Rep. Timothy Wirth (D-Colo.) has laid out what may be the most ambitious -- and potentially profound -- agenca a congressional communications subcommittee chairman has ever taken up.
Wirth, now in his fourth term is embarking on what appears to be a top-to-bottom review of national communications policy. The plan comes despite Senate efforts to broadly and quickly deregualte facets of the television, radio and telecommunications industry and despite indications that the Reagan administration has, thus far, devoted little attention to the subject.
Wirth says he is after the development of a "theoretical base" for communications policy, a set of principles based on a carefully constructed pro-competitive foundation.
What makes the effort appear so ambitious is its wide range and Wirth's unique view of the role of telecommunications in national economic policy-making.
Among Wirth's plans within the next several months are hearings on the controversial and widely criticized state of municipal franchising of calbe television, the competition between the telephone and newspaper industries on home information systems, the role of the communications industry in international trade and the failure of the federal government to assemble a unified communications policy-making arm.
After former rep. Lionel Van Deerlin (D-Calif.) was upset in a reelection bid last fall, there was little doubt in communications circles that Wirth would seek to succeed him as chairman of the subcommittee. The lanky former White House fellow had become a leader in telecommunications and budgetary policy in recent years, and Wirth has a deep curiosity about technology in general
Wirth was a key supporter of last year's unsuccessful effort to rewrite the guiding law of the industry -- the 1934 Communications Act. Van Deerlin and Wirth, on the Democratic side, moved telecommunications legislation farther than it had moved in Van Deerlin's previous four-year effort to modify the outdated 47-year-old law. Only House Judiciary Committee concerns about the bill's effect on the Justice Department's antitrust case against the Bell System blocked the bill from reaching the House floor.
But the pattern of recent years of the House leading the Senate in communications legislation has been reversed. Under the leadership of Sens. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.) and Robert Packwood (R-Ore.), the Senate Commerce Committee faces a rash of communications bills, including television and radio licensing legislation and a telephone deregulation bill.
At the same time, the old communications subcommittee has been renamed the Subcommittee on Telecommunications, Consumer Protection and Finance, taking on highway safety and securities industry responsibilities.
"The industry learned and I'm sure the Senate will learn that their eyes are much bigger than their stomachs," Wirth said.
But like his Senate counterparts, Wirth is committed to revising the laws governing the American Telephone & Telegraph Co. and the other telecommunications frims during the current Congress and shares with Packwood a desire to move communications policy-making out of the courts and the Federal Communications Commission and into Congress.
Wirth said Congress should be more than a referee between competing technologies and should provide the industry with a clear policy direction.