New Democrats back patent-reform effort

The New Democrat Coalition (NDC), a group of 43 centrist House Democrats, voiced support last week for one of the top legislative goals of the technology industry, patent reform.

Although New Democrats and the high-tech sector have long been allies, their relationship has become frayed in recent weeks after New Democrat leaders said they would not back the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), a high-tech priority.
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Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas)


The move to support patent reform in this Congress will likely help ease tensions between the two groups and shift focus away from their differences on CAFTA.

New Democrat leaders wrote to the drafters of a patent reform bill, Reps. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) and Howard Berman (D-Calif.), expressing their support for the effort and underscoring issues of special importance to the technology industry, such as injunction relief.

“The NDC supports your efforts to advance patent reform legislation that will improve the quality of patents issued and provide common sense litigation reform,” wrote coalition co-chairs Reps. Adam Smith (Wash.), Ellen Tauscher (Calif.), Ron Kind (Wis.) and Artur Davis (Ala.) on Thursday. “We believe injunctive relief is an important legal reform element of patent reform.”

Technology companies are one of the few remaining business interests that still give generously to Democrats, in part because many technology companies are based in Democratic-leaning areas of the country and their executives and employees tend to be more liberal.

Employees of computer and Internet businesses gave 54 percent of their contributions to Democrats in the last election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

The New Democrats’ patent-reform letter circulated on Capitol Hill last week at nearly the same time that a high-tech lobbying coalition produced a letter castigating New Democrats for their position on CAFTA.

A dozen leaders of high-tech lobbying groups, including AeA, the Business Software Alliance, the Computing Technology Industry Association, the Electronic Industries Alliance and TechNet, wrote to New Democrat leaders last week emphasizing their displeasure with the Democrats’ CAFTA stance.

“We would like to express our strong disagreement with [your position] opposing [CAFTA], and to urge you to reconsider your position on this essential agreement,” the tech leaders wrote.

They also noted that the CAFTA issue would be “one of the most important of 2005” to them. Lobbying groups often use so-called key votes to determine whom to support financially.

Several Democratic aides bristled at the lobbyists’ letter, noting that New Democrats had been excluded from negotiations over the trade bill, making it difficult for them to endorse the final agreement. Moreover, tech lobbyists were holding Democrats to a higher standard than Republicans, they said.

“One of the things that is particularly frustrating with this letter is that we have been with the tech industry on lots of things where Republicans have not,” said Lars Anderson, a spokesman for Smith. “Export controls was one issue last year. New Democrats voted mostly in favor of that legislation, then Republicans voted largely against it, and yet [the tech lobby] did not do any letters against Republicans. If you’re going to play that game, you have to do it with both sides.”

Anderson said that the New Democrats’ patent letter was not timed to counter the lobbyists’ CAFTA letter and that New Democrats “intend to continue to work together with the tech industry.”

Other aides and some lobbyists said that the tech lobby’s letter was less a reflection of the industry’s frustration with New Democrats and more a response to pressure from the administration to drum up more support for CAFTA.

“There’s a lot of hype around Democrats not supporting CAFTA,” a Democratic lobbyist said. “There is this push from the administration and [the U.S. trade representative] in putting pressure on us to get New Democrats.” Still, the lobbyist added, “It is a mixed bag. A lot of Republican lobbyists want to point out how bad [House Democrats] are, but Democratic lobbyists want to say, ‘Hey, let’s get on to the next issue.’”

The president, new U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman and other administration officials met at the White House last week with lobbyists in favor of the free-trade agreement.

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