Divided House E&C Approves FCC Reform Bill

The House Energy & Commerce Committee Wednesday passed by voice vote a package of FCC reforms in the form of the modified H.R. 2583, the FCC Process Reform Act. The bill requires the commission to publish draft orders when they are circulated to the other commissioners, publish orders within 24 hours of a vote, and publish a list of the potentially precedential or important items voted on delegated authority — at the bureau rather than commission level — "a full" 48 hours before the decision.

Those all Republican offerings — came over the objections of most Democrats, though those Democrats did not call for a roll call vote on the bill, which would establish just who did and did not support the bill.

The baseline bill, which passed the House with bipartisan support in the last Congress, gives the FCC a year to set minimum comment periods, establishes procedures for putting specific language of a proposed rule in notices of proposed rulemaking, and comes up with performance measures for evaluating the effectiveness of rules.

Democratic committee leaders did make it clear they did not support the underlying bill and the Communications Subcommittee chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.) and ranking member Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) did have some words over a Republican request back in January that FCC chairman Tom Wheeler publish the draft of proposed Title II-based network neutrality rules. Eshoo has suggested that drove the Republican effort to force draft publications, while Walden has maintained it predated that.

Also approved with bipartisan support were Democratic-backed amendments that would require the FCC to provide an accounting of the status of petitions and other items, would require the publication of FCC policies and procedures for dispensing with items, and publish any changes to those, and require the FCC to work with the Small Business Administration to insure that those small businesses — often minority and women-owned — have more equal access to FCC process.

Two amendments were rejected. One, offered by Eshoo, was a substitute bill that would have removed a delay in the bill of a provision she has been pushing to allow more than two commissioners to talks outside of public meetings.

The other, which drew a lot of attention, was a bill introduced last month by Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.) that would direct the FCC to require the on-air sponsorship identifications on TV and radio political ads from PACs and nonprofits to better identify the actual funders of those ads.

The Republican amendments had bee tweaked slightly. Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), whose amendment required publication of drafts when they are circulated, said he had worked with Public Knowledge to insure that his amendment "will not create any new procedural rights within the publication of drafts."

Public Knowledge does not support the bill, but thanked Kinzinger (and Walden) for the tweak, which even drew a few Democratic votes for passage.

Rep. Bob Latta (R-Ohio), who introduced the delegated authority amendment, said it had been tweaked to make clear that it was only applying to decisions FCC bureau chiefs have determined are potentially precedential or otherwise of broad public interest rather than the thousands of routine such decisions, an issue that surfaced in the subcommittee markup of the bills.

“We applaud members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee on passing H.R. 2583, the FCC Process Reform Act," the National Cable & Telecommunications Association said in a statement. "As the FCC considers critical technology and communications issues, this legislation encourages greater sunshine in FCC decision making so businesses can better invest and innovate and all Americans can access more information about policy decisions. We hope the full House will soon consider and approve this legislation.”

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.