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House Speeds Through FCC Reform Hearing

In what may have been a speed record for an FCC oversight hearing, the House Communications Subcommittee took well under an hour to run through testimony on Democratic-backed bills before adjourning and heading off to final votes.

Given mic problems that forced some vamping by Subcommittee chairman and former broadcaster Greg Walden (R-Ore.)—"please stand by" he intoned in his best broadcast announcer voice, followed by "it's sunny and 57..."—and Walden's concession that few people were likely to return after the votes, the hearing consisted of testimony from three witnesses, a few questions and a gavel.

In between, the Democratic members who spoke made it clear they were treating their bills as alternatives to three Republican reform bills introduced last week, while the Republicans suggested the bills could all be part of the reform effort.

Among the key takeaways from the mini-session were that Democrats, including the subcommittee and full committee ranking members were unhappy that the Republicans had not brought up a Democrat bill that would require the FCC to boost political ad disclosures, and one of those members, subcommittee ranking member Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) was unhappy that the draft legislation delayed the trigger for her Collaboration Act, which would allow more than two FCC commissioners to meet in private, with the appropriate transparency safeguards.

The three witnesses, Free State president Randolph May, Duke University law professor Stuart Benjamin and former FCC commissioner Robert McDowell, generally agreed that it would make sense to do the reforms all at once rather than delay one of them. May said he had been a longtime backer of the move. Benjamin said he saw no reason to delay, and McDowell said, "in an ideal world," that would be the case, but suggested there were other things in play.

The Collaboration Act portion of the bill does not trigger until the other reforms are instituted as a way for Republicans to insure those other reforms get made, and as a check and balance. Transparency first, the thinking goes, then let the commissioners meet in private.

Another issue that got some attention, particularly from Walden, was editorial privileges. That is what are meant to be nonsubstantive changes and edits that are made to the language of an order after it has been voted. May, former associate general counsel of the FCC, said that he thought that, over time, it had become more common for those edits to involve things that would be considered substantive.

Asked by Walden to explain what "editorial changes" was intended to mean, McDowell suggested typos rather than saying, "throwing in a 'not'," "Or a shall," added Walden, who asked whether that sort of thing had happened. "Yes," said McDowell.

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.