Now They Tell Us: FCC, Congress Rethinking Enforcement Drawdown?

Radio World revealed earlier this month that the acting chief of the Enforcement Bureau, Michael Carowitz, held a videoconference with members of the Bureau’s field-agent staff. The call revealed that the FCC’s downsizing of its enforcement resources has begun, with 11 field offices closed over the last several months (Anchorage, AK; Buffalo, NY; Detroit, MI; Houston, TX; Kansas City, MO; Norfolk, VA; Philadelphia, PA; San Diego, CA; Seattle, WA; Tampa, FL; and San Juan, PR) and 14 remaining open.
At present, that leaves just 34 field agents covering the entire country – this includes one of two roving “Tiger Teams” of agents organized to backstop the decimated staff in-residence. That’s almost a cut of half from the prior force of 60 that spanned the nation. It’s also important to keep in mind that these agents are responsible for enforcing all FCC regulations, not just the broadcast license requirement.
That said, it would seem that some folks are having second thoughts about this downsizing. One of them appears to be congresswoman Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), the new chair of the House’s Commerce Subcommittee on Communications and Technology. A close friend of the broadcasting and telecom industries – and long a thorn in the side of the formerly Democratic-controlled FCC, especially on the subject of network neutrality – she’s advocating that the agency be “right-sized,” but provides zero details on what that means.
At the same time, Blackburn would like to see a revitalization of the regional offices with an emphasis on spectrum-management “so that “if someone has a problem they’re not finding themselves having to call Washington, D.C. and wait for somebody to get around to calling them back and then waiting longer for somebody to get out to them.”
Too bad Marsha and her ilk treated the FCC with such disdain for eight long years. Morale among FCC enforcement field agents has been in a nadir for many years now, with attrition in full effect as an aging workforce retires and younger candidates to replace them are few and far between.
Furthermore, the Trump administration has imposed a hiring freeze across all federal agencies, which means even if members of Congress and the FCC wanted to beef up field staff, they’re precluded from doing so. Unless, of course, a case can be made that hiring new field agents is “necessary to meet national security or public safety responsibilities,” and the public-safety canard has been used in the past to tar unlicensed broadcasting as some sort of shadow-danger.
This also increases the chance that any heightened priority on enforcing the broadcast license requirement will need to be devised and implemented by Congressional action, and most likely rope in “collaboration” from other federal agencies to backstop the lack of bodies at the FCC proper. Historically, this sort of collaboration, especially in the context of unlicensed broadcasting, has been scarce. This is due in large part to two primary reasons: the first is that communications laws and policies are somewhat arcane, and most U.S. Attorneys working for the Department of Justice are loath to venture into cases where they aren’t confident of succeess. (Relatedly, the DoJ is also understaffed and needs to prioritize the use of its resources on cases that have clear public import.)
The second reason is that busting pirate stations, many of whom do provide a unique service to many communities wholly unserved by licensed broadcasters, brings popular heat on the enforcers for silencing them; this is in many respects a wholly political consideration, but politics is a prime driver of policymaking and implementation.
I can’t feel very sorry for the two-man Republican majority about any of this, since they were complicit in putting the Enforcement Bureau in this bind. Trumpster appointees by and large share his zeal to decimate the federal civil service. So in some respects it may very well be the case that meaningful enforcement of the broadcast license requirement ends up as collateral damage in this ideological assault.