Bill to Promote FCC Transparency Wins Approval by House Committee

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By Brandon Ross

June 3 — A bill to overhaul the way the FCC conducts business, including requiring the agency to post draft rules and final rules sooner and allow a bipartisan majority of commissioners to meet in private, won approval by the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

The committee approved the bill (H.R. 2583), the Federal Communications Commission Process Reform Act of 2015, by voice vote, with majority Republicans backing the measure. Although the bill enjoyed broad Democratic support before the June 3 markup, several Republican-backed amendments eroded Democratic backing by the time of the final vote.

The panel said in a release following the vote that the bill authored by Communications and Technology Subcommittee Chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.) and Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) “builds upon the committee’s years-long work to open the FCC’s doors to the American people by bringing much-needed transparency, accountability, and predictability to the commission.”

“No matter the administration or party, a commission operating in full view of the American public is always preferable to operating behind closed doors under a shroud of secrecy,” committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) said in the release.

Approval of the bill follows months of intense criticism from the telecommunications industry and Republican lawmakers over the FCC's handling of the contentious Open Internet Order in February. The rulemaking process surrounding that order led to the most sustained criticism of the way the agency is allowed to conduct business, although there have been other criticisms of the commission's operations unrelated to that particular order.

Under the committee-approved legislation, the FCC would have post to its website within 24 hours of a vote the full text of newly adopted items. Democrats at the markup opposed that time requirement, contending it was too restrictive.

There was no immediate word on when the bill might come to the House floor according to a committee official.

The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), a major telecommunications industry group, commended the panel for taking up the bill.

“Creating a more efficient and transparent FCC is vitally important to helping radio and television broadcasters fulfill their mission of serving local communities,” the industry group said.

Democratic Amendments Defeated

The committee members found common ground on an amendment offered by Upton, Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.), Doris Matsui (D-Calif.) and David Loebsack (D-Iowa) that would mandate quarterly FCC reports to Congress and the public summarizing open rulemaking proceedings and Government Accountability Office reports every six months evaluating the cost of implementing proposed rules. The amendment also would require the FCC chairman to publish any changes to agency policies or procedures within 48 hours. Under the amendment, the agency would be required to take steps to increase participation of small businesses in regulatory proceedings.

However many Democratic proposals failed.

Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), ranking member of the Communications and Technology Subcommittee, ultimately voted against the amended bill. Eshoo, along with full committee ranking member Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), offered a substitute amendment that was defeated 20-28.

Eshoo's lack of support for the final bill stemmed from Republican amendments that were tacked onto agreed-upon language, the congresswoman's office told Bloomberg BNA in a June 3 e-mail.

At the markup, Eshoo said the substitute that she and Pallone offered included only bipartisan proposals.

Other Democratic amendments that didn't make it onto the approved bill included a proposal to require the FCC to create rules requiring broadcasters to disclose the real identity of “significant” political donors on TV commercials.

Walden said at the markup that he supported political contribution transparency, but criticized the Democratic amendment as too vaguely defined and impractical, pointing to a previous court ruling in an FCC-related case.

“The American public currently has no way of knowing who is paying for the political ads, or how much they're spending,” Eshoo said in a press statement issued after the markup. “Republicans ultimately blocked the amendment, citing threats to free speech.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Brandon Ross in Washington at bross@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Heather Rothman at hrothman@bna.com

The full text of the bill is available here: http://docs.house.gov/meetings/IF/IF00/20150602/103561/BILLS-1142583ih-U1.pdf.

A list of proposed amendments is available here: http://energycommerce.house.gov/markup/full-committee-vote-tsca-modernization-act-and-fcc-process-reform-act