Republicans Seek Specifics From FCC On Fairness Doctrine Departure


Top House Energy & Commerce Committee Republicans thanked FCC chairman Julius Genachowski Wednesday for saying he planned to strike the Fairness Doctrine from the Code of Federal Regulations, but said they wanted more info on when and how he was going to do that, as well as on other regs that could be ripe for repeal.

Among the questions they want answered: "When precisely will you eliminate the Fairness Doctrine and related regulations," what is involved, do the other commissioners support it and how long it will take.

The doctrine required TV stations to air controversial issues of public importance and seek out opposing viewpoints. Also still on the books are corollaries to the doctrine providing for free response time for personal attacks and providing equal time for other candidates if a station endorsed a candidate in an editorial. The corollaries were repealed by the FCC in 2000but the legislators want those deep-sixed as well, which Genachowski said he expected would happen.

In a June 8 letter to Genachowski, E&C chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and Communications Subcommittee chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.) praised his continuing opposition to the doctrine as a chill on free speech. The FCC ruled the doctrine unconstitutional and thus unenforceable back in 1987, but FCC Republican Robert McDowell recently pointed out that it remained on the books and could be reinstated if a future commission was of a mind too, suggesting it was time to strike it from the record, as it were.

That prompted a request from Upton and Walden that the FCC do just that, followed by the commission chairman's response that he expected that would happen as part of the agency's general review of regulations that could be dispensed with.

The chairman has said he has not interest in reinstating the doctrine, and the President has echoed that sentiment. But it has remained a perceived threat to some Republicans, particular given that some powerful Democrats in Congress, including Senate Communication Subcommittee chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.), have in the past suggested it should be revived as a counter to conservative talk radio, whose rise coincided with the doctrine's demise. The legislators also pushed the chairman to submit an agency plan per the president's directive on regulatory reviews.

"We have yet to see a plan from your agency on how it will implement the January 2011 order and begin eliminating other outmoded and economically harmful regulations. When will you begin eliminating other antiquated rules that stifle investment and harm innovation? What concrete steps will you take to reduce the burden on small businesses, who are today's primary engine for jobs growth? How many jobs will you create through your deregulatory efforts?"

The FCC is not bound by that presidential order, as the legislators acknowledge. "We are also pleased by your commitment in the letter to abide by President Obama's Executive Order 13563 on Improving Regulation and Regulatory Review, even though it does not bind independent agencies such as the FCC," they wrote.

But the chairman's letter talks more generally about reviewing regs rather than addressing the president's specific order. And while an FCC source familiar with the chairman's thinking told B&C last week the commission will honor, and has been honoring, the spirit of that deregulatory directive in an ongoing regulatory review, it does not intend, as an independent agency, to submit a formal plan to the administration. "We are implementing [the executive order's] intent," said that FCC source speaking on background last week, "but as an independent agency we are not formally submitting a plan," he said.

That came in response to a House Energy & Commerce Oversight and Investigations subcommittee hearing featuring Cass Sunstein, who heads the Office of Management and Budget's Office of Regulatory Affairs and his heading up collection of the deregulatory plans. He acknowledged that he had gotten no plan from the FCC and said he was encouraging the commission to engage in the process.