Commission attrition

George W. Bush's presidency may bring more than a new chairman to the FCC. Four of the five seats could soon become vacant. Commissioner Michael Powell is widely regarded as a shoo-in for the chairman slot, but the tenure of the other four panel members is looking increasingly short.

A combination of factors is conspiring to push the three Democrats-Chairman William Kennard, Susan Ness and Gloria Tristani-out of their seats, perhaps by the end of January.

Although Kennard says he hasn't made up his mind, by tradition he will leave the commission next month rather than ride out the remaining six months of his term with a significant reduction in clout.

Tristani, who dropped plans to return to New Mexico last spring to campaign for a U.S. House seat, is frustrated with the FCC job, sources say, and eager to head home.

Ness would like to remain on the job, but her term expired in June 1999 and her holdover period expires with the Clinton administration. She has been hoping for a full reappointment but would settle for a temporary appointment by President Clinton during the congressional recess. That would let her hang around without Senate reconfirmation for up to a year or until a new appointee to her spot is confirmed. That would give her more time to seek another full term. So far, however, Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John McCain has opposed a second full appointment.

A recess appointment, once considered a certainty, is increasingly less likely because of the extended congressional session and uncertainty about when Congress will leave. Further complicating chances for the temporary posting is the increasing likelihood that the other Democrats will flee. President Clinton may be less inclined to let her stay with Republicans commanding a 2-1 majority. By making sure all Democrats leave, he could deny the Republicans a quorum and stall the GOP's deregulatory plans, at least until Bush's slate of appointees makes its way through what is certain to be a contentious and lengthy confirmation process.

Republican Harold Furchtgott-Roth's term expired last summer, and he can remain in his post until June 30. But several FCC and industry sources suggest that his rigid and minimalist approach to regulation is frustrating even to Republicans. Furchtgott-Roth's uncompromising stance, which earned him the nickname "Dr. Dissent," was fine with party leaders as long as he was hectoring Kennard and other Democrats. With the GOP now in control, they worry that he will frequently block Republican majorities and hinder implementation of Powell's agenda.

Adding yet one more wrinkle is the possibility the FCC will be forced to tackle a major issue in the next few weeks. For instance, the federal appeals court in Washington could order the commission to rewrite its new equal-employment-opportunity recruiting rules for broadcast stations and cable systems. An issue so dear to Democrats conceivably could persuade President Clinton to ask Kennard and the other Democrats to stay on board. That unprecedented scenario, admittedly a long shot, could put Powell in the uncomfortable position of temporarily presiding over a slate of Democrats that could outvote him.