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House Commerce Committee Approves FCC Reform Bills

March 6, 2012. The House Commerce Committee (HCC) amended and approved two bills, HR 3309 [LOC | WW], the "Federal Communications Commission Process Reform Act of 2011", and HR 3310 [LOC | WW], the "Federal Communications Commission Consolidated Reporting Act of 2011".

The HCC approved HR 3309, the FCC Process Reform Act, by a vote of 31-16. It was a nearly straight party line vote. Republicans voted for the bill. All but two Democrats voted against the bill -- Rep. Jim Matheson (D-UT) and Rep. John Barrow (D-GA). See, Roll Call. The HCC then approved HR 3310 by voice vote.

HR 3309 is a huge and complex bill that pertains to decision making processes at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), including for rulemaking proceedings, antitrust merger reviews, and other adjudications. The bill contains numerous provisions that would increase transparency. However, it leaves untouched many practices that decrease transparency. Also, it would decrease transparency by allowing Commissioners to meet in secret.

HR 3310 is a shorter bill with broader support that would consolidate eight separate reports on the communications marketplace into a single report, eliminate several reporting requirements, and make modifications to reporting requirements.

Legislative History. The HCC held a hearing on May 13, 2011, at which it heard testimony from FCC Commissioners on FCC reform. See, HCC web page with hyperlinks to prepared testimony and archived webcast.

The HCC then released a discussion draft on June 14, 2011, of FCC reform legislation. The HCC then held a second hearing on June 23, 2011, for outside witnesses. See, HCC web page with hyperlinks to prepared testimony and archived webcast.

Rep. Greg Walden (R-OR), the Chairman of the HCC's Subcommittee on Communications and Technology (SCT) introduced HR 3309 on November 2, 2011. The bill has nine cosponsors. All are Republicans: Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX), Rep. Charles Bass (R-NH), Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL), Rep. John Kline (R-MN), Rep. Robert Latta (R-OH), Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA), Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-FL), and Rep. Lee Terry (R-NE).

Rep. Scalise introduced HR 3310 on November 2, 2011.

The HCC/SCT approved HR 3309 and HR 3310 on November 29, 2011.

Debate at March 5-6 Mark Up. The HCC meet on March 5 for opening statements of members. It met on March 6 to consider amendments, and vote on passage.

Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI), the Chairman of the HCC, stated that the FCC's "practices should be open and accountable". See, opening statement, which he read.

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA), the ranking Democrat on the HCC, stated that HR 3309 is "destined to die in the Senate". Rep. John Dingell (D-MI) suggested that President Obama might veto this bill if the Senate were to pass it.

Rep. Waxman stated that HR 3309 "it would disable the FCC, not reform it". Rep. Dingell said that the FCC "very much needs reform", but these bills would "cripple" it. He later that the FCC is "a sorry agency" because there has been a succession of "sorry" chairmen who have mismanaged the agency. He predicted that this bill would produce years of litigation, and much income for lawyers.

However, Rep. Waxman and other Democrats praised the provision of HR 3309 that allows FCC Commissioners to meet in secret.

Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-FL) praised the two bills, and condemned FCC "regulatory uncertainty" that inhibits investment, and its backlogs and delays. Rep. Lee Terry (R-NE) said that HR 3309 will "assure openness and transparency for the public".

Rep. Doris Matsui (D-CA) said that the FCC is in need of reform, but that HR 3309 is "a blatant overreach that would severely tie the hands of the FCC".

Rep. Walden stated that these two bills are about "Bringing transparency and accountability" to the FCC. See, prepared statement.

Rep. Walden wrote that "This is the agency that filed more than a hundred documents, spanning thousands of pages, in the weeks before the record closed in its Universal Service Fund proceeding -- some submitted just two days before that record closed. This is the agency that had a backlog of 4,984 petitions, 3,950 license applications, and more than a million consumer complaints at the end of last year. This is the agency that hasnít produced an annual satellite competition report or an annual video competition report in years, but claims that it doesnít need to survey the industry before adopting new regulations for these providers. This is the agency that still hasnít wrapped up its 2010 quadrennial review on media ownership."

"This legislation does not change the public interest standard that the FCC uses to approve or deny a merger. Period. If the FCC determines that a merger of two media companies is against the public interest, it can deny it. If that merger threatens competition, the FCC can adopt conditions to protect smaller competitors. If that merger threatens localism or a diversity of voices, the FCC can accept commitments tailored to protect these First Amendment values."

He added, "But I don't understand why anyone thinks the last-minute side deals the agency makes today are a good idea. The agency calls these side deals ďvoluntary commitments.Ē In my mind, they are anything-but-voluntary commitments."

Reaction. Walter McCormick, head of the USTelecom, commended the HCC in a release for approving these two bills. He added that "We hope today's action will be a stepping stone toward a broader initiative to update the nation's laws to reflect today's communications marketplace, and to help our nation meet its broadband investment, deployment and adoption goals."

Harold Feld of the Public Knowledge (PK) stated in a release that these these bills "would make a sham out of the principles which have guided our communications laws for the past 75 years. Instead of relying on a fundamental concept of the publicís interest, convenience and necessity in a rule, or in the approval of a transaction, the legislation instead defers to industryís interest and convenience." He praised the bill's provision that would allow Commissioners to meet in secret.