Congressmen to startups: You can't rely on us, but let's talk anyway
Congressmen laid on the charm for Startup Day on the Hill in Washington DC yesterday as they urged visiting startups to increase their interaction with Congress and make their voices heard on issues important to entrepreneurship.
As part of two days of meet-and-greets and innovation-focused conversation organized by Engine Advocacy (which for some reason refers to the event as a "day" on the Hill), 33 startups from around the country descended on the Capitol to hear from US Senators and members of the House of Representatives and discuss patents, crowd-funding, and immigration reform, among other issues.
First, however, they were jokingly disabused of the notion that working with Congress would get them anywhere at all. "Please don’t rely on Congress for anything,” said Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO 2nd District), a former entrepreneur, who was first of the Congressmen to speak to the startups. Polis told the room of about 60 people he was "amazed" that the JOBS Act, which legalized crowd-funding, got signed into law last year, but he expressed dismay that regulations that would allow crowd-funding initiatives to actually get started have remained out of reach because of legislators' over-cautious approach. “We thought we’d passed the damn thing and it still isn’t happening," Polis said.
Polis did, however, emphasize that the startup community needs to be active in reaching out to Congress, and implied that if it failed to do so, its interests would be thrust into the background. Referring to an old political adage, he quipped: “If you’re not at the dinner party, then you’re on the menu." He said startups should work together to develop an "understandable language" that helps the startup community.
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA 49th District) echoed Polis' sentiments, joking that there are two things that Congress does well: nothing at all, and over-react. Like Polis, Issa stressed the importance of the startup community working in concert to push its issues to the top of the political agenda. He said the community needed to speak with a consolidated voice and push forward its five highest-priority issues. He pointed to Qualcomm as an example of a tech company that knew how to make itself heard in Congress, noting that the semiconductor company signs up to be a member of every group that agrees with them on an issue, thus giving it more clout on the Hill.
Issa also spoke out against patent laws and the way the US Patent and Trademark Office oversees the granting of patents. He described the current application system as "a race to the patent office" and says the PTO should narrow its definition of what qualifies for a patent and how it should be applied. It's too easy for applicants to be granted patents, many of which can then be interpreted too broadly, to the detriment of innovation, he argued. Patent definitions should be "narrow and easy to understand so they cannot be expanded in interpretation after granting," he said.
Later, at a cocktails session in a windowless room deep in the bowels of the Capitol building, Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS) and Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA 16th District) presented brief remarks that championed the cause of the startup community and expressed optimism for the potential passage of entrepreneur-friendly immigration reform.
Worried about national debt and the federal budget deficit, Sen. Moran said he had given up on the notion that President Obama and the Democratic-controlled Senate would agree to spending cuts, and so he is instead looking for areas that can grow the economy. "When you look at the facts, do you know where that is?" he asked, before answering his own question: "Startup companies."
Like Polis and Issa before him, Moran urged startups to make their voices heard in Washington, even if it seems like some Congressmen don't really get tech issues. “It’s the compelling story that you tell that’ll change the mindset of members of Congress.”
Lofgren, meanwhile, said she was convinced that Congress could achieve bi-partisan immigration reform that would be more favorable to startups. She didn't mention any specifics, however, such as whether or not that reform might include a "startup visa" for foreigners who want to start venture-backed companies in the US. “I think we have a window of opportunity to actually achieve a reform agenda, but it’s going to have to be a broad effort.” She also took a quick dig at Republicans, suggesting that they are only now eager to support immigration reform because Presidential candidate Mitt Romney did so poorly in the 2012 elections, especially among minority voters.
Startup Day on the Hill continues today, starting with a morning visit to the White House that is closed to press.
Read our ongoing coverage of the immigration reform debate.