Disrupters storm D.C. (sorta)

April 2, 2014, 1:00 PM UTC
Venture capitalist John Doerr, shown at a Fortune conference last year, co-founded TechNet.

FORTUNE — Tech industry titans have grand ambitions for a federal policy worthy of the 21st century. Odd that they’d bring them to Washington, where most big dreams come to whither.

But there were the leaders of TechNet, the CEO-driven technology lobby, all over the capital Tuesday to press the industry’s agenda at the White House and to Congressional leadership of both parties. Their priorities range from the relatively picayune (see: patent litigation reform) to the universal, like updating consumer privacy protections and remaking our analog health and education systems. And at a lunchtime panel discussion moderated by Fortune editor Andy Serwer, Silicon Valley’s heaviest hitters stressed the need for what might be called disruptive policymaking, to reshape tax and immigration codes that haven’t been meaningfully updated since the 1980s.

For a hopeful example of what could be, Cisco Systems (CSCO) CEO John Chambers pointed to Israel, which he deemed the “first digital country,” a status its leaders achieved by working across partisan lines to agree on big investments in technology infrastructure. With connectivity rates about to make a geometric leap globally, unleashing what Chambers predicted to be $19 trillion of economic impact over the next decade, those countries that position themselves to benefit will reap enormous rewards. “The implications will dramatically change countries,” he said at the discussion, hosted by the Bipartisan Policy Center.

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From the electrical grid to the classroom, the panelists — Marvell Technology Group (MRVL) president Weili Dai, Microsoft (MSFT) general counsel Brad Smith, Bloom Energy CEO KR Sridhar, and Kleiner Perkins partner John Doerr — agreed we are stumbling badly.

“In this city, the intersection between technology and policy has had a lot of gridlock,” Microsoft’s Smith said. “These intersections in other countries and other capitals have traffic moving, and if we don’t get the traffic moving between policy and technology in our own country, we will risk being left behind.”

There’s little doubt federal decision makers remain a long way away from finding common ground on much of anything in what the tech honchos like to call the innovation agenda — the complement of policy changes the industry says the United States needs to embrace.

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A well-timed reminder came as the executives got to town: The federal government on Tuesday began accepting applications for the skilled-worker visas that tech companies covet, with the strong, early demand indicating the annual quota for the program could be met in just a few days. The sector is desperate to see the cap on those visas lifted, but the issue is entangled in a broader rewrite of immigration law. A comprehensive reform bill that passed the Senate last summer is now languishing in the House, where it has met with resistance from conservative Republicans, and there is little suggestion it will move before the midterm elections at the earliest. Tech companies have aggressively pushed the measure, and the inaction in the face of relatively broad bipartisan support for addressing the issue has been a huge source of frustration for the industry. In a brief interview with Fortune before the panel discussion, Chambers described TechNet as “impatient” with the lack of progress on the issue.

While the debate is captive to much larger forces, the muddle of tech’s Washington presence likely hasn’t helped. TechNet belongs to an alphabet soup of organizations representing the industry’s interests to the federal government — a profusion that’s only multiplied in recent years as new groups like the Internet Association and the Mark Zuckerberg-founded FWD.us have come onto the scene.

Doerr, who co-founded TechNet with Chambers back in 1997, said all the groups are pulling in the same direction, noting that “we’ve always believed that a network is going to work better.” Doerr also defended his organization’s singular credibility among the other industry players: “If you look across the tech scene, there is no other organization that has CEO-level engagement, state programs, a consistent track record of being trusted, and then doing the hard work to go get funding for individual policymakers, regardless of party, who advocate this innovation agenda.”