This was supposed to be Silicon Valley’s moment to flex some muscle in Washington, D.C.
The industry is booming and expanding. It has boosted lobbying efforts and ramped up its D.C. staffs. Its employees and leaders are spending more on political campaigns.
So what does all this participation in the political process have to show for itself? Not much. That should have tech CEOs asking themselves why the industry’s legislative agenda hasn’t done so well this year.
“On all our big items, we haven’t gotten it,” said Emily Lam, vice president for federal issues for the Silicon Valley Leadership Group. “A lot of people are asking, what are we doing?”
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Silicon Valley rallied the troops around patent reform, but the Senate shelved its bill after trial lawyers and the pharmaceutical industry raised concerns.
The patent loss was especially painful because industry advocates were hopeful congressional stars were aligning.
The bill appeared to have momentum in the Senate, the House had already passed its own bill, and President Obama signaled his support for the effort.
“People are a little depressed,” said Julie Samuels, executive director of Engine Advocacy, a San Francisco organization that represents the policy interests of tech startups.
Other legislative efforts have run into roadblocks.
House Republicans have stalled immigration reform.
Apple, Microsoft, Google, Facebook and others withdrew their support for the USA Freedom Act, a surveillance-reform bill that recently passed the House, arguing that it opened up an “unacceptable loophole that could enable the bulk collection of Internet users’ data.”
A permanent research and development tax credit? Nope.
Don’t even bring up tax reform.
So why can’t the industry get a win in Washington?
Tech has moved beyond its disdain for politics. But it is still building relationships with congressional leaders and Capitol Hill staffers that such older industries as pharmaceutical have had for decades.
Each round fighting for a bill, say tech lobbyists, makes the industry stronger over time. And they argue that the near-successes, like patent and immigration reforms, should still count, especially with a dysfunctional Congress.
Besides, the challenges that tech is taking on are difficult. Comprehensive immigration reform last happened almost 30 years ago. And it took seven years to pass the last big patent legislative package.
“The issues we are tackling are monumental,” said Michael Beckerman, chief executive of the Internet Association, which represents more than 20 Internet firms. “Our companies are very young compared to other groups. They have made a huge impact in a short amount of time.”
Besides, the midterm election-campaign period makes it more difficult than normal for legislation to pass. The polarization is more pronounced this year, said Linda Moore, TechNet’s chief executive and president.
Her members, which include Google, Microsoft and Apple, are committed to engaging with federal lawmakers over the long haul, she said. “We really appreciate our tech champions in Congress and we are dedicated to bringing on more champions.”
Going forward, what else can tech do?
There’s always talk in the industry about not playing the traditional influence game, but disrupting how Washington, D.C., works. What that means other than hackathons is unclear. If the industry doesn’t advocate for itself, it won’t have a chance at getting what it wants.
Perhaps the valley’s strongest card is its can-do attitude, its optimism that any problem can be fixed.
Even in Washington, that means tech will keep trying.
Michelle Quinn is a columnist with the San Jose Mercury News.