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Citizens Knocking on FCC's Door

You don't have to be an insider to get a private meeting with the agency's commissioners.

January 26, 2003|Jube Shiver Jr. | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The last time Heidi E. Neal came here was as a teenager on a high school trip, gawking at the monuments. Last week, the 32-year-old Palmdale woman was back, this time rushing from meeting to meeting with federal regulators to discuss the arcane rules of national telecommunications policy.

"I'm just a housewife," said Neal, a mother of four who took an interest in the politics of phones late last year and requested the meetings at the Federal Communications Commission after her husband, an SBC Communications Inc. technician, learned that he might get laid off.

"I'm not coming to Washington on behalf of some corporation," she said. "I'm coming to support my husband, who could lose his job."

The unusual face-to-face sessions with FCC Commissioners Michael J. Copps and Kevin J. Martin and top staffers in two other commissioners' offices were heady experiences for Neal.

But they also were valuable for FCC officials, who say they are eager to get feedback from ordinary Americans as opposed to Washington insiders.

"I think the meeting was useful," said Copps, a Democrat who has campaigned for more input from outside Washington.

Soliciting such grass-roots voices has become all the more important, FCC officials say, as the agency prepares to make pivotal decisions on telecommunications competition and media ownership.

That those decisions might be even slightly influenced by her input keeps Neal motivated.

She credits her determination and organizational skills to raising four daughters. Full of nervous energy, she said, she spent nights surfing the Web to bone up on telecom issues after making peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches for her kids' lunches.

The background came in handy during two hours of meetings, she said.

"All of the people I met were very pleasant," Neal said afterward. "But I reminded them that there is a family behind every worker that loses a job" in the struggling telecommunications industry.

All five FCC commissioners say their doors are open to anyone -- including individual consumers who have no connection to the issues beyond watching TV, reading the newspaper or dialing a phone.

Yet the commissioners acknowledge that they rarely get requests for meetings from individuals not part of an organization. The relative absence of face-to-face contact with individual consumers is significant, experts say, because federal regulators realize that they can't possibly read through the thousands of pages of public comments and e-mails filed by people unable to visit Washington.

By contrast, industry lobbyists are such a common sight in the FCC's Washington headquarters that one of them, veteran Washington communications lawyer Richard E. Wiley, is called the sixth FCC commissioner.

"The FCC, for 70 years, has been criticized for being far too responsive to the organized interests in Washington who have paid lobbyists," said Andrew Schwartzman, president of Media Access Project, a Washington advocacy group active on media issues.

"By federal government standards, the FCC does better than most in reaching out," he said. "But given the public importance of the issues they decide -- from the Internet to 1st Amendment matters -- they fall far short."

Deborah A. Lathen, former head of the FCC's cable bureau, agreed that "the insiders have a great advantage."

"We always heard from the usual suspects," she said. "You could virtually write their position papers for them because they had already been in your office several times to lobby you on an issue."

Even some professional lobbyists say they believe that greater citizen input could lead to better decisionmaking and less industry infighting.

"Right now FCC rule makings are an insider's baseball game," said Steve Perry, who represents rivals of the regional Bell phone companies. "I think if there's one Achilles' heel of our government, it is that not enough people feel vested in it. Whether it's the IRS or the FCC, most people don't feel like they really have a say."

Industry, Not Citizens

The disparity of citizen and industry contact with the FCC was underscored in a study published two years ago by Fordham University assistant professor Philip M. Napoli. He found that individual consumers "were, by far, the least likely to formally" submit written comments on FCC proceedings.

Napoli's study, which examined FCC mass media proceedings from 1992 to 1997, found that broadcasters filed more than 10 times as many formal comments with the FCC as did individual citizens. Napoli also discovered that comments by broadcasters were cited more often by the FCC and appeared to have a bigger effect on agency decisions.

"The more intensive the participation you have at the FCC, the more influence you have over the process," Napoli said in an interview.

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