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? … Next Page »

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