The High Tech Lobby Is Learning Fast

On Capitol Hill these days, minimalism is in. Chastened GOP leaders have stopped promising to remake American culture and are focused on the mundane task of passing budget and spending bills. And top Democrats, their sights trained on retaking control of Congress in 2000, are loath to cut deals. To Corporate America, it looks like a recipe for another nothing-burger session.

With one exception. Silicon Valley could score in the 106th Congress. High tech's likely wins include a multiyear extension of the tax credit for research and experimentation, a national standard for authenticating the electronic equivalent of written signatures, protection from lawsuits arising from the Year 2000 computer glitch, and a relaxation of curbs on high-tech exports. "The momentum is very strong," says Representative Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), chair of the House GOP high-tech working group.

A big reason for the sunny outlook is high tech's widening economic clout. Many pols are still fumbling with their own Web sites, but they know technology is a key engine of U.S. growth. Equally important is Silicon Valley's growing finesse in playing the D.C. power game. Tech companies have snapped up top lobbying talent. Microsoft Corp.'s roster of seven lobbyists now includes Kerry A. Knott, ex-chief of staff to House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Tex.), and Ken Knutson, an ex-GOP Senate staffer. America Online Inc. snared Lisa Nelson and Andrew Weinstein, top aides to retired Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.).

BIG MONEY. To give tech execs a louder voice on Capitol Hill, the Information Technology Industry Council recently said it will keep a scorecard of lawmakers' votes on issues such as Y2K relief and trade. "Within five years, ITI's scorecard will be as important to [lawmakers] as the ratings of the AFL-CIO and the National FederatioN of Independent Business," says Ed Gillespie, a former Armey aide. He advises an industry group seeking to lift export curbs on data-scrambling technologies.

High-tech money is already doing plenty of talking. Computer and software companies forked over $8.8 million to congressional candidates and the two parties for the 1998 elections, the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics estimates. That's more than double their donations for '96 races.

Republicans snared 57% of the industry's largesse. The biggest money went to pols from the nation's premier techno corridors: $41,500 to REpresentative Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) and $35,550 to Representative Jay Inslee (D-Wash.), for example. Top Senate recipients in the past five years include Republican Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas ($188,300) and Democratic Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon ($90,083). Tech companies are now among the top donors of unrestricted cash to the parties. Under assault from the Justice Dept., Microsoft, CEO Bill Gates, and other execs ranked 11th on the GOP's soft-money list in 1997-98, with donations totaling $599,816. Microsoft gave soft money to the Democrats, too, just nowhere near as much: $150,000.

This blizzard of cash won't guarantee Silicon Valley everything on its wish list. The techies are playing defense on an array of bills to protect consumer privacy on the Internet. And while they'll likely get some relief from Y2K lawsuits, the final bill won't cap legal fees or economic damages--provisions deemed vital by most other business groups.

Last year, with elections looming, lawmakers played Santa Claus to Silicon Valley, bestowing a bundle of goodies, from more visas for skilled foreign workers to a time-out on new Internet taxes. While tech's take won't be as sweeping this year, it will still be impressive for a bunch that Capitol Hill insiders regarded as political rubes just a few years ago.