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The Deal: Republicans Again Seek Limits on FCC Merger Powers

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NEW YORK (The Deal) -- Oregon Republican Greg Walden, a former broadcaster, is again pushing reform legislation on the Federal Communications Commission that would limit its ability to impose conditions on media and telecom mergers.

Republicans on the committee have tried similar versions of the bill before and this time Walden's bill stands a good chance of passing the House. However, Senate passage of similar legislation won't happen as long as Democrats control that chamber.

Walden's bill, the subject of a hearing by House Energy and Commerce's Communications and Technology Subcommittee, also would require the FCC to conduct cost-benefit analyses, including examinations of the state of technology and the marketplace, before issuing new regulations, as well as publish the actual text of proposed rules and seek public comment on the specific proposal before voting them into effect. The FCC would have to abide by "shot clocks" limiting the time spent considering a transaction or other action. Walden chairs the subcomittee.

The merger provisions would prohibit the FCC from imposing conditions on deal approvals beyond those that directly address specific harms to the market and consumers caused by a transaction.

Although most at the FCC have generally resisted those changes, the bill also would include a provision long sought by commissioners -- a revision of the "Sunshine Act" open meetings law to allow three or more commissioners to gather on a bipartisan basis. Commissioners have complained that the statute forbidding a majority of commissioners from meeting in private complicates their efforts to reach consensus on many proceedings. Among the most controversial provisions is the one stripping the FCC of its power to impose merger conditions that don't directly address the harms to the market or to the public interest caused by a deal. Support for the idea took hold in 2011 when many Republicans were angered over net-neutrality conditions included among the conditions imposed on the FCC's approval of Comcast Corp.'s acquisition of NBC Universal Inc.

Republicans saw the condition, which Comcast agreed to, as an end run around the FCC's failure to win support for industry-wide net neutrality rules that would have restricted broadband providers' ability to favor their own Internet content over rivals' offerings.