When Jonathan Adelstein appeared before members of the Senate Commerce Committee last week, his job was to quell any doubts about his qualifications to serve as an FCC commissioner.
But rather than grill him about his abilities and views, lawmakers used his confirmation hearing as a soapbox for their concerns about the telecommunications in- dustry, violence on TV, broadband deployment and telephone universal service.
For example, Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), urged the FCC to consult studies of children's cognitive development to gauge the impact of violent TV programs.
Although the 39-year-old aide to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle did not indicate whether he would join FCC Commissioner Michael Copps' campaign to clean up the airwaves, Adelstein did call violent programming "an incredibly important issue" and called on broadcasters to be "vigilant" about what is aired during hours children are likely to be watching.
Adelstein pledged that one of his priorities will be making sure the FCC provides all Americans, especially in rural areas such as his home state of South Dakota, access to the full range of communications services. Under questioning from Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the committee's ranking minority member, Adelstein agreed that the telecommunications industry faces a crisis because of the WorldCom meltdown and declining values of other infrastructure companies.
Adelstein won the endorsement of the handful of senators who attended the confirmation hearing, and his nomination is likely to be sent to the sent to the full Senate soon. Final confirmation might sit in the inbox for a few weeks, however. Despite conceding that the FCC had much important work ahead, McCain continues to block his confirmation and other nominations until his pick for the Federal Election Commission is appointed.
When Adelstein does fill the fifth and final vacant slot on the panel, the dynamics of the FCC might be in for important changes.
"His appointment won't change the Republican majority, but it changes the interplay and politics," says Precursor Group analyst Scott Cleland. For starters, Democrat Michael Copps likely will no longer be the sole voice questioning media-ownership deregulation and dissenting on other issues that divide along party lines.
Adelstein would not answer reporters' questions regarding his leanings on pending mergers and rulemakings, but, as Daschle's aide for the past seven years, it is widely assumed he will vote similarly to his liberal mentor. His appointment also will give Senate Democratic lawmakers unprecedented input at the FCC. Copps took his current post after serving Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Fritz Hollings for many years.
Even if the pair can't break the three-vote GOP bloc, perhaps they can create enough controversy about deregulation that the Republicans will be forced to temper the final outcome.
Chairman Michael Powell also may have to step up efforts to protect his majority in cases when one of his party colleagues is sitting on the fence. "There will be situations where he will need to find a third vote or wants a four-vote majority to increase the legitimacy of some actions," says Andrew Schwartzman, president of Media Access Project. "All this pushes toward some degree of compromise."