WASHINGTON -- The Federal Communications Commission's monthly meetings are scheduled to start at 9:30 a.m. Under Chairman Kevin J. Martin, the trains don't always run on time, and recently they've come close to veering off the rails.
On Nov. 27, for instance, the FCC was slated to consider controversial proposals dealing with potential new cable TV regulations and increasing women and minority ownership of broadcast stations. Journalists, lobbyists and spectators waited as the five commissioners on the fractious panel wrangled over the issues eight floors above. When they finally showed up for the public session -- nearly 12 hours late -- the few spectators remaining had front-row seats for the sniping and accusations that are threatening to become hallmarks of FCC meetings.
Critics usually blame Martin, a soft-spoken Republican known as a political tactician who has accomplished the rare feat of being criticized by all four of his fellow commissioners. He is also facing a congressional inquiry into the FCC's procedures and allegations of flawed research studies, suppressing data, ignoring public input and holding hearings with minimal notice.
"The FCC appears to be broken," Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said during a hearing last week. Congressional Democrats' growing frustration with Martin could hinder his agenda. Last week, for example, a Senate committee passed legislation to delay Martin's planned vote this month on loosening media ownership rules.
In an interview, Martin said he was under fire for trying to force the FCC to deal with controversial topics. "It's not unusual for there to be tension in trying to work them out."
FCC employees and people who frequently deal with the agency said tensions were bogging down the panel. Reviews of corporate mergers and sales frequently stretch longer than the six months the agency aims for. Critics have complained that important issues -- such as the 2009 transition to digital television and reforming a fund that subsidizes phone and Internet service for low-income and rural residents -- are taking a back seat to bickering.
"There's budding upheaval here if some of these abuses don't get addressed," said an FCC official who requested anonymity to avoid irritating Martin.
The infighting does not bode well for the agency's effectiveness during what is likely to be Martin's last year as chairman with a new administration taking power in 2009.
Commission employees said that Martin, chairman since 2005, keeps his plans tightly wrapped, believing there's a tactical advantage in springing them on other commissioners with little notice. For example, last month commissioners learned the details of his proposal to ease restrictions on owning a newspaper and broadcast station in the same market when they read about it in an opinion article by Martin in the New York Times.
"He is a lone operator," said an FCC insider who did not want to publicly criticize Martin. "Sometimes even his own staff doesn't really know what he's thinking and what's he's going to do next."
Martin defended the release of his long-awaited cross-ownership plan, which had implications in Times parent Tribune Co.'s deal to go private, saying he was trying to allow everyone, including the public, to see it at the same time. It takes two to tangle, his supporters said, and his attempts to forge consensus on issues gives the other commissioners extra leverage.
Bureaucratic inefficiency is hardly unusual in Washington. But government agencies normally manage to start their meetings on time. The FCC's problem doing that -- three times this year, meetings have begun more than nine hours late -- was the butt of jokes at the Federal Communications Bar Assn.'s annual dinner last week.
"I just can't keep delaying these meetings so you can run up your billable hours," Martin told the lawyers at the event, where the FCC chairman traditionally pokes fun at himself.
To people with business before the agency, it's no laughing matter. Communications lawyers and lobbyists privately complain they have difficulty figuring out the status of their issues at the FCC. The meeting delays are emblematic of increasing infighting and highlight flaws in Martin's management style, they say.
Unlike past chairmen, Martin puts proposals on the FCC's agenda before he has lined up a majority to support him, said Harold Feld, senior vice president of the Media Access Project, a public interest media and telecommunications law firm in Washington. The tactic can help Martin push his agenda by forcing commissioners to take a position, but at a cost.
"You end up with a lot of last-minute wrangling, and it does generate a certain amount of resentment and distrust," Feld said.
That was evident Nov. 27.
Shortly before 9:30 a.m., the FCC announced the meeting would not start until 11 a.m. and that the proposal to improve female and minority ownership of broadcast stations had been dropped from the agenda. The FCC's two Democrats, Michael J. Copps and Jonathan S. Adelstein, had accused Martin of trying to use the proposal to deflect concerns about his cross-ownership plan's effect on women and minorities.
Copps and Adelstein had ripped that plan as caving in to large media companies. They said FCC studies Martin used to justify his plan were flawed, and they had hammered him for holding the final public hearing on the issue in Seattle with just one week's notice.
There still was a controversial proposal on the November agenda, and this one had Martin's fellow Republicans upset.
The chairman had pushed the commission to approve a report concluding that cable TV penetration had passed a key 70% threshold nationwide, which would trigger new regulatory powers. Martin has complained that cable TV rates are too high and aggressively pushed cable companies to allow viewers to buy channels separately instead of in pricing tiers. The companies adamantly oppose the idea, known as a la carte, and said Martin wanted to use the new regulatory powers to enact it.
The industry disputed Martin's assertion that penetration had reached the threshold. And Republican Commissioners Deborah Taylor Tate and Robert S. McDowell took the unusual step of publicly questioning Martin's data, which were based on an outside study.
Lacking the votes to approve the report, Martin and the commissioners worked on a compromise to require all cable companies to submit information to the FCC so the agency could make its own calculation. The negotiations dragged into the evening. Staffers had pizza delivered for dinner and smooth jazz continued to play in the nearly empty meeting room.
The commissioners finally convened at 9:14 p.m. The carping started shortly afterward.
Adelstein and McDowell complained that Martin hadn't given them the FCC's existing cable data, which showed penetration well below the 70% threshold, until the previous night. McDowell called the development disturbing. Adelstein accused Martin of suppressing the information and trying to "cook the books." Martin shot back that the commissioners got the data just hours after they asked for it.
Commissioners continued their infighting at a congressional hearing Wednesday. Copps complained that Martin ignored the hundreds of people who turned out at public hearings to oppose easing the cross-ownership ban. And he said Martin's plan to allow newspaper and broadcast combinations in the top 20 markets and also consider special exemptions in other markets was actually a complete elimination of the rule.
"Given how the FCC has considered media regulations in recent years," Copps said, "I have about as much confidence that a proposed combination will be turned down as I do that the next commission meeting will start on time."
© 2007 The Los Angeles Times