Last updated: September 18, 2008 - 8:37pm
Former Federal Communications Commission Chairmen Michael Powell and William Kennard -- now top advisors to presidential hopefuls Sen McCain and Obama, respectively -- spoke candidly about their experiences heading the regulatory agency at a National Press Club event Tuesday. Held by the Information Economy Project at George Mason University, the forum was meant to provide frank advice on telecom policy to the next Administration, but also gave the ex-chairmen a chance to offer some surprisingly harsh words for their erstwhile agency's record, on issues as diverse as indecency and antitrust regulation.
Powell was particularly critical of the FCC's recent actions on the broadcast indecency front -- including his own decisions. Powell was equally acerbic on the subject of the agency's merger review process, which he suggested added little of value to the ordinary antitrust review conducted by the Department of Justice. He especially blasted the practice of imposing "voluntary conditions" on mergers, saying it had become an abusive means of exercising authority well outside the scope of the agency's legitimate regulatory powers.
On the question of a national broadband policy, Powell said that most of the potential approaches that have been laid out can be reduced to the idea that people "expect government to write a big check." In the current economic climate, he mocked the idea that there would be any political will in Congress to shell out billions annually rolling out rural fiber, though he added that he would "be one of the first to support such a thing if I thought it were politically feasible."
Kennard focused more in his remarks on the internal politics and procedures of the FCC. The FCC appointment process has become more politicized, Kennard argued, ever since President Clinton and former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott struck a deal to let Republicans pick agency boards. The result, he said, was that instead of being staffed like a management team, with commissioners chosen for complementary expertise to produce a board that works well together, party leaders would be afforded their patronage picks. Decision-making has become more predictable, said Kennard, as the views of commissioners now tend to reflect those of their patrons on Capitol Hill. As a result, policy-making had also become more contentious and partisan.
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