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High-tech's voice on Capitol Hill

Ralph Hellmann used to prowl the corridors of power in Washington as a key aide to House Speaker Dennis Hastert. Now he's using his Rolodex to push the tech industry's agenda.

A former policy director for the speaker of the house, Ralph Hellmann is familiar with the corridors of power in Washington.

Now, as senior vice president for government affairs at the Information Technology Industry Council, he is charged with putting his prodigious Rolodex to use to represent the interests of U.S. providers of information technology products and services.

The ITIC represents 30 of the biggest names in high technology, including IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft and AOL Time Warner. His appointment comes as these companies are keen to benefit from whatever tax-relief package is worked out between Congress and the White House this year. Even in the absence of a legislative deal, Hellmann has a laundry list of items he plans to promote.

CNET News.com recently spoke with Hellmann about his new job and his plans for pushing a tech agenda with legislators.

What will be your agenda as the IT industry's chief lobbyist?
The accelerated depreciation and the alternative minimum tax and the broadband tax credit were all things we thought could be in an economic stimulus package. That's one of our top priorities. Certainly getting the Senate to act on the trade-promotion authority, so that the president can immediately pry open new markets, whether they be Latin America or the rest of the world.

The way you have more productivity and growth is to have policies that help high-tech prosper. Trade is very important to the technology community. We are encouraged by the heightened discussion about the need for more broadband or high-speed Internet (access). Also, to get the Export Administration Act reformed and revised so we can export our products more easily.

How will you qualify your success in pushing that agenda through?
By what gets enacted in the law. If we can get a good economic stimulus package signed--a good trade-promotion authority bill that pries open markets...Anything we get in the law is a success.

What's your basic pitch when you sit down with congressmen? What are you asking them to do?
Usually I make the pitch that if you're going to have economic growth and increased productivity, high-tech has to be considered. The way you have more productivity and growth is to have policies that help high-tech prosper.

What we tell members of Congress as we lay out the economic facts is that the reason the '90s boomed so well and we had emerging surpluses and double-digit growth is because you had an economic environment conducive to high-tech, and what we need to do is re-create that environment.

What are some key milestones in high-tech lobbying?
If we look at 2001, clearly the big votes of the year were the very close, highly reported vote on trade-promotion authority that occurred at the beginning of December. That was a very big vote. I think the country was watching. We're very happy with our one vote victory.

Certainly the votes and debate about the stimulus package were pretty well covered. Those votes back in December were pretty good bellwethers of things that Congress can do to help tech and the rest of the business community have a more robust turnaround.

How do you picture IT's future involvement in government legislation?
(It will be) deeply involved for a variety of reasons. Government policy can be a force of good or it can be force of bad when it comes to technology. Certainly the Justice Department and Microsoft are an example where some action by government can deeply affect one company or one portion of the industry. I think people need representation here in Washington to make sure that their interests and their companies' interests and the tech community's interests are being well served.

How did you spend your first day in your new job?
Finding out where the men's room was, the copiers, getting to know the office personnel--just getting acclimated. I had a very hectic post-Sept. 11 my last month and a half on the Hill. I was very happy to be off the Hill without having Cipro and anthrax scares. It was just nice to be off the Hill, in a non-threatening environment.

How has your experience as a top aide to House Speaker Dennis Hastert prepared you for your current position?
If the economy is going to rebound nationally, I think high-tech is going to have to be back on its feet and actually helping lead the recovery. It gave me a broader understanding of all the issues affecting the business community, which helped me realize that high-tech--while it's very important--isn't the only business interest in town, and that we have to figure out how to work with other industries and other companies.

How is a high-tech lobbyist different from other lobbyists?
I think the high-tech industry doesn't look at Washington the same way as other business lobbyists do. They don't see the value of building relationships as much. They look at it from a bottom-line profit and immediately think about convincing someone about the merits or the demerits of a policy. And a lot of the business lobbyists who have been here a lot longer tend to look at getting to know members of Congress and members of the leadership on a personal level first and getting into the substance later.

Are you the IT voice on Capitol Hill?
We like to think we are, but we certainly recognize that there are other high-tech groups in town that try to compete with us or complement us.

The Information Technology Industry Council is fighting for accelerated depreciation. What are you looking for?
Right now the depreciation tax laws are a bit antiquated. They were written decades ago for technology that, under the old rules, would not be obsolete in 10 or 15 or 25 years. But for those who know about hardware or software, new technologies are constantly emerging, and we want businesses to be able to write off equipment a lot faster than under the old rules.

Accelerated depreciation allows them to buy new products--whether they be hardware, software, whatever--and allows them to write off expenses much faster, so that in three years they can go out and buy a new set of computers, because new technologies will have emerged that will necessitate that they need to modernize.

What does the IT industry want? What's most important?
Lower taxes, low trade barriers, less regulations, more freedom to create and innovate. Less constraints upon the industry.

What will happen if the IT industry succeeds or fails to achieve these goals?
If the economy is going to rebound nationally, I think high-tech is going to have to be back on its feet and actually helping lead the recovery. What we do legislatively can help speed that recovery and help play a more prominent role in the overall state of the economy.

The tech industry is very resilient and doesn't necessarily need government policy to thrive. But certainly if the government can actually be a helpful force in many of these areas, it creates a much more likely scenario of success and growth.