Dem bones to pick with Martin

House panel expected to grill FCC chairman today

FCC chairman Kevin Martin is set to go before a potentially hostile House Commerce Committee today in the latest congressional hearing in which the Republican agency chief faces a panel controlled by Democrats.

Martin has had the comfort of having the committees in the House and Senate that oversee the FCC under the control of members of his own party. Now the Democrats, most notably Commerce Committee chairman Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., and Telecommunications Subcommittee chairman Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., have made it clear that they take the oversight function seriously, and Martin is expected to get a grilling from lawmakers. Martin went before the Senate Commerce Committee last month (HR 2/1).

Martin has been squirreled away in his eighth-floor office at the FCC with staff going over possible scenarios for the House hearing, FCC officials said.

"They're most likely going to really go after Kevin," one commission official said. "The easiest way to do that is on the process. That's why he's been trying to get out so many items."

Commission officials say there are 120 items being circulated among the commissioners in an effort to get the support of a majority of the five-member panel.

Among them:

A $24 million payment by Univision to settle children's television violations so that its $12.3 billion sale to private investors can go forward.

A $12.5 million consent decree that would settle payola allegations for the nation's four biggest radio companies.

A report asking Congress for authority to regulate violent TV content the same way the commission regulates indecent TV content.

A proposal setting a 30% limit on the number of subscribers one cable company can reach.

The number of items that the commission has failed to act upon could become an embarrassment for the chairman as Democratic lawmakers could seize on it as an example of poor management.

"The chairman has not distinguished himself as a stellar performer on good-government issues, and everyone knows that is one of Dingell's big things," said an FCC official from another office.

Martin's aides contend that the criticism is unfair. They point out that many of the items have been hung up by Democratic recalcitrance.

"Look at the number of things that are held up because (Commissioner Michael) Copps and (Commissioner Jonathan) Adelstein haven't voted," a commission aide said.

Whether the criticisms are fair or unfair isn't likely to matter. One senior committee aide said Martin's responses would drive the lawmakers more than anything.

"It depends on his answers," the committee aide said. "They appear in be in a flurry of activity over there today."

Calls to Dingell and Markey went unreturned Tuesday.