After a year in office, Federal Communications Commission chairman Michael Powell is learning that once you start making decisions, you start making enemies — even within your own political party.
Sen. Trent Lott, the upper chamber's top Republican, last week criticized the FCC under Powell's GOP leadership, noting at least three areas in which he thinks the agency has drifted in the wrong direction.
"I am not comfortable with how they are proceeding," said the Mississippi senator on Feb. 25, speaking to a National Association of Broadcasters conference at a downtown hotel here.
One of the FCC chairmanship's occupational hazards is that somewhere along the line, powerful interests will take you on. Hollywood took on Mark Fowler when he tried to repeal the financial interest and syndication rules, the cable industry battled Reed Hundt on rate regulation and broadcasters got Congress to roll back William Kennard's effort to license low-power FM radio stations.
For Powell, Lott's decision to speak out marked a turning point in his 13-month tenure as chairman. Up to now, he has been the subject of admiring media profiles and has been hailed for his fresh thinking by communications lobbyists and members of Congress alike.
Although Lott's enthusiasm for Powell might be flagging, Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.) told the same audience later that day that the chairman still has his high esteem.
"Chairman Powell is a tremendous friend and a tremendous professional and I think he is taking the FCC in the right direction," said Tauzin, chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee.
Highlighting just how much he disagrees with Powell on some issues, Lott said he found himself sometimes agreeing more with Democratic FCC member Michael Copps than with Powell and Republican FCC members Kathleen Abernathy and Kevin Martin.
In outlining his concerns, Lott mentioned Powell by title, but not by name. He did not specifically mention the other FCC members.
Lott, the Senate's minority leader, said he had the sense that Powell did not favor retaining the rule that caps a TV station owner at 35 percent of all U.S. TV households. Two weeks ago, a federal appeals court sent that rule back to the FCC. The NAB wants to preserve the cap to limit the influence of the networks over their affiliates.
"The chairman has been pretty outspoken about that," Lott told reporters later. "I am not opposed to any changes there. But just to take it off, I think, is a big, big problem."
If Lott's comments were aimed at tugging Powell in one direction, Tauzin came right back by tugging him in the opposite direction on the 35 percent cap.
"It's archaic. It's ancient," Tauzin told reporters later. "If anything, [the FCC] at least ought to raise it, if not eliminate it."
TELCO PROPOSAL TARGETED
Lott also questioned Powell's proposals that would modify or eliminate some of the network-sharing rules imposed on large incumbent phone companies that offer broadband Internet access, announced three weeks ago.
"Now they are beginning to push into areas that I think clearly are a mistake," said Lott. WorldCom Inc., the long distance carrier located in Clinton, Miss., could lose out under the Powell broadband policies still in gestation.
But Tauzin is urging the FCC to ease up on its regulation of the Baby Bells, particularly with respect to broadband.
Lastly, Lott scolded the FCC for postponing a decision on whether Northpoint Technology Ltd. should be allowed to share direct broadcast satellite spectrum to provide video programming and high-speed Internet access via terrestrial transmitters.
"In some areas where there is innovative technology, they have refused to act," Lott told reporters. "Yeah, I am talking about Northpoint."
Although he recognized that the FCC is an independent agency, Lott said that wouldn't stop him for questioning its policies.
"You've got to be careful how you pressure these agencies. We do have a right to ask the FCC, 'What in the world are you doing?' " Lott said.
Tauzin said he took Lott's point on the FCC's habit of foot-dragging on tough issues.
"I know Mr. Lott had some words about that," Tauzin said. "I constantly remind [Powell] that I don't know how much time we have on this hill, but we better make every day count."