Where Sen. Frist Stands on Tech Issues

December 23, 2002. Sen. Bill Frist (R-TN), who is likely to be the next Senate Majority Leader, has not been active on technology related issues. He is a doctor who has focused more on health, drug, biotech, Medicaid, Medicare, and social security related issues.

However, he has a voting record on tech related legislation, and has either sponsored, cosponsored, or spoken about a number of other technology related bills. This article examines his tech record. Basically, despite his focus on health issues, he has a record on tech related issues, and it is pro-technology.

Memberships. Sen. Frist currently sits on the Budget Committee, Foreign Relations Committee, and Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. He previously sat on the Senate Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction over many technology and communications related issues. He was also Chairman of its Subcommittee on Science, Technology and Space.

Sen. Frist is also Co-Chairman of the Forum on Technology and Innovation, a bipartisan organization funded by the Markle Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, the Sloan Foundation, and the Kellogg Foundation. The other Co-Chair is Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR). Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) was previously the Democratic Co-Chair.

Sen. Frist is also a member of the Congressional Internet Caucus.

Local Competition. He gave a speech in the Senate in June of 2001 that may give incumbent local exchange carriers (ILECs) cause for concern. He stated that "We need to ensure that the market opening requirements of the 1996 Act are vigorously implemented". See, Congressional Record, June 20, 2001, at page S6515.

He further stated that "In this uncertain financial climate, it is imperative that we maintain a stable regulatory framework. The 1996 Telecom Act established three pathways to a more competitive local telecommunications marketplace: a new entrant could purchase local telephone services at wholesale rates from the incumbent and resell them to local customers; a competitor could lease specific pieces of the incumbent's network on an unbundled basis, using what the industry calls unbundled network elements; or a competitor could build its own facilities and interconnect them with the incumbent's network. Each of these alternatives must remain available to new entrants. Making fundamental changes to the structure of the 1996 Act will destabilize the already shaky competitive local exchange industry, depriving consumers of even the prospects for meaningful choice."

Broadband Regulation. Sen. Frist has not been active in this area. No bills have come to a vote on the Senate floor. However, several bills have been introduced. Sen. Frist is not one of the 65 cosponsors of S 88, the Broadband Internet Access Act of 2001. This bill, sponsored by Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), is intended to incent broadband deployment by providing tax credits.

Nor is he one of the dozen cosponsors of S 2430, the Broadband Regulatory Parity Act of 2002. This bill, sponsored by Sen. John Breaux (D-LA), would require the FCC to write "regulations to ensure that (1) all broadband services, and all broadband access services, are subject to the same regulatory requirements, or no regulatory requirements ..."

Diversion of USPTO Fees. Patent based sectors of the economy have reason to celebrate Sen. Frist's likely elevation. He was one of only six Senators to sign a letter criticizing the diversion of U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) fees to fund other government programs. On February 9, 2001, he and others wrote to President Bush to state that "underfunding the PTO delays the development of new technologies".

They wrote that "Intellectual property is the currency for the new, high-tech economy. Patent and trademark laws administered by the Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) encourage invention, innovation, and investment. The PTO plays a critical role in promoting the continued development of intellectual property in this country. For established companies, patents improve competitiveness, increase productivity, help bring new products and services to market, and create jobs. For entrepreneurs, patents can make or break a new business."

This diversion is largely the work of the Clinton administration, and the Appropriations Committees in the House and Senate. Technologies companies, and many members of the Judiciary Committees (which have jurisdiction over intellectual property issues) have opposed the diversion, but without success. Sen. Frist's involvement in this issue is notable, because he does not represent a technology intensive state, and he is not a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Nor is he a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee. But now, he may be in a better position to deal with this diversion of funds.

R&D Tax Credit. This is a perennial issue in the Congress. Every few years the Congress temporarily extends the credit, which technology companies argue is an important incentive to innovate. In every Congress, bills are introduced that would make the R&D tax credit a permanent part of the Internal Revenue Code; but, they never pass both Houses. The bills which attract the most sponsors are the ones that would simply make the credit permanent.

However, Sen. Pete Domenici (R-NM) has sponsored legislation that would do this, and more. He argues that his proposals would provide greater benefits to start up companies. Sen. Frist has cosponsored Sen. Domenici's legislation. See, for example, S 515, the Private Sector Research and Development Investment Act of 2001.

Sen. Frist has also frequently supported efforts to increase federal spending on research and development.

Trade Issues. Sen. Frist has a voting record on trade issues that is consistent with the position advocated by high tech companies and groups. For example, in the current Congress he supported both trade promotion authority, and the Export Administration Act of 2001.

Sen. Frist supported granting the President trade promotion authority. He voted for final passage of HR 3009, sometimes referred to as the Trade Act of 2002, on May 23, 2002. See, Roll Call Vote No. 130. He also voted favorably on many votes leading up to final passage. The House also passed the bill, and it has become law.

Sen. Frist also voted for S 149, the Export Administration Act, on September 6, 2001. See, Roll Call Vote No. 275. It passed the Senate, but not the House. Sen. Mike Enzi (R-WY), the sponsor of the bill, recently announced that he will reintroduce the bill in the 108th Congress. The bill would ease restraints on most dual use products, such as computers and software, but increase penalties for violations. It is strongly supported by technology companies that export their products.

Copyright. Sen. Frist has not gotten involved in the raging debates over copyright and music on the Internet. He is not a cosponsor of S 2395, the Anticounterfeiting Amendments of 2002. This is Sen. Joe Biden's (D-DE) controversially bill. Nor is he a cosponsor of S 2048, the Consumer Broadband and Digital Television Promotion Act. This is Sen. Ernest Hollings' (D-SC) controversial bill. Neither bill has been voted on by the Senate.

