On Thursday, FCC officials released two such documents: a proposed order that, if approved, could relax some regulations concerning AM-to-FM radio transmitters, as well as a notice saying that the agency hopes to draw up new rules allowing the use of a “next-generation” broadcast TV technology.
The topics may seem dry. But it's a big step for an agency that does most of its actual rulemaking behind closed doors, despite holding monthly meetings that anyone can attend. For the first time in the FCC's history, officials say, regular Americans will be able to review the decisions in advance that increasingly affect the technology and networks that Americans rely on every day.
By giving the public the ability to see what the FCC is deliberating on, it could accelerate the process and put the average American on the same footing as lobbyists, who use their connections to find out what is contained in an order or proposed rule, said FCC Chairman Ajit Pai.
If the FCC is “going to make decisions affecting potentially one-sixth of the economy, the very least we can do is tell them what we're going to do before we actually do it,” he said. Pai, a Republican, is a longtime critic of withholding the text of agency decisions.
The changes won't happen all at once. Pai released the two documents Thursday as a test run, and he could always decide to roll back the move after feedback from FCC staff members and the public. Under the pilot, regular people still won't be able to see any changes the agency's members make to the documents between the public release and the ultimate vote. The final text of any measure, then, could come as a surprise. Still, many (including some reporters) were quick to welcome Pai's new approach.
“The increase in the public’s access to information concerning the actual text of draft orders might lead to sounder decisions,” said Randolph May, president of the Free State Foundation, a right-leaning think tank.
Although Americans generally have a chance to provide feedback on FCC proposals in the early stages, the public rarely gets to see the final or near-final versions before the make-or-break votes that turn them into official decisions. Historically, some policy analysts say, this was to ensure that the FCC's five members could work better together, allowing them to strike policy compromises without being forced by outsiders to adopt extreme political positions.
“Usually, drafts created negotiating room,” said Blair Levin, who served as the chief of staff under former FCC chairman Reed Hundt. “Now, the chairman's negotiating position looks like a final position which undercuts negotiating ability.”
Although the secrecy may have once helped commissioners broker agreements, the FCC has grown deeply divided in recent years. Under President Barack Obama, officials both inside and outside the agency said that tensions between FCC Democrats and Republicans had reached the point where the two camps rarely spoke.
Could Pai's changes result in a better relationship between liberals and conservatives on the panel — or better policy? On relatively uncontroversial issues, such as the two floated on Thursday, perhaps. But as for hot-button issues such as net neutrality, it's less clear how the changes could alter the public debate.