Members Talk Startups and Immigration at SXSW

AUSTIN, Texas As the weather turned unseasonably cold for the third day of South By Southwest, discussions about entrepreneurship and immigration heated up.

Reps. Suzan DelBene and Darrell Issa were often at loggerheads in a Sunday morning discussion on how policymakers can create ecosystems that encourage entrepreneurship.

When talk turned to immigration, moderator Greg Ferenstein of Techcrunch asked why the House was holding up the vote on an overhaul. Issa, a California Republican, replied with a question of his own: “Why did the Senate get rid of a 100-year-old procedure on confirming nominees? Because it was in Harry Reid’s best interest and he did it.”

Issa said a science, technology engineering and mathematics bill is being held hostage by the push for a comprehensive immigration overhaul. The DREAM Act doesn’t describe who is eligible beyond an age requirement, he said, when it should give priority to “best and the brightest.”

DelBene, a Washington Democrat, countered that nothing was being held hostage and that having conversations like Sunday's are essential to creating a comprehensive overhaul.

“Policy doesn’t move as quickly as innovation happens,” DelBene said. "Lawmakers need to be better stewards of policy and update it, not just keep adding on top of old laws."

But it wasn’t all serious: Before the session started, Issa found a sign left over from another panel that read “Brazilian Speed Dating” and put it in front of his own placard, to the delight of the other panelists. An aide whisked the sign away before this reporter could get a photo of it.

Earlier that morning, Sens. Mark Warner and Jerry Moran were more collegial. On a panel moderated by The Economist’s Matthew Bishop, the Virginia Democrat and Kansas Republican engaged in a jovial 75-minute discussion that also centered on how education, immigration and taxes affect entrepreneurship. The audience was about 30 in the bGiv Social Good Space, which had spraypainted art on panels leaning against the walls and was described by one aide as “very Austin.”

Warner and Moran co-sponsored the Startup Act 3.0, which would give green cards to 50,000 recipients of advanced degrees in the STEM fields and 75,000 alien entrepreneurs. “It’s not great economic strategy to train the world’s brightest people and then kick them out,” Warner said, noting that bringing more capital, perhaps via crowdfunding, could revitalize smaller communities that don’t have established tech scenes.

Warner said getting a real budget plan in shape would do more for growth than any single policy. Currently, 16 cents of a tax dollar goes to the discretionary spending that leads to growth, education, infrastructure and research and development. “Would you ever invest in a company that spends less than 5 percent on development?” he asked.

Government needs to provide basic rules and an even playing field, Moran said. The Startup Act 3.0 doesn’t call for a new program or spending, it aims to get the government out of the way for a new company to compete. “We often defer to those who are there rather than those who are arriving,” he said.

Moran got applause when he mentioned he was the lead Republican objector to the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect IP Act, which he said energized the tech community in a way that had never been seen before. He wondered what would happen if the tech world moved further into activism. “There’s a community out there that knows how to defeat something. But is there a community out there that knows how to support something?” he asked.

In other SXSW news, Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., asked organizers to cancel Monday’s virtual discussion with surveillance program leaker Edward Snowden. Another wanted man, Wikileaks’ Julian Assange, did a virtual conversation for SXSW on Saturday.

On Monday, at the same time as the Snowden conversation, campaign staffers for Sen. Elizabeth Warren will be sharing their stories , and Rep. Blake Farenthold will be taking the stage again to discuss Big Data & Sensors .

We've got a running list of Capitol Hill and D.C. SXSW attendees on Twitter — tweet @rollcall and @GraceDobushToGo if you're in Austin this week.

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