Powell, Michael K. 1963–
Michael K. Powell 1963–
Chairman, Federal Communications Commission
When Michael K. Powell, son of Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, became chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in January of 2001, he took on the formidable job of supervising one of the nation’s largest, most powerful, and most rapidly-changing industries. Until recently, wrote Peter S. Goodman of The Washington Post, the FCC chairman was “almost a bit player in Washington, overseeing an agency whose primary responsibility was policing the airwaves against radio interference.” Advances in communications technology have changed all of that. “As the old telephone business blossomed into telecommunications and the Internet exploded,” Goodman wrote, “the modern-day chairman became a key player, one whose policies influence much of the economy.”
First named a Republican commissioner to the FCC in 1997, Powell quickly proved himself a competent and articulate spokesman, able to navigate the murky and tumultuous waters of the telecommunications industry with skill and diplomacy. As commissioner, he has favored deregulation, allowing market forces to shape the telecommunications, broadcasting, and Internet industries. At the same time, he has argued for stiffer penalties for companies that break the rules.
“For years, watching the FCC work has been like watching an old black-and-white movie,” House Commerce Chairman Billy Tauzin said in an interview with RCR. “But now, with Michael Powell in charge, get ready for an FCC broadcast in [high-definition TV]. He’s the one person best suited to bring the agency into the 21st century.” With Michael Powell’s appointment as FCC commissioner and his father’s as secretary of state, the two became the first father and son to serve together in a presidential administration since 1959.
Born in Birmingham, Alabama, Michael Powell spent his childhood as an Army brat, following his father from base to base as he moved up the chain of command. But for a crippling accident nearly 15 years ago, the younger Powell would certainly have made his life in the military, as well. After graduating from the College of William and Mary in 1985 with a degree in government, he spent two years in active service with the 3/2 Armored Cavalry Regiment in Amberg, Germany, first as a cavalry platoon leader and then as a troop executive officer. Then, during a training exercise
At a Glance…
Born Michael K. Powell on March 23, 1963, in Birmingham, AL; son of Colin L. Powell (U.S. Secretary of State); married Jane Knott; children: two. Education: College of William & Mary, B.A., 1985; Georgetown University, J.D., 1993.
Career: U.S. Army, 1985–88; Pentagon, policy advisor on U.S.-Japanese security, 1988–90; U.S. Court of Appeals, Washington, D.C., clerk, 1993–94; O’Melveny & Myers, associate, 1994–96; Justice Department Antitrust Division, chief of staff, 1996–97; Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Republican member, 1997–01, chairman 2001–,
Addresses: Office- Federal Communications Commission, 445 12th Street SW, Washington, DC 20554.
in 1987, the jeep he was riding in skidded out of control on a freeway, hurled him to the ground, and rolled over on him, crushing his pelvis. After 17 operations and a full year of hospitalization, Powell pulled through, but his plans for a military career were shattered. Demoralized and confused, he ultimately turned to the law. In retrospect, he told Business Week, “It was the best thing that ever happened to me.” From 1988 until 1990 he worked at the Pentagon as a policy advisor on U.S.-Japanese security.
He then went on to obtain a degree from Georgetown Law School. After receiving his law degree in 1993, Powell served for one year as a clerk with the Honorable Harry T. Edwards, Chief Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. He then spent two years as an associate in a private law firm, focusing on litigation and regulations involving telecommunications, as well as antitrust and employment law. He entered government service in 1996 when he was named chief of staff to then-Assistant Attorney General Joel Klein in the Anti-trust Division of the U.S. Department of Justice. His major responsibility was to advise the assistant attorney general on policy development, criminal and civil investigations, mergers, and other important antitrust matters. One year later, in July of 1997, President Bill Clinton appointed Powell to fill one of the two Republican seats on the Federal Communications Commission.
At first, Washington observers were skeptical about Powell’s appointment, and some viewed it as merely a political move. “Afterall,” wrote Catherine Yang in Business Week, “it was Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.), an old family friend, who got him the job, and McCain’s [presidential ambitions would benefit from the general’s [Michael Powell’s father, General Colin L. Powell] support.” But Michael Powell quickly proved his mettle. “In just one year at the FCC,” Yang continued, “he has emerged as an articulate voice for deregulation. And with strong backing from Capital Hill, his collaborative style has gained influence with the three-Democrat majority.” In the same article, Powell described himself as “not an ideologue but a pragmatisf’-eager to pass legislation quickly so that companies could make educated decisions.
Although Powell saw eye to eye with FCC Chairman William E. Kennard on most issues, he tended to favor mergers that didn’t threaten competition, preferring that the market—rather than regulators—determined outcomes. “I just don’t trust my regulatory crystal ball as much as some others trust theirs,” he told Business Week. Among his achievements during his three years as a Republican commissioner was developing and promoting a friendly way—in the face of opposition from the FCC—for the Baby Bells to open up their local phone monopolies to competition and ease into the business as long-distance carriers.
When President George W. Bush named Powell Chairman of the FCC in January of 2001, he became the second African American to lead the commission. Out-going chairman William Kennard was the first. Because Powell had served on the five-member commission since 1997, he did not require Senate confirmation. Powell was “a listener, an advocate, an effective policy maker,” Gary Lytle, interim president of the U.S. Telecommunications Association, told The Washington Post. In the same article, however, Gene Kimmelman, co-director of the Washington office of Consumers Union, voiced his misgivings concerning Powell’s appointment. Powell, he maintained, “comes with a reticence to regulate in the face of market failure for both cable competition and local telephone competition.”
