GOP congressmen promise action on H-1B visas

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- After meeting yesterday with the leaders of many of Massachusetts' leading technology companies, a group of Republican congressmen promised to increase the cap on H-1B visas and admitted that the federal government doesn't have a firm handle on how to regulate e-commerce.

The event marked the first foray into the political realm for TechNet Massachusetts, a spin-off of Palo Alto, Calif.-based TechNet, a high-tech lobbying effort seeking to create bipartisan support on New Economy policies.

Among those who attended the sessions was U.S. Rep. David Dreier (R-Calif.), who promised that before the end of the year, Congress would deliver legislation to President Clinton that would increase the H-1B visa cap from 115,000 to 200,000. Such a move would allow high-tech companies to keep a greater number of technically skilled foreign workers.

Dreier suggested the government go even further by eliminating the cap altogether.

Rep. Nancy Johnson (R-Conn.) boiled the H-1B issue down to a matter of competition in the New Economy.

"If you have got to grow and you can't hire Americans and you can't bring people in from abroad, you do have an option. . . . You can relocate to another country where that isn't a problem," she said.

Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.) said U.S. workforce policy is rooted in laws that were designed in the industrial 1930s and 40s and that it needs an overhaul.

Privacy legislation was another hot topic at the meetings, with the Republicans grappling with how the government could establish guidelines to protect consumers' privacy without harming the business community.

Many of the legislators admitted they are still polling the business community in an attempt to become conversant on technology issues and how government action will affect those businesses.

"First of all, you have to get a really good grasp of the problem, and we don't have a real good grasp yet," Johnson said.

John Keane, chairman of Keane Inc., a Charlestown, Mass.-based IT services and consulting firm, was one of the business leaders who spoke with the legislators. He expressed hope that TechNet would hold a similar forum with Democrats, but insisted it was important to bring the Republicans to Democrat-heavy Massachusetts to start a dialogue.

Keane said high-tech business leaders can no longer afford to ignore Washington, as the federal government no longer seems inclined to ignore them.

"We've believed we're above all that, and that's been our Achilles' heel up until now," Keane said.

As for achieving bipartisan consensus, Keane said the technology industry can't afford and isn't likely to tolerate a politically polarized battle in Washington.

"I'd love to see the politics disappear," he said. "We won't get anywhere unless they do."

This story, "GOP congressmen promise action on H-1B visas" was originally published by Computerworld.

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