Comcast, the FCC, and the revolving door

Meredith Attwell Baker may make a fine lobbyist for Comcast, and she may have been a fine member of the Federal Communications Commission for the last couple years. But her direct jump from the FCC to the nation's leading cable and broadband company, announced yesterday by the Philadelphia company, is just one more example of the disturbingly thin line separating federal and state regulators from the industries they oversee.

Comcast, you may recall, just completed a $30 billion takeover of NBCUniversal - a controversial deal that Baker was charged with reviewing before it was approved, with conditions, on a 4-1 vote. Her move to Comcast drew quick criticism about the "revolving door" between industries and regulators.  Craig Aaron, president of Free Press, a media watchdog group that fought the Comcast-NBCU deal, said:

Less than four months after Commissioner Baker voted to approve Comcast’s takeover of NBC Universal, she’s reportedly departing the FCC to lobby for Comcast-NBC. This is just the latest -- though perhaps most blatant -- example of a so-called public servant cashing in at a company she is supposed to be regulating.

As recently as March, Commissioner Baker gave a speech lamenting that review of the Comcast-NBC deal "took too long." What we didn't know then was that she was in such a rush to start picking out the drapes in her new corner office.

No wonder the public is so nauseated by business as usual in Washington -- where the complete capture of government by industry barely raises any eyebrows. The continuously revolving door at the FCC continues to erode any prospects for good public policy. We hope -- but won't hold our breath -- that her replacement will be someone who is not just greasing the way for their next industry job.

Under federal law, Baker won't be able to lobby the FCC directly - either its members or its staffers - for two years. Under Obama adminstration rules, she'll also be barred from lobbying other senior executive-branch officials. On the other hand, "she can strategize, which is mostly what she'll probably do," says Meredith McGehee, policy director at the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center. And she'll be able to lobby Congress from Day 1.

There's no question she's qualified. Baker, one of two Republicans on the five-member commission, previously served in the Bush administration as a high-level adviser on telecommunications policy. Before that, she was vice president of Williams Mullen Strategies, a Washington lobbying firm, according to her FCC bio.  And she previously worked for Covad Communications, and as congressional lobbyist for the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association.

The only question is whether the door ought to be able to revolve quite so quickly.

After all, we're talking about an agency that regulates some of the nation's biggest and most powerful companies - owners of media conglomerates, a dwindling number of wireless providers, and cable companies that, in many places, have near-monopoly control.

Shouldn't she at least have to pass "Go" first?

(UPDATED with comments from Comcast)

Sena Fitzmaurice, a Comcast spokeswoman, addressed the lobbying issue in an email this afternoon:

"We hired Meredith Baker because of her unparalleled qualifications for the job – she has almost two decades of legal and policy experience. As soon as she began considering joining us this April, she contacted the FCC’s General Counsel and was guided by that office throughout our discussions. There are detailed and thorough restrictions on Ms. Baker following her government service, including that under the ethics rules of the Commission and the ethics pledge Ms. Baker signed as an appointee of the Obama Administration, Ms. Baker cannot lobby the FCC or any executive agency until the end of the Obama Administration, and she cannot ever lobby the FCC on any issue relating to the NBCUniversal transaction. As the positive statements by current and former FCC Commissioners, former members of Congress, and others make clear, this is simply a case of a dedicated and talented public servant moving on to the next stage of her career.”