Last week, one of the FCC commissioners who voted in favor of the recent Comcast/NBC merger announced she was quitting her job for a new position—with Comcast. It's a clear conflict of interest. It's also not unique. Regulators routinely end up working in the industry they used to regulate. Washington Examiner columnist Timothy Carney says the media have a double standard when it comes to the revolving door between government and industry.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Earlier this year, Comcast, the largest cable operator in the U.S., merged with NBC Universal, one of the nation’s largest content providers. After a lengthy review, the FCC approved the deal by a four-to-one margin. Last week, one of the FCC commissioners who voted yes on the merger, Meredith Baker, a Republican, announced that she’s quitting to work in the private sector – for Comcast. It’s the kind of story that at, least on the surface, looks really, really bad. Timothy Carney is a senior political columnist for The Washington Examiner who spent a lot of time covering the so-called “revolving door” between government and industry. He believes the media often exhibit a double standard when it comes to these cases.
TIMOTHY CARNEY: This case, the Meredith Baker case, is getting more attention than many other revolving door cases, and I think it’s because she is a believer in the free market. I think the media often gloss over it when there is a revolving door case involving a big government politician or a big government bureaucrat who then cashes out to the companies that he or she were regulating.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: There have been some congressmen who passed Obama’s Health Care Bill who later became health care lobbyists, and you feel like the media have not made nearly as big a deal over people like that.
TIMOTHY CARNEY: Former Congressman Bart Stupak was the single most important rank and file congressman in passing the Health Care Bill. Bart Stupak was known as a pro-life Democrat, yet he put his stamp of approval on the bill, thus being crucial to its passage. And then he knew he couldn't win reelection, presumably, and when his term in Congress was up, became a lobbyist at a firm that represents health care companies. When he was hired, the letter that the firm sent out said, please see the news below: that former Congressman Bart Stupak, who played a lead role in passage of the landmark health care legislation, has joined Venable LLP. I see here another conflict of interest, where there’s an incentive to increase government control over industries so that there’s more demand for lobbyists and consultants that come from inside the government.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Isn't that a more complicated explanation than simply they believe that more government involvement is socially better? It’s an idea that you don't agree with, but that, you know, that’s their motivation?
TIMOTHY CARNEY: Would you accept the explanation that Meredith Baker, in ruling on Comcast, was doing what she thought was best for the country and following what she thought was the FCC’s proper role by staying out of the situation?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I actually would. It’s entirely consistent with the policies that she’s always supported. So, yeah.
TIMOTHY CARNEY: That is a good distinction, and that’s one that I always try to look at is, is there evidence that these people are acting according to principle of what they think is best, or does it look like they made certain exceptions to what they think is best? I think that a tendency of the media is to give more leeway to those who believe in big government and less leeway to those who believe in the free market, because I think there’s a misperception in much of the media. Big business is just as likely to benefit from government growing as it is to benefit from government shrinking.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Given the problems that are posed by this revolving door, the Obama administration asked FCC commissioners to sign an ethics pledge that would prohibit them from lobbying anyone at the FCC for two years, but they can immediately begin to lobby members of Congress. So how good is this pledge?
TIMOTHY CARNEY: And if you look at the, they call them the cooling-off periods, two years, a retired congressman can lobby the Senate the first day after he leaves the House and he can lobby the President that same day. He just can't lobby the House until two years later. So the Obama ethics pledge just matches the existing law on that sort of thing. And it also doesn't keep these people from just becoming consultants. There’s no guarantee that Meredith Baker is going to be lobbying anyone, ever. She might just be helping Comcast steer through future FCC issues. Just like Amy Friend, Chief Counsel of the Senate Banking Committee, who helped write the Dodd-Frank Bill, she will be helping financial institutions work on the implementation of the bill. That might mean lobbying the regulators or it might just mean telling them how to lobby.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what do you think the media’s role ought to be?
TIMOTHY CARNEY: I try to mention every time a government employee is leaving to the private sector in a way where he will be, as I put it, monetizing his public service, showing the occasion of sin, as we Catholics might put it, showing the appearance of impropriety. The possibility of bad motives, I think, will impose a bit of a social cost on cashing out. [LAUGHS] Maybe we can change some people to look for post-government employment that is not turning their public service to the benefit of a special interest.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Timothy, thank you very much.
TIMOTHY CARNEY: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Timothy Carney is a senior political columnist for The Washington Examiner.