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McDowell to FCC: Commission, Heal Thyself

The FCC is in the midst of an internal reform-minded review so ambitious that even the public will be able to get in on the act. That's one part of a house-ordering agenda announced last week by the commission, prompted by an exchange of letters between new Democratic Chairman Julius Genachowski and Robert McDowell, currently the commission's lone Republican.

Genachowski announced that a “thorough review” of FCC processes was underway, headed by Mary Beth Richards, special counsel for FCC reform, in cooperation with the commission's general counsel and managing director. In addition, he said he has been talking to managers throughout the agency and collecting information from staffers online.

Starting last week, the commission launched an internal Website,, that is soliciting reform suggestions from FCC employees. Genachowski said the site would eventually be publicly accessible. A source said that would come as soon as the FCC had tested it internally. The commission also announced a top-to-bottom review of the way it collects data.

Such moves indicate that Genachowski is of like mind with Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), at least in the complaint that the FCC is broken and needs to be fixed. In a letter to McDowell, the new chairman outlined these steps, and reiterated his commitment to reform.

The Republican commissioner recently renewed his call for a comprehensive financial and ethics audit of the FCC and “related entities,” including the Universal Service Fund. He proposed the review in a January letter to then-acting chairman Michael Copps. McDowell also suggested that the FCC needs to look more closely at its contracting process, including a fee-collection process that may have overcharged the industry by $20 million over the past several years.

For his part, Genachowski said he would be glad to work with the commissioner to address his proposed reforms. McDowell likened the audit to Genachowski's recent request for a review of the FCC's safety preparedness, saying he would “envision the audits as an examination akin to a due-diligence review of a company as part of a proposed merger or acquisition.”

McDowell suggested seeking public comment as well as allowing commission employees to file comments anonymously. He also said it was “critical” to make a review of the FCC's contracting process part of this agenda. McDowell said the FCC should look into the possible overcharging for regulatory fees of $10 million per year over the past two years, and as much as $25 million more in administrative fees, after he pointed out that the commission has already fully funded its operation via those regulatory fees.

In his response to McDowell, Genachowski said he had begun meeting personally with managers in all of the FCC's bureaus and offices to get ideas on retooling the agency. He also said the review committee spearheaded by Richards would address the specific issues McDowell outlined. Those included updating the FCC's strategic plan; possible reorganization and restaffing of the agency; better external communications, including publishing meeting dates several months in advance; improving its Website; and building better relationships with other sections of the government, particularly in consumer protection, homeland security and technology.

One former top FCC official said he thought McDowell's letter might have put Genachowksi on the defensive. “I thought it was very aggressively put forth,” he said, adding that he wasn't sure there was anything wrong with the FCC that good management alone couldn't cure.

But another veteran lobbyist saw it as McDowell putting himself on the record with the new chairman on the issue of reform, which Genachowski has said was already on his radar. An FCC source said the pair had agreed to make the letters public.

The tone of both letters was cordial: Each crossed through the other's last name in the formal address to change them to “Dear Julius” and “Dear Rob” letters, respectively.

“Commissioner McDowell suggests some useful procedural reforms, especially ones that provide all commissioners with more equal access to agency staff and earlier access to options memos,” said Randolph May, president of free-market think tank The Free State Foundation. “These types of changes can facilitate collegiality and improve decision-making. But frankly, it would be a mistake to focus so much attention on 'FCC reform' that we lose sight of the fundamental policies adopted.”

“I hope and expect that the Chairman's agency-reform process will focus on the Commission's relationship with the public,” added Andrew Schwartzman of the Media Access Project, “especially citizens, who are all too often left in the dark about actions that affect them.”

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