Over the objections of a number of Democrats who said the bill will not make it into law, the House Energy & Commerce Committee Tuesday voted 31 to 16 to approve a Federal Communications Commission reform bill (3309) that puts shot clocks on the agency's decisions, requires disclosure of items before votes, and limits on merger conditions.
It also passed on a voice vote a second, noncontroversial FCC reform bill (HR 3310) that simply requires the FCC to conduct a biennial survey of the state of competition in the marketplace that will be published online and submitted to Congress.
The cable, phone and broadcast industries all supported the FCC reform efforts, while House Democrats said HR 3309 will needlessly tie the FCC's hands and lead to endless litigation.
Broadcasters got a brief scare when an amendment was introduced by Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) that would have required broadcast and cable operators to include in their public files the names of donors of more than $10,000 to entities "sponsoring political programming."
Backers of that amendment included ranking member Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Jay Inslee (D-Wash.). Republicans on the committee said that they were all for transparency, but that the FCC reform bill was not the venue to hash out campaign reform or constitutional speech issues, and the amendment was defeated.
Also defeated was a substitute amendment from Eshoo that would replace the Republican version, with variety of directives to the FCC, with recommendations for improvements in transparency. Democrats argued that would prevent the endless legal challenges the Republican bill would engender. But Communications Subcommittee chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.), principal author of 3309, countered that the reforms all squared with established law or the president's executive order to federal agencies on regulatory reform -- the FCC is not subject to the letter of that order because it is an independent agency, but FCC chairman Julius Genachowski has promised to abide by its spirit, and got shout-outs from Democrats and Republicans alike for dereg efforts to date, though Republicans said that the FCC also needed help from 3309 to finish the job.
In opposing the Eshoo amendment, Walden invoked a striking image: saying to pass it would have been the equivalent of taking a very long, shiny, sharp samurai sword, inserting it in the navel and thrusting upward and out. "It guts the bill," he added, for anyone who was not following the path of his analogy.
Walden used the hearing to chide the FCC over its adoption of the 700-plus page Universal Service Fund reform item, saying it basically voted on a "press release" and has yet to produce the item it actually voted on before the revisions and edits that come between that vote and official release. Requiring the FCC to publish the actual text of what it is voting on beforehand is one of the bill's reforms.
Introduced, but withdrawn, was an amendment that would allow FCC commissioners to hire an engineering advisor. The amendment's author, Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.) suggested that advice would be crucial as the FCC determines the fate of wireless broadband -- and broadcasters, though he did not mention them -- via the incentive auctions it must establish up per congressional directive.
The bill does incorporate Eshoo's bill, approved as a stand-alone in the Communications Subcommittee, that allows more than two FCC commissioners to meet outside of public forums, but with conditions including that no official business can be voted on and that at least one Republican and one Democratic appointee must be present.
In the current FCC, that would be a necessity since, with only three commissioners, any meeting of more than two commissioners de facto includes both parties. Walden cited that reduced number in arguing for reforms, saying that currently decisions are made by only three people and suggesting that was even more reason why there was need for legislation to make the FCC more accountable to the people it serves.
He also argued, without naming names, that there was a history of past commissioners, or at last commissioners, trying to run the agency by himself (am implicit criticism of former FCC chairman Kevin Martin), which was the reason the bill included allowing a majority of commissioners to put an item on the docket for a vote, which currently is the exclusive province of the chairman.