Dems develop tech agenda

Under the banner of an “Innovation Agenda,” House Democrats today will unveil a series of proposals aimed at strengthening the high-tech industry.

The plan is expected to focus on five areas: providing a more skilled and educated high-tech work force, encouraging greater investment in research and development, promoting affordable access to high-speed Internet services, ensuring energy independence in ten years, and making small businesses more competitive, according to a draft of the agenda obtained by The Hill.

The Democrats’ effort is the latest in perennial attempts by both parties to court the technology industry. House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) announced the House Republicans’ High-Tech Working Group agenda in May. In previous years, Democrats touted an “e-genda,” while Republicans took a page from their Contract With America and created an “e-contract.”

Today’s unveiling marks the first time House Democrats have unified behind a single set of ideas to promote innovation, Democratic leadership sources said. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) crisscrossed the country earlier this fall holding round-table discussions with tech executives in a search of new ideas before running them by senior House Democrats for their approval.

The plan is a mixture of old and new ideas. Among the newer ideas are proposals to improve the high-tech work force by offering tuition assistance and salary raises to math and science teachers, to make college tuition tax deductible for science and engineering students, and to create a special visa to allow international doctoral students to come to the United States.

Among older ideas, Democrats are expected to back the permanent extension of the research and development tax credit, a longtime legislative goal of many high-tech companies.

Several Democratic lobbyists applauded House Democrats for their unified backing of a tech agenda.

“The significant factor here is that it’s caucuswide. The entire caucus is aware of the problem of the U.S. losing its competitive edge,” said one lobbyist who preferred to remain anonymous until the plan is public.

In one part of the plan, Democrats back “broad-based stock options for rank-and-file employees.” The tech industry vigorously fought a recent proposal by the Financial Accounting Standards Board to require companies to list stock options as an expense on their balance sheets, a move that opponents said would kill the popularity of the compensation device.

The House supported the industry position in a July 2004 vote that would have prevented the accounting body from moving forward with the requirement. Eighty-eight Democrats voted against the House bill, titled the Stock Option Accounting Reform Act, many doing so on the grounds that Congress should not mettle in accounting rules.

The plan also hints that Democrats will support at least a modest rollback of the 2002 Sarbanes-Oxley corporate reform law.

“Democrats will … require specifically-tailored guidelines for small public companies to ensure Sarbanes-Oxley requirements are not overly burdensome,” the plan said.

Companies both large and small have been lobbying to reverse portions of the new law that they deem too costly or unnecessary.

For Democrats, the tech agenda may be especially important this year as they seek to mend fences with high-tech groups following a divisive vote on the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) this summer.

The tech industry strenuously backed the trade pact, while most House Democrats, including Pelosi and other leaders, worked behind the scenes to kill it. Since then, Democrats have been trying to work their way back into the industry’s good graces.

Democrats are lagging behind Republicans in raising money from at least one portion of the technology sector. Among contributors from the computers and Internet industries, Democrats trail Republicans by 47 to 53 percent, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.