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Tech policy victories are increasingly rare

Google's lobbying offices in DC have as much space as the White House, but legislative victories for the tech industry seem rare.
Google's lobbying offices in DC have as much space as the White House, but legislative victories for the tech industry seem rare.wikipedia.org

With this session of Congress currently on pace to set a historic low for the number of bills passed (53 in 2014, the lowest since this data was kept), it’s fair to say that most of the pain is being shared by interest groups across the board. Yet, for an industry that has transformed the U.S. and global economies for the better part of the last thirty years, the technology community seems to be actually going backwards these days when it comes to lobbying influence in the nation’s capital. Either tech companies aren’t getting their message across to elected officials, or they are and nobody cares.

Last week, a bill that had attracted the rarest commodity in today’s gridlocked Congress – bipartisan support – got suddenly killed after a year of careful negotiation. The bill was sponsored by Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA) and would have created a formal national strategy for the mining of rare earth elements. These 17 elements form the material basis for many technology products today including lasers, cellphones, electric cars, and much more.

Two conservative political groups, apparently distrustful of anything that smacks of government oversight and funding for a technology database, marshalled their forces and put enough pressure on Republicans to ensure defeat in the House.

Meanwhile, “hot button” issues for the tech industry such as immigration reform, patent streamlining, and protecting an open Internet are destined to be buried this year under the mountain of partisan debate and conflict that are the hallmarks of how Congress works these days.

It’s not as though the tech industry doesn’t have the resources to lobby for their cause in DC. In 2012, Google became the second largest corporate spender on lobbying in the U.S., ranked only behind General Electric. Their lobbying office on Capitol Hill occupies about as much space as the White House.

Microsoft employs over 100 lobbyists for the company and spent more than $10 million on political activity in 2013. Oracle and Hewlett-Packard contributed nearly $15 million in the same year combined.

The tech industry also has developed its own “alphabet soup” of trade groups whose members pay hefty dues for representation of their interests in Congress. And while there has been recent consolidation among a few of these groups, more new ones have sprung up in their place.

CompTIA, a certification and business credentialing non-profit group, announced in May that they were acquiring TechAmerica, a trade group formed several years ago by the combining of AeA with ITAA. “This merger with CompTIA makes a lot of sense,” says Steve Kester, Director of Government Affairs for Advanced Micro Devices (AMD).

According to Kester, “TechAmerica’s voice has been waning on policy issues,” and he believes that combining forces will ultimately result in a stronger lobbying position. AMD is not a member of either group.

TechNet, a Silicon Valley advocacy group which was founded in 1997, continues to claim the top executives of Salesforce, Cisco, Yahoo and Google as members of their executive council. The group recently arranged a meeting with tech leaders and Republican Senator Rand Paul at Palantir in Palo Alto, California.

More recently, smaller lobbying groups such as Fwd.us and Engine have formed to provide a voice for social media companies (Facebook) or smaller tech startups to make their points with elected officials. While the websites of both groups show plenty of comment on issues ranging from immigration to diversity to net neutrality, none pinpoints any specific, enacted legislation that was successfully passed in support of their cause.

There are two groups in “stealth mode” which may emerge early next year and join the tech lobbying party. One is Brigade Media, a for-profit company that was started by Napster co-founder Sean Parker. The company has been acquiring funding and technology to launch what is believed to be a platform to engage voters on various issues within the government.

The other is a small group of executives inside Silicon Valley who will likely follow a services-based trade association model that could morph into lobbying down the road. The group is still building its structure and is not yet ready to formally announce their plans.

While no elected officials or members of their staff would speak on the record about the state of tech lobbying, there is clearly a growing sense that the industry may be weakening its lobbying clout by failing to speak with one, clear centralized voice. In a tech culture that’s always been about “getting results,” the continued lack of success in Washington is frustrating to some and baffling to many. Whether the tech community can call on their legacy of innovation and come up with a model that actually works will be interesting to watch in the months ahead.