Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, a conservative with a pronounced deregulatory bent, last week announced his campaign to succeed Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., as head of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
The panel has chief authority over legislation affecting the broadcasting and cable TV businesses.
Assuming Rep. Barton gets the job, how much of a stamp the 54-year-old former oil industry engineer will put on the media industry is unclear: He has focused primarily on energy and health issues during the past several years. If he has strong positions on media issues he’s keeping them close to the vest.
In one of his more controversial accomplishments, Rep. Tauzin used his power as the committee’s chairman to almost singlehandedly fight off efforts by his congressional colleagues to overturn a controversial decision last year by the Federal Communications Commission to substantially relax many of the agency’s media ownership rules.
A spokesperson for Rep. Barton said last week that the congressman has yet to stake out a position on the continuing controversy over the agency’s media ownership deregulation.
“If he is selected as chairman, he intends to go in with somewhat of a clean slate,” the spokesperson said.
Rep. Barton does have some voting history on media ownership. On July 23, 2003, Rep. Barton joined the House majority in casting a “yes” vote on an appropriations bill that included a rider setting the ownership cap at 35 percent. Rep. Tauzin voted against the bill.
The previous day, Reps. Barton and Tauzin both voted against an amendment offered by Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y., that would have overturned all of the FCC’s deregulation-not just the cap. That amendment failed 174-254.
Ultimately, Congress passed a compromise reached between Republican congressional leaders and the White House that set the ownership cap at 39 percent.
Rep. Barton, whose campaign for the chairmanship has been endorsed by Rep. Tauzin, opposed retransmission consent in 1992. The spokesperson said the lawmaker might be open to reconsidering his position on retransmission consent and other issues relating to rules requiring the carriage of broadcast signals on cable TV systems.
The lawmaker recently made clear his support for legislation by Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., that would jack up the maximum fines for broadcast indecency from $27,500 to $275,000.
“This bill is long overdue, and I am proud to be an original co-sponsor,” Rep. Barton said at congressional indecency hearings Jan. 28. The congressman also said the gratuitous use of profanity by entertainment figures for shock value “demeans our society and it demeans us.”
Rep. Barton announced his run for the committee chairmanship after Rep. Tauzin confirmed his own plans to resign, effective Feb. 16, to clear the way to consider a lucrative offer to head a pharmaceutical industry trade association.
Rep. Tauzin recently rejected an offer to succeed Jack Valenti as chief of the Motion Picture Association of America-a post that comes with a $1 million salary. The pharmaceutical industry post is reportedly worth $2.5 million.
The watchdog group Public Citizen recently called for a conflict-of-interest investigation of the lawmaker’s employment plans, pointing out that his committee oversaw legislation last year that would benefit the pharmaceutical industry by creating a Medicare drug benefit.
Ken Johnson, Rep. Tauzin’s spokesman, said there will be no investigation. “No one at any time during the Medicare debate approached Billy about a position with pharmaceutical association,” Mr. Johnson said.
With the blessing of Rep. Tauzin and other key House Republicans, many sources believe Rep. Barton will get the nod for the Energy and Commerce Committee’s chairmanship, maybe by this week.
The decision is up to a steering committee headed by House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill. Rep. Barton is a member of the committee.
Some sources said there is a chance that a challenge for the chairmanship will be launched by Rep. Mike Oxley, R-Ohio.
A spokesperson said Rep. Oxley was not commenting on the issue.