TCS Daily

Profile in Conservative Courage

By James K. Glassman - February 20, 2003 12:00 AM

After months of noisy foreplay, Michael Powell has failed to produce. Today, one Republican and two Democrat members of the Federal Communications Commission forged a new working majority and thwarted their own chairman's plan to strip states of their power - and the four giant Bell companies of their telecom competitors.

The FCC decision was important. It means that the process of deregulation, begun with the Telecommunications Act of 1996, supported by every conservative in the House and Senate, can continue. The Bells, the established regional monopolies in local service, have now entered the long-distance business in 70 percent of the states, and smaller competitive local exchange carriers, or CLECs, are now battling the Bells in the local arena and broadband, or fast Internet connections. The result: lower prices and better services for families and small businesses.

But with today's vote - an unusual and some would say humiliating defeat for the chairman of a powerful independent agency - the recriminations have begun.

In an embarrassingly intemperate statement, Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.), the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, called the FCC decision "another body blow to the American economy and heaped personal vituperation on Kevin Martin, the Republican who opposed Powell, calling him "a renegade" and the perpetrator of "a palace coup" and saying that "reform had been stabbed in the back."

In a town like Washington, some may say such attacks are only be expected. They are not. In fact, they are shameful - and undignified coming from the chairman of such a committee.

Martin did what every conscientious commissioner should do. He used his own judgment to come to a decision, not the chairman's.

Well before the vote, the game for pro-Bell politicians and analysts has been to attack Martin - and any other Republican who opposes their position - as being disloyal to conservative principles.

But what do you call someone who says that the states, rather than the federal government, should make local decisions? Someone who believes that competition, not Washington-dictated industrial policy, should determine winners and losers? Someone who thinks that investors need certainty before committing their capital? Someone who believes that, when Congress passes a law, it should mean what it says, not what a group of changeable regulators opines?

I would call someone like that a conservative.

Martin does not have to defend his conservative credentials and his GOP loyalty against anyone, least of all Billy Tauzin. After all, he worked for Kenneth Starr, the independent counsel in the Whitewater investigation of President Clinton. From 1997 to 1999, he served as legal advisor to Harold Furchtgott-Roth, a Republican FCC commissioner who has probably been the most libertarian regulator of any sort in Washington for the past few decades.

Martin, who has a master's in public policy from the University of North Carolina and a law degree from Harvard, then served as deputy general counsel to the Bush campaign, devoting himself to the candidate a full 18 months before the election. He saw duty in the trenches during the long Florida recount and legal battles. In fact, according to the Miami Herald, he "was one of the first national Bush-Cheney people to arrive in Miami from Washington, on Nov. 8." He was named a commissioner in his own right in April 2001, three months after Powell was elevated to chairman.

Powell is a Republican, too, of course, but his most important job in government before joining the FCC was as chief of staff to a high-profile Democrat, Joel Klein, who headed the antitrust division of the Clinton Justice Department.

Even more ironic is that Martin's antagonist Tauzin spent 23 years as an elected Democrat from Louisiana and only eight as a Republican. He switched parties at an opportune time, after Republicans took the House in 1995.

Actually, it's not Martin who needs to defend his notions of competition, states' rights and investor certainty. It's clear he's being conservative.

It's Powell and Tauzin whose Washington-centric policy should raise suspicion among conservatives. And it's no surprise that Powell's plan was opposed by such conservative groups as Americans for Tax Reform, the American Conservative Union, Citizens Against Government Waste, as well as by the Small Business Administration, the Small Business Survival Committee and the National Federation of Independent Business.

Instead of wasting their time trying to smear Kevin Martin, supporters of Michael Powell should be looking at what went wrong. Why was it that, for the first time since 1991, the chairman of the FCC was defeated in a policy decision? In this case, the defeat came despite intense pressure, including vicious editorials in the Wall Street Journal and distortions by people who should know better. (George Gilder, for example, yesterday in an op-ed piece called the Telecom Act of 1996 "the Clinton administration's million-word re-regulation of telecom." First, the act set out a blueprint to DE-regulate telecom; second, the bill was supported by every conservative in Congress, without exception. It was by no means a Clinton bill, and Gilder knows it.)

No, the reason that Powell failed was that his policy was deeply, deeply flawed, and its deficiencies could not possibly be ignored, despite the heavy heat that was applied.

Still, the Bells were not completely shut out. They did get what they wanted in broadband. And now they have to perform. They have to prove that they will make the kind of investments in fast Internet connections that they have promised. We'll see.

Meantime, a legislator of Tauzin's stature would do well to contemplate Powell's mistaken policy rather than fulminate against a conscientious public servant and plan yet another hearing to harass and hammer people who elevate competition, investment certainty and states' rights to their high and proper place.

TCS Daily Archives