Déjà Vu at House Hearing on FCC Process Reform

Little agreement between GOP and Dems

It was déjà vu today when a House subcommittee once again revisited a pair of bills aimed at reforming how the Federal Communications Commission does business. Democrats didn’t like the bills last year when they passed the GOP-controlled House, and they don’t like the newly minted ones now.

A pet project of Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), chairman of the subcommittee on communications and technology, the bills would change the FCC’s decision-making process for reviewing mergers and making new rules, require the agency to set deadlines for its processes, and consolidate much of the agency’s reporting responsibilities.

Figuring the bills will take the same trajectory as they did last year and go nowhere in the Senate, Dems saw the whole hearing as a waste of time. Only two Dems even bothered to show up for the hearing, ranking subcommittee member Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) and ranking commerce committee member Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.).

As a result, the back and forth between the GOP and Dems was often reduced to bipartisan fireworks.

Walden knew he was in for a partisan fight. Quoting former FCC chief of staff Blair Levin, a Democrat, Walden said in his opening statement:  “The FCC is becoming more of a political institution and less an expert agency.”

Eshoo called the bills “a backdoor way of gutting the FCC’s authority.”

Waxman argued the bills would tie the agency up in knots. “The red tape created by this legislation is astounding,” said Waxman, adding that the agency would have to hire more people and spend more money.

“Yes, it would require more people, open processes,” Walden said.

While Dems argued the bills would gut the commission’s authority, Walden characterized the bills as purely academic: “It merely asks the agency to do what we ask of most grade school students: to show its work.”

At one point, Eshoo cut through the partisan back-and-forth to point out that it was the section that would limit the FCC’s ability to impose merger conditions unrelated to the specific transaction that was causing the most division. She seemed to suggest that if Walden would remove that section of the bills, perhaps the Dems could work with the GOP.

“There are smaller reforms we can do on a bipartisan and bicameral basis, but this is the area that causes the most heartbreak both pro and con,” said Eshoo.

But Walden is unlikely to budge on a point that he often cites as the biggest reason for the bill in the first place. And even the academic witness for the Democratic position, Prof. Richard Pierce of George Washington University, said he didn’t think the FCC should be doing antitrust merger reviews.

Bottom line is the bills are likely to sail through the commerce committee and pass again in the House. The big question is whether Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) can overcome Senate Dems and get the bills a hearing in the commerce committee and on to the Senate floor.