New Orleans -- Calling the Federal Communications
Commission an "agent of corruption," Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.) promised to
deliver a reform package that will eliminate the agency's merger-review authority and
place strict time limits on license-transfer approvals.
Tauzin, the House Telecommunications Subcommittee chairman,
said new legislation is needed because the FCC has abused its power in a manner that
forces parties to make large payments to well-connected individuals who have the clout to
obtain FCC action on pending applications.
"This agency has become an aider and abettor of
corruption in the communications world, and we ought to talk about it," Tauzin said.
"I am talking about tens of millions of dollars in payments. Somebody ought to do
something about it."
Tauzin's comments came in a speech to the Association of
Local Television Stations (ALTV), a Washington, D.C.-based lobbying group that held an
all-day regulatory conference one day before the start of the National Association of
Television Programming Executives conference here.
Two aides to FCC chairman William Kennard -- mass-media
adviser Tom Power and Cable Services Bureau chief Deborah Lathen -- were in the audience
to hear Tauzin's blast. Afterward, Power declined to comment, and a commission spokesman
could not be reached for comment at press time.
Tauzin used strong language to describe the FCC's
activities. At various points, he said the agency exposed companies and individuals and
companies to "shakedowns," "blackmail" and "greenmail."
But Tauzin, who has made similar charges before, declined
to provide specifics, claiming that people came forward with their complaints
confidentially to avoid alleged FCC retaliation.
Tauzin also declined to implicate individuals within the
FCC, suggesting that the problem stemmed from bureaucratic habit. "I am not saying
any one of them is corrupt," he added.
In the weeks ahead, Tauzin plans to introduce a bill that
would eliminate the FCC's merger-review authority. He said a new law was necessary even
though lawmakers thought they had taken that step in the Telecommunications Act of 1996.
The bill would place time limits on license transfers,
Tauzin said, although he wasn't specific. He said time limitations were necessary because
FCC inaction leads to procedural abuses.
"You don't have to pay ransom. You don't have to pay
the greenmail and the blackmail in order to get a decision. You get your answer and, if
you don't like it, you can go to court," he added.
Tauzin said he and other members of Congress were upset
with the FCC on numerous policy issues. He added that the agency refused to grandfather
local market agreements, which allow TV stations to effectively merge without running
afoul of the commission's ban on common ownership of two TV stations in a market.
He said the FCC transformed a provision in the 1996 act
that was designed to give schools and libraries discounted rates for advanced
telecommunications services into a $20 billion project to wire 2 million classrooms to the
Internet. "The FCC simply has trouble reading the law," he added.
He also bemoaned the FCC's unwillingness to permit one
company to own a newspaper and TV station in the same market. "All of these mergers
and convergence can happen, but a single owner can't own a newspaper and television
station in the same community. It's astounding to me," Tauzin added.