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Nitin Pradhan
Nitin Pradhan
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Q&A: Silicon Valley Congressman Talks Tech Industry Needs

Silicon Valley Rep. Mike Honda speaks with former Transportation Department CIO Nitin Pradhan on Congress' role in fostering the U.S. technology market, immigration law and more.

Mike Honda
U.S. Rep. Mike Honda
When I was part of the first Obama administration as CIO for the U.S. Department of Transportation, I had many opportunities to interact with Congress. My impression of these interactions was very positive both on the Democratic and the Republican sides. However, today the approval of Congress is at an all-time low. As part of a new series of discussions with top government leaders for InformationWeek Government, I interviewed Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.), whose congressional district covers most of Silicon Valley, to understand the role of Congress in growing the U.S. technology sector.

The interview reinforced for me the impression that Honda is a leader who not only is passionate about the technology industry, but also is taking concrete steps to support technology manufacturing and development in the U.S. I believe such support will come back to help government, with private sector initiatives like GOVonomy, which I'm involved with, that pilot emerging and innovative technology products from U.S. startups and growth companies for possible adoption in the $200 billion annual government IT marketplace. Here are excerpts from our interview.

Nitin Pradhan: What is the most important role of Congress in growing the technology economy?

Rep. Mike Honda: We need to undo the sequester for a whole host of reasons technology companies care about -- to boost infrastructure investment which both creates jobs and helps the economy; to continue investing in research and development so we can lead in science and technology; and to educate the 21st century workforce. On a personal note, I introduced a bill to provide support to entrepreneurs at the most critical stage of their businesses' growth through a 25% tax credit on the costs associated with building their first manufacturing facility in the U.S. The best ideas are still researched and developed in this nation, and this proposal stops offshoring before it ever starts.

How do you work with Silicon Valley's technology community to help it grow and thrive?

Rep. Honda: I am working closely with colleagues in Congress, industry and academia to realize the vision for a National Network for Manufacturing Innovation proposed by President Obama, which can help promote advanced manufacturing in the United States and help American industry through challenges such as the 450-mm wafer transition. Silicon chips are manufactured on 300-mm diameter semiconductor wafers as an industry standard, with all related tools and equipment calibrated to that size. But manufacturers worldwide want to switch to larger-sized 450-mm wafers to produce more chips per wafer. That change will require billions of dollars in research and development. The semiconductor equipment industry is hoping to receive some federal assistance to defray costs so that these jobs remain in the United States, because other nations are offering incentives to try to lure them overseas to do this work.

Can you talk about the nanotechnology initiative you helped create and fund?

Rep. Honda: The 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act officially established the National Nanotechnology Research and Development Program to promote federal research, development, demonstration, education, technology transfer and commercial applications to ensure continued U.S. leadership across federal agencies and the private sector. It authorized $3.7 billion in funding in fiscal years 2005-2008 for grants to investigators, establishing interdisciplinary research centers and advanced technology facilities, expanding the education and training of undergraduate and graduate students, and establishing a research program to identify nanotech ethical concerns. My blue ribbon task force on nanotechnology has supported a nearly tenfold increase in the number of published, peer-reviewed research papers on environmental, health and safety aspects of nanotechnology, and has kept us the leader in research publications on nanotechnology generally.

Explain how earmarks have hampered the flexibility of Congress to deliver results to their constituents.

Rep. Honda: In the past, members of Congress had the ability to direct funding (through earmarks) to particular projects in their districts that they felt were worthy of receiving funds. Often, these projects involved small, upstart companies that had very novel ideas but which were not able to get as much attention from federal agencies as large firms, or had ideas that were too outside the box for agencies to understand.

With the imposition of an earmark ban, now decisions about how to distribute funding are made by the bureaucrats at federal agencies in their Washington offices, who don't know the needs of communities around the country like their elected representatives do. In some cases, such as for bills dealing with water projects or transportation projects, the earmark ban has made it nearly impossible to legislate -- How are you supposed to write a bill authorizing work on infrastructure projects and not mention the projects? But if you do, then it is an earmark and it is banned nowadays.

