There has been a good bit of legislative bluster aimed at the Federal Communications Commission over the years, but the bureaucratic system is what it is. House Communications Subcommittee Chair Greg Walden (R-OR) kept the session focused on process for the most part, and it was a relatively quiet affair – it would be hard to call the session a grilling. The most notable aspect of the hearing was the absence of Comcast/NBCU-bound Commissioner Meredith Baker. And Comcast/NBCU came up when the topic of merger approval conditions was raised.
Walden started out asking for a focus on process, and the exclusion of reference to any of the politically-charged matters that have been before the Commission in the recent past or are pending at the moment.
He offered up a seven-point proposal that was simmered down from a Republican committee member working memo on the topic. The proposals included the following:
1. FCC could be required to start proceedings with a Notice of Inquiry rather than NPRM.
2. Publish text of proposed rules before adopting final rules.
3. Finite time lines for conclusion
4. Provide additional info – items being circulated, also items on hold
5. Bipartisan ability to move item chair is sitting on – three commissioners would have the ability to move or squelch an item in opposition to the chair
6. Regulatory flexibility – conduct cost/benefit analysis of proposed regulation
7. Conditions are vague – parties should not feel compelled to accept conditions – address the way FCC handles merger reviews. FCC should not be able to impose conditions it could not otherwise adopt.
Chairman Julius Genachowski used his opening remarks to directly address these issues. He noted many measureable improvements at the FCC since he took over, regarding openness and transparency, efficiency and working conditions.
In general, the other commissioners agreed with him, and generally, it was agreed that to an extent, almost all of Walden’s requests are already in place, although not necessarily referred to in the same terminology he used. They noted that not every proceeding they face fits into the constraints of Walden’s list, so flexibility is sometimes required.
When asked about the list item by item, Robert McDowell’s stock answer more or less summed up every commissioner’s response. He agreed that the suggestions were good by saying ““Yes, with flexibility that can’t be abused”
The three Democrats in general were more interested in flexibility, but had no problem with the list because most of the time the suggestions already conform to the way the FCC attempts to operate.
One reform everybody seemed to favor was passage of the act sponsored by Anna Eshoo (D-CA) and John Shimkus (R-IL) that would make it easier for commissioners to talk with one another.
The session was rather sparsely attended, not an unusual outcome on a Friday on Capitol Hill, when many legislators are catching planes to head back to their districts.
On top of that, House floor votes held shortly after Walden and Eshoo made opening statements further eroded attendance.
But the generally genial tone of the session was almost guaranteed at the outset by Walden’s promise that he was seeking information, not setting out to legislate. The commissioners have been asked to give thoughtful answers to the reform proposals and enter them into the record.