Help Wanted? Help Needed?

S.2881 would assure tech advisor slot in each Commissioner’s office

Way back in the day, each Commissioner enjoyed not only an in-office lawyer (dubbed “legal assistant”), but also an engineer to help guide the Commissioner through the technical arcana that necessarily inform most FCC decisions.  Somewhere along the line, what with belt-tightening and all, the “engineering assistant” positions got sloughed off.  As a result, the Commissioners – none of them engineers – have increasingly relied on the FCC’s Office of Engineering and Technology (OET) for direction on the technical nitty-gritty. 

That has not been a bad thing, by any means. Fortunately for us all, OET houses some of the most seasoned and well-respected engineers in the Commission.  Their shop runs efficiently, largely out of the public eye, and maintains an admirable level of consistency in engineering standards and practices.  Driven by physics, rather than politics, they do their job and do it well.

But look out.  There’s a move afoot on Capitol Hill to bring individual technical advisers back to the Commissioners’ offices.  Senators Snowe (R-ME) and Warner (D-VA) introduced a bill in December that would do just that. Under their bill, each Commissioner would be able to appoint “an electrical engineer or computer scientist” to provide the Commissioner “technical consultation”.  (The only catch is that the engineer/scientist would have to have an undergraduate or graduate degree “from an institution of higher education in their respective field of expertise”.

The proposal is no doubt born of the best intentions.  Warner wants to make sure the Commissioners have “access to the best information possible, from all relevant disciplines, and in a timely manner.”  Snowe wants each Commissioner to have “in-house technical expertise to make well informed regulatory decisions.” 

Hard to argue with that . . . except for the unstated assumptions – namely, that Commissioners do not already have timely access to expertise, and that additional staffing would automatically improve the pace and quality of the FCC’s decisionmaking.  Those assumptions may not be accurate.  To the contrary, the addition of personal “technical advisers” for each Commissioner could lead to the unnecessary politicization of technical issues, not to mention additional delay in resolving proceedings as more individuals get injected into the process.

Do we really need five separate assessments of each scientific/physical/technical conclusion – which, at least in theory, should not be open to much debate? Agreed, we all can dicker about the policy implications of data. But that’s what lawyers are for.  Generating, organizing, and presenting technical data in the first place – that’s OET’s job.

So while there may be some surface appeal to the Snowe/Warner proposal, it seems at least unnecessary and possibly counter-productive – particularly when the Commissioners have OET just one flight down.

At this point it’s impossible to reliably predict whether the Snowe/Warner bill will make it into law -- but you may want to start to spiff up your resume anyway, just in case.

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Michael Marcus - February 2, 2010 12:57 PM

I too am against S. 2881, although for different reasons. I am afraid that the eligibility requirements might encourage some commissioners to find people who meet them literally but can not add anything to the debate. There actually are a lot of people with EE degrees who know little about the FCC's jurisdiction, more so for CS degrees. It is interesting to note that a similar issue is addressed in HR 3019's "Technical Panel" to oversee band transitions. That bill states qualifications as "a radio engineer or technical expert".

The real problem is that for decades commissioners have been selected primarily because of their views on a few issues such as broadcast content and ownership and rural telephone rates. Loyalty to key senators has also been a key factor. In neither the appointment process or in oversight hearings does the technical part of FCC's jurisdiction get much attention. This is why commissioners select staff with no experience in the technical side - neither as card carrying IEEE members nor as managers of high tech firms.

I think the steps outline in IEEE-USA's 6/08 letter ( to Chmn. Martin - which he never even acknowledged - are a better starting point than the additional assistant idea which has been kicking around for 20 years.

I note that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has no statutory requirement to have techies on their counterpart to the "8th Floor", yet their commissioners routinely select a mixture of lawyers and techies for their 3 assistants.

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