Will the new Congress be good for technology? Will its members put down their state-of-the-art cell phones and Blackberrys long enough to seriously consider legislation that will help U.S. industry be more competitive and perhaps even help strengthen the economy? “This Congress has a lot of unfinished business,” says Electronic Industries Alliance (EIA) President and CEO Dave McCurdy.
It may be a situation the new Democratic leadership may be ready to fix. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, accompanied by Congressman George Miller (Calif.), soon to be the chairman of the Education and Workforce Committee in the House, and Congresswoman Anna Eshoo (Calif.), who represents Silicon Valley, already have made the rounds at a few industry trade association functions to talk about her party’s push for competitiveness legislation early next year.
Pelosi expects strong bipartisan support. In her first post election meeting with President Bush, the new speaker reportedly explicitly mentioned competitiveness as one area where he could work with Congress. Bush introduced the American Competitiveness Initiative in his State of the Union address in January.
The Dems may also press for implementation of some of the security proposals that came out of the 9/11 Commission report on better protecting the country from terrorists. These include the installation of radiation monitors to screen cargo containers at all ports of entry and entry/exit screening systems using biometric passports linked to a database.
The biggest item on the industry’s political agenda is R&D tax credits. The EIA’s McCurdy says research is “at the top of the list” of his several hundred member companies.
“For the last two years, both sides of the aisle \[of Congress\] have been telling the high-tech industry they support extending the R&D tax credit,” McCurdy says. “Yet time and again, we’ve seen political gamesmanship trump sound public policy.”
The AeA (formerly the American Electronics Association) is making the same pitch.
“While other countries are aggressively courting R&D with lucrative tax benefits, the U.S. has allowed the R&D tax credit to expire for nearly a year,” says AeA President and CEO William T. Archey.
As a result, some deserving projects don’t get funded, or they’re moved overseas.
The AeA also has high hopes for support from the new Senate for improved education in math and science, an increase in the federal R&D budget, and visa reform.
High on the IEEE-USA’s political to-do list is keeping U.S. EEs employed. The IEEE’s Washington, DC-based lobbying group says legislation pending before Congress would authorize enough visas for highly-skilled workers to fill every computing and engineering job created in the United States over the next decade and still have 630,000 visas left over. This may kick start another hard look at immigration reform in high-tech jobs.
NEW TECHNOLOGY ADVISOR
Congress has been passing or talking about “big science” legislation for more than a decade, mostly without seeking the advice of engineers or scientists. With China and India hot on the heels of the U.S. in so many areas, now might be a good time to reinstate the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) Congress shut down in 1995 as part of a broad budget-cutting effort. The OTA, which provided the members of Congress with technical forecasting and assessments, was created in 1972, in part “to spot technology impacts,” and “determine alternative technological methods of implementing programs, and estimate and compare the impacts of these alternatives.” With the Congress now facing issues such as bio- and cyber-terrorism, missile defense systems, stem cell research, spectrum management, and intellectual property, it needs all the information it can get its hands on it to make the right choices.
At some point in the very near future, someone is going to have to explain to the members of Congress (and it might be a good idea to start with the freshman) how important it is to pass federal legislation comparable to the European Union’s Restrictions on Hazardous Substances (RoHS).
Richard Goss, the EIA’s director of environmental affairs, has already testified before the Senate Subcommittee on Superfund and Waste Management that the industry needs a national “uniform \[environmental\] regulatory framework.” Without it, component manufacturers and OEMs face the very real prospect of having to comply with a patchwork of e-waste legislation ratified by 50 different states.
Congress may also have to start paying a lot more attention to global warming. A new national public opinion poll commissioned by the Earth Day Network, shows that Americans are worried about global warming, with 58% saying global warming will have a “great to extreme” impact on their children’s future and two our of three agreeing it will adversely impact the U.S. economy over the next 10 years.
And what are the chances of developing a national strategy on offshoring? Not much, probably, but with more high-tech companies looking offshore to reduce their labor costs, increase market access, and look for new governmental economic incentives, engineers might be well advised to start looking more closely at their own careers in anticipation of making some tough, creative choices down the road.
Clearly, there is no shortage of issues for the Congress and the Bush administration to consider. The one that gets mentioned a lot, but doesn’t seem to get much traction is accountability, most recently on the heels of reports of cost overruns and mismanagement by contractors coming out of the Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security. Tighter controls of these two massive federal agencies may be long overdue. Iraq and Katrina have been eye openers, and the inspector general of the DHS has already told members of Congress in writing that he has found “inadequate oversight” by the department.