The House Energy and Commerce Committee powered through Democratic opposition on Tuesday to approve legislation to reform the way the Federal Communications Commission does business, despite concerns that the measure favors companies over consumers.
The Federal Communications Commission Process Reform Act would require the agency to do more research, such as identifying market failure, consumer harm, or a regulatory barrier, before enacting rules. It would also establish time limits on proceedings and limit the kinds of conditions the FCC can impose on mergers, among other reforms. The bill would also require the FCC to publicize its plans before taking votes.
“Communications and technology companies and the public deserve the most transparent and responsive government agency, and that’s exactly what these bills are about: bringing transparency and accountability to the Federal Communications Commission,” said Communications and Technology Subcommittee Chairman Greg Walden, R-Ore.
Walden and other Republicans argued that too much at the FCC depends on the nature of the commission’s chairman.
“Chairman [Julius] Genachowski has shown that a good chairman can improve a broken institution,” Walden said. “But the American public expects and deserves a transparent and accountable federal government, no matter the administration.”
Companies and industry groups praised the legislation as a much-needed reform. Steve Largent, president of the cellphone organization CTIA, said the FCC’s habit of releasing information at the last minute is a problem that “calls out for a cure,” and US Telecom President Walter McCormick said the bill would reduce unnecessary reports.
But Democrats said the bill would restrict the FCC’s ability to act in the public interest. The bill passed, 31-16, with almost all Democrats opposed.
Ranking member Henry Waxman, D-Calif., said the bill would “disable the FCC, not reform it.”
Waxman successfully amended the bill to present consumer complaints in a public database, but Republicans defeated two other amendments from Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., that they said would gut the bill.
Consumer groups said legislation favored companies over consumers. "There is a clear dynamic developing here—telecom companies and their trade groups see an opportunity to tie the hands of the federal agency charged with overseeing them,” said Free Press’s Joel Kelsey.
The bill now heads for the House floor where it is likely to find support in the GOP-controlled body. Aides with the Senate Commerce Committee, however, have said it is not likely to consider the legislation.
The committee also passed by voice vote a bill that would streamline the way the FCC reports to Congress.