Musical Chairs: Dems Take Over

Former minority plans to flex oversight muscle
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Last week was the official changing of the guard in the House. Elected Democrats have taken over the committee and subcommittee chairs that will set the agendas for communications-policy—related hearings and legislation. Senate committee assignments were handed out not long after the elections, but a pro forma election is scheduled. A list of key players in both houses is in order.

The House is expected to take the lead in introducing telecom legislation, said one veteran lobbyist, but that didn't stop the Senate from getting started quickly.

Hardly had the majority unpacked and moved into their new digs when the Senate Commerce Committee e-mailed the list of its first full-committee hearings, to be conducted under new Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), who is technically co-chairman with fellow octogenarian Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska).

The group plans an FCC oversight hearing “assessing the communications marketplace.” The hearing is scheduled for Feb. 1.

The commission is expected to be asked to explain its move last month to put limits on the local franchising process to allow telcos to more easily enter the multichannel video market.

Still, the House should dominate the action, with telecom-focused leaders taking their turn in the driver's seat, including John Dingell (D-Mich.), head of the new House Energy & Commerce Committee; and Ed Markey (D-Mass.), chairman of the House Telecommunications Subcommittee.

Here's a guide to who is in and out at key committees, and how they could affect the industry.


Energy and Commerce Committee

In: Chairman John Dingell of Michigan

Out: Joe Barton of Texas

What Dingell Could Do: “Communications is [key] for Dingell, who lives to do oversight,” says Media Access Project President Andrew J. Schwartzman.

Dingell has pushed for more money for a DTV-transition education campaign and for making sure no sets go dark, in sharp contrast to the more limited DTV-switch assistance effort pushed by Barton and company.

He wants to investigate whether media-ownership rules serve the public interest and says he would take another crack at a telecom-reform bill.

Telecommunications Subcommittee (of Energy and Commerce)

In: Chairman Ed Markey of Massachusetts

Out: Fred Upton of Michigan

What Markey Could Do: He gave up a full-committee chairmanship—Energy and Natural Resources—to take the telecom subcommittee. He knows the issues and cares about them. He is likely to be more amenable to multicast must-carry, though with public-interest conditions; as the “father of the V-chip,” he should be less inclined to slam the technology, as the FCC has done, but he is also concerned about TV violence.

Markey will also likely push for more money for the DTV transition or, alternatively, push the hard date if the transition starts looking like a political train wreck.

He has already come out with a to-do list as chairman that includes broadband access, DTV public interest, FCC oversight and public broadcasting.

House Judiciary Committee

In: Chairman John Conyers of Michigan

Out: James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin

What Conyers Could Do: With him at the head of the committee, the odds improve for passage of a federal shield law that would protect journalists from the too long arm of the government when it attempts to force them to reveal sources.

Conyers is also a fan of network neutrality. It has antitrust implications that created jurisdictional issues between Commerce and Judiciary in both the House and Senate in the last Congress and could do so again.

Education and Workforce Committee

In: Chairman George Miller of California

Out: John Boehner of Ohio

What Miller Could Do: He has been a vocal member on the issue of unattributed video news releases (VNRs) and the pay-for-plug contracts of conservative commentator Armstrong Williams. If the VNR issue heats up, look for Miller to hold hearings.


Commerce Committee

In: Daniel Inouye of Hawaii

Out: Ted Stevens of Alaska (He will be named vice chairman in a move mirroring his decision to make Inouye co-chairman when he was running the committee. Stevens asked for the vice chairman title rather than co-chairman, according to an Inouye staffer.)

What Inouye Could Do: He was one of the original co-sponsors of a network-neutrality bill in the last Congress, the new version of which has just been reintroduced by Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.). Inouye was not a co-sponsor of the new bill, but as chairman, he may want to let the issue “percolate,” as Schwartzman puts it.

Schwartzman also says one new dynamic will be that Democrats, especially Dorgan, will pressure the Commerce chairman to be more proactive, which could include more emphasis on media-ownership issues. “There was dissatisfaction from some on the subcommittee with Inouye's closeness with Stevens.”

Judiciary Committee

In: Patrick Leahy of Vermont

Out: Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania

What Leahy Could Do: He is supportive of the federal shield law for journalists. Radio-Television News Directors Association President Barbara Cochran says Leahy has supported speeding the release of documents in Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.

He could help push a bill allowing cameras in federal appeals courts. And he has signed on to the bill that would legislate network neutrality.

Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry

In: Tom Harkin of Iowa

Out: Saxby Chambliss of Georgia

What Harkin Could Do: He is arguably the most vocal critic in Congress of media practices in marketing food to kids. With childhood obesity likely to become the nation's top health risk, Harkin will have a more powerful platform.

Says Harkin's press secretary, Tom Reynolds, “Obesity will continue to be one of the top agenda items for the Senator.

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