October 4, 2007 · Lessig
The wires are sparking with news of the GAO report (pdf) that FCC insiders routinely tipped lobbyists and corporate insiders about agency agenda decisions before they were made public. This is critical, because under agency “sunshine rules,” FCC members can’t be lobbied for the week between the public announcement of an agenda and the meeting. Knowing what’s going to be announced on the agenda in advance thus gives lobbyists and corporate insiders an opportunity to lobby before the sun[shine rules] rise. From the report:
FCC generally followed the rulemaking process in the four case studies of completed rulemakings that GAO reviewed, but several stakeholders had access to nonpublic information. Specifically, each of the four rulemakings included steps as required by law and opportunities for public participation. Within the case studies, most ex parte filings complied with FCC rules. However, in the case studies and in discussions with other stakeholders that regularly participate in FCC rulemakings, multiple stakeholders generally knew when the commission scheduled votes on proposed rules well before FCC notified the public. FCC rules prohibit disclosing this information outside of FCC. Other stakeholders said that they cannot learn when rules are scheduled for a vote until FCC releases the public meeting agenda, at which time FCC rules prohibit stakeholders from lobbying FCC. As a result, stakeholders with advance information about which rules are scheduled for a vote would know when it is most effective to lobby FCC, while stakeholders without this information would not.
When I commented upon this to a colleague, his response was typical: “What do you expect? And anyway, so what? What’s wrong with giving affected parties a bit more time to make their case?”
“What’s wrong” first is that the rules say otherwise.
“What’s wrong” second is that the rules are bent in a completely predictable way. Agency insiders curry favor with precisely the people they’ll be getting a job with after they leave the FCC.
And “what’s wrong” third is just what this indicates about the kinds of bending we might expect goes on inside the FCC. If the agency is willing to bend the rules to favor futures employers, are they willing to put the thumb on the scale in difficult contested policy determinations?
But my colleague was right about one thing: “What do [I] expect?” Here’s an agency chaired by a former lobbyist. Is it likely to be scrupulous about rules meant to constrain or balance the lobbying process?
This example is just one many that is our government. (As I’m learning as I work through the extraordinary reading list compiled by my Read-Write readers at the Lessig Wiki on Corruption. But it needs to become a bigger issue for the candidates in this election. Let’s hear a promise by the presidential candidates that they will only appoint FCC commissioners who promise not to work for those they have regulated for at least 5 years after their term is over. That would be real change.