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Here comes the new FCC

Wed, 12/31/1997 - 7:00pm
Jeffrey Krauss, Watcher and President of Telecommunications and Technology Policy of Rockville, Maryland
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By Jeffrey Krauss, watcher and President of Telecommunications and Technology Policy of Rockville, Maryland

And most recently, we learned that the chief of the cable bureau plans to resign. Among other things, all of this change guarantees delays in decision-making. But considering some of the decisions made under the last FCC chairman, delay is just fine, thank you.

Once upon a time

There used to be seven FCC commissioners, but now there are five. Some years ago, Congress decided to punish the FCC (for some long-since forgotten transgression) and cut the number of commissioners from seven to five. The main effect was to clear out some valuable office space on the eighth floor of the FCC headquarters building; there was no apparent thought given to improvement in FCC decision-making. And the commissioners' terms were cut from seven years to five years, staggered so that one expires each year.

The President appoints the commissioners and selects one of them to be chairman. No more than three of the five can be from a single political party. Senators from the opposition party (today, it's the Republicans) actually make the selection of the two commissioners from their party. The Senate must vote to confirm the appointees. These things are all worked out in advance. A political logjam a couple of years ago prevented new FCC appointments, so one commissioner whose term expired (Jim Quello) continued to serve as a commissioner past the end of his term, and another (Andy Barrett) simply resigned.

Now, finally, the logjam is broken, and (thank goodness) former Chairman Reed Hundt is gone. He managed to make enemies in nearly every industry that the FCC regulates. We have a new chairman—Bill Kennard—and three additional appointees—Michael Powell, Gloria Tristani and Harold Furchgott-Roth. The one holdover commissioner is Susan Ness.

The FCC sometimes acts like a judge and jury—adjudicating disputes between parties—and sometimes like a legislature—adopting new policies that have the force of law. Some of the issues that the FCC must deal with are very complicated, and it will take these new commissioners some time to get up-to-speed.

Bill Kennard has an advantage. He was the FCC's general counsel for the past four years, and before that, worked as a lawyer on telecommunications issues. Furchgott-Roth is an economist who worked most recently as a Congressional staffer, and wrote a book in 1996 that argues against rate regulation of cable TV systems. Tristani comes from New Mexico, where she served as a member of the state public utility commission. Tristani's reputation on telephone and electric rate regulation is pro-consumer, not pro-business. Powell comes from the Antitrust Division of the Justice Department, where he was chief of staff. Some have speculated that his Senate supporters are looking ahead to the time when his father, General Colin Powell, becomes the next President of the United States. Wouldn't it be nice to be able to go to the President and tell him that he owes you a favor because you arranged a nice job for his son?

The commissioners have staff to help them, and some of the staffers have quite a bit of experience at the FCC. But the staffers are simply advisors, not decision-makers. The point is that several of these commissioners have very little background in telecommunications regulation, and it will take them some time to feel comfortable making decisions.

Cable bureau chief

Meredith Jones, who has been chief of the FCC's Cable Bureau, has just announced that she will resign. That shouldn't be a surprise, because traditionally, every new FCC chairman has replaced some or most of the bureau chiefs. Unlike most of the FCC staff positions that are filled by career bureaucrats, these top-level jobs are filled by appointees who come and go. I would not be surprised to see changes in some other top FCC staff jobs.

The result of new FCC appointments is always a delay in decision-making. For the most part, the FCC sets its own agenda and timetable. Delay is easy, and there are no penalties. (There are limited exceptions when Congress passes a law that tells the FCC it must make a decision by a specific date. But even in those cases, even where the agency assigns a very high priority to the issue, the decision sometimes slips beyond the designated date. The penalty for breaking the law in this case is verbal abuse at the next Congressional oversight hearing.)

So major decisions on cable policy changes will probably occur later, than sooner. But that's OK with most of us.

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