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Stearns: FCC Needs To Change Its Ways

Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.), who co-sponsored the network neutrality rule-blocking resolution that passed the House last week, says that the FCC needs to change the way it operates, starting with the way it releases orders.

He said the commission's Byzantine regulatory processes are no longer relevant to the 'blur' of combined video voice and Internet services, stifle innovation and create uncertainty in the marketplace.

Stearns, who is chairman of the House Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee and a member of the Communications Subcommittee, was speaking earlier this week at a Free State Foundation forum on FCC reform.

"One of the first changes could be in its adoption and release of an order," he said. The FCC, he pointed out, circulates a draft of an order following a comment period, and often weeks or months before issuing the actual order. "The FCC should let the public see the proposed rules before it adopts them," he said, with a "realistic" amount of time to comment.

He said that would improve both the decisions and the public's confidence in them.

Stearns also pushed for changes in the sunshine laws to allow more than two commissioners to meet privately rather than having to circulate drafts--or to do by proxy through staff. In that he is in rare agreement with Democratic Commissioner Michael Copps. He said reforming the sunshine rule would be a "great place" for the commission to get involved, and pointed to Copps' support.

Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) and John Shimkus (R-Ill.) have introduced a bill to allow such meetings at the FCC so long as at least one commissioner from each party is present. Stearns said he thought the bill would go "a long way" to solve some of the FCC's structural problems.

Stearns also says the FCC needs to speed up its decisions. For example, he said, license applications have been sitting for years, citing a backlog of applications at the bureau level. Stearns also cited the FCC's merger shot clock of six months, which is honored more often in the breach than the observance.

"We need to set deadlines on actions the FCC intends to take," he said, "to provide regulatory certainty." He also called for the publication of orders more quickly after they have been adopted, though the FCC under Chairman Julius Genachowski has been cutting that interval, sometimes releasing orders the same day. Stearns said the longer it takes for the decision to be released, the more it looks like it was not final when it was voted, but hammered out in a backroom deal. "The FCC is widely suspected of changing its mind between decision and regulation," he said.

Stearns said he plans to engage in vigorous oversight of the commission.

Asked by cable attorney Dan Brenner what role Congress should take in FCC rulemakings, Stearns said he talks to commissioners in his office on a regular basis, and has hearings, to encourage them to work his ideas into their agenda.

Free State Foundation President Randolph May says the FCC has done little more than "renaming the boxes on the organizational chart," rather than undertake a long-promised remake into a model agency for the digital age.  

Communications Subcommittee Chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.), also called for reform this week, promising a hearing and legislation.

FCC Chief of Staff Edward Lazarus, who was also at the summit, countered that the FCC did publish all of its rules when it initiates a proposed rulemaking, grants ample time for comments and extensions when necessary, gives commissioners ample time to review and discuss draft orders and has "radically approved" the opportunities for public comment, including a complete revamp of its web site.