Clinton's High Tech Fans Are Starting To Boo

At last, the high-tech community thought, it had someone it could do business with in the White House. As a candidate, Bill Clinton chatted about building an information superhighway--and promised he would reverse the Bush Administration's reluctance to promote cutting-edge civilian technology. Unlike past Presidents, Clinton tapped a science adviser before taking office. His choice of John H. Gibbons, head of the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment, was widely popular. And he put his money where his mouth was on Feb. 21 by proposing to spend $17 billion over five years on everything from helping small manufacturers use the latest technology to sponsoring development of a "clean" car.

There's just one problem: Clinton hasn't gotten much done. High-tech executives--who provided much of Clinton's business support during the campaign--laud the President's intentions, but are becoming dismayed by the lack of action. Says former Cray Research CEO John A. Rollwagen, who withdrew as Clinton's nominee to be Deputy Commerce Secretary when his confirmation was hung up by an insider-trading investigation: "Do I think the Administration has the right idea? I certainly do. Do I think the Administration is executing it effectively? Far from it."

CHIPPING AWAY. Consider the fate of the February technology policy, which drew cheers from Route 128 to Silicon Valley. A lot of the money, including $103 million for Commerce's Advanced Technology Program and $207 million for the National Science Foundation set to be spent in fiscal 1993, disappeared when Congress rejected Clinton's stimulus package. The rest may be in peril as a deficit-fighting Congress chips away at his "investment" program.

The National Competitiveness Act, which embodies much of Clinton's high-tech vision, has also taken its lumps. It passed the House on May 19 laden with amendments, such as one requiring products made with taxpayer-funded technology to be made only in the U. S. "We can no longer support it," says William G. Morin, director of technology policy at the National Association of Manufacturers. He wishes the Administration had done more to push the bill through intact, but that's "tough to do when no one's minding the ship."

What troubles the techies the most is that while Clinton was distracted by more pressing demands, no one spearheaded the technology plan. Vice-President Al Gore, Mr. Technology during the campaign, has been spending much of his time heading a government-efficiency initiative. Meanwhile, the most aggressive technology outfits, the Pentagon's Advanced Research Projects Agency and the Energy Dept., are driving policy on their own. Commerce Secretary Ronald H. Brown's efforts to seize high-tech leadership--a role given him by Clinton--have so far mostly produced turf fights. As a result of these problems, says Erich Bloch, distinguished fellow at the private Council on Competitiveness: "We are wasting valuable time. I'm not yet disillusioned, but I am concerned."

A White House official admits there have been setbacks in implementing technology policy but declares: "I think we're moving forward." The Administration set out to prove that when Brown and science adviser Gibbons scheduled a meeting with top computer-industry executives for June 4. But going in, they face a skeptical audience. For example, Silicon Graphics CEO Edward R. McCracken, an early and enthusiastic Clintonite, now says only that he's reserving judgment on technopolicy. Unless Clinton and Gore can deliver results soon, even that generosity may not last.

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