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Tech pumps cash into D.C., but for what?

Nancy Marshall-Genzer Sep 24, 2014

Tech pumps cash into D.C., but for what?

Nancy Marshall-Genzer Sep 24, 2014

For years, tech companies ignored Washington. But Washington wasn’t about to ignore them. 

A few years ago, Congress debated some big bills on internet policy, and Silicon Valley wasn’t at the table. So tech companies opened D.C. headquarters and started lobbying. 

Web giants like Google, Amazon and Facebook joined forces to create a new trade group, The Internet Association, two years ago. Michael Beckerman is the association’s president and CEO. 

He showed me around their sleek, new Washington office and explained why he’s here.

“That’s my job,” he says. “To help build relationships and bridge the gap between our industry and Congress.”

That gap makes it hard for tech to gain traction in Washington. Part of the problem? It takes time to build relationships on Capitol Hill, and tech is new to the K Street lobby game. Also, the tech industry wants quick movement on huge issues, like immigration and patent reform.

Back in Silicon Valley, they can’t understand what’s taking so long.

“In the Internet world and Silicon Valley, people see a problem and they find a way to solve it, but that’s not always how Washington works,” Beckerman says.

So Beckerman and his chief lobbyist, Gina Woodworth, make regular trips to Capitol Hill. The day I meet up with them, they’re off to Congressman Paul Ryan’s office to talk about trade legislation.

Of course, we take an Uber SUV to Capitol Hill.

“The last time they drafted a trade bill was in 2002,” says Gina Woodworth. “In 2002, a lot of our companies weren’t even created and we weren’t really an active stakeholder at that time. But now we are.”

And they have the cash to prove it.

“Spending by the tech sector has more than tripled since 1998,” says Sheila Krumholz, executive director at the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks lobbyists’ spending in Washington.

Krumholz says the tech lobby budget went from $40 million in the late ’90s to more than $140 million last year. She says Silicon Valley is on track to spend at least that much this year. Today, tech is the fourth biggest spender on lobbying in Washington.

“What they get for all this lobbying is not clear,” says Anthony Corrado, a professor of government at Colby College. “Even on a very narrow issue like immigration reform and a modification of visa policy to allow more engineers in, for example, they can’t get any action.”

What’s worse, Corrado says, sometimes tech companies lobby on different sides of an issue, like net neutrality, which pits the companies that built the pipes of the Internet against the users of those pipes.

Corrado says there’s a clear winner here. And it’s not the tech lobby.

“Members of Congress are more than happy to have tech industry lobbying on both sides of an issue because it makes it much easier for them to solicit campaign contributions,” he says.

Corrado calls it a fundraising bonanza. Welcome to Washington, Silicon Valley.

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