Former FCC Head Powell: Washington Is 'Broken' - InformationWeek

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Former FCC Head Powell: Washington Is 'Broken'

Michael Powell, speaking at a conference this week, says the level of partisanship is the worst in decades, making it impossible to get anything accomplished. "When your major objective is to make sure the other team fails… that's not policy making, that's like rugby."

BOULDER, Colo. -- Washington is "broken" right now, according to former FCC Chairman Michael Powell, who says the current "brutal partisanship" dims the chance for political leadership in many arenas, including technology and telecom.

"Washington is more broken than any time I have seen in my adult life," said Powell, during an appearance Monday [Feb. 20] at the Silicon Flatirons telecom policy conference here at the University of Colorado. "I asked my father [former Secretary of State Colin Powell] and he said it's the worst he's seen in 40 years. It's broken, collapsed into brutal partisanship. When your major objective is to make sure the other team fails… that's not policy making, that's like rugby."

The poisoned atmosphere surrounding legislative interactions, Powell said, is especially damaging to telecom and technology policy-making, where nuance, technical knowledge and a delicate balancing act are required to bring off any significant regulatory reform.

"Tech policy is such a subtle thing to get right," said Powell, "and it [Washington] doesn't have a scalpel anymore."

Powell, whose tenure atop the FCC during the Bush administration's first term was a mixed bag of technical and social policy directions, said the FCC has become the "default wrestling pit that Congress punts to" when it can't solve communications issues through legislation.

"The mudwave just rolls down Capitol Hill, you can look out the window, and here they come," said Powell, drawing laughter from the audience of telecom legal and policy insiders.

And even when the FCC would try to take a position on an issue, Powell said, it is guaranteed to spend years in court defending it.

"Every single decision now at the FCC takes 4 years," said Powell, giving the recently decided Brand X case as an example. The political battles at the agency, Powell noted with regret, "have become a business unto itself," with no shortage of wasted time and money.

"Companies spend fortunes in the fight(s), and untold ink flows in the newspapers," said Powell, who thinks the FCC is too political and too beset by the armies of lobbyists seeking favors. The process, he said, has convinced many that "the FCC is always 'open for business' to the idea that it can make a rule" that could change the balance in a marketplace.

"That's what Congress should step in and stop," Powell said. "Stop the merry-go-round of lawsuits."

As part of his trademark question-and-answer appearance, Powell also told event host and questioner Phil Weiser that parents need to take more responsibility for their childrens' Internet and television consumption habits, a bit of a break from his actions at the FCC, where he tried to use agency fines and other pressures to control indecency.

"There is no passive fix," said Powell, noting that his own children, like others, are technically adept and therefore likely to find technical shortcuts past adults' laws and rules if left to their own devices.

"You can cut off TV all day, and they find something through the Xbox 360," Powell said. "Parents have to be involved in their childrens' lives, and what they cull from that universe. If you don't do that, [it doesn't matter] how many laws we pass."

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