(Blogmeister’s Note: FHH Telecom Law welcomes back guest commentator Catherine McCullough. This month she provides her perspective on the impact recent committee appointments are likely to have on communications issues in the 112th Congress. Catherine is a principal in Meadowbrook Strategic Government Relations, LLC and a specialist in Congressional relations.)
January is over, and the House and Senate Committees that oversee telecom issues have officially organized – issuing full lists of members, deciding on the rules by which the committees will work, and dividing up the budgets between Democrats and Republicans (thus setting the tone for how well the parties will work together in the 112th Congress).
So what will the legislative priorities of these committees be? The two themes of love and money – constituent votes and budget issues – that we identified in an earlier post still dominate. However, now that we know who all of the players are, including the subcommittee chairs, we can take these policymakers’ legislative pasts into account, and perhaps identify which specific bills we should see introduced in the coming months.
The biggest changes from last Congress are on the House side, where the agenda will be determined by Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-MI-6th) and the Chair and Vice-Chair of the Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet Greg Walden (R-OR-2nd) and Lee Terry (R-NE-2nd). The new Chair of Commerce’s Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, Cliff Stearns (R-FL-6th) will have a strong impact on the Committee’s telecom policy too, since he served as the Communications Subcommittee’s Ranking Member last Congress.
Chairman Upton enjoys a reputation as solid, pro-business Congressman who is reasonable to deal with. He has chosen to hire former Ranking Member Joe Barton’s (R-TX-6th) well-respected telecom aide, Neil Fried, as his Chief Counsel for telecom matters which gives his staff bench the depth and institutional memory critical for real legislative negotiations.
Upton jumped into the telecom policy fray early when he co-issued a strongly worded release – along with Reps. Walden and Terry – denouncing the FCC’s rules on net neutrality. His communications on that front tend to focus, directly or otherwise, on the agency’s process (or lack thereof), especially the lack of transparency in its decision-making.
Look for this concern about FCC process to color much of the Committee’s telecom work this year. Complaints about the agency’s lack of responsiveness are common, and Committee Republicans consider a lack of orderly process an impediment to investment and a barrier to job growth. In addition to the consumer and budget-related issues discussed in an earlier column, specific FCC reform legislation could be introduced this year. If so, it could resemble H.R. 2183, a bill introduced by Reps. Barton and Stearns in the last Congress. That bill called for a modified “shot clock” – deadlines by which the FCC would have to issue decisions – and statutorily-required processes for the issuance of FCC decisions.
On the Senate side, where Chairman Rockefeller (D-WV) still reigns, work has begun on spectrum allocation. As predicted, this issue is a top priority because Congress can use auction proceeds to pay down the debt or pay for other funding priorities. Rockefeller’s bill, which was introduced with no support from fellow Republicans, would set aside the D-block for public safety use (thus removing it from the pool of auctionable spectrum) and would give the FCC incentive auction authority.
It is the opening shot in the debate over spectrum allocation policy, which is sure to move more quickly than usual through Congress given the strong incentives for all involved to come to a common understanding. Look for Communications Subcommittee Chair Walden to have a strong hand in the negotiations here on the House side. His background as an owner and operator of radio stations makes him a natural ally for the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) and its efforts to get its members to give up as little spectrum as possible for as much as possible.
The cast of characters is now set: let the play begin!