As the telecommunications industry shriveled, legions of dot-coms faded and quietly died and hardware and software sales plummeted, the president of the United States talked about drilling for oil in Alaska, shipping off tax refund checks, holding teachers more accountable and “faith-based” social engineering. Technology barely warranted a whisper.
So the clubby islands of technology policy advocates in the capital started their own whisper campaign. They began asking: “Does the president care about technology?”
Like anything political, the answer depends on whom you ask. But almost 200 days into his administration, theres no question that the degree to which the Bush team is focused on technology remains hazy.
Critics charge that President George W. Bush is simply an oil-and-gas man who is ambivalent, at best, about technology. He didnt campaign on it, he hasnt paid attention to it and hell continue to leave it alone, they say, pointing out that it took him nearly six months to nominate his first formal science and technology adviser. The appointment of John Marburger as head of the Office of Science and Technology Policy was not made until this month. And many other key people still are not in place. Without a senior cheerleader like former Vice President Al Gore, who lovingly shepherded technology issues for President Bill Clinton, they argue, technology policy will languish and the economy will suffer.
The presidents champions, on the other hand, attest to his deep interest in the vitality of the technology sector. They cite his early appointments of venture capitalist Floyd Kvamme and Silicon Valley Republican leader Lezlee Westine to positions of power in the White House. Bush, they say, is focused more on the big picture — tax relief, free trade, abundant energy and an educated work force, for example — which will help roust the lagging technology industry by enlivening the economy at large. They also argue that important technology staffers are in place and working hard every day to negotiate the full palette of issues, from electronic commerce taxation to privacy to research and development tax credits.
“The president is very committed to technology,” Kvamme said.
Either way, one thing is sure: What the White House does — or does not do — on technology issues matters. A White House hard line and public relations campaign against electronic commerce taxation, for example, would almost guarantee Internet commerce would remain tax-free, which companies say is crucial for the continued growth of e-commerce. If the White House endorses privacy legislation, stalled bills will start sprinting for passage, which could, in turn, force already financially strapped companies to turn untold dollars and resources into making sure their polices and Web sites meet federal standards.
The administration has addressed neither of those issues in depth, stating only that it supports the idea of consumer privacy, and opposes any new and discriminatory Internet taxes — uncontroversial positions that do not wade into the debates thorny tangles on Capitol Hill. Likewise, it has not taken a position on broadband regulation — a key issue for telecom and e-commerce companies.
“This is not a president with a strong interest in technology,” said David Hart of Harvard University, a scholar of 20th century tech policy at the Kennedy School of Government. “His philosophy leads him to think the government should stay out of it. So, in a sense, the questions will be what kind of crises come up that will drag him into it.”
Tech Team vs
. Tech Czar”>
Tech Team vs. Tech Czar
Bush White House executives deny Harts assertion. They say a high-tech policy team is gelling — officials throughout the administration now spend most of their time slogging through technology policy and gather to talk about it on a regular basis.
In contrast to the Clinton White House, however, there is no senior member of the cabinet shouldering particular responsibility for heavy lifting with regard to technology policy. Besides having Gore as a de facto “tech czar,” Clinton had senior White House officials focused solely on Internet and e-commerce issues. They were not only points of contact for domestic companies, but advisers like Ira Magaziner traveled the world, helping to set complementary international agendas.
“With this administration, there is no coherent message at all, and there is nobody I can find or talk to who has a clear understanding of where things are going or what the theme is going to be,” said Andrew Schwartzman, president and CEO of the Media Access Project, a public-interest telecommunications law firm dedicated to free-speech issues.
Said Ari Schwartz, a senior policy analyst of the Center for Democracy and Technology, a centrist cyberspace civil liberties organization: “Even when you talk to people who work for the administration, a lot of the career people dont know who to send you to. They say, Well get back to you next month, or, Were narrowing down that position right now. It goes on and on, month after month.”
Similar complaints have traveled through Washington for several months, though few corporate representatives choose to air their grievances to the media. Maintaining friendships with the White House is important.
