January 9, 2007 4:00 AM PST

Congress off to slow start with tech

When newly empowered Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives launch into their much-touted 100-hours agenda on Tuesday, don't expect to see much in the way of issues important to the high-tech industry.

Elevating the minimum wage, urging stem-cell research, and ushering in lower prescription drug prices are on the initial calendar. But hot-button topics such as rewriting patent law, encouraging broadband availability, protecting Net neutrality, and upping the skilled worker visas so beloved by high-tech companies aren't foremost priorities yet.

The issues' early absence shouldn't be taken as a sign of things to come, Democratic aides said.

"We will be focused on technology issues," said Stacey Bernards, a spokeswoman for House Democratic Leader Steny Hoyer. "The 100-hours agenda is just a start of a focus on issues important to the economy."

The state of affairs isn't much different on the Senate side, where Majority Leader Harry Reid last week announced a similar list of 10 bills that the historically slower-moving chamber hopes to consider first--none of which have much to do with technology. Those priorities "are by no means a comprehensive list of everything Democrats would like to accomplish in this Congress," said spokeswoman Liz Oxman.

Some industry representatives said the seeming lack of tech attention in the new majority's early days was neither troubling nor particularly surprising.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi made it clear during a meeting after last November's election that components of the Democrats' "innovation agenda" would not be pushed at the outset because of their complexity, said John Palafoutas, a senior vice president with the American Electronics Association. That agenda includes delivering high-speed Net access to the entire country within five years and granting more scholarships in math and science.

But Pelosi demonstrated a thorough understanding of tech industry priorities during her visit, so "nobody was upset with the fact that their initial push included other things and not the technology bills," Palafoutas said.

Roger Cochetti, U.S. public policy director for the Computing Technology Industry Association (CompTIA), said he is similarly confident that the lull would not last. "Right now we're in the 'big-hug phase,' where the new Congress, the administration and the industry are feeling each other out on where we all can advance common agendas and opportunities," he said.

Reviving tech efforts
Other policy areas key to the Democrats' early agenda, such as lobbying law reform, include technological components, but those efforts have been uneven so far.

For instance, one Senate bill on Reid's top-10 list, carried over from last year, would force all lobbying disclosures to be posted within 48 hours of their filing to a "searchable, sortable and downloadable" database, available to the public for free on the Internet. The same obligations would apply to conference reports--that is, near-final, compromise versions of bills, where controversial language sometimes sneaks in at the last minute--with the idea that allowing public viewing could help curb "earmark" spending for politicians' local pet projects.

But on the House side, a first batch of ethics reform rules approved late last week made no mention of Internet use for transparency purposes. The rules only require that information about earmark requests and lobbying disclosures be made available for "public inspection." At the moment, that typically requires trekking to the basement of a House office building for an in-person look at binders and in-house databases.

Perhaps the closest to technology policy-making that Democrats may approach during their first few days is enacting a plan for heightened oversight on the government's increasingly electronic antiterrorism programs, such as the warrantless wiretapping program accused of scooping up the phone and Internet activities of ordinary Americans.

Scheduled for consideration on Tuesday is a 277-page bill designed to implement the remaining recommendations of the 9/11 Commission, including a section aimed at giving more teeth to the 2-year-old Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, charged with advising the executive branch on such topics. The bill proposes extracting the five-member board from the president's office, where it currently resides, and making it an independent federal agency; granting it subpoena power; and requiring it to submit mostly unclassified reports to Congress outlining its findings and recommendations.

The measure also seeks to boost the investigatory powers of the Department of Homeland Security's chief privacy officer. Watchdogs have said such reform is critical as the agency moves forward with data-intensive watch list and identification regimes.

In a similar vein, the Senate Judiciary Committee plans to focus on the privacy implications of government data-mining programs at its first hearing of the year under Democratic leadership on Wednesday.

Even if tech-related bills are not first on the agenda, Republicans and Democrats alike have already begun reviving such legislative efforts from last year. Not all of them, however, have earned widespread support in the past.

Here's a sampling of those proposals.

Reining in social-networking sites: Last summer, over the objections of civil libertarians, librarians and educators, the House overwhelmingly approved the Deleting Online Predators Act, which would restrict ambiguously defined social-networking sites in schools and libraries that receive federal funding. The proposal ultimately died last year, but on the first day of the 110th Congress, Sen. Ted Stevens, a veteran Alaska Republican, reintroduced identical language in what he portrayed as a renewed effort to protect children online.

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