FCC Reform: Less Is More

There was much talk about reforming the Federal Communications Commission in the waning days of the Kevin Martin-led commission. That talk continues now as the Democratic majority ponders its new powers.

There have even been discussions about tearing down the silos — cable regulation, broadcast regulation, phone regulation — and taking a more holistic approach to the FCC. But it’s unlikely that the talk will lead to a wholesale remaking of the agency.

Arguably, some FCC reform has begun. Acting chairman Michael Copps moved swiftly after Martin’s exit to set a more collegial tone, giving the staffers of other commissioners more access to decision-making and information, and starting weekly meetings with bureau chiefs.

Blair Levin, a team leader of the Obama administration’s government-reform group and former chief of staff for former FCC chairman Reed Hundt, told a Washington policy conference two weeks ago that process reforms were a topic for discussion in the FCC agency review report prepared by others in the administration’s transition team, though arguably some of the process problems are already being addressed by Copps. And while a veteran lobbyist says he has been told that Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.), the new head of the House Energy & Commerce subcommittee overseeing media issues, plans on holding an FCC reform hearing, a Boucher spokeswoman said she knew of no immediate plans.

But an across-the-board agency restructuring doesn’t appear to be in the cards. And the less-is-more approach to reform is just fine with another veteran lobbyist. “If you promote communication between the silos, you can accomplish the same thing as a big reorganization,” the lobbyist says.

While the digital age suggests an opportunity for a broad rethinking of media regulation, the economic crisis has narrowed policymakers’ focus. And the FCC will have its hands full over the next year with seeing the DTV transition through to the end as it “careens” (in Copps’ words) toward completion. The agency has also been charged by the administration and Congress with creating a grand plan for getting the nation connected to the Internet.

Even Copps, one of the biggest critics of FCC processes under Martin, has cautioned against widespread reform. In addressing agency staffers not long after he took over in January, the acting chairman said he was not sure that “wide-ranging reorganization is always the first or best answer to the problems we confront.” Comprehensive reorganizations are disruptive and potentially damaging to morale, he added.

Randolph May, president of communications think tank the Free State Foundation, points out that FCC institutional reform is nothing new. “The Federal Communications Commission presents a somewhat extraordinary spectacle,” May was quoted as saying at the above-mentioned Washington policy conference, which Free State hosted. “Despite considerable expertise on the part of its staff, the commission has drifted, vacillated and stalled in almost every area. It seems incapable of policy planning and disposing in any reasonable period of time the business before it, or fashioning procedures that effectively deal with the problems. The quality of its top personnel is, of course, primarily responsible for its defects.”

May’s statement was not his own; he was quoting an adviser to then-new President John F. Kennedy in 1961.

Levin said he doesn’t think formal restructuring of the commission is even a good idea. But if he could write one reform rule, he said, it would be: “Not more than one commissioner can serve as a Hill staffer.” These staffers, he said, tend to look at problems through the prism of congressional debate.

“I’m not saying Congress is bad or evil,” he explained, “but the nature of the way they debate issues, and their fundamental starting point, and the way they try to get to a resolution is fundamentally different than what an expert agency ought to do.”

By contrast, Levin pointed to former FCC commissioner and acting chairman James Quello. Hundt and Quello often disagreed, but Quello “provided enormous benefit because he had been a broadcaster. He actually understood the business.”

Levin lamented the growing number of Washington insiders among the commissioners over the years, calling a shift away from that “the fundamental change we need. If you look at the culture of the place, it does come from the leadership. That is much more important than structure.”

May is in favor of more widespread FCC restructuring, but he doesn’t see it happening either. He believes the agency could get more specific about its rulemaking notices or make more information available about meetings between staffers, commissioners and the industry.

“They are really minimalist reforms rather than the fundamental reforms that are desirable at this point,” he said. “I don’t think they will grapple with the major, institutional types of changes.”

May believes there is little congressional will for that type of structural reform.

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.