WASHINGTON -With Federal Communications Commission chairman William Kennard set to resign Jan. 19, President Bush now has the opportunity to fundamentally alter the complexion and ideological direction of the powerful cable and telecommunications regulatory body within a relatively short period of time.
Over the next few months, Bush could name as many as four new faces to the five-member FCC. During his eight years in office, former President Clinton had a similar opportunity and made seven appointments, including four Democrats and three Republicans.
"I think Bush can make an imprint and restack the entire commission," said George Reed-Dellinger, a telecom analyst with Washington Analysis.
Bush is expected to name front-runner Michael Powell as Kennard's successor. Powell, a lawyer and the son of Secretary of State-designate Colin Powell, is a Republican FCC member appointed by Clinton in 1997.
Powell, who has 18 months left in his term, would not need Senate confirmation to move into the chairman's office.
With Democrat Kennard gone and Powell installed as chairman, the FCC would never the less be evenly divided by two Republicans and two Democrats. Powell can't really begin to shape an agenda until Bush names and wins confirmation for a third Republican to join him and Harold Furchtgott-Roth.
Powell's agenda would probably include quicker action on mergers, greater emphasis on marketplace solutions and greater reliance on fines and penalties when companies step out of line.
"After eight years of Democratic rule, I think you will get more of a balance out there," Reed-Dellinger said. "Big will be better.
"I think the winners are going to be the Bells, TV broadcasters and cable. Losers are going to be [competitive phone carriers], long distance [providers] and international players."
Tom Hazlett-a resident scholar at the American and the FCC's chief economist from 1991 to 1992-expects the influence of broadcasters to wane and the FCC's thinking to be increasingly dominated by Silicon Valley interests that favor a tame bureaucracy.
"When those interests push for a more competitive world in communications and really exert their pressure on the political world here in Washington, then you are going to get [FCC] reforms that lead to a much more stark deregulatory stance," Hazlett said.
Bush's second decision would be on whether to retain Democratic commissioner Susan Ness and give her a second five-year term. After Senate Republicans refused to stage a vote on her reappointment last year, Clinton awarded a recess appointment to Ness, a lawyer and former banker.
FCC observers disagree on how much time is left in Ness's tenure. An agency source said Ness can remain in office until the first session of the 107th Congress expires, or until next October or November-the usual adjournment time for an off-year session. Others said Ness must leave once Bush has won confirmation for her Democratic successor.
Although a new White House administration is traditionally preoccupied with its national political agenda for the first 100 days, Bush could be driven to quickly name a third FCC Republican to eliminate any leverage agency Democrats might have.
Furchtgott-Roth, whose term expired last June, may serve for another six months unless Bush opts to replace him sooner. Since his appointment in November 1997, Furchtgott-Roth has proven to be the FCC's most outspoken proponent of deregulation and the speedy, streamlined review of mergers.
The Ph.D. economist is likely to be of help to Powell to the extent that Powell seeks to loosen regulations and curb the FCC's merger authority. Furchtgott-Roth has been so aggressive on these points, he might end up clashing with Powell if he views the would-be chairman's agenda as too timid.
The one FCC member whom the election did not affect was Democrat Gloria Tristani, a 1997 Clinton appointee whose term won't expire until June 2003. But Tristani, a lawyer and former state utility regulator, reportedly has grown weary of Washington and has her eye on elective office in her home state of New Mexico.
Her departure would allow Bush to name a fourth FCC commissioner-probably a Democrat, because the president is prevented from populating the agency with more than three Republicans.