Hillary Clinton's Silicon Valley overtures

CNET News.com's Washington watcher, Declan McCullagh, examines why the junior senator from New York is suddenly talking tech with a vengeance.

Hillary Clinton may be one of the newest politicians in the Senate, but it hasn't stopped her from taking an increasingly prominent role on technology topics.

The New York Democrat, who was elected in 2000 with 55 percent of the vote, introduced a last December that drew applause from computer scientists. Then, in the last few weeks, Clinton introduced five separate bills that together describe how she thinks America should encourage the implementation of high-speed Internet connections.

Ever since Clinton was elected, she's maintained unusually close ties with technology companies--a rarity for a freshman senator who is a member of no relevant committees, has a poor record of enacting legislation, and would normally have little to offer Silicon Valley firms.

Two examples: Last month Clinton joined a "tech policy roundtable" hosted by the Business Software Alliance that included Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, Adobe CEO Bruce Chizen and Symantec CEO John Thompson. Earlier, she spoke at a board of directors meeting of the Information Technology Industry Council, whose members include Apple, Cisco, Dell, eBay, IBM, Intel and Microsoft.

The most likely reason for the courtship between Clinton and technology CEOs is, of course, the intriguing possibility of Hillary in 2008.

The most likely reason for the courtship between Clinton and technology CEOs is, of course, the intriguing possibility of Hillary in 2008. John Edwards' selection last week as the Democratic VP candidate renewed speculation that Clinton could win her party's nomination in 2008 if President Bush is re-elected. (Clinton would even do as well as John Kerry if she were running against Bush this year, a poll last month from the University of Pennsylvania said.)

Clinton has "been increasingly staking out her advocacy of technology-friendly positions," says Robert Atkinson, vice president of the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI). "I think it's all part and parcel of her becoming pretty actively engaged in a number of technology issues. Her reputation going into the Senate was someone who knew a lot about health care and social policy and similar issues. In some sense she's broadening her expertise in delving into a whole set of issues that are vital to economic growth." PPI is the think tank of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, once chaired by Bill Clinton when he was governor of Arkansas.

In her 2000 Senate race against Republican Rick Lazio, employees of technology firms and their corresponding political action committees gave Clinton relatively little money. They weren't in the top 10 categories of donors, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, while industry categories like law firms, banks, health care providers, and the entertainment industry were. But a presidential race requires more money, and technology execs are an obvious place to turn for a little financial help when the right time arrives.

In May 2002, Clinton sided with tech firms including Microsoft and Texas Instruments against an IRS regulation that would effectively increase taxes on stock options and employee stock purchase plans. Clinton has traveled to Ireland with SUNY Empire State College officials on a trip described as exploring "business and technology partnerships," and she hosted a delegation of 10 CEOs from India's largest technology companies.

Broadband bills
Then there are the industry-friendly proposals Clinton introduced in the Senate on June 24--perhaps not-so-coincidentally, the same day that Kerry announced his technology and broadband policy in a speech in San Jose, Calif., and Bush gave a speech on the topic in Washington, D.C.

Clinton's proposals are designed to play well in her state's more northern and rural areas--places like Buffalo and Rochester that have been hard-hit economically in the last few years. "This broadband for lagging regions (concept) started in her campaign in 2000," says PPI's Atkinson, who has worked with Clinton's aides on technology policy topics. "Part of her campaign was to try to revitalize upstate New York, which had been lagging behind for many decades. Many of the proposals she had adopted had been informed by PPI work."

One of her bills would create a new tax credit of up to $100 million for anyone who "holds a qualified technology bond" issued by a state or local government to pay for broadband access. Four other measures would spend a combined total of $300 million more on grants for broadband-related technologies, especially those that could serve rural areas. Those bills are S.2577 ($25 million), S.2578 ($100 million), S.2579 ($125 million), and S.2582 ($50 million).

Clinton's proposals would involve the federal government less than Kerry's but more than Bush's.
Characterizing nuanced policy positions in a few words is always a tricky business, but it seems fair to say that Clinton's proposals would involve the federal government less than Kerry's, but more than Bush's. In his speech, Kerry talked about trade restrictions, increasing corporate welfare, more spending on education, and tax credits. Bush talked up tax cuts, backing broadband over power lines, and streamlining the process of granting broadband providers access to federal land.

Anyway, when it comes to technology, talk is cheap. Votes are what count.

By that measure, Clinton doesn't fare too well. She earned a failing grade on technology votes--a mere 50 percent rating--during her first two years in the Senate, according to an industry scorecard. And according to the nonpartisan National Journal magazine, Clinton garnered an 89 percent liberal voting record in 2003, higher than either Ted Kennedy or Tom Daschle, thanks to her pro-regulatory views that don't generally jibe well with what's best for the tech industry.

In addition, in the last two years, Clinton has enjoyed extremely limited success as a legislator. She introduced 125 bills and amendments but only two appear to have been approved by the Senate and not one has been signed into law. (Of the two that were approved by the Senate but died in the House, one would award $90.5 million in grants related to "family caregivers" and the second would designate Aug. 7, 2003, as "National Purple Heart Recognition Day.")

But that hasn't stopped Clinton and technology lobbyists from cozying up to each other. The same Information Technology Industry Council that gave her a failing grade turned around and invited Clinton as an honored guest speaker--which may be the best example yet of the New York senator's political mettle.

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