Washington -- Presidential politics have left the
nomination of Susan Ness for a new term on the Federal Communications Commission most
likely in limbo following her confirmation hearing last week before the Senate Commerce
Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.), chairman of the panel's
telecommunications subcommittee, said he had not decided whether to support Democrat Ness,
though he expects the Senate Commerce Committee to advance her nomination to the full
Senate sometime soon.
"I am still sitting on the fence," said Burns,
who helped quiz Ness during the 75-minute hearing that covered a range of topics, but
nothing substantive about cable-television policy.
Burns presided at the hearing, substituting for Commerce
Committee chairman Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). McCain suspended his bid for the Republican
Party presidential nomination March 9. Last week, he returned to the Senate after a
vacation on a South Pacific island of Bora Bora.
A McCain spokeswoman said the lawmaker agreed to advance
Ness' name to the full Senate, but has not decided whether to support her. In the past,
McCain has said he believes that an FCC commissioner should serve one term. He acted on
that conviction by blocking the reappointment of Republican Rachelle B. Chong in 1997.
President Clinton nominated Ness last July, soon after her
first five-year term expired in June. Democrats hold a 3-2 voting edge at the FCC. Ness is
entitled to remain in office at least as long as the Senate remains in session, according
to an FCC source.
Senate Republicans might decide to let Ness's nomination
die, which would allow Texas Gov. George Bush to fill any FCC vacancies if he wins the
presidency in November.
"You never know what minefields are out there,"
Burns told reporters after the hearing.
Many rural-state senators on the committee, the bulk of
them Democrats, voiced strong support for Ness. They praised her support for phone
subsidies for rural and other high-cost areas. Her home-state senators, Democrats Paul
Sarbanes and Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, introduced her to the committee.
"In my view, she has done an outstanding job in this
role," Sarbanes said.
Added Mikulski: "I think she brings competence. I
think she brings experience."
Ness showed caution in her responses. Many questions
focussed on universal service and the deployment of broadband services in rural markets.
Mergers, low-power radio service and Baby Bell entry into long-distance were also
Ness revealed little about the FCC's direction on the
relaxation of media cross-ownership rules, though she said the number of owners in a
market was an important consideration.
"I don't believe in regulation if it is not necessary
to preserve underlying values," she said. "If there is a diversity of voices,
Ness said she expects the corporate merger wave to continue
because mergers tend to occur during times of marketplace uncertainty.
"I think we are in line for many more mergers,"
Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) pressed Ness to expand FCC
support for deployment of broadband into rural areas, claiming the wonders of the Internet
would bypass rural America without government aid.
"We wrote into the [Telecommunications Act of 1996]
that [universal service] relates to telecommunications services -- or broadband,"
Ness said the FCC would conduct field hearings on the
deployment of advanced telecommunications. She said terrestrial wireless providers and
satellite carriers were likely in the best position to serve rural markets.
"We are trying to see where the impediments are,"
she said. "We can always do more."
Before joining the FCC, Ness, 51, was a banker specializing
in communications loans. She has a law degree from Boston College and an MBA from the
Wharton School of Business.