Skip to main content

Powell takes heat from Hill

After one year in office, Federal Communications Commission chairman Michael Powell is finally facing some
of the public criticism his Democratic predecessors -- William Kennard and Reed
Hundt -- experienced almost as soon as they took the chair.

With Democrats in power in the Senate, particularly Commerce Committee
chairman Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.), Powell's deregulatory philosophy is now less
well-received than it was last year, when Republicans held both Congress and the

"All you need to do as chairman of the FCC is take care of the laws that we
passed. You have that responsibility. Instead, you seem to abandon that
responsibility and leave it to the market," Hollings told Powell during a
hearing before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee, which Hollings also
chairs. That panel oversees the FCC's budget.

"I think the law recognizes that the use of market forces can be concomitant
with the public interest," Powell responded.

Surprisingly, Powell's FCC also took some shots from Senate Minority Leader
Trent Lott (R-Miss.) two weeks ago. Lott told a gathering of broadcasters that
the FCC "distorts" the law. Like Hollings, Lott wants the 35 percent national
TV-ownership cap to stay in place, and he dislikes the FCC's initial approach on
broadband deregulation.

But Hollings is the most outspoken lawmaker regarding Powell himself, telling
him Thursday that he was better suited to be the "executive vice president of
the U.S. Chamber of Commerce," presumably defending corporate interests, "than
the chairman of a regulatory agency. Are you happy with your job?" Hollings

"Extremely," came Powell's edgy response.

Hollings was given some extra ammunition when New York Times columnist
William Safire -- never a friend to big media corporations, nor the consolidation
they thrive on -- called Michael Powell "roundheeled," meaning pushover, in
Thursday morning's paper. Safire went on to say that Powell was "steering the Federal
Communications Commission toward terminal fecklessness."

Besides the ownership cap and the FCC's direction on broadband, Hollings is
also unhappy with Powell about wireless company NextWave Telecom Inc.'s bankruptcy and the
commission's subsequent handling of that case.

Hollings also took issue with a recent USA Today article, in which
Powell is quoted as saying, "My religion is the market." Powell said he didn't
recall saying that, but he stood behind his views that the market is often able to
regulate business matters better than regulators.

Powell was raised to chairman last year after a behind-the-scenes struggle
within the Bush administration over whether Powell, the choice of Congressional
Republicans and telecommunications industries, should get the job or whether it
should go to Pat Wood, a large fund-raiser for George W. Bush's presidential

Wood now chairs the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Republicans hailed Powell's ascendancy, and hearings before Congress were
largely praise-fests for the articulate and erudite chairman.

Fast forward one year, and now Powell has some decisions under his belt,
giving Democrats and other regulatory-minded lawmakers a chance to criticize his