Let's try a little exercise in contrarianism as concerns a federal regulator who then goes to work for a regulated company.
This member of the Federal Communications Commission comes to admire the work of this company, votes to approve orders that help it and then joins the company after the Commission term expires.
For some people, this little description is of Meredith Attwell Baker, the current FCC member who is leaving to join Comcast after having voted to allow Comcast to take over NBC-Universal. There is certainly a lot of angst over her departure, in no small part because there was a lot of opposition, particularly from Democrats, to the takeover, which went through anyway and created one of the largest combinations of Internet Service Provider and content company ever conceived.
Now look at the situation with a different lens. What if the commissioner was favorably disposed to a company that was actually doing something good for the public, rather than simply building a media empire? The commissioner we were thinking about was Kenneth A. Cox, who served on the Commission from March 26, 1963 until Aug. 31, 1970.
He voted on several landmark items that opened up the Bell System-era AT&T to competition and then joined MCI, the company that benefited from those rulings while doing as much as any institution to break up the phone company monopoly. (Cox later went to the law firm that represented MCI.) There was no reaction to his move at the time, although an interesting question is what the reaction would be now, and from whom.
Baker's departure certainly has been national news. Even the Daily Show got into the act, with a mention of her move to Comcast. Taken in isolation, it does seem like a big deal, but seeing her move in isolation would be a mistake.
For another perspective, take a close look at this page from the May 16 Washington Post. Take a very close look and you will see something similar to the Baker story. Here's a hint: look under the Legal section of the "Appointments" feature. In the little type usually reserved for ballplayers going on injured reserve or other odd facts, is the announcement that a former senator, Norm Coleman, is joining a big law firm as a lobbyist. Similarly, there was this Politico story about defeated Blue Dogs joining the lobbying ranks following their defeats last fall.
That's the reality. Want to hire a former senator? Open the phone book. How about a former FCC commissioner, former Hill staffer, or ex-FCC lawyer? There are too many to count. That's the bad news. It's also the good news.
The fact that so many former politicians and ex-staff are floating around makes for a Cold War-like situation of Mutually Assured Destruction -- each side on any given issue can hire people of equal weight. At the Senate Antitrust Subcommittee hearing on the AT&T merger, a former staffer to a former Democratic Senate Commerce Committee chairman sat next to a former staffer to a former Republican Senate Commerce Committee chairman. They were both representing the same company -- and it wasn't AT&T.
With so many former FCCers around, there's a real question about the value they bring to their employers. By taking her leave so quickly without a decompression/career-laundering period of six months or so at a think tank, Baker undoubtedly lowered her value to Comcast. Her legacy now will be bolting the Commission to go to Comcast and creating a mini-scandal, regardless of whether she followed the letter of the admittedly lax rules on such things.
If anything those rules should be tightened up. Once upon a time, FCC employees had to file a publicly available recusal letter when they talked with outsiders about a job. Public Knowledge (my day-job employer) has recommended in a letter to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski that requirement should be brought back. The post-employment rules should also be examined, as PK said in a report and conference on FCC reform. Even with those changes, it's important to remember there is no automatic credibility for a former official.
Being an ex-Bigshot may help an employer or client score some meetings, particularly with new or easily impressed Congressional or FCC staffers, but it's not enough to make the case for a cause. An ex-Bigshot or other former staffer can impart some insights into what current officials are thinking, but that value can fade as the cast at the agency turns over.
The timing of Baker's departure so soon after the Commission approved Comcast's takeover of NBC falls into the category of "looks bad." But looking bad isn't the same as being bad. Here's what would be bad: if a commissioner who otherwise would have opposed the Comcast merger all of a sudden reversed himself or herself, voted for it and then a couple of months later went to Comcast. Imagine Commissioner Michael Copps voting for the merger and then bolting for Comcast. (Reminder: this is an exercise in imagination.) That would be a scandal.
A former communications lawyer who becomes a commissioner and continues to collect money from a former client or employer would be a scandal. (It was a scandal in the Bush administration with a former coal lobbyist who became the second-highest ranking official in the Interior Department and kept getting paid.)
Michael Copps isn't Meredith Baker. He is a progressive champion of an open Internet who voted against the merger. She's a Republican who would have voted for the merger anyway because that's what Republicans do. There isn't a case of selling out the public for a belated reward in the form of a fat job from Comcast. It's a case of doing what comes naturally.
The bottom line:
On the morning of June 3, Meredith Attwell Baker will be one of five members of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate with extraordinary powers over the telecommunications and broadcast systems in the U.S.
On the evening of June 3, Meredith Attwell Baker will be just another lobbyist in a town full of lobbyists, just another former FCC commissioner in a town full of former FCC commissioners.
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