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Senators approve bill limiting FCC merger reviews

A key Senate committee approves a bill limiting the amount of time the Federal Communications Commission can take to approve industry mergers.

A key Senate committee has approved a bill limiting the amount of time the Federal Communications Commission can take to approve industry mergers.

The vote comes as the Commission At the crossroads nears approval of one of the largest mergers the telecommunications industry has seen to date. On Tuesday, commission staff agreed with SBC Communications and Ameritech on conditions for their $72 billion deal. That process, however, has taken nearly 14 months.

The FCC has defended the length of time it's taken to review this and other huge deals, saying that the complexity of the issues requires a year or more of review. But the delays have angered some legislators.

"It is absolutely essential for regulatory agencies to move quickly and efficiently when reviewing mergers that may affect consumers, workers, and competition within the marketplace," said Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio), one of the bill's sponsors, in a statement shortly after today's Judiciary committee vote.

"The longer these deals remain under review, the longer the market remains in limbo, and the longer vigorous competition remains elusive," he added.

Today's bill is a new version of Sen. Dewine's and co-sponsor Sen. Herb Kohl's (D-Wisconsin) legislation, substituted after several powerful critics of the FCC blocked an earlier version.

Judiciary chairman Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), along with Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), are pushing a measure that would take merger review power almost completely away from the FCC, and pressed to make sure today's approved measure didn't solidify the agency's power over deals.

As a result, the new bill does not "limit, enhance, or modify" the FCC's power over mergers, but simply requires that whatever review taken be completed within 180 days.

The FCC would be able to file for a 60-day extension, but if no decision is agreed upon within those limits, a merger would be automatically approved without conditions.

For mergers worth less than $15 million, the initial time limit would be reduced to just 90 days.

In addition to the SBC Communications deal, the FCC is currently reviewing a planned merger between Bell Atlantic and GTE, announced in July 1998.