The Clinton Technology Policy: Boon or Boondoggle?

By Cowhey, Peter F. | USA TODAY, January 1994 | Go to article overview

The Clinton Technology Policy: Boon or Boondoggle?


Cowhey, Peter F., USA TODAY


THE REAGAN Administration viewed high-technology businesses as the economy's brightest lights. However, these companies grew disgruntled in the 1980s over slow responses from government to their international competitive problems.

Bill Clinton and Al Gore recognized the discontent years before the 1992 presidential election. As junior senator from Tennessee, Gore was perhaps the most knowledgeable person in Congress on high-tech and championed government development of a digital superhighway for computing. Clinton emphasized improved training of workers for high-technology industries as Governor of Arkansas.

These track records gave the Democratic nominees considerable credibility when they asked high-tech business leaders to help them in writing a platform for assisting their industry. Clinton and Gore endorsed improvements in labor training, a shift of resources from military to civilian technology development, more consortia of government and industry to do research for individual industries, and creation of a single place in the government to assure timely reactions to high-tech problems. In response, a cadre of Republican business leaders dramatically endorsed the Democrats. John Sculley, the chief executive officer of Apple Computer, Inc., became a symbol of the Clinton campaign.

Since taking office, Pres. Clinton has re-emphasized high-technology as a key to good jobs. However, the nosedive of IBM highlighted the problems of even a well-managed central bureaucracy trying to strategize for such dynamic markets. Can government activism really help high-tech?

The Constitution assures that good policy is never far from good politics. Having just overthrown an intrusive monarch, the Founding Fathers didn't want enlightened despots. So, the Constitution restrained an activist government by separating the executive and legislature and creating an independent judiciary. Checks and balances established many "veto points" with the authority to block new policy initiatives. The more vetoes in the process, the harder it is to make new policy or reverse old ones and the more likely it is that any new policy will have to offer a little something for everyone.

The Constitution's designers did not stop there. House members are elected by relatively small districts, given a short term in office, and have primary power over the purse. The Senate was designed to make it hard for big states to run over small ones, and it received extensive powers of review over the president's choices to administer the government. No wonder that former Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill preached that "all politics is local."

These constitutional legacies will shape any government effort to fortify high-tech industries. It is hard to gain approval of big new policies without significant political compromises to win friends and fend off local opponents. Policy successes require adroit politics, not the abandonment of politics. Then-Sen. Lyndon Johnson first forced Pres. Dwight Eisenhower into turning outer space into a top priority when Johnson was looking for an issue to identify himself as a "new kind of Democrat." Of course, he also made sure that space activities were headquartered in Texas and the South. Then, the popular program had the money for a massive procurement process that could dispense contracts to the rest of the nation based on merit.

It also is tough to instill timely, decisive, and merit-oriented management in the government. Clinton already has lost his designated technology czar, John Rollwagen (the former CEO of Cray Computer), who resigned with the lament that Washington was about endless consensus building, not decisive action. That is precisely the point. The Constitution was designed to prevent the Department of Commerce's staff from becoming technocratic mandarins, like the elite bureaucracies of Japan and France.

So, as Clinton tackles the future of high-technology, Americans have to ask if the benefits of government action are great enough to offset the inevitable difficulties created by shortfalls in implementation. …

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