News

FCC Power Play

3/07/2008 7:00 PM Eastern

Federal Communications Commission chairman Kevin Martin scuttled a deal between the White House and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) designed to award new terms to incumbent FCC commissioners, Republican Deborah Taylor Tate and Democrat Jonathan Adelstein, according to individuals familiar with the details.

Martin rejected the deal because it required him to pledge to Reid in writing that he would resign his FCC commission in January 2009 if a Democrat were elected president in November, people familiar with the situation said.

“The chairman is not prepared to step down on a certain date. He is not willing to say that he will automatically resign at a certain time. He is not willing to say he will do it,” an FCC insider said last Wednesday night.

MARTIN EYES STAYING

Reid spokesman Jim Manley declined to comment on the matter.

Martin, these individuals said, declined to accept Reid’s terms because he is considering remaining at the FCC for an unspecified period of time next year, even if he is no longer chairman.

An FCC insider suggested that it would have been imprudent for Martin to pick a resignation date because it could have diminished the agency’s ability to cope with some pressing matter, such as the transition to digital television.

A senior administration official, who declined to be named, said it “was highly unusual” that a Senate leader would even attempt to obtain Martin’s conditional resignation in an effort to ease Senate confirmation for two nominees.

Tate’s FCC term expired last June 30. Under law, she may remain in office until Congress adjourns later this year if a replacement has not been confirmed.

Adelstein’s term expires in June, but he can remain at the FCC until late 2009 if not replaced.

Reid sought Martin’s commitment to resign to ensure that a newly elected Democratic president could quickly install a Democrat as FCC chairman and to guarantee that Democrats could take control of the agency without much delay.

Here’s the scenario Reid wanted to avoid: If Tate and Adelstein were confirmed this year and Martin remained at the FCC well into 2009, a new Democratic president could designate Adelstein or FCC Democrat Michael Copps as chairman of the five-member agency, but Republicans would still have a one-vote advantage: Martin, Tate, and Robert McDowell.

In that case, the new Democratic president would not have an opportunity to confirm a Democrat at the FCC — and secure an FCC majority for Democrats — until McDowell’s term expired in June 2009.

According to one party, Tate wanted Martin to sign the letter but she declined to speak to him directly. Tate, this individual said, feared that Martin would demand her support for policies she otherwise would not embrace. Adelstein ended up asking Martin if he intended to sign the letter to Reid.

Martin, one knowledgeable party said, told Adelstein he wouldn’t because he might want to remain at the FCC for a few months into 2009. Martin’s commission does not expire until 2011.

'NOT [BEING] DEFIANT’

Martin “is not trying to cause problems. He is not trying to be defiant. This is just a commitment that he did not want to make,” an FCC insider said.

If Tate is forced to leave at the end of the year and Martin leaves a few weeks later, Copps, Adelstein and McDowell would remain, giving Democrats a one-vote edge.

That scenario has media and telecommunications lobbyists concerned because Copps and Adelstein have routinely supported close regulation of their industries.

On his way out of the White House, Bush could keep the FCC politically balanced for a short period by giving Tate a recess appointment after Congress adjourns.

March