This week, a delegation of representatives from Silicon Valley start-ups is making the rounds in Washington, D.C., to press for patent reform legislation. Even in an election year, proponents are optimistic they can garner bipartisan support to tackle what many consider a cancer in high tech: patent lawsuits.
Julie Samuels is executive director of the group organizing this week's lobbying trip: Engine. “The House of Representatives last December passed a bill, and the White House has already said it would sign it. And it looks like the Senate is hopefully going to pass a similar bill that will make this better.”
Engine goes to bat for small firms in tech -- as opposed to, say, Fwd.us a lobbying organization that’s garnered national attention with big names like Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, Marissa Mayer of Yahoo and Bill Gates of Microsoft. Samuels says tech companies big and small share many of the same interests: patent reform, net neutrality, cybersecurity, copyrights, taxes and immigration.
The list is growing, along with Silicon Valley’s clout in the nation’s capital. Sarah Bryner is research director at the Center for Responsive Politics, a campaign finance watchdog. She says that in 2013 Big Tech was the #4 Big Spender on lobbying, behind Big Health, Big Insurance and Big Oil & Gas.
“Since 1998, which is the earliest year that I have data for, the industry has increased their lobbying by 258 percent, and that’s more than double the rate at which the lobbying industry as a whole has increased their activity.”
Silicon Valley has been lobbying in Washington, D.C., for a half-century now. Hewlett-Packard, one of the first major Valley firms, was a military contractor. One of its co-founders, David Packard, served in the Defense Department during the Nixon administration. Bryner says the kinds of tech companies that top the list of big spenders have changed as the industry has changed over the years: from a focus on hardware, to software, to social media.
“You still have traditional tech companies like IBM and Oracle and HP all at the top. But now, you see not necessarily newer -- but newer to the game -- players like Yahoo, and Facebook is climbing, and Twitter just hired a lobbyist this last year.”
In 2013, Google was No.1 by a wide margin, having spent $14 million on lobbying.
"Google actually is one of the few companies that hired a former member of Congress on their own staff to do lobbying," Bryner notes. "Most companies that hire [former] members of Congress do so using lobbying firms based in D.C., but Google hired Susan Molinari of New York from their own payroll. And that’s unusual."
That said, all the big tech companies hire professional schmoozers, including former politicians, to cultivate relationships. They offer advice on bills and on anything else of interest to industry - like regulations and government contracts.
“Everyone sort of thinks of lobbying as sort of men in suits talking to Congress people in the hallways," Bryner says, "but there’s a lot of lobbying of the administration. Including the White House. Even though President Obama has sort of made it a policy to not invite lobbyists to the White House, lobbying of the presidency has increased in the last several years.”
In the last several years, it’s become increasingly difficult to get legislation through Congress. Individually and through groups, tech titans have spent a lot of money trying to get comprehensive immigration reform passed -– to no avail. But they’re still spending, holding private fundraisers here in Northern California for key Democrats –- and Republicans –- from all over the country. Just a couple of weeks ago, House Judiciary Committee Chair Bob Goodlatte paid a visit to the Bay Area for the latest in a series of private fundraisers put on by TechNet, a bipartisan network of tech executives.
Last week, Julie Samuels, from Engine, moderated yet another panel discussion in San Francisco on the challenge of expanding the labor pool in tech. Right off the bat, she acknowledged the argument that companies should do more to find and cultivate homegrown talent.
“It’s really hard to find good engineers, and there are two sides of this. It’s the businesses who can’t find people, but it’s also the people who want to be there and can’t get there.”
The event was held at a start-up incubator called PariSoma, and organized by Fwd.us. The crowd was young, hip and international. Mexican native Miguel Cervera is a software engineer at Twitter. Over sliders and beer, the 23-year-old expressed distress over the lack of movement on immigration reform.
“I would like to see for the people to stop thinking that we are coming here to steal jobs,” Cervera said. “As an immigrant, that’s how I feel, that –- maybe not here in the city, the city is really open in that aspect -- but in other places, I feel like if I am Mexican, and I am coming here, they think I am here to steal some other U.S. citizens’ jobs.”
But even outside Silicon Valley, American opinion may be changing faster than Cervera realizes. A February bipartisan poll that Fwd.us likes to quote found a thousand likely general election voters nationwide overwhelmingly support immigration reform. Whatever happens in D.C. – or doesn’t – Silicon Valley money is working hard to keep immigration reform near the top of the legislative agenda. Patent reform, however, could graduate from the Senate Judiciary Committee as early as this month.