Without a Hitch, the Revolving Door Still Spins at the FCC

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A spokeswoman for the cable giant Comcast says the company only approached Federal Communications Commissioner Meredith Attwell Baker, who’s just announced she’ll join the company as senior vice president of government affairs for NBC-Universal, about a potential job as a lobbyist in mid-April. Baker then alerted FCC General Counsel¬†Austin Schlick, and recused herself from further matters concerning Comcast and it’s newest acquisition, NBC, as her job discussions continued. Baker’s previous relations with the companies, however, were already a matter of public record: In her official capacity, she had championed the companies’ causes. Here she is on C-Span in January of 2011, shortly after the merger was approved, expressing her view that the companies had gotten a raw deal, and explaining what she did behind the scenes.

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There are two ways of telling this story. The one preferred by Comcast, Baker and the FCC begins and ends with the fact that nobody did anything illegal. Baker followed all the required guidelines, and because of federal ethics laws, she will not be able to lobby on future matters related to the Comcast merger with NBC-Universal in her new job. She will also be banned from lobbying administration officials for the rest of President Obama’s time in office. (She can still lobby Congress, and the executive branch once Obama leaves.)

The other way of telling the story focuses less on the order of events and more on their underlying themes. The simple fact is that a public servant who championed the cause of a major corporation last year has been rewarded with a high paying job by that same firm this year. The revolving door has spun in exactly the way that people outside the beltway have long feared it would. And it happened without any rules being broken. Baker may not have known that NBC-Universal or Comcast would be offering her a job when she argued on their behalf. But everyone in town knows that if you stand up for wealthy interests while serving the public interest, chances are there is a nice fat paycheck waiting for you somewhere when you choose to leave government. The rules suggest that this fact will not influence the behavior of those now serving in government. But I have a hard time believing many Americans outside the beltway would agree.

Sena Fitzmaurice, a Comcast spokeswoman, notes that the person who directly hired Baker, Kyle McSlarrow, was not working for Comcast when the merger was completed, and that Baker was only considered for the job after the previous NBC-U top lobbyist Bob Okum decided to leave to start his own firm. At the time of the merger, McSlarrow was leading the National Cable Television Association, the industry’s main lobbying arm. McSlarrow’s replacement, announced this year, is Michael Powell, who served as chairman of the FCC from 2001 to 2005. Kevin Martin, the FCC chairman who followed Powell, now works as a lobbyist at Patton Boggs, and represented a number of the companies seeking to install conditions on the Comcast purchase of NBC-U.

Indeed, use of the FCC as a launching pad for big private sector pay days is more the rule than the exception. People like Doroth Attwood, who previously led the FCC’s Wireline Competition Bureau, landed a job as the top lobbyist for SBC Communications years ago. Dozens of other former FCC officials now work as attorneys for the communications industry. As career-makers go, one could do worse than the FCC.