- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Democratic lawmakers ripped into the Republican-led Federal Communications Commission yesterday, confronting Chairman Kevin J. Martin with a litany of complaints ranging from hasty decision-making to overstepping his legal authority.

“The FCC has strayed from its sole duty — that is, to implement the laws as passed by the Congress,” Rep. John D. Dingell, Michigan Democrat and chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, warned in his opening remarks. “The FCC is not a legislative body. That role rests with this committee, with the people’s elected representatives.”

Mr. Dingell and Rep. Anna G. Eshoo, California Democrat, were among the agency’s harshest critics during a hearing that summoned all five commissioners before the Energy and Commerce telecommunications and the Internet subcommittee.

“What concerns me most is the lack of transparency and fairness in the commission’s deliberations, regardless of the outcome,” said Mrs. Eshoo, who accused Mr. Martin of fostering a “nontransparent, heavy-handed decision-making process” during his tenure as chairman.

Lawmakers raised a number of topics, including broadband Internet penetration, cable franchising rules, public safety, media ownership, net neutrality and media company mergers.

The hearing marked the first time in several years the full commission had appeared before the Energy and Commerce Committee or any of its subcommittees.

Mr. Dingell and other critics of Mr. Martin made it clear that the new Democratic-led committee plans to schedule more oversight hearings in the future.

Mr. Martin and his Republican colleagues, Deborah Taylor Tate and Robert McDowell, defended the agency’s free-market approach and touted progress in areas such as broadband deployment and the creation of a public safety division to improve emergency communications.

“The commission has tried to make decisions based on that fundamental belief in promoting a robust, competitive marketplace,” Mr. Martin said. “Competition drives prices down and spurs providers to improve service and create new products.”

Mrs. Eshoo suggested the commission may have been too business-friendly in approving the AT&T-Bell; South merger, albeit with a number of conditions to protect consumers. She singled out Mr. Martin and Mrs. Tate, who voted for the deal but afterward expressed disapproval of some of the conditions.

“What’s the authority that you draw from to approve and then refuse to implement the agreement? … What parts of the merger do you plan to enforce and what parts of the merger do you not plan to enforce?” Mrs. Eshoo asked.

“We are going to enforce it,” Mr. Martin said. “What legal authority I have is the order itself.”

Mr. Dingell repeatedly chided the commission’s Republican majority for voting to relax video-franchising rules, making it easier for phone companies to sell cable television service, which he said wrongly pre-empts local jurisdictions. He promised to submit a formal inquiry on the subject.

Rep. Mike Doyle, Pennsylvania Democrat, called on Mr. Martin for an explanation of a USA Today report that the commission blocked a study that was critical of emergency 911 technology.

“Don’t you think [the author’s] conclusions were important to act on?” Mr. Doyle asked.

“Not only do I think his conclusions were important to act on, but we’re already acting on many of them,” Mr. Martin said, noting that the commission terminated author Dale Hatfield’s $10,000 contract after he refused to “provide any information of what he was doing.”

The FCC’s two Democrats, Commissioners Jonathan Adelstein and Michael Copps, echoed many of the concerns expressed by Democratic committee members — albeit in a friendlier way — citing the need to improve broadband Internet access and curb media consolidation.

At least one lawmaker had something nice to say.

“We’ve had some great successes,” Rep. John Shimkus, Illinois Republican, said of efforts to improve the interoperability of emergency communications.

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