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Walden: “The FCC Is Not Some Venture Capital Firm”

House subcommittee hearing on commission transparency at times contentious

The House Communications and Technology Subcommittee hearing on increasing transparency at the FCC was contentious at times.

That was expected as many lawmakers are unhappy about the agency’s recent Net Neutrality (Title II) decision, though they repeatedly said during the hearing, which lasted until late afternoon Thursday, that’s not why they are eager to change how the commission operates.

At issue is how the agency makes its decisions and how the voting process can be opened up so businesses affected by the agency’s decisions, and the public, have more input before votes are cast.

Chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.) set the tone at the beginning: “The FCC is not some venture capital firm. The FCC is an independent agency that reports to Congress.”

“Friends of the chairman get access no one else does,” continued Walden, and “to pretend that the FCC is just another federal agency insults this committee” he said sternly, reacting to Wheeler’s testimony. In that, the chairman said the three bills drafted by the GOP members couldn’t work and would actually increase the burden on the agency.

“I can’t come up with a rationale for how the FCC can operate in secret,” said Walden.

Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) then stepped in and called for calm, noting to her colleagues “to say we’re welcoming the chairman and [then] we’re using him as a piñata” was wrong.

She too agreed with Wheeler and doesn’t think the GOP measures will work. “I think they’re going to tie the agency in knots,” and their passage “will open the door to a mess of legal challenges.”

Walden later said his comments were not meant for Chairman Tom Wheeler personally, but for any commission chair. The committee’s work is meant to affect the FCC now and into the future, he said.

Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) summed up the essence of the hearing: “We should not have to see things pass in order to find out what’s in them.” Currently, the full text of an item isn’t released until after the vote.

Commissioner Michael O’Rielly said the weeks immediately prior to a vote are crucial but commissioners are not allowed to discuss specifics with lobbyists they meet with, or even correct misinformation when they hear it. He described the people he meets with as ranging from those who have a lot of information about an item, to those that have some or the wrong information, to those who have none — all because they’re getting their information from third-parties, rather than from the people voting on the issue, by law. He suggests publishing an item once before a vote.

Wheeler said that would invite a host of filings from attorneys that the commission would then have to spend time rewriting the item to update the record each time, “turning the decision process into a fun house that goes on and on.”

O’Rielly also favors having the ability to turn over fewer decisions, or portions of an item, to the bureaus and having the commissioners make the decisions. There was much debate over so-called “delegated authority” but nothing was resolved.

During his time as chairman, according to Wheeler, the average time to release an order is 1.8 days. That compares to 8.7 days when Michael Powell was chairman and 10.7 days during Kevin Martin’s tenure.

Wheeler noted that he formed an agency-wide task force on process reform and the group has more to accomplish.

The Democrats too, have three draft measures on agency reform. A draft bill from Rep. Yvette Clarke (D.-N.Y.) would require the agency to report quarterly to Congress and post pending decisions to its website.

California’s Eshoo is sponsoring a measure to allow three commissioners to collaborate more effectively and Rep. David Loebsack (D-Iowa) offered a draft to require the FCC chairman to post the commission’s internal procedures on its website when any of those change.