Newt's Turn to Ride the Highway

House Speaker Newt Gingrich says information technology is the key to America's future -- but what is he talking about?

o hear Newt Gingrich tell it, information technology is the engine that will drive the United States to ever-greater living standards, democracy and freedom.

The new Congress is "simply [trying to] tie together the information-age revolution, the world market, the classic principles of American civilization, and how we can reestablish progress as the norm in American society," says the voluble Speaker of the House.

This is indeed an ambitious vision for a politician who is so frequently derided by his numerous enemies as a rabble-rousing crank.

Gingrich, moreover, is shaping up to be the most powerful Congressional leader in decades. He controls committee chairmanships, and has already appointed longtime GOP ally Robert S. Walker to head the House Sciences Committee. Gingrich can also control which legislative proposals are considered in the House.

Already, Gingrich's vision is winning some friends among industry groups.

"He believes in technology, and believes in advancing the ball," says Jot Carpenter, government-relations chief for the Telecommunications Industries Association, Arlington, Va.

"We are highly supportive of Gingrich's vision" of a high-tech society, said Mark Rosenker, a spokesman for the Washington-based Electronic Industries Association.

Others are puzzled and skeptical. "He is tech-savvy ... but what he wants to do is anybody's guess," says Ken Wasch, director of the Washington-based Software Publishers Association. "A lot of what he does is throw out trial balloons" - such as the now-infamous orphanage proposal - making it difficult to determine his central goals, he said.

"Gingrich is the verbal equivalent of a drive-by shooting... you never know what the target is or who is going to get hit," said one industry official.

In nearly every speech, Gingrich makes some reference to high technology and the information age. The technology is often wrapped up in another message, such as the GOP's determination to reform government or boost international trade.

Here's a standard example: "Imagine the speed and ease which you use a bank-teller card anywhere on the planet and electronically verify your account and get money and then call the federal government about a case. There's no objective reason that institutions of government have to be two or three generations behind the curve in information management."

Or this quote from a speech in mid-November: "Every American will have a cellular phone, which will probably be a fax, which will probably have a modem which will probably tie them into a world - whether they want to or not, frankly, where every American will be competing in the world market with Germany and China and Japan."

The Book of Gingrich also seems to hold that information technology changes the balance of political power in the United States. Thus computerized distribution of congressional laws, reports and speeches "will change, over time, the entire flow of information, and the entire quality of knowledge in the country, and it will change the way people try to play games with the legislative process."

Common ground with Gore?

Gingrich's focus on information technology matches that of Vice President Al Gore, who has promoted his intertwined campaigns to reinvent government and create the National Information Infrastructure. Not wanting to fall behind Gingrich's pace, Gore put his reinventing government campaign into overdrive in January by launching a second National Performance Review that includes another look at government bureaucracy.

Gingrich acknowledged the comparison in an interview with the Washington Times, saying, "Gore certainly knows more about communications technology and has a lot of good ideas about reinventing government and rethinking how you electronically do things."

Even White House officials, the target of many Gingrich attacks, admit the similarity. "There is very little daylight between the two on what the NII can do for Americans," said a White House official.

Still, while Gore and Gingrich have common goals, they disagree how to get there. In public speeches around the country, Gore argues that government intervention is needed to foster competition, crack monopolies, and promote social concerns, such as easy access by the poor to information networks.

Gingrich sees a smaller role for government. His vision is U.S. supremacy in the information age, but his strategy is laissez-faire capitalism. He says he disdains government regulation and industrial policy, championing instead tax breaks, deregulation, legal reform, and reform in government, education, and the health industry.

"The over-riding objective is to allow technological progress to continue with minimal government impediments," says George Keyworth, a Gingrich advisor and co-founder of the Progress and Freedom Foundation, a Washington-based think tank.

For example, the Gingrich-authored Contract With America includes a provision to curb lawsuits launched at a company by shareholders aggrieved at its performance. Such "strike suits" are driving up the cost of borrowing funds by 1 percent per year, says Gingrich's spear-carrier, California Rep. Chris Cox. "All Americans pay a heavy 'litigation tax' for strike suits.... R&D and other essential investments are slashed; economic growth is stymied," said a statement released by Cox's office.

Praise for legal reform agenda

Gingrich's apparent drive to reduce corporate liability is one of the elements of his vision that has won industry's approval. Legal reform "is important...it is something that has to be done," said Carpenter.

Said Jon Englund, director of national affairs for the Washington-based American Electronics Association: "It's very significant. The industry desperately needs litigation reform."

But Gingrich's focus on tax breaks and industry-favored ideas does not necessarily translate into a government-sponsored free lunch. "If we simply become the spokesman for special interests, then we will be crippled," Gingrich said. According to Keyworth, the speaker from Georgia "will be singularly unreceptive to outstretched hands."

Just how Gingrich will convert his views into policy is not clear, say industry officials. Although the Contract With America provides a road map, Bill Clinton's White House and Senate Democrats remain a powerful force, able to block some Republican policies. Budget-cutting problems, congressional reform, social issues such as school prayer, and other issues are additional obstacles to GOP plans. Also, many details of the GOP's technology policy are not clearly revealed, said Joel Johnson, a vice-president at the Washington-based Aerospace Industries Association.

"I don't think there is yet a well-formed policy... it will take a while before you sort out contradictory objectives," such as reducing government's role and increasing the government's promotion of high technology, he said.

But others oppose the GOP's policies from soup to nuts. Gary Chapman, coordinator of the 21st Century Project at the University of Texas at Austin, laments Gingrich's laissez-faire policy, saying it will kill the free-wheeling Internet community with crass commercialization. "We will see big battles between the (industry) Titans.... In 10 years, maybe sooner, we will have a system as insipid as commercial TV."


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