Lawmakers may relax their assault on FCC

Mar 26, 2001  •  Post A Comment

Not long ago, Republican lawmakers approached reforming the Federal Communications Commission as a form of political retribution.

Upset that former agency Chairman Bill Kennard, a Democrat, was overstepping his regulatory bounds, they threatened legislation to overhaul and downsize the agency, curb its authority and make it more accountable to Congress.

But GOP lawmakers have toned down the rhetoric now that Republican Michael Powell is in charge. If anything, they appear reluctant to criticize a fellow party member, not to mention the son of Secretary of State Colin Powell.

“I think in the back of their minds, behind Powell stands Powell’s dad,” said one industry observer, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Now the talk is conciliatory and the strategy is for the FCC to initiate reforms, with Congress pursuing legislation later on if needed.

The bottom line is that the March 29 hearing on FCC reform before the House subcommittee on telecommunications and the Internet should be a friendly affair for Mr. Powell, the only scheduled witness.

Setting the congenial tone will be panel Chairman Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., who has emerged as one of Mr. Powell’s staunchest supporters.

“Fred has met with Chairman Powell personally. He’s come away with a very positive impression. Under Chairman Powell, the FCC has a very bright future,” said Mike Waldron, a spokesman for Rep. Upton.

No longer is the talk just about streamlining and downsizing. Rep. Upton recently proposed boosting the FCC’s annual appropriations, a top priority of Mr. Powell, who says the agency needs more funds to attract engineers and other professionals who are often lured away by high salaries in the private sector.

Republicans say they’re committed to revamping the agency and that only their approach has changed.

Ken Johnson, spokesman for House Commerce Committee Chairman Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., put it this way: “Billy remains totally committed to comprehensive FCC reform. The only question is how far can Chairman Powell go on his own without some legislative backing.”

Rep. Tauzin may seek to “codify” some of Mr. Powell’s reforms through legislation to prevent any future liberal-minded FCC from dismantling them, Mr. Johnson added.

The lawmaker used to routinely criticize the FCC for dragging its feet on merger reviews, imposing unnecessary conditions on deals and “shaking down” companies that had business before the agency. He even set up a task force on agency reform. But all that was when Democrat Mr. Kennard was in charge.

With Mr. Powell now the chairman, GOP lawmakers are holding firm to one key goal: reining in the FCC’s merger review authority. They say the agency is mostly duplicating the work of the Justice Department’s antitrust division, is too heavy-handed in imposing conditions and is too slow to review deals and license transfers.