Ryan pick excites foes of tech regulation

By Adam Mazmanian

August 16, 2012

Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., is best known as a budget wonk, and doesn’t have a major profile on technology issues. Still, his pick by Mitt Romney to join the Republican presidential ticket has energized a group of libertarian-leaning experts on tech policy who look past Ryan’s lack of issue-area expertise and focus on the free-market philosophy they believe drives his plan to flatten the tax code and shrink government.

The bigger perspective here, said Berin Szoka, president of the think tank TechFreedom, is that “ultimately this debate about Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security and entitlements is really a debate about the future level of taxation.” The reality is, he said, “the tech sector is likely to bear a significant portion of the future tax burden.”

Szoka sees a number of policies Ryan champions as critical to the tech sector. His push for sharply lower capital gains taxes would benefit startups that compensate their workers with stock options, and venture capitalists who invest in companies with the promise of profits in the stock market down the road.

Ryan’s voting record on technology issues should hearten Republicans with a libertarian bent, said Jeff Eisenach, a principal and managing director at Navigant Economics. Eisenach noted the congressman's support for a bill to overhaul operations at the Federal Communications Commission that would have barred the agency from making merger approval contingent on the imposition of conditions. Ryan also opposed net neutrality legislation.

While both of these were party-line votes, what Eisenach sees in the GOP lawmaker is a gut-level opposition to government agencies broadly interpreting their charters and intruding in private markets. Szoka agrees, saying that under the Obama administration, the FCC and the Federal Trade Commission have “vastly exceeded their legal authorities in many ways.”

Ryan led an effort last year to modify patent-reform legislation to remove a section that would have allowed the Patent and Trademark Office some discretion over how it spends the fees it collects. Ryan and House Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., prevailed on Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas, to remove the self-funding provision on the grounds that it transfers funding power from Congress to the executive branch.

“It would be both irresponsible and unwise,” they wrote in a June 2011 letter, “to allow the PTO to operate solely under the authority of bureaucrats and White House political appointees — without being held accountable to the American public through their elected representatives in Congress.”

The spending mechanism had bipartisan support, because a backlog in processing patent applications pointed to a need for increased staffing as well as because the patent office is entirely funded through its fees and returns money to the Treasury.  Still, Ryan’s position prevailed.

Szoka views the episode approvingly, as evidence of Ryan’s views of limited and strictly controlled government. “Congress can only meaningfully discipline agencies to the extent that it controls their budgets,” he said. “If you give that up, you have no way of reining in an out-of-control agency.”

Ryan’s relative youth can also be read as good news, Eisenach said. “Ryan has grown up with the Internet, and I think that does tend to suggest that he’s savvy when it comes to using it as well as thinking about it.”

By Adam Mazmanian

August 16, 2012