When it comes to regulations, check personalities first
YOU SAY YOU WANT A REVOLUTION: A STORY OF INFORMATION AGE POLITICS By Reed Hundt Yale University Press 238 pp., $25
In millions of offices and homes, the Internet is so much a part of daily life that it hardly seems worth remarking upon anymore. But it did not have to turn out like this - access to the Internet could have been much more technologically difficult and costly. Now comes a primary architect of the online communications world to explain how it played out in the political arena, with billions of dollars at stake.
That architect is Reed Hundt, a lawyer who served as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) from 1993 to 1997, while that government agency was making important decisions about how the public spectrum would be used to promote information transmission.
His memoir of government service, told chronologically, is a surprising book to come from a major university press. It is not the least bit scholarly in substance (no footnotes, endnotes or bibliography) or in style (breezily written, with plenty of humor, some of it self-deprecating).
Memoirs by regulatory agency appointees are rare, especially memoirs published so soon after their government service has ended. So this book by Hundt - now a management consultant, parttime professor, and technology company director - ought to be mined for lessons on how government really works. Here are some of those lessons:
*Connections matter in politics. Although an intelligent, successful Washington lawyer, Hundt was no expert in communications law or technology. After helping elect Bill Clinton, Hundt expected a reward, and asked for appointment to the FCC because it seemed like an interesting choice among the slots available. The opening was one of about 500 political appointments that would be proposed by Clinton-Gore, then confirmed or rejected by the US Senate. It did not hurt that Hundt had attended an elite high school with Gore and law school at Yale University with Clinton.
*Behind-the-scenes politics are normal during the confirmation process. Republican Sen. Bob Dole, whose political party controlled the Senate despite the new Democrats in the White House, insisted on selecting a new Republican commissioner for the five-member FCC before allowing Hundt's nomination to proceed.
*Every government agency must balance a bewildering array of special interests while trying to figure out how to promote the overall public interest. Hundt learned that the FCC had to balance broadcast, cable, wire, wireless and satellite communications. The possibilities of extending low-cost communications into every school classroom, home, and business seemed unparalleled because of advances in technology. But each part of the communications industry had reason to fight for the status quo, in which near-monopolies blessed by Congress and the FCC meant predictable profits for the already established players. Those established players, not so incidentally, contributed lots of money to individual politicians as well as their political parties. Hundt's first visit to the White House after his Senate confirmation occurred because Ameritech, a telephone company regulated by the FCC, sponsored a jazz concert there. Ameritech's officers sat with President Clinton that evening, as Hundt viewed the scene from across the large room.
*The importance of each issue before the FCC could be gauged by the number of lobbyists working the agency hallways and the intensity of calls from Congressional offices. As Hundt puts it, "On questions like the price paid by long-distance companies for connecting to the local telephone system, as many as 50 different teams of lobbyists pounded the linoleum halls of the Commission building for not hours but weeks, sometimes months. A single company might send soldiers from its regiments to the Commission as many as 100 times, visit or phone the chairman on a dozen occasions, call some members of the chairman's staff perhaps daily. Congressional staffers made tens of thousands of calls to Commission staff. Congressmen wrote letters on behalf of different parties, up to 5000 or more a year. Sometimes, when the members [of Congress] wanted a particular result, they phoned the commissioners to solicit votes as they might call each other on the Hill. Smart and well-financed lobbyists also ran media strategies to persuade the Commission to write rules in their favor. Industries might spend millions of dollars on television advertising to influence a handful of commissioners."
The book is filled with similar insights, but it has its shortcomings. The writing is sometimes irritating - Hundt seems to have a tin ear for dialogue. The portrayal of Gore as nearly perfect will not ring true to all readers, especially in the midst of a presidential campaign. But Hundt's account is a valuable addition to the sparse insider literature of regulatory agency decisionmaking.
*Steve Weinberg has been a Washington correspondent for newspapers and magazines. He currently lives in Columbia, Mo., where he is revising "The Reporter's Handbook: An Investigator's Guide to Documents and Techniques."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society