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FCC defends its reform efforts under growing criticism

Federal Communications Commission Chairman William Kennard implores Congress to give its internal reform efforts a chance.

    WASHINGTON--Federal Communications Commission Chairman William Kennard implored Congress on Friday to give its internal reform efforts a chance.

    The agency has come under considerable heat for its lengthy reviews of mergers, such as that of America Online and Time Warner, and for resistance to cutting its size. While legislation looks unlikely this year, several members of Congress have vowed to introduce regulations next year that would trim the commission.

    Some critics at Friday's hearing, held by the Government Reform subcommittee, harped on their fear that the FCC will increasingly be a regulator of the Internet, noting that it has begun an inquiry into imposing open access on cable operators.

    "We live in an era of deregulation, but the FCC is larger and more powerful than ever before," said Adam Thierer, an economic policy fellow at the Heritage Foundation. Even as Congress has instructed the commission to strip away regulation, "FCC spending and staffing are at all-time highs."

    But Kennard, in a familiar role, defended the agency. Even though the communications industry is being deregulated, "it is vital those regulations that still remain on the books are swiftly and consistently enforced," he said.

    Consumer advocates and downtrodden companies are turning to the FCC for regulatory assistance on the Internet, while online purists want the government, including the FCC, to leave the industry to market forces. Experts believe the extent to which the FCC has regulatory authority will become much more important as the Net continues to grow and become a more common part of people's lives.

    Thierer suggested most of the FCC's activities should be farmed off to other agencies, with merger reviews being left to the Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Justice, international coordination to the State Department, and universal service oversight, which funds rural phone service, to state and local agencies that "are in a better position to target these efforts to those most in need."

    "Deregulation is a task for which the commission--at least, this commission--has turned out to be poorly suited," said Progress and Freedom Foundation president Jeffrey Eisenach. He noted the FCC's own five-year plan for reform "offers no proposals for curtailing the agency's size or authority."

    Eisenach argued that the conditions imposed on merger partners often go beyond what the agency would impose on an entire industry (as some are asking in the AOL-Time Warner merger). For example, the FCC "often fails to meet deadlines, even when they are self-imposed."

    Kennard said the agency has significantly reduced its backlog of pending reviews, and "we expect to eliminate the backlog entirely by the end of 2000."

    The fact that this oversight hearing was held doesn't bode well for the FCC. Rep. Stephen Horn, R-Calif., chairman of the Government Reform subcommittee, has expressed concerns about the FCC, and he and others on his subcommittee had sought to schedule this hearing for some time. Concern with FCC procedure has also surfaced in the House Judiciary Committee and several Senate committees.

    "Bill Kennard has had a troubled history with Congress since he was sworn in, and his critics here seem to be getting louder than his supporters," one House staffer said.