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FCC reform likely in new Congress

Legislation to restructure and trim the agency is expected soon, as critics question the FCC's effectiveness in a digital age.

    WASHINGTON--You don't need an MBA to figure out that a company is about to implode when the heir apparent as chief executive says "mere reform" is insufficient to solve the company's problems.

    That's the position Federal Communications Commission member Michael Powell took on his agency last month. Powell, expected to be FCC chairman in the Bush administration, said the Internet Age has seen "a great exodus from legacy business models, technical infrastructures and graying federal regulations," leaving the FCC locked in regulatory constructs that no longer apply.

    Powell will find plenty of representatives and senators eager to work with him on FCC restructuring in the new Congress sworn in Wednesday. The last Congress saw numerous bills introduced that would have done everything from curtail the length of merger reviews to mandate staff reductions, but they met the fierce resistance of FCC Chairman William Kennard and President Clinton. Those obstacles are now gone.

    "The FCC repeatedly oversteps its statutory authority," said Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., who will be the House Commerce Committee chairman in this Congress, replacing the retired Tom Bliley, R-Va.

    Last month Tauzin told a Washington policy conference that he intends to work with the General Accounting Office to determine how the FCC could be restructured and streamlined to "reflect the digital age." Legislation will result from that analysis, he promised.

    Senators Mike DeWine of Ohio and Herb Kohl of Wisconsin, the Republican and Democratic leaders of the Senate Judiciary Antitrust subcommittee, are also expected in the next few weeks to reintroduce their legislation to limit the amount of time the FCC has to review mergers.

    "FCC reform is high on the subcommittee's agenda," one Hill source said.

    While Powell believes the structure of the FCC is ill-equipped to cope with companies that quickly shift in and out of technologies and business models, he said that nearly all of the reforms that are needed can be performed internally at the FCC without new legislation.

    "If you read (the FCC's controlling statutes) the right way, you can do just about anything," Powell said.