Does Powell Have the Five-Year Itch?

Speculation rampant on how long after June 2 he will stay

Michael Powell will have completed a big chunk of his to-do list if the FCC follows through with his plan to rewrite broadcast-ownership limits on June 2. With that task and the grueling duty of reviewing phone-access rules behind him, agency observers wonder whether and when Chairman Powell will leave the commission. He is unlikely to remain until his term ends in June 2007, but there is no consensus on an exit strategy.

Powell isn't talking, but he has served on the commission since November 1997—five years and counting—two of them as chairman. Few chairmen serve on the panel more than half a decade.

"There's a certain amount of gas in the tank for the average person," says Reed Hundt, who held Powell's job during the front end of Bill Clinton's presidency. "When you run out of gas, it's time to get out of the car."

Fatigue affects chairmen, said Mark Fowler, another former FCC chief. "A person can do that job only so many years." The intense lobbying from industry and the "soft corruption" that often leads lawmakers to pressure the FCC, he said, eventually take the enjoyment out of the job.

In Powell's five years of service, Hundt says, "he's more than paid his debt to society. If he feels he's accomplished what he set out to do, he can hold his head high and walk out the door."

Whether that time is coming for Powell is an open question. The answer will require him to perform a complex calculation worthy of a diversity index, factoring in not only his accomplishments but also his immediate prospects and the current politics of the FCC.

The easy bet has him sticking around until President Bush's current term ends in December 2004. Virtually no one predicts that Powell will stay at the helm until his own term expires four years from now.

One scenario calls for him to leave soon after the FCC completes a set of outstanding broadband rulemakings that will set a permanent rule for Internet providers to cable operators' broadband networks and will also determine the extent to which local regulators have the power to oversee broadband facilities. Shepherding the rulemakings through would put Powell's mark on telecommunications policy for years to come and is the type of forward-looking policy debate on which the wonkish Powell thrives.

That rulemaking is expected to be done in early fall, although court fights may delay FCC votes.

Still others think he has additional priorities, including completing a critical reassessment of the formula used to set telephone wholesale prices and a series of spectrum-policy rulemakings intended to create secondary markets for spectrum and allow multiple uses on some frequencies.

"He's not done yet," says one industry source, who like others asked not be named to prevent awkwardness the next time they meet with the chairman. "He'd be smart to wait for those proceedings. They're important, and he comes out smelling like a rose if the FCC does a good job."

That scenario would allow him to leave the FCC late in the first Bush term, giving him a little time to settle into a White House appointment, especially if his father, Colin, exits as Secretary of State, as some predict. He could also be nominated for a federal judgeship—a perfect fit many think, given his love of collegial, cloakroom intellectual debate.

Fewer are betting now on a run for elected office than did so when he first took the FCC chairmanship in 2001. "He loves the world of ideas but becomes wedded to his own," says one Washington observer. "He doesn't have the stomach to make compromises out of political expediency, and that's what politicians do."

Then there's the question of whether an exit before 2004 would be well-received by the Bush administration, whose good graces would be critical to a future government post. "Congress is so paralyzed they'd have a hard time getting someone else in there. Then the FCC would be locked in a 2-2 tie," the source says.

Even the question of succession has been called into question. Fellow Republican Kevin Martin was once the hands-down favorite to follow Powell, but he became a controversial figure within his own party when he brokered a deal with Democrats to break up Powell's plan on telephone-facilities access.

If Powell does leave, it may not be for another government post, particularly if recent past is prologue. Immediate predecessors William Kennard and Hundt carved out lucrative careers in telecom venture capital, and Powell might be tempted to exchange the public servant's relatively modest paycheck for the more tangible rewards of a corporate post.


The Fritts Years

After an awesome 23-year run, NAB chief Eddie Fritts is about to step down. His record is awesome—but not flawless. He helped the industry shed onerous rules limiting the size and power of radio- and TV-station owners. At the end, however, he couldn't repair fissures that have divided broadcasters in fundamental ways.