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Tech loses policy leaders

With Magaziner and Gingrich stepping down, high-tech lobbyists and industry members are concerned about the future.

For high-tech lobbyists, grooming political allies is sort of like raising children: you nurture and support them, and eventually they leave the nest.

Now that the mid-term election is over, the real shake-up has begun inside the Beltway, and the online industry is definitely feeling the aftershocks.

Although most tech-savvy politicos made voters' cut, House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Georgia) said late Friday that he will retire, as will President Clinton's six-year technology adviser, Ira Magaziner. Moreover, Internet Caucus founder Rep. Rick White (R-Washington) was not reelected.

Although turnover is typical in politics, observers say some shoes can't be filled when it comes to Net policy. The industry appreciated Magaziner, White, and Gingrich's knowledge of technology issues as well as their favored hands-off regulatory approach to the Net. And they may not be the last to go. Other top officials who have been spearheading tech policy issues also are mulling over packing it in, sources close the White House say.

High-tech lobbyists and Washington insiders say Magaziner especially will be hard to replace when he resigns this year. An old friend of the Clintons who worked on the administration's failed health-care reform package, Magaziner's post was tailored for him. All along he had a direct line to the White House, which eased his challenge to coordinate 18 federal agencies in creating a unified Net policy stance that the medium should be a "free trade zone."

"It's been great to have somebody with his energy level and access to the president on the front lines--you need somebody with the credibility and clout to get things done," said Larry Irving, assistant secretary at the Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), who himself is going on his sixth year of service.

"He is smart, hard-working, and able to coordinate departments--that is going to be missed," Irving added. "But he's taken us far down the path where we need to go. We can do it."

As President Clinton's chief e-commerce adviser for more than two years, Magaziner brokered a deal to have a nonprofit corporation take over administration of the Net, helped win the fight in Congress to temporarily bar Net taxation, and engaged in tough negotiations with the European Union over its strict electronic privacy directive, which threatens to cut off the data flow between U.S. companies and the union.

He stayed longer than most, but Magaziner now apparently is leaving to spend more time with his family in New England. It was bound to happen. Politics is a volatile profession--most officials work grueling hours and are paid far less than their counterparts in the private sector. If party politics don't cut their time short, many simply burn out and move on.

But Magaziner was a stand-out as the chief architect of the administration's Framework for Global Electronic Commerce white paper, which will be updated by the end of this year. Still, he won't be around to see all the nuts and bolts put into place. In fact, his departure comes at a critical time for the Net as the European Union has yet to sign off on the U.S. privacy policy, and the domain name system power transfer is hardly in first gear.

When Magaziner is gone, the NTIA will no doubt play a bigger role in hammering out an agreement over online privacy and overseeing the hand-off of the domain name system. If they stick to their posts through the year 2000, Commerce Secretary William Daley, Irving, and Becky Burr, associate administrator of the NTIA, all will continue to be point people on the nation's e-commerce polices.

Inside the White House and Vice President Al Gore's office, there are some other experienced players who could be ripe to replace Magaziner, such as Tom Kalil, a senior director to the National Economic Council who oversees science and technology issues. Kalil also advised Clinton-Gore campaign on technology issues. Others will continue to be involved in tech policy as well, such as David Beier, chief of domestic policy for Gore, and Jim Kohlenberger, Gore's senior domestic policy adviser.

"The vice president has thought about these issues for years and regardless of staff changes they will continue to be a priority," said one top White House adviser who spoke on condition of anonymity.

But some wonder whether Magaziner's slot will be filled at all, speculating that the job instead might be covered by several top Commerce officials.

"The framework paper was set up to delegate responsibilities," said Jonathan Greenblatt, a former administration official.

"I think these important issues will just be handled in different ways, there won't be one person driving at the White House," he added. "No one person can do his job. He was an honest broker and didn't have an agenda, just to serve the president."

Still, if Gore officially throws his hat into the ring for the 2000 presidential race, high-tech issues no doubt will top the agenda. In that case, the White House may want to have a top adviser in place.

"There is still a need for a Net ambassador," said Laura Ipsen, senior manager of government affairs for Cisco. "We're hopeful that someone else continues on Ira's path."

Along with Magaziner, Gingrich's departure is seen as a loss by many in the tech industry.

The speaker voted in favor of increasing the number of foreign high-tech workers let into the country each year, legislation to limit shareholder lawsuits against companies with volatile stock prices, and even tried to steer Republicans away from passing the Communications Decency Act in 1996.

"Gingrich made sure that there was serious deliberation about Net issues," said David McClure, executive director of the Association of Online Professionals.

"Newt was instrumental in helping the Internet industry nationwide," he added. "Outside of [Rep.] Chris Cox [R-California], most of the senior Republican leaders in Congress now come from states that don't have a robust technology base."

Like Magaziner, Gingrich leaves some unfinished business when it comes to the Net. For example, under the Internet Tax Freedom Act, he was supposed to appoint five members to a tax commission to determine when and if online goods and services can be taxed.

Earlier this year, Gingrich also set up the High Technology Working Group, which was to be a first stop for industry lobbyists on issues such as export limits on encryption. Now it is unclear who will take over the working group.

"The coalition is mainly to help other members of Congress have a better understanding of these technology issues and to develop an agenda," said Suhail Khan, a spokesman for Rep. Tom Campbell (R-California), a working group member.

"I imagine that somebody else will carry the torch because there is a broad-based effort to have more outreach with Silicon Valley, and it didn't just come form the speaker," he added. "But the Bay Area doesn't have significant Republican leaders, expect for Tom, and he doesn't accept any [political action committee] money, so it's a bit harder for him to touch base with these companies."

Despite the challenges, most are confident that the high-tech industry will still have plenty of ears to bend on Capitol Hill.

"This also is part of political life--as they go, there are others we will have to turn to," said Jerry Berman, executive director of the Center for Democracy and Technology. "Magaziner and Gingrich leaving is not a step forward, but the Net has to grow and can't be dependent on one or two people in the policy arena."