Rico? There's something rotten there, I suspect, don't you?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: I wrote about that flap today in my column. I could not confirm that the senator had a hold on the nomination of the U.S. attorney in Puerto Rico, though I have read news accounts of that. I was also told that a Republican might also be holding up the confirmation. Clearly, it is a mess, which is the way I wrote about it. I'm sure we'll hear more about it soon.


Washington, D.C.: What happened with Lynne Ross and the National Association of Attorneys General that you mentioned in your column last week?

washingtonpost.com: Health Insurance Industry Looks to Senior Lobbyists (Sept. 18, 2007)

Jeffrey Birnbaum: I am not aware of any change in her situation. She was fired by a vote of the executive committee. Anyone out there have an update?


Bethesda, Md.: Why aren't I reading more about the lobbying law? I bet it will change a lot downtown but you're not telling us for some reason.

Jeffrey Birnbaum: You're right and you will read more I'm sure. Why else have a lobbying column?


Lindon, Utah: Jeff - Let me echo the Palo Alto comment that you provide a valuable service by bringing patent reform into the light.

Patent law is an immensely complex area, but in a world of increasing globalization, the creation of valuable intellectual property is a significant competitive advantage for American companies. If that property can't be effectively protected, the advantage disappears. The Pharma companies are very concerned about what Indian generic drug manufacturers will be able to do if patent infringement becomes inexpensive.

Jeffrey Birnbaum: Thank you.


Washington, D.C.: Jeffrey, you refer to the debate over patent reform to be one between pharma and hi tech. This is not accurate. The debate is between a very narrow sector of "big tech" and some financial/software institutions and just about everyone else (pharma, smaller high tech, non-banking financial institutions, bio, VCs, universities, etc.). I keep seeing the press mischaracterize the situation. Can you please help to set the record straight?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: Thank you for your suggestion.


Lindon, Utah: On a non-patent subject, Politico had a report yesterday that GQ was preparing to publish an unflattering inside look at the Clinton campaign. The report said GQ pulled the article after Bill Clinton's press aide called and told them that Bill would not allow his photo to be used on any more GQ covers if the article was published.

How much of the press is going to be dealt with in this fashion as the campaign moves forward?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: I don't know if that report is true. But such threats are usually disregarded by reputable journalistic outlets.


Cleveland, Ohio: It didn't make any sense to me that your column last week was about a part of a law that will probably come back. The Medicare Advantage cutbacks is what I mean. How is that a victory is you keep saying "for now" or "so far." That seems like a rip to me.

washingtonpost.com: Health Insurance Industry Looks to Senior Lobbyists (Sept. 18, 2007)

Jeffrey Birnbaum: If I wrote only about things that were absolutely finished, I would never write a word. That's the nature of Washington. It's a process town. I chose to write about the health industry's victory in the SCHIP bill because it was about to be news and it was in fact a major success for the lobby. Even its opponents agreed. It is now much, much harder for Congress to go back and cut the Medicare Advantage program. In Washington, that's a point worth highlighting.


Jeffrey Birnbaum: Wow, thanks everyone. That was a jam-packed hour. Let's do it again in a couple week.

Thanks and cheers!


Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company