Greenough Goes to Washington

Just over 100 days into the Obama regime, D.C. not surprisingly feels like a work in progress: leaders in the new administration and Congress are refining plans to overhaul healthcare, education and energy, and interested businesses are trekking to the Capital to help shape the agenda.  It's no different for our clients that are adopting a higher profile at this critical juncture. We've recently completed two press and policy tours to build awareness for clients' agendas in green technology and life sciences, respectively and found that Washington is truly open for business conversations. 

In March, I had an opportunity to meet directly with leaders of Congress and members of the Obama administration as one of more than 50 CEOs and senior executives from TechNet. Under the leadership of the kinetic John Doerr (of Kleiner Perkins fame) and John Chambers (the estimable Cisco CEO), the bi-partisan group made its annual TechNet Day pilgrimage to D.C. in order to listen, learn and contribute. Given the current backlash against bailouts and business at large, the group made a concerted effort to do more listening and less talking when meeting with the leaders in Washington.

More than 20 Senate Democrats including Harry Reid, John Kerry, Mark Warner, Claire McKaskill, Maria Cantwell, Evan Bayh and Jeff Bingaman joined host Debbie Stabenow in a session that underscored the vital role that technology companies will play in reshaping the healthcare and energy landscapes. Stabenow pointedly said that low carbon goals are good for the middle of the country and Michigan is best prepared to handle manufacturing for the wind and solar industries. Bingaman encouraged feedback on the energy bill. Kerry noted that there are more German workers in the solar industry than in the auto business. Cantwell, the junior Senator from Washington state enthused that energy is "the mother of opportunities at $16 trillion."

To take advantage of renewable energy, Reid said the focus needs to be on the electric grid. Warner, the Senate's liaison to the technology industry, said US energy policy needs the same urgency that catapulted the wireless industry. Doerr pointed out that only six of the top 30 clean energy companies worldwide are located in the U.S. He also asked for more green R & D & D credits (the last D represents 'deployment'). As if to underscore the changing and somewhat amusing ways of the new Washington, McKaskill, the Senator from Wisconsin, snapped a photo of Facebook's Chief Privacy Officer during the meeting, added it to a blog, and then challenged the surprised lawyer to defend the company's privacy policies. His muted response didn't include a candid shot in return. No word if McKaskill added it to her Twitter stream.

Also at the meeting, House Majority leader Nancy Pelosi hosted a roundtable with a handful of Representatives including Ed Markey, Bart Gordon, Zoe Lungren and Anna Eshoo. Pelosi asked the technology executives to get involved in the plans for overhauling the electric grid, as the details need to be spelled out by August. She recognized the continued importance of coal, though she clearly sees it as a transitional solution. Markey provided a preview of the newly released Cap and Trade bill and compared its release to his work as leader in the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 that changed the landscape for businesses and consumers alike. That act required years of fighting entrenched interests before passage, and the new carbon bill promises to be an even greater challenge, he said.

House Republican Whip Eric Cantor and colleagues offered a spirited, though less convincing, counterpoint to the Democratic agenda. He assailed his rivals for simply redistributing wealth through more taxes. Not one to miss an opportunity, Cantor also praised the technology contingent for competing on a global scale and promised to reduce the burdens on the private sector by the activist administration.

Presidential Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett kicked off a White House session featuring key leaders including assistant to the President for Energy and Climate Change Carol Browner, Assistant to the President for Science and Technology John Holdren and Counselor to the Secretary of the Treasury Gene Sperling. Browner said that 95 percent of the energy priorities got into the Recovery Act with energy efficiency as the key to the energy investment plan.  Holdren spoke to the administration's commitment to return scientific research to the forefront of the Presidential agenda, and Sperling provided a spellbinding resuscitation of the economic challenges and the administration's responses. He then added that the West Wing is much smaller in real life than what we see on television: as a special advisor (and walk-on) for more than 50 episodes of the hit TV show, he should know.

With the scope of Washington's new agenda, the elected leaders all underscored the need for leadership from the private sector especially science and technology businesses. Overhauling the electric grid, automating medical record keeping, and developing utility-scale alternative energy solutions all require public-private cooperation to shape the solutions. Our take: carve out the resources to be part of the conversation or risk being left behind when the train leaves the D.C. station.

Contributed by Phil Greenough.  Follow him @philgreenough