Rep. Greg Walden Renews Push for FCC Changes

Despite political obstacles, will he succeed this time?

Not much has changed politically since last Congress when Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), head of the House subcommittee on communications and technology, introduced a pair of bills to reform how the Federal Communications Commission operates. While the two bills passed the House over fierce objection from Democrats, they were dead on arrival at a Democrat-controlled Senate.

Despite similar odds, Walden is determined to change an agency he believes must be made more transparent and accountable. Coming back for Round 2, Walden scheduled a hearing for Thursday on two new bills.

"I'm very serious about this one," said Walden. "Never give up."

The bills under discussion this year are nearly the same as the two bills that passed the House in March and May last year. But while the politics may be the same (a GOP-controlled House and a Democrat-controlled Senate), Walden hopes that Democrats might see things differently now in the wake of the ongoing scandals at the NSA and IRS.

"I would hope the Senate would take note of the public's angst at a runaway bureaucracy and that they would embrace reform. If they want to defend the status quo, have at it. I want to make [the government] open and transparent," Walden said.

He added that "sometimes it takes a while to build on these issues."

The FCC Process Reform Act would require the agency to create "shot clocks" for its decision making, allow a minimum time of comment from the public and prohibit the commission from placing conditions on mergers that are not specific to the transaction. The act also would reduce the power of the FCC chair to set the agenda.

The second bill, the Federal Communications Consolidated Reporting Act, would eliminate outdated studies, consolidate others into a biennial release and initiate a state-of-the-industry report.

"[Former FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski] did a lot of reforms, but there's nothing that says that transcends to the next chair," Walden said. "You could have a runaway chair."

What really gets into Walden's craw is the FCC's habit of extracting voluntary conditions in merger reviews that aren't tied to the FCC's authority like it did with the Comcast-NBCUniversal merger.

"It borders on criminal what they do," Walden said. "If you read [FCC chairman nominee Tom] Wheeler's blog, he thinks that's the way to change the market."

Walden was referring to Wheeler's suggestion that the FCC should have approved the AT&T and T-Mobile merger but also extracted conditions that would impact all wireless carriers. "The notion that you can get behind closed doors and leverage two parties to do what you don't have the statutory authority to do and eludes the marketplace is wrong," Walden said.

Walden's bills have been supported by the FCC's GOP commissioners; former commissioner Robert McDowell is scheduled to testify Thursday that the entire statute needs to be redone.

More recently, commissioner Ajit Pai took the occasion of the FCC's approval of Softbank’s purchase of Sprint and Sprint's acquisition of outstanding shares in Clearwire to call for process changes.

"Even though we quickly reviewed this order and rendered judgment, we still exceeded our self-imposed deadline by 35 days," Pai said, in a statement. "Codifying the deadline would help us meet it, which in turn would give the parties and the public more confidence that the agency is acting with dispatch."

Determined and optimistic, Walden will keep seeking to revamp the FCC no matter what it takes.

"If the test is why do anything the Senate won't do, then why have a House? We passed the spectrum [auction] legislation in the Jobs Act. It's a give and take," he said. When asked if that might mean the FCC process reform bills might end up as part of another bill that has to be passed, Walden said: "You never foreclose opportunities."