Chairman Billy Tauzin: Bell Ringer

Head of powerful House Commerce Committee aims to dismantle Telecom Act.

The fight for control of the telecommunications networks that are the lifeblood of the Internet may be brewing in Washington, D.C., but its shaping up in the tradition of good ol boy Louisiana politics.

At the heart of the battle is the powerful new chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., a small-town Democrat-turned Republican who has built his political career with the help of close personal and financial ties to the regional Bell monopolies.

They and other telecom players have poured millions of dollars into the campaigns that brought Tauzin from the bayous of Chackbay, La., to Washington. Industry groups have also taken him on more trips than any other member of Congress. And just last year, they helped him raise $8.8 million for the House Republican colleagues who this year crowned him the telecom king.

Now Tauzin controls the legislative channel through which virtually all telecom and Internet law must navigate over the critical next two years — from phone service and the wireless broadband world of the future to Internet taxation and online privacy.

"This guy is going to determine what the Internet looks like for most people," said Jeffrey Chester, executive director at the Center for Media Education, a public interest group. "The real threat here is that Tauzin, while giving lip service to the public interest, has only one group giving him cold, hard cash."

What Tauzin especially wants to do is change the landmark Telecommunications Act of 1996, which was designed to open local phone markets to competitors, allow the incumbent Bells to offer long-distance service and generate competition in everything from digital video programming to data transmission. Tauzin wants to move quickly to free the Bells from restrictions on their long-distance phone and data services. Just as important, he yearns to strip the Federal Communications Commission of its authority to quash telecom mergers and to regulate telephone companies and Internet and wireless service providers.

The question is not whether Tauzin will use his hard-won new power to try to achieve his goals. He will. After all, thats what committee chairmanships are about. What most concerns an array of industry executives and consumer advocates is whether Tauzin intends to use that power to benefit the Bell companies, broadcasters and others with whom he has long had a cozy relationship — at the expense of their corporate competitors and consumers.

The flamboyant, Cajun-born amateur actor and outspoken congressman learned hardball politics at the feet of a man who has come to symbolize, for many, the worst of Louisianas insider politics — former governor Edwin Edwards — thrice indicted and recently convicted of bribery. But Tauzin insists he is his own man. He said his positions on regulatory issues and telecom law are not influenced by his close ties to the regional Bells, but the desire to bring the public more choices and lower prices.

"The most important motivation I have in all of the policy decisions were going to try to make is to make an open, free, competitive communications marketplace," Tauzin said in an interview the day he took charge of the committee. "That means keeping government out of the business of regulating the Internet, particularly as we go broadband with services that will include not just regular data, but video and voice as well."

Still, people in Washington are watching to see where Tauzin throws his Mardi Gras beads.