When Democrats took over the House in 2007, we put in place disclosure rules to help end the corruption and abuses that occasionally happened due to earmarks, but the total ban has gone too far. We need to put the power of the purse back where the Constitution intended, with Congress, along with common-sense rules and reforms to avoid abuses.

How should U.S. immigration laws be optimized to maximize benefit to the U.S. technology industry and its citizens?

Rep. Honda: I have been fighting for comprehensive immigration reform that strengthens our economy and supports the labor needs of U.S. businesses and Silicon Valley. Comprehensive reform will create a future flow program that ensures American businesses have access to essential workers in the U.S., protect workers' rights, guarantee fair wages and working conditions, and provide workers with a means to apply for green cards if they choose to do so. Congress should have the authority to establish appropriate levels of immigration flow and to assure that small to midsize businesses, the lifeblood of our economy, have access to needed talent without being subject to excessive and burdensome costs or procedures.

We need to increase access to green cards for STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) graduates, entrepreneurs and investors, and exempt accompanying spouses and children from the annual numerical limits on employment-based visas. Comprehensive immigration reform must also create a mechanism that enables the legitimate market need for H-1B visas to be met, while at the same time ensuring that the H-1B visa process remains timely.

We will all benefit from reform that ensures a diversity of skills and perspectives among immigrants that will help Silicon Valley companies anticipate the needs of emerging markets and think "outside the box." We can achieve this by keeping efficient, fair and effective avenues for legal, family-based immigration -- that includes same-sex couples -- as part of reform. This will boost our economy at all levels and enable entrepreneurs to have the support structure they need to more effectively strengthen American industries.

Can you talk about your concept of equity in education and its impact on the technology industry?

Rep. Honda: Equity in education means ensuring that each and every child receives the resources they need to be successful. Parity means funding every child at the same level. Children should not be limited in their opportunities by the zip code they live in. Equitable STEM education means that each and every child will have the tools they need to function in the 21st century. STEM education encourages the creativity and innovation that the tech industry requires.

Discuss the Healthcare Exchanges and how they will impact technology startups and growth companies.

Rep. Honda: Affordable Care Act (ACA) requires the use of electronic health records (EHR) and updated codes, which will require additional use of technology among all healthcare providers and increase demand for new products. Grants will be issued for use of information technology to improve resident care. There will be an increase in electronic payment systems (not mandated, but often required by insurance companies). In general, there will be more people utilizing healthcare systems, so the need for more advanced technology (to provide safer, faster and more affordable care) will continue to increase.

Talk about the "Entrepreneur In Residence" program you help set up in federal government.

Rep. Honda: I think in many instances the federal government has trouble understanding the issues of entrepreneurs. They don't hear them and understand them as they should. I have been a longtime advocate for strong partnerships between the private high-tech industry and the federal government, and that is why I am reintroducing a bill that would allow proven entrepreneurs to apply their real-life experiences and business knowledge to the federal government -- my Entrepreneur in Residence (EIR) bill. A federal EIR program would make the government more responsive to the current needs of entrepreneurs and enhance partnerships between it and the private sector. The idea is to infuse many of the operational and creative solutions-oriented principles found in startups and small businesses into the inner workings of government agencies.

What is your concept of Government 2.0 and the use of technology in making government more efficient and effective?

Rep. Honda: I recently redesigned my website to increase the usability, utility and accessibility of government resources, using crowdsourcing to democratize the way I interact with the public. Constituents can check the status of Capitol tours, flag requests and other constituent functions -- just some of the ways our office can interact more digitally with the public.

More broadly, Government 2.0 means using the most up-to-date technology to ensure openness between the public and government spheres. I utilize Google Hangouts, Twitter town halls, Facebook, liveblogs and more to ensure that I am responsive and reachable to constituents back home.

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