By Tracie Powell
House Republican leaders Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and Greg Walden (R-Ore.) sat in front of a dry erase board with the hash-tag, #CommActUpdate, written in marker, to talk with former Federal Communications Commissioner Robert McDowell (a GOP appointee) via Google Hangout about updating the 1996 Communications Act.
If ever there was an oxymoron.
It is also symbolic of what’s wrong with Washington, especially when it comes to crafting federal communications legislation. Forget for a moment the competing imagery of the low-tech crudely written upon dry erase board versus the high-tech broadcast on Youtube. What about the fact that they sat there talking to each other and at consumers– who apparently are the people the leaders want to reach since they posted the video publicly? No two-way communication and no engagement
, no bipartisanship. Just three white guys talking in front of a couple of webcams.
In fairness, both Upton and Walden urged viewers to tweet them using the hash-tag to provide feedback on what lawmakers should take into consideration in next year’s hearings about modernizing the telecom law. He is particularly interested in what legislators can do “to lower costs and to have more devices, better tools, to communicate,” Upton said.
Congress first passed the Communications Act of 1934, which created the FCC, and to encourage and regulate electronic communication in the United States; the law was revised in 1996. Signed by then President Bill Clinton, the initial purpose of the current law was to deregulate the converging broadcast and telecommunications industries. It also allowed for more media cross-ownership, which critics blame for the concentration of media by a powerful few at the expense of women and minorities.
The Republican leaders said they want the law updated by 2015, just in time for the 2016 general election.
McDowell, the former FCC commissioner, said during the Google Hangout that the 1996 law is regulated by an agency created in 1934, which means “what we have now are different technologies treated differently based on their old history,” he continued. “Some of this is based on the Ma Bell phone monopoly that no longer exists.” McDowell, who now works for the Hudson Institute, pointed to cable and broadcast companies that are heavily regulated, but video service providers that are online where there is no regulation.
Though no Democrats participated in the hangout, AdWeek reported that Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), the chairman emeritus of the commerce committee cautioned his Republican colleagues to approach modernizing the Communications Act with great care and attention to detail. “This will affect a rapidly changing industry, with many jobs and billions of dollars in investment at stake,” Dingell said. “We should approach this in a balanced fashion in order to preserve and promote American leadership in the telecommunications industry.”
Republicans should be applauded for taking on the task of updating communications law and regulations. But if they are serious about getting new rules on the books for emerging technologies, start by using current ones more effectively. Next time at least give viewers a good, old-fashioned power-point presentation.
You can watch the Google Hangout below: