Destined for politics

Goodlatte is the House go-to guy on technology issues

Rep. Robert Goodlatte (R-Va.) was one of those guys in college you knew was going to end up in public office. Former president of the student body and the Bates College Republicans, he seems to have politics etched in his genetic code. Coincidence and timing have helped him fulfill that genetic destiny, getting him to the House of Representatives, where he is known as one of the most technologically savvy players on Capitol Hill.

This year, besides being co-chairman of the Congressional Internet Caucus, Goodlatte upped his stature by becoming vice chairman of the House Subcommittee on Copyrights and Intellectual Property.

"He is very well versed on intellectual-property issues and, I believe, in due time would be a very fine chairman for our subcommittee," said Rep. Howard Coble (R-N.C.), the subcommittee's current chairman. Besides working closely together on the House subcommittee that is the starting point for all copyright-related legislation, Coble and Goodlatte also meet regularly on the tennis court.

Intellectual property is increasingly a hot-button topic in Congress. Such issues as Napster's file-swapping service, copyright protection of free over-the-air TV broadcasts, and compulsory licenses for streamed radio signals on the Internet may come before Congress this year. If they do, they will start in Coble and Goodlatte's subcommittee.

Although he represents Roanoke, Lynchburg and the rest of his southwest Virginia district with the zeal of a native, Goodlatte is a New Englander by birth. He ended up at the stalwart Southern school of Washington and Lee after the dean of his alma mater, Bates College, and the dean of Washington and Lee's law school thought he would be a perfect candidate for it.

"The dean of the law school impressed me very much," Goodlatte says. "He actually had his own plane he flew around the country, conducting interviews of college students himself. He was dedicated to building up the reputation of his law school, which ultimately over a long period of time he succeeded in doing."

During law school, Goodlatte decided he wanted to work on Capitol Hill and sent a letter to the Washington office of Rep. Caldwell Butler (R-Va.), who represented the district that Goodlatte represents now. Butler had no openings but said he would keep his résumé on file.

Giving Capitol Hill one last shot after law school, Goodlatte set up an interview with Butler's office. When he arrived and handed Butler his résumé, the congressman said, "I've seen this before. We've been looking for you." Turns out, Butler's district office manager had resigned, and Butler had been searching for Goodlatte to offer him a job. So Goodlatte and his wife settled down in Roanoke.

Two years later, looking to put his law degree to good use, he started his own law firm. But he stayed in politics, chairing the Roanoke City Republican Committee from 1980 to '83 and then chairing the 6th District Republican Committee until '88. He also chaired the local campaigns for Sen. John Warner (R-Va.) and former President George Bush.

His opportunity arrived in 1992, when Rep. Jim Olin, a Democrat, retired. "Because I had the support of Caldwell Butler and a fellow named Don Huffman, who was Republican state party chairman, I started garnering a lot of support. I won the nomination pretty easily."

In the House, Goodlatte met fellow Virginia representative Rick Boucher and soon discovered that he and the Democrat thought alike. Together, they have become the place to go for complicated policy on technology issues. The two chair the Congressional Internet Caucus for the House, which has become one of the largest, most active caucuses in the House, Boucher says.

Last December, efforts by Goodlatte and Boucher bore fruit when President Clinton signed a spending bill that included a $1 billion federal loan guarantee for companies that wanted to build systems to bring local TV signals to rural markets.

The two also are working on a large bill that would provide direction for federal regulation of broadband companies.