The John Dingell Test

[This is a commentary on Bruce Kushnick’s article in the March 16, 2010 Nieman Watchdog: How the FCC’s exciting new broadband plan is a fraud.]

Representative John Dingell:  “I have great concerns about several of the plan’s recommendations about spectrum reallocation….   At best, these are ancillary to Congress’s intent to expand broadband access.   At worst, they would reinstitute the old policy debates long since satisfactorily settled….  In conclusion, Mr. Chairman, I would like to remind the witnesses today that Congress is the sole progenitor of the Commission’s authority.  To quote Sam Rayburn, if the Commission remembers it works for us, everything will turn out fine.”

–Opening statement of Representative John Dingell, Hearing of the U.S. House Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, and the Internet, “Oversight of the Federal Communications Commission: The National Broadband Plan,”March 25, 2010, at 34:20.

In his otherwise fine article, Bruce Kushnick errs in crediting too much power to the FCC.  The FCC is a creature of Congress, and Congress keeps it on a very short leash.  The problem, therefore, is not the FCC, but Congress.  Congress wants the FCC to be overwhelmingly pro-incumbent, so that’s what the FCC does.  FCC officials who aren’t suicidal have very little choice in the matter.  Unfortunately, Congress generally exercises its power over the FCC in ways that aren’t transparent, so it’s hard for the press and the public to hold members of Congress accountable, say, for giving incumbents windfalls at public expense worth tens of billions of dollars.

Here is a simple test about whether any think tank or advocacy group is serious about broadband corruption.  I call it the John Dingell test, after U.S. Rep. John Dingell.  Any group not willing to publicly finger John Dingell as a prominent source of multi-billion dollar taxpayer ripoffs–the Jack Abramoff of telecom corruption, but much, much worse given the money and stakes involved–doesn’t deserve to be taken seriously.

I’ll admit that it’s a bit unfair to go after Dingell because so many other members of Congress are also implicated.  But Dingell is the longest serving member of Congress, a longtime chair of the House Commerce Committee with jurisdiction over the FCC, the man responsible for appointing and reappointing the worst and longest serving FCC commissioner in the history of the FCC (Jim Quello), and he’s still shamelessly and effectively doing his dirty work on behalf of incumbents.

The reason the John Dingell test is so effective is that most telecom groups, even those with the noblest pedigrees, hate going after members of Congress, especially powerful ones of the same party (although partisan politics is remarkably unimportant on telecom issues), because it burns bridges.  Such members of Congress and their friends have incredibly valuable perks to give out to any group that wants to be an effective public advocate, so it’s suicidal to go after somebody like Dingell.

Thus, it might be said that it’s unfair to blame either FCC officials or public interest groups because to blame them is, in effect, to ask them to commit suicide, which most reasonable people would probably view as an unreasonable thing to ask of anyone.  From their perspective, they’re doing the best they can under impossible conditions.

To recap, let’s not attack the FCC or public interest groups too much.  They’re more victims of a corrupt system than causes of it.

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