Tech's frustration with Congress boils over

Tech's frustration with Congress boils over
© Getty Images

Silicon Valley's checks haven't been buying them many bills.

Lawmakers made multiple trips to the tech industry capital this summer to stage meet-and-greets with company executives and get them to open their wallets. 

ADVERTISEMENT
But for all the work some members of Congress do to take industry’s money and run, many of the sector's highest priorities have been left on the table.

That's leading to growing frustration around the San Francisco Bay Area and causing some industry advocates to eye a more aggressive posture for dealing with Washington.

“I think there’s definitely frustration,” said Julie Samuels, executive director of the San Francisco-based startup advocacy group Engine. “I’m lying if I said otherwise.”

“However, there’s also an understanding that nothing is passing in this Congress,” she added. “It’s not so simple as just being mad about the things that haven’t happened. I think people here — like they are all over the country — are mad at the overall inability of this Congress to get anything done.”

The tech industry finds itself in the frustrating position of dealing with deadlock while also wielding a cachet few others can boast.

The industry's pioneer spirit has captured the imagination of both sides of the aisle, and Silicon Valley executives have both deep pockets and social influence.

“I think that the most disappointing and frustrating part is that the street cred that members get from spending time from tech doesn’t translate into policies that enable those innovations,” said Dean Garfield, president of the Information Technology Industry Council. The lobbying group includes industry giants like Google, Microsoft and Facebook among its dozens of members.

Few lawmakers go posting pictures on Twitter after hanging out on Wall Street as they do with tech icons.

“There is no doubt that policymakers love to spend time with our companies and our CEOs,” Garfield added. “They are not only rocket scientists; in many respects they’re also rock stars.”

But to date, many industry advocates say they feel more like an ATM than an economy-driving constituency. 

Immigration reform — a key demand for a sector struggling to bring in skilled foreign developers and techies — has died a slow and painful death since the 2012 election, when congressional action seemed imminent.

Patent reform, another major issue for tech companies who dread dealing with the "trolls" that file harassing lawsuits merely to extract a costly settlement, is also dead. Tough negotiations in the Senate were torpedoed by Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry ReidDems see surge of new candidates Dems to grind Senate to a halt over ObamaCare repeal fight GOP fires opening attack on Dem reportedly running for Heller's Senate seat MORE (D-Nev.) in May. 

A congressional effort to reform the National Security Agency, which companies say has damaged their reputation to the tune of tens of billions of dollars in lost profits, is also on precarious footing in the Senate and could face an uphill battle in a packed autumn with little room for legislative deal-making. 

The Senate NSA effort comes only after the House passed a version of surveillance reform in May that privacy advocates and tech companies said had been gutted by the time it hit the floor, causing many to drop their support.

“This is just a particularly difficult time,” said Linda Moore, the CEO of trade group TechNet. “But we’re not going to walk away. Not being at the table and not having our voice heard is not the way to go.”

Moore’s organization has coordinated more than 60 visits by government officials to tech companies this cycle, and she is responding to the absence of action by focusing on next year.

For instance, Rep. Tom Marino (R-Pa.) — who is poised to take over the House Judiciary subcommittee on Intellectual Property — came to San Francisco in August to talk with TechNet, Engine, Yelp and ride service Lyft about patents and other issues.

While in the area, he attended a fundraiser at the home of San Jose, Calif., city councilmember Pete Constant, where $2,500 could get a group of six a photo of the congressman.

The industry and its friends may also take a harsher tone with the lawmakers who ignore tech firms even when they’re not asking for money.

“There are tons of people who spend time in Silicon Valley, who fundraise in Silicon Valley and then return to Washington and take votes that are completely contrary to the interests of the innovation ecosystem,” said Garfield.

His organization is going to do more to “hold those policymakers accountable,” he said, by “saying ‘no’ more often and... being stronger supporters for those who get it and are working hard to move policies that are in our national best interest.”

Signs of a more aggressive approach are coming from other places, too.

This summer, a handful of people at the intersection of Washington and the tech world launched a new political action committee called America Innovates, which promises to bring in a new crop of lawmakers who share the tech sector’s “creativity and determination.”

"This is kind of an inflection point," Mike McNerney, one of the group's founders, told The Hill. "I hope that we're one solution to helping bridge that gap [between lawmakers and tech entrepreneurs] and helping those issues gain a little bit more traction." 

The new approach could be a signal of growing disenfranchisement with the current political leaders, Samuels said, and could foretell a sea change in the sector’s approach to politics.

“I do think the frustration is more palpable,” she said.

“Though that hasn’t stopped people from coming out and asking for money.”