- The Washington Times - Monday, October 16, 2000

15 minues with…Harris N. Miller

The high-technology industry couldn't ask for much more than Congress agreed to give it this year

Tech industry lobbyists have record levels of clout.

The close attention lawmakers pay to high-tech lobbyists these days has everything to do with the strength of the industry, the number of people tech companies employ and the high wages they pay, said Harris Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of America, a Reston-based trade group representing 26,000 software, Internet and telecommunications companies.

In 2000, high-tech lobbying may have come of age.

Question: The high-tech industry has to feel pretty good about itself right now since it got passage of an increase in H-1B visas for highly skilled foreign workers, of digital signatures and of permanent normal trade relations with China?

Answer: We're pleased with the overall legislative session. The other thing to keep in mind is that many of our legislative items include not doing things the Internet continues to be an industry that is basically not regulated.

So when people ask me my legislative agenda, I remind them of the Internet Hippocratic oath: Do no harm. I think we've been fairly successful in that area because as the Internet has grown there have been some parties who wanted to tax it or control it or regulate it in one way or another.

I think we've been fairly successful in convincing the administration and a majority of Congress not to do that in most cases. Obviously, in some areas, like international trade, we had to get something through Congress. To increase the visas, we had to get something through Congress. To allow electronic authentication to equate to pen-and-ink signatures, we had to get something through Congress.

But a lot of things that didn't happen are also very important.

Q: Can you think of any disappointments?

A: There are some things that we would have liked to have seen done. But we set our priorities, and we got our priorities through.

It would have been nice to seen the Internet tax moratorium extended. It expires in late 2001. It would have been nice to get that done this year.

We're still working to get through a couple of bills to help education and training in this country… . One would provide tax credits for businesses that donate … used computers to schools and libraries… . There's also a bill to provide tax credits for training [information technology] workers.

We're still hopeful that they will repeal the Spanish-American telephone tax… .

There's an amendment we oppose by Sen. [Ernest F.] Hollings [South Carolina Democrat] to limit foreign ownership of U.S. telecommunications companies. It's an interesting coalition against that. You have businesses and the unions against it. It's unusual to have the AFL-CIO and ITAA and U.S. Chamber of Commerce on the same side.

Q: When did the industry realize it wielded such power to push through its legislative agenda? Has it been a recent coming-of-age story?

A: I don't know that we ever realized it. There's a certain amount of hubris in that statement. I don't think we should be gloating about our legislative successes. I think we just have to be matter of fact about them.

Nothing succeeds like success. The fact that the IT industry has enabled our economy to grow so rapidly without producing inflation and all the negative side effects that so many economists were predicting has made us very popular among lawmakers.

It's also made us much more visible. As long as you're visible, you get people coming out and arguing for more regulation of us. Those governors who want to tax Internet sales are people we have to be concerned about.

People who want to regulate privacy on the Internet … are people to be concerned about.

I think it's an evolving process. We've been fairly fortunate that we've made our arguments well, but I never take anything for granted… .

Q: The visa increase passed 96-1 in the Senate and by a voice vote in the House. What makes lawmakers so attentive to the industry's needs?

A: I think the facts have been strong on our side. Three years ago when the visa cap was increased from 65,000 to 115,000 the opponents predicted doom and gloom. They said if you let in that many more high-tech workers from foreign countries, you're going to drive up unemployment and drive down wages of high-tech workers, and they had some support for that… .

But now it's three years later and exactly the opposite is true.

Unemployment continues to drop it's 3.9 percent overall and below 1 percent for white collar workers and wages continue to go up faster for high-tech workers than for average Americans. Even some of the organizations that opposed increasing the H-1B … admit their salaries have never been higher.

Opponents made predictions that came out wrong and undermined their own credibility.

Secondly, we created jobs the Department of Commerce [estimates] we created one-third of the new jobs in the country over the last several years. They're high-paying jobs. They're helping to drive the economy and increase productivity.

It's a little hard for lawmakers to come to any other conclusion when we talk about labor shortages that we're talking about a real problem.

Q: Has the high-tech lobby become too persuasive?

A: I don't think one can ever be too persuasive. Politics is not a football game that is over when the referee sounds the gun. Yes, the congressional session ends … but there will be a new Congress, the country goes on, the laws endure and the battles endure. As sure as we're sitting here, there will be battles over privacy, over Internet taxation, over intellectual property protection, and those battles are continuous… .

More and more we're going to see interests on the other side coming along making contentions [opposing the industry].

Q: What has changed in the past five years in way the high-tech industry lobbies?

A: It's pretty dramatic. When I was hired five years ago some of the members of the ITAA said to the election committee "What are you doing? You need to hire someone who is a techie or a trade association executive. Why would you hire a lobbyist?"

But the majority of the people who made the decision said we can't just be in Washington. We have to be of Washington. We have to be part of the lobbying process.

Whether you like Washington or not, Washington is here and it's going to [affect] your business. More and more CEOs have realized that. It manifests itself the number of member of companies we have… . It manifests itself in campaign participation and PAC giving… .

Q: Is the difference that you had tech CEOs promoting the industry's legislative agenda five years ago and now you have lawyers and lobbyists doing it?

A: Five years ago you had almost nobody doing it. That was the problem. Other than a few of the large hardware companies that had trade issues and issues like encryption, it was very unsystematic.

The same time I got hired (1995) was the same time Microsoft opened its Washington office. They just didn't participate in the political process.

The only companies that had Washington offices were heavily regulated, like AT&T; and other telecommunications companies, or they were companies that had a larger vision that included government, like EDS and IBM… .

Almost nobody in the high-tech industry gave to political campaigns. They thought Washington was an evil place and they would just be encouraging the inmates. There was a fundamental belief that if they ignored Washington it would go away.

Q: What's the single most-important item on the high-tech industry's legislative agenda for next year?

A: Privacy on the Internet. It's already being teed up as the big issue… .

Internet taxation is going to be back and it's going to be more pressing because the moratorium does expire… .

Internationally we will be much more focused on global trade… .

Q: Given the success this year, is there any concern the industry will set its goals too high? Or that Congress will say, "We've done enough for you guys already?"

A: It's a constant battle. You can't ever let your guard down. We have tremendous supporters in Congress. We don't have anyone in Congress I consider an enemy. We do have groups out there that have different views. Clearly there are governors who believe the Internet should be taxed.

Clearly there are people who consider themselves privacy advocates who think government regulation is necessary.

Clearly there are people who are concerned about losing their intellectual property on the Internet. We are, but we don't think it's a black-and-white issue.

We can't let our guard down, sit back and polish our apples and say we're done with this battle. It's a seamless process. That's part of the education we have to do with our own members and industry, that it is an ongoing process. You may make progress, but the issues continue to come up. They are never finally resolved. And it's a business. A lot of executives believe, incorrectly, that coming to Washington and making a couple of visits is all that has to be done. That's important, but when they leave the lawmakers are still here, their staffs are still here, the administrators and bureaucrats are still here and they are still getting pressured to do certain things… . You can't just drop in and out and expect that a once-a-year visit is going to get it done."

SELF-PORTRAIT

Harris N. Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of America

Age: 49

Education: Undergraduate degree University of Pittsburgh; graduate degree Yale University

Favorite Web page: amazon.com

Why: "I'm a book and classical record addict."

Favorite tech toy: Palm Pilot VII

Family: married, two children

How to contact me:hmiller@itaa.org

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