Rep. to head Energy & Commerce Committee

First the Justice Dept. and now one of the key House committees: Hollywood has gained another major ally among top federal authorities.

Rep. Henry Waxman, the California Democrat whose district includes Beverly Hills and other industry-heavy areas, will take over as chairman of the powerful House Energy & Commerce Committee when the 111th Congress convenes in January.

Waxman unseated longtime chairman John Dingell, senior Dem on the committee for the last 28 years, in a 137-122 vote in the House Democratic Caucus on Thursday morning. Dingell will remain a member of the committee.

Waxman challenged Dingell on the grounds that the latter had not moved fast enough on issues involving global warming and the environment in general. Michigan’s Dingell has often been a close ally of automakers.

The Energy & Commerce Committee oversees the Federal Communications Commission and also handles telecom policy at large. While Waxman has not been active on these issues in his previous job — chairing the House Committee on Government Reform — he is known to be tight with Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), another showbiz ally, particularly on intellectual property issues. Berman will remain a senior member of the influential House Judiciary Committee, which oversees copyright issues. Judiciary chairman John Conyers Jr. is also a strong advocate for IP rights and protection.

As one longtime broadcast lobbyist said, when media issues are before the Energy & Commerce Committee, Waxman “will probably defer” to Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.). Markey chairs the subcommittee on telecom and the Internet. Markey has not been among congressional supporters of crackdowns on broadcast indecency.

Waxman is also close with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, another Californian viewed favorably by Hollywood.

Waxman’s relations with broadcast news orgs, in particular NBC News, were strained in early 2001 when he held hearings on the premature calling of the 2000 election. The congressman tried repeatedly — and ultimately unsuccessfully — to get NBC to hand over a videotape allegedly of then-head of GE Jack Welch pressing the news staff to declare George W. Bush the winner.

Dennis Wharton, exec VP of the National Assn. of Broadcasters, said: “We look forward to working with both Mr. Waxman and Mr. Dingell in the new Congress and in continuing to make the case that the news, entertainment and emergency lifeline services provided by free and local broadcasting are worth preserving and strengthening.

“With the economic downturn, media issues probably won’t be heard about for a while,” the lobbyist said. “But if anybody made out on this deal, it’s the studios.”

But the recording industry will likely be happy, too. Waxman has supported the push for a performance right royalty from broadcast radio (which broadcasters have called a “performance tax”), and he has been a leader in House efforts to curb illegal file-sharing.

Earlier this week President-elect Barack Obama chose Eric H. Holder to be attorney general. Holder, who was deputy attorney general in the Clinton administration, has a record of making intellectual property protection a federal priority.

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