In a letter to the editor of the Washington Post last week, former FTC Commissioner Thomas Leary responded to a Post article describing the FTC’s suit against Intel as a “major step for President Obama,” consistent with his campaign promise to “reinvigorate antitrust enforcement.” Leary responded indignantly to this characterization by declaring:
People seem to forget that the FTC is a bipartisan independent agency.
As a Republican FTC commissioner appointed by a Democratic president, I can vouch for the agency’s independence. During my service from 1999 to 2005 in the administrations of presidents Bill Clinton and George Bush, I never received a direct or indirect policy recommendation on a pending matter from anyone in the White House or from any of the people in Congress who had actively supported me.
Leary’s leeriness about political encroachment on the FTC illustrates the depth of abiding faith in independent regulatory agencies as standing truly apart from the day-to-day politics of Washington—especially when the might of the regulatory state is being wielded against a particular company in quasi-judicial prosecutions, such as antitrust enforcement actions. But if the independence of the FTC is this important, what about the independence of the Federal Communications Commission, with its broad jurisdiction over the media and tools of free speech?
Leary would probably be appalled at the politicization of the FCC in recent years. Bush’s second FCC chairman, Kevin Martin, was infamous for his political Machiavellianism and widely despised by the communications law bar. By contrast, when it became clear that Obama’s high-tech advisor Julius Genachowski would succeed Martin as FCC Chairman shortly before Obama’s inauguration, he received a chorus of applause from a wide range of philosophical perspectives, including from our former president at PFF, Ken Ferree:
Julius Genachowski is an outstanding choice to chair the Commission. He is knowledgeable, experienced, and presumably will have the ear of the most influential people within the Administration.
While no one would compare the eminently likable Genachowski to Martin, his relationship to the Obama administration appears unprecedented in its closeness, and one must ask whether that’s a good thing for the head of a supposedly “independent” regulatory agency or integrity of that agency’s decision-making. Continue reading →