In the Chinese zodiac, 2008 is the Year of the Rat. But in telecom and media circles in Washington, it might as well be the Year of the Oversight.
In the House Energy and Commerce and the Senate Commerce committees, scrutinizing the FCC and the looming transition to digital television will be top priorities -- with less attention paid to drafting and moving substantive telecom- and media-related bills.
"I'm expecting very little in the way of any meaningful legislative activity on telecom and media policy," said Jessica Zufolo, senior telecom analyst at Medley Global Advisors, an investment firm. "The year leading up to an election cycle is usually characterized by very little action and a lot more discussion."
The House Energy and Commerce panel is investigating the FCC amid allegations that agency Chairman Kevin Martin used heavy handed tactics to rush through rule changes. Martin has repeatedly insisted he runs the FCC in a fair and open manner. The panel is expected to hold at least one hearing on the inquiry and, according to a draft agenda, may pursue FCC overhaul legislation.
The Senate Commerce Committee, headed by Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, also plans to conduct hearings examining the FCC, but with a more forward-looking approach emphasizing ways to make its decision-making more transparent. Sen. John (Jay) Rockefeller, D-W.Va., has urged the panel to go even further by crafting a reauthorization bill restructuring the agency and recalibrating its mission.
Some industry watchers caution that this priority could fall by the wayside in the next Congress if a Democrat wins the White House in November, placing the FCC under the party's control. But Rockefeller spokesman Steven Broderick countered, "Regardless of who the president is going to be, Congress just can't sit on the sidelines with this."
Meanwhile, both panels have scheduled hearings this week examining government and television industry efforts to shepherd the nation's historic shift to digital transmission in February 2009. The House Energy and Commerce Committee may craft digital TV legislation if it appears additional steps are needed to ensure a smooth transition, according to the draft agenda.
Democrats have adopted an oversight posture for several reasons. The thin margins of power in Congress that helped scuttle major Republican-backed telecom legislation in 2006 still remain. And with the presidential election only nine months away, lawmakers are taking a wait-and-see attitude before deciding on their next steps.
As a result, communications-related measures with the greatest chance of passage this year are relatively non-controversial and narrow.
That point was underscored last week when Sen. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota and Rep. Mike Doyle of Pennsylvania, both Democrats, held a press briefing to tout bipartisan legislation barring the expiration of names on the do-not-call registry restricting unwanted telemarketing solicitations.
"In a time of great controversy about a lot of things, there's one thing that Republicans and Democrats in the Congress are united about," Dorgan said. "We don't want obnoxious, annoying, unsolicited telephone calls bothering us at home."
To the extent that contentious measures emerge this year, they would be introduced with an eye toward 2009 - depending on the election results, sources said. "Policymakers are doing what they can to get peoples' attention and get them thinking about these issues in a serious manner in order to hit the ground running after the election cycle," Zufolo explained.
House Telecommunications and the Internet Subcommittee Chairman Edward Markey, D-Mass., is preparing network neutrality legislation designed to prevent operators of high-speed Internet systems from potentially acting as content gatekeepers. Dorgan and Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, introduced a related measure in early 2007. Cable and telecom companies strongly oppose such restrictions, arguing that existing FCC guidelines are sufficient.
There is also chatter that Markey is contemplating a wireless telecommunications bill featuring beefed up consumer protections and a reduced regulatory role for states. But again, sources said he may be laying the groundwork for next year.
Media Ownership: Round 2
For Dorgan and other critics of the FCC's recent relaxation of the federal ban on owning a newspaper and broadcast outlet in the same market, a key goal is overturning the decision through a resolution of disapproval.
Dorgan, who is worried that the change would result in further media consolidation, told reporters last week that he can't proceed until the agency's revised media rules are published in the Federal Register. A commission spokesman wasn't sure when that would be.
"We fully expect to have a vote in the Senate overturning the FCC's ruling," Dorgan emphasized. "I think the FCC is out of control and is making decisions that are, in my judgment, not in the public interest."
The resolution is considered a long shot because it requires passage in both chambers - a tall order in itself - and the president's signature, considered unlikely because the Bush administration has endorsed the new FCC policy. Asked about his odds, Dorgan responded: "I know what gives us no chance, and that is to decide we will accept the FCC's decision."
Doyle, vice chairman of the House telecom subcommittee, hinted that the rules might be easier to overturn in a Democratic administration. "Presidents come and go and FCC commissioners come and go, but we're both going to be here, and so the battle continues," he said.
Mergers and More
The House and Senate Judiciary committees may review Microsoft's $44.6 billion unsolicited proposal to buy Yahoo. Senate Judiciary Antitrust Subcommittee Chairman Herb Kohl, D-Wis., has pledged to scrutinize the deal and House Judiciary Chairman Conyers has indicated that a hearing would be held before the panel's antitrust task force.
Meanwhile, the House Energy and Commerce panel also plans to monitor FCC efforts to revamp the multibillion dollar universal service fund designed to make telecom service more affordable in rural and impoverished areas, according to the draft agenda.
And, during floor action this week, the Senate will consider amendments to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that would alter or remove a provision granting retroactive legal immunity to telecom companies that helped the administration conduct warrantless electronic surveillance on U.S. residents since 2001. A House-passed version would not grant immunity to telecom carriers.
With these measures headed for possible conference negotiations, House Energy and Commerce Chairman Dingell, Markey, and Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee Chairman Bart Stupak, D-Mich., urged colleagues in a letter dated Feb. 8 to reject immunity. They argued that the issue "deserves a separate and more deliberate examination by Congress."