Battle Over the FCC's Future Kickstarted Again in Congress

Greg Walden rips the FCC for taking too long to review communications deals and for overreaching in demanding concessions such as in the Comcast-NBCU merger

The battle over the Federal Communications Communication's future returned to Congress on Thursday — along with the animosity that marked past battles, especially over its ability to extract the net neutrality-like concessions it won in approving the Comcast-NBCUniversal merger.

At a hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Committee's telecom subcommittee, chairman Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore) ripped the FCC for taking too long to review communications deals and for overreaching in demanding concessions that had little to do with the possible harms of the transactions.

Walden said he will propose two draft bills that would assure the FCC moves with due speed in reviewing transactions, sticks close to its main duty in reviewing deals and increases the openness of its consideration of any additional regulations.

The bills are “designed to minimize the potential for procedural failings, curb abuse and improve agency decision making,” Walden said.

Walden repeatedly questioned witnesses about whether federal agencies should have the right to extract concessions in approving mergers that the agencies can't demand through their direct regulatory authority.

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Democrats accused Walden of trying to hamstring the FCC.

“This is a back-door way of gutting the FCC's very important authority,” said Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the subcommittee. Walden's bills would, she said, subject the FCC to a separate set of procedures from the rest of the government and tie up every decision or rule the agency issues into court challenges.

Currently, the laws the rule the FCC are the same that rule all government agencies.

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the full House Energy and Commerce Committee, said the legislation “would effectively eviscerate the public interest standard” the FCC uses in determining in whether deals should go through.

Some witnesses agreed that FCC procedures needed reform, including former FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell. McDowell said he thought Congress should go farther and do a more extensive rewrite of the laws governing the FCC to reflect changes in technology in recent years, particularly the internet.

In arguments about net neutrality, for example, there has been some question about whether the FCC or Congress should oversee the internet.

Walden has been critical of the FCC for some time. He did not like the way the agency handled the Comcast deal, and he has objected to statements that FCC Chairman designee Tom Wheeler made in a blog post several years ago commenting about the FCC's review of AT&T's bid for T-Mobile USA.

In that blog post, Wheeler suggested the deal should be approved but that the FCC should use the deal to extract net neutrality and other conditions from AT&T.

As part of the FCC's approval of Comcast's acquisition of NBCU, Comcast agreed to abide by the FCC's net-neutrality rules — even if the rules were overturned by Congress or a court.