Rep. DelBene, Former Tech Exec, Talks Immigration, Electronic Privacy, Sales Tax

Congresswoman Suzan DelBene represents what has been described as one of the most evenly divided districts in the country. The redrawn First Congressional District of Washington state also contains several geographical and economic elements—from agricultural and high-tech businesses to a lengthy stretch of Canadian border—that have a major stake in the outcome of the immigration reform effort under way in Congress.

DelBene, a Democrat who spent some $2.8 million of her own money on last year’s campaign, returns to Washington, DC, this week with immigration high on the agenda in the House of Representatives. But so far there’s little sign that the Republican-controlled chamber plans a comprehensive approach to match the bill passed by the Senate last month.

“I think everyone agrees that on many different levels our current immigration policy is broken, and so this is our opportunity to put a new foundation in place and to reset,” DelBene says. “If we’re doing a good job and being good stewards of policy, we’ll see what’s working and continue to update it and fix it as we go along, as opposed to leave it sitting there as we have, knowing it’s broken, letting it in many cases get worse and not touching it.”

Her position on the House Judiciary Committee gives her a front-row seat for the immigration debate, as well as several other reform efforts important to technology businesses, including electronic privacy and sales tax collections by online retailers (hello, Amazon).

DelBene—a former startup entrepreneur and executive at Microsoft, where her husband Kurt DelBene still works, leading the Office Division—sat down with Xconomy in her Bothell district headquarters to discuss these issues and her approach to legislating in a body that bears little resemblance to the tech world from which she comes.

The conversation has been edited and condensed here for clarity.

Xconomy: You could describe Congress as the opposite of the tech industry in terms of innovation, efficiency, speed, and popularity. How do you deal with that new world, what sorts of things have surprised you?

Suzan DelBene: One, I think we have incredible opportunity given that technology has had such a huge impact on our economy, on our families, on our culture, to make sure that we’re putting policy together that’s up to date, that takes into account that the world is working in a different way than it was 20, 30 years ago. And to do that, we need folks who understand how technology works, the different business models that have come into play because of technology, and make sure that we’re taking that into account so that policy impacts the real world in the way that it needs to, as opposed to stymieing innovation or ignoring innovation. … Speed is one of the biggest things when you see things like the Electronics Communications Privacy Act from 1986 is still the law, and a lot of technology has changed and we haven’t updated it yet. Copyright law from 1976 hasn’t been updated. Definitely speed is a huge issue and I think we’ve got to prioritize some of those things because that could get in the way of innovation.

X: As an individual congresswoman, what are some of the levers you have found to support innovation either on a national or local level?

SD: I think we have to take a longer-term horizon than sometimes the political horizon takes into account. Policy makers might look at things in a two-year horizon or a four-year horizon, but when you’re looking at technology, you may be looking at investments out 10 or 20 or more years. I started my career in biotech, and in the biotech area, a lot of basic research leading to what might be the next drug therapy, et cetera, might be a 20-year plan. I think we’ve had that longer-term horizon in policy in the past, but right now, things are very short, continuing resolutions. We don’t have budgets that go out—we don’t have a budget right now—so we operate on these very short-term programs, and we’re not making the right investments. That’s not how you can invest in technology innovation, or frankly even infrastructure.

X: How would you score the Senate immigration bill on the topic of high-skilled immigration, which is most relevant to the tech industry?

SD: Immigration is kind of like a Venn diagram. You think you have these distinct areas, but many times they overlap. You set policy in one place, it has an impact on something else. How we deal with families of people who are coming for jobs, et cetera, all of that stuff we should look at in its entirety. I think the Senate bill does that. That’s going to be important. I hope the House is willing to look at a comprehensive piece of legislation, because doing it in pieces means that we end up not getting everybody to the table at the same time, not necessarily having consistent policy, and we really need a reset on immigration right now. …

That being said, clearly, we have an immigration issue in the high-tech sector. We want to be globally competitive. We want to make sure we have the workforce that we need for many different skills, and part of that goes from people who are willing to start companies here, who are bringing great new research and ideas to the table, maybe going to graduate school here, but it’s also filling the workforce demands that many folks have in our innovative new companies and our very well-established companies. I have spent this week talking to companies here locally, and finding the right workforce is a top priority for everyone.

X: Some of the coverage of the immigration debate indicates the tech industry got nearly everything it wanted in the Senate bill, after a pretty unprecedented lobbying and advertising push around passage of it. Do you see anything they didn’t get that they’re now asking for as debate moves to the House, or is there something that you think needs to be added or adjusted?

SD: Definitely one of the things that’s come up, and we talked about in our markup in the House side, is investments in education. … If folks are looking for visas, maybe there’s a cost that also gets used to help provide educational programs and workforce training here in the United States to help build up our workforce, the STEM workforce. We need to make sure we’re looking at policy that helps meet our needs today, but also over the long term, and make sure we’re educating folks. … Companies like Microsoft have talked about this. We need to figure out how to do both, how to fix our immigration system, but also make sure we’re doing great development here.

X: We often hear complaints about the H-1B skilled worker visa program from American high-tech job seekers who say they can’t find work, or are seeing wages depressed by H-1B workers, and that the “STEM worker shortage” is a justification fabricated by the tech companies that want to have this flexibility to hire from around the world. What is your reaction to these concerns, and do you see anything in the Senate bill that’s addressing them?

