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Bush Expected To Name Czar For Tech Policy

BY Jube Shiver Jr
by Jube Shiver Jr on 12/25/00.

Aides for President-elect George W. Bush are sounding out Silicon Valley executives about convening a high-tech summit next month and musing over whether to appoint a government czar for technology.

Influential but little-known Silicon Valley venture capitalist Floyd Kvamme and defeated Sen. Spencer Abraham (R-Mich.) have been mentioned as possible candidates for a tech czar post. And the president-elect also wants to meet with industry leaders to get their input on technology issues as well as on key appointments in his administration.

The president's transition team has been working diligently to identify candidates for administration posts. But the protracted presidential vote count has left them playing catch-up. That's especially true with second-tier federal posts such as the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, the Federal Trade Commission and similar jobs that impact the technology industry.

Officials close to Bush have argued that one way to solve part of this problem is to quickly appoint a high-level technology czar, modeled after the one in Virginia.

Virginia Gov. James S. Gilmore (named by Bush on Friday to head the Republican National Committee) appointed Don Upson, former executive at Litton/PRC, to be his technology czar in 1998. Upson's mission: to assess the state government's use of technology and promote Virginia--home to America Online Inc. and numerous other technology firms--as a high-technology business center.

Industry officials who have been working with Bush believe he favors a similar post at the federal level, to invigorate tech policy in the way that William J. Bennett, the drug czar under former President Bush, gave new energy to drug control efforts.

"I think the tech czar's role would be like that of Upson's or Bill Bennett 's," said Erick Gustafson, who oversees technology policy at the Washington research group, Citizens for a Sound Economy.

Lezlee Westine, co-director of Technology Network, a Palo Alto-based organization that lobbies for the technology industry, thinks a high-tech czar would help "bring the 'new-economy' agenda into the White House." Bush, Westine added, is interested in technology issues and has "developed a great relationship with new-economy leaders."

Neither Abraham, the author of recent digital signatures legislation, nor Kvamme, could be reached for comment.

But Abraham is rumored to be under consideration to head Technology Network. And some experts doubt that Kvamme, who earns millions of dollars a year as a venture capitalist, would take on the czar post.

"A lot of those high-profile people are not going to leave their jobs," Westine said. But Kvamme has stated in at least one recent interview that he would not refuse a Bush invitation to join his administration.

Even if Bush creates a tech czar post, many experts say technology policy in his White House probably will not have the prominence it enjoyed under the Clinton administration.

Bush faces a gridlocked Congress and a raft of contentious technology issues such as online privacy, cable television open access and Internet taxes. Bush has indicated he wants to concentrate on areas where he can win quick, broad bipartisan support on issues such as education, tax cuts and Medicare reform.

"Bush already has a very full agenda of very big issues," said Scott Cleland, an influential technology analyst for the Precursor Group in Washington. "Technology is clearly not going to be a top-tier policy priority of this administration."

What's more, Bush will be constrained in some areas where he does not need congressional approval. Take the landmark Microsoft Corp. antitrust case, for instance.

Bush, who Friday named Sen. John Ashcroft of Missouri as his attorney general, will appoint an assistant attorney general to preside over antitrust regulation. But that person probably would not drop a case where a federal court has already found the software giant guilty of antitrust violations. In any event, the states that have joined the federal government in pursuing Microsoft have vowed to fight the case until the bitter end.

"I expect Bush to have a more tolerant attitude about mergers . . . but it's unlikely that the administration is going to change the judicial process" in the Microsoft case, Cleland said.

Bush's impact on technology policy may therefore fall to his appointments at the FCC, FTC and the Justice Department's chief of antitrust enforcement.

Under the Clinton administration, all three agencies have been aggressive enforcers. Besides the Microsoft antitrust case pending before the U.S. Court of Appeals, the Justice Department blocked the WorldCom-Sprint merger this summer.

Meanwhile, the FTC put conditions on AOL's $ 105-billion merger with Time Warner and threatened an antitrust lawsuit against chip giant Intel Corp. And the FCC imposed more than 26 conditions onSBC Communications Corp.'s acquisition of Ameritech Corp. and warned it would fine the company up to $ 2 billion if any of the conditions were violated.

The Bush administration, by contrast, probably will look on the technology industry with far more benevolence. That's reflected in some of the candidates rumored to be under consideration to head federal regulatory agencies.

One such candidate is Michael K. Powell, a leading contender to become FCC chairman. Powell, currently on the commission, is the son of retired Gen. Colin L. Powell, Bush's first Cabinet pick, nominated to be secretary of State.

The younger Powell has repeatedly refused to comment on his prospects. But as a commissioner he has favored promoting technology innovation, although he is less of a free marketer than his Republican colleague, Harold Furchtgott-Roth, who believes government should play virtually no role in regulating industry.

Texas Public Utility Commission Chairman Pat Wood also has been mentioned as a possible candidate as chairman.

At the FTC, conservative Republican Commissioner Orson Swindle is expected to be appointed at least interim chairman of the agency.

Over the last decade, the high-tech industry has been among the most powerful political groups in Washington, claiming a fistful of notable victories, ranging from the easing of export controls on key high-tech goods to gaining lucrative research and development tax credits.

But industry officials acknowledge that future legislative gains may be more difficult to achieve, in part, because the easy issues have already been resolved.

"It's going to get a lot tougher on the Hill" for the technology industry, said Robert E. Litan, a fellow at the Brookings Institution. "Online privacy is a perfect example" of what's coming up on the radar screen. "That's an issue where I don't think you'll find" any easy solution.