Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives on Tuesday called for Congress to pump more money into basic research and math and science education as part of an “innovation” agenda designed to retain U.S. leadership in the technology industry.
Democratic House Leader Nancy Pelosi referred to former U.S. President John F. Kennedy, who called on the U.S. to reach the moon first during the space race with the former Soviet Union in the 1960s. “There will be those who say that we can’t afford to make these investments,” she said. “Democrats believe we can’t afford not to make them. We have no choice … In the words of President Kennedy, ’We intend to be first.’”
Retaining the U.S. leadership in high tech and ending its dependence on foreign energy sources will be the Democrats’ top priorities, Pelosi said at a Washington, D.C., press conference. She called on Republicans, which hold a majority in both chambers of Congress, to join the Democrats in pushing the goals.
Pelosi called on Congress to create programs that would add 100,000 new scientists, mathematicians and engineers to the U.S. workforce in the next four years. Scholarships and other financial aid would help achieve this goal, she said.
The Democratic plan, developed after conversations with technology and business executives, would double the grants issued by the National Science Foundation, and it calls for all U.S. residents to have “affordable” access to broadband Internet within five years. Republican President George Bush has called for universal broadband access by 2007.
Congress should also ensure that the U.S. has independence from foreign energy sources such as oil within 10 years, Pelosi said. She called on Congress to create a program in the U.S. Department of Energy that would develop “high-risk, high-reward, revolutionary technologies.” The U.S. also needs to encourage technologies such as bio-based fuels, flex-fuel engines and hybrid vehicles, she said.
“We should be spending America’s energy dollars in the [U.S.] Midwest, not the Middle East,” she said.
The innovation agenda will be the Democrats’ top priority, Pelosi said, although she avoided questions about what issues will now take a lower priority and how Congress will pay for the new programs. Democrats don’t want Congress to run up the U.S. government’s budget deficit, she said, and the Democratic agenda calls for new programs to be funded on a “pay-as-you-go” basis.
“I’m willing to put these priorities up against any others,” Pelosi said.
While some IT companies and trade groups praised the Democratic agenda, Republican Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert said it will lead to “higher taxation, litigation and regulation.” Many Democrats have opposed the Central American Free Trade Agreement supported by many tech companies and they have voted against a class-action lawsuit reform bill, Hastert’s office said in a press release. Democratic leaders have opposed a budget package that includes a digital television transition plan that will free up radio spectrum for wireless technologies, according to the release.
Senator John Ensign, a Nevada Republican and chairman of the Senate Republican High Tech Task Force, called the Democrats’ record on high-tech issues “dismal.”
“Putting out a press release is not going to reverse Democrats’ consistent votes against reforms that would address junk lawsuits that hurt U.S. jobs, and against bringing money back to the U.S. where it can create jobs.” Ensign said in a statement. “Republicans have clearly led the way in the pursuit of a tech agenda that will move America forward and benefit consumers everywhere.”
The Democratic plan does mirror some Republican goals, including Bush’s call for universal broadband. In March, Senate Republicans called for patent reform, a permanent R&D (research and development) tax credit, and patent reform in a 40-item list of technology-related goals. In May, House Republicans pushed for reform of telecommunications regulations, legislation to combat spyware, and new ways to curb digital piracy. Both of those plans, like Tuesday’s Democratic one, earned praise from technology groups.
Although House Republicans in May promised a broad rewrite of the 1996 Telecommunications Act this year, it’s likely that effort will be pushed off until next year. Spyware legislation has been stalled in the Senate.
Like Republicans, Pelosi called for a permanent R&D tax credit and more protections for U.S. intellectual property.
Despite Republican criticisms, tech groups praised the Democratic plan. The Business Software Alliance, trade group for software vendors, said in a press release it would support “any effort in Congress — by either political party — to ensure continued investment in innovation.” The Information Technology Industry Council, an IT trade group, said the Democratic plan includes “many of the core elements” necessary to allow the U.S. to remain competitive in the world economy.
Microsoft Corp. said the Democratic education plan would create a “new generation of innovators and achievers.” The plan is a “positive step forward in the struggle to maintain our nation’s competitive edge in the global marketplace,” added Jack Krumholtz, Microsoft’s managing director for federal government affairs.
Among the Democratic ideas:
— Encourage engineers and scientists to become school teachers.
— Create research centers of excellence across the country.
— Double federal funding for basic research.
By Grant Gross, IDG News Service