Dean Garfield’s favorite technology is the airplane. “What’s great about innovation is that it works and you don’t have to think about it,” says the president of the Information Technology Industry Council (ITI), a trade group representing major technology companies such as Google, Oracle and Facebook.
“We take airplanes all the time,” Garfield explains. “We’ve gotten to the point where we don’t think about the fact that we’re flying in a tube 30,000 feet in the air and it works seamlessly 99.9 percent of the time. It captures both the dynamism but the normalcy of technological innovation.”
As president of the ITI, Garfield’s job is to make sure that tech’s interests are represented in government to allow that kind of dynamic but normal innovation to continue.
Donald TrumpDonald TrumpHouse Dems call for Kobach’s removal from voter fraud commission OPINION | Democrats must end reckless rage over Trump ‘treason’ Eighth person in Trump Jr. meeting ID’d as Russian real estate employee MORE’s presidency has made this a unique challenge. The administration, which has sought to include tech in its policies and consulted with its leading voices, has taken aggressive positions against some of the things the industry says it cares about most: immigration, climate change and legal protections for transgender individuals.
Garfield plays down the tumult between the two points of view, while still acknowledging it.
“There are times when [the administration will] listen. There will be times when they won’t,” he said in a recent interview with The Hill. “That’s always the case. I think there may be a bit more of that with this administration, but it doesn’t mean we relent.”
For some tech executives, the gap has already proved too much. Tesla CEO Elon Musk stepped down from the president’s advisory council in June, citing his frustration with Trump not listening on climate change and withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement.
Garfield cautioned against turning one’s back on the White House.
“[The president] is the most influential role — singularly influential role — in the world,” Garfield argued, saying that he would encourage technology companies to stay engaged with Trump, even if they didn’t agree on everything.
“I think working with this administration is completely consistent with the DNA of tech, which is to be persistent, keep pushing to be disruptive,” he said, noting that if the White House pursued policies that technology interests are opposed to, they would not hesitate to push back again.
Garfield emphasized that he’s still trying very much to work with allies in the administration, such as Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, to advance policies on issues of agreement. As the White House’s efforts to navigate the complexities of healthcare and the ongoing probes into last year’s Russian election meddling take much of the air out of the room, issues tech cares about such as tax reform and privacy are getting pushed into the background.
The ITI president said that tax reform, long a priority for GOP leaders in Congress, is almost certainly getting delayed. In a meeting at the White House with tech trade association leaders including Garfield, National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said they plan to have a tax reform bill hit the floor of Congress by early September and be passed by the end of the year.
Garfield said that it’s becoming clear that this isn’t realistic.
“Actually moving a bill … there’s so many things they have to do before,” Garfield said, but he added the rewards of a new tax code would be worth the struggle.
“We would like to see a simpler system that eliminates a lot of the friction to investing money in this country.”
ITI has specifically called for a territorial tax system that they say will help bring revenue back into the U.S.
Even though tax reform might not be moving at the pace the administration or tech wants it to, it’s at least getting talked about. Garfield and the industry at large are still guessing about how the White House will handle matters including encryption and high-skilled visa reform — but he said they’re making preparations regardless.
“We don’t have an immigration system that is rational. We don’t have a system that is in the economic interest of the country,” Garfield said, zeroing in on the H-1B visa lottery system for high-skilled workers.
“It’s not clear why we have an annual lottery,” he said. “It creates a lot of friction. It creates a false mechanism. So you have to predict over a year in advance what your employment needs are. There are steps the administration can probably and should take.”
If the White House does take positions that tech doesn’t find favorable, Garfield will be ready for it. He says his professional career has readied him for volatility.
Prior to his time at ITI, he worked at the Recording Industry Association of America and the Motion Picture Industry Association of America, representing music and film interests. Both areas are intensely in flux as their business landscapes shift with the advent of streaming services.
One issue Garfield has advocated for in both the entertainment industry and the tech world is an increasing push for diversity.
“I think if we bring the same level of discipline, creativity, rigor to being the best and hiring the best people that we do to our innovation, we’ll make significant headway on diversity,” he said.
Garfield, who is black, says that while he personally hasn’t been harmed by a lack of racial inclusiveness, it’s also important in Washington, D.C., political spaces.
“For me, I think race has helped me once I’ve gotten in the room. I think it has helped me because of the inclination to underestimate folks of color and brown people,” Garfield said, though he qualified that there’s still a problem of getting diverse perspectives into the room in the first place.
To combat this, Garfield says he has stopped speaking on panels that don’t feature any women.
“That’s how I can leverage the power I have,” Garfield said. “I can choose what I participate in and what I don’t.”