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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Congress Gives Gates Warm Welcome




WASHINGTON -- With lawmakers swarming him for autographs and schoolchildren snapping pictures, Microsoft chairman Bill Gates swept through Capitol Hill and then the White House on Wednesday with a fanfare and entourage worthy of a superstar - less than 48 hours after a judge branded his company a law-breaking monopoly.


The Washington tour, which included an appearance at a White House conference on the New Economy, kicked off a public campaign of sorts by Microsoft aimed at influencing the outcome of its antitrust case.


While Gates blitzed the town, U.S. District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson set May 24 for a hearing on whether to order the breakup of Microsoft or impose limitations on how it conducts business.


Jackson ruled that Microsoft had engaged for years in a pattern of illegal acts to protect its Windows monopoly at the expense of consumers and competitors. But on Capitol Hill, the world's richest man received a warm welcome.


"I'd rather break up the Justice Department," cracked House Majority Leader Richard Armey.


Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, who had a private session with Gates and six other senators, said the government's case made him nervous: "There seems to be a pattern of where lawyers in the Justice Department are getting into the policy arena where Congress should be the ones that are acting or not acting."


And it wasn't a partisan party of Republicans for Gates. Democrat Senator Robert Torricelli said he has urged President Bill Clinton to oppose breakup.


"Only the United States would consider breaking up a company that has done this much economically to advance our national interest," Torricelli said. "It is not in the interest of the United States to have this company divided."


There was a lone voice of dissent. Senator Orrin Hatch, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he was appalled. "Today's message is that Microsoft has unique access and power in Washington," Hatch said. "It would have been better for Congress not to play a bit part in this PR campaign. No wonder people are cynical about Washington."


Hatch said he will convene hearings on remedies "within the next few weeks" and plans to summon Joel Klein, chief of the Justice Department's antitrust division, states' attorneys general, and officials from Microsoft to testify. He is also thinking about asking Richard Posner, the appellate judge who mediated out-of-court negotiations before they collapsed last weekend, to testify.


When Hatch and Gates crossed paths outside the Mansfield Room, neither forgot his manners. "It's good to see you, senator," Gates said.


Since the government filed the antitrust lawsuit against Microsoft in 1997, the company has boosted its spending on lobbying. Last year's $4.7 million budget was three times the amount Microsoft spent four years earlier.


Senator Slade Gorton, Microsoft's staunch supporter, said the chairman's whirlwind trip was not an attempt at running political interference after the verdict. Rather, Gorton said, Gates "has the right to make his case in the court of public opinion."


It is unclear if such a tactic will work, said William Kovacic, a George Washington University law professor. "There have been instances in which the firm to be disassembled had good friends in the White House and it didn't help them one bit," he said. "AT&T had friends in the highest reaches of the Reagan administration; that did not stop the flood."


Clinton on Wednesday praised Gates for his personal philanthropy. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation "has made some phenomenal commitments to the education of minorities in America and to dealing with a lot of our most profound global problems. And I want to thank you for that, Bill."


When it comes to another kind of donation - political contributions - Microsoft has been hedging its bets. In recent years the company has begun giving more to Republicans, but also gives heartily to supportive Democrats.