A while back, I complained about the revolving door between the financial industry, the agencies that are supposed to regulate it and the academic world where economists churn out theories used to justify that regulation or the lack thereof. But to be accurate, I really should have said revolving doors, plural.
Unfortunately, Washington has lots of revolving doors between government agencies and the businesses they are supposed to regulate for the good of the public. The result is the appearance of constant, endemic conflict of interest.
Exhibit A: Earlier this year, the Federal Communications Commission approved the controversial merger of Comcast and NBC Universal, despite concerns raised by many of us about a variety of issues, including consumer cost, diversity of content and the fact that so much of the news and information we all depend on is being filtered through a shrinking number of media behemoths. Recently it was announced that one of the commissioners who okay-ed that merger, Meredith Attwell Baker, is leaving the FCC to become a lobbyist for Comcast-NBC.
This is the same Meredith Attwell Baker who had said that the Comcast-NBC Universal merger could "bring exciting benefits to consumers that outweigh potential harms."
Baker's hiring triggered a wave of anger and prompted Timothy Karr of Free Press to write that "disgust" at the move "may become the tipping point for new rules to stop Washington's revolving door from tempting any bureaucrat to exchange a light regulatory hand for the promise of a high-salaried job." I hope he's right.
In response to such criticism, Baker issued a statement strongly denying that she'd been courted for the job prior to ruling on the merger, stating, "Not once in my entire tenure as a Commissioner had anyone at Comcast or NBC Universal approached me about potential employment."
I have no reason to doubt the truth of Baker's statement, but even if true, it's irrelevant. Both the appearance and reality suggest a Washington culture in which regulators routinely become so cozy with the companies they oversee -- theoretically in the public interest -- that no one bats an eyelash about regulating Company X today and lobbying for that same company tomorrow. And the public, noticing that these regulatory agencies rarely act as fierce watchdogs for the public good, grows ever more cynical about a government that gives every appearance of being bought and paid for.
In the case of the FCC, this is far from an academic argument. The commission is about to consider another controversial merger of communications giants: AT&T's move to buy T-Mobile. Many of us have serious worries about this latest megamerger and what it means for affordable broadband access.
Many individuals and organizations will be filing official comments and otherwise weighing in with questions and concerns about the AT&T/T-Mobile deal. It would be nice to feel sure that the commissioners entrusted with approving or rejecting the purchase aren't angling for a post-merger job lobbying for the newly-expanded company.
I hate to say it, but right now I don't feel sure about that. What I feel is a sinking feeling in my stomach.
It's time for serious reform. It's also time for those who take positions that involve looking out for the public interest to actually put that interest ahead of private gain. If regulators eventually approve the AT&T/T-Mobile deal, it shouldn't be because they think the okay will look good on their resume.
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