After 26 Years, Thune Thinks It’s Time to Reauthorize the FCC

Thune says the FCC needs more transparency. image via flickr
March 10, 2016 at 4:27 pm ET

Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) next week will kickstart the Federal Communication Commission’s first reauthorization effort in more than 20 years. The last FCC authorization measure passed in 1990.

The Senate Commerce Committee is set to vote on Thune’s bill Wednesday. Thune wants to bring back the tradition of reauthorizing the commission every few years to provide better oversight help the agency thrive.

“By restarting the FCC’s regular authorization cycle, the bill will ensure that necessary congressional oversight of the FCC’s budget and procedures occur routinely,” Thune said in a floor speech this week.

Like many federal agencies, the commission continues to function without formal authorization. Thune said a more regular reauthorization process would “make sure that the FCC has all the tools it needs to keep up with our rapidly changing digital landscape.”

Thune called the provisions of his bill a “handful of noncontroversial good government reforms,” but his Democratic colleagues might not agree.

“The bill is a good starting point but there is a reason why it’s been two decades since the FCC was last reauthorized,” Bryan Gulley, spokesman for Senate Commerce Democrats said in an email to Morning Consult. “It’s a difficult thing to do.”

There are some worries that the bill is so tame in its current form that it could allow for some heavier hitting amendments to come either in committee or on the full Senate floor later.

Josh Stager, policy counsel at the Open Technology Institute, said in an interview that many of the provisions in the bill are “not just uncontroversial, but unnecessary.” He highlighted a portion of the bill to clarify that commissioners could still serve after their terms have expired. This is current practice at the FCC, and Democratic Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel is currently in this period of limbo as she awaits confirmation for her second term at the FCC from the full Senate.

Meanwhile, the bill creates an opening to tinker with controversial policy. Senators could introduce amendments that could roll back the FCC’s net neutrality rules or the authority of the agency, for example. Hill staffers are prepping for work and consideration of the bill to go “well into the summer,” according to Stager.

The measure would enhance transparency requirements that Thune believes mirrors the practices of other independent agencies. For example, the bill would require the commission to give Congress copies of various documents that it sends to the White House and the Office of Management and Budget. These include budget requests, budget estimates, legislative recommendations, and comments on legislation.

The bill would also direct the Government Accountability Office to conduct a report on the regulatory fee structure at the FCC. Specifically, the GAO would look into whether the current structure correlates to the “actual workload” of the commission, if the structure negatively affects any technologies, and whether there should be any changes made. The GAO would submit that report to both the House and Senate Commerce Committees.

The bill would also change the law that dictates how the government deposits the revenue from spectrum auctions. The money earned from the government’s sale of federal airwaves for wireless providers would go directly to the Commerce Department instead of into a preliminary interest account.

This actually reflects the way the government already handles spectrum auction revenue today. It would adjust the provision from in the 1996 Telecommunications Act to reflect the change over time. The committee favorably reported this provision as a standalone bill back in December.

The measure includes a provision that would protect some of the FCC’s Universal Service Programs from suspension or disruption. Their Universal Service Fund fuels four programs aimed at ensuring that all Americans access to communications services with focuses on rural areas, libraries and schools, low-income Americans, and rural health care.

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