Changing of the (Hill) Guard

WASHINGTON — No matter who wins control of the Senate in this week’s midterm elections, some familiar faces on key communications committees will be gone.

That could mean Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), cable’s strong ally in seeking major retransmission-consent reforms, setting the agenda for the powerful Senate Commerce Committee.

Three of the most-experienced legislators on the communications front — all Democrats — are retiring after a collective tenure of almost 130 years in Congress, give or take a recess or two. They are Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W. Va.), chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee; Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), ranking member of the House Energy & Commerce panel; and Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), the longestserving member of Congress in history.

Dingell, a longtime friend of broadcasters who pushed for resolving border issues involving stations in Canada and Mexico before the federal government conducted its auction of broadcast-TV spectrum for wireless broadband use, is, as one cable lobbyist put it, irreplaceable.

The successors to Rockefeller and Waxman in those leadership positions could help determine the direction of key communications-oversight bodies.

Waxman has been a foe of mega-mergers and of loosening broadcast-ownership restrictions. Rockefeller has also been a critic of consolidation and has focused his committee on cybersecurity, privacy and content issues, including TV violence. Both have been very active in the communications space.

If the Democrats pull off an upset and manage to hold the Senate, Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida is expected to succeed Rockefeller atop the Communications panel. That could put more power in the hands of the chairman of the Communications Subcommittee, since Nelson has not been very involved in telecom issues.

Rockefeller tended not to distribute power to the subcommittee, but Nelson may shift the field and give the Communications Subcommittee more authority to call hearings, according to one congressional staffer.

The chairman of the Communications Subcommittee could be its current head, Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), but his race for reelection is a close one that could ultimately determine control of the upper chamber. If he loses, it’s more likely the next chairman will be a Republican.

Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) is also in a tight race. If the two senators — both moderates — lose, then Republicans may be faced with a committee whose liberal wing, including Sens. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Barbara Boxer (D-Calif) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), is more in the forefront.

If it Pryor isn’t the next chairman, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), current chair of the Senate Consumer Protection Subcommittee, could be in line for the post. That could give some cable operators pause, as McCaskill has hammered MSOs over cable prices and service.

If the Republicans win the Senate, it will almost certainly not be with the two-thirds majority needed to overturn a presidential veto. So if, say, a Republican Congress tried to step in to supplant Federal Communications Commission network-neutrality rules, President Obama, an open Internet advocate, could block that effort.

If Thune replaces Rockefeller after a GOP victory, that would be a plus for cable operators and of some concern to broadcasters. Thune teamed with Rockefeller on the Local Choice proposal that would have deep-sixed the retransmission-consent regime. Like the current chairman, Thune has been active on the telecom front and would be expected to continue in that vein.

But individual lawmakers’ presidential ambitions could also factor into how the committee operates. Thune has been discussed as a possible candidate, along with two other GOP Commerce Committee members, Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida.

Republicans will in all likelihood retain the House, but Waxman’s exit as the ranking member of the Energy & Commerce Committee likely opens up a slot for Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) or Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), with some giving Eshoo a slight edge.

Pallone has not been active on communications issues, while Eshoo, who represents the Silicon Valley, has been a strong voice for Internet neutrality regulations and retransmission-consent reform, and against media concentration.

“You could have outspoken champions of retrans reform as the ranking member of House E&C and the chair of the Senate Commerce Committee,” one cable lobbyist said. “I think broadcasters’ positioning before and after the midterm elections and subsequent leadership votes swings a lot more than others, at least compared to cable and [satellite].”

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.