Interview: Net Caucus' Rick Boucher

(Part Two)

ZDNN: Is this switch for the Internet Caucus, from education to legislation, partly due to the fact that Congress is more educated about tech issues?

Boucher: Yes ... Congressman Rick White and I started [the Internet Caucus] together and the reason we formed it was that it was painfully apparent in the debate on the Communications Decency Act in 1996, which as you know was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, that most members of Congress did not understand the basic function of the Internet and were not aware of its capabilities and limitations. And so the goal of forming the Internet Caucus was to close that information gap and ensure that as future policy debates occurred in the Congress that they occurred with a background of real knowledge on the part of the Congress. And I think we have achieved that. I think now the time has come to move the Internet Caucus to this next plateau and to have it be a forum for the origination of legislation.

ZDNN: Looking at the major players in the Caucus -- yourself, Bob Goodlatte, Conrad Burns --

Boucher: And don't forget Senator Leahy.

ZDNN: You're all from regional areas.

Boucher: Rural areas.

ZDNN: That's very interesting. Is that because of the tyranny of distance?

Boucher: The reason that you see that phenomenon is that we have a shared belief that for the residents of rural areas information technology is the bridge to the American economic mainstream. All of our areas have a need for growth and development. In my area economic development is the highest priority for governments at all levels -- local, state and federal. The same is, by and large, true of the state that Sen. Burns represents and the district that Mr. Goodlatte represents. And we believe that with the arrival of high speed communications, and the Internet in particular, that there will be a death of distance -- and that functions that used to be formed solely in cities of necessity can now be performed anywhere in the nation or in fact anywhere in the world. And so jobs that have been ties to the cities can then migrate into rural areas, and people can become telecommuters with much greater ease than has ever been true before. So specializing in information technology areas is to us a way of advancing the economic development of the regions that we represent.

ZDNN: Is that why you had a hand in -- I think it was four towns in your district that were wired with optic fiber?

Boucher: We actually have at the moment one town that has built it by itself and four or five others that are considering doing the same thing. The town of Abingdon has developed a fiber optic loop that goes through the most densely populated part of the town. Subscribers to that loop -- whether they are residences or businesses -- have a T1 Internet connection and the charge for that is very modest, it's about $45 a month.

ZDNN: How large is this town?

Boucher: It's about 8,000 people. It's very small. Now the town is fully committed to the vision that I am talking about. It sees the provision of high-speed Internet access as an economic development magnet that will attract to the town software developers, various information technology industry components -- and time will tell whether that strategy will be successful, but I am betting that it will be. It's undeniable that there will be a migration of jobs from the cities into rural areas as a consequence of information technology. I believe that those areas that show the greatest commitment to information technology will stand out when that migration occurs and will be the areas that attract the largest number of these jobs. And for us that is a priority and we are working to stand out. My office has also worked with our local communities and established 27 Electronic Village Projects throughout the counties and the cities that I represent. These projects ... have made computers available at public access sites, in libraries and the town hall, so that the general public can come and use computers without having to pay a fee.

ZDNN: Another issue that's very big this year is Y2K, the year 2000 bug. What are your thoughts on that?

Boucher: I haven't made a decision yet. I would have to be convinced first of all that there is a need for a new set of liability principles with respect to litigation that stems from the Y2K problem. I haven't been persuaded of that yet ... I also seriously question the necessity of limiting attorney's fees for plaintiffs in Y2K litigation. The defendants really have no stake in that. It's not an issue for the defendants. It's a matter purely between the plaintiffs and their lawyers. It seems to me that the legislation is a little but too broad in the sense that it severely interferes in the contractual relationships between plaintiffs and their lawyers But I serve on both of the committees that will consider the measure -- the House Judiciary Committee and the House Commerce Committee -- and as the bill is brought before both of those committees I will listen carefully.

ZDNN: You were the House Democrat who was, during the impeachment process, sent to talk with Republican moderates. It's obvious that you have a good working relationship with Republicans -- do think that that will help you get your own bill through?

Boucher: The answer is, yes it will.

ZDNN: How have you gone about building this working relationship?

Boucher: I am by instinct a results-orientated public servant. I am not bound by ideology of the left or the right. I always seek workable solutions for the problems that are presented -- and that gives me the ability to work with people of all philosophical stances, whether it be the most liberal Democrat or the most conservative Republican, because I am always in search of a practical solution to the problems that we face. I've been here now 16 years and in that period of time I have collaborated with Democrats and Republicans on practically every imaginable issue, from taxes from international policy to the technology issues which I spend most of my legislative time on. I have a lot of friends on both sides of the House, and those friendships are the currency of legislative life -- they are absolutely essential to anyone's ability to succeed in Congress in passing legislation. And that raw base of friendships on the Republican side as well as the Democratic side is going to be very helpful as we seek to bring from the Internet Caucus a set of principles to encourage Internet growth.

ZDNN: With all of this impeachment business -- do you think that Congress is going to have a problem working with the White House on legislation?

Boucher: Quite the opposite. The President now, I think, needs to redeem himself in the minds of the American public. He's got to show that he can lead. And so he has an incentive to work with the Republican Congress to pass legislation. The reverse of that is also true. The Republicans, because they single-mindedly pursued impeachment against the will of the American public, have suffered enormously in the public opinion polls. And they now, if they want to retain their majorities in the House and the Senate, also have a necessity of demonstrating that they can do something other than impeach the President. They have got to pass legislation. So they have every incentive also to cooperate more and compromise with the White House.

And so, given that mutual necessity, I anticipate this session of Congress producing some rather important legislation on retirement security, on healthcare, perhaps on a set of federal principles for the Internet. There is much opportunity for accomplishment.

ZDNN: The Information Technology Industry Council just released its ratings of Congress. You did pretty well, scoring 73 out of 100, but they marked you down on two issues --

Boucher: Visas was probably one of them.

ZDNN: Visas (the H1-B Visas Final Passage) and Fast Track (the Reciprocal Trade Agreements Act of 1997).

Boucher: Those positions are a reflection of the district that I represent. A lot of the employment in my district is low-wage employment. We still have more than 10,000 people working in sewing factories. We have thousands of people employed in furniture factories. And these are the very kind of businesses that are vulnerable to competition from developing countries in this industry. And, in the wake of NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) we lost more than 5,000 jobs in sewing factories. Fast Track is seen in my region as an open invitation for the initiation of other NAFTA-like agreements with other lesser-developed countries in this industry, only accelerating the flight of these low-wage jobs from our region ... If I represented the Silicon Valley I might have had a different view. But, representing the district that I represent, which is the Appalachian Mountains, it's an economically-challenged area ...

With regard to visas, the same kind of problem exists. If the federal legislation was structured in such a way that a search would first have to be made for Americans who could do the work, I'd say, 'Fine.' But it wasn't written that way, so it was the same problem.