New Congress Nets Same Old Results

As lawmakers return to work, political observers anticipate few gains for tech in 2008.

With the U.S. House of Representatives returning to work Jan. 15, and the Senate returning a week after that, the technology agenda might be dead on arrival. If Democrats proved one thing during their first year this century in control of Congress, it was this: they can get as much done in advancing a technology agenda as Republicans.

Which is to say, not much.

Given a chance to make the Internet access tax moratorium permanent, lawmakers didn't. Presented with an opportunity to make the research and development tax credit permanent, Democrats let it expire entirely (although it is likely to be renewed-on a temporary basis-later this month).

Network neutrality? Forgot it. One bill was introduced but no hearings were held, much less votes. Patent reform? The House passed a bill but it has gone into a wormhole somewhere in the Senate, and is likely to gather dust throughout the duration of the 110th Congress.

The list goes on. The hopes for an expansion of H-1B visas are as politically dead as the immigration bill it is attached to. E-voting reform? Eleven months before the national elections, Congress has done nothing.

Even the Democrats' so-far crowning tech agenda achievement in 2007, the passage of the America Competes Act, which allocates $43.3 billion for technology innovation and math and science education, remains in doubt as allocating funds is not the same as appropriating the actual money.

"It's pretty hard to get these tech issues on the radar screen when people are concerned about the war and the economy," said Leslie Harris, president and CEO of the Center for Democracy and Technology. "I'd be very, very surprised if there are any new [tech] initiatives this year."

Further reducing chances for the tech agenda this year is the looming presidential election in November. According to Art Brodsky, the communications director of Public Knowledge, "Everybody will be trying to get out of Dodge at the earliest possible time."

Despite their pessimism, Harris and Brodsky's groups are still hopeful of some action by Congress on two key issues: telco immunity and network neutrality.

In December, the Senate delayed a vote on granting telecoms immunity for their alleged participation in President Bush's warrantless wiretapping program. Majority Leader Harry Reid said the Senate would next deal with the bill in January.

The immunity issue is tied to a renewal of FISA (the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act), which expires Feb. 1. "They are still committed to the FISA issue, but it may be pushed off some from the February deadline," Harris said. "But it will have to be dealt with."

The House refused to retroactively grant immunity Nov. 16 when it approved a FISA revision. The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence approved telco immunity as part of its FISA bill while the Senate Judiciary Committee voted for no immunity.

While network neutrality was legislatively dormant in 2007, Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., said in December he plans to introduce a net neutrality bill later this month. Markey's hearing on network neutrality will no doubt raise the publicity profile of the controversial issue, but what happens after that is a bit foggy.

Couching his words carefully, Brodsky said, "We'd like to see the Markey bill get some serious consideration to set it up for next year." In other words, a network neutrality bill is unlikely to clear Congress in 2008.

With a new president in the near future, Harris said Congress has little reason to act in 2008.

"They [lawmakers] are in a gridlock in Congress and there's no reason to end that political gridlock before the election," she said.