wonk (N) : One who is well-versed in policy arcana
Domestic policy adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney
Home: Virginia Beach, Va.
Education: Undergraduate degree from The College of William & Mary
Last book read: Reagan, In His Own Hand, by Ronald Reagan
Favorite Web sites: Newsbytes.com, SiliconValley.com
Wonkdom has its pitfalls. Hard-core policy wonks toil in Washington, D.C., often on Capitol Hill or for whatever administration is running the show. Which means a typical wonks title and power depends in part upon electoral mathematics: If the boss wins, Im in. If the boss loses, Im gone.
So 2000 wasnt the greatest year for Cesar Conda, former chief of staff to former U.S. Sen. Spencer Abraham, R-Mich. In a close election, the lawmaker lost his seat in the senate to Democrat Debbie Stabenow in November. Suddenly, Capitol Hill über-wonk Conda was out of a job.
But Conda was a wonk with cachet, and it didnt take long after President George W. Bush was finally coronated with the election victory for Conda to get back into the game. Now, hes Vice President Dick Cheneys assistant for domestic policy, managing a seven-person office that is wrestling with some of the biggest issues of the day, from technology to tax cuts to energy policy.
Many in the Washington, D.C., technology policy crowd hold Conda in high regard for his key involvement in a smattering of important issues. These include his support for digital signatures; H1-B visas, which essentially allow more foreign workers with high-tech skills to work in the U.S.; an anticybersquatting bill; e-commerce taxation; and the research and development tax credit, which the tech industry and some lawmakers have been trying unsuccessfully to make permanent.
"He brings a lot of enthusiasm to these things, and his political instincts are finely tuned about what works and what does not work," says Scott Cooper, manager of technology policy at Hewlett-Packard. "You dont see him tilting at windmills. Its questions of substance and timing. Few people in this town are good at both, and he is."
Cooper says that when Conda worked for Abraham, he ran an e-mail list server that "was like a tutorial" for anybody in industry who had an interest in technology policy. When there were meetings in Abrahams office with Conda, "people would come, because they knew it would be a serious meeting and people would be working towards conclusions."
Conda, who talks excitedly about things like the Government Paperwork Elimination Act, says he didnt get interested in technology policy until 1995, when Abraham decided to immerse himself in that particularly dry corner of wonkdom. At the time, only a handful of bills addressed high-technology.
"We went to Silicon Valley and established our first relationships with the high-tech CEOs and leaders," Conda says. "We got up to speed on those issues."
The backwater status of technology policy changed dramatically as the Internet became synonymous with "explosive economic growth," and lawmakers began diving into technology policy and firing off bills like IPOs circa 1999.
Pushing a tech-friendly agenda is high on the Bush administrations to-do list, Conda says. Larry Lindsey, Bushs chief economic adviser, holds regular technology policy meetings, and Conda attends all of them. Conda is advising Cheney — who probably has more policy influence than any vice president in history — on the issues that are on every technology policy wonks plate right now, including privacy.
As an Abraham staffer, Conda endorsed the idea of baseline federal legislation for privacy. How will he advise Cheney? Hes playing that close to his pin-striped vest.
"Its hard to say right now," Conda says. "Everybody is assessing the issue. The Hill seems to be assessing the situation, too."