Democrats accuse chairman of waving the white flag on mergers

Greg Nash

Democrats on a powerful House subcommittee are frustrated with Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), arguing he is failing to wield the power of his gavel.

While turf wars have long been part of Congress, some worry that Walden is engaged in turf surrender by allowing the House Judiciary Committee to take the lead on technology and telecom issues, including two major merger proposals.

“If you don’t uphold and optimize the jurisdictions that are there, they will atrophy,” said Rep. Anna Eshoo (Calif.), the ranking Democrat on Walden’s Commerce subcommittee on communications.

Despite pressure from committee Democrats, Walden has said he has no plans to hold hearings on the proposed $45 billion deal to combine Comcast and Time Warner Cable — two of the country’s biggest cable companies and Internet providers — and the proposed $49 billion deal to merge AT&T and DirecTV.

Walden said he wants to focus on legislation in front of the committee and is, on the mergers, deferring for now to the Department of Justice and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which are reviewing them.

“Mergers and acquisitions must be approved by the expert agencies for a reason — they are uniquely qualified to review the nuances of each individual merger application and what effect that may have on competition in the marketplace,” he said in a statement to The Hill. 

But Walden — who is generally wary of FCC overreach — said his subcommittee is “certainly keeping an eye on the process by which these mergers are reviewed and we won’t stand for the agencies to abuse the merger process as a way to achieve industry-wide rulemaking without due process.”

While there are no hearings currently planned, “we won’t rule out a closer look if things begin to run amuck,” he said.

The House Judiciary Committee, led by Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), has shown more of an appetite for engaging on the mergers in their early stages.

The same Judiciary subcommittee also has a hearing planned for next week on net neutrality.

The issue of net neutrality — the idea that Internet providers should treat all Internet traffic equally — has been a focus of the Commerce subcommittee on communications, especially as the FCC looks to rewrite controversial rules that were struck down by a federal court earlier this year.

In a statement announcing the hearing, Goodlatte defended his jurisdiction over the issue.

“The committee has a long and robust record regarding net neutrality issues, including four hearings and the consideration of multiple pieces of legislation over the past decade,” he said.

Walden said the Judiciary hearings provide learning opportunities for the members, including on the telecom mergers, and pointed to his subcommittee’s work on net neutrality.

The Commerce subcommittee called in FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler in last month to discuss issues at his agency, including the net neutrality rules. 

“We’ve done a lot of hearings on net neutrality ourselves,” Walden said of his subcommittee. “The more the merrier.”

But Democrats on the Commerce Committee say the workload is far too light.

Earlier this month, Eshoo, Rep. Doris Matsui (D-Calif.) and Energy and Commerce Committee ranking member Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) wrote a letter pushing Walden to hold hearings on the mergers.

“The Energy and Commerce Committee has always had clear jurisdiction in these areas,” Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) said.

“I would hope that all of my colleagues on the committee would take a lesson from [former Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman John Dingell (D-Mich.)] and make sure that we are going to protect the jurisdiction for conversation purposes and policy purposes.”

Matsui said she is “really disappointed” at Walden’s decision not to hold hearings on the mergers, citing the size of the companies merging and the potential impact on consumers.

“These are the biggest telecommunication mergers in quite a long time, and it really kind of determines what the future is going to look like,” she said.

Matsui also expressed broader concerns about losing jurisdictional turf as the House Judiciary Committee moves ahead with its hearings.

“I feel very strongly about ceding jurisdiction over this,” she said.

Eshoo said Walden should hold hearings on the telecom mergers to simply inform members about the proposed business deals.

“We should know what it’s about, at least have an understanding about it,” she said. “Then people can go off and make an informed decision” about whether to support the merger.

Aside from his committee post, Walden also serves as the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, a time-consuming campaign post that requires constant attention.

Eshoo declined to comment on whether Walden’s role in the Republican Party is taking him away from his chairmanship, but noted the inevitable time crunch he faces serving in both roles.

“I don’t know what his day to day calendar looks like, but I know from our side of the aisle it’s more than a full-time job,” she said.

Others said that the two committees’ differing approaches to telecom policy is business as usual.

“There is a long, long history and tradition of joint jurisdiction between the two committees,” said former Rep. Chip Pickering (R-Miss.), who served as House Energy and Commerce vice chairman between 2003 and 2007 and previously worked on telecom policy as a Senate staffer.

The Energy and Commerce and Judiciary committees each have “a different a distinct role,” which has led to “huge battles over telecom policy” in previous Congresses, he said.

“The tension and competition between the two committee has always been with us, will always be with us and always should be.”