What Congressional Letters Really Mean
What Congressional Letters Really Mean
What Congressional Letters Really Mean

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    One day forty years ago, the iconoclastic then-Rep. Ken Hechler (D-WVA) wrote this entry for the Congressional Record:

    “I would like to indicate that I am not really speaking these words. I do not want to kid anyone into thinking that I am now on my feet delivering a stirring oration. As a matter of fact, I am back in my office typing this out on my own hot little typewriter, far from the maddening crowd and somewhat removed from the House chamber.”

    Congress being Congress, it took another seven years before distinguishing a speech actually given on the floor of the House or Senate from one simply inserted into the Record became a reality.  The fact that a speech by then Majority Leader Hale Boggs was printed in the Record as having been given two days after his death in 1972 may also have influenced the process.  It wasn’t until 1978 that the Record began the practice of putting a printer’s black dot in front of, and after, speeches that weren’t actually delivered on the floor.  Today, the Senate maintains that practice, and the House uses a different typeface from other actually delivered activity.  Even with customary privileges for “revising and extending” their remarks, the Record now allows readers to tell the difference between a legislator on the floor and one who is not.

    It’s with that spirit of honesty and disclosure in mind that we come to the letter dated Jan. 5, 2011, from 97 members of Congress urging the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to complete its review of the largest media merger in U.S. history “without delay.”   (An additional seven members were added Jan. 11, bringing the total to 104.)

    Before getting to the substance of said letter, which for all purposes is really irrelevant, here’s what the letter doesn’t tell you.  Of the 104 legislators who signed the letter to allow the country’s largest broadband provider, which also owns considerable programming properties to take over a broadcast network, movie studio and cable programmer, 88 received campaign contributions from Comcast last year, according to Open secrets.org.  Some, particularly those from Comcast’s home state of Pennsylvania, got a good chunk of change.  Others got a token gesture of $1,000 or less.  Rep. Greg Walden (R-OR), the chairman of the Telecom Subcommittee, only received $7,000, while Rep. John Shimkus (R-IL), who was a candidate for the subcommittee chairmanship, got a nice $10,000.  ComcastNBCU will have to do better than 2012.

    These kinds of letters go from Congress to regulatory agencies all the time, generally motivated by industries which want to keep agencies from doing something like protecting the public from anticompetitive activities or cleaning up the environment.  It would be crass, unflattering and even inaccurate in some cases to say that the only reason a legislator would sign such a letter is that said legislator has received financial support from the company or industry trying to influence the government.

    It is not, however, irrelevant.  In fact, given the influence of money in politics, it is highly relevant.  Chances are that if a story is written about such a letter, or mention is included in a story, the reporter won’t have taken the time to check out the financial backing of the signatories.  All a reader would see, if anything, is that X number of legislators signed a letter supporting/opposing some particular situation.

    In trying to increase transparency and more inform the public, one little change might be in order.  Call it the “Hechler Rule.”  If a signatory to a congressional letter receives money from a party affected by the action in the letter, then said legislator’s name must be accompanied by a symbol, say, “$” after his or her name.  That way, any member of the public looking at the letter, and certainly any reporter looking at the letter, would know that there is, at a minimum, a financial relationship between the legislator and the company.  That would be the first indication that perhaps questions should be asked about why the legislator signed the letter.

    The increased degree of scrutiny could have the corollary result of cutting down the number of those letters, and of the number of legislators signing them, for fear of the public discussion of their siding with large and powerful industries.  That wouldn’t be a bad thing, either.

    On the other hand, it may be that the legislator agrees anyway with the sentiment, regardless of any money changing hands.  The legislator would be free to explain that.

    In this case, the Comcast letter to the FCC urges the Commission to act now because, according to the bipartisan group, “Any further delay in your agency’s review process, and any further efforts to laden the transaction with formal regulatory requirements, could undermine much needed jobs and investment.”

    How is Comcast doing with that investment?  Comcast’s capital expenditures for 2009 were 11% less than they were for 2008.  For the first quarter of 2010, capex declined 20.3% to $925 million.  For the first six months of 2010 capital expenditures decreased 9.6% to $2.1 billion, or 11.0% of total revenue.  For the first three quarters, capital expenditures decreased 2.2% to $3.4 billion, representing 12.2% of total revenue.  Much of the capital expenditure spending was on add-on boxes for consumers to watch digital tiers.  It’s also worth mentioning that through that same nine-month period, Comcast spent $900 million buying back its own stock, which only serves to jack up the stock price to the benefit of the larger shareholders.

    The jobs picture is also uncertain, as Comcast inherits NBCU along with loads of financial obligations.  It’s not a particularly favorable job picture.

    The “job-killing” argument in the Comcast case will be heard in a similar venue as Congressional opponents gang up on the vague Net Neutrality rules enacted by the FCC.  We wouldn’t want to hurt AT&T and Verizon jobs, would we?

    For the record, AT&T at the beginning of 2008 had 310,000 employees.  By the third quarter of 2010, it was down to 268,000 (rounding here).  Verizon’s picture is much the same.  That company went from 232,000 at the beginning of 2008 to 195,000 by 3Q 2010.   Comcast as currently constituted, has about half the employees of Verizon.

    All of those job cuts, and those are only the recent ones, took place in the most favorable regulatory climate imaginable.  External factors like the general state of the economy and company business plans and profit targets, have much more to do with spending for networks and hiring of employees.

    Congressional letters are always subject to interpretation.  As my colleague Ernesto Falcon aptly demonstrated, such letters can be used and abused.  Signing a letter isn’t the same as taking a vote.

    So by all means, members of Congress and Senators, sign those letters on behalf of those big companies.  But do so in the spirit that Hechler demonstrated all those years ago. (And, for that matter, is still demonstrating.  At age 95, he mounted a symbolic campaign in the West Virginia Democratic Senatorial primary to call attention to the scourge of mountaintop removal mining.)

    But make sure that everyone understands what the game is that’s being played.