CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misidentified the author of the Federal Communications Commission Consolidated Reporting Act of 2011. The author is Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., is an original cosponsor.
A House subcommittee on Wednesday approved GOP-sponsored legislation to weaken the regulatory powers of the Federal Communications Commission over objections from Democrats, who said that the changes could paralyze an agency that helps to protect the public interest.
The Energy and Commerce's Communications Subcommittee approved the FCC reform bill in a 14-9 party-line vote, foiling efforts by subpanel Chairman Greg Walden, R-Ore., to depict his measure as nonpartisan and noncontroversial.
“Good government should not be about Republicans or Democrats,” Walden said in his opening remarks. “Both sides have had their share of problems while running the commission. It’s not about Chairman [Julius] Genachowski. I have repeatedly said the current chairman has improved many of the processes at the FCC.”
But collegiality couldn’t overcome long-standing disputes over the FCC’s role.
The major sticking point for Democrats centered on provisions limiting the FCC’s ability to demand conditions from merging companies in the name of the public interest, something Republicans and industry say is an amorphous mandate to make rules.
The FCC used this mandate, for instance, to attach open Internet conditions to Comcast’s merger with NBC Universal last year, creating guidelines for the company's Internet traffic management practices.
Walden sees that process as exploitative.
“It’s true that the bill would end the FCC’s ability to hold up an otherwise meritorious merger until it can extract unrelated ‘voluntary commitments,’ ” he said.
Democrats defended the merger conditions as a key function of the agency.
“What [passing this bill] means is that conditions to promote broadband adoption, to require minimum broadband speeds, or to ensure broadband coverage or access in rural or low-income areas could no longer be required. Conditions to protect smaller companies from harm could also fall by the wayside,” said committee ranking member Henry Waxman, D-Calif.
Democrats also said that the bill provides a new foothold for companies that want to appeal FCC regulations because it requires the agency to justify new rules through a market analysis.
“If AT&T or Verizon object to a regulation, they could sue the agency on the grounds that the cost-benefit analysis was deficient, the analysis of the market failure was inadequate, or the agency failed to consider alternatives to regulation,” Waxman said. “These lawsuits, which no other agency in government would face, could effectively paralyze the FCC.”
Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, a longtime FCC critic, suggested reining in the agency is just good policy.
“While high-priced, Gucci-wearing, loafer lawyers may think that it ties the commission up in knots, it's actually performing a public service, so I'm very supportive of that,” he said.
A second bill, authored by Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., and cosponsored by Walden, also passed the subcommittee by voice vote. It would combine various FCC reports into a single report.