“Do-nothing Congress” is a label that’s been well-worn in Washington since President Harry Truman first used it against the Republican-led 80th Congress in 1948. Congressional Democrats have dusted it off again this election season, to great effect, lambasting the Republicans who control both the House and the Senate for passing little of what Democrats consider meaningful legislation.
But for IT industry groups who have been lobbying on behalf of a number of reforms that would benefit the technology industry, the label fits. From H-1B visas, to funding for R&D, to reforms at the U.S. Patent Office, representatives for the tech industry in the Capitol say that the 109th Congress has failed to deliver. There is hope that this week’s election could break a legislative logjam, regardless of whether the Democratic or Republican parties wind up on top.
“I think it’s fair to say that the [tech] industry is upset that our priorities did not cross the finish line,” said Josh Ackil, vice president of government relations at the Information Technology Industry Council (ITIC), a technology lobbying association that counts Cisco, EMC, IBM, Intel, Microsoft, and other tech heavyweights as members.
ITIC has been working with members of Congress on issues such as renewing a tax credit for R&D that expired at the end of 2005, and on passing immigration reform that will increase the number of skilled, foreign-born workers who can come to the United States. Both issues have broad, bipartisan support, but both have languished in Congress this year, Ackil said.
Andrea Hoffman, vice president at TechNet, the tech-industry lobbying group, agreed.
“Right now it’s an election year, and our key issues are caught up in a political process,” Hoffman said.
For example, a provision to increase the number of H-1B visas was wrapped into a larger Senate immigration bill that failed to pass when House Republicans decided to shelve compromise efforts and hold town hall meetings on immigration instead.
That angered some in the tech community, where foreign-born engineers and software developers are desperately needed to supplement an anemic supply of native-born technology workers.
“There’s a hell of a big difference between someone coming into the country on an H-1B visa and someone sneaking across the border to work in a strawberry field,” said one industry spokesman, who asked not to be identified by name because of uncertainty about the outcome of the midterm elections.
Current legislation regarding immigration could still get passed in a lame duck session after the election. Senate Bill 2691 and its counterpart in the House H.R. 5744 would raise the annual cap on H-1B visas from 65,000 to 115,000 and exempt foreign nationals who have earned a master’s degree or higher in an accredited U.S. university from the cap.
Tech-industry lobbyists also have high hopes for restoring funding for R&D, said ITIC’s Ackil — assuming congressional leaders can get “clean” bills to the floor that don’t wrap in divisive issues such as border security or abortion.
Ackil and others expect that will be possible once the fog of war that sets in around elections has cleared.
Beyond that, lobbyists were reluctant to talk about whether the tech industry would benefit from a change in control on Capitol Hill, fearing retaliation should their predictions prove false.
However, at least one industry spokesman said that tech companies could benefit if Democratic representatives from high-tech strongholds Silicon Valley and Massachusetts’ Route 128 corridor ascend to power in the House and Senate.
“We’re in their backyard, so if something happens that affects us, they’ve got to listen,” the industry spokesman said.