Net Election

Bipartisan E-greement

Slate and the Industry Standard join forces to examine the effect of the Internet on Campaign 2000.  

The newest fad in politics is e-contracts. Last week, House Majority Leader Dick Armey unveiled his second pitch to Silicon Valley, eContract 2000 (click here to watch streaming video of Armey digitally signing the document). Democrats are courting the tech sector just as aggressively. House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt spelled out his e-policy two months ago before a gathering of high-tech executives. And next month, the New Democrat Coalition, a group of moderate congressional Democrats, will release e-genda 2.0, its version of eContract 2000.

What’s surprising about these competing blueprints for the New Economy is how similar they are. The eContract is premised on keeping the government far away from the tech economy. Armey sees the high-tech explosion as proof that the free market works. But Gephardt’s policy and rhetoric hardly differ from Armey’s. In March, Gephardt told computer execs that “the technology industry has done very well without the intrusion or interference of Washington. And its fundamental success or failure will be ultimately determined in the marketplace.”

On specific issues, the Republican eContract, the New Democrat e-genda (at least last year’s Version 1.0), and the Gephardt agenda are remarkably consistent. All call for an extension of the moratorium on special Internet taxes, which the House passed last week. All support the elimination of the telephone excise tax and an increase in H-1B visas, which permit foreign workers to fill American jobs when necessary. All propose an enlarged research and development tax credit. All stress Internet security. All call for relaxed export controls.

The only significant issue of departure is permanent normal trade status for China. Gephardt opposes it, while Armey and the New Democrats support it. Other differences among the plans are minor: Armey wants new laws for telecommuters; the other two don’t mention them. Armey and the New Democrats support litigation reform; Gephardt doesn’t mention it. The New Democrats and Gephardt call for full funding of the e-rate, which uses telephone service fees to help public schools and libraries get wired at a discount; Armey opposes the e-rate.

Why do the two sides of a deeply divided Congress sound alike on these issues? One reason is that no politician wants to be the first to cross the tech sector. The Internet is a golden goose of campaign contributions, and the party that gets a reputation for being less friendly will receive fewer eggs. After years of giving most of its money to Democrats, Silicon Valley is now roughly split between the parties, so it’s either side’s game to lose. Another reason is that a genuine bipartisan consensus has favored a laissez faire approach to the Internet, at least since 1997, when Ira Magaziner, formerly a leading advocate of economic regulation, wrote a hands-off Internet policy for the White House. There is no Democratic lobby for “industrial policy” on the Internet.

In the absence of significant policy distinctions, the two sides use the Internet to frame their old conflicts. Armey uses it to demonstrate that Democrats are still the party of big government. “Although some in Washington liked to think that they created the Internet themselves,” he said in a dig at Al Gore, “the Net succeeded primarily because the scientists who created it did so without interference from Washington.” New Democrats use it to show that old Democrats are stuck in the past. “Unlike many Members of Congress on the traditional right and the traditional left,” e-genda 1.0 says, “the New Democrats have been consistent advocates of policies to grow the New Economy.” Gephardt uses the Internet to show that Republicans don’t care about poverty by stressing how little they emphasize bridging the digital divide. No matter how much the three camps agree, they’ll find ways to keep fighting.