Congress unlikely to vote on tech-related bills

Despite the fact that a number of technology-related legislative proposals are kicking around Congress, a pair of lawmakers expressed doubt that many of them will come to a vote before this session ends.

Senator Max Cleland, a Democrat from Georgia and member of the U.S. Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, said he doesn’t believe the committee will act this session on the proposed digital rights management (DRM) bill from South Carolina Democrat Senator Fritz Hollings, who is chairman of the committee. This congressional session is scheduled to end Oct. 4.

Hollings’ bill, opposed by many in the technology industry, calls for the IT, consumer electronics, and entertainment industries to work together on safeguards to protect digital content from illegal copying, or face government-mandated specifications.

“I understand your concerns over DRM legislation,” Cleland told attendees at the Computer and Communications Industry Association’s Washington Caucus, held here this week. Attendees included representatives from Sun Microsystems Inc., Nortel Networks Corp., EarthLink Inc., and Covad Communications Co. “I encourage you to continue negotiating in good faith” with the entertainment industry to arrive at a solution to digital piracy, he said.

The senator also said he doubts that votes on bills related to broadband deployment will take place before this congressional session ends. “We won’t pass broadband legislation this year,” Cleland said, citing a backlog of pressing measures such as appropriations bills and working out the details of creating the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Another lawmaker, Representative Zoe Lofgren, a Democrat from California who represents Silicon Valley, predicted Congress will not make changes to the way companies account for stock options in this session, despite a legislative proposal that would modify current practices.

Speaking at the conference late Tuesday afternoon, Lofgren added she is doubtful that trade promotion authority — which would give President George W. Bush the power to negotiate trade deals with foreign countries that Congress could approve or deny, but not alter — will pass.

On the DRM front, Lofgren said she is crafting legislation that would protect the rights of users of copyright material. Although she is against the government forcing technology mandates on the industry, as Hollings’ bill proposes, Lofgren does think Congress has a role to play in “sorting out what cannot be protected” by copyright and in protecting copyright users’ rights.

Asked if her constituents in Silicon Valley believe that the creation of the Department of Homeland Security would mean business opportunities for them, Lofgren said they did not, at least in the short term. “It’s not going to have a meaningful role in pulling the technology industry out of the doldrums,” she said, noting that the government won’t start spending money on the new department until 2004. However, “technology is going to be a huge part of the (security) answer,” she added.

A member of the Bush administration who spoke earlier in the day had more encouraging words for the technology industry’s role in the new department.

“When it comes to homeland security, there’s a great synergy between the government and industry,” said Benjamin Wu, deputy under secretary for technology with the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Technology Administration. The nation’s “entrepreneurial spirit is really our greatest weapon against terrorism. It’s up to us in the federal government to tap into this industry.”

The federal government will need to rely on the private sector’s technology expertise in order to build the tools it needs to fight terrorism, he added.

On an even more upbeat note, an economist with the Bush administration told conference attendees he believes that the U.S. economy is rebounding.

“I think it’s fair to say there’s a recovery under way,” said Glenn Hubbard, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors, which counsels the administration on economic issues. Consumer confidence remains strong, Hubbard said, and he believes that by the end of the year investments in business will recover.

Actions that the government has taken to stimulate the economy over the past 12 to 18 months have had a delayed effect, Hubbard added. “Over the next year we’ll continue to feel the effects of positive stimulus action that was taken … in the past,” he said.