A (Commerce) House divided

Amid the chaos of this election, broadcast and cable lobbyists can take some comfort that the makeup of the House and Senate Commerce Committees will remain largely the same. But while most of the individual House and Senate races across the country have been settled, the Capitol Hill campaign for the hotly contested chairmanship of the House Commerce Committee has begun in earnest.

Reps. Billy Tauzin (R-La.) and Mike Oxley (R-Ohio) have been fighting over the chair since 1996, when the House Telecommunications and Finance Subcommittee was divided into two to assuage them. When current Chairman Tom Bliley (R-Va.) announced his retirement earlier this year, Tauzin and Oxley began maneuvering in earnest but did so behind the scenes, at the request of House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).

But for the past eight months or so, Tauzin and Oxley have been attempting to outdo one another as the staunchest Republican. Both have raised money for the party, with Tauzin bringing in $9 million and Oxley $6 million, according to their staffs.

Tauzin spent the fall campaigning for Republicans running for Congress in 100 districts, said spokesman Ken Johnson. The Tauzin camp also likes to show off a letter it received from Hastert assuring Tauzin that he is the senior member on the committee.

Tauzin came to Congress as a Democrat, but switched parties in 1995 at the request of then-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). Gingrich convinced Tauzin to change parties by offering him the Telecommunications Subcommittee. Gingrich also allowed Tauzin to keep his seniority. Tauzin has been in Congress since 1980, while Oxley has been a member since 1981.

"Billy's confident that he's done everything necessary to ensure that he'll become the next chairman," said Tauzin spokesman Ken Johnson.

But Oxley plans to run a strong campaign for the position. The day after polls closed last week, Oxley sent members a letter pressing his candidacy.

"A good chairman is a dependable team player. A good chairman looks out for his members, shares credit for accomplishments generously and never puts personal or parochial interests ahead of the welfare of his colleagues. This is the kind of chairman I will be," Oxley wrote.

Ultimately, House Republican leadership will decide between the two.

If Tauzin becomes chairman of the full committee, it is unclear who will chair the telecommunications subcommittee.

Oxley and Tauzin are the next ranking Republicans on each other's subcommittees, and each could keep his subcommittee chairmanship if he doesn't ascend to the House. One scenario has one man rising to chair the full committee and the other chairing a reunited telecommunications and finance subcommittee, which would arguably be the most powerful subcommittee in the House. After Tauzin, Rep. Paul Gillmor (R-Ohio) ranks on the finance subcommitee, and after Oxley, Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.) ranks on the telecommunications subcommittee.

The House Commerce Committee is losing four members. Two because they lost their elections: Rep. Brian Bilbray (R-Calif.), who was defeated by Democrat Susan Davis, and Jim Rogan (R-Calif.), who lost to Democrat Adam Schiff. Two other members left the House to run for Senate: Rep. Rick Lazio (R-N.Y.), who lost to Hillary Rodham Clinton, and Rep. Ron Klink (D-Pa.), who lost to Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.).

Composition of the Senate Commerce Committee remains almost exactly as it was. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) stays in the chairman's seat for two more years. Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) will continue to head the Senate Communications Subcommittee, after edging out maverick Democratic challenger Brian Schweitzer.

The Senate Commerce Committee lost two, and maybe three, members. John Ashcroft (R-Mo.) lost to deceased Missouri Governor Mel Carnahan, although that result may be challenged, and Spencer Abraham (R-Mich.) lost to Debbie Stabenow. Slade Gorton (R-Wash.) is in a dead heat with Maria Cantwell. At press time, results of that race were not known, but Gorton was in the lead.

The undecided Gorton race leaves the fate of the Senate in the balance. If Cantwell wins and George W. Bush is declared president, the Senate would be evenly balanced at 50-50. New Vice President Dick Cheney would play a decisive role in determining Senate chairmanships and committee compositions.

If Al Gore becomes president, Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) must give up his Senate seat, leaving it to the Republican governor of Connecticut to appoint a senator, undoubtedly a Republican. If that's the case and Cantwell still wins, the Senate will have a Republican majority of 51-49 (52-48 if she loses). If Cantwell loses and Bush wins, the Senate remains 51-49 because Lieberman will keep his seat.

In all cases, partisan legislation will have a slim chance of making it through the Senate, because it takes 60 votes in the Senate to stop a filibuster no matter which party controls the presidency.

Telecommunications issues typically cross party lines, so partisanship won't be what keeps the industries from getting their legislative wishes. What does pose problems for industries is when they are split among themselves or when they have another industry lobbying strongly against them.

One of the most important policy issues for the broadcast and cable industries is how the FCC determines how many cable and TV properties large companies can own. Before Congress left Washington earlier this month (to return Nov. 14), AT&T was pushing hard for an amendment that would have changed the way the FCC counts passive investment in cable properties. NBC also was pushing for legislation that would change the way broadcast viewership is counted so broadcasters would be able to own more TV stations. Neither amendment is expected to slide through this year, but those battles will be waged again.

Other telcom issues that Congress expects to face next year are requiring cable companies to open their high-speed lines to all Internet service providers, allowing telephone companies to send data across state lines and Internet privacy and copyright.

Contributing editor Paige Albiniak has been covering the business of television for nearly 25 years. She is a longtime contributor to Next TV, Broadcasting + Cable and Multichannel News. She concurrently serves as editorial director for entertainment marketing association Promax. She has written for such publications as TVNewsCheck, The New York Post, Variety, CBS Watch and more. Albiniak was B+C’s Los Angeles bureau chief from September 2002 to 2004, and an associate editor covering Congress and lobbying for the magazine in Washington, D.C., from January 1997-September 2002.