FCC Budget Showcases Rapidly Shrinking Media Regulatory Agency

Don't expect much policing of indecency, competition and discrimination as chairman Ajit Pai may be overseeing massive staffing cuts.
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FCC chairman Ajit Pai

Much ado was recently made about FCC chairman Ajit Pai's rather ho-hum comments concerning crude jokes from The Late Show's Stephen Colbert aimed at President Donald Trump. During a radio interview, Pai said, "We have received a number of complaints, as I said, and we’ll follow the standard operating procedures, as we always do, and make sure we evaluate what the facts are and apply the law fairly and fully."

Those knowledgeable about FCC affairs will understand that the agency conducts a cursory review of all indecency complaints and probably won't do anything because what's broadcast between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. is considered to be in the "safe harbor" zone. And if the FCC wanted to send a message, the Supreme Court has ruled the FCC needs to give broadcasters better advance notice on its indecency policies.

But there's another reason why nobody should expect much action from the media regulatory agency in the coming years in the realm of indecency. Simply put, the ever-diminishing agency has been shedding staff. The deep cuts may continue as the commission on Tuesday put out its proposed budget for next year. 

Take the Enforcement Bureau for instance. The new administration wishes to take staffing down to 189 full-timers, from 204 currently and from 238 in 2016.

That means less individuals not only to investigate indecency complaints, but also to enforce anti-competitive practices in broadcasting, police unauthorized communication facilities, ensure accessibility for persons with disabilities and so forth. While 108 of the 189 staffers are tasked with the strategic goal of "protecting consumers and public safety," perhaps many of them will be serving Pai's crusade against robocalls.

The Enforcement Bureau is not the only division staring at the possibility of deep cuts.

There's also the Media Bureau — which does such things as conduct rulemaking proceedings and comprehensive economic and legal studies while resolving petitions, declaratory rulings and adjudications related to electronic media services. The budget would have staffing down to 149 full-timers from 168 last year.

The Public Safety & Homeland Security Bureau would shed seven staffers in the coming year; the Wireless Telecommunications Bureau would trim 16 staffers; the International Bureau would shed six more; and on and on. Overall, under this budget, the FCC would have 1,448 full-time workers, which is an 11.65 percent cut from 2016.

The truth, though, is that the FCC has been shrinking for about 15 years. It's nowhere near its workforce heights in the 1990s even as telecommunications has become crucially important to a modern economy. Perhaps the most telling graphic is this chart of historical staffing levels provided by the FCC in its 2018 budget estimate to Congress:

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