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Barton: I'm Eligible to Head E&C Committee Without Waiver

Joe Barton (R-Tex.), who is ranking member and running for chairman of the House Energy & Commerce Committee, told a C-SPAN audience that if the Republican conference picks him, his first priority will be to repeal the healthcare bill and replace it with something else. That came in an interview for C-SPAN's Communicators series Friday.

 In telecom policy, which he said would get co-equal priority below healthcare, he said it was imperative to maintain the freedom of the Internet, "but not via Title II reclassification." He said he would be doing aggressive oversight of the FCC, and that a bill was possible if necessary to make it "crystal clear" that the FCC does not have that authority.

 He said he is open to reforming the Universal Service Fund, saying it is "long overdue." He called the USF reform bill co-sponsored by Reps. cliff Stearns (R-Fla.) and Rick Boucher (D-Va.) the ranking member and chairman, respectively, of the Communications Subcommittee, was a "good first step."

He said that, generically, the reason he wants to be chairman is to create a federal system that gives everyone a chance to better themselves and their families on a level playing field. "I am a free market conservative," he said. "If given the chance to lead it, he said, look for a "very activist committee."

To get the chairmanship, Barton will have to get a waiver of term limits since he has run up against the six-year Republican-set limit of leadership positions on committees.

 Barton pointed out that the same rule was in place in 1994, when the rule was not applied to five ranking members who assumed chairmanships. "We didn't apply the ranking membership time toward their chairman time, I interpret the rule to be that I served one full term as chairman, so I am eligible, not entitled, but eligible to be chairman for two more terms," he said, adding that he would add the Republican Conference steering committee to clarify the rule.

 He said he was an advocate of term limits--that is how he got the chairmanship--but said they should be applied to majority time, not when the party is in the minority. He said if the conference does not see it the same way, he will ask for a waiver.

 Asked what kind of feedback he was getting on his interpretation, Barton said he was getting positive
feedback about his chairmanship, but had been told interpretation was up to the conference.
Barton said that he thought a bipartisan USF reform package "is something we can move."

 There is general agreement on the Hill and in industry that the fund, which underwrites phone service where it is uneconomical to deliver via the free market, needs reform and repurposing toward broadband subsidies.
Barton said he was surprised a privacy bill in this Congress. He doubted there would be a bill in the lame duck session, but said he saw a chance to work with the other side. "I think that is something we can certainly work on. "If we can get the right coalition together, as chairman I certainly would be very, very willing to legislation in that area."

 He said the FCC will have to come before Congress and justify its regulations. He said the hearings would be "fair and balanced."

 Asked if he thought the FCC would try to push through Title II, Barton said he thought the FCC commissioners "could read election returns as well as anybody," and that they would see the wisdom of not trying to regulate the Internet under Title II." He said he was willing to move a bill that says they can't, but that he "would expect they can read the tea leaves as well as anybody."

 Republicans support an open and free Internet, he said, explaning it is not allowed to be taxed and that "we have an open access policy," all stemming from the `1996 Telecommunications Act. 

 "I think our policy of allowing the private sector to develop it under rules and regulations developed by the FCC that are open and transparent has worked very, very well," Barton added.

 He said the concept of net neutrality is a bit of a misnomer, and that what it would mean was that the government could regulate the Internet. "I know the new Republican majority in Congress on the House side doesn't want the Internet regulated by the FCC," he said, adding that the current policy is working very well and "if it ain't broke, why fix it?"

 Barton said that he is still troubled by Google's collection of info from unsecured wifi nets, and that the committee could look further into that, perhaps coming up with a bill to prevent that from happening again. The Federal Trade Commission has closed its investigation, and Google has said the collection was inadvertent and it has taken steps to remedy it.

 He that he could "almost guarantee" that he would be calling the heads of companies like Google and Facebook to testify before his committee, if it becomes his committee. "We have to make sure the private sector plays by the rules."

Asked to distinguish his chairmanship from that of, say, Fred Upton (R-Mich.), who is also interested in the post, Barton said he was a "consistent conservative," while he called Upton "somewhat more moderate." He also pointed out he had already been chairman for one term.