Calling for Copps

Democratic contender for FCC accustomed to battles

If Michael J. Copps wins a spot on the FCC, he might need a crash course on the telecommunications industry's many hot-button issues, but at least he's conditioned to taking heat over contentious public policy.

Copps, the leading candidate for the Democratic FCC seat now held by Susan Ness, is already used to the ferociousness of public policy debate.

During the past eight years, he was one of the Clinton administration's point people on such hot topics as normalizing trade with China, improving U.S. ties with Russia's Wild West-style and oft-corrupt business community and defending against claims that the administration put American jobs at risk with its devotion to free-trade.

For such an experienced flak-taker, hard-to-resolve agenda items on the FCC's slate-including fights over media ownership limits, digital television, cable Internet access and telephone competition-may not appear too fearsome.

First as deputy assistant secretary for basic industries and then as assistant secretary for trade development, Copps' main task was to improve access to foreign markets for nearly every sector of American industry, including telecommunications, manufacturing, construction, chemicals and finance. That duty obligated him to travel frequently, either overseas to promote open trade agreements or in the U.S. to rally support for Clinton administration policies among industry groups and often reluctant labor and environment groups.

"Many more jobs are created by the expansion of trade than are lost by the expansion of trade," Copps, told the International Business Association in October.

Copps, who has the backing of Senate Commerce Committee ranking Democrat Ernest Hollings, declined comment for this story last week because President Bush has not yet announced nominations for any of the FCC's three open seats.

Copps' nomination appears to be the only FCC appointment close to a sure thing. Not only does Copps have the backing of Hollings, Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John McCain has promised the South Carolina lawmaker the pick of the first open Democratic seat. Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle has also said he will back Hollings' choice. Picks for the two available GOP seats still appear wide open.

Copps' rivals for a Democratic seat privately concede that they are focusing instead on a second opening that will become available by the end of the year, when Gloria Tristani exits to run for office in New Mexico.

Copps is an old Washington hand. He worked 15 years as an aide to Hollings, rising to chief of staff for the senator's personal staff. He also worked as an industry lobbyist, first for Collins & Aikman Corp., then for the American Meat Institute. The Clinton administration, eager to bring Democratic trade experts into the Commerce Department after 12 years of Republicans in the White House, lured him back to government work in 1993.

Despite the high-profile Capitol Hill support, Copps is virtually unknown among Washington's telcom players.

Stuart Eizenstat, former undersecretary for international trade and his former boss, did predict, however, that Copps will perform well if he wins an FCC seat. "He's extremely talented and had the confidence of Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill."

If Copps' public statements on behalf of the Clinton administration's trade policies are any indication of his views, he is likely to get along just fine with FCC Chairman Michael Powell, who has declared that the FCC will deregulate the telcoms.