FCC Process Reform, Government Spectrum Bills Pass E&C Easily

Bipartisanship was order of day in smooth markup

Nary was heard a discouraging word out of the Energy & Commerce Committee on Dec. 11 as it approved unanimously--by voice vote--bills to speed FCC processes and incentivize government users to share or give up spectrum.

Both were bipartisan bills that passed without amendment, and with a mutual admiration society of praise across the aisle, in a smooth markup of a series of bills. E&C Chairman Fred Upton said they would likely not get a vote in this Congress, but would likely get one in January.

H.R. 3674, the Federal Spectrum Incentive Act, was a compromise version of a bill that passed out of the Communications Subcommittee, with both sides conceding they had to give up something, but agreeing that the bill was a reasonable compromise.

Gone was the Republican-backed provisions limiting FCC merger conditions and applying a cost/benefit filter to decisions. Democrats pushing for allowing more than two commissioners to meet in private had to accept a sort of one-year waiting period for that provision, contingent on the FCC meeting some of the bill's new benchmarks.

Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), praised the compromise, but added she hoped the Senate version would make that change to the sunshine laws immediate.

What was left was a bill that attempts to speed FCC decisions and improve transparency, while also teeing up some controversial elements as things for the FCC to study--a typical compromise mechanism.

Among other things, the bill sets maximum comment periods (with a carveout for good cause exemptions) for regulatory actions, including petitions for reconsideration; and "establish[es] procedures for publishing the status of open rulemaking proceedings and proposed orders, decisions, reports, or actions on circulation for review by the Commissioners, including which Commissioners have not cast a vote on an order, decision, report, or action that has been on circulation for more than 60 days."

Among the more contentious issues it tees up in a mandatory FCC report are: "whether and how" to 1) allow commissioners, rather than just the chairman, to put issues on the agenda; 2) establish procedures for informing commissioners of their options for resolving a petition, complaint, application or rulemaking; 3) give commissioners adequate time to review items before they have to vote on them; 4) publish the text of agenda items before they are voted on in an open meeting so the public can read them; 4) deadlines for deciding of license applications; to impose a license fee to help pay for any additional cost of meeting those deadlines; publish all orders, decisions and reports within 30 days of adoption.

Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) said he hoped the FCC commissioners would support the bill, suggesting he would ask them directly at Thursday's FCC oversight hearing in the Communications Subcommittee he chairs.

A Republican process reform passed in the last Congress over Democrat objections, but went nowhere in the Senate. But that bill included the provisions on mergers and cost/benefit analysis. Eshoo said she thought this version would pass both the House and Senate.

H.R. 3674, the Federal Spectrum Incentive Act, also passed without incident. It incentivizes government spectrum holders to share or give up some of those holdings in exchange for a piece of the auction proceeds they could use to help in the transition or to defray sequester cutbacks.

That would give the Department of Defense even more reasons to have struck that deal to move off of some advanced wireless spectrum the FCC wants to pair up with commercial spectrum as part of an upcoming auction and share the BAS (ENG newsgathering) spectrum with broadcasters and other users.