Ars Technica has reported that a chain reaction resulting from the death of Congressman Tom Lantos may mark a significant improvement in the line-up of chairmanships influential on Info/Law issues. (It may seem a bit ghoulish to speculate on the spoils right after the death of a great legislator like Lantos, a towering figure in the House for many years, but as a former congressional aide I can guarantee to you that it’s entirely par for the course — and surely a parlor game Mr. Lantos himself played many times).
As I wrote when the Democrats took over Congress in 2006, these are not usually partisan issues and a switch in party control did not herald much change. At the time I especially lamented that Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA), who is wonderful on many issues but a relentless promoter of MPAA positions down the line on IP and communications law, was likely to take over the helm of the main intellectual property subcommittee. He did. Now, however, Lantos’ death opens up the chairmanship of the full House Foreign Affairs Committee. The chances that Berman will ascend to this post exceed 99% and, because members can hold only one chair at a time, someone else will get his IP spot. The next in line is Rep. Rick Boucher (D-VA), whose position on Info/Law issues is just about the exact opposite of Berman in every way. Indeed, as I also said back in ’06, there is no one else in Congress with nearly the same emphasis on balanced information policy, with a special focus on library issues and fair use.
Now, as the Ars Technica story makes clear, one should not overstate the importance of this change. Berman will still sit on the IP subcommittee. The full Judiciary Committee will still be chaired by Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) who, while not ferociously wedded to the content industries like Berman, is at least going steady with them. (Again, I like Conyers in other ways too — but Info/Law is a funny issue in Washington…) And, of course, the general inertia in Congress against reform in these areas is great. But Boucher could do some fun stuff, including holding hearings on subjects Berman would ignore (DMCA abuses anyone? Digital libraries?). Perhaps he can move bills that were DOA in a Berman-chaired committee. One more caveat: Berman can keep both chairs temporarily, so the transfer to Boucher may not occur immediately. But since Boucher and Berman both hold safe seats and it is extremely unlikely that the Democrats will lose control of the House, it will happen eventually. (And my perusal of the current committee rosters suggests that Boucher has no other juicy chairs coming his way for a long time…)