FCC Reauthorization Bill Referred to Full Committee

The House Communications Subcommittee Wednesday (Oct. 11) marked up a bipartisan discussion draft of legislation reauthorizing the FCC and made short work of it, voting unanimously to refer the draft to the full House Energy & Commerce Committee and taking less than a half hour to do it.

But that still left enough time for the subcommittee ranking member to decry President Trump's Twitter attack on NBC.

It will be the first reauthorization of the agency in more than 25 years. Reauthorization is a chance to legislate various changes in how the FCC does business, including process reforms and, in one particular instance broadcasters are following closely, how it repacks TV stations post-auction.

One reason for the smooth sailing is that some amendments will not be introduced until the full committee mark-up and the various provisions already in the draft include bills backed by Democrats, including boosting public safety, wireless coverage data collection, cybersecurity, and bipartisan FCC process reform language that has twice passed the House.

Rep. Anna Eshoo's (D-Calif.) FCC Collaboration Act is also included, which would allow more than two commissioners to meet outside of public meetings so long as certain sunshine criteria are met.

"I don’t know how many [times] I have introduced that in," Eshoo said. "Maybe this is the magic year for that."

Citing some of those provisions, Pallone said in his opening statement that the draft was "a good first start," but added, "We still have critical work to do before I can support reporting this bill out of the full committee."

Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.) said the bill was a good-faith, bipartisan effort by the majority, but also said it needed improving.

That mark-up is likely to be longer and more contentious.

One measure Pallone wants included is the Viewer Protection Act, which would ensure funds for a TV station post-auction repack education campaign and that enough enough repack funding is available to ensure no viewers are denied a signal.

Pallone said that while he supported referring the bill to the full committee, "the bill should not proceed to a full committee mark-up until we find a way to include the Viewer Protection Act." Doyle also said the legislation was critical, particularly the education portion.

He said he was willing to make changes to garner further support. House Energy & Commerce Committee chair Greg Walden (R-Ore.) said more discussion was needed on the issue, but he shared the goal of "appropriately taking care of broadcasters as the band gets repacked," though Pallone has always made it clear he is more focused on making sure viewers were taken care of.

“I applaud the Subcommittee on its mark-up of the FCC Reauthorization Act," said FCC commissioner Michael O'Rielly. "This legislation codifies key process reforms Chairman Pai and I have championed and that have been adopted into our daily procedures at the commission. Making these permanent will ensure certainty and transparency to the agency for the future. I look forward to working with the committee on additional items to further strengthen FCC process and on other key issues.”

Pallone used his opening statement to join the chorus of critics pushing back on President Trump's tweeted threat against NBC.

"I was very disturbed to see this morning the president issue a tweet that seemed to threaten broadcasters' licenses only because he disagreed with their reporting," Pallone said. "This threat alone could intimidate ... and lead to skewed and unfair reporting. I am calling on the FCC chairman, [Ajit] Pai, to immediately condemn this unwarranted attack. I also call on him to announce publicly that he will not follow through on his orders from the president."

Doyle said that while members of the administration were free to challenge the veracity of reporting, it was "unacceptable for the president or the administration to threaten the independence of the media when they don't like their reporting."

Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) has also called on Pai to declare he will not go after broadcasters at the president's direction. An FCC spokesman was not available for comment at press time, but Pai has told Congress that he would not act in a manner that stifles or penalizes free speech "even if requested by the administration."

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.