THE BELTWAY AND BEYOND: Stephen M. Ryan

IT companies seek Washington forum, create PAC

Stephen M. Ryan

The federal government and information technology companies have always been inextricably linked. Yet until a few years ago, only a small number of IT companies chose to have a presence on the Washington lobbying scene. That's because their links were at the systems and procurement levels, not the political level. High technology didn't really register on the political radar.

Now, here's a sure sign that Washington area technology companies, including those in Northern Virginia and Maryland, are in the political big time.

Companies have united to establish their own collective voice, a political action committee: CapNet.

PAC plan

CapNet was started by George Vradenburg of America Online Inc. and Chuck Manatt, former chairman of the Democratic National Committee and currently ambassador to the Dominican Republic (and a founder of the law firm where I'm a partner). Its goal is to develop a political action plan that would bring the issues that concern Washington area IT companies before Congress.

CapNet wants to create an image for these companies before Congress, on par with those in Silicon Valley, Route 128 around Boston and other geographical areas perceived to have IT clout. Because these companies are close to political ground zero, their executives can make a congressional appearance and be back in the office by lunchtime.

The issues of interest to CapNet include federal R&D investment, privacy, encryption, IT worker immigration, the digital divide and Internet taxation.

An issue where CapNet has recently flexed its muscle should also interest federal IT managers who are struggling not only with their own staffing problems'no one can get enough talent'but also indirectly with those of their contractors. That's the so-called H-1B visa issue, where current policy limits the number of technically skilled workers who can obtain visas to work in the United States.

CapNet coordinated the testimony of two of its members before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration.

'We took an aggressive stance,' said Tim Hugo, executive director of CapNet. 'If we had stood up before a Senate committee a year earlier, they would have said, 'Who are you?' '

Following the hearing, subcommittee chairman Rep. Spencer Abraham (R-Mich.) proposed legislation to increase the number of special visas for technically skilled workers who will work in IT companies. Abraham is one of many lawmakers who have spoken at CapNet events, and he is in a political duel with a strong Democratic candidate in a swing state.

A small but sure sign of CapNet's coming of age in Washington is that members of Congress are increasingly willing to attend CapNet events. Money buys power in Washington, and members recognize that IT people around the Beltway have a lot of it. To members constantly on the fund-raising treadmill, speaking to a group of IT companies and executives is a welcome opportunity.

Recently, CapNet hosted an event at which Reps. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.) and Tom Davis (R-Va.) addressed members. Kennedy and Davis are the congressional campaign committee chairs of their respective parties, and each made the case for his party as the most IT-friendly. As they went through each of the House races, they highlighted the pro-IT positions of the various candidates.

Other recent CapNet speakers include Virginia Senate candidate and former Gov. George Allen, Sen. Chuck Robb (D-Va.) and Rep. Connie Morella (R-Md.).

CapNet is affiliated with the Greater Washington Board of Trade, where it has its roots. Members range from large companies, such as IBM Corp., AOL and Microsoft Corp., to small local companies.

CapNet does not focus on contracts and procurement issues, which is a relief because it brings true commercial companies on board. In the long run, CapNet is likely to be a big hit in the IT policy marketplace.

In an age of antitrust activism and difficult issues with technology components, IT companies will need all the clout they can muster.

Stephen M. Ryan is a partner in the Washington law firm of Manatt, Phelps and Phillips. He has long experience in federal information technology issues. E-mail him at SRyan@Manatt.com.

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