wonk (n) : One who is well-versed in policy arcana
Assistant secretary of commerce for the Office of Technology Policy, U.S. Department of Commerce
Home: Potomac, Md.
Last book read: How to Hack a Party Line: The Democrats and Silicon Valley, by Sara Miles
Political heroes: Winston Churchill and Ronald Reagan
Favorite Web sites: Amazon.com, Cisco Systems Government Affairs page (www.cisco.com/gov)
Favorite hobby: Golf
The powerful new government official bounds out of his office, a tie in his hands, wondering aloud if the accoutrement is necessary for the interview with the reporter. It isnt, apparently. He sticks out a hand, tie clutched in the other. "Hi," he says, grinning. "Bruce Mehlman."
Hes casual, wildly enthusiastic — effervescent, even — almost alarmingly young and hes the U.S. Department of Commerces new assistant secretary of commerce for the Office of Technology Policy.
Mehlman, 32, a slight man with a stentorian voice, describes himself as the technology communitys ambassador to President George W. Bushs administration — and technology companies could not have found a more eager advocate than Mehlman.
Eagerness will not translate into ease. As the technology sector continues to alternately fray, dissolve, consolidate and — we can only hope — innovate, the battles between techno-world factions grow nastier. The industry increasingly communicates warring policy positions, and it will be up to Mehlman to work with them all and figure out what positions to recommend to the president.
"I view my job as working closely with industry to make sure I can best represent either the consensus viewpoint or the multiplicity of viewpoints to the administration," he says.
One tough example: broadband. Debates about the direction and scope of telecommunications regulation have been simmering, and occasionally boiling over, on Capitol Hill since January. The baby Bells occupy one corner of the ring; their competitors are in the other corner. Much of the combat has taken place over legislation crafted largely by Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. Tauzins Internet Freedom and Broadband Deployment Act benefits the baby Bells by letting them offer data services — including high-speed Internet access — across long-distance boundaries, without first having to satisfy stipulations in the 1996 Telecommunications Act that they provide competitors access to local markets. The Bells are fighting for it — and everybody else is plotting against it.
Mehlman is getting an earful. "We are being lobbied very actively by folks who disagree — very furiously — both on the nature of the problem and the proper remedies," he says.
Eventually, Mehlman may have to choose sides on the broadband issue. For now, hes listening. The same goes for such hot topics as e-commerce taxation and privacy.
It would be fair to describe Mehlmans rise in Washington, D.C., as meteoric. Few 32-year-olds command such positions of power in government, particularly in such key agencies as the DOC, which is the link between the sprawling business world and the administration.
Mehlman, an attorney, started out at a big Washington law firm, then spent a few years as general counsel of the National Republican Congressional Committee. After that, he put in some time at the U.S. House Republican Conference, where he was policy director and general counsel; it was there that he first became immersed in technology policy. In August 1999, he left to become Cisco Systems telecommunications policy counsel and deputy Washington representative.
Bush plucked him away from Cisco a few months ago. Hes been toiling ever since to meet the key people in the many agencies with whom hell have to collaborate, and to hold meetings with industry about their interests.
While the administration champions "compassionate conservatism" as a philosophy, Mehlman distances himself from political ideology.
"The lens I view things through is a passionate and overriding belief that technology is a positive force in the United States and in the world for innovation, economic growth, social fairness and the future benefit of competing generations," he says. "So I believe in technology."