The new 110th Congress convenes today at noon. On the Senate side, it will mostly be procedural - adopting the rules, appoint Committee Chairs and members, etc. In an unusual move, the Democrats and Republicans will meet in a joint caucus before hand to try to set a cooperative tone.
On the House side, the plan is for quick action on a number of issues. Speaker-to-be Pelosi has promised a "first 100 hours" strategy. As the Washington Post describes it:
Today, the House will take up an ethics package. Tomorrow, new budget controls. On Tuesday, the House will enact most of the security recommendations of the bipartisan commission that examined the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. On Wednesday, the minimum wage goes up. On Thursday, it's federal funding for stem cell research, and on Friday, Democrats intend to give the government the authority to negotiate drug prices for Medicare. On Jan. 17, interest rates for student borrowers will be slashed, and on Jan. 18, tax breaks for Big Oil will go by the wayside, making room for alternative energy research.
Not included in that rush are a number of competitiveness and innovation agenda items that are sure to come up later in the Congressional session. The big three that were already teed up last year are:
• funding for R&D and math/science education;
• immigration, including H-1-B visas for high skilled workers; and
• patent reform.
On the R&D/math & science issue, late last year then GOP Senate Leader Frist and Dem Leader Reid introduced a bipartisan bill to implement a number of suggestions of the National Academy of Sciences' Rising Above the Gathering Storm and the Council on Competitiveness' National Innovation Initiative reports (see my early posting). There are some glitches in that bill, such as the abolition of the Technology Administration in the Commerce Department. But I would expect that the Senate could take up the issue for a full scale debate early in the session.
On the immigration issue, things are not so harmonious. Expect new studies on all sides. Yesterday, a new study on the contributions of immigrants to technology entrepreneurship was released. According to news reports:
The report, based on telephone surveys with 2,054 companies and projections by researchers at the University of California at Berkeley and at Duke University, found that immigrants -- mostly from India and China -- helped start hundreds of companies with estimated sales of nearly $50 billion.
On the other side, the Center for Immigrations Studies
is said to be preparing its own new report on how high-tech immigrates push down wages. According to these same news reports:
Jessica M. Vaughan, an analyst at the Center for Immigration Studies, said an increase in the [H-1-B] cap would amount to "a subsidy for business because it allows them to bring cheaper labor from overseas."
The fight over patent reform has shaped up to be a multi-sided battlefield. Some groups argue for patent reform, but can't agree on what should be done. The biggest split is between the IT industry and bio-pharma, which stalled legislative action in the last Congress. Added to that are those who want no changes, including some vocal (but apparently self-appointed) representatives of the small inventors. And then there is the Supreme Court, which is not waiting for Congress to act before wading into the fray. With all this pushing and shoving going on, it is not clear what will emerge.
That something needs to emerge this year is, to me at least, clear from the latest lawsuits. By now you have probably heard about the latest technology patent suit - this one concerning video over the Internet. What I find interesting is not the suit itself, but the reaction to it. Typical was this comment in the New York Times:
Legal experts said it was difficult to handicap Intertainer’s claims. “There are so many of these lawsuits nowadays,” said Eric Goldman, director the High-Tech Law Institute at Santa Clara University School of Law. “It is hard to figure out which ones are a serious threat and which ones are not.”
Mr. Goldman also said it was unclear what specific technology or service was covered by the Intertainer patent.
“I have the same problem with this patent as so many of the patents of the dot-com boom days: I don’t know what it means,” Mr. Goldman said.
Regardless of where you stand on the issue, I think it is clear that having a patent system that people don't know what it means can't be a good thing for the American economy. Fixing the broken patent system needs to be one of Congress' top priorities.
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Of course, as anyone who reads this blog with any regularity knows, I firmly believe that other actions are needed as well. Much is missing from the top three innovation items - and from the Democrats' stated economy agenda. For example, there is still no recognition in our "innovation" policy that innovation is much more than new technological gadgets. Our definition of innovation needs to be greatly expanded to foster all forms of innovation and innovation in all sectors of the economy. Likewise, we still don't appreciate the role design plays in economic competitiveness - and don't understand how public policy can help in that arena. And we still don't have a labor policy that treats workers as knowledge assets, rather then interchangeable parts in a huge industrial machine. We need to change our mindset on how we approach the I-Cubed Economy, before we can change our policies.
Two years ago, at the beginning of the 109th Congress, Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report entitled The 21st Century Challenges: Reexamining the Base of the Federal Government. At that time, I highlighted some of the key issues, including the changing economy.
As new 100th Congress starts its work, let me renew my call for a Commission on the Future of the American Economy to take a new and fundamental look at our new situation. As I've stated before, the competitiveness challenges we face today are different from those of the 1980's. Let us recognize those new challenges - and craft new solutions.