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A trustbuster for today

Rep. Tom Bliley, a Virginia Republican with the genteel manner of a Southern gentleman, sees himself as a sort of modern-day Teddy Roosevelt: a trustbuster.

"I'm interested in breaking up monopolies," he says, in his direct way.

A look at the legislation passed during his six years as chairman of the House Committee on Commerce backs up Bliley's claim. In 1996, Congress passed the Telecommunications Act, meant to introduce competition to local and long-distance phone services as well as to cable.

The bill, 10 years in the making, will probably stand as his chairmanship's greatest single contribution to American law, but the stately Virginian has shepherded a host of antimonopolistic bills through Congress.

Last year, Congress passed a bill that privatized international satellite organizations. Bliley doggedly pushed for the bill-an arcane piece of legislation-to become law, even after the whole matter fell apart in 1998 when the Senate failed to follow up on a House-passed version.

Bliley continued to press the issue even though the satellite organizations-notably U.S. signatory Comsat-hired nearly every high-priced lobbyist in town to work against it.

Bliley also played a key role in pushing satellite TV reform legislation. That bill was plagued by controversy for the two years it wended its way through Congress, because broadcasters and satellite companies could hardly find a word in it on which they agreed.

In the end, however, Congress granted direct-broadcast satellite companies the right to beam local TV signals to their customers and created a powerful competitor to cable, which should bring down the prices of all multichannel services as well as hastening the development of high-speed Internet services.

"We did it in telecommunications. We did it in international satellite organizations. We did it when we passed the Satellite Home Viewers Act," Bliley notes. "And I hope, before we leave town this year, that we can do it for electricity."

Bliley has been trying to deregulate the electricity industry for years and still hopes legislation will pass during this presidential election year, even though the legislative calendar is short. The industry has opposed his efforts on all fronts, even going so far as to erect artificial organizations into which industry CEOs have funneled money to lobby against deregulation, according to the Washington Post.

But Bliley's reign as chairman is about to end. Republicans changed some of the House rules when Newt Gingrich and his compatriots took over in 1994. One of those changes was to limit chairmanships to three two-year terms. As a result, ironically, Republicans are losing many able and experienced leaders this year.

In addition, Republicans retiring from Congress include: House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Archer (Texas), House Budget Committee Chairman John Kasich (Ohio), and Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman Bill Goodling (Pa.).

Even so, Bliley stands by the decision to institute term limits. "On balance, term limits is not a bad idea. By the time a person would get to be chairman, he or she would have already been here close to 20 years. Three more terms is a long time. In addition, there's a lot of talent on a committee. If those people don't feel they can get ahead, they leave."

People say Bliley's soft-spoken manner and carefully scripted public speeches cause him to be underestimated as a politician. "He's not flashy," says one lobbyist. "And he's not particularly eloquent. But like many good leaders, he seems to have a pretty clear north star."

One Democratic House staffer says Bliley "has never really been given the opportunity to serve as a complete chairman. When the Republicans came in, Gingrich set up a commissar system in which everything was centralized in the Capitol. That said, Bliley himself has always shown a willingness to work on things in a bipartisan way, but he doesn't necessarily always have the freedom to do so."

Others say Bliley himself has kept some of his subcommittee chairmen under tight control, particularly the flamboyant Billy Tauzin (R-La.), who chairs the House Telecommunications Subcommittee. Still, Tauzin has managed to work in concert with Bliley, while keeping his place in the spotlight.

"Passage of the historic Telecommunications Act certainly assures Tom's legacy on Capitol Hill," Tauzin says. "While we haven't always agreed on things, he has been a strong chairman and, most important, a good friend."