WASHINGTON Congressional Democrats on Wednesday accused the Federal Communications Commission of all manner of ills, ranging from favoritism to a botched investigation.
Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, was especially pointed in his questions as he accused the commission of usurping power that belongs to Congress.
"The FCC is not a legislative body. That role resides here, in this room, with the people's elected representatives," Dingell told the commissioners. "When the FCC loses sight of its proper role, consumers suffer, as does the credibility of the FCC. I fear that this has too often been the case."
The hearing marked the first time in nearly four years that all five commissioners have appeared before the Commerce Committee, now controlled by Democrats, for an oversight hearing.
Dingell grilled FCC chairman Kevin Martin, a Republican, over policies the congressman pushed through at the agency that require local governments to speed up the approval process for new cable competitors, cap the fees paid by new entrants and ease requirements that competitors build systems that reach every home. Just before Christmas, the FCC approved the controversial rules on a 3-2, party-line vote.
Dingell accused Martin of allowing Verizon Communications, one of the companies that would benefit from the rule change, to alter the record used to establish the policy a month after the commission approved the change.
"Do you believe that asking outside parties to submit new facts after a vote is the proper way to assure a fair and impartial record upon which an agency vote is based?" Dingell asked.
Martin rebutted Dingell's allegation, telling the panel that the post-vote amendments were based on comments from municipalities which opposed the change. The city of Tampa, Fla., wanted to correct what it perceived as inaccuracies in the record, Martin said.
"They had made an assertion after the record had closed, so we asked the other parties that were involved for later submission," Martin said. "That's why we asked Verizon to respond."
Dingell also criticized Martin for prolonging the commission's payola investigation into the deal in which commentator Armstrong Williams was given money to hype President Bush's "No Child Left Behind" program. Williams did not disclose that he was receiving payments from the Department of Education to speak well of the program. Williams later repaid the money.
"It seems that not just the music industry but the government is involved in payola," Dingell said.
Martin said he hoped to wrap up the investigation soon, telling Dingell it has taken so long because of incomplete data provided by the stations. He also told the panel that a larger payola investigation in which the country's four biggest radio station groups have agreed to settle with the promise of airtime for independent record labels and a $12.5 million fine is not yet complete.
He is working to get a settlement with other radio station groups, Martin told the panel.
Commerce Committee aides said Dingell's concerns are broader than just the specifics he brought up during the hearing. The problems at the FCC are systemic and raise questions about Martin's method of running the agency when certain companies get most-favored-nation status, the aides said.
Dingell told the FCC commissioners that it might not be as long between hearings next time, saying he "wonder(ed) whether we need to schedule an oversight hearing every month in order to keep the business of the commission on track."