Washington -- Rep. John Dingell, the influential Michigan
Democrat, blasted the Federal Communications Commission last week, accusing the agency of
botching the implementation of the Telecommunications Act of 1996.
Dingell said the FCC fumbled Baby Bell entry into long
distance, "made a mockery" of the phone-interconnection provisions and
"screwed up" universal service by turning it into "an extravagant
entitlement program" for schools and libraries.
Dingell even took swipes at two fellow Democrats -- FCC
chairman William Kennard and his predecessor, Reed Hundt, whom Dingell accused of causing
"extraordinary damage" to the telecommunications industry and leaving Kennard
with "an enormous mess."
Dingell said the five Baby Bells have spent $8 billion to
open their networks to competitors as their ticket into long-distance markets. But the FCC
has refused entry while forcing the Bells to submit "thousands of pages of
documentation" with their applications.
"If those mountains of data are carefully read by the
bureaucrats on M Street [the FCC's street address], it is an enormous waste of
taxpayer money bordering on criminal," Dingell said.
Dingell, in a speech to a group of local broadcasters that
assailed Kennard's hope of requiring free TV time for political candidates, drew
laughs when he mocked Kennard by saying: "In terms of substance, [Kennard] may be a
couple of affiliates short of a network."
Dingell's crack didn't go unnoticed at the FCC.
"Bill Kennard is working hard to serve the American
public and to develop a good working relationship with Congress. People may say a lot of
things about Bill Kennard, but no one has ever said that he lacked a grasp of the
substance," said FCC spokeswoman Liz Rose.
Dingell's defense of the Baby Bells and broadcasters
was not unexpected. For years, he has questioned the competitiveness of the long-distance
market, and in 1992, he backed broadcasters in their quest to gain mandatory cable
"I am a longtime supporter of the idea of
must-carry," Dingell said in a later interview about whether cable operators should
carry digital TV signals.
Dingell was chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee
for a more than a decade -- a post that he used to corral free-lancing bureaucrats and
Since losing his chairmanship in 1995 and becoming the
panel's ranking member, Dingell lost control of the committee's agenda, but he
retained power to influence the outcome of key legislation. His support for the
Telecommunications Act of 1996 was critical to the creation of a bipartisan consensus.
Dingell said his speech was meant to be "tough
love," noting more than once that the FCC is capable of turning a new page.
Clearly, Dingell would like the FCC to grant a Baby Bell
long-distance-entry petition, to abandon its position before the Supreme Court that it has
the power over states to set interconnection prices and to scale back the $2.25 billion
Internet-access program for schools and libraries.
Dingell said he had one recommendation to the FCC: "If
you want competition to bring down prices, then you just get the hell out of the way and
let it happen."
Dingell said he was hopeful that the FCC would change
course. He ruled out corrective action by Congress this year, but he said action in 1999
was a possibility.
"I don't see much chance of reopening any major
parts of the Telecommunications Act at this time," Dingell said. "I don't
think many members of Congress have yet realized how much the [FCC] is diligently
flaunting what it was the Congress instructed them to do."
Dingell's dismay with the FCC put him at odds with
House Commerce Committee chairman Rep. Tom Bliley (R-Va.).
In a speech in October, Bliley said that a "Washington
legal-industrial complex" and media distortions were tainting the reputation of the
1996 law. Bliley added that the FCC should consider penalizing Baby Bells that have filed
premature long-distance applications.