Bill Would Loosen ‘Sunshine Act’ for FCC

Published December 30, 2009

Rep. Bart Stupak (D-MI) has introduced legislation that would allow members of the Federal Communications Commission to meet together in private for the first time. He characterizes it as an attempt to update the Sunshine Act for government officials asked to regulate an increasingly complex Internet.

The bill (HR 4167) has encountered resistance from those who maintain government officials are prohibited from meeting together in private for good reason—so deliberations are always public and no deals can be made in secret behind closed doors.

The Federal Communications Act of 1934 enshrines this principle in law, but Stupak thinks the FCC is now dealing with such complicated issues the commissioners need to be able to meet on occasion in nonpublic settings.

Some Would Welcome Loosening
Currently, it is illegal for more than two FCC commissioners to be in the same room together, because getting three commissioners in the same room would constitute a “quorum” of an official meeting that must be announced and open to the public.

James Gattuso, a senior research fellow in regulatory policy for the Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC, thinks the requirement is obsolete. He applauds Stupak’s proposed reform.

“I agree with Stupak,” Gattuso said. “The Sunshine Act requirements—which were not part of the original 1934 Act—don’t put decision-making in the sunshine at all. They just make it more difficult.

“The public meetings that adhere to the Sunshine Act are highly scripted affairs,” he added. “All the decision-making goes on between meetings, sometimes two commissioners at a time, usually among staff.”

Glorified ‘Show Trials’

Jim Harper, a telecommunications expert at the CATO Institute, agrees it’s time to reexamine the “sunshine” rule.

“I was a participant in a Federal Trade Commission roundtable discussion in Washington the other day,” Harper said. “I was impressed that the agency is taking a careful look at the issue. In the past, their workshops have been more like show trials designed to set the table for poorly-thought-through regulations.”

‘Hindering Useful Debate’

Gattuso says he’s unsure if Stupak’s proposal will improve the FCC’s productivity, but he does not think the current rules help the public or the commission.

“I don’t know whether the FCC would be more ‘productive’ with a change, and I’m not even sure more productivity would be a good thing,” Gattuso said. “But the present rules do nothing to make real decision-making public, while hindering useful debate of the issues among members.

“It’s comic sometimes, as commissioners get nervous when more than two are in close proximity,” he added. “And it does have very real negative effects. For instance, you’ll never see more than two members at a conference or seminar.”

Thomas Cheplick ([email protected]) writes from Cambridge, Massachusetts.