“The only problem weve had is letting them get in and get settled,” said Intel spokesman Chuck Malloy. “You run into that with any administration.”
One former Clinton aide, however, said the U.S. is “losing global leadership” on Internet issues because of the new administrations lack of involvement.
“When you have a vacuum where nobody is talking about this stuff, I think it hurts,” said Larry Irving, a former assistant secretary of the Department of Commerce. While there are bright lower-level employees toiling on technology policy, so far, the administrations “elephants,” or the high-level heavy hitters with powerful political currency, arent interested in technology policy the way Gore and Clintons Commerce Secretaries Ron Brown and William Daley were.
“You have to have principals at the table, but they arent engaged,” he said. “Youve got the point guards, but you dont have the inside players who can take it to the hole.”
The Bush administration, however, insists that its lack of a technology czar like Gore is not a problem; given the pervasiveness of technology, they think a team approach will be more effective.
“One of the nice things about this White House is that it is a very open place. People are not territorial, and there are a lot of people with a lot of expertise,” said Richard Russell, chief of staff of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. The office traditionally counsels the president on a wide range of science and technology matters, particularly as they relate to the federal budget. “When an issue comes up, whichever organization in the White House or the agencies that is taking the lead, or that has a great idea, sends an e-mail out to all the people who have expertise or interest in the subject, and people will have a chance to show up and provide input.”
Cesar Conda, Vice President Dick Cheneys domestic policy adviser, for example, brings a wealth of experience in technology policy, having worked for former Sen. Spencer Abraham, R-Mich., before Abraham lost his bid for re-election last year. Abraham, always active in technology issues, is now Secretary of Energy. Condas expertise is frequently tapped by people throughout the administration, said Russell, regardless of his position in the hierarchy.
Russell and Conda, as well as Kvamme, co-chair of the Presidents Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), and Westine, director of the Office of Public Liaison, have emerged as centers of gravity on technology policy. Other key figures include Larry Lindsey, White House assistant for economic affairs; Bruce Mehlman, assistant secretary of commerce for technology policy; John Ackerly, who works for Lindsey in the Executive Office of the President and who specializes in technology policy; and Mark Forman, associate director for information technology and e-government in the Office of Management and Budget. In addition, once confirmed, Bushs nominee for National Telecommunications and Information Administration director, Nancy Victory, and Phillip Bond, nominated to be the undersecretary of commerce for technology, are expected to play vital roles.
The Bush administration tech gurus, Russell said, “meet whenever necessary. . . . There are lots of meetings.”
The White House also celebrates its solid relationship with Kvamme, who advises the president on technology matters, but remains a venture capitalist in Silicon Valley, not a White House employee.
Hart, however, called Kvammes appointment — the first prominent technology appointment Bush made — “more symbolic than anything else,” describing him as “basically a businessman who is a Republican” who “doesnt know the ins and outs of policy-making, the way you need to, to get something done.”
But, perhaps more than Clinton depended upon his PCAST co-chair — John Young, a former Hewlett-Packard CEO — Bush apparently leans on Kvamme to serve as a bridge between the White House and the high-tech industry. Kvamme said he has worked hard since March to ingratiate himself with leaders throughout government — in the White House, in the agencies and on Capitol Hill — and to discern where the different technology issues reside and what they are.
His role will change somewhat once Marburger, named be the other co-chair of PCAST, is confirmed as director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy. Then, Kvamme and Marburger can start organizing the council. But Kvamme said the president envisions him delivering to the White House the issues, problems and concerns dogging technology industrialists. Kvamme said he has been to Washington three times in the past six weeks, for two-day or three-day stints.
“I have to admit, the openness has been amazing,” he said. “We have not had trouble getting meetings with anybody, from Mitch Daniels [director of the all-powerful Office of Management and Budget] to cabinet secretaries. They are all happy to chat. Larry Lindsey is very excited about technology.”
