Public policy has been a passion of Bryan Tramont's ever since the fifth grade. The new chief of staff for FCC Chairman Michael Powell caught the politics bug when he successfully petitioned his principal to end a ban on talking in the lunchroom. Gabbing during mealtime could lead loquacious students to lose recess privileges, and 10-year-old Tramont thought this a great injustice.
After Tramont launched a petition drive, the principal brought in the local superintendent to preside over a school "town meeting" that led to the policy's being erased. "From then on, I wanted to be a lawyer and involved in politics," Tramont says.
He has largely given up the dream of running for office in Missouri but has found happiness as a policy wonk.
Tramont's job is to help Powell prioritize and keep on track all the agency's business. That includes directing the flow of policy initiatives, deciding which deserve the chairman's attention at any one time, and helping manage an agency with some 2,000 employees, a $200 million budget, 11 field offices, a research lab, and a call center.
The post, which he has held for three months, is a big change from his previous FCC job providing legal advice to commissioners. "It's an immense task," he says.
His experience as legal advisor first for a Republican when Democrats were in charge and later for the agency chairman, he says, offers a beneficial perspective for a chief of staff. "So much of how you experience the agency depends on where you sit. I hope I bring an appreciation for the goals of other offices that enables me to work more cooperatively to get win/wins for everyone and to work more expeditiously."
He generally stays out of agency policy debates. "It varies from proceeding to proceeding," he explains. "The chairman has a strong policy staff so I don't become involved in the day-to-day."
Bigger-ticket items in the national spotlight are the exception. "The exciting part is the broad outreach of the job. No longer am I just the wireless or international telecom person or senior legal adviser," he says. "I get to pull all the pieces together."
He concedes that he's still trying to establish his own style. From predecessors, he has learned that a staff chief's priorities sometimes are set by court deadlines and congressional edicts. The woman he replaced, Marsha MacBride, focused on media-ownership revisions because of the matter's high importance and Powell's determination not to let FCC rules on the subject get thrown out by the courts the way previous incarnations were.
Like many FCC employees, Tramont served a brief stint in the broadcast business. While clerking for a state Supreme Court judge, he moonlighted at KOMU-TV Columbia, Mo., the University of Missouri journalism school's station, preparing closed-captioning. Unlike so many of his colleagues, though, the gig wasn't part of a natural evolution towards a career in telecommunications law.
He had thought he'd try his hand at environmental insurance law when he was hired by major Washington firm Wiley, Rein & Fielding. "After that, I was planning to go back home and get into politics."
Litigation work didn't appeal to him, and Tramont gravitated towards the firm's renowned telecom practice.
His jump to the FCC came when Kevin Martin, a staffer for then-Commissioner Harold Furchtgott-Roth, announced he was leaving and suggested that Tramont apply to be his replacement. Tramont didn't succeed Martin, now a commissioner, but soon got another post with Furchtgott-Roth.
With nearly a decade as a Washington hand, he doubts that local office is in his cards. "I'm getting a little long in the tooth to start a political career back home. Besides, I've become a little more of an 'inside-the-Beltway' person than I ever envisioned."