POLICY AND POLITICS I’m a telecommunications policy wonk, have been for a very long time. When I started at the FCC in 1971, working with a small team trying to figure out what the federal policy should be regarding this emerging thing called cable television, I had a very steep learning curve. As with most policy issues, I learned that there was far more than one side to any issue. Sure, you can (as many "interest groups" do) turn that into a cynical statement about "the business/corporate" interests "versus" the "public" interest, but anyone who wants to talk about these things intelligently knows that it’s far more complex than that. Simply being against big corporations or for lower consumer prices does not get you very far. That’s policy debate in the form of politics, where the effort is not to be logically persuasive but to accumulate votes for your "side." Unfortunately, the longer I have watched this process go on, the more I fear that the legitimate need to debate and study policy alternatives has given way to pure political and ideological preferences and calculations, divorced from any serious policy consideration. That, by the way, was less the case, happily, when I was at the FCC. Did we have our preferences and political differences? Sure. Dean Burch was the FCC Chairman. He had been the Chairman of the Republican National Committee, and a political advisor to Barry Goldwater and President Nixon. Couldn’t get much further from my positions in those days than that! But Burch was great to work for. He was a quintessential pragmatist. In the fight over cable regulation, with the broadcasters wanting to continue a "freeze" on the cable industry, he came down on the side of getting something done, even if it wasn’t perfect. And we all know it wasn’t perfect! You might note, however, that Burch did not think much of the "networks" at the time, and pushed for better programming and "kid vid" rules based on his belief that television was getting too powerful. He also pushed for ownership restrictions. So "politics" was never far from "policy." But before anything got done there was careful consideration, review and open debate. Now, however, that’s not the case. Rumors abound that now that Chairman Martin has his "third vote" (an unfair, I hope, assumption that Republicans and Democrats always vote with each other in ideological blocs), he intends to push his agenda on things like a la carte programming and multicast must-carry. How are things different? Well, for one, the staff at the Commission is currently suffering from low morale, brought on in part by the impression that careful study and open consideration are no longer necessary to develop policy. If the economists (not just one study, but many, from different agencies) conclude that consumers will pay more and get less from a la carte, then just find a new economist and have her issue a "study" that supports the pre-conceived position! That’s a morale killer. If the entire Commission studies "multicast must-carry" and concludes the plain language of the statute does not contemplate it, and it is likely to be unconstitutional as well, just wait until you have the "third vote" and do it anyway! That’s not policy development, that’s raw politics and it has an adverse affect on the entire Commission. I’m hoping the rumors turn out to be untrue. I’m hoping this Commission will not severely diminish its role and name as an "expert agency" for the sake of political headlines. We’ll see.

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