Henry Waxman, Green Energy and Technology Win First Fight of the New Congress

By Roy Mark  |  Posted 2008-11-21

Henry Waxman, Green Energy and Technology Win First Fight of the New Congress

The winds of change are sweeping Washington even before President-elect Barack Obama is sworn in Jan. 20, heralding new agenda priorities on a wide range of issues affecting technology, from climate change to health care reform to network neutrality.

In the U.S. House, Democrats voted Nov. 20 to replace 82-year-old Rep. John Dingell-a powerful voice for Detroit automakers for more than 50 years-with outspoken energy and environmental advocate Rep. Henry Waxman of California as chairman of the Committee on Energy and Commerce. In the Senate, Democrats are installing Sen. Jay Rockefeller, with health care reform and rural broadband access at the top of his agenda, as chairman of the Committee on Commerce, Science and Technology.

Both committees are where most technology- and energy-related legislation originate. Obama's campaign included mention of climate change, and he recently warned, "Delay is no longer an option" in forcing legislation through Congress to mitigate global warming and to lessen U.S. dependency on oil imports. The Silicon Valley widely supported Obama's climate change position not only for its environmental impact and energy savings but also as a potential catalyst for a green IT revolution that could spin off thousands of jobs.

"This is truly a sea change," gushed California Sen. Barbara Boxer about Waxman's ascendancy. Waxman, who often clashed with Dingell over climate change, added, "We have a new opportunity that maybe comes only once in a generation."

The Waxman-Obama green agenda

There seems little doubt that Waxman will push his own and Obama's agenda on the environment. As chairman, he will also oversee and ultimately control the agenda of the panel's Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet where Rep. Ed Markey of Massachusetts is advocating network neutrality legislation and closer scrutiny of telecom and cable practices. Waxman is considered supportive of both initiatives.

Rockefeller replaces Sen. Daniel Inouye as head of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. Rockefeller is a co-sponsor of network neutrality legislation introduced by Senators Byron Dorgan and Olympia Snowe.

Both Waxman and Rockefeller appear to be brightly wrapped holiday gifts to a tech industry aggressively promoting an agenda centered around using IT to reform health care and climate laws, rules and regulations; broadband expansion; spectrum reform and network neutrality.

Henry Waxman, Green Energy and Technology Win First Fight of the New Congress

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"It is a little too early to say how much and what kind of change these guys will bring," said Roger Cochetti, group director of U.S. Public Policy for CompTIA (Computing Technology Industry Association). "Their track records are important but running a committee is an entirely different thing."

Ed Black, president and CEO of CCIA (Computer and Communications Industry Association) said there is "nothing automatic" about the new chairmen. "The upside is not to be underestimated, but I don't find them an easy read."

Other Washington tech industry advocates were even more circumspect, at least on the record. Speaking anonymously because of the sensitive nature of establishing working relationships with the new chairmen, several industry leaders praised the changes in Congress while others expressed reservations about the impact on the industry.

"Tech is a tremendous energy user, particularly with its huge server farms," said one. "Given Waxman's environmental and energy positions, yes, there are concerns about the additional cost of regulations and the potential liabilities that come with new energy policies."

The executive noted, for instance, that Waxman is likely to crack down on e-waste and that raises concerns for the consumer electronics industry. "There [are] always trade-offs, but this one may be hard to take," the executive said. On the other hand, the same executive said, new energy policies could allow for "tech innovators and investors to use their entrepreneurship to good advantage."

Rearranging the deck chairs

Rockefeller, considered a friend to the telecom industry, is a cause for concern among those looking for reform.

"Let's face it, the Bells have owned the Bush administration and the FCC for the last eight years," said one. "That won't happen under Obama and these chairmen, but Rockefeller still has strong telecom ties. He was a strong voice for telco immunity [telephone companies being given immunity for domestic spying ordered by the Bush administration]."

But CompTIA's Cochetti praised Rockefeller as "something of a technologist. He has a longstanding interest in technology and, deep down, he really feels that tech is a driving force in the economy."

With so much change in the air in Washington-a new White House administration, new congressional leadership-Gigi Sohn, president and co-founder of the public advocacy group Public Knowledge, said until all the deck chairs get rearranged it is "really difficult to make any predictions" about legislative outcomes.

In any event, Rockefeller and Waxman, in particular, will bring what one executive called a "completely different set of priorities and dynamics" to the tech debate. Which priorities and what dynamics remain to be seen.

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