Last year the single largest corporate lobbyist was General Electric. The second biggest? A new arrival, called...Google. Time Magazine White House correspondent Michael Scherer tells Brooke what took the tech industry so long to get lobbying and what they're doing to influence politics.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Did you know that money influences politics? You do? Well, did you know that last year, the single largest corporate lobbyist was the crusty old stalwart General Electric? Yeah? How about the second biggest? It’s a new arrival called – Google. Google's attempt to affect the conversation is interesting, not just because it’s just started to seriously lobby Washington, but also because it's leading a caravan from Silicon Valley. Time Magazine White House correspondent Michael Scherer explains what took the tech industry so long.
MICHAEL SCHERER: There’s long been a libertarian streak out in Silicon Valley, and they look at this city as a place where ideals go to die. And they’re – they’re still a very idealistic community. That has changed in recent years, as Silicon Valley has moved from being a community that basically makes boxes for your desk to something that really is a part of every moment of your life. And so, the sort of new tech operates in a world that is heavily regulated, and so they are forced to deal with Washington in a way they weren’t before.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How much money are we lookin’ at?
MICHAEL SCHERER: Computers and internet firms are now spending as much lobbying as the defense industry is, and almost as much as the oil and gas industry. Over the next several years, you're going to see more and more of these companies and also the individual billionaires and hundred millionaires who run these companies putting more and more money into elections.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You mentioned that there's a strong libertarian stripe in Silicon Valley. Is that reflected in the kinds of candidates that they’re beginning to support?
MICHAEL SCHERER: One of the big untold stories of the 2012 campaign was that President Obama was actually able to raise more money from the Silicon Valley writ-large community, the Northern California donor base, than he was from the Hollywood community, the Southern California donor base. That's a real revolution in Democratic politics.
That, I think, is changing, though because what made Silicon Valley a Democratic bastion was really social issues. On other issues though, they actually have a lot in common with the Republicans, if you talk about issues like taxation and regulation, tort reform. And Republicans, in the last few years, have become much more savvy about making these connections. You know, as we speak this week, Senator James Inhofe, senior senator from Oklahoma, is having a fundraiser at Google's Washington headquarters. Google likes to think of itself as a very green company, and here they are raising money for the number one climate change denier in the US Senate.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
MICHAEL SCHERER: And that’s because James Inhofe can help Google on a number of other issues that have nothing to do with the temperature of the planet.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Which makes me wonder whether or not Silicon Valley is the place where ideals go to die. And you mentioned in your piece that Mark Zuckerberg has launched an advocacy group called Forward.us, FWD.us. What’s it designed to do?
MICHAEL SCHERER: This is a group that was founded by Mark Zuckerberg, the billionaire owner of Facebook, with a number of his friends and financiers. They are coming together, initially, around one issue, immigration reform, which has long, actually, been a priority of Silicon Valley because they have a real problem in getting highly educated engineers from overseas getting the visas for these people. And it’s – it’s really an experiment in flexing their muscle in the new region of Super PACs, which are these unlimited campaign advertising groups. And they’ve been running ads supporting, so far, senators who were supportive of the comprehensive immigration bill that recently passed out of the Senate.
It's also an experiment in how well these tech minds can actually play the political game. And the early indication is that there's quite a learning curve here. You know, their first ads in favor of South Carolina's Lindsey Graham and Alaska Senator Mark Begich actually enraged a lot of people because, in addition to touting their support for immigration reform, those ads actually congratulated Lindsey Graham for supporting the Keystone XL pipeline and congratulated Begich for supporting Arctic drilling.
These are two issues that are real hot button issues for environmentalists. And immediately, there was a backlash in Silicon Valley among some of the donors to the group, saying, look, I thought I’d signed up for an immigration reform group, and here you have me using my money to advertise against issues I care a great deal about.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The head of FWD.us, who apparently is Mark Zuckerberg’s college roommate, said that the group had a unique ability to influence politics because it can, quote, “control massive distribution platforms.”
MICHAEL SCHERER: Yeah, and, and that was actually another big mistake they made. Shortly after that memo was leaked, Joe Green disavowed it, said it didn't reflect what he really thought, even though clearly this was in the minds and is still in the minds of a number of leaders in Silicon Valley. You had a situation a couple years ago where Hollywood wanted to put in place new intellectual property rules for pirating of movies, basically, online.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You’re talking about the Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA.
MICHAEL SCHERER: Yes, SOPA, and there was another bill called PIPA.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
MICHAEL SCHERER: And companies like Google were terrified of this, because it would have increased the liability for them in dealing with pirated material that showed up in their search engine, on sites like YouTube. And in the final weeks before the Senate was going to vote on this, these companies actually did take over their broadcasting networks to raise public awareness about this issue.
So the home page of Google was taken over, sites like Wikipedia, telling people to contact their senators. And the Senate was bombarded with thousands and thousands of phone calls that effectively killed the bill. It was a huge wake-up call, not just for Silicon Valley about their power, but also the rest of Washington, you know, that you now have this new media channel that has this much power, at basically no cost.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And now these tech companies are trying to get a legislator elected. Tell me about Ro Khanna and whether he’s a harbinger of things to come.
MICHAEL SCHERER: Yeah, Ro Khanna’s a very talented candidate in a district that covers a good part of Silicon Valley proper. He’s is running against a politician named Mike Honda who’s been an elected representative of the same region, a progressive Democrat in good standing for decades. And Ro Khanna has a very good shot right now of taking him out. Khanna has essentially a four to one spending advantage at this point. He’s hired the data and grassroots people that drove President Obama's 2012 campaign.
And if you talk to Ro or if you talk to some of the supporters around him, they will say, “We need a new voice directly of Silicon Valley in Congress, and Mike Honda just can’t be. He can take votes that Silicon Valley is happy with, but he is not, in himself, an evangelist for the Valley.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Michael, thank you very much.
MICHAEL SCHERER: Thank you, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Michael Scherer is the White House correspondent for Time Magazine.