President Bush’s re-election victory Tuesday set the stage for a personnel shakeup at the Federal Communications Commission in the weeks ahead as FCC chairman Michael Powell moves to put the final touches on his deregulatory legacy.
Powell’s future is unclear because he has been quoted dropping hints that he plans to leave the agency, while at other times suggesting that he might be interested in remaining in the job. He joined the FCC in 1997 as a Clinton appointee and was named chairman by Bush in January 2001.
Responding to a press question after Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) conceded the race Wednesday morning, FCC spokesman David Fiske said Powell was not commenting on his future plans.
It’s “business as usual,” Fiske said in an e-mail response.
For the cable industry, Powell’s tenure resulted in keeping cable-modem service deregulated and in blocking TV broadcasters from flooding cable systems with digital-multicast services.
However, Powell voted to retain until 2007 rules that force cable operators to sell their satellite-delivered programming networks to direct-broadcast satellite competitors.
In recent months, Powell’s FCC has adopted policies designed to remove broadband regulations that apply to the Baby Bells in an effort to create regulatory parity with cable -- moves the cable industry has not vocally opposed.
Later this month, the FCC is expected to release a study for Congress on the retail sale of cable networks a la carte. Agency sources have said that the five commissioners might send the report to Capitol Hill with no official endorsement by the agency’s leadership.
The first change to occur is the expected departure of Jonathan Adelstein, a Democrat and former aide to Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), who lost his Senate seat Tuesday by about 7,000 votes to Republican challenger John Thune.
Adelstein’s term expired many months ago, but he was allowed to remain at the FCC until the 108th Congress adjourned. Congress is returning for a lame-duck session in two weeks, meaning that Adelstein’s departure seems to be just a few weeks away. He is unlikely to be reappointed in the wake of Daschle’s defeat.
The term of Kathleen Abernathy, a Republican, has also expired, but she can remain at the FCC until Congress adjourns next year unless Bush nominates someone to replace her before then. Abernathy was vague about her future plans in recent comments to reporters.
Reports of Powell’s departure have triggered speculation about his successor. Kevin Martin, a Republican FCC member with close ties to the White House, is considered a prime candidate.
In a report Monday, Legg Mason Wood Walker Inc. analyst Blair Levin floated Martin’s and Abernathy’s names, along with the names of several other Republicans, as potential Powell replacements, including:
• Becky Armendariz Klein, former chairwoman of the Texas Public Utility Commission. She ran for a House seat in Texas Tuesday but lost to Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas);
• Assistant commerce secretary Michael Gallagher, who is also head of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration;
• Janice Obuchowski, a telecommunications consultant who headed the NTIA under the first President Bush; and
• Earl Comstock, a former aide to Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and outside counsel to EarthLink Inc., an Internet-service provider that has demanded regulated access to cable’s high-speed data network from the FCC.