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Tauzin's Heir Apparent Seen as Cable's Friend

The man angling to replace Billy Tauzin (R-La.) atop the House Energy and Commerce Committee is described as a "doctrinaire" Republican who will bring an even stronger commitment to letting the free market reign than the party-switching Cajun he wants to succeed.

Texas Republican Joe Barton appears to be heir apparent to chair the committee, should Billy Tauzin leave Congress to head the Motion Picture Association of America as is widely acknowledged except by Tauzin and his staff, who are still coy about the rumor.

The Los Angeles Times
reported Friday that current MPAA chief Jack Valenti will leave in January. But complicating the matter are the revelations surrounding Tauzin's recent purchase of a million-dollar ranch in Texas, which would be paid for in part by dues to a hunting club he wants to start, whose members would include lobbyists and campaign contributors. The ranch is raising eyebrows because Tauzin makes only $155,000 a year as a congressman.

The issue could impact the MPAA's decision, if that organization concludes that the purchase involved an embarrassing ethical breach.

While that drama plays out, focus has turned to Barton, who hasn't been a player on media issues for a decade. Back then, he became a hero to the cable industry and the bane of broadcasters by opposing the 1992 Cable Act. At the time, Barton, now 54, criticized measures in the law that ushered in cable-rate regulation and bolstered broadcasters' leverage over cable carriage by giving them the right to demand cash payment for carriage or negotiate carriage of owners' affiliated cable nets.

"He hasn't said much on media issues lately, but that probably isn't good news for broadcasters," said one media lobbyist.

Barton has stayed away from media issues since taking the helm of the commerce panel's Energy and Air Quality subcommittee. In that post, the 10-term congressman from Arlington, Texas, has drawn the ire of environmentalists for his commitment to energy deregulation and looser pollution controls.

"He's much more committed than Billy to conservative principles and is less willing to cut a deal," said a broadcast lobbyist. "Beyond that, he's a bit of a blank slate."

Barton has indicated that he won't sit still as chairman. He told a telephone-industry convention last month that the 1996 Telecommunications Act needs to be overhauled in order to "maximize markets and minimize regulation." He predicted that a telecom-overhaul bill would probably begin moving through Congress in 2005.

Barton's view on retransmission consent, one of many controversial issues dividing cable operators and broadcasters, is unclear. Despite his opposition to the idea in 1992, a bill he introduced a year later to repeal nearly all of the cable act would have left the retransmission consent regime unchanged.

Some operators blame retransmission consent—particularly Disney's practice of tying carriage of the pricey ESPN to carriage of ABC O&Os—for rising consumer rates.

Tauzin has apparently given Barton the go-ahead to broach the succession plan with House Speaker Dennis Hastert and Majority Leader Tom Delay. Barton's staff will say only that "informal" inquiries have been made to the leadership.