High-tech thinks of entering the political amphitheater

Electro PAC. It sounds like a video game. It's actually the name of the political action committee for the American Electronics Association. And, say spokesmen for organizations like this, the high-technology industry needs much more political clout - including more PACs - if it expects government to respond to its needs. (The function of a PAC is to contribute funds to political campaigns.)

''The emerging industries - electronics, biotechnology, and other high-tech - are not playing nearly the role in the electoral process that their importance to the economy suggests,'' says Ken Hagerty, vice-president of government operations for the electronics association. ''On the flip side, the declining industries have disproportionately more influence.''

As the high-tech industry grows, so do its legislative needs, executives are finding. Right now the industry would like to see Congress free up international trade, fund more research and development (R&D), clarify antitrust laws to allow easy development of joint R&D projects, and encourage science education.

These goals can't be achieved without political influence, some politicians agree. Such welcome developments as the 1981 R&D tax credit ''were not judgments Congress or the administration came to. They were purely political,'' Rep. James M. Shannon (D) of Massachusetts told high-tech executives early last month. ''You are the least political group,'' Massachusetts Sen. Paul Tsongas (D) frankly called a large assembly of engineers at a convention in Boston last week. ''If you lose, you have no one to blame but yourselves.''

Executives in the industry say that without a history of political activity, it's difficult to be heard in Washington. And the reason the industry lacks this history ''is because we've never been dependent on the largess of the Congress, '' says Peter McCloskey, president of the Electronic Industries Association.

''The issues facing us haven't been environmental controls or other regulatory burdens, and we have no major trade union problems,'' McCloskey explained.

This independence shows up in one measurement of political clout - the amount of contributions PACs give candidates. According to the Federal Election Commission, high-tech hasn't made the scoreboards in either the nation's top 10 trade association PACs or the top 10 overall PACs. It did light up the board of the top 10 corporate PACs though: Harris Corporation was No. 3 in the last election with $216,000; Grumman Corporation ranked No. 7 with $172,470, and United Technologies squeaked in at No. 10 with $162,600. All three companies, though, compete for government contracts, including military equipment - one reason they are politically active.

Now that the industry has identified some issues, can it still achieve its goals in spite of its relatively new acquaintance with politicking?

There are some challenges. More jobs are at stake in the smokestack industries, and ''that counts heavily with a politician,'' says David Garin, treasurer of Scitec PAC, a small science and technology political action committee. ''Going to the government for help when you're growing 40 to 50 percent a year is a bit of a problem,'' adds Charles Baker, at the Massachusetts High Technology Council.

But Glen Skovholt, director of legislative analysis at Honeywell Inc., warns that high-tech and the depressed smokestack industries must not ride a collision course through Washington. ''High-tech needs the basic industries because that's where we sell our products. And the basic industries need high-tech to improve their productivity. It's a mistake to try and pit ourselves against the smokestack industry.''

Another challenge, political movers in high technology say, is that there is not yet enough unity among members to form a strong voice in Washington. Some scientists are not as concerned with trade issues, for instance, and would rather concentrate their efforts on R&D funding.

But though high-tech doesn't have nearly the clout of, say, the oil and auto industries, it is building up political muscle. New PACs are being formed and old ones are growing. For instance, the PAC for the National Society of Professional Engineers has ''doubled the amount of contributions every election cycle since we began [in 1978],'' says Arthur Kropp, who heads up the PAC. Kropp said the society's efforts have been focused mainly on freshman congressmen and on getting politicians aware of the issues.

And chief executives in the industry have taken on more active lobbying roles , too. The chairman of American Micro Devices Inc., W.J. (Jerry) Sanders III, has been hard at work on Capitol Hill, talking up the Japanese semiconductor issue. And Robert Galvin, chairman of Motorola, has been a heavy hitter on international trade.

There are three ways an industry can get Washington's attention, says Kevin Phillips, publisher of Business & Public Affairs Fortnightly in Bethesda, Md. One is the PAC component, one is executive involvement, and the last is grass-roots lobbying where shareholders and workers get involved. The industry has done all right in the first two and is getting better as political awareness increases, Mr. Phillips says. But ''to the best of my knowledge, the industry does almost none of the last . . . . Right now, they are long on chiefs and short on government relations Indians.''

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