Editorial: Proceed With Caution

Taking an ax to the FCC won’t provide regulatory certainty

It appears that now-President Donald Trump is not looking to preserve any of the progressive vestiges of the Tom Wheeler-led Democratic FCC.

There had been some speculation that, just as talking to Al Gore about climate change might have signaled that he would moderate his view that it was all a plot by China, Trump’s appointment of a network neutrality supporter and big cell company disruptor to his FCC landing team might signal that his anti-media stance—attacking news outlets and big media companies like Comcast/NBCU and the proposed AT&T/Time Warner—could translate to using the FCC to rein them in.

But his attacks on those media companies probably were more a reactionary bellow at being pricked by their news operations than a statement of policy preference.

Certainly that seems to have been the case, given a story B&C broke last week that the Trump administration-to-be had embraced an FCC reform plan rooted in the theory that the commission needed to remake its bureaus and have many of its functions assumed by other parts of the government—notably consumer protection and competition by the Federal Trade Commission.

Trump’s meeting with AT&T chairman Randall Stephenson earlier this month appeared to buttress the theory that it was the president-elect who attacked federal agencies as impediments to business greatness that would hold sway. Stephenson said they did not talk about the Time Warner deal, but instead about the impact of regulation on his business.

Republicans at the commission and on the Hill have long called for the FCC to get out of media merger reviews and leave those to the Justice Department or Federal Trade Commission, which also review mergers for antitrust issues.

We are all for more streamlined bureaucracy, as was former FCC chairman Bill Kennard in a plan almost two decades old that the commission reform plan evokes.

“Telephony is regulated one way, cable a second, terrestrial broadcast a third, satellite broadcast a fourth. As the historical, technological, and market boundaries distinguishing these industries blur, the statutory differences make less and less sense,” Kennard said in 1999 of his own plan for remaking the FCC in the digital age. “Maintaining them will likely result in inefficient rules that stifle promising innovation and increase opportunities for regulatory arbitrage.”

Both sides of the aisle have agreed on getting rid of the regulatory silos in which a converging media no longer fit. To the extent the new administration can do that—and it will need help from Congress—we wholeheartedly agree. The change is overdue, and it’s one of those things, like the New England weather that everybody talks about but doesn’t do anything about (or in this case, enough).

But we would also advise care. Trying to dismantle the agency is a draconian approach that would generate strong pushback and likely would be politically unwise. What the FCC and Congress do under one administration can be undone under another.

If regulatory certainty is indeed what regulated businesses want, taking an ax to the agency would hardly provide that.