Senate Returns With Crowded Tech Agenda

by Roy Mark

Congress kicks off 2006 legislative season with 14 tech-related hearings in two months.

The United States Congress returns to work today with an unusually heavy tech agenda ahead.

At the same time, Congress still is trying to resolve the issues left behind when it adjourned in December.

Compounding the heavy and pressing congressional schedule is the fact that 2006 is an election year, with the entire House of Representatives and one-third of the Senate up for grabs.

Election years create unique situations where lawmakers' attention is split between Washington and campaigning back home, forcing even tougher time constraints on passing legislation.

"In an election year, we have to make decisions about what we can get done and what we can't," said Andrea Hoffman, director of public policy for TechNet, the exclusive CEO lobbying arm of the Silicon Valley.

As of Tuesday, most of those decisions hadn't been made.

"TechNet is so diverse, we have many members on both sides of several issues," Hoffman said. "When we look at the 2006 policy agenda, we have to look at areas where we have consensus among our members."

Issues still on the table from 2005 include a hard date for the digital television (DTV) transition and an extension of the research-and-development tax credit.

Both issues, while non-controversial, are part of larger tax and revenue bills that a bitterly divided Congress walked away from just days before Christmas. Neither issue can be fully resolved until the House returns on Jan. 31.

The Senate, though, gavels into session Wednesday morning and will almost immediately begin to tackle a series of tech and telecom issues. Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens plans to hold 14 hearings on a wide variety of topics between January and March.

The hearings begin with Internet pornography Thursday afternoon and end with Voice over IP on March 14. Other topics include video franchising, Internet neutrality, competition and convergence, wireless issues and spectrum reform, rural telecom, the broadcast flag, and state, local and municipal concerns.

Collectively, many of the issues before the Commerce Committee will constitute the Senate's 2006 efforts on telecom reform, a question that may eventually set Silicon Valley interests against those of the Baby Bells and cable companies.

The Bells and the cable companies are the dominant suppliers of broadband to the American public, and both have spent billions to build fiber networks capable of delivering voice, video and data.

Newly freed from regulatory constraints by a Supreme Court decision and subsequent rulings by the Federal Communications Commission, the broadband providers are looking for a fast return on their investments.

Both the Bells and the cable companies are urging Congress to pass legislation to allow broadband providers to transmit their own services faster and more efficiently than competing services. Among those services are VoIP and Internet Protocol television.

That approach is opposed by Internet titans Amazon, eBay and Google, who jointly signed a letter complaining that the Bells' plan "fundamentally changes the Internet, because it fails to adequately protect consumers' ability to use their broadband connection to reach the content and services they want."

TechNet's Hoffman refused to be drawn into the debate, merely stating that, "There's going to be an effort on both sides [to make their points]."

Beyond telecom reform questions, Congress is still grappling with legislation involving spyware and data breach disclosures.

Hoffman also said TechNet would be mounting another effort in 2006 to increase the number of H1-B visas, in order to create a larger talent pool for the technology industry.

Last year, the Senate agreed to raise the cap on H1-B visas by 30,000 workers, a provision the House eliminated from the budget bill.

This article was originally published on Wednesday Jan 18th 2006