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O'Rielly: Open to Exploring Relaxing Media Ownership Rules

Republican FCC nominee Michael O'Rielly, a 20-year Hill staffer, told the Senate Commerce Committee that he believed in enforcing the indecency statute on the books, favored IP transition trials, thought some media ownership regulations needed changing, and suggested he would not back limiting the bidders in the broadcast incentive auctions.

O'Rielly received a fairly mild grilling at his nomination hearing, where he shared the witness table with Federal Trade Commission nominee Terrell McSweeny.

O'Rielly outlined a philosophy of light-touch regulations, and only when necessary. He warned against trying to anticipate a market that is moving fast, and in the case of the Internet, is an "extremely disruptive technology that changes every market it touches." He said that both industry and regulators "would be wise to embrace it rather than control or manage it." He added that the government's extremely light touch is necessitated by a market whose technology outraces regulators' ability to get a handle on it, and often goes off in new directions.

O'Rielly pledged to enforce statutes enacted by Congress, but said he would also "look for opportunities to reduce unnecessary regulation and those that impose excessive financial burdens."

O'Rielly did raise some Democratic eyebrows with the last line of his testimony, an emphatic, stand-alone exhortation to "stay strong for freedom" (the line was bolded in his written testimony), which had Senator Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) wondering if that, combined with the fact that O'Rielly's shout out of 20 years worth of Hill staffers he had worked with, was mostly aimed to Republicans.

O'Rielly pointed out that he had woven the "freedom" theme into his written testimony and explained that he just meant that freedom infused the mission of the FCC, freedom from unnecessary regs, for example, or protecting the freedom of the Internet. "As a nation, we achieve the greatest outcome when we allow our companies to freely compete and fight for consumers' attention and approval," he said in that testimony, going on to quote Thomas Jefferson's take on freedom about "neither restraining nor aiding them in their pursuits."

He also planted a deregulatory flag with a quote from Ronald Reagan: "Government exists to protect us from each other. Where government has gone beyond its limits is in deciding to protect us from ourselves."

Pryor made a point of saying he didn't want partisanship creeping into the agency, and both he and Rockefeller suggested that there was an "aiding them" role for the FCC on issues like Universal service and consumer protection.

O'Rielly pledged to work with Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D- W. Va.) to reform and improve the E-rate program and recognized the need to protect consumers, particularly rural ones, in the transition IP networks.

Rockefeller provided a general caution to O'Rielly that while he understood answers were circumscribed by custom, the Office of Management and Budget, and the desire to be confirmed--he said at one point that O'Reilly certainly would be--he expected nominees to be telling the committee what they would actually do, not what would get them confirmed.

O'Rielly suggested he understood and shared congressional concerns about content. He said he would enforce the indecency laws and would want to review the reason behind the FCC's dismissal of a raft of complaints.

He was asked by Sen. Maria Cantwell whether he thought broadcasters were circumventing local ownership rules via shared agreements. He said he thought broadcasters were trying to work within the current "environment" given that the FCC was long overdue for its review of those ownership rules, and that some of those rules might need to be loosened, but said he would first have to look at the record, including the impact on diversity.

That was an answer likely more pleasing to broadcasters than the cable operators who have been arguing those agreements should be disallowed as de facto ownership cap violations.

O'Rielly is the Republican nominee for the seat of Robert McDowell. O'Rielly will fill the remainder of McDowell's term, which runs through July 1, 2014, after which he will have to be renominated.

He is a policy adviser to Senate minority whip John Cornyn (R-Texas), and was a top tech/telecom policy adviser to former Sen. John Sununu (R-N.H.), and worked for former Sens. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), John Ensign (R-Nev.) and for former Rep. Tom Bliley (R-Va.).

Sen. Thune joked that O'Rielly had "been around a lot of Johns," which drew a large laugh from the crowd.

Not joking this time, Thune said he hoped that the Senate would move on the nominations of both O'Rielly and Democratic FCC Chair Nominee Tom Wheeler so that there could be a full slate of commissioners by the time Congress breaks again in mid-October.

Former House member and Broadband Coalition spokesman Chip Pickering agreed: "Seating both Michael O'Rielly as commissioner and Tom Wheeler as Chairman should be a priority for the Senate," he said in a statement.

Rockefeller appeared to share that desire for swift action. "I intend to schedule votes on each nomination in the Committee soon and will push for quick consideration on the Senate floor, " he said Wednesday. "I can tell you that these agencies do their strongest work for the American people when all Commissioners are on board."

The committee was lucky it was vetting not voting the nominees, since Rockefeller could never get a quorum.  One senator suggested it was because both nominees were familiar quantities.