Wednesday, April 23, 2014
Washington’s revolving door: Cellular lobby and FCC have traded leaders
Washington, DC, has long had a revolving door through which government officials exit to become lobbyists, and lobbyists enter to become government officials.
Regulators being led by former executives from the industries they're supposed to regulate and industry groups being led by their former regulators sounds like it should be the stuff of fiction. But the Federal Communications Commission has once again proven that this phenomenon is quite real.
The CTIA Wireless Association today announced that Meredith Attwell Baker—a former FCC Commissioner and former Comcast employee—will become its president and CEO on June 2, replacing Steve Largent, a former member of Congress (and former NFL player).
Largent himself became the cellular lobby's leader when he replaced Tom Wheeler—who is now the chairman of the FCC. Wheeler is also the former president and CEO of the NCTA (National Cable & Telecommunications Association), which… wait for it… is now led by former FCC Chairman Michael Powell.
To sum up, the top cable and wireless lobby groups in the US are led by a former FCC chairman and former FCC commissioner, while the FCC itself is led by a man who formerly led both the cable and wireless lobby groups.
There's more. Baker, the new CTIA CEO, was also an employee of the CTIA before her stint as an FCC commissioner. She was a director of congressional affairs at CTIA from 1998 to 2000, and she started working for the government in 2004 when she joined the Department of Commerce. She was appointed to the FCC in 2009, voted in favor of Comcast's purchase of NBCUniversal in January 2011, and then left the government to become senior vice president of government affairs for Comcast-NBCUniversal in May 2011.
"Meredith is a perfect fit to lead CTIA going forward given her vast experience with the telecommunications industry," Dan Mead, chairman of CTIA and CEO of Verizon Wireless, said in today's announcement. "We're excited to welcome her back to the association."
Baker faces restrictions on lobbying FCC commissioners during the remainder of the Obama administration but can still lobby members of Congress.
Wheeler, who became chairman last year, was president and CEO of the CTIA from 1992 to 2004 and president and CEO of the NCTA from 1979 to 1984. Along the way, he also worked as a venture capitalist; started companies that offer cable, wireless, and video communications services; and wrote a book on President Lincoln's use of the telegraph during the Civil War.
The revolving door is open to both Democrats and Republicans. While Baker and Powell are Republicans, Wheeler is a Democrat.
Although it seems like the FCC's revolving door leads only to industry lobbyist groups, there are other paths. Michael Copps, an FCC commissioner from the Democratic Party between 2001 to 2011, was the only member to vote against the Comcast/NBC Universal merger, and he is now a self-described public interest advocate who leads the Media and Democracy Reform Initiative at Common Cause.
While there can be good people who go through the revolving door, it's bound to lead to worse policy decisions, Copps told Ars today.
"When people come and go in the industry, they have all these contacts and better access than other people have and more opportunity for their voices to be heard and their influence to be deployed," he said. "I think that only enhances the power of the special interest at the expense of the public interest."
The revolving door "isn't peculiar to the Federal Communications Commission. It's kind of everywhere you look. Probably it's one reason why a lot of people have diminished trust or diminished faith in government."
Comcast has spent millions of dollars lobbying, and its political action committee gave money to every member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which recently examined its proposed purchase of Time Warner Cable. Copps is worried about the impact acquisitions are having on news reporting.
Media consolidation is "wreaking havoc on our news and information infrastructure, on our communications ecosystem, and I don't think there is a greater issue facing the country right now," Copps said. "I don't think there's any possibility of reform and change until you have a media that actually tells what's going on in the country, a decentralized local media, a media that has real investigative reporting resources, and I think you don't have democracy without media democracy."
Among current FCC commissioners, Republican Ajit Pai previously served as associate general counsel for Verizon and held numerous government positions before becoming a commissioner in 2012. Commissioner Michael O'Reilly, in office since 2013, was previously a policy advisor in the Office of the Senate Republican Whip.
Democrat Mignon Clyburn, in office since 2009, was previously a newspaper publisher and then chairwoman of South Carolina's Public Service Commission. Democrat Jessica Rosenworcel, appointed in 2012, previously practiced communications law and held positions with the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. Rosenworcel was also a legal advisor to Copps when he was on the commission.