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FUTURE OF THE FCC IS QUESTIONED BY THINK TANKS AND GOP LEADERS

WASHINGTON-Are rumors of the Federal Communications Commission’s impending demise exaggerated?

Perhaps, perhaps not. The FCC is unlikely to go anywhere today, tomorrow or the next day. But a few years down the road, as the transition in the telecommunications industry from regulation to competition takes hold-if, in fact, it does, and Republicans maintain control of Congress, big changes could be in store for the FCC.

“It is a legitimate question of the regulatory process to ask whether the agency which governs over the industry has a role well into the future,” said Adam Thierer, an Alex C. Walker Fellow in Economic Policy at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.

Until now, it’s been unclear how much of the mounting rhetoric about dismantling the FCC has been partisan and how much has been the kind of serious discourse that manifested itself in sweeping legislative reforms during the first 100 days of Congress under House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga.

Proponents of abolishing the FCC argue the Justice Department can address marketplace aberrations and rely heavily on spread spectrum technology’s ability to allow open sharing of the airwaves. “Bandwidth is bandwidth,” they insist, and its use should be determined by the free market rather than by government.

It is said the computer industry, which has flourished without government oversight, should be the model for the telecommunications industry.

The issue has put Chairman Reed Hundt, a Democratic Clinton appointee, on the defensive, despite having auctioned nearly $9 billion worth of wireless licenses and overseeing an unprecedented internal reorganization at the FCC.

Nevertheless, the FCC, an agency of 2,200 employees seeking $223.6 million in fiscal 1996, or $38 million more than this year’s spending level, is viewed by some lawmakers as inefficient and unnecessary.

With the Senate returning this week and the House next week from spring recess, work will begin in earnest by Republicans on short term (fiscal 1996) and long-term budget planning with an eye toward eliminating the federal deficit by 2002. In June, oversight hearings on FCC authorization will be held. The two legislative processes-budget and authorization-in conjunction with consideration of telecommunications reform legislation in May will shape any FCC restructuring.

“We don’t want to dismiss anything as rhetoric,” said Judith Harris, the FCC’s top lobbyist. Yet as Harris and even critics of the FCC point out, the same Republican-led Congress advocating an overhaul of the agency also wants to pass telecommunications reform legislation-at least insofar as the bill heading to the Senate floor goes-that could dramatically increase the commission’s powers and responsibilities.

For that reason, the Progress & Freedom Foundation, a high-tech think tank closely allied with Gingrich, is working closely with House Republican leaders on a plan to replace the FCC with a drastically scaled-down institution. Insisting on a pared-down FCC is a roundabout way for PPF to also advocate totally deregulating the telecommunications industry.

The extent to which the FCC is or isn’t revamped rests with House Telecommunications Subcommittee Chairman Jack Fields, R-Texas. “We need to look at everything they (the FCC) do,” said Fields, who is to submit recommendations on the FCC’s future to John Kasich, R-Ohio, chairman of the House Budget Committee.

Particular attention is being focused on the FCC’s Competition Division, an antitrust unit within the Office of General Counsel that’s headed by James Olson. Critics assert the division duplicates work at the Justice Department.

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