Democrats counter Bush on tech

Democratic leaders outline their technology agenda for the year, seeking every opportunity to contrast it to that of the Bush administration.

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Democrats disclose high-tech agenda
WASHINGTON--President George W. Bush may have entered office as a self-proclaimed uniter, but Republicans and Democrats are now offering disparate approaches to technology policy.

Hill Democratic leaders Thursday outlined their technology agenda for the year, seeking every opportunity to contrast it to that of the Bush administration. Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota and House Democratic Minority Leader Richard Gephardt of Missouri accused Bush of preventing any government assistance for technology through his $1.98 trillion tax cut.

In an online news conference in which Gephardt used an Apple Computer iBook while Daschle favored an unidentifiable black laptop, the leaders said if Democrats have their way, every American will be reached by broadband by the end of the decade. They were joined by iBook-using Rob Atkinson, director of the Progressive Policy Institute's Technology and New Economy Project, who said Democrats also would seek to double federal research-and-development funding on civilian projects over the next 12 years.

"President Bush has advocated tax cuts and decreased regulation," Daschle said. While he said reasonable tax cuts should be supported, he said Bush's "tax cut uses up all of the non-Medicare and non-Social Security surplus," leaving nothing for technology initiatives.

Daschle said the Democrats' broadband focus wouldn't be technology-specific, acknowledging that some of his South Dakota constituents might never have a broadband wire reach their home. "But they might use satellite or wireless service," he said.

He and Gephardt didn't have specifics on how they'd meet their end-of-decade goal, but in a later press conference, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., plugged his bill to provide tax incentives of 10 percent to 20 percent to companies that roll out broadband to underserved areas.

Sen. Byron DorganSmall towns in the fast lane , D-N.D., later said that he will introduce a bill this month that would use universal service funds to advance broadband in rural areas, comparing it to the spread of electricity in the last century. The universal service fund is not part of the federal budget, but instead is funded by tariffs on phone bills to help rural telephone companies.

From E-rates to e-strategies
"We have an e-strategy to spur innovation...and invigorate our economy," Gephardt said.

According to Gephardt and Daschle, those initiatives include adopting a "neutral Internet tax plan" and stemming spam, the unwanted e-mails that often clog a Web surfer's e-mail in-box. In addition, they would seek to boost technology education to ensure all students are computer-literate by 6th grade. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., on Thursday introduced a $1.5 billion technology education bill.

There was some confusion over the so-called E-rate program that provides discounts to schools in hooking up to the Internet. Gephardt and Daschle both suggested that Bush is threatening E-rate funding, even though the program is not budgeted by the federal government but instead is funded at a rate of $2.25 billion annually from the universal service fund.

Praising the E-rate program for boosting technology in schools, Gephardt said "the president has taken a much different approach, with a massive tax cut that threatens programs like the E-rate."

Rockefeller clarified the see story: Find a broadband provider E-rate issue later, noting how Democrats have resisted Bush's effort to move the E-rate program out of universal service and give it as a grant program to states.

"The status of E-rate is unclear," said Rockefeller, one of the program's champions when it was attached to the Telecom Act of 1996. Bush is "trying to take it out of its funding stream," Rockefeller said, but he said Democrats were determined that the program would continue to be fully funded and outside of annual budget debates.

Bush has cited some R&D funding increases in his proposed budget, but the Democrats dismissed them as being mostly for military programs. "Non-defense R&D declined in real dollars by 8 percent" in Bush's budget, Atkinson claimed. Bush plans cuts in National Science Foundation R&D while the Democrats seek to double it, he said.

Atkinson's task force helped to develop many of the programs and positions outlined by Gephardt and Daschle, all agreed. The task force is co-chaired by Gephardt and Gateway Chief Executive Ted Waite.

One area of agreement between Democrats and the Bush administration was on making permanent the R&D tax credit. Daschle listed that as one of the Democrats' top priorities, and Bush made the same pledge to technology leaders at a White House summit of high-tech executives last week. That similarity was reminiscent of the presidential campaign, where there were few tech-related policy differences between Bush and Democratic nominee Al Gore.