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House panel approves a measure to revamp FCC and rein in its rules

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 6, 2012

House Republicans on Tuesday pushed forward a bill designed to increase transparency at the Federal Communications Commission and prevent what critics say are needless regulations that have created uncertainty in the market and inhibited deal-making.

The bill passed 31-16 in the House Energy and Commerce Committee and now goes to the full House for a vote, but the Democrat-controlled Senate is seen as unlikely to consider the legislation. Cable, telecommunications and broadcast business groups have expressed support for the bill.

"Today's fast-changing marketplace requires careful deliberation before government intervention," said bill author Rep. Greg Walden, Oregon Republican, who chairs the panel's communications and technology subcommittee.

Mr. Walden praised FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski for improving the agency's workings, but added, "Even this commission has overreached its statutory authority and been less than open and transparent in its rule-making, and we need to lock in reform with legislation to ensure that good government practices continue from one administration to the next."

But Rep. John D. Dingell, Michigan Democrat, called the bill "legislative malpractice."

"It micromanages the way the FCC would do its job," added Rep. Henry A. Waxman, the California Democrat who is the ranking minority member on the committee, a critique that Rep. Lee Terry, Nebraska Republican, called "a little dramatic."

The bill would require the FCC to survey the communications marketplace before it creates new rules to make sure the agency has an up-to-date understanding of the industry it is regulating.

The FCC would also be required to identify the market failure, consumer harm or regulatory barrier it was trying to remedy before moving forward with expensive rule-making. FCC officials also must demonstrate that the benefits of regulation outweigh the costs.

The FCC would be required to disclose internal procedures for pending orders, publish orders before open meetings and establish minimum public-review periods.

"This is one of the biggest sectors of our economy, controlled by three people who vote behind closed doors," Mr. Walden said. "Is that too much to say, 'Tell us what you're working on?' "

Some have complained that past commissions have misused the system because of a lack of openness. "I think that some of the chairmen and former chairmen of the FCC have been less than optimal," said Rep. Joe Barton, Texas Republican.

In other cases, chairmen would ignore the wishes of a bipartisan group of commissioners by not putting a certain issue on the agenda.

"What we're finding with the agency is they are using a lack of procedural rules to the chairman's advantage," Mr. Terry said. "This will just tighten things up."

Under the bill, the FCC would also establish "shot clocks" that include a schedule of when reports on the matter will be released, so interested parties can know how quickly to expect decisions.

The committee turned back an amendment offered by Rep. Anna G. Eshoo, California Democrat, that would have required broadcast and cable operators to disclose the names of donors of more than $10,000 to entities "sponsoring political programming." Republicans said the amendment was an attempt to tack campaign finance reforms onto the FCC bill.

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