Republicans will make an all-out bid to wrest the cash and prestige of Silicon Valley from the Democratic Party this week by capitalizing on a crucial Senate vote and a three-day National Summit on High Technology, events that will have high-tech executives lining the halls of Congress in unprecedented numbers.
The Senate vote on a measure to protect the high-tech industry from Y2K computer damage suits and the gathering of the industry's corporate elite at the summit sponsored by the Republican-controlled Joint Economic Committee are designed to demonstrate the commitment of the GOP to the unfettered market forces so beloved by the chip makers, venture capitalists and software CEOs of "the new economy," and to reveal pointedly to high-tech leaders the influence in the Democratic Party of one of their most feared adversaries, the trial lawyers.
The trial bar has filed numerous securities suits against the industry and its members are expected to unleash lawsuits over the expected breakdown of computers that have not been adjusted to deal with the date change on Jan. 1, 2000, popularly known as the Y2K computer glitch.
"This is one of the few segments of the business community that hasn't reflexively gone Republican," said Rob Atkinson, director of the Technology and New Economy Project of the Democratic Progressive Policy Institute. "Now, the Republicans have started to wake up and say, `We want the high-tech community to be ours.' "
The high-tech industry is a significant source of political money. The Center for Responsive Politics estimated that the computer industry and its executives gave just under $9 million to congressional candidates in 1997-98, and early in the presidential nomination fights, Vice President Gore has raised an estimated $75,000 from the industry, slightly more than the $67,000 raised by Texas Gov. George W. Bush.
As, or perhaps more, important than the money, however, is the partisan competition to be on the side of a driving force in the national economy.
Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (Va.), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee and a leader of the GOP's high-tech drive, contends that high-tech executives realize that such "vestiges of the old Democratic coalition" as organized labor and the trial lawyers "will not allow them [Democrats] to support high tech."
In fact, the legislative record of both parties and of the Clinton administration on high-tech issues is mixed, with each taking stands for and against positions supported by the Information Technology Industry Council (ITIC), a group praised by both sides of the aisle.
In Congress, the GOP has a substantial advantage in its ITIC ratings. In the House, computations based on the ITIC's vote analysis showed Republicans receiving an average ranking of 69.7 percent, compared with the Democrats' 49.1 percent. The ratings were closer in the Senate: 83.9 percent for Republicans, 71.1 percent for Democrats.
The ratings were based on 1997-98 votes on securities litigation reform, Internet taxes, temporary work visas for skilled foreigners, "fast-track" trade proposals, computer export controls and encryption legislation.
Only votes on economic and regulatory issues were considered. Votes on social issues such as abortion, school prayer and pornography were excluded, since those have little bearing on the industry's bottom line. The libertarian tradition in the high-tech community makes the religious right and the antiabortion movement significant liabilities for the Republican Party.
Also, the development of sophisticated encryption and faster computers has put the industry in direct conflict with those seeking to restrict trade with potentially hostile nations, and with law enforcement officials seeking wiretap access to electronically transmitted information.
And the demand for technology-sophisticated workers runs head-on into anti-immigration forces in both parties.
In terms of partisan competition, Democrats are increasingly worried that the GOP's full-scale assault is likely to weaken the Democratic advantages among libertarian high-tech entrepreneurs.
Some Democrats have been stunned by the impressive collection of technology company executives who have joined a 72-member high-tech fund-raising committee for Bush. These computer industry leaders include America Online's James L. Barksdale, Cisco Systems' John Chambers, Intel's Gordon Moore, LSI Logic's Wilfred J. Corrigan, Applied Materials' James C. Morgan and Advance Micro Devices' W.J. Sanders III.
Democratic conflicts pitting plaintiffs' lawyers against the technology sector will be thrust into the open when the Senate votes this week on legislation limiting corporate liability in Y2K damage suits, a measure backed strongly by the high-tech industry but opposed by trial lawyers.
That vote is expected to take place Tuesday, in the middle of the Joint Economic Committee's three-day summit. The sessions, put together by Republican Sens. Connie Mack (Fla.) and Robert F. Bennett (Utah), will provide a public forum to an extraordinary array of high-tech luminaries.
On Monday, those scheduled to testify include IBM's Louis V. Gerstner Jr., Intel's Craig R. Barrett and Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan. Day two will feature Microsoft's Bill Gates, Adobe Systems' John E. Warnock and Novell's Eric Schmidt. Wednesday will be the turn of Sun Microsystems' Scott McNealy, America Online chief technology officer Marc Andreessen and eBay's Meg Whitman.
Democrats are worried about the timing of the hearings and the Y2K vote, said Lisa Quigly, chief of staff of Rep. Calvin M. Dooley (Calif.), co-chairman of the New Democrat Coalition, which has strong ties to the technology sector.
"We are miles ahead of them [Republicans]; they don't have the relationships at all," Quigly said, but "because some [Democrats] are not supporting Y2K [liability legislation], it looks as if Democrats are not for high tech."
Democrats have made what they hope will be a preemptive strike that will take the edge off the Republican challenge.
Last week, House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), who has not had strong ties with the high-tech community, appointed a high-tech advisory committee headed by two Californians whose districts are centers of high-tech entrepreneurial activity: Reps. Zoe Lofgren and Anna G. Eshoo.
The Gephardt announcement coincided with a New Democrat Network-sponsored "technology outreach" day, which featured sessions with Microsoft senior vice president Craig Mundie, venture capitalist John Doerr, Dell Computer's Michael Dell and Hewlett Packard's Lewis E. Platt.
In what may prove to be a faint hope, Simon Rosenberg, executive director of the New Democrat Network, said that high-tech leaders are going to see the GOP drive this week as "a very overt and clumsy attempt to catch up on high tech. But this challenge of which party is going to be the one that most adapts to the new realities and the new challenge is going to be with us for a long time."