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FCC Reform Hearing Sparks Lively Debate

There’s disagreement during a Capitol Hill hearing on how to smooth agency processes and more

You’d think a hearing on FCC reform could be dull, but today’s was anything but boring.

House Telecom & Communications Subcommittee Chair Oregon Republican Rep. Greg Walden is trying again to get his package of bills to streamline FCC procedures through Congress. The package passed the House but died in the Senate previously. The new legislation is currently in draft form, we’ve reported.

The legislation would require the FCC to conduct cost-benefit analyses before adopting new rules, meet binding deadlines and provide the public an adequate opportunity to review proposals. It would also cut down on the number of reports the agency needs to send to Congress.

Ranking Subcommittee Democrat Anna Eshoo of California questioned the need for the hearing, saying the subcommittee has debated the legislation for three years and it’s “going nowhere.”

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

Fellow Californian Henry Waxman, also ranking Democrat on the full House Commerce Committee, agreed, saying adoption of 12 additional steps before taking a vote would “slow the agency to a crawl.”

Walden pushed on, saying the proposals are “designed to minimize the potential for procedural failings, curb abuse and improve agency decision making.”

National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners General Counsel James Ramsay agreed, saying the additional steps are designed to address “abuse of process,” which can undermine rational decision-making. The proposals, he said, try to give other commissioners time to “have adequate decision-making” before they vote.

Duke Law professor Stuart Benjamin said the proposal undermines the Administrative Procedures Act that applies to all federal agencies; the upshot is passage could “ossify” the FCC process.

One topic that several witnesses supported is the concept of allowing more than two commissioners to meet to discuss an issue before a vote is taken. The so-called Sunshine Act prevents that now.

Former FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell said, “FCC process reform is not necessarily the most glamorous topic” but it is necessary. McDowell also said that even though he’s now a visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute, his views are his own.

McDowell urged lawmakers to move ahead with a rewrite of the Telecom Act, something he’s long-supported. As for the bills discussed in the hearing, he favors making the FCC justify new rules with a cost-benefits analysis and including a sunset date for any new rules the commission promulgates to give the agency an ongoing way to weed out those that are no longer necessary.

McDowell supports the portion of the legislation that would allow more than two commissioners to meet to discuss pending issues face-to-face.

Though not a witness, Commissioner Ajit Pai, too, supports the reform efforts, noting in a statement that “Process often dictates outcomes.”

NAB President/CEO Gordon Smith is pleased the subcommittee is taking a fresh look at FCC reform, stating: “The agency has a critically important mission, and it is imperative that it execute that mission expeditiously, fairly and in a data-driven manner.”