In control, Democrats host FCC's Martin


WASHINGTON -- FCC chairman Kevin Martin is set to go before the Senate Commerce Committee today in the first of at least two congressional hearings in which the Republican agency head will face committees controlled by Democrats.

Commerce Committee staffers and aides for the panel's members said that those coming to the hearing looking for a big difference in how Martin and the other commissioners are treated now that the Democrats have wrested control might be in for a disappointment.

"People generally like Kevin," one committee aide said. "He's been really responsive to the senators' concerns and (in) answering their questions."

That doesn't mean Martin will get a free ride. Several senators from both sides of the aisle have been critical of the agency's decisions under his watch.

Among Democrats, Sens. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., John Rockefeller, D-W.Va., and Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., have never been shy about pointing out what they see as problems with FCC decisions. The same can be said for some Republicans, notably Sens. John Sununu, R-N.H., and Olympia Snowe, R-Maine.

"It's not like the committee is made up of a bunch of shrinking violets," another of the panel's staff members said. "But we don't expect a lot of ranting and raving."

Part of the reason for the predicted civility lies in the chairmanship. While Sen. Dan Inouye, D-Hawaii, is now running the show, he and past chairman Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, are good friends, and Stevens was named vice chairman. Inouye also is known for having a more laid-back demeanor that more easily builds a consensus.

"People want to make a lot of his appearance because of the switch, but it's not as if there's a big difference there," a high-ranking FCC aide said. "Dorgan has never been bashful, and neither has Boxer or Sununu."

There were indications Wednesday that the lawmakers intend to take their oversight function seriously.

Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., has concerns about a deal DirecTV is working on with Major League Baseball that he says would make it harder for out-of-town fans to see their favorite teams.

The issue centers on a plan to give DirecTV exclusive rights to the "Extra Innings" baseball package as part of a $700 million deal. According to recent reports, during the past five years, the package has been available to 75 million people. If the deal goes through, it will be available only to the 15 million people who have DirecTV, and not to cable or Dish Network subscribers, Kerry said.

"I am opposed to anything that deprives people of reasonable choices. In this day and age, consumers should have more choices -- not fewer," Kerry said. "A Red Sox fan ought to be able to watch their team without having to switch to DirecTV."

Inouye and Stevens also have concerns with a sports theme: that a retransmission consent dispute between Sinclair Broadcasting and Mediacom could deprive viewers of their chance to see Sunday's Super Bowl.

In a letter to Martin mailed Wednesday, the lawmakers urged the commission to pressure the parties to end the dispute. The FCC's media bureau recently refused to order Sinclair to restore its service to the Mediacom systems, saying it does not have that authority because there wasn't enough evidence that Sinclair was acting in bad faith.

It is estimated that about 2 million viewers in 700,000 households in Alabama, Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Minnesota, Missouri, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and Wisconsin have been cut off.

The senators believe that the FCC could force the parties into binding arbitration without a finding of bad faith.

"We strongly urge you and the other members of the commission to actively engage to resolve this dispute," the lawmakers wrote. "We look forward to discussing this issue with you and the other commissioners at our hearing (today)."

While senators might not want to launch the verbal fireworks today, Martin could find the House less accommodating. Martin and the other commissioners are scheduled to testify Feb. 15 before the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet. If the prehearing questions are any indication, the panel intends to probe the agency's inner workings.

Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., chairman of the full House Commerce Committee, and Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., the subcommittee chairman, have been vocal critics of Martin's FCC -- something of which Martin's people are aware.

"People might be a little more antagonistic on the House side," one committee aide said.