While Congress has been off on a break over the last two weeks, the five men and women who make up the Federal Communications Commission have been able to breathe a little easier. Soon, that’s going to change.
The commissioners will find themselves in the crosshairs of Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., the powerful chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Communications and Technology, when he convenes a hearing about reforming the FCC. Originally scheduled for Tuesday, the hearing was postponed on Friday and will be rescheduled for sometime in the next few weeks. This will be the second time this year that all five commissioners will appear before the subcommittee.
“Process reform at the FCC is critical,” Walden says. “Process affects policy outcome . . . When you look at the FCC and its track record, it often reaches its decision, builds its record, and loses in court. That is not the flow that similarly constructed agencies have.”
The commissioners themselves have also suggested areas of reform. In a speech in March, Commissioner Meredith Attwell Baker, a Republican, slammed the commission over its process for reviewing mergers, which can drag on for what seems like an eternity.
Though the FCC has a 180-day merger “shot clock,” the regulator can stop the clock at anytime and as a result reviews usually take much longer than that. The FCC took 16 months to approve the merger of XM and Sirius Satellite Radio, and a year to OK the Comcast-NBCU deal; AT&T’s proposed purchase of T-Mobile is expected to be under review for at least a year, and probably more.
Walden, too, has gone after the merger review process, but for different reasons. In an interview with Adweek earlier this month, he sharply criticized the commission for its practice of forcing companies to accept restrictive conditions as a condition of approval.
“It’s a leverage point. They know they have it,” Walden says of the commissioners. “They know they can extort what they want and call it voluntary—because the petitioners for the merger value completion of the merger a lot more than some side policy deal that they’re forced to swallow. I just think from a public policy standpoint, that is an abuse of power, pure and simple.”
While Walden may be the most outspoken critic of the FCC, he’s not the only congressional leader who is looking to find ways to make it over. Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Fla., who chairs Energy and Commerce’s Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, also has a few suggestions for FCC reform, including closing the weeks- or months-long gap between the time an order is adopted and when it is released.
Nor is this solely a Republican cause. Walden has held talks with Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., and in March Eshoo and Reps. John Shimkus, R-Ill., and Mike Doyle, D-Pa., introduced a bill that would allow three or more commissioners to hold nonpublic collaborative discussions, as long as a member of each political party is represented. Currently, absent a formal meeting, the law prohibits more than two commissioners from sitting down and talking together.