The Democratic senator from Hawaii will likely replace Republican Ted Stevens as chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, but the two are expected to continue to work closely together.
Senate Daniel Inouye of Hawaii will become the most important communications policymaker in the Senate next year as chairman of the Commerce Committee.
His ascension to the chairmanship was assured this afternoon when Republican Senator George Allen conceded defeat to Democratic challenger Jim Webb in the Virginia Senate race. Allen had resisted conceding the neck-and-neck race until votes were recounted.
Allen’s loss gives the Democrats and their independent allies 51 seats in the Senate, a one-vote majority and, more important, the right to name the committee chairmen who control the legislative agenda. Inouye was the ranking minority member on the Commerce Committee, whose purview includes broadcasting and cable.
Broadcast lobbyists feel having Inouye in the chairman’s seat will not create any major or immediate shifts in the committee policy. That’s because Inouye has been in a power-sharing arrangement with the current chairman, Ted Stevens of Alaska. That bi-partisan cooperation is expected to continue.
Together, Stevens and Inouye have steered a moderate, pro-business course, although broadcasters don’t like several provision of Stevens’s latest telecom reform bill.
Election Day will bring other changes to the committee.
Allen was an active member on the committee, and many broadcasters may be happy to see him go. Most recently, he championed legislation that would have opened up broadcast spectrum—”white spaces”—for unlicensed wireless computer devices. The NAB and the Association for Maximum Service Television strongly opposed the measure.
A committee member broadcasters will miss is Conrad Burns, the Republican from Montana who lost a close race to Democrat Jon Tester. A former broadcaster, Burns has been a reliable ally of the broadcasting industry through his Washington career. The NAB backed his reelection bid.
Other Senate Commerce Committee incumbents easily won re-election, including Republicans Trent Lott (Miss.), Kay Bailey Hutchison (Texas), Olympia Snowe (Maine), John Ensign (Nev.) and Democrats Bill Nelson (Fla.), Maria Cantwell (Wash.) and Ben Nelson (Neb.).
Stevens did away with the Communications Subcommittee, but there is some speculation that Inouye may bring it back and give the chairmanship to either Jay Rockefeller (W.Va.) or Byron Dorgan (N.D.). If Dorgan gets the nod, broadcasters should expect him to be even more aggressive—and effective—in his opposition to loosening the ownership rules.