Election Year Pressures Create Strife for FCC
By Kim Sunderland
FCC members appear to be caught up in election-frenzy politics, and it’s not a pretty sight.
Problems surfaced in April, when FCC
(www.fcc.gov) Chairman William E. Kennard and Commissioner Gloria Tristani joined President Clinton on the Navajo Reservation in Window Rock, N.M., when he announced a plan to provide basic local phone service for as low as $1 a month for American Indians living on federally recognized reservations.
The Clinton plan is part of the administration’s Lifeline program, which provides a discount on local phone bills for low-income customers, and includes other FCC efforts to close the digital divide.
The commissioners issued several press releases during the trip, angering Republicans who viewed the event as a ploy to support Democratic Vice President Al Gore in his quest for the presidency, or even to further their own political careers.
In mid-April, Commissioner Michael K. Powell released a statement that said he was distraught by “what appears to be the unabashed politicization” of the commission’s oversight of universal service programs. He cited his Democratic colleagues’ news releases as “eagerly” supporting Clinton’s plan for increasing Lifeline funding to subsidize basic local phone service on American Indian reservations. Such a showing jeopardizes the FCC’s credibility as an independent agency.
Powell’s statement said he was troubled specifically by reports that the initiative was a “President Clinton proposal,” which he says is incorrect. The FCC initiated the proceeding in August but has not voted on it. Powell further stated that he objected to the “chairman’s carefully orchestrating commission business to play on the political stage in support of White House activities.”
Kennard responded the same day with a written statement saying that while the proposal “comes from the FCC,” President Clinton “endorsed the proposal as part of his official duties as president. He is not running for office, and these were not campaign appearances.”
Still, Clinton has been all over the telecom industry. He recently visited the COMDEX technology trade show in Chicago, where he urged industry executives “to put their time, talent and money into ensuring that all Americans have access to the Internet.”
“It’s good social policy, good personal ethics and good for our economy,” the president said.
Meanwhile, Kennard defended the FCC against illegal lobbying charges alleged by Rep. W.J. “Billy” Tauzin (R-La.), chairman of the House telecom subcommittee.
The FCC “scrupulously adheres” to laws regulating lobbying of Congress by federal agencies, Kennard wrote in response to Tauzin’s charge that the FCC had violated the Anti-Lobbying Act by sending faxes opposing H.R. 3439. The House approved H.R. 3439–the Radio Broad-casting Preservation Act of 2000–and the Senate is considering the bill, which would reign in the commission’s low-power FM broadcasting license plans.
“I am confident,” Kennard wrote, “that the transmission to congressional staff of faxes by the commission’s Office of Legislative and Intergovernmental Affairs on April 13 in support of low-power FM service and in opposition to H.R. 3439, complied in all respects with the Anti-Lobbying Act.”
But Tauzin and his colleague, Michael G. Oxley (R-Ohio), aren’t deterred by Kennard’s letter. They say they will ask the U.S. Department of Justice
(www.usdoj.gov) to investigate the FCC’s alleged lobbying activities. Tauzin has said he also might subpoena Kennard if the FCC chairman refuses to testify.