The Republican takeover of the House of Representatives is expected to lead to an about-face in the way Congress approaches much of the Obama administration’s technology policy. A key panel to watch is the House Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet. This is the panel that will take up issues related to the power of the FCC, network neutrality, the national broadband initiative and online privacy.
But tech watchers will have to wait for some political jockeying among House Republicans to head the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee before the subcommittee race shakes out. It’s shaping up to be a three-way contest.
Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Fla., is the ranking Republican on the subcommittee, but he may be setting his sights higher. The chair of the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee is a plum assignment for any GOP lawmaker, since that committee will steer efforts to roll back national health care legislation. Stearns cites his 96% rating from the American Conservative Union as evidence of his bona fides. He’s also made his case in more tangible ways, cutting a pair of $300,000 checks to the Republican campaign efforts. If Stearns wins the chairmanship (considered a long shot), under GOP rules he’ll have to give up his subcommittee post, which will set off a scrum among senior members of the panel.
Stearns faces stiff competition for the chairmanship. Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, is the ranking Republican on the full committee, but it’s possible he’ll need a waiver from the leadership to be eligible for a second stint as chairman, because House Republican conference rules limit members to three terms atop a committee. Barton believes that House rules allow him three terms as chairman, but he’ll have to convince minority leader and presumptive House Speaker John Boehner of that. This could be a tough sell, in part because of public reaction to Barton’s famous (and eventually retracted) apology to BP’s then-CEO Tony Hayward for a government “shakedown.” Still, Barton is reportedly confident that he’ll secure the chairmanship of the Energy and Commerce Committee. He has also been generous with campaign help, with $1.1 million in GOP donations.
To some, Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., is the front-runner for the post. An article on the future of health care reform in Politico casually names Upton as the likely chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee. A piece in Upton’s hometown Kalamazoo Gazette points out that Upton will face challenges from the right wing of his party, because he is viewed as a moderate — particularly on environmental issues. But Upton is the next most senior member after Barton, and if Barton loses his bid either because of conference rules or because he’s politically untenable, Upton seems the likely pick. He has also paved the way for his ascendancy with more than $1 million in donations to party coffers.
Once the Energy and Commerce chair is spoken for, tech watchers can hope for a clearer picture of the race (if there is one) to head the communications subcommittee.
On the Democratic side, current subcommittee Chairman Rick Boucher lost his seat in Tuesday’s elections, in a tight race with Republican Morgan Griffith. Candidates to lead the opposition on the panel include Rep. Anna Eshoo, a California Democrat whose district includes Google headquarters, and Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass.
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