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Tauzin Resigns Key Technology Committee

U.S. Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-LA), one of the most influential players on Internet and technology issues in Congress, is resigning his chairmanship of the House Energy and Commerce Committee effective Feb. 16 and will not seek re-election in November.

Tauzin's office confirmed Wednesday that the 12-term Congressman hand delivered his resignation letter to Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert (R-IL) Tuesday night.

The Energy and Commerce Committee has jurisdiction over the telecommunications and entertainment industries. The panel also sets the congressional agenda on energy, transportation and health-care issues.

Rep. Joseph Barton (R-TX), chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Energy and Air Quality, is considered the leading candidate to replace Tauzin.

Throughout last year, it was widely rumored Tauzin would resign to take over Jack Valenti's $1 million a year position as president of the Motion Picture Association of America. Prior to that, political observers thought he would quit Congress to take the chief lobbying job with the Recording Industry Association of America, a position eventually filled by Mitch Bainwol, former chief of staff for Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN).

Several news reports now say Tauzin has been offered more than a $1 million a year to head the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, a rumor that gained traction last week when Tauzin recused himself on several votes involving health care.

Under Tauzin's leadership, the committee launched several initiatives to deregulate the Baby Bells, strongly supported Hollywood's efforts to stop online music and movie piracy, and started a probe into the troubled e-Rate program that subsidizes Internet technologies in public schools. It has recently begun lobbying the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to take a light approach to regulation regarding the emerging Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) industry.

One of the most controversial bills backed by Tauzin was the 2002 Internet Freedom and Broadband Deployment Act (H.R. 1542) that sought to allow regional Bell companies to enter the broadband market, limit access of their DSL circuits to competitors and impose a ban on FCC or state regulation of the rates, conditions for, or entry into high-speed Internet service.

Widely known as the Tauzin-Dingell bill (the co-author was Democratic Rep. John Dingell of Michigan), the legislation passed the House on a 271-158 vote after a long afternoon of often rancorous debate. The bill never gained support in the Senate, where Commerce Committee Chairman Ernest "Fritz" Hollings (D-SC) proved to be an implacable foe to deregulating the Bells.

Much of what Tauzin and Dingell sought in their bill was eventually enacted by the FCC last year. Although many of the FCC's provisions are now being contested in court.

While Tauzin and Dingell cooperated on efforts to deregulate the Bells, they split last year on legislation designed to curb the flow of spam. Dingell, who supported an opt-out regime, said Tauzin's anti-spam proposal would create a new category of legal spam that would be exempt from state regulation.

Tauzin's version ultimately prevailed in the Can Spam Act signed by President Bush last December.

Tauzin has also been a leading critic of the E-Rate program, the nation's $2.25 billion initiative to help schools and libraries connect to the Internet. After a year-long investigation, the House Energy and Commerce Committee will hold a hearing on its findings later this month.

Tauzin, 60, was first elected to Congress in 1980 as a Democrat, but switched to the Republican Party in 1995. Shortly after changing parties, he was appointed as chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee.