Republicans seek limits on FCC merger reviews

WASHINGTON Wed Nov 2, 2011 5:00pm EDT

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republican lawmakers on Wednesday said they planned to introduce legislation narrowing U.S. communications regulators' authority over mergers.

Republicans, who over the past year have criticized what they view as an overreach of power by the Federal Communications Commission, are pushing to standardize FCC practices and eliminate what they feel is poor decision-making that jeopardizes the public's confidence in the agency.

The bill, which comes as the FCC weighs AT&T Inc's proposed $39 billion takeover of Deutsche Telekom AG's T-Mobile USA, would replace the FCC's "public interest" standard for reviewing mergers with a more narrowly tailored standard based on merger-specific harms.

Unveiled by House Communications and Technology Subcommittee Chairman Greg Walden and Senator Dean Heller, the bill would limit conditions the agency could place on merging companies.

The FCC would also have to identify a specific market failure or consumer harm before adopting new rules and justify any burden put on industry with cost-benefit analyses.

Further, the agency could only consider voluntary commitments made by companies in exchange for approval of their transaction that fall into the realm of the FCC's rulemaking authority -- it could not dictate conditions beyond merger-specific harms.

These changes would continue Republicans' efforts to limit the Obama administration's ability to closely regulate business.

"We have reached out to our Democratic colleagues, Chairman Genachowski, each commissioner, and job creators to identify what current FCC processes work and what can be improved," Walden said.

"Taking this feedback into account, we developed a series of sensible process reforms to improve the way the Commission operates," he said.

While the bill might pass the Republican-led House of Representatives, it faces an uphill battle in the Democrat-controlled Senate.

Walden held a hearing in June where Democrats agreed some reforms to the FCC's processes were needed, but argued against overly prescriptive rules in Walden's draft legislation that they said would be costly and burdensome and would slow FCC action.

Henry Waxman, the top Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, at that hearing accused Republicans of seeking reform in retaliation for past FCC actions they disapproved of: the conditions placed on Comcast Corp for approval of its majority-stake purchase of NBC Universal from General Electric Company.

Waxman had no immediate comment on the bill announced on Wednesday.

(Reporting by Jasmin Melvin; Editing by Gary Hill)

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