In unspectacular fashion, Susan Ness diligently immersed herself in spectrum auction and personal communications services rulemakings at the Federal Communications Commission soon after she was confirmed as a commissioner by the Senate in May.
Such is the style of the former banking executive and House Banking Committee lawyer. As the agency’s newest commissioner, the 46-year-old Ness takes her job seriously. She’s all business, and without a lot of fanfare is putting her imprint on ground-breaking telecommunications policy.
But being intelligent, conscientious and hard-working proved inadequate for the Washington, D.C., establishment, which desperately wanted to know what role Ness would serve on a revamped FCC that has added three new members in the past year.
Thus, after only a handful of months in office, the murmuring began. Ness’ vote could be counted on by FCC Chairman Reed Hundt. Both are Democratic appointees and Clinton loyalists with more than casual ties to the White House.
The Washington establishment had begun to typecast Ness as a rubber stamp for Hundt, even though her brief voting record since joining the agency has been indistinguishable from the other four FCC members.
So, before a group of communications lawyers on Sept. 22, Ness used humor with mixed results to declare that she is not a philosophical twin of Hundt. She poked fun, too, at her serious demeanor.
James Casserly, a Ness aide, said the press later blew her remarks out of proportion, but acknowledged that besides trying to get a few laughs, there was a subtle point being made: the commissioner is her own person. He insists the rubber-stamp issue is a bigger deal for the press than for Ness, who is said to prefer working behind the scenes rather than in public to influence policymaking at the FCC.
If there were still any doubts about her ability to think for herself, Ness erased them at a House Budget Committee hearing on the FCC’s auction program earlier this fall.
Several panel members from California, angry about a new pioneer’s preference payment plan in pending trade legislation, tried to intimidate Ness, hoping to coerce her into saying the Clinton administration-backed provision was bad public policy that could cost the U.S. treasury hundreds of millions of dollars.
Ness held her ground, fielding question after question, while Hundt sat silent next to her, declining to comment because of a conflict of interest in the FCC proceeding that awarded pioneer’s preferences for PCS licenses to American Personal Communications, Cox Enterprises Inc. and Omnipoint Corp.
“I think I have my own philosophy and certainly this will play itself out as we go along,” said Ness in an interview with RCR.
Ness is guarded and chooses her words carefully, but at times offers a glimpse of the dynamic woman the telecommunications industry has yet to see.
“I’m interested in seeing that there’s more competition, that consumers reap the benefits of that in terms of lower costs and new services (that are) widely available,” she explained.
Far from being a follower, Ness has shown herself to be an activist and a leader in her suburban Maryland community. She also has been a strong advocate of increased judicial appointments of women.
In fact, if rumors become reality and Hundt succeeds Ron Brown as secretary of commerce, Ness would be well positioned to head the FCC.
Noting that the FCC’s challenge is to manage transition, Ness said the commission must take into account the needs of small and large businesses alike.
“I look to the extent we can to streamline, to eliminate, stall regulations that have no bearing on the current environment…because as a lender I saw the real costs involved in that sort of regulatory scheme,” she said.