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Empty promises and tech's future

CNET News.com's Washington watcher, Declan McCullagh, examines why quadrennial tech promises from presidential wannabes rarely get acted on.

Declan McCullagh Former Senior Writer
Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.
Declan McCullagh
3 min read
In his first campaign for president, Bill Clinton assured Americans that he would boost government's involvement in science and technology.

A Clinton administration was going to create a new "civilian advanced technology agency" modeled on the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), double federal spending on research, make the research and development tax credit permanent, nearly double the average car's fuel efficiency to about 45 miles per gallon and link U.S. cities with 300mph "bullet trains."

Not one of those campaign promises came true. Clinton and the gang from Arkansas soon had to face a bitter political reality: Making promises about technology is far easier than making them happen.

The White House's first major tech initiative after the 1993 inauguration turned out to be the reviled, and eventually abandoned, phone-encryption technology known as the Clipper Chip. A few years later, a reluctant Clinton signed into law a bill eliminating the Office of Technology Assessment.

The American Civil Liberties Union once had such high hopes for the president-elect that its national staff toiled to create a 175-page briefing book describing in exquisite detail what Clinton should do.

Not only was the ACLU's effort wasted, but Clinton ended up signing the Communications Decency Act, and his deputies strong-armed Congress into approving the Digital Telephony Law--which today is creating no end of problems for voice over Internet Protocol, or VoIP, companies.

Keep Clinton's experience in mind when evaluating what John Kerry and George W. Bush have been promising about technology's future.
Nearly 12 years later, keep Clinton's experience in mind when evaluating what John Kerry and George W. Bush have been promising about technology's future.

For the most part, Bush's spending plans aren't tech related. He'd like to spend billions on a slew of programs, including community college training, rural health care centers, Head Start, Pell Grants and AmeriCorps.

For its part, Kerry's campaign has published a white paper on offshoring, calling for selective tax cuts for corporations, requiring call center workers to disclose their locations, curbing H1-B visas and ordering companies to give three months' notice before "shipping" jobs overseas. Like Clinton, he calls for spending more money on federal funding of research.

The Clinton parallels
One characteristic both politicians share with Clinton is that neither likely will be able to follow through on his promises to voters.

A President Kerry probably would be confronted by a Republican-dominated Congress, with pugnacious committee chairs eager to probe one alleged Kerrygate after another. That's what happened after the 1994 elections, effectively compelling Clinton to sign a series of items from the GOP's Contract With America like the adoption tax credit, the line item veto and--most notoriously among liberals--the welfare reform bill.

If Bush wins, he'll face a Congress that's split almost down the middle between Republicans and Democrats. Senate rules make it easy for a minority party to block legislation and stymie plans for radical changes to tax laws, immigration rules or spending programs. That's why the Senate tends to be a dead-end street for legislation, such as the stock option bill that was approved by the House of Representatives in July.

An additional problem for the next president is the walloping size of the federal debt: $7.4 trillion dollars. Fed Chair Alan Greenspan warned Congress in February that Congress' efforts to max out the federal credit card will place "enormous demands" on the economy in a few years--a cautionary note that doesn't exactly encourage bold new programs, whether it's Social Security privatization or an offshoring-related tax overhaul. Plus, a falling dollar and rising interest rates will divert more of the federal budget to servicing the debt.

Add to that mix the hard feelings left over from an Election Day that could be dominated more by teams of lawyers than crowds of voters, and you've got a recipe for solidifying the next four years into a block of interparty gridlock.

It's true, of course, that the next president will enjoy powers like appointing judges, directing the military and controlling important agencies like Justice and Homeland Security. But anyone governing in an era of perpetual gridlock isn't likely to be able to do more than talk about bold new federal spending programs, tech-related or otherwise.

Just ask Bill Clinton.