President George W. Bush nominated Robert McDowell, a lobbyist for telecommunications companies, to a three-year term on the Federal Communications Commission.
McDowell, 42, is a senior vice president and assistant general counsel at Comptel, a Washington group representing companies that compete against larger carriers including AT&T Inc. (T:US) and Verizon Communications Inc. (VZ:US) The White House announced the nomination in a statement today.
The appointment of McDowell would give FCC Chairman Kevin Martin a 3-2 Republican majority and may allow him to push through a rule change to let media companies such as Tribune Co. own a television station and a newspaper in the same city. McDowell has to be endorsed by the Senate Commerce Committee and then confirmed by the full Senate.
``After McDowell is confirmed, Chairman Martin is likely to win a relaxation of the media ownership rules, with the cross- ownership rule the most likely candidate for relaxation,'' said Paul Gallant, an analyst at Stanford Washington Research Group and a former senior FCC aide.
Senate Commerce Committee spokesman Aaron Saunders said no date has been set for McDowell's confirmation hearing. Committee Chairman Ted Stevens, an Alaska Republican, last week vowed to support a McDowell nomination for the FCC's vacant seat. Comptel spokeswoman Margaret Boles said McDowell declined to comment.
Tribune, which owns the Los Angeles Times, and companies including Media General Inc. are seeking changes to the government's cross-ownership rule. New policies that relaxed the rule in 2003 were later blocked by a federal appeals court and sent back to the FCC for review in 2004. Martin, who took office in March 2005, hasn't moved yet to consider the topic.
Stifel Nicolaus & Co. analyst Blair Levin in a Jan. 24 note wrote he suspected McDowell would be generally supportive of Martin's agenda for the FCC. Martin is also pressing for tougher penalties for broadcasters that air indecent material.
The appointment of McDowell would give Republicans a majority at the regulator for the first time since Michael Powell, Martin's predecessor, left the chairman post last year. Other issues up for consideration by the FCC include whether to tighten rules involving the release of cell-phone records.
If confirmed, McDowell replaces Republican Kathleen Abernathy, who left the government in December. Others on the commission are Republican Deborah Taylor Tate, who was confirmed in December, and Democrats Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein.
Copps and Adelstein unsuccessfully opposed the relaxed media-ownership rules from 2003 that were sent back for review. McDowell's support of such policies may threaten free speech, Fordham University communications professor Paul Levinson said.
``If he follows the recent Republican line on government regulation of media, there will be lots of trouble in store for free and diverse expression in America,'' Levinson said today.
McDowell worked for both Bush presidential campaigns, serving as a lawyer during the 2000 Florida recount and leading advance teams for Bush and his wife, Laura, in 2004, according to his Comptel biography. McDowell is Comptel's chief congressional lobbyist, Comptel President Earl Comstock said last week.
McDowell joined Comptel in 1999 after working for a predecessor organization, America's Carriers Telecommunications Association, and the Washington-based telecommunications law firm Helein & Associates. He graduated from Duke University and the College of William and Mary School of Law.
There are few if any issues before the FCC involving the telecommunications companies that McDowell represents, including XO Communications Inc. and RCN Corp., Levin at Stifel Nicolaus said last week.
McDowell ran unsuccessfully as a Republican for the Virginia state Senate in 1995. He supported lower taxes and fewer regulations as ways to promote economic growth, and he opposed abortion, according to 1995 Washington Post campaign coverage. He said his opponent was a ``tax-and-spend'' Democrat who ``coddled criminals,'' the Post reported.
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