By Charles Babington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 26, 2007
As congressional Democrats prepare to give the Federal Communications Commission its toughest scrutiny in years, a rivalry between the powerful agency's two most prominent Republicans is raising questions about its readiness to handle barbed questions and stiff challenges.
The Republican-controlled FCC -- which makes far-reaching decisions on telephone, television, radio, Internet and other services that people use daily -- has sparred infrequently with Republican-controlled congresses. But the Democratic-run 110th Congress is about to heat up the grill, starting with a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee hearing on Thursday.
Senators vow to press the chairman and four commissioners on matters such as media-ownership diversity, Internet access, broadcast decency standards and delays in resolving various issues. The hearing may cover the waterfront, Democratic staff members say, but there's little doubt that the agency will face a tone of questioning unseen in recent years.
"They've effectively emasculated any public-interest standards that existed" for radio and TV stations, said Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.), a committee member who plans sharp questions on decency, media consolidation and other topics. "The entire Congress for years now has been devoid of any kind of oversight," he said, and the new Democratic majority is launching a process that will force the FCC to "beat a path to Capitol Hill to respond."
Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), a senior House Commerce Committee member, said he plans "comprehensive hearings on net neutrality" later this year. The term refers to measures barring telephone and cable service providers from charging Web-based companies for priority access to the Internet. Markey supports such proposals, while the FCC's Republican members generally oppose them.
FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin, a Republican with close ties to the Bush administration, will be the focus of Democrats' criticisms. But some industry analysts think those lawmakers may try to find an ally in Commissioner Robert M. McDowell, another young Republican loyalist with a reputation for intelligence and political ambition. The two have clashed on at least three significant issues in the past several months, creating what some see as a rift that could be ripe for exploitation.
"McDowell has been critical of Kevin Martin on a number of occasions," said industry analyst Blair Levin. Although both men are conservative Republicans, Levin said, their independence is partly explained by their different political bases -- Martin's in the Bush administration, McDowell's in Congress.
In the legal, lobbying and industrial circles that monitor the FCC, opinions vary on the severity of the Martin-McDowell rivalry.
Publicly, the two men have played down their differences and said they have a good working relationship. "The chairman and I have been friends for more than a decade," McDowell, 43, said in an interview. "We have a strong and durable relationship. . . . We will still have some differences, but we work together."
A spokeswoman for Martin, Tamara Lipper, said the two men "have a very good relationship."
The FCC's commissioners -- currently three Republicans and two Democrats -- are appointed by the president, confirmed by the Senate, and allowed to operate largely independently of each other. Intra-agency and intra-party feuds are not uncommon, and many analysts noted that Martin clashed with former chairman and fellow Republican Michael K. Powell.
"When Michael Powell was FCC chairman, Kevin Martin was viewed as the maverick Republican," said Philip J. Weiser, a law professor at the University of Colorado who specializes in telecommunications. "And now he has to deal with his own maverick Republican."
Martin, 40, and McDowell clashed even before McDowell arrived at the FCC in June. McDowell handed Martin a stinging setback by saying the FCC had no authority to require cable companies to carry additional digital broadcast channels, a key industry issue that Martin hoped to bring to a vote.
The two subsequently tangled on other issues, most notably the $85 billion merger between AT&T and BellSouth approved by the FCC last month. Martin needed McDowell's vote to break a deadlock. But McDowell effectively held the process up, insisting that he could not take part in a vote because he previously worked as a lobbyist for an association representing companies that competed against AT&T and BellSouth.
McDowell's sharp criticism of arguments in favor of a full commission vote were widely regarded as a rebuke of Martin. Ultimately, the merger was approved, but only after the companies made concessions sought by the two Democratic commissioners.
Martin, McDowell and their colleagues may need all the camaraderie and cohesion they can muster at next week's hearing. With Democrats now in control of Congress, Dorgan said, "the running room of the FCC is going to be limited."