Impeachment to stall tech issues

Senate will be tied up for weeks, with tech issues shelved, watchers say.

Capitol Hill observers expect the Senate impeachment trial of President Clinton to last at least a few weeks -- and, during that time, don't expect to see much progress on technology legislation.

"There will almost certainly be a slowdown in the legislative process this month" as the nation's capital turns its attention to the trial, said Jeff Richards, executive director of the Internet Alliance, a Washington D.C.-based trade group for consumer Internet companies. But Richards and other observers pointed out that the Senate trial won't impede House staffers working on technology issues, and said action on items most important to the industry isn't likely within the first few weeks of the new session under any circumstances.

"The people that are working on tech issues will continue to work on them, but I wouldn't have expected to see much introduced in the opening weeks of the session, even without the trial," said Ari Schwartz, a policy analyst at the Center for Democracy and Technology.

Tasks such as judicial appointments often occupy the bulk of a new Congress' first weeks, Schwartz added.

Crypto progress unlikely
Of all the technology issues on Congress' agenda, perhaps most irritating to the industry are the continuing export controls on encryption software, which high-tech companies have been lobbying for years to have relaxed.

But with very firm opinions on both sides, that issue is perhaps the least likely to reach a quick resolution. With or without the impeachment trial, arguments over encryption could go on throughout the 106th Congress, said Greg Stanko, a spokesman for the Economic Strategy Institute, a Washington think tank.

One technology question that will most likely continue to be addressed by Congress regardless of the trial proceedings is the Year 2000 problem, he said.

Y2K reports expected
"I think you'll continue to see government agencies reporting to Congress on Y2K compliance, and there will still be pressure for legislation on Y2K as necessary," since time to deal with the issue is rapidly running out, Stanko said.

High-tech companies have aggressively lobbied to stem the tide of lawsuits arising from Y2K-related problems, and legislation addressing Y2K legal liability was passed in the last Congress. But legislation providing incentives for companies and private groups to address the problem is expected this term. Legislation to expand consumer-privacy protections on the Internet and laws regulating unsolicited commercial e-mail (aka spam) are also expected, but it's anyone's guess when they will be introduced, Richards and Stanko said.

No guarantees
But a possible upside to the technology industry from any trial-related delays is that staffers will have more time to study the issues and gauge support before crafting legislation, the CDT's Schwartz said.

"Perhaps we'll see a package of tech bills introduced together [later on]," he said.

But the business of predictions is a tough one these days, and most Capitol Hill watchers are unwilling to make sweeping pronouncements about a situation as volatile as the president's political problems.

Asked whether it's possible to say for sure that the impeachment trial won't translate into a legislative liability for technology companies, the IA's Richards said no.

"It's important to point out that we have never seen a political conundrum like this one in our lifetimes, and we may never see it again," Richards said. "This is a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence, so all bets are off."


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