Gary Holland returned home to his company in Minnetonka, Minn., after a visit to Washington four years ago vowing never to go back to the nation's capital again.
He was mad about the hours he spent cooling his heels in congressional waiting rooms while other visitors were ushered on past. He thought his federal representatives knew next to nothing about the importance of electronics to Minnesota and cared somewhat less. "One legislator even told us he knew what was good for us--that we didn't," said Holland, president of Data Card, a company that makes sophisticated equipment for electronically encoding credit cards and checks.
But this past February when Holland went back to Washington to participate--for the fourth consecutive year--in the American Electronics Assn.'s Capitol Caucus, he was greeted with familiar welcomes. "The first time I went, I was definitely angry. But then, I thought about it and realized I had a job to do, to educate Congress," he said. So he stuck with it and believes that the ensuing meetings and discussions between the area's electronics business owners and their representatives produced good rapport and benefit to both sides.
Holland is part of the growing high-technology lobby that is learning its own lessons about national politics. Although young and small in comparison with other lobbies--and to the segment of the economy it represents--the high-technology voice already is being perceived as an influential one.
Many observers say that in coming years it will be a major factor in shaping laws and policies that govern the way not only high-tech companies conduct business, but most other industries as well. For instance, the current negotiations between U.S. and Japanese semiconductor makers are seen as an important barometer for the Washington-Tokyo trade summits later this month and next.
So far, the high-tech trade associations claim legislative victories on taxes, antitrust laws and tariffs, among others. Electronics manufacturers, computer makers, computer chip equipment makers, even software companies have trade associations with staffs or lawyers in the capital--many with formidable agendas for the remainder of the current congressional session.
At home, the companies have a staff member or department whose duties include monitoring legislative issues. Several firms have opened government affairs offices in Washington, and some are forming political action committees to raise contributions for political campaigns.
That the high-tech industry is even a part of Washington politics is a turnaround. In its early days, it figured that any interest from Washington was interference. The entrepreneurs and engineers "just wanted to be left alone to build their computers," said one insider.
Shifting their focus to the world around them, and at the same time lifting that veil of mystery from their industry, has only lately become a mission of the high-tech entrepreneurs.
Gotten More Intensive
A Washington veteran who recently joined the burgeoning cadre of high-tech lobbyists said: "The high-tech lobby has gotten more intensive. It has traditionally been under-represented in Washington, but that's been changing over the last four or five years. Before, Silicon Valley just wanted to be left alone. But things have gotten tough now, and that has stimulated the industry to do more lobbying."
Still, the industry's clout lags its potential. The AEA trade group calculates that it accounts for more than $300 billion in annual sales and employs more than 2.5 million people--making it the biggest manufacturing segment. "To the extent they are the largest, fastest-growing segment of the economy, they probably don't reflect that in their influence here." said Rep. Norman Y. Mineta (D-San Jose), whose Northern California district includes part of Silicon Valley.
Although figures aren't available on money spent in Washington by high-tech companies, most observers believe that it is much less than funding by older, if smaller, industries such as textile and steel. For instance, it is estimated that the Semiconductor Industry Assn., which represents the country's most powerful computer chip makers, spends only $1 million to $1.5 million, or about 10% of its total annual budget, on its Washington efforts.
And the industry worries that its Japanese competitors are spending more. "The Japanese spending in Washington dwarfs our spending," said Michael Maibach, government affairs manager for Intel, a Santa Clara, Calif., chip maker.
May Become Protectionist