House E&C Dems to FCC: Show Your Work

House Energy & Commerce leadership have asked FCC Chairman Ajit Pai for a bunch of documents, signaling, literally, that the time for vigorous oversight of the agency, oversight it said was lacking under its Republican predecessors, has begun. Literally because the e-mail supplying a link to a Feb. 4 letter to the chairman seeking lots of info was headlined: "It's Oversight Time," evoking, perhaps, the "it's clobbering time" advisory from the Fantastic Four's The Thing.

One piece of information they are looking for is how many items are pending before the FCC's Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). The highest profile one of those is the designation for hearing of the Sinclair-Tribune deal, which has since been scrapped. The FCC unanimously referred the deal to the ALJ over candor issues. The Enforcement Bureau recommended closing the investigation after the deal cratered, but House Dems have said it should go forward to resolve the FCC commissioners' concerns about whether Sinclair misrepresented the deal, an issue that could be used against it at renewal time if the FCC doesn't assuage those concerns.

The letter said the committee, now under Democratic leadership, was resuming its "traditional" oversight role. E&C Chair Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) and Communications Chair Mike Doyle (D-Pa.) noted that Pai had not supplied adequate responses to requests while they were in the minority, and that hose chickens were now coming home to roost.

They were not shy about why they thought Pai had given them short shrift, saying under his leadership the FCC had failed to act in the public interest repeatedly and had prioritized corporate over consumer interests.

The request for info was general and wide ranging: "We ask that the FCC update the Committee with information about, among other things, the FCC's current workload, the work of its bureaus and field offices, and the FCC's interactions with the public through its handling of consumer complaints and Freedom of Information Act requests. They want answers to a lot of questions by March 4, including the number complaints filed about privacy issues, net neutrality, wireless coverage, customer service, internet availability and more. They also want lots of info on FOIA requests between 2016 and 2019.

And finally, seemingly to make their point about the need for responsiveness, they ask for a list of every letter sent to the FCC between 2016 and 2019 "to which the FCC has not yet provided a response." The Dems have the power to subpoena documents if Pai does not comply.

“This has been the most transparent FCC in history with the Commission for the first time publicly releasing the drafts of meeting items three weeks before the Commission vote," said an FCC spokesperson. "Under the prior Administration, by contrast, the Commission had to pass an Order before the public was allowed to see what was in it.”

That is a reference to the chairman's decision to publish drafts of items to be voted on in advance of public meetings.

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.