Chairman Billy Tauzin: Bell Ringer - Page 2

Many Stripes

Depending on who is talking, Tauzin is many things. He is charming to the point of roguishness, a skilled lawyer who understands the nuances of political power. He is passionate about telecommunications and knows the subject better than almost anyone in Congress. He is a Beltway player who is unabashed about his ties to the industries he legislates.

And those ties run deep. Tauzins oldest son is a state lobbyist for BellSouth in Louisiana. His daughter used to lobby for the National Association of Broadcasters, another powerful trade group. Staffers have come to him from telecom lobbying jobs, and his chief of staff went to work at the regional Bells industry group. His new committee telecom counsel used to represent the Bells at a top Washington law firm.

Tauzins most influential political mentors include Edwards, now appealing the federal conviction for bribery that brought him a 10-year prison sentence. But even critics said Tauzin hews to the rules, although he sometimes strays close to the ethical line.

And whatever Tauzin does, said those who know him well, he plays to win, whether at hunting, tennis or making law.

His game this year is to free the Bells from the regulatory shackles imposed by the 1996 Telecommunications Act. That massive law, 10 years in the writing yet ambiguous in its final form, was aimed at remaking the entire American telecommunications landscape.

Much of its language sought to tear down court-imposed barriers on the regional Bell operating companies that kept them out of the then-lucrative long-distance business. The law also set out to pry open the local phone marketplace and let companies such as AT&T and new competitors offer local service. At the time it was hoped that the law — so sweeping that it included a ban on Internet pornography and new protections for a handful of burglar alarm monitoring companies — would quickly lead to a marketplace in which myriad companies could sell bundled services, such as telephone companies offering television programming and high-speed Internet connections.

By most accounts, however, the law has not achieved the open, robust competitive market in most areas. Broadband connections are rare to most homes, few consumers have a choice of local phone service and the Bells have won permission to offer long-distance in only four states.

Tauzins declaration that he wants an immediate change to that stalemate is a prospect that thrills the Bells, which believe they have been unfairly blocked from their prized markets by powerful competitors and a Democrat-controlled FCC.

"We are pleased that well at last get a chairman [who] will give us a hearing," said Gary Lytle, acting president of the United States Telecom Association, the powerful industry group that represents the regional Bells on Capitol Hill.

But Tauzin terrifies their competitors, who think they will be crushed by the Bells if the rules are changed. Foes include AT&T, consumer groups and Internet players that view the Bell companies as virtual monopolies that still own the electronic pipes into most American homes.

"The act was intended to pry open the local phone market," said C. Michael Armstrong, chief executive of AT&T, in a recent speech. But after five years, the Bell companies remain monopolies that —still have a tight grip on Boardwalk, and theyre closing in on Park Place."

Those same monopolies are the ones that have used their political and financial clout to nurture Tauzins 20-year congressional career, ultimately, critics said, handing him the committee crown.

The Bells have contributed millions of dollars to Tauzin and the GOP through events he organized. They have supplied him with transportation on their corporate jets and paid his travel expenses for excursions across the country and around the world. He has taken frequent hunting trips with Bell executives.

In last years election alone, using political action committees and contributions from employee groups and individuals, the remaining four Bells — BellSouth, Qwest Communications International, SBC Communications and Verizon Communications — poured $55,200 into Tauzins personal campaign coffers; in fact, he was the top recipient of money from those interests. All told, Tauzin received $190,744 from communications and electronics industry interests in the election cycle, besting even House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., and trailing only two other House candidates.

The telecom money was part of the whopping $1.3 million that Tauzin raised for the race in his home district. Campaign records show Tauzin funneled a sizable amount of that money, $565,704, to help fund political campaigns of his Republican friends on Capitol Hill, a move that helped him beat Rep. Mike Oxley, R-Ohio, for the Commerce Committee chairmanship.

Political players in Louisiana, such as Tauzin friend Sam Jones, mayor of Franklin, said Tauzin needed little more than a few yard signs to defeat the three independent candidates who ran against him. "It was like Curly, Larry and Moe was the opposition," said Jones, a Democrat who said he once considered running against Tauzin.

Trey Ourso, executive director at the Louisiana Democratic Party, said he believes he could field a candidate who could beat Tauzin in his home district, which is full of registered Democrats. "But the amount of money he can raise makes it almost impossible to put anyone against him," Ourso said.

John McGinnis, who writes a political insiders newsletter in Baton Rouge, La., disagreed that Democrats could find someone to beat Tauzin, whom he described as having a "magnetic personality" and ability to charm voters. The numbers speak for themselves: Despite infrequent appearances in his district and election night commitments that kept him out of Louisiana, Tauzin won 78 percent of the vote.

But like others, McGinnis also recognizes the impact that Louisiana-style politics have had on the congressman when it comes to taking money from entities and individuals who can profit from his attention.

"Within Louisiana politics, thats pretty well understood," said McGinnis, who is one of those who have watched the grooming of Tauzin by his supporters. "Herschel Abbott [president of BellSouth in Louisiana] has been close to Billy for a long, long time."

Tauzin managed his metamorphosis from conservative Southern Democrat to Republican in 1995 with little or no political fallout in his home district in the bayous west of New Orleans. House Republicans had made good on their promise that they would honor his seniority when he switched, placing Tauzin far closer to a real seat of power than he ever could have hoped to get as a conservative Democrat.