It took a little while to brush off the rust, but now it looks as if Congressional Democrats are warming to the task of reclaiming the majority. Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin Martin can't be happy. Perhaps he should do lunch with former Chairman Reed Hundt, just to get some idea of how to deal with a Congress turned hostile in mid-term. Hundt had that experience while serving as President Clinton's FCC chairman at the time of the Republican takeover of Congress in the 1994 elections.
To be fair, of course, even when Democrats were in control of Congress with a Democrat in the White House, they still tended to be hard on the Commission. Back then, Congress had more of a sense as an independent branch of government, rather than as a member of the team.
The FCC has had a fairly easy ride for the past few years. As this collection of letters from Congress indicates, that's over. The incoming chairmen of the Senate Commerce Committee and House Commerce Committee sent letters to the FCC protesting the attempt to “unrecuse” Comr. Robert McDowell from the AT&T takeover of BellSouth, as did Rep. Mike Doyle (D-PA), a Telecom Subcommittee member. Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA) issued a statement earlier.
The letter from Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-HI) continues to highlight his new activism, which came about during the Committee consideration of the telecom legislation. Inouye, who has a longstanding friendship with current Chairman Ted Stevens (R-AK), broke with Stevens on Net Neutrality, and his letter to Martin on the McDowell issue is in that vein.
The letter from Rep. John Dingell (D-MI) is like reading a new work from a favorite classic author. For years, the “Dingell-grams” emanating from the Hill terrorized government officials. This particular document brings back the glory years. There are 15 in-depth questions to which Dingell required answers by Dec. 11, some asking for 10 years worth of data. Doyle's letter may signify a new voice from the Telecom Subcommittee willing to participate actively in such matters now that he's in the majority.
At the end of the day, the question still remains whether even with all of this opposition what, or whether, members of Congress can do anything to affect the outcome of the merger. Certainly the committees can hold hearings and make life uncomfortable a few hours for Martin and for McDowell, should he decide to reverse his decision and to participate.
Many years ago, there was an FCC policy called the Fairness Doctrine, which required broadcasters to present a balanced point of view on issues of public importance. During the Reagan Administration, then-FCC Chairman Dennis Patrick repealed it. Many members of Congress complained, and some legislation was passed, but not by veto-proof majorities, but the Commission's decision stood.
Unless Congress is willing to pass legislation or take revenge during the appropriations process, unlikely occurrences at best, the road to the conclusion of the AT&T deal will be longer and rockier but ultimately will arrive at the destination.