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Democrats to FCC: We’re watching

Times Staff Writer

Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) likened it to a reunion of the Beatles -- although with a Fab Five instead of four.

It had been three years since the entire Federal Communications Commission had appeared as one in front of a House committee. On Wednesday, newly empowered Democrats subjected commissioners, particularly Chairman Kevin J. Martin, a Republican, to a five-hour grilling on communications issues, signaling they will watch the FCC’s every move.

“We intend to have them here as frequent guests,” said Markey, chairman of the subcommittee on telecommunications and the Internet.

The close oversight is a dramatic shift for the FCC from life under the Republican majority, when trips to Capitol Hill were few and friendly.

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On Wednesday, many Democrats didn’t pull their punches.

Rep. Anna G. Eshoo (D-Atherton) suggested the commissioners needed a guide to find the hearing room and then blasted Martin for running the FCC in a “non-transparent, heavy-handed” way since taking over in 2005. Markey criticized Martin for not investigating allegations that the National Security Agency improperly obtained phone records of U.S. citizens.

And Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), the powerful chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, accused the FCC’s Republican majority of overstepping its authority when it recently streamlined the process for telecommunications companies to get approval from cities and towns to offer TV service. He also suggested he might hold monthly oversight hearings.

“The FCC is not a legislative body,” Dingell said. “That role resides here, in this room, with the people’s elected representatives.”

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Even some Republicans got into the act. Rep. Joe L. Barton (R-Texas) asked Martin about a series of FCC decisions opposed by the cable industry.

The soft-spoken Martin was the focus of most of the tough questioning. But he kept his cool, defending his decisions and agreeing to several requests for additional information.

“I appreciate their concerns and we always try to work to try to accommodate them,” Martin said afterward.

The FCC’s decisions have a major impact on the converging communications landscape, including approving giant telecommunications deals and pondering rules changes to allow companies to own more TV and radio stations.

Martin’s philosophy of less federal regulation contrasts sharply with the views of many Democrats, who think the FCC should be a proactive protector of the public’s airwaves.

The more aggressive oversight is going to force the commissioners to be prepared to justify their actions, said Blair Levin, an analyst at brokerage Stifel, Nicolaus & Co. and a former FCC chief of staff.

Martin won’t change his views, Levin said, but “whatever he does he will be asking himself the following question: What do I say when John Dingell asks me about this?”

jim.puzzanghera@latimes.com

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