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FCC Reform Bill Unveiled

As expected, a pair of Republican legislators introduced an FCC process reform bill Wednesday that would require the FCC to justify regulations acording to costs and benefits, survey the state of the marketplace before initiating any new rulemakings, and take other steps to make sure the public is getting bang for its regulatory buck.

Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), chairman of the Energy and Commerce Communications subcommittee, joimed with Senator Dean Heller (R-Nev.), Wednesday to unveil the bill, which Walden suggested was the product of a collaborative process with the FCC and his colleagues across the aisle and talked about it in terms of improving transparency and efficiency.

"We have reached out to our Democratic colleagues, Chairman Genachowski, each commissioner, and job creators to identify what current FCC processes work and what can be improved," he said in announcing the bills. "Taking this feedback into account, we developed a series of sensible process reforms to improve the way the Commission operates."

Heller, by contrast, pitched it as a way to prevent the FCC from "stifling" and "oppressing" the marketplace. "Stifling the technology sector with onerous regulations will only impede new job creation at a time when we need jobs most. Stopping oppressive regulations will be critical to getting our nation's economy moving again and this legislation is a step in the right direction."

Walden held an FCC oversight hearing in June that made it clear House Republicans wanted to move on a discussion draft of an FCC reform bill that was circulated at that time. House Democrats at the hearing countered that too strict a regimen could actually impede the regulatory process, while gutting the public interest standard that they argue should be the FCC's North Star.

While the bill has a chance to pass the Republican-controlled House, it would likely be a tough climb in the Democrat-controlled Senate.

"Since day one, Chairman Genachowski has directed the agency to improve performance and processes to support innovation, economic growth and America's global competitiveness," said an FCC spokesman. "We've made impressive strides, such as reducing Commission backlogs, including an 89% reduction in satellite licensing applications and a 30% reduction in broadcast licensing applications, closing 999 dormant proceedings and increasing the number of Notices of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRMs) that contained the text of proposed rules from 38% before the Chairman's appointment to 85%. We've also significantly reduced the time between the vote on a Commission decision and its release, from an average release time of 14 calendar days before the Chairman's appointment to just three calendar days, with a majority released within one day."
The bill drew immediate and divergent reactions elsewhere.

"This so-called "reform" bill is meretricious mischief which arrives a few days too late for Halloween," said Andrew Schwartzman of Media Access Project. "Under the guise of streamlining the regulatory process, it creates procedural obstacles which favor incumbent cable and phone companies and stifle innovators. It would mire the FCC with needless bureaucratic nonsense and keep it from doing its job."

And this from the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners: "This is an important legislative effort will streamline and make more efficient regulatory processes at the Federal Communications Commission. Rep. Walden and Sen. Heller should be applauded for taking up this issue. Reforming the FCC will bring needed transparency and accessibility into the regulatory system."

According to a summary of the bill, it would:

• Require the Commission to survey the state of the marketplace through a Notice of Inquiry before initiating new rulemakings to ensure the Commission has an up-to-date understanding of the rapidly evolving and job-creating telecommunications marketplace.

• Require the Commission to identify a market failure, consumer harm, or regulatory barrier to investment before adopting economically significant rules. After identifying such an issue, the Commission must demonstrate that the benefits of regulation outweigh the costs while taking into account the need for regulation to impose the least burden on society.

• Require the Commission to establish performance measures for all program activities so that when the Commission spends hundreds of millions of federal or consumer dollars, Congress and the public have a straightforward means of seeing what bang we're getting for our buck.

• Apply to the Commission, an independent agency, the regulatory reform principles that President Obama endorsed in his Jan. 2011 Executive Order.

• Prevent regulatory overreach by requiring any conditions imposed on transactions to be within the Commission's existing authority and be tailored to transaction-specific harms.

• Enhance consistency and transparency in the Commission's operations by requiring the FCC to establish and disclose its own internal procedures for:  1) adequate review and deliberation regarding pending orders; 2) publication of orders before open meetings; 3) initiation of items by bipartisan majorities; and 4) minimum public review periods for statistical reports and ex parte communications.

•Require the FCC to establish its own "shot clocks" so that parties know how quickly they can expect action in certain proceedings and provide a schedule for when reports would be released.

• Empower the Commission to operate more efficiently through reform of the "sunshine" rules, allowing a bipartisan majority of Commissioners to meet for collaborative discussions subject to transparency safeguards.

• Consolidate eight, separate congressionally mandated reports on the communications industry into a single comprehensive report with a focus on intermodal competition, deploying communications capabilities to unserved communities, and eliminating regulatory barriers.