Waxman may push committee's oversight role

New chairman of House Energy and Commerce Committee is expected to increase emphasis on government accountability and pursue a transparency agenda.

Under the leadership of Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., the House Energy and Commerce Committee is expected to increase emphasis on government accountability and pursue a transparency agenda. To start that off, high-tech and telecommunications industry insiders are pointing to an investigation into the FCC the panel initiated in January. The FCC probe, which was led by Energy and Commerce Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee Chairman Bart Stupak, D-Mich., is complete and a report will be issued in the coming weeks, an aide said.

"To the extent that Dingell started this FCC inquiry, I think Waxman will finish it," Public Knowledge President Gigi Sohn said, adding the agency is "overripe for reform."

More broadly, Waxman's California connection means strong ties to the high-tech sector, Information Technology Industry Council Government Relations Director Kara Calvert said. But others worry that Waxman, whose district includes parts of Hollywood and Beverly Hills, could help movie studios and record labels that want Congress to pass stronger intellectual property protection laws.

"To the extent that Hollywood wants to mix copyright with commerce, I hope [Waxman] understands the place for reforming copyright is in the Judiciary Committee," Sohn said.

She is concerned that calls for a "broadcast flag," which would require digital television tuners to include content protection technologies, will resurface. A federal court struck down such an FCC mandate in 2005 after Sohn's group and others complained the proposal would unfairly restrict a viewer's ability to use digital video recorders and other devices.

Competitive Enterprise Institute Vice President Wayne Crews said Waxman could offer a mixed bag of legislation, but he is most concerned about the panel's direction on network neutrality, a proposal to ban discrimination of Internet content by broadband firms. Although he is not a member of the Energy and Commerce Telecommunications and the Internet Subcommittee and has a spotty record of attending high-tech oriented hearings, Waxman supports the proposal and is expected to work with the Obama administration on legislation, sources said. Crews also said he anticipates the return of the "fairness doctrine," a defunct FCC policy requiring broadcasters to give balanced airtime to opposing views. Aides to President-elect Obama have said he does not want to reinstitute it despite recent reports that some House Democrats want to revive it.

Many have wondered whether Waxman's chairmanship will lead to a changing of the guard on key subcommittees. One high-tech industry source indicated ousted panel chairman Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., may yearn for a larger role on the subcommittees for Telecommunications and the Internet, led in the 110th Congress by Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass.; the Energy and Air Quality Subcommittee, chaired by Rep. Rick Boucher, D-Va.; or Health, led by Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J.

"Dingell can have whatever he wants," the official said, noting that energy and health care are presumably among Waxman's top agenda items. A committee spokeswoman did not immediately respond to inquiries about plans for Dingell, now chairman emeritus.