Kvamme as Ambassador
Kvamme as Ambassador
Kvamme, who frequently extols the Presidents approach to the technology meltdown — tax relief, energy, education and free trade — has accompanied the president on several stops in California to meet with high-tech executives and attend product demonstrations. “When [the president] goes through the demos, he gets very engaged, he asks very hard questions of the CEOs. Everyone has really enjoyed it quite a bit,” Kvamme said.
During those meetings, Kvamme insisted, the topics of most concern to technology and Internet executives are the ones the president is pursuing full-force: energy, education and taxes.
Like Kvamme, Mehlman, 32, views himself as an ambassador to the technology industry.
“When it comes time for the government players to go into the room and close the door, we are the advocates for the technology community,” said Mehlman, an attorney who worked as a lobbyist and as a Republican Party operative before joining the administration.
His job is all about collaboration with other agencies, and during his two months in office, he said, he has spoken each day with people in the White House and with officials sprinkled throughout the federal government.
Technology is “big-time on the front burner of the administration,” he said, trumpeting the presidents focus on education, energy, taxes and free trade as evidence of his commitment. All of the issues, he said, are prized by the technology community, making Bushs focus “dead-on the high-tech agenda.”
Still, just as responsibility for technology policy is distributed more or less evenly among a core of senior officials, there isnt a single technology issue or suite of related issues that the administration is particularly focused upon. In contrast, the Clinton administration was fixated upon telecommunications deregulation during Clintons first term and on fostering e-commerce through a well-documented international laissez-faire approach in its second term. Instead, the Bush administration grazes the smorgasbord of technology issues with equanimity.
And, based on the presidents budget, it appears he does not believe government involvement in science and technology R&D is of paramount importance to the high-tech industry. While he calls for the National Institutes of Health budget to balloon, he proposes to hold roughly steady the federal investment in R&D funneled through the National Science Foundation. That infuriates many in science and technology research, particularly because the economic downturn has forced many companies to dramatically scale back their research budgets. Clinton, on the other hand, dedicated increasing amounts of money to science and technology research during his tenure.
In this regard, Bush fits into a classic conservative mold, Harvards Hart said. Democrats — starting at the state and local levels in the 1980s, when manufacturers began decamping en masse for overseas plants — have tended to see government investment in technology-related ventures as economic fertilizer. As factories idled, Democratic politicians — who became known as “Atari Democrats” — aimed to bring them roaring back to life with technology companies. Many Republicans, on the other hand, tend to view government investment in private enterprise as redundant and wasteful, he said.
Bushs overall hands-off approach is reminiscent of Ronald Reagans method of governance, he said. One problem with that conservative approach, however, is “when bad things happen, your only counsel is to say, Do less, which is unsatisfying for a lot of people.”
When Bush does address technology matters, its usually in the context of his broad themes for economic recovery. During his first major White House speech before high-tech executives in March, Bush touted his tax plan and his vision for education reform as important steps that would free up more money for technology companies and ensure that they have a highly trained work force. He also stumped for energy reform, painting the transformation of the energy industry as a central concern for the technology industry. Shortly after taking office, Bush traveled to Silicon Valley in February for a much-publicized summit with technology and Internet industry leaders. Earlier this month, he met with technology executives to talk up Trade Promotion Authority, a right that Congress can grant to presidents that gives them more freedom in cutting deals with other countries during nettlesome international trade negotiations.
Theres no question that, for now, these are the legs of the Bush approach to technology: tax relief, energy, education and free trade.
Kvamme confirmed that the presidents focus revolves around the economy at large, although he said Bush is engaged in some of the specific technology policy issues that are roiling on Capitol Hill, such as broadband regulation and privacy.
“As for broadband,” he said, “were just getting our act together, you might say, and gathering information. Ive sat in numerous meetings trying to figure out what role government could or should have there. Its not totally clear right now. Were hoping to have a better idea in a few months.”
The president identified Kvamme as the person industry should contact to send broadband-related messages back to the White House, Kvamme said. Hes also the industry-to-White House liaison on the issue of privacy.
