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The FCC reformulates

President George W. Bush can put his stamp on the FCC now that Commissioner Harold Furchtgott-Roth has said he will step down.

The departure of the conservative economist will leave two open seats, both of which, by tradition, will be filled by Republicans now that the GOP has taken over the White House. The other vacancy was created when former Chairman William Kennard resigned on Jan. 19 and the already-seated commissioner Michael Powell succeeded him as Bush's choice for chairman.

Front runners for the GOP spots are Texas Public Utility Commission Chairman Pat Wood and Kevin Martin, a former Furchtgott-Roth aide heading the Bush team's FCC search but who can now put himself at the front of the line.

On the Democratic side, Ernest Hollings, the Senate Commerce Committee's top Democrat, is vying with Rep. John Dingell, his counterpart in the House, for first dibs on naming the occupant of the next open Democratic seat.

Hollings, who appears to have the advantage, is backing former aide Mike Copps, the Clinton administration's assistant secretary of trade in the Department of Commerce.

Dingell is pushing telecommunications aide Andrew Levin.

It's unclear whether Bush will give Democrats authority to decide among themselves who gets the party's seats.

If Bush decides to make his own Democratic pick, former Florida Public Service Commission member Julia Johnson is said to be on the list. Johnson, an African-American who has a good working relationship with Florida Governor and first brother, Jeb Bush, would be a politically astute choice for a White House mending fences with minority voters in the Sunshine State.

The big questions is how many Democratic seats will be open and how soon. Commissioner Susan Ness, riding out a temporary appointment since June 1999, faces opposition from Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.). Her chances of winning reappointment appear slim. Sources say Ness will step down when her replacement is confirmed. Commissioner Gloria Tristani's term won't expire until June 2002 and, although she has not announced her plans, is expected to leave before then, perhaps as early as this summer.

Powell has yet to disclose his agenda but gave a few clues as to what is in store when he made his first public appearance as chairman Jan. 22 at the NATPE convention in Las Vegas.

The new chairman promised an FCC much less willing to impose conditions on industry mergers or order-up new public- interest obligations. He also pledged "an agency that is much more efficient and responsive. The greatest enemy of regulation is continued uncertainty."

Even when the FCC has the authority to take far-reaching actions, Powell said those decisions are best left to Congress, which must answer to the voters. The FCC, for its part, will act as an adviser to lawmakers and an early warning system for issues that might arise, he said.

"The commission can do a lot to highlight problems and even suggest solutions," Powell said.

A Powell-run FCC also will be reluctant to impose kids' TV or other public- interest obligations, as opposed to the two previous Democratic-led lineups. "At best, these things often have a fairly marginal impact," he said. "I have some issue with three of five unelected officials-unaccountable in any direct manner to the citizens-making judgments about what their thoughts, energies and family time should be directed to," he said.

As for broadcasting and cable specifically, he said he would work to reduce the myriad rules that put more obligations and restrictions on the industry than other media. In cases where Congress orders the obligations, however, he promised to "apply them faithfully, fully and happily."

Among his first initiatives, Powell can be expected to review existing broadcast restrictions with an eye toward eliminating caps on station ownership and prohibitions on newspaper/broadcast crossownership. Also, he will seek to restrict the FCC merger-review authority.

But Powell has said he isn't unsympathetic to concerns about declining media diversity and rampant industry consolidation that preoccupied his predecessor, William Kennard. Powell voted for Kennard's minority recruiting rules, which a federal appeals court threw out, and will likely work to write a version that will pass judicial muster. Powell, like Kennard an African American, also is a big fan of reviving the tax credits to help minorities buy media businesses.

He also pledged to help broadcasters with the digital transition.
-Paige Albiniak contributed to this story.