Walking the Walk

The fixers at the White House might be more than a little ticked off at Michael Powell. With Iraq in flames and the economy producing little growth and no new jobs, the last thing they need is a problem from a backwater like the FCC.

But that's just what they've got.

With the White House's blessing, the Powell-led FCC relaxed key broadcast-ownership rules on June 2 and allowed Big Media to get even bigger. That vote produced a congressional and grassroots backlash as great as any generated by Mark Fowler when he was taking aim at every regulation in sight during the early Reagan days.

When Congress returns from its summer vacation, it is expected to revive at least one of the old rules: the 35% cap on the audience reach of TV-station groups. The FCC voted to raise the cap to 45%.

Congress is being cheered on by a coalition of liberals and conservatives that includes the self-appointed "public-interest" groups, the National Rifle Association and many TV broadcasters who see that 35% as the best restraint on the broadcast networks. Even Democratic presidential candidates have weighed in on the side of the anti-dereg folks and threaten to turn deregulation into a populist campaign issue.

The White House is now faced with an ugly dilemma. If Congress acts to restore the 35% cap, it must either veto the bill or leave Powell and its deregulatory ideology twisting in the wind.

The White House may want to pin the blame for this mess on Powell. But they should be looking at their own personnel office. It appointed two full-blooded Democrats to fill out the FCC: Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein.

Both are opposed to ownership deregulation and have brilliantly undermined the FCC's Republican majority at every turn of the proceeding. Copps led the charge, turning "public hearings" into rallies for the anti-dereg coalition and cranking out speeches and op-ed pieces at every opportunity. When Adelstein joined the commission in December, he didn't miss a drumbeat in rushing to Copps's side.

When the June 2 vote finally came, Copps and Adelstein proudly cast their dissenting votes and issued lengthy manifestos on why the majority action brought America one giant step closer to corporate mind control.

From the White House perspective, its appointments of Copps and Adelstein have been nothing short of a disaster. So why did it make them? It has to do with a deal worked out between the Clinton administration and the Republican Congressional leadership.

By law, the President may fill only three of the five FCC seats with folks from his or her own party. For years, this meant, for instance, that a Republican president would search for a Democrat in name only, a conservative who could be counted on to support the FCC's GOP chairman and majority.

But, to facilitate some of its appointments in the late 1990s, the Clinton administration agreed to allow key Republican congressmen to pick real Republicans to fill the minority seats. That's how the FCC got Michael Powell (a McCain favorite) and the enigmatic Harold Furchtgott-Roth (a former aide to then Rep. Tom Bliley).

A precedent had been set. Or at least the Bush White House thought so. So, when the Democratic openings came up, it deferred to the Democrat leadership on the appointments. It delivered Copps, a former aide to Sen. Ernest Hollings, and Adelstein, an aide to Sen. Tom Daschele. No apparent thought was given to whether either of these two men might support Powell on anything.

The White House has an opportunity to punish Adelstein. He stepped into a mostly spent five-year term. In fact, his term expired June 30. He may continue serving until Congress adjourns next year or until a replacement is appointed. But it won't be easy to dump him with the media-ownership issue charging the political air. Plus, the White House may have to reappoint him to clear the way for it to appoint another Republican and a new chairman. Yes, Powell is on the way out, if not late this year, then early next.

I hope the Clinton precedent holds and Adelstein is reappointed and future administrations appoint minority commissioners who really do belong to the opposition party. If, as they say, the FCC is a creature of Congress, why shouldn't it look like Congress, with all the good and bad that comes from two powerful parties knocking heads?

But if an outspoken FCC minority embarrasses the administration from time to time or causes the clunky bureaucracy to become even more inefficient (is that possible?), then so be it. It's a little thing I like to call democracy.

Jessell may be reached at