There's nothing like an election year to throw the ever-fragile stability of Washington into turmoil.
With less than a month to go before the election, Democrats can already taste the possibility of retaking the House of Representatives, which was last ripped from their bosom in 1994. And the White House hasn't appeared to be this up for grabs since the 1960 nail-biter between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy.
When it comes to cable and telecommunications policy, however, the election's various scenarios and outcomes form a much murkier picture.
In some ways, the traditional differences between Republicans and Democrats have diminished as both parties move to the center, advocating competition over regulation.
But in other ways, some of the old divisions could fuel renewed attention to controversial issues, such as cable's providing rival Internet-service providers with access to its high-speed-data infrastructure.
And the recent raft of media mergers has only drawn more attention to these converging industries-and the question of whether some elements of the 1996 Telecommunications Act should get a second look.
The presidential race may get most of the headlines, but the fight for the House could mean at least as much to the cable industry.
"If the Democrats win the House, there's a greater likelihood that we'll be dealing with some form of open access." said Robert Rini, managing partner at the Washington law firm of Rini, Coran & Lancellotta.
Rini pointed to the recent Federal Communications Commission decision to explore open-
access rules, as well as to reports that the agency may recommend applying open-access conditions on the America Online-Time Warner merger.
"There is momentum building now to have a federal policy on open access," he said. "The Republicans generally favor a more hands-off approach."
Larry Roberts, a partner at the Washington law firm of Davis, Wright & Tremaine, said a presidential win by Vice President Al Gore, a Democrat, could bring telecom policy to the forefront.
"It would be the first time since Johnson that a president would be very focused on telecom issues," he said. "Whether he invented the Internet or not, Gore played a huge role in the 1996 act."
On the other hand, GOP candidate and Texas Gov. George W. Bush "would take a much more limited view of government" with respect to telecom policy, Roberts said.
Regardless of how the election comes out, key committees are poised for changes that could influence which bills go to the floor and which FCC policies receive scrutiny. That often comes down to personalities.
"It's more about the individuals than the parties," said one senior FCC official who has been on staff through several elections. "The old joke is that the only difference between the Democrats and Republicans is that the Democrats propose dumb things and the Republicans actually do them. Either way, we'll be in the middle."
A Democratic House win would leave Rep. John Dingell (D.-Mich.) in charge of Commerce Committee and could mean that Rep. Edward Markey (D.-Mass.) would retake the Telecom Subcommittee.
Dingell, whose spokeswoman noted he is "more than willing and eager" to accept the chair, advocates regional Bell operating company deregulation and is an unrelenting critic of FCC Chairman William Kennard.
While Markey has endorsed Dingell for chairman, Rep. Henry Waxman (D.-Calif.) reportedly may mount a challenge. A Waxman spokesman declined to comment on any challenge.
"He's just focused on one thing: Getting the House back," the spokesman said.
Indeed, a successful Waxman challenge would seem a stretch, considering Dingell's wide support from Markey and others. In any event, Waxman isn't even on the telecom subcommittee, and his spokesman admits that he hasn't focused on telecom policy in recent years. So it's unclear whether Waxman would focus much on the cable industry as committee chair.
Assuming Dingell and Markey were to ascend, the cable industry likely wouldn't have to worry about a sequel to rate regulation. Markey is "still concerned about rates," according to an aide. But he has favored assisting satellite competitors rather than restoring rate regulations.
"Until local satellite signals can be packaged with cable programming, you don't have a competitive service," the aide asserted.
Markey has introduced open-access legislation that would force cable companies to allow competing ISPs onto their systems. Considering the FCC just started an open-access inquiry, it's likely Markey would pressure the agency on the issue.
That would contrast with Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.), who, as the current Telecom Subcommittee chair, has favored market forces over an open-access law.
Markey is also in line to become chairman of the National Resources Committee, which carries more prestige than a subcommittee seat. He hasn't said which he would accept.
If Markey moved to the natural-resources panel, the House Telecom Subcommittee would most likely go to Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.), who also supports open-access legislation. He co-sponsored legislation with Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) that would make it easier for ISPs to sue cable companies on antitrust grounds.
Boucher may relish a shot at the Telecom Subcommittee, considering that a fluke of House rules has removed him from the running for the courts and intellectual property subcommittee.
Even though Boucher has seniority equal to that of Howard Berman (D-Calif.), Berman would win, because his name comes first alphabetically.
Boucher could challenge Berman, but sources say that's unlikely.
If Republicans retain control of the House, the Commerce Committee would still shift because panel chairman Tom Bliley (R-Va.) is retiring. (His chairmanship would expire anyway, because of term limits).
The two contenders for his seat are Tauzin and subcommittee member Rep. Michael Oxley (R-Ohio). It's an open secret on Capitol Hill that Tauzin's ascension to chair in 1997 was payback for his switch to the GOP party two years earlier, even though Oxley felt he was in line for the position.
Now that Bliley is leaving, Tauzin and Oxley are each trying to win support from their colleagues.
Most bets are on Tauzin to win the House Commerce chair, because Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) has said Tauzin's 15 years as a Democrat would still count towards seniority-even though Oxley has been a Republican longer.
Hill sources point out that Hastert would likely compensate Oxley by folding telecom oversight into the finance subcommittee, which Oxley already chairs. Such a move would give Oxley considerable power, although he would still have to answer to Tauzin.
In the Senate, where most experts don't expect the Democrats to take the reins, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) still must yield his chairmanship of the Commerce Committee after 2002 because of committee term limits.
In the unlikely event that McCain left early to take a George W. Bush cabinet appointment or to retire, the Senate Commerce chair would go to Ted Stevens (R-Alaska).
Stevens's constituency makes him partial to things like universal telco service and the rollout of advanced services to rural areas.If the Republicans lose the Senate, McCain's slot would go to Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.).
For years, Hollings has railed against TV violence. He recently introduced a bill that would create a "safe harbor" for violent TV programming to times when children aren't likely to be watching. The National Cable Television Association opposes it.
Hollings has been no friend to telcos either, slamming Bells' supposed refusal to comply with competitive measures in the 1996 Act.
The tight race for the White House also has obvious implications for the cable industry and telecom policy.
Aside from the executive branch's ability to influence and horse-trade with Congress, its power to appoint a new FCC chair, an attorney general and federal judges directly affects regulation and antitrust enforcement.
As cable continues its march toward mergers and consolidation, the tenor of antitrust authorities can influence what deals go through, under what conditions.
"There's still incredible uncertainty about the effects of mergers and competition," said Willis Emmons, an associate professor at Georgetown University. "And there's a growing realization that as companies go across the U.S. border, it's not just the U.S. election that matters."
What's the difference?
While theories abound, Washington wonks say the endless scenarios involving so many agencies and branches of government make it difficult to predict a long-term outcome.
"An election is more like biology than physics," noted Emmons. "You change one thing and it starts to mutate."
Added NCTA CEO Robert Sachs: "There are 18 different combinations. It's too much modeling to do. It's an inexact science to begin with."
Stephen Effros, president of Effros Communications and ex-president of the Cable Telecommunications Association, said both parties have embraced competition and deregulation to varying degrees, making it hard to draw distinctions.
"It will ultimately make no difference," he said of the election. "Is it significant who is the chair in the House? Yes. Markey will tap dance one way, and Bliley will tap dance another. But will the FCC do anything differently? No.
"It really is an independent agency, and that's why everybody's always pissed at it."