Congress leaves town today, with just two appropriations bills completed (that can be a good thing!). Agencies aren’t going anywhere, but there must be something in the water here preventing the tying up of loose ends. We’ve spilled lots of ink on the importance of liberalizing telecommunications; the latest iteration is the attempt to finalize the AT&T and BellSouth marriage so that procreation can begin, and there will be many more telecommuncations upheavals in the future communications landscape, and that’s a good thing.
But several times now, the FCC has postponed a vote on the AT&T/BellSouth merger, given disagreements over net neutrality (see one of our many cautions on this concept) and the recusal by Republican Robert McDowell. The remaining two Democrats and two Republicans leave the situation deadlocked, with the stringency of net neutrality provisions–to which AT&T has already (over) generously agreed, in the balance.
There are two issues here; one problem, as we’ve often noted (in pubs like “Communications Without Commissions” ) is that FCC gets this bite at the apple in the first place; this merger has already been given the nod by The U.S. Department of Justice and 18 states. Three foreign governments have approved the deal in the name of competition as well; indeed, the real battleground over the telecom and Internet landscape is international–yet another reason why it’s crucial that our domestic deals go through to create a competitive stance against our overseas rivals. Indeed, as we note in Forbes, starting from scratch today, we wouldn’t create an FCC like the one we have, one with so much redundant veto power.
The second issue is that it looks like the recusal by Mr. McDowell is misguided and unnecessary in the first place, making the delay particularly vexing. Bruce Fein, a former FCC general counsel and an associate deputy attorney general, made the case for moving ahead in “ Deadlocked by Design” in the Washington Times, as well as in a new analysis in his private consulting capacity called “The Regulatory Process: Deadlocks and Commissioner Recusals
If McDowell followed the “special interest” of his previous employers–rivals of AT&T–he’d actually vote against this merger; so a positive vote can’t be seen as payback to anyone. FCC’s general counsel has been asked to rule on McDowell’s participation in the upcoming December 20 vote, and word is expected anytime.
In his confirmation hearing, McDowell reveals himself as a solid pro-competition, pro-market official, peppering his speeches with appeals to market forces and the principles of freedom of speech; he said that if confirmed, he would:
- Promote competition and investment in all markets
- Clear the cumbersome underbrush of unnecessary government regulation
- Encourage private sector solutions to many of the challenges facing the communications industry, and
- Remove barriers to entry
These are solid sentiments and it’d be eminently sensible–and apparently legally unassailable–for him to participate in the vote. We’ll be watching the counsel’s decision, and looking forward to taking this needed step on the long path toward telecommuncations liberalization.