Powell’s predecessors—both Democrats chosen by former President Clinton—favored strict regulations which allowed upstart companies an opportunity to gain a foothold in the industry. With Kennard as chairman, the FCC passed a series of rules meant to force the Bell companies to share segments of their networks with rival businesses. Powell, on the other hand, favored simplifying regulations and relying on free-market competition to direct the industry. “The oppressor here is regulation,” Powell said in a speech before the conservative Progress & Freedom Foundation, as reported in The Washington Post. “We must foster competitive markets, unencumbered by intrusions and distortions from inept regulations.”
Though not a cabinet position, the chairmanship of the FCC may have been one of the most important posts in the Bush administration. As FCC head, Powell held sway over the panel responsible for regulating telephone services, radio and television broadcasting, cable television, and the Internet—all at a time of rapid and unprecedented growth and change. “Michael Powell may be the single most important person in the Bush government for the purpose of building a healthy information sector,” former FCC chairman Reed Hundt told The Washington Post. “He is totally responsible for the performance of the information economy, and it’s going down, not up. He’s got to turn it around right now.”
One of Powell’s top priorities and major challenges as FCC chairman was to facilitate and direct the transition to digital broadband technology. “We have cultural shifts to make,” he said in an interview with Black Enterprise. “We need to find processes that are more efficient and responsive in order to maintain our relevancy in our critical role as we go from the past into the future.” Bringing about these changes, he added, “requires management and operation efficiency, trend development, [and] a better understanding of the incentives for investment, innovation, and entrepreneurship.”
When asked whether his belief in market forces put small and minority-owned telecommunications companies at a disadvantage, Powell said no. In fact, he told Black Enterprise, regulatory costs and burdens “often hit small and entrepreneurial businesses much harder than they do large incumbents, which often have cash reserves, lobbying teams [and] legal and judicial teams to weather a heavily regulated environment.” He also said that he supported the introduction of a tax-certificate program that would give companies tax credits for selling broadcast properties to minorities. The telecommunications industry, he maintained in Black Enterprise, “is a very sophisticated business with high capital requirements and real challenges, but I am confident that talented entrepreneurs have plenty of opportunities. We will do anything to facilitate it.”
While he believed in free-market principles and competition, and only supported government intervention when reliable data demonstrate harm to consumers, Powell has asked Congress to increase penalties for companies that break the rules. “If you try to fine a company &75,000 that has net revenues in the millions and billions, that’s just the cost of doing business,” he told The Washington Post. “Our fines are trivial.”
Over the last few years, the Internet had proved a particularly contentious area. As new technologies have emerged, no company has proven itself immune to competitive forces, and the debate among interest groups has become increasingly fierce and complex. Powell’s policy has been to stay out of the fray. “Our bureaucratic process is too slow to respond to the challenges of Internet time,” he said in his speech to the Freedom Foundation, as reported in The Washington Post. “One way to do so is to clear away the regulatory underbrush to bring certainty and regulatory simplicity to the market.”
In his first address before the House subcommittee on telecommunications in March of 2001, Powell announced his plans to restructure the FCC so that the same regulations applied to all companies providing telephone, cable television, and Internet services, whether the services were carried over traditional wires or through the air. Among the other plans he outlined were his intention to lift a long-standing ban on a single company owning both a newspaper and a television station in the same market, as well as the need to lift the rules barring a single company from owning television stations that reach more than 35 percent of the national market. “Validate the purpose of a rule in the modern context, or eliminate it,” he told Peter S. Goodman of The Washington Post. “Resist regulatory intervention.”
His job, Powell said in an interview with National Journal, was a complex, multi-faceted, and often frustrating one, in an industry that is no longer black and white. “Everything is gray now,” he said. “We get, every day, ambiguous questions that affect the future in a way we can only guess at. So in the midst of that grayness and ambiguity, we have to try to find the principled thing to hold on to in order to make the best judgment we can.” Powell continued, “and industries that have billions of dollars on the line, or political elements that have real anxieties about the future, or consumer groups who are concerned about what this might mean—they do what they are supposed to do, which is argue, and that can involve a whole lot of spin. I really believe that in most of the hard questions we are struggling with, we’ll never know if we are right until history judges.”
Powell has been spending long and grueling days at the FCC, arriving at work by 5:30 a.m. so that he can get home in time to spend several hours with his two young sons. Even his detractors admired him for his energy, his credentials, and his firm grasp of the issues. Andrew Schwartzmann, president of the public interest law firm Media Access Project, criticized Powell for his failure to challenge media consolidation, but respected him for his keen understanding of the complex world of telecommunications. Powell, Schwartzmann told The Washington Post, was “thoroughly qualified by virtue of his competence for the job.”
Black Enterprise, June 2001, pp. 238–239.
Business Week, February 22, 1999, p. 139; April 2, 2001, p.74.
National Journal, June 23, 2001, p. 2011; September 22, 2001, pp.2932–2933
The New York Times, January 23, 2001, p. C1
RCR, January 29, 2001, p.N.
The Washington Post, January 23, 2001, p. El; March 30, 2001, p.E3.
—Caroline B.D. Smith