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

Even before President-elect Barack Obama takes office, House and Senate Democrats are making sweeping changes of their own, deposing old school chairmen on key technology committees. From energy policy to network neutrality, new chairmen Henry Waxman and Jay Rockefeller lean more tech than telecom, more Silicon Valley than Rust Belt. Hold the euphoria, though, as change often brings unexpected results.

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.