The complexion of the Senate Commerce Committee will change right from the outset of the 111th Congress, and the changes may continue as the term of that Congress progresses. The certainty of change involves the seats of committee members John Sununu (R-NH) and Gordon Smith (R-OR), both of whom have recently joined the ranks of the unemployed.
There are also two addition wildcards. One involves Chairman Daniel K. Inouye. Aging Robert Byrd (D-WV) has agreed to step aside as head of the Appropriations Committee, and Inouye is thought to be a prime candidate to take over that role (despite his own advancing years). CQ speculates that Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) would happily rearrange his committee assignments to take over the Commerce gavel. If not, John Kerry (D-MA) is a possibility, although he is said to be angling for the Secretary of State job, which may clear a path for Byron Dorgan (D-ND).
On the Republican side, an emerging wildcard is the situation of Acting Ranking Member Kay Bailey Hutchison, who is reportedly pondering a bid for Governor of Texas. That would entail an early exit from the Senate (her term doesn’t expire until 2013). Listed behind here on the committee’s list of Republicans is Ted Stevens (R-AK), whose tenure on the committee is in doubt, no to mention his ability to serve in a leadership capacity if he does manage to hang on to his seat. After Stevens is John McCain (R-AZ), who will likely serve as Ranking Member on the Armed Services Committee. Next up would be Olympia Snowe (R-ME), one of the few remaining moderates in the caucus who often aligns with Dorgan when broadcast issues come up.
RBR/TVBR observation: The biggest issue on the plate right now is the DTV conversion. However, it will take place so early in the year that the Committee will have almost no possibility of exerting any influence on the process beyond what it’s done during the 110th Congress. It will be able to jump into the post-mortems with both feet, however. Let’s hope things go well enough that there is little fodder for an early 2009 edition of the Blame Game.
If the stars align and Dorgan ascends to the Committee’s chair, it might cause such a chill among broadcasters that the NAB building downtown may be instantly covered with frost. It would certainly signal a term of vigorous oversight, but we don’t think there would be much change in ownership rules and regs, other than an even stronger push for an increase in minority ownership than we’re likely to see regardless of who chairs this committee. Further loosening of ownership caps is unlikely regardless, and it will be virtually impossible to undo what was done by Telecom 1996. The point is that all of this could happen with Inouye, Rockefeller, Kerry, Dorgan or even McCain wielding the gavel.