Senators McCaskill & Klobuchar Understand The Biggest Problem in Telecom Policy: Changing How Policy Gets Made

If their performances at Tuesday’s Senate Hearing on Universal Service Fund Reform (USF) are any indication, I am definitely going to become a huge fan of Frosh Senators Claire McCaskill (D-MO) and Amy Klobauchar (D-MN). After listening to FCC Commissioner Deborah Tate (who chairs the Federal-State Joint Board on universal Service that oversees the Universal Service Fund) explain that USF reform has stalled because it has been impossible to get “consensus” from the industry “stakeholders,” Senator McCaskill said:

What you’re basically saying to us is the FCC is incapable of moving forward on reform unless all the people who are making money say it’s OK, and that’s hard for me to get my arms around.

Senator Klobuchar echoed similar incredulity and disbelief.

I hope these two maintain that sense of disbelief and outrage. Because the ideas espoused by Tate on the proper role of the FCC and Congress have become so embedded in telecom policy that even friends of the public interest take it as a given.

But hopefully, thanks to McCaskill, Klobuchar, and the other progressive “freshmen,” that may change.

More below . . .

Those of us that follow the FCC will tell you that this problem is not limited to USF reform. It has infected the FCC and Congress at every level, from staff who think their job is to “service” their industry “clients” to Commissioners who equate “the market” with “the public interest.” While this is not true of all staff or all Commissioners, it has become such a dominant meme that it effectively rules the agency. Unless there is a substantial “industry consensus,” the FCC isn’t interested.

But the FCC didn’t get there on its own. 12 years of pounding by a Republican Congress and the DC Circuit on the virtues of the market and deregulation and the evils of “government interference” has created an agency culture where it is much easier to do anything if a sizable chunk of industry interests agree with the decision. Indeed, Congress has likewise shown that it regards its role as helping industry reach “consensus” on an “acceptable policy” rather than actually figuring out the best public policy and making it happen. As then-House Subcommittee Chair Fred upton (R-IL) told Multichannel News on April 3, 2006 in the context of moving last year’s attempt at comprehensive telecom reform: “[C]able and phone companies will endorse the bill. We are very close to getting their sign off.”

Because of course, the most critical thing for getting passage of a bill to overhaul our communications infrastructure if whether the companies that make money off it endorse the bill, right? Because Heaven forbid Congress should pass a telecom bill that didn’t have approval from the cable and telecom companies.

It’s not that we should ignore industry or pretend that economic viability doesn’t matter. Of course it matters. But it shouldn’t be the end all and be all of public policy. As I noted in the context of the wireless Cartefone fight, we have reached a critical point in public policy. Is “the market” an end in itself, with the ultimate goal for the state to “wither away” replaced by some Libertarian nirvana? Or do we decide on our public policy priorities and then see what rules get us to our desired goals? If we want to maximize non-market goals such as universal service, civic engagement, and self-government, then we cannot wait for industry sign off on our public policy.

Back in Novemember, I expressed my hope that the crop of “new democrats” entering the Senate and House to form the new majority would provide some needed progressive “fresh blood” to shake things up and change this paradigm around. With the utmost respect to the friends of the public interest (such as Ed Markey) who fought the good fight through 12 years of privatizing the public interest, it sometimes needs a fresh set of eyes to see what should outrage and energize all of us. McCaskill asked the right question, with the disbelief that anyone new to Washington intent on serving the public interest should ask. Hopefully, she and Klobuchar (and the other newcommers) will continue to point out obvious absuridities like this that old telecom hands have sadly come to accept as the unchangeable status quo. And, even better, help lead the charge to return telecom policy to serving the public interest rather than “facilitating consensus” among “stakeholders.”

Stay tuned . . . .

One Comment

  1. And in further evidence that this is a vicious circle – the FCC apparently won’t change structures to introduce _new_ industry unless its sure _new_ industry will exist…

    (so says Comm’r Adelstein –… )

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