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FCC goes on defense in Congress

A new set of congressional hearings this week aim to shake up the FCC, beginning what may turn into a battle with the White House over scaling back its powers.

Congress is kicking off a new set of hearings this week aimed at shaking up the Federal Communications Commission, beginning what may turn into a battle with the White House over scaling back the agency's powers.

Critics in Congress want to pare back At the crossroads the regulatory agency's influence over mergers and telecommunications policy, saying that the FCC has not evolved as quickly as the companies it regulates.

Wednesday's hearing follows some discussions last year about restructuring the agency, and marks a growing sense of legislative dissatisfaction with the way the Commission has carried out Congress' attempts to deregulate the communications industry.

But this time around, the FCC is ready. Chairman William Kennard says he is working on his own plan for restructuring the agency, and will give lawmakers a first glimpse of that proposal at the hearing on Wednesday.

Representative Bill Tauzin (R-Louisiana), who chairs a key House telecommunications subcommittee, will lead this week's hearing. The meeting will kick off a series of hearings that will culminate in a comprehensive FCC reform bill this summer, said a Tauzin spokesman.

"The FCC knows how to do one thing--regulate," said Ken Johnson, Tauzin's press aide. "We want to redefine its mission. We want to make it more of an enforcement agency and less of a regulatory body."

The hearings, which will likely stretch out for much of this legislative year, follow several parallel efforts in the Senate.

U.S. Senator Mike Dewine (R-Ohio) last month introduced a bill that would speed the agency's review of telecommunications mergers such as SBC Communications and Ameritech. Senators John McCain (R-Arizona) and Conrad Burns (R-Montana) also have said they will seek FCC reform this year.

FCC playing defense
At a press conference in Washington late last week, Kennard defended the agency's role in implementing telecommunications policy, but said his proposal would move to shift the body's focus.

The FCC of the future would be focused on universal service, consumer protection, enforcement of telecommunications laws, and allocating spectrum for broadcast and other wireless mediums, he said.

The chairman said he would have a draft blueprint of his restructuring plan available for public comment by May or June, and hoped to have a final version ready by the fall.

Kennard's overtures are being welcomed by his agency's congressional critics, but the move is unlikely to deflect legislators' more global criticisms.

Tauzin and his allies are looking for a two-edged approach to reform, Johnson said.

The legislator and the agency chairman may wind up agreeing on restructuring the agency to better reflect the modern telecommunications market. But Tauzin wants to go farther in trimming the FCC's power.

"I think in the end Congress and Tauzin will reach an accommodation with Kennard and the FCC over structural changes," Johnson said. "I think the real battle will come when we try to redefine the mission of the FCC."

At that point Congress is likely to butt up against the opposition of the White House, which has largely defended the FCC's regulatory privileges, Johnson noted.

"I think we're going to see agreement on FCC structural reform," Tauzin's aide added. "To see any more than that we may have to wait for a Republican president. But we're going to try."