106th Congress (Y2K Act and E-SIGN Act). One can discern more about Sen. Frist's views on technology by examining his record from the last Congress. He voted for, and was active in sponsoring and pushing through the Senate, two technology related bills: S 96, the Y2K Act, and S 761 the digital signatures bill.

S 761 was originally titled the Millennium Digital Commerce Act. However, the bill that was signed into law was titled the Electronic Signatures in Global and National Commerce Act, or E-SIGN Act for short. See also, letter co-authored by Sen. Frist in support of S 761 dated September 29, 1999.

105th Congress (H1B Visas, SLUSA, Internet Taxes, and Encryption). Sen. Frist also has a record worth examining from the 105th Congress.

Sen. Frist supported temporarily increasing the number of H1B visas given to highly skilled technology workers. Technology companies fought for passage of this bill. He voted for S 1723, American Competitiveness Act, on final passage on May 18, 1998. See, Roll Call No. 141.

Sen. Frist also supported S 1260, the Securities Litigation Uniform Standards Act of 1998 (SLUSA). Technology companies sought passage of this bill. They argued that it would limit the number of frivolous class action lawsuits filed against them. Sen. Frist cosponsored the bill, and voted for it on final passage on May 13, 1998. See, Roll Call No. 135.

Finally, however, there is an issue where Sen. Frist took an anti-technology position -- Internet taxes. The Congress passed the Internet Tax Freedom Act in late 1998. Its final passage came a part of a huge omnibus appropriations bill. However, just prior to that, the Senate passed it as a stand alone bill, S 442. The vote for final passage was overwhelming, and Sen. Frist voted for it. However, the critical votes came earlier while the Senate was considering amendments that shaped the bill. One such key vote was on the duration of the moratorium. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) offered an amendment to extend the duration of the moratorium on new or discriminatory Internet taxes. Strong supporters of the moratorium generally voted yes, while others generally voted no. It failed by a vote of 45-52. Sen. Frist voted no. That is, from the perspective of some tech interests, he was on the wrong side. See, Roll Call No. 305, October 7, 1998.

The Senate also never voted on legislation pertaining to encryption rights. Nevertheless, it was a huge issue at the time for the technology sector. One way to determine a Senator's support for encryption rights is to examine the lists of cosponsors of pro-encryption rights bills. Two bills would identify a Senator's support.

First, there is S 377, the Promotion of Commerce On-Line in the Digital Era (Pro-CODE) Act of 1997, sponsored by Sen. Conrad Burns (R-MT). It had 22 cosponsors. Sen. Frist was not one of them. Second, there was S 2067, the Encryption Protects the Rights of Individuals from Violation and Abuse in CYberspace (E-PRIVACY) Act, sponsored by former Sen. John Ashcroft (R-MO). It had ten cosponsors. Sen. Frist was not one of them.

More Bills in the 107th Congress. The technology related bills sponsored by Sen. Frist in the 107th Congress include S 461, the Mathematics and Science Education Partnership and Teacher Recruitment Act of 2001; S 722, the Telemarketer Identification Act of 2001; and, S 2902, the Mathematics and Science Education Excellence Act.

The technology related bills cosponsored by Sen. Frist in the 107th Congress include S 1445, the Internet Equity and Education Act of 2001; S 1549, the Technology Talent Act; and, S 2760, the Stock Option Fairness and Accountability Act. The purpose of S 1445 is to make it easier for Internet based education to qualify for student loans. The Tech Talent Act authorizes the National Science Foundation (NSF) to award competitive grants to institutions of higher education to increase the number of students studying science, mathematics, engineering, and technology. The Tech Talent Bill was eventually enacted into law as part of a larger NSF related bill.

More Statements. There are two statements which Sen. Frist read at subcommittee hearings that relate to his views and interests regarding technology. First, there is his opening statement [2 pages in PDF] on "Telemedicine Technologies", at a hearing before the Senate Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Science Technology and Space, on September 15, 1999. Second, there is his opening statement [3 pages in PDF] titled "The Role of Standards in the Growth of Global Electronic Commerce", at a hearing before the Senate Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Science Technology and Space, on October 28, 1999.

Analysis. One might draw several conclusions about Sen. Frist from the foregoing. First, technology has not been his main interest; health has been.

Second, he has not gotten involved in many of the highest profile technology related issues today involving telecom regulation, broadband deployment, and music on the Internet.

Third, he has taken a keen interest in promoting innovation in the long term. There are several things that the government can do to promote technological innovation, and Sen. Frist has been involved in all of them. The government can establish a thorough patent rights regime, and an entity to efficiently issue quality patents. Sen. Frist has been one of the few Senators to criticize the diversion of USPTO fees. The government can fund research and development. Sen. Frist has supported more funding. The government can give tax credits for private sector research and development. Sen. Frist has supported making the R&D tax credit permanent. Finally, the government can fund education in fields that are related to innovation. Sen. Frist supports efforts to provide more funding for math, science and technology education.

Fourth, while Sen. Frist has not focused on technology issues related to music or broadband, he has focused on some of the uses of the Internet that may in the long run provide real social benefits. That is, whatever happens with music and movies and copyrights on the Internet, it is all just entertainment. Moreover, the debates over broadband regulation largely pit DSL providers against cable modem service providers; both technologies today provide asymmetric service at speeds that facilitate faster web browsing and music downloads -- entertainment uses. In contrast, to the extent that Sen. Frist has focused on broadband, it has been in the context of Internet based education and telemedicine. Both of these require more advanced technologies. And both have the potential to provide real social benefits.