There's Julius: Senate Scrutinizes FCC Nominee

While presumptive future chair speaks policy, some debate the real seat of FCC power

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The Policy Pipeline

The nomination hearing for presumptive FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski last week played like something out of the Old West. There was no gunplay, just the scene of the bitter townsfolk warning their fine new sheriff he'd best take care of business.

Democrats made it clear that things had to change at the commission, and while Genachowski talked like a new lawman, some suggest the real power—at least for now—may reside at Capitol Hill and 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

During Genachowski's nomination hearing for the FCC chairmanship, he got stern marching orders and beaucoup backslaps at the same time for a job he was told was incredibly tough, and incredibly important. (By presstime he had already gotten Senate Commerce Committee approval in a fast-track vote.) “Fix the agency or we will fix it for you,” said committee chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.). “Prove to us that the FCC is not battered beyond repair.”

“If you're not qualified, I don't know who would be qualified,” added an obviously impressed Sen. Mike Johanns (R-Neb.).

Genachowski pledged to run a transparent agency and work closely with Congress. He promised to put consumers first, but also recognized that private enterprise was the engine of economic growth.

And while he did not stake out an extreme position on network neutrality, Genachowski talked about the importance of the broadband rollout, and avoided hammering media concentration. He even said that the FCC had to recognize a changing marketplace and tough times for traditional media such as broadcasting and the newspaper business. One industry observer pointed out that while this could be pre-nomination talk, it sounded more like a signal of policy thoughts to come.

Genachowski vowed to uphold the law when it came to indecency, saying he shared Rockefeller's concerns about what kids were watching on TV. But he also said he supported technological rather than ideological solutions to parental content control.

Republican Commissioner Robert McDowell, who was getting a renomination vetting on June 16 and received similar fast-track approval by the committee, also weighed in on indecency, saying it was time for the commission to start clearing out the backlog of 1.2 million indecency complaints.

Genachowski signaled his leanings on numerous issues. He said that job one of the broadband rollout should be getting service to unserved areas. He believes the first priority for the economic stimulus package money for broadband deployment—$7.2 billion—should be to reach those unserved households, which he said would give the biggest bang for the taxpayer's buck. That call will come from the NTIA and USDA, which are administering said grant/loan money, but the FCC has a consulting capacity and must also come up with its own national broadband plan by next February.

The FCC's broadband rollout plan, according to Genachowski, should ensure that folks have “affordable and robust” service, no matter where they live. It must spur entrepreneurship and grow education and health care. Given that sweeping charter, he said, there has never been a greater need for the FCC to work from the perspective of consumers and families.

Genachowski also said that he opposed the Fairness Doctrine and censorship based on political opinion.

Asked for his take on media ownership rules, particularly the newspaper cross-ownership prohibition given the state of both newspapers and broadcast stations, Genachowski appeared sympathetic. Broadcasting, he pointed out, remains the only universal medium for information, and while the FCC still has to “pay attention to excessive consolidation,” it cannot ignore changes in the marketplace. It would be wrong, he added, not to take into account the struggles of the traditional media business.

The Policy Pipeline

Yet for all the talk, Jeff Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy thinks the FCC policy pipeline will be directly connected to the White House. “I think just as we saw with the Clinton White House and the FCC, they are going to have the regulatory agency in lockstep with the executive branch,” he says. “Folks in the White House and Genachowski will be Twittering each other about next steps.”

But Randolph May, president of the Free State Foundation, a free-market think tank, sees some of Genachowski's marching orders coming from Capitol Hill. He calls Genachowski smart, capable and personable, yet adds, “Unfortunately, what his nomination hearing revealed is that he will be pushed and pulled in a very pro-regulatory direction by some on the Hill, especially those in his own party. Whether he can resist the pressures to be more regulatory and interventionist than what the current marketplace environment calls for is the $64,000 question.”

Both Genachowski and McDowell drew mostly rave reviews in the hearings. Neither should ultimately have trouble securing Senate approval.

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