Michael K. Powell -- who presided over a partisan Federal Communications Commission that clashed internally and was pilloried by interest groups and lawmakers in both parties -- closed his last commission meeting yesterday by calling for a return to civil discourse.
"It saddens me when public officials and bureaucrats are criticized for ulterior motives, none of which I have ever found in a government bureaucrat, or when someone personalizes disagreements," said Powell, 41, who has not landed his next job. "This country needs to disagree civilly and continue to recommit itself to the welfare of its citizens -- which is all we are sent here to do."
Powell, appointed by President Bill Clinton in 1997 and elevated to chairman in 2001, served at a time when the FCC cleared away regulations and helped speed Internet telephony to market and pushed for faster digital television conversion. At the same time, he was hammered by the likes of Howard Stern for cracking down on indecency and attacked by public-interest advocates for attempting to craft new media ownership rules that some feared would let big media companies grow bigger.
At least three strong contenders are vying for the White House appointment to succeed Powell. The next chairman will oversee issues such as the continuing conversion to digital broadcast, the rollout of new technologies including those involving Internet telephony, and further change in the telephone and cable industries.
Fellow Republican FCC Commissioner Kevin J. Martin is still considered by many to have the inside track. Martin was deputy general counsel for President Bush's 2000 campaign, and his wife, Catherine, works in the White House.
However, an outsider, Republican Michael D. Gallagher -- assistant secretary of the Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration and the president's principal adviser on telecommunication policies -- also wants the job and is said to be a favorite of Powell's. The two have worked closely on several issues, while Powell and Martin have disagreed on matters of policy and style during their time together on the commission. Through a spokesman, Gallagher declined to comment yesterday.
Republican Rebecca Armendariz Klein is interested in the chairmanship as well. Klein, a staffer for Bush when he was Texas governor, is a U.S. Air Force reservist who took over the Texas Public Utility Commission in 2001. She left for an unsuccessful run at Congress in 2003 and is managing partner of the Austin office of Loeffler Tuggey Pauerstein Rosenthal LLP. Klein, through a spokesman, declined to comment.
A vacancy will be created on the FCC board regardless of whether Martin gets the chairmanship.
Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), chairman of the Commerce Committee, which likely will tackle a rewrite of the 1996 Telecommunications Act in the near future, has asked the White House to appoint Earl Comstock, a former lawyer for the Commerce Committee, to the vacancy.
"Senator Stevens thinks Earl Comstock knows more than anyone about the 1996 Telecommunications Act," Commerce Committee Staff Director Lisa Sutherland said yesterday.
Also yesterday, Stevens and Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii), Commerce Committee co-chairman, sent a letter to the White House requesting that Democratic FCC Commissioner Michael J. Copps, whose term expires in May, be renominated for another term. Copps is the commission's toughest foe of broadcast indecency. Stevens recently said he would work to extend indecency regulations to cable and satellite channels.