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White House sets final high-tech priorities

With Congress and the Clinton administration winding down, some high-technology issues may go unresolved until a new federal government takes shape, a top White House official says.

WASHINGTON--As the current Congress and the Clinton administration enter their final days, a number of high-technology issues face the possibility of going unresolved until a new federal government takes shape early next year, according to a top White House official.

High-tech matters such as online privacy, Internet taxes and immigration policy will be among the pressing issues swirling about on Capitol Hill in the next several weeks, White House Chief of Staff John Podesta told a group of online journalists yesterday.

Other, non-tech issues topping the Clinton administration's agenda include the president's program for putting 100,000 teachers in classrooms and modernizing schools; raising the minimum wage; securing a patient's bill of rights; and offering a long-care prescription drug plan through Medicare.

The month of October will see the final legislative accomplishments of the Clinton White House administration, Podesta said. "We're on the right path economically, and we're on the right path with respect to social policy in this country," he said. "The question then is, can we keep that momentum going in the waning Congress?"

But with 11 of 15 appropriation bills left unfinished as the federal fiscal year closes tomorrow, and so many other issues yet unresolved, the chief of staff said many important policy decisions will get passed on to the next administration.

"We're frustrated but still hard at work," he said. "The next couple of weeks will tell whether the American people will see some results from this session of Congress."

Following the November elections, high-tech matters may well be trifles in comparison with scientific issues including the climate and gene research, Podesta said.

The top two technology issues facing the next administration will be the climate and fallout from the Human Genome Project, Podesta said.

Climate "will be a critical issue for the next administration," one that "broadly cuts across a number of fronts, from foreign policy to how are we going to create economic incentives to create energy-efficient cars and appliances to really invest in renewable resources," Podesta said.

Human Genome Project
But dealing with the policy issues resulting from the Human Genome Project, which this summer announced that it has essentially completed the monumental task of mapping human genes, will be a colossal undertaking, he said. While the mapping effort means great promise for improved health care, it also presents great social policy challenges, topping difficulties such as achieving appropriate privacy standards.

"Privacy with regard to who we are--financial records, medical records, etc.--are things I think that can be worked out and balances be found," Podesta said. "The political system can deal with those kinds of issues. The issues around genetic knowledge, genetic discrimination, I think are just exponentially bigger and in the long run even tougher to handle."

Ensuring privacy, particularly with regard to the Internet, is an important priority over the coming weeks. A privacy bill passed the House judiciary committee this week, but the Clinton administration is concerned about ensuring the right balance, the chief of staff said.

In a July speech at the National Press Club, Podesta advocated legislation that enhances the privacy of U.S. citizens while preserving law enforcement's investigative abilities.

"We would like to see legislation move forward on that basis that would actually give better protection, more harmonized protection to American citizens, especially with regard to electronic communications--email, etc.--and at the same time deal with the legitimate needs of law enforcement," Podesta said. "And I think we can work that package out in good faith, and I still think there's time to do it."

Podesta said the administration is open to the creation of a privacy commission, "but that legislation feels more stalled to me."

Protecting medical privacy is another issue the administration advocates, but the fate of that initiative remains uncertain, Podesta said. "There's also legislation to give better protection to social security numbers, and that bill looks like it may move forward."

H-1B visas a priority
Another priority for the White House is temporarily raising the quota of H-1B visas that allow skilled foreign high-tech workers to take jobs in the United States.

A bill before the Senate would raise the quota, but the White House is insistent on a provision that would increase fees collected and allocate more for educating American workers to fill high-tech jobs.

"We're obviously also pressing hard for Congress to consider enacting n Hispanic immigration fairness package," Podesta said.

This change would let immigrants from countries such as El Salvador and Guatemala gain legal status. Only those Hispanic immigrants who came to the United States before 1972 can gain such status; the change would move the date to 1986.

"Many of the people who are at issue here came to this country under extraordinary circumstances in which their countries were at war," Podesta said. "They lived here for more than a decade; their children are citizens, and they deserve a little fairness."

Podesta made it clear any change to H-1B visas would not be about bringing in cheaper labor. He also emphasized the importance of better educating American workers. Raising the cap is a short-term, but necessary solution.

"There's a need for more workers to fill the slots and keep the productivity of this economy that has come in large part, I think, not just (from) increased sales of high-technology products but the use of those high-technology products in more traditional industries."

A major tech-policy issue that cannot be resolved during the waning days of this Congress is that of Internet taxes.

As a stopgap measure, Podesta said, the White House would be open to supporting an extension on the moratorium banning Internet taxes if it appeared in an omnibus bill.

Internet commerce
The issue of Net taxes is a complicated one, he said. "There's obviously, I think, a need to work out an accommodation between state and local government and not interfere with Internet commerce."

He added: "The administration has strongly supported a 'no discriminatory taxes on the Internet' policy. And I think, at this point, we're not going to resolve these issues in the next couple of weeks, and an extension of the moratorium makes sense."

Briefings at the White House are like no other. As the group of 13 reporters moved from press room toward the chief of staff's office, an alarm unexpectedly sounded, and a guard called the press group back.

He asked if anyone had recently been exposed to radiation, such as an X-ray and temporarily pulled out one reporter who had undergone medical treatment a few weeks earlier. Hidden in the walls were radiation detectors and sensitive ones at that.

Throughout that portion of the White House, including the chief of staff's office, Gateway PCs adorned every desk.