House FCC Reform Bill Lacks White House Support

March 29, 2012 Updated: March 29, 2012

Despite passage in the House earlier this week of a bill to reform the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the Obama administration has openly opposed it, stating the bill would limit the FCC’s ability to “exercise its statutory duty to protect the public interest in its review of transactions affecting the vital communications industry.”

The bill, H.R. 3309, passed with a 247 to 174 vote (235 Republicans and 12 Democrats in favor, 174 Democrats against, with 11 not voting). Its key focus is to make the FCC “more transparent and methodical in determining whether to intervene in the communications marketplace, in dealing with consumers and regulated parties, and in reviewing transactions,” states its executive summary.

H.R. 3309 has a medley of amendments meant to update the Communications Act of 1934, which established the FCC. Some of these are focused around digital privacy. One, for instance, could put warning labels on baby monitors, noting they could have unintended viewers and listeners. Others seek transparency, including one that would make the FCC more open with FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests.

But a few points have run into heavy controversy, particularly one that would reduce the FCC’s ability to make terms between media mergers. “These restrictions would harm the Federal government’s ability to promote the most effective competitive outcome in any given transaction involving communications firms,” reads a White House statement.

The statement adds that the bill would “in effect” make a different Administrative Procedure Act (APA), which “has provided a uniform framework to guide decision making by all federal administrative agencies,” for more than 60 years.

Even those against the bill mention it has its perks, but certain parts they argue would cause harm and will likely prevent any of its provisions from being passed.

“There are a few provisions in H.R. 3309 that make sense,” said Rep. Henry A. Waxman, a ranking member of the Committee on Energy and Commerce, according to a transcript.

Waxman recommended the bill should be split into two separate bills—”one that could get bipartisan support and be enacted into law and one with partisan provisions that would die in the Senate.”

Yet, he added, “They rejected this suggestion, which dooms the entire package and raises serious questions about why we are doing this bill at all.”

A main point is that rules for the FCC laid down by the Communications Act of 1934 were made without understanding of the proliferation of modern communications technologies—parts the bill would update.

The 1934 act, signed by President Franklin Roosevelt, replaced the Federal Radio Commission with the FCC. It was updated nearly 62 years later with the Telecommunications Act of 1996, signed by President Bill Clinton, which expanded it to include the Internet and modern broadcasting.

Yet, the 1934 act still holds sway, not only over the FCC, but also over modern electronics. For example, it includes a section allowing the president to shut off the Internet (and all other communications) if the United States is at war or under threat of war—and stay off up to six months after the war or the threat of war.

The new bill does have plenty of supporters, however, who mainly argue its changes are more fitting for a dynamic and competitive telecommunications market.

A statement from the Chamber of Commerce states it “recognizes the need to make the FCC’s current regulatory process more consistent, efficient, transparent, and market oriented.”

Noting it has seen “firsthand how the Internet has rapidly transformed telecommunications and society,” the National Cable & Telecommunications Association states the bill would “help ensure that the regulatory framework better reflects this dynamic marketplace by focusing regulatory activity in areas of market failure and providing greater transparency, predictability, and procedural certainty.”

Follow Joshua on Twitter: @JoshJPhilipp