Congress is moving to strenghthen its oversight control over the Federal Communications Commission by limiting the agency to a three-year authorization.
Representatives of both the Senate and House Commerce committees informally have agreed to a new authorization scheme as a way to get a handle on the powerful agency.
And last Friday, Sen. Robert Packwood (R-Ore.), the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, introduced legislation that would limit the FCC's authorization to three years, giving Congress the ability to review the agency's entire record over the period.
In the past, the agency had been run under a continuing authorization scheme, which effectively meant that Congress was under no obligation to conduct a detailed oversight probe of the FCC.
At least in theory, the authorization process could for the first time bring about a situation for the FCC like that faced by the Federal Trade Commission last year. In the FTC's case, authorization legislation was so tied by congressional and interest-group activity that the agency's offices had to close briefly when the FTC authorization expired.
"This authorization bill will provide the Congress an opportunity for regular and systematic oversight of the activities of the FCC," Packwood said. Packwood proposed that the agency be given a three-year authorization with a budget of $76.9 million for each of the next three fiscal years.
Noting Commerce Committee plans to amend the FCC's basic and "outmoded" statute -- the Communications Act of 1934 -- Packwood said services or equipment "that should be available to the consumer are delayed or more expensive than they should be.
"Our committee is moving its assert its necessary policymaking role to ensure that FCC efforts to promote competition and deregulation benefit the American people," he said.
In the past, FCC officials had fought this revision in the funding mechanism. "The problem is that if some members don't like a regulation, they'll be all over you," said one FCC official.
In another novel approach, Packwood, with support from other key Senate Republicans, has proposed a fee system for applicants and licensees of regulated products and services.
For example, an applicant for construction permit for a commercial television station would pay $1,000 to apply and a "hearing charge" of $7,500. A licensed television station in one of the largest 20 markets would pay an annual fee of $7,500 a year.