FCC Control Could Be Ceded to Democrats

Nov 7, 2005  •  Post A Comment

Republican Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin Martin could soon find himself in the awkward position of presiding over a Bush administration agency that is controlled by Democrats-due to the inability of the White House and Senate to provide him with Republican allies.

“The delay is the damnedest thing I’ve ever seen, and I was there [at the FCC] for 23 years,” said Democrat Jim Quello, a former FCC chairman.

Under the law, the FCC is authorized to have five commissioners. With a Republican White House, three of the FCC’s seats can go to Republicans, ensuring a GOP majority.

Despite the theoretical political edge he should enjoy, Mr. Martin, who became chairman in March, is in a pickle because the White House and Senate have not been able to get their act together to provide him his Republican majority.

For the past eight months Mr. Martin has made do with two Republicans and two Democrats on the commission.

His assignment promises to become more complicated within the next several weeks because the seat of Kathleen Abernathy, his sole Republican colleague, has expired and she will be forced to step down when Congress adjourns at the end of the year.

Industry sources said that even if the White House nominated two Republican candidates now, there’s too little time left this year to count on Senate confirmation.

That could leave Mr. Martin with a 1-2 agency-one Republican against two Democrats-giving the Democrats effective control. Without any vote to count on but his own, Mr. Martin won’t be able to move significant FCC initiatives that the agency’s two Democrats-FCC Commissioners Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein-don’t support.

“He’s going to really have to pull out a bunny if he’s 1-2,” said Jerry Udwin, a longtime industry lobbyist who monitors the agency.

“You would have a rather neutral agenda,” Mr. Quello added. “He couldn’t take up some real controversial stuff.”

It’s always possible that President Bush could bail Mr. Martin out with a recess appointment of a Republican commissioner or two, after Congress adjourns for the year. Recess appointments are short-term assignments that the president can make without Senate confirmation to address emergencies. But before the White House can make a recess appointment it has to nominate candidates, according to an attorney familiar with the procedure.

The White House’s failure to move on nominations has been particularly befuddling because Mr. Martin formerly worked at President George W. Bush’s White House-and it was widely reported this summer that the White House had settled on a bipartisan package deal that would assign Deborah Taylor Tate, a director of the Tennessee Regulatory Authority, and Richard Russell, associate director of the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, to the two Republican vacancies and include a new term for Democrat Mr. Copps.

A persistent industry rumor has it that Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, has been secretly promoting one of his top aides-Lisa Sutherland-for Mr. Russell’s proposed seat, complicating the White House’s plan.

Sen. Stevens declined comment last week.

Said a spokeswoman for Ms. Sutherland: “If the White House is considering her for an FCC position, it’s news to her.”

Two candidates that Sen. Stevens, the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, previously promoted for Republican seats at the FCC, dropped out of the running. Earl Comstock, a former aide to the senator, reportedly had documentation problems involving a family nanny. Christine Kurth, a top aide for the senator now, said her nomination would have created a conflict because her husband consults for telecommunications companies.

In a brief interview last week, Mr. Martin said: “I’m sure they’re working through the process and will nominate people soon and the Senate will take it up, but I don’t have any update for you.”