FCC commissioner Ajit Pai has long talked about boosting transparency at the FCC, but as the new chair he is now in a position to do more than root from the sidelines.
Chairman Pai told reporters Thursday that Thursday he will release the text of two items on the agenda for the February meeting as a test, with the goal of eventually releasing all meting items.
"Today, we begin the process of making the FCC more open and transparent," said Pai. "I’m pleased to announce this morning a pilot project that, if successful, will become a Commission practice—one that will give the public much more insight into the Commission’s activities. Specifically, at the end of my remarks, I will be releasing two documents that I have presented to my fellow Commissioners for a vote at the FCC’s February meeting. The first is a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) that seeks comment on allowing television broadcasters to use ATSC 3.0, the next-generation broadcast standard. And the second is a Report and Order giving AM radio broadcasters more flexibility in siting their FM translators."
As leader of the loyal opposition under former FCC chairman Tom Wheeler, Pai was a frequent critic of FCC process, saying it lacked transparency—he has long argued for letting the public know what is being voted on at public meetings—and the kind of regulatory certainty that a competitive marketplace needs.
Wheeler argued that the text of documents being voted was still work product and that what should be published was the final version, which includes edits that may come after the vote. To his credit, he generally got those versions out faster than his predecessors.
Fellow Republican Michael O'Rielly also took issue with allowing "editorial privileges" on an item after it was voted, saying that the changes were sometimes more than just technical corrections. That objection became a running objection noted at the end of each vote by Wheeler and by new chairman Ajit Pai at his first meeting.
O'Rielly was at the new chairman's side to lend his support to the effort.
"This is an idea whose time has finally come," said O'Rielly. "I applaud Chairman Pai for taking the initiative to implement this important change to our procedures and I can’t wait to see all of the other process changes he has planned in the coming months." O'Rielly said he had his own list if anyone was interested.
"Today is a major step forward for the agency in terms of transparency and accountability. While it may make our jobs a bit more challenging, it is the right thing to do for the American people, the practitioners before the Commission and the professional press who report on Commission activities. It should make your jobs a whole lot easier and eliminate the wasted time chasing down dead ends!"
O'Rielly said he hoped that the FCC could make this "standard operating procedure" for more of its work product.
Back in 2013, Pai talked to B&C about some other process reforms he would like to see, saying: "Some of them are pretty simple. Establishing more deadlines for ourselves and giving those deadlines some teeth, whether that it is in the context of a rulemaking, saying the FCC should act by such and such a date, or in the context of an adjudication." He said similarly adding sunset clauses to rules unless they are necessary in the public interest. "I don't see process reforms like these as partisan and I hope in the coming year we can see some meaningful reforms."
Congress has been trying to lend a hand, introducing a number of bills, and even passing some, to speed the FCC's work or streamline its data collection, or require more cost-benefit analysis, something Pai also favors.
“This is the type of transparency we’ve been urging the FCC to implement for the last several Congressesm," said House Energy & Commerce Committee Chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.) and Communications Subcommittee Chair Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.). "Then-Commissioner Pai and Commissioner O’Rielly had long pushed for greater transparency during Chairman [Tom] Wheeler’s tenure, and we are pleased to see that just two weeks into Commissioner Pai's chairmanship we are already seeing positive changes at the commission. We applaud Chairman Pai’s decision to release the text of the FCC’s proposed AM revitalization and next generation broadcast items. We’re glad to see these items being advanced and look forward to working with Chairman Pai to create a more open, transparent, and accountable FCC.”
They pointed out that the House in January unanimously passed H.R. 290, the Federal Communications Commission Process Reform Act of 2017,
which was sponsored by Chairman Walden and included the transparency reform chairman Pai is testing.
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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.