Allow me to weave a conspiracy theory: something is afoot with Rep. Edward Markey, a key powerbroker on telecom and media matters, and FCC Chairman Kevin Martin.
Markey, who heads the House telecommunications subcommittee, a panel that historically takes a lead role in overseeing the FCC and formulating communications policy, has long been one of the most vocal crusaders for tough regulations protecting consumers.
Yet over and over again, when the Democratic lawmaker has the perfect opportunity to zing the Republican FCC chief, he pulls his punches.
Martin, meanwhile, has a reputation for being the lap dog of no one in this town, especially a Democrat from Massachusetts. But with the House Energy and Commerce Committee scrutinizing his management of the FCC as part of a months-long investigation, he's suddenly accommodating Markey on everything from preserving the openness of the Internet to re-auctioning a critical slice of spectrum that would benefit fire, police and rescue squads.
It's too cute, too perfect, too choreographed. And it's prompting the same question in the minds of many industry watchers around town: Have they secretly cut a deal?
Markey's office didn't respond to my queries while an FCC spokesman sidestepped questions about a back-room accord, emphasizing instead that the chairman seeks to work with all lawmakers.
"I think these things are understood implicitly between wily politicians like Martin and Markey," an industry source observed.
Blair Levin, managing director at the investment firm Stifel Nicolaus, said it's not unusual for an FCC chairman to seek common ground with the head of the telecom panel. "There is often an accommodation of the other's interests," he said.
Considerable circumstantial evidence exists to bolster the case for conspiracy. Markey has been mysteriously absent from the FCC investigation being spearheaded by his colleagues, House Energy and Commerce Chairman John Dingell and Energy and Commerce Oversight Subcommittee Chairman Bart Stupak, D-Mich.
Committee requests to the agency for electronic records and paper documents dating back three years do not bear Markey's name.
Just last week, Martin dispatched some FCC officials to brief House Energy and Commerce aides on the re-auction of the emergency-related airwaves. Sources said the FCC chief wanted to be careful not to undercut Markey -- who plans to hold a hearing on the matter next week -- in circulating updated rules designed to ensure that the do-over succeeds.
The day before Markey introduced "network neutrality" legislation in February that -- among other things -- calls for nationwide hearings on preserving an open and accessible Internet, Martin announced just such a session at Harvard University in Cambridge, one mile from the lawmaker's suburban Boston district.
Martin even rescheduled the event to accommodate -- you guessed it -- Markey so the lawmaker could attend and briefly grab the media spotlight.
And during the hearing, there was this gushing praise from Markey: "There is no better group of people working on any set of issues in the United States than the members of the Federal Communications Commission."
Perhaps the lawmaker hasn't been reading the scathing "Dingellgrams" his colleagues have been firing off to the agency in recent months warning that "credible sources" have raised dozens of allegations about regulatory mismanagement. "I am rapidly losing confidence that the commission has been conducting its affairs in an appropriate manner," Dingell wrote in a Dec. 3 missive to Martin.
Markey heaped praise as other members of his party continue to excoriate the agency over rule changes adopted in December permitting increased media consolidation and for plans shepherding the nation's shift to digital television signals that largely overlook the needs of seniors, rural folks and low-power broadcasters.
When a Massachusetts Democrat punches back at the FCC these days, odds are it is Sen. John Kerry.
"The proposed rule is bad on the merits, and the process Martin has undertaken has been nothing short of disgraceful," the senator wrote in a blog posting the day of the FCC's ownership vote, using the sort of invective many had expected from Markey.
By pulling punches, Markey gets some mileage from the chairman on policy matters of importance to him -- especially in an election year with a short legislative calendar when the lawmaker knows most of his telecom-related bills stand little chance of passage.
"Like every congressman, Markey wants the aura of power. To the extent the outside world perceives Markey as actually having influence over Martin, that's good for Markey," the industry source said.
Martin, meanwhile, scores points with the committee that could potentially help reduce the sting of an investigation that looms as a constant threat if he doesn't behave.
Taking the conspiracy a bit further, the implicit message from the committee to Martin could be that if he accommodates Markey, the Dingell-led investigation could be made to go away. All this, of course, makes for some rather complicated relationships. Martin cozies up to Markey who in turn softens his rhetoric against the FCC chairman, while Markey's colleague Dingell turns up the heat on Martin with an investigation that could embarrass the FCC chief if he doesn't play nice with Markey.
Yeah, it's probably just a wild theory.
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