With major digital-television legislation in the works and oversight of FCC changes to industry ownership limits on the schedule, Congress in 2003 will be more active in media policy than at any time since the Telecommunications Act of 1996. In the middle of it all will be Jessica Wallace, top telecommunications aide to House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Billy Tauzin (R-La.).
Most recently, Wallace led committee staffers who drafted a model DTV bill that will be the starting point of debate over formal legislation next year. Some provisions of the draft received a rocky reception—but that was the point. Wallace's charge was to find out which issues would be the toughest to work when the committee takes up a DTV bill for real.
"I'm very excited about the next Congress," she says. "The DTV issues will come to a head. Chairman Tauzin has an intense interest in seeing that we enact any legislation needed to make the transition come to fruition."
Wallace joined Tauzin's office in 2001 when the Louisiana lawmaker replaced retiring Thomas Bliley as the Commerce Committee's ranking Republican. She had spent the previous four years at Washington law firm Verner, Liipfert, Bernhard, McPherson & Hand, where she represented such clients as NBC, Disney, America's Public Television Stations, NPR and Ameritech New Media.
Wallace has earned the respect of her fellow Capitol Hill staffers through the combination of legislation and private experience. "Not only is Jessica a pleasure to work with, but she is without question the mass-media maven on Capitol Hill," said Andrew Levin, telcom aide to Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), the Commerce Committee's ranking member. "No one works harder to get to the right answer or is more willing to reach across the aisle to gain consensus. Chairman Tauzin is very lucky to have her."
Wallace began an earlier stint as a congressional aide with expertise in finance rather than telecommunications. Commerce Committee member Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.) hired her in January 1995 after she completed a short tenure in the legal department of Merrill Lynch's London office.
She got her first real taste of telecommunications law when Congress crafted a sweeping law overhauling the industry. "That's basically when I learned everything," she says. "It was a great time to be working on the Hill."
Wallace soon left for private practice but "kept an eye out" for openings on Tauzin's staff. "I was eager to work for him because he's such an active member and is so smart on the issues."
She won't rule out returning to private practice, but, for now, Tauzin's energy is a motivating force to keep her in government: "I could stay at this job forever."