“Particularly, privacy gets brought up” by the president, he said. “The bottom line is that with this new communications mechanism, weve got to make sure people are comfortable with that. Thats the one the president specifically asks me to get input from folks on.”
A Different Notion
A Different Notion
The economy was key during Clintons first run for high office in 1992, when the country was foundering in a recession. The entire campaign battle between Clinton and the current presidents father, in fact, is remembered by four words: “Its the economy, stupid.”
Fueled by the technology enthusiasms of Gore, Clinton embraced the idea that a muscular technology industry might succeed in wresting the country from its economic funk, former Clinton aides said in recent interviews. And as information technology industries and the Internet strengthened throughout the 90s, technology policy evolved swiftly.
Clinton nominated John Gibbons his first director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy before he took office. Irvings appointment to head Commerces National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) was announced shortly after the president took office in January 1993. And Gore, a former senator, brought a team of veteran high-tech advisers with him from Capitol Hill to the White House.
“We hit the ground running because we had an agenda,” said Irving, who served as director of the NTIA until 1999. “You had a vice president who cared passionately about this. [Technology] was what energy is to this administration. It mattered. You had access to people.”
Said Jim Kohlenberger, senior domestic policy adviser to Gore, now a technology consultant: “The most important first decision a new administration makes is the budget, and we made a whole bunch of early budget decisions that were critical for laying the groundwork of where we would go.” Those, he said, included increasing funding for science and technology R&D, and boosting the budget for the Advanced Technology Program — a controversial office of the National Institute of Standards and Technology that serves as a venture capital firm for high-tech companies.
By September of Clintons first term, Gore had done enough work to release “The National Information Infrastructure: Agenda for Action.” That agenda guided how the administration would approach telecommunications reform, and claimed that the NII initiative would “help unleash an information revolution that will change forever the way people live, work and interact with each other.”
The meat of that document was developed during weekly telecommunications breakfasts that Gore held in his personal office.
“We had meetings every Tuesday morning for 90 minutes for 4 years,” Irving said. “I was up at six oclock in the morning going to the vice presidents office for four years.”
From 10 to 15 senior officials attended the meetings. The discussions laid the foundation for the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the most sweeping piece of telecommunications law in decades.
During Clintons second term, as the Internet and e-commerce exploded, Clinton also named senior adviser Magaziner to oversee technology policy. Magaziner wrote the 1997 “A Framework for Global Electronic Commerce,” which laid out the administrations laissez-faire approach to everything from taxes to privacy to governance of the heart of the Internet — the domain name system. Magaziner, along with key Commerce department officials, traveled the world to push for treaties and alliances that would develop complementary policies of self-regulation for the Internet age.
When Magaziner returned to private life in late 1998, Clinton and Gore formed the Electronic Commerce Working Group, chaired by Gores domestic policy chief David Beier and run day-to-day by attorney Elizabeth Echols, who left a big Washington law firm to take the position.
“The goal of the working group was to take the vision of the vice president and Clinton, and develop policies and implement policies consistent with that vision. So all of the things you hear about — in terms of Internet taxation, consumer protection, broadband deployment, privacy — we dealt with all of these issues,” Echols said.
“There were new issues every day that you had to grapple with, and you had to find ways to grapple with them consistent with our laws and philosophy.” She said she barely was able to get home from work each night before the 11 p.m. news.
Greg Simon, Gores first chief domestic policy adviser, said the Clinton administration put in place “good processes . . . and communication” on technology policy. “I dare say that has not yet risen in this administration. I dont think two people in town could tell you what the team is on information technology,” Simon said.
Still, others believe that will soon change.
“They are working through their agenda the president campaigned on — taxes and education,” said Grant Seiffert, vice president of external affairs and global policy for the Telecommunications Industry Association, during a phone interview conducted as he drove to the White House for a meeting about telecommunications.
“Now you have health care issues. Those are moving off the front page, though, and I believe the technology agenda, while not visible every day, is still part of the White House daily meetings. . . . I think sometime in the next six months, youll see a more aggressive White House promoting their agenda.”