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CAUCUSES APPEARING AS CONGRESS RALLIES TO FIGHT MEDIA PIRACY.

Byline: Lisa Friedman Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON - As Hollywood battles movie and music piracy, members of Congress are jockeying to position themselves as leaders in the fight by creating informal policy teams known as caucuses.

Congress has no fewer than five caucuses aimed at blocking copyright infringement, with Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Pasadena, launching the newest one just last week.

Lawmakers and entertainment industry leaders say each caucus serves a specific and unique purpose. Critics, however, say the proliferation only underscores the influence of powerful industries on the political process.

One observer likened the explosion of entertainment caucuses to the high-tech heyday, when lawmakers tripped over one another to launch the newest ``E-caucus.''

``That was part of the great Silicon Valley suck-up contest - this must be part of the great entertainment industry suck-up contest,'' said Gary Ruskin, director of the Congressional Accountability Project, a watchdog group.

Considered the congressional equivalent of high school activity clubs, caucuses exist in Washington for just about every issue and industry. One caucus pushes for pro-Armenian legislation and another encourages bicycle use. There is a caucus to raise awareness of diabetes and another to promote the home furnishings industry.

Ideally, caucuses serve as a way for lawmakers who share a common interest to work together on policy. Some wield true policy-making muscle on Capitol Hill. Others, watchdogs charge, are little more than venues for lobbyists to exert their influence on the system.

``Their creation is encouraged by the industries,'' said Andy Draheim, a San Francisco-based official with the governmental watchdog group Common Cause. ``It may be a small part of the way that they wield influence. They're another mechanism for donors and recipients to find each other,'' he said.

Ruskin called caucuses ``a way for a member to say, 'Hey, I'm doing something.' Or, they're a formalized way for members to meet more lobbyists.''

Lawmakers involved in the caucuses, however, note that the theft of movies and music costs the entertainment industry more than $3 billion a year and the country $1 billion in annual tax revenue. They said each group takes a specific angle on the fight, each one of them important.

``They are very helpful in calling attention to the issue. Each one has an important role to play,'' said Fritz Attaway, general counsel for the Motion Picture Association of America.

Schiff's caucus, for example, the International Anti-piracy Caucus that he launched along with Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., zeros in on copyright infringement overseas.

The caucus identified Brazil, China, Pakistan, Russia and Taiwan as countries that the United States must force to crack down on the sale of pirated goods. The caucus intends to persuade the Bush administration to include strong anti-piracy provisions in any trade deals with those nations.

Last June, Reps. Mary Bono, R-Palm Springs, and Robert Wexler, D-Fla., launched the Congressional Caucus on Intellectual Property Promotion and Piracy. The caucus focuses generally on the protection of intellectual property rights, but not specifically on overseas piracy.

There's also the Congressional Entertainment Caucus, the Songwriters Caucus and the Internet Caucus, all of which take a special interest in combating piracy.

Rep. Diane Watson, D-Los Angeles, who started the Congressional Entertainment Caucus earlier this year to address not only copyright infringement but also issues like runaway production and media cross-ownership, said lawmakers with common goals might be ``more effective'' if they joined existing groups.

``We really should combine the efforts, but members tend to want to address issues that impact in their communities,'' she said.

Other local lawmakers said the proliferation of entertainment caucuses serves Congress well.

``I think it's great,'' said Rep. Howard Berman, D-Van Nuys, who belongs to all of the caucuses, said of the proliferation. ``It demonstrates the breadth of concern for doing something meaningful about the theft of intellectual property.''

Schiff agreed. ``I think this is a wonderful problem to have, that we have so many people interested in this issue,'' he said.

Political watchdogs note that lawmakers make a bigger name for themselves by launching new caucuses than joining existing ones. And, added Ruskin, ``To the extent that they keep the channels of dialogue open with industries, they help with campaign contributions.''

The entertainment industry has donated money to each of the lawmakers responsible for launching industry-related caucuses.

According to the D.C.-based Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks political donations to members of Congress, Schiff has received about $86,000 from the entertainment industry since 2001. Bono received about $33,000 from the industry during the same time period; Goodlatte about $42,000; and Watson about $26,000.

Yet the entertainment industry donated far more to other lawmakers. Berman, who does not chair any of the new anti-piracy caucuses but has long been considered a key ally of Hollywood and who has sponsored several anti-piracy bills, has received about $227,000 from the industry since 2001. Meanwhile, Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, has taken in nearly $330,000.

``There are members of Congress that will join or start a caucus to get noticed by an industry. At the same time, industries are pretty sophisticated,'' Draheim said. ``It's more likely that they're going to give money to the people who hold the right position on the right committee.''

Politicians, meanwhile, bristled at the suggestion that their motives were anything less than the pure-hearted desire to serve their constituents.

``Members are supposed to fight for the interests of their constituents,'' Berman said.

The notion that any politician would create a caucus to pump up his or her reputation or as a fund-raising aid, Berman said, is ``overly cynical.''

Lisa Friedman, (202) 662-8731

lisa.friedman(at)langnews.com
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Oct 26, 2003
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