SD: The H-1B system or whatever system comes in place to replace it is about filling gaps and bringing talent in that we may not be able to find otherwise. It’s not about trying to find a lower-wage workforce. … The fees associated, moving people over, the legal work that needs to be done, makes [H-1B] an expensive process. If you can find somebody nearby who has those skills and meets that need, that’s clearly a great move for a business and, so, really I think that’s the dynamic that’s going to drive things going forward. If there are people who are local and have those skills and are ready to do those jobs, I think the incentive is always there from a business perspective to hire those people right here, and they want to see that talent here.

I think one of the things that gets confused is a software engineer isn’t going to be able to fill the need for an acoustic engineer, and so there are a lot of different skill sets. Even within software there are many different types of programmers and skill sets there. So, unfortunately, not everybody is interchangeable. One of the things we’ll have to look at is where the greatest needs are, and help provide training programs if people need to learn to do something slightly different than what they’d done before. But when you’re in a global economy and there’s global competition out there, people want to find the best folks they can find in that specialized area they’re looking for.

X: There’s been some criticism on this issue of your ties to Microsoft, of course a big user of H-1B workers. How does your background in tech influence your thinking on whether we should have a mechanism to attract and retain more foreign STEM talent? Why is that the right thing to do?

SD: As someone who has also been an entrepreneur, I know investments that we make in basic research end up stimulating a lot of new ideas. One of the startups that I did came out of the University of Washington computer science department, that was technology transfer. A biotech company that I worked at, Zymogenetics, started with some intellectual property that came out of the University of Washington. That tie between research that’s happening at our higher educational institutions, basic research, and economy and startup technology, is very, very important.

And we have a lot of students from all around the world at our institutions who are coming up with great ideas, working, and many of our new companies and a lot of innovation comes from those students. And if those students are American students or foreign students who are here, if we have those great ideas and collaboration, and those can start new businesses right here in the United States, that’s a good thing, and that’s one place where H-1B plays.

X: Does it look like high-skilled immigration will be a contentious issue as the immigration debate moves to the House?

SD: There was a bill that came up in committee last week called the SKILLS Act in the House. One of the challenges with the way that piece of legislation was written is it was looking at high-skilled immigration, yet also talking about diversity visas, and trading them off. We had a little bit of an apples and oranges conversation, and I think that was part of the problem. … We’re saying, Hey, in order to put policy together, to help with workforce demands in one area, we’re going to take away visas from another area, that aren’t necessarily related. We don’t have to do policy that way. [Editor’s note: The SKILLS Act, H.R. 2131—which would expand visas for foreign entrepreneurs and graduates of U.S. universities in STEM fields, and increase the cap on H-1B visas, among other things—was approved by the Judiciary Committee in late June; DelBene voted against the bill in committee.]

X: Do you think that your vote on immigration will be an issue in the 2014 campaign?

SD: I’d love to see a comprehensive bill come to the floor of the House so that we can get a vote on immigration reform on the floor of the House. I think that’s a question right now.

I hear from the business community, from farmers, everyone, that they want to see us get immigration policy in place. My concern right now is that once again in the House, we’re looking at it in pieces, and we have a Senate bill where they’ve really taken a comprehensive approach, and worked in bipartisan manner to get there, and so I think it’s really important that the House also takes up policy that’s comprehensive, bipartisan, so we get something through.

X: You co-sponsored legislation to update the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA). How has the debate on that issue shifted in the last month since these enormous disclosures about NSA surveillance?

SD: I think it’s had a big impact because I think the public awareness is a lot higher now. You heard a lot of discussion about privacy on things like SOPA and PIPA, but they were much more in the tech and online community as opposed to the broad public. And now, I think with what’s been happening, we are having a more broad public conversation. There’s more awareness that maybe what people assumed was happening in privacy isn’t exactly what our policy says today.

I always point out that this piece of paper, if it’s sitting in your desk drawer, law enforcement would need a warrant to access this information, but if it’s an e-mail in the cloud, and if it’s 180 days old, you don’t need a warrant to access that information. You don’t need a warrant to access geolocation information. [The ECPA bill would address electronic communications and geolocation data, holding them “to the same warrant standard” required to access a physical piece of paper.]

X: Is it something you think could happen in this session of Congress?

SD: Potentially. In fact, because there’s a little more awareness, maybe it’ll move a little more quickly than it might have otherwise.

X: Why are you supporting the Marketplace Fairness Act, which would require online retailers to collect local sales taxes owed by their customers, regardless of where the companies are based?

SD: It recognizes that our economy has changed, that people buy online. It is definitely a very healthy sector of business, and yet we treat businesses differently in terms of requiring one type of business to collect sales tax and others not to. And also given technology, online retailers can actually collect sales tax. It’s not a huge burden anymore in terms of their ability to do so. So, this piece of legislation says if you’re an online retailer, you’re selling into a state, even a state you’re not located in, you collect that local sales tax and remit it back to the state, just like the local retailer does. It says, if there’s going to be a price difference, it’s going to be based on other things, whether it’s that you can charge a lower cost or one has shipping and one doesn’t, convenience might win over. … You’re not at a disadvantage for being a local brick and mortar retailer, and we also don’t have brick and mortar retailers who are, in a sense, being the service arm for online retailers, and losing that business because of the way policy differentiates who has to collect tax and who doesn’t.

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