FCC Finally Takes the Fifth

By: Todd Shields

(Mediaweek) With his long slog through Senate procedure finally over, Jonathan Adelstein may take his seat on the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) as early as this week. Those who know the Democrat say he brings a pragmatic temperament to the job — and that he could exert a moderating influence on the Republican-dominated agency.

Adelstein, a telecommunications aide to Sen. Thomas Daschle (D-S.D.), received approval from the full Senate on a voice vote late Thursday, more than nine months after the White House announced his nomination.

For much of that time, the uncontroversial nomination lay snagged on unrelated partisan disputes. Last week, Senate Democrats, soon to lose power due to the recent elections, relented on judicial nominations and Adelstein was cleared.

The South Dakota native told senators in July he wants to foster high-speed Internet connections — a natural priority for rural areas. But Adelstein’s impact will extend far beyond broadband policy.

If he aligns, as expected, with fellow Democratic commissioner Michael Copps, the two could trim sails that Republican chairman Michael Powell may otherwise wish to set. Several FCC-watchers point to the commission’s ongoing review of media ownership rules as an example. The overhaul of broadcast and newspaper ownership caps and restrictions ranks among the commission’s most important undertakings in decades.

“Is Michael Powell going to want to have a 3-to-2 vote on all those issues?” asked one observer. The answer: probably not, because a series of 3-to-2 votes would signal uncertainty to congressional critics and federal judges eager to overturn commission actions. To ward off split decisions, the commission might avoid deregulatory extremes, perhaps by relaxing ownership caps rather than killing them.

Another consequence could key on Republican commissioner Kevin Martin’s possible alignment on some issues with Copps. For instance, Copps and Martin are said to favor forcing cable operators to carry multiple digital broadcast signals, while Powell and Republican Kathleen Abernathy take the opposite stance. Adelstein’s voice could break such deadlocks.

Still, the fact remains that Republicans hold the commission as long as they hold the White House. Given his minority status, an Adelstein tenure “will not change the outcome on big issues,” said Legg Mason analyst Blair Levin. But all agree Adelstein will change commission dynamics in unforeseen ways. “The funniest thing about Jonathan is people have an opinion about what his opinion will be,” said one Washington telecommunications specialist. “He’s not a guy who’s easily pigeonholed.”

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