Suddenly, Technology Policy Is No Longer A Dirty Word

After years of talk, Congress is finally putting some money behind a technology policy to boost U.S. competitiveness. Enraged Republicans denounce the move as nothing more than a campaign ploy designed to help Bill Clinton. In fact, the debate over the $ 2.2 billion National Competitiveness Act, which passed the House on Sept. 23, appears to mark a political turning point. Administration opposition and the difficulty of reconciling the House bill with a less costly Senate version make enactment this year unlikely. But Capitol Hill has set the stage for action in 1993 -- surely if Clinton wins, likely even if President Bush is reelected. "The bill is a clear signal that Congress is willing to get more ambitious," says Daniel F. Burton Jr., executive vice-president of the private Council on Competitiveness.

The legislation would give government a more activist role in speeding the movement of technology from the lab to the marketplace. More than half of the money, $ 1.4 billion, would go to a small, existing Commerce Dept. program that funds research and development in such technologies as robotics and advanced materials. An additional $ 120 million would lay the groundwork for a national technology-extension service, patterned on the agricultural-extension service and designed to spread manufacturing knowhow to small U.S. companies. BEYOND GAMESMANSHIP. Such provisions once touched off severe industrial-policy phobia among Republicans and many corporate executives. But now, they are attracting support on both sides of the aisle, at Commerce, and among America's high-tech industrial elite. "This legislation is much needed to protect the manufacturing infrastructure," explains Representative Paul B. Henry (R-Mich.).

But many Republicans still bridle at the bill's more interventionist features, such as $ 287 million in loan guarantees and $ 150 million in venture capital to finance commercialization of risky technology. "The government would be competing with someone who's in the banking business," says Commerce Under Secretary Robert M. White. "If government gets involved, it's likely to end up competing with what already exists, or end up funding the dogs."

House leaders clearly saw partisan advantage in taking up the bill, which incorporates many Clinton proposals, close to the election. The timing, grumbles leading opponent Representative Robert S. Walker (R-Pa.), was simply designed to "advance the agenda of the Clinton campaign." But the change in sentiment on the Hill seems to go beyond political gamesmanship. "There's a general public perception that government ought to do more," says former Defense Secretary Harold Brown. "So government will end up playing a larger role, no matter how the election comes out."

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