Island of common ground amid differences at FCC reform hearing


Just about everybody in the room where a House Communications Subcommittee hearing was held agreed that provisions of the Sunshine Act should be done away with as they pertain to the FCC. Otherwise, Republicans wanted to limit the FCC’s role overseeing business entities, and Democrats thought the Republicans were overreaching to the point of creating a counterproductive bill.

The draft bill under consideration is the “Federal Communications Commission Process Reform Act of 2011.”

The general Republican view is that the FCC abuses process in the name of the public interest, which Subcommittee Chairman Greg Walden (R-OR) said was what any three commissioners say it is on any given day. They want opportunities for public input at least twice on FCC actions, in particular once a final draft of a proposed rulemaking is published, along with timelines and shot clocks.

Even more, they want FCC conditions on mergers under review to be restricted and merger-specific. And under no circumstances should the FCC impose a condition that it couldn’t enforce otherwise. They also want more FCC justification for its actions, including identification of market failure that a rule is addressing, and a cost-benefit analysis if a rule is adopted.

Democrats noted that the rules were overbroad – not all proceedings require such rigorous commentary and analysis. In many such cases, the draft bill will actually slow down commission action. They also noted that the addition of extra layers of FCC study and public comment actually works against the simultaneous desire for a shot clock. It was also suggested that the bill wasn’t so much about making the FCC more efficient, but rather was a reaction to disagreement with specific FCC actions.

Energy and Commerce Committee Ranking Member Emeritus John Dingell (D-MI) used his yes or no witness questioning technique to suggest that there are superfluous and/or unnecessary provisions in the bill; in particular, he suggested that requiring a cost-benefit analysis on every proceeding that imposes a burden on industry or consumers would be expensive, and well beyond current FCC staff and budget assets. He suggests the bill is bad policy.

And in perhaps the most pointed remark of the day, Dingell suggested that there was little involvement in writing the draft beyond the Republican caucus, He said that the bill should be written in a transparent manner with participation from all involved parties, and the process of creating the legislation should not make the mistakes of the agency the legislation seeks to reform.

There was, however, general agreement among all legislators regardless of policy, and all witnesses regardless of general point of view, that meetings or three or more commissioners should be allowed under certain conditions (Consumer advocate Mark Cooper wants a transcript of such meetings).

Former Senator John Sununu (R-NH), who now works on behalf of the broadband industry, noted that communications firms have been one of the biggest investors of late despite the lengthy economic downturn, and suggested regulatory certainty was desired to keep the investment dollars flowing.

Cooper said shot clocks were OK with him, as long as they started only after a company seeking FCC approval provides all requested information, and only if shot clocks also apply to FCC action on consumer complaints, which he said often languish at the FCC for years.