A bill that would put a shot clock on Federal Communications Commission decisions and institute numerous other process reforms is scheduled for a Feb. 7 markup in the Energy & Commerce Committee, according to Communications and Technology Subcommittee Chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.).
Walden said Wednesday he is looking for FCC reform, in part, because he is beginning to feel the commission is becoming more of a "tool of the White House" than an independent agency.
Also look for his subcommittee to hold hearings on LightSquared, concerning both the issues of GPS receiver standards and how the broadband wireless network's plans got held up by government. Further down the line, there are plans for Communications subcommittee hearings on video -- including Cable Act issues -- audio and data, according to Walden, who talked to reporters Wednesday to outline the subcommittee's priorities.
Walden added the caveat that the Feb. 7 date could change, but he wants to move a bill forward "to bring more openness to the process at the FCC, to "give the public a portal into the portals (the FCC's headquarters).
Walden gave as an example of his frustration with the FCC the lag time between the vote on Universal Service and the production of a final document. "Oftentimes, the FCC commissioner's process has been one of voting on e-mails and press releases and not documents that are available to the public," he said.
He wants to put shot clocks on decisions and prevent the FCC from using its public-interest leverage on mergers "to achieve effects in the marketplace that you don't statutorily have the right to do under your rules. In any other context you would call that extortion. " He called that an overreach. "If you want to change the marketplace do it in a rulemaking," he added.
Walden, who is a conferee on the payroll tax extension bill package that includes spectrum incentive auction legislation, hopes the auctions will stay in that bill, and expects it to given the multi-billion "pay-for" it represents. The auctions are estimated to raise about $16 billion for the treasury after compensating broadcasters and paying for an emergency communications network. But he remains committed to retaining provisions that prevent the FCC from putting conditions on the bidders for that reclaimed broadcast spectrum, which Democrats remain strongly opposed to. He also said the auctions would also generate between 300,000 and 700,000 jobs.
Walden said it was not a certainty that auctions would stay in the bill. Still, he noted he had "a very strong hand," before adding that it was important that it do so. He said that given the need to pay for the bill, he thought it would "cause a problem" if that now $16.7 billion -- because it is a new calendar year that has been some adjustment to the figure -- dropped out.
Walden pointed out that the Democrats had four years to act on a spectrum bill when they were in the majority, and four years to build out a public safety net. He also said that in the prior Congress there was bipartisan agreement on auctioning the D Block until President Obama changed his position on the D Block, after which Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), former chair of the full Energy & Commerce Committee changed his position. He said the only one who has been pure on the D block is FCC chairman Julius Genachowski, who still believes in auctioning which is in the current law and "maybe the FCC can move ahead with that auction since they have the authority."
At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas earlier this month, Genachowski was critical of the House version of the spectrum auction bill because of its limits on the conditions the FCC could impose. Walden said he was "caught off guard" by the criticism since he says his staff had been working with the chairman's staff on some of the language "to make sure that it did work effectively."
Walden interpreted the chairman's remarks as meaning the bill wouldn't work. "The Congressional Budget Office [which scored the auctions as raising those billions] obviously has a different view of that because they wouldn't have given us a score if they didn't think the auction would work."
Walden said he was beginning to lose a "little faith" in the commission, "whose power derives from the U.S. Congress," because he said it was beginning to feel like the FCC was "just another tool of the White House."
Walden defended the spectrum bills prohibition on the FCC placing conditions on bidder eligibility. He said the FCC would still have the authority to take action after an auction, applying a spectrum screen, even nullifying the auction altogether if it determined there was too much concentration. He noted, instead, that the FCC wanted to pick winners and losers and that "three people down at the Portals shouldn't be able to tell a company you don't have the right to bid.
The only reason he could think for the FCC chairman to be upset by that provision disallowing bidding conditions, is that he wants to exclude one or the other of the two major carriers from bidding. "I don't think that is good public policy," he said. "They seem to want the authority to say: "you don't get to play."
Walden said he did not understand that "collision" between LightSquared and the GPS industry. " I don't understand a process where someone buys spectrum put forth by the FCC to use for a purpose, only to discover later on you can't use what you bought because of interference issues with another user outside your band. I am trying to figure out how the cart got so far ahead of the horse. "
He wants to hold hearings on how the process failed and on receiver standards.