Bye bye, Billy. Hello, Joe?
Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.) last Tuesday resigned as chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee effective Feb. 16, in a move considered the prelude to his near-term exit from the House to lobby for the pharmaceutical industry, for a reported annual sum of $2 million.
Tauzin also announced he would not seek re-election.
His departure was some incredible good fortune for Rep. Joe Barton, a Texas Republican with a strong liking for energy policy. Barton is expected to replace Tauzin without a fight.
"I have no known opposition at this point and I hope to keep it that way," Barton told reporters last week.
Should the Republicans hold the House, Barton could serve as chairman for up to six years. Tauzin had three years remaining in his chairmanship.
Barton takes over at a time when many in government and industry believe that laws and regulations have not kept pace with technology upheavals — that innovations such as voice-over-Internet protocol telephony are wreaking havoc with the balances and compromises they have put into place over decades.
As a result, Barton and other senior committee Republicans plan to use the balance of 2004 and 2005 to overhaul the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which they consider outdated.
"Each major bill is a captive of its time and the politics of that moment," Barton said.
A member of the Telecommunications and the Internet Subcommittee, Barton is no stranger to cable issues.
He voted against the 1992 Cable Act and supported cable deregulation four years later. He is a vocal opponent of mandatory cable carriage of local-TV signals, analog or digital.
Three years ago, Barton told a Consumer Electronics Association audience in Las Vegas: "It's time that must-carry must die."
On broadcasters' latest demand for digital carriage, Barton said: "There is no reason for must-carry, in terms of digital signals. There is simply not."
Asked about his current must-carry views, Barton said he hadn't changed his mind.
"I am not going to change views based on where I sit on the committee. I'd probably be more open to hearing the other side now, you know. But that's still my basic view," Barton said.
RESPECT FROM NCTA
National Cable & Telecommunication Association spokesman Brian Dietz wouldn't comment directly on Barton's must-carry stance.
"We have great respect for Congressman Barton and his firm grasp of communications issues," Dietz said.
Elected to the House in 1984, Barton is a soft-spoken conservative with a wry sense of humor.
Asked how he planned to run the committee, he responded: "If I become chairman, it's going to be my leadership style to take advantage of everybody's best ideas. If they work, I'll take credit for them. If they don't, I'll blame it on them."
RIGHT OF CENTER
Barton has a right-of-center track record away from the media and telecom arena. He has opposed tax increases, taxpayer-funded abortion, and homosexuals in the military.
In 1993, he ran for the Senate when then-Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D-Texas) resigned to become President Clinton's treasury secretary. He lost in a crowded GOP primary to Kay Bailey Hutchison.
Barton, 54, became chairman of the Energy and Air Quality Subcommittee in 2001, the same year Tauzin took command of the full committee. The pair combined forces to fight for numerous Bush Administration priorities, including oil exploration in Alaska's remote Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
The Energy and Commerce Committee has a reputation for bipartisanship. Barton said he wants to reach out to committee Democrats to preserve that tradition.
"Joe Barton is a very thoughtful, a very articulate, and a well-liked member of Energy and Commerce. I think he will make an excellent chairman," said Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.), who endorses the effort to change the 1996 law.
As chairman, Tauzin couldn't ram through legislation to tame warring factions.
Thus, he'd use the threat of legislation — for example, to spur industry cooperation on a number of issues related to the transition to digital TV.
Backup from FCC chairman Michael Powell — in the form of rules requiring DTV tuners, the broadcast flag, and plug-and-play compatibility between digital cable and DTV sets — helped Tauzin achieve his goals without landing a bill on President Bush's desk.
One piece of legislation Tauzin pushed—a bill co-sponsored with Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) granting data deregulation to the Baby Bells—barely passed the House before collapsing in the Senate.
But, once again, the FCC adopted rules and took actions that fulfilled key features of the Tauzin-Dingell bill.
WANTS TO WAIT
Barton told reporters he wanted to secure the chairmanship and convene with his subcommittee chairmen before going public with details of his agenda.
But he indicated agreement with Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), chairman of the Telecommunications and the Internet Subcommittee, that the time had arrived to update the 1996 telecom law.
"That kind of question — re-looking at the entire Telecommunications Act — is the kind of question that I think senior leadership in the House, the Senate and the president ought to be thinking [about]," Barton said.
Barton and Upton both believe that the Baby Bells are over-regulated by the FCC.
"I do think the current regulatory scheme is unfair to them," Barton said.
Two weeks ago, Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), who is hoping to become Senate Commerce Committee chairman next year, announced his own interest in reforming the law.
Barton, Upton and Stevens share the view that the migration of voice communication to the Internet would inexorably drain funding from universal service, the multibillion-dollar web of subsidies and carrier-to-carrier payments that ensures affordable dial-tone service everywhere in the U.S.
"We are going to have to do universal service, in my opinion, totally differently from how we are doing it today," Barton said.
Upton said he planned to hold several hearings this year to set the stage for legislation in 2005.
"Hopefully, it will be bipartisan. It should really start in an earnest way with the next Congress. But the homework has to be done now," Upton said.
Passing legislation is never easy. Bills that start out small tend to mushroom into much larger productions from the addition of special-interest provisions with nothing to do with the original focus of the bill.
"Once Congress starts seriously drafting a bill, many things can happen. There are multiple potential problem that could slow up and doom legislation," said Legg Mason media analyst Blair Levin in a November report handicapping the prospects of new a telecom bill.
The pace on Capitol Hill could depend on the FCC, which is planning to overhaul its broadband rules and determine the rights and responsibilities of VoIP providers, which at present are unregulated.
FCC rules that mollify the Baby Bells, which complain that cable enjoys a regulatory advantage in broadband, and that ensure that universal service is sustainable could demonstrate to Congress that the agency is equipped to do the job.
Rep. Charles Pickering (R-Miss.), who has resisted changing the 1996 law, said he supports a Barton-Upton effort to write a new law.
"We need to restructure universal service so that it can be sustained in the future with these competitive and technological forces. I think the FCC has many of the tools, but not all the tools," said Pickering, who was telecom adviser to Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) when the 1996 law passed.
As legislation begins to take shape, the cable industry needs to be on the alert for hostile action. Boucher, for example, wants the legislation to require cable operators to lease broadband capacity to competing Internet access providers and treat all Internet content providers equally, regardless of affiliation.
"That's a long-standing position I've had," Boucher said.