The FCC's Compromiser in Chief
Thursday, July 10, 2008
George W. Bush is smiling upon Kevin J. Martin. So are George H.W., Jeb and Barbara, with big toothy grins in a blown-up picture hanging behind his desk at the Federal Communications Commission.
Martin was appointed by President Bush to head the FCC in 2005, five years after he worked as a legal counsel for Bush's presidential campaign. He also worked on the Florida vote recount, and the fruits of his labor -- newspaper front pages declaring Bush's victory -- line the hallway leading into his office.
So when the rising Republican star was charged with one of the most influential roles in government -- presiding over multibillion-dollar mergers, setting rules on cellphone and Internet services and preventing naked backsides from getting on family television -- the party loyalist was expected to follow the playbook.
Yet from the start, he defied predictions and many in his party. Unlike his predecessor, Michael Powell, a Republican who had pushed for stronger indecency rules and free markets, Martin has not shown a strong ideological bent.
Martin, a soft-spoken 41-year-old, has pushed to change cable television pricing, which angered business leaders and party members. He sided with Democratic lawmakers to pry open wireless airwaves to more companies. He's revived debate on Internet rules that service providers and key Republican lawmakers called a solution looking for a problem.
"He's been incredibly open to our ideas, which has been a huge surprise coming from a key appointee from the Bush White House," said Larry Cohen, president of the Communications Workers of America.
In the remaining months of his tenure -- it is expected that the next president will appoint a new chairman -- support for Martin has waned. He is now at the center of a congressional oversight investigation into his leadership, which some officials inside the FCC describe as secretive and autocratic.
For the first time recently, all four other commissioners -- including two Republicans -- voted against Martin, on a decision that Verizon Communications could not use private data on former phone customers to woo them back.
Martin said critics are responding to his push to address many controversial issues during his tenure. He said he is more concerned with addressing public safety and consumer needs than with doctrinaire chest-thumping.
Martin cited a deal he brokered between the satellite radio operators XM and Sirius as proof of his service to consumers. He got the two companies to agree to a list of conditions that would keep prices from rising and create opportunities for minorities in exchange for his blessing on their creation of a monopoly.
Other successes Martin noted: He forced Internet phone services to carry 911 service and has crusaded for cable companies to let consumers buy only channels they want.
"There are no easy questions or easy answers here. They almost all involve big industries, big players and consumer groups, and what I do best is to listen and then come up with consensus or at least compromise," Martin said.