By Arshad Mohammed
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 10, 2005
President Bush yesterday nominated a Republican and a Democrat to serve on the Federal Communications Commission, a step likely to preserve the two parties' balance of power on the FCC and to continue to limit Chairman Kevin J. Martin's freedom of action.
The White House said Bush had decided to put forward Deborah T. Tate, a Republican Tennessee state utility regulator, and to renominate Michael J. Copps, a Democratic FCC commissioner since 2001, to serve on the commission. Another Republican seat on the commission is expected to open up by the end of the year, but the president did not act to fill it.
The FCC, whose decisions have broad influence over the media, communications and Internet industries, faces a series of major issues over the next year including whether to restructure the Universal Service Fund that helps subsidize telephone service in rural and remote parts of the country.
It must also decide whether to approve the sale of Adelphia Communications Corp.'s cable system to Comcast Corp. and Time Warner Cable Inc. and whether to take up the contentious matter of rewriting U.S. media ownership rules.
The FCC, which has five members when at full strength, has operated for much of this year with two Republicans, two Democrats and one vacant seat.
As a result, Martin, a Republican, has had compromise with the Democrats. He has proved adroit at cutting deals with the Democrats but that has forced him to make concessions to them.
For example, the FCC last week approved SBC Communications Inc.'s purchase of AT&T Corp. and Verizon Communications Inc.'s acquisition of MCI Inc. by a 4 to 0 vote. However, at the Democrats' behest, the commission imposed a series of conditions on the mergers, which Martin had wanted to approve without limitations.
Telecom analysts and lawyers said they expected Tate to broadly support Martin's positions and the general deregulatory trend favored by the Republicans. As a former state regulator, they suggested she might be quicker to defend the prerogatives of states in battles over jurisdiction with Washington.
In an FCC filing last year, Tate wrote that she wanted "the states and the FCC to reevaluate our overall regulatory program so that consumer welfare is the centerpiece of regulation rather than restraining the market power of increasingly hypothetical monopolists."
The comment hints at support for the views of big phone companies like Verizon and SBC, which argue that they face growing competition from cable, Internet phone and wireless providers despite their history as regulated monopolies.
Tate, 49, is a director of the Tennessee Regulatory Authority, which sets the rates and service standards of privately owned telephone, natural gas, electric and water utilities. Copps, 65, was an aide to former senator Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.), before working at the Commerce Department and at the FCC.
The nominations are subject to Senate approval and the timing of this could have a major effect on the FCC. Republican Commissioner Kathleen Q. Abernathy must step down by the end of this year and has made no secret of her desire to move on.
If the Senate confirms Tate and Copps quickly, Martin would continue to operate with a split commission once Abernathy is gone. If the confirmations are delayed, it is possible that Martin could end up a lone Republican faced with two Democrats.
Analysts said they were perplexed that the White House had not put forward a second Republican to take over Abernathy's seat. Some said it may reflect deference to Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), who said this week: "I am looking for a nominee and am hoping to find one that they'll consider, too. But we haven't gotten one yet."
Richard E. Wiley, a former FCC chairman, said he thought it most unlikely that Martin would find himself in a minority of one and that if that were to be the case, his history of working with the Democrats would prevent dramatic clashes.
"It's not optimal, but given the particular individuals involved I don't think you'd see some coup taking place," Wiley said, adding Bush could make a recess appointment for Tate if necessary to keep two Republicans on the FCC.
Some analysts said that the absence of a third Republican on the commission would to some degree limit Martin's action and might make it harder to take up issues like media ownership, where the two parties are sharply divided.
"It is a political feat that Kevin Martin has been effective in a 2-2 environment but part of that has been by deferring some of the most contentious issues, like media ownership," said Philip J. Weiser, a University of Colorado law professor.