WASHINGTON-The Federal Communications Commission’s renewed effort to foster diversity in wireless telecommunications could collide with election-year politics as Republicans that control Congress and Democrats that occupy the White House struggle with the politically explosive affirmative action issue.

The FCC, acting on a mandated provision in the new telecommunications law penned by House Commerce Committee member Bobby Rush (R-Ill.), has begun investigating market entry barriers faced by small businesses and entrepreneurs with an eye toward eliminating such roadblocks on the information superhighway.

The data collected in the proceeding, launched May 21, will help federal regulators build a record to justify the possible revival of spectrum auction bidding credits and other incentives for women, minorities and others that are under-represented in wireless and other sectors of the fast-growing, $215 billion telecommunications industry.

“We are excited that the Telecommunications Act of 1996 directs the Commission to provide new opportunities to enhance their [small businesses] entry into the telecommunications market,” said FCC Chairman Reed Hundt.

After the Supreme Court last summer curbed federal affirmative action in Adarand Constructors Inc. v. Pena, the FCC ceased race- and gender-based bidding credits that were used in the regional narrowband personal communications services auction and instead limited preferences to small businesses in the C-block PCS and 900 MHz enhanced specialized mobile radio auctions.

The high court, while rolling back federal affirmative action programs, did not rule out race-based preferences where a pattern of discrimination in a particular arena (the court did not speak to gender) can be documented. The FCC, since then, has been struggling with how such a study would be funded and administered.

The agency also is setting up a congressionally mandated Telecommunications Development Fund to aid small businesses, including those owned by women and minorities.

The extent to which the FCC can open up more wireless opportunities for women and minorities is unclear.

Affirmative action is under assault by the GOP-led Congress. Robert Dole (R-Kan.), the Senate Majority Leader who is resigning by next week to campaign against President Clinton, has sponsored a bill to end racial and gender preferences in federal programs and hiring. The measure was referred to the Labor and Human Resources Committee, though it is not known who, if anyone, will pick up the bill.

Rep. Charles Canady (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution, is pushing a companion bill that could go to the House floor this summer.

Republicans last year killed tax breaks designed to entice women and minorities to enter the wireless field.

Clinton, meanwhile, has advocated mending affirmative action but not ending it.

Christopher Edley, a Harvard law professor who had a major hand in the White House’s affirmative action review and the subsequent policy adopted by Clinton, said the issue goes deeper than politics.

“There is a moral cost to making decisions about people based on immutable characteristics of race, ethnicity and gender,” said Edley at a conference on affirmative action last week sponsored by the Center for National Policy. “We spend too much time discussing the law and not enough time discussing the moral questions-the value questions-that should animate our decisions about what the law should be.”

The Justice Department recently proposed stiffer affirmative action guidelines in federal contracting.

“`[T]he mend it, don’t end it’ strategy is nothing more than a hoax,” said Canady. “In the face of a hostile Supreme Court, the administration has simply asked its clever lawyers to come up with stronger arguments to try to defend these preference programs.”

Whether affirmative action will become a flashpoint in the upcoming presidential campaign is uncertain. The issue divides Republicans as well as Democrats.

Kevin Phillips, a top conservative political analyst, believes the issue does not work for either Republicans or Democrats and that both parties may decide to skirt the issue this fall.

“I think we’re looking as Americans over the next 20 years or so at the potential major problem of the failure of conservative economics in the sense of having a definite bias toward the upper [tax] brackets, promoting a stratification of the country economically, and at the same time the failure of liberalism in terms of sociology.”

Richard Kahlenberg, a fellow at the CNP, said affirmative action policies should continue but be based on class rather than race.


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