Grassley: I'm not backing down on FCC holds until I get the LightSquared documents

It didn’t take long for Sen. Charles Grassley to comment on the floor of the Senate about his holds on two presidential nominees for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), holds he placed in order to pressure the agency to produce documents on the LightSquared project. Grassley has tried for seven months to discover why the FCC allowed LightSquared to proceed with its attempt to turn frequencies allocated to low-power satellite transmissions into a terrestrial cell phone network that would interfere with millions of GPS receivers — as well as flight safety equipment for pilots that warn of approaching terrain. Noting that the Federal Aviation Administration estimated that this interference might cause as many as 800 deaths a year, Grassley wants to know why the FCC didn’t bother to test the system itself — and whether that decision has any relation to financial and political links to Barack Obama and the White House:

At one point, Grassley jokingly refers to himself in terms of the Occupiers, and returns to that point at the end to underscore the lack of transparency and cooperation coming from the FCC:

The FCC has already told me that it would likely provide these documents if certain members asked for them but not to any of the other 99.6 percent of Congress.  To paraphrase a popular slogan these days, I guess this makes me part of the 99.6 percent. … What we see today is an agency that is completely unaccountable and unanswerable to 99.6 percent of Congress and by extension, the American public.  This is simply wrong, and I will continue to hold the FCC’s nominees until this attitude changes.

We have already covered the issues of LightSquared and its parent, Harbinger, which already faces investigations by the SEC for potential fraud and “market manipulation,” as well as the connections between the two and the White House, and the administration’s pressure on Congressional witnesses to change their testimony to benefit LightSquared:

Grassley needs to stay on this — but it’s worth asking why the House Energy and Commerce Committee chaired by Fred Upton isn’t working on this, too.  The fact that the FCC’s Julius Genachowski is avoiding disclosure strongly suggests that Grassley might find something interesting in the documents.  Perhaps that should be a hint to the House that this is worth probing.  In the meantime, Grassley needs to keep the holds in place as a reminder to the White House of their promises on transparency.

Here is the full text of Grassley’s speech:

Mr. President, the cornerstone of Congress’ ability to effectively oversee the Federal government is the free and open access to information. 231 days ago – on April 27th, I made a very simple request. I requested that the Federal Communications Commission turn over communications regarding its controversial approval of the LightSquared project.

LightSquared is a company owned by a hedge fund called Harbinger Capital Partners that is seeking FCC approval to use its satellite spectrum to build a terrestrial wireless network. To accomplish its goals, LightSquared has already spent millions of dollars on lobbyists and made large political donations.

The problem is that LightSquared’s signals would, according to Federal government tests, cause massive interference with the Global Positioning System, GPS.

GPS is a critical tool for everything from the military drones and missiles to car and ship navigation. LightSquared’s initial plan, which the FCC conditionally approved, would have interfered with just about every single GPS user.

The surprising fact is that there’s no evidence the FCC even tested LightSquared’s plan before approving it.

In fact, the FCC granted this waiver, which is estimated to be worth at least $10 billion to LightSquared, in a shortened comment period starting right around Thanksgiving 2010.

Giving a company a possible $10 billion windfall in a holiday-shortened comment period without doing any testing is suspicious. Risking our nation’s GPS assets, including the role they play in defending our nation, to accomplish this goal is downright dangerous.

The question I’m asking is; why would the FCC do this? To get to the bottom of this question I asked the FCC for documents. The FCC, an agency whose employees are supposed to work for the American people, said no to my request.

My staff was told that the FCC intentionally ignored my document request. The FCC officials said that they have determined that they will only be responsive to two members of Congress – the Chairs of the House and Senate Commerce Committee. Not the Ranking Members of those Committees. Not the other members of those Committees, majority or minority. Not the Majority Leader of the Senate. Not the Speaker of the House. And certainly not the Senior Senator from Iowa. If you’re one of the 99.6 percent of Congress who doesn’t chair one of those two committees – sorry, you’re out of luck. No documents for you.

This attitude is unacceptable. I conveyed my concerns to the FCC again on July 5th and asked again for documents. Again, I was stonewalled. This time, the FCC claimed that since I can’t subpoena the FCC, it would not respond.

President Obama committed to run the most transparent administration in history. Yet the FCC is saying, if you can’t force us to be open – we won’t do it.

I wrote another letter asking the FCC for documents on September 8th, and again, I was stonewalled. This attitude brings us to where we are today, 231 days later. The FCC’s decision to impede Congress’ constitutional duty of oversight has forced me to make a difficult decision.

I do not take the decision to hold a nominee lightly. But when an agency flagrantly disregards congressional oversight, something must be done. Before I publicly announced my intention to hold the nominees I – through staff – contacted the FCC officials. I informed them that if documents were not forthcoming, I would hold the FCC’s nominees. I was surprised and disappointed by their response.

Despite knowing my intentions, they chose not to provide any documents. As a result, I am honoring my promise to hold the nominees. It is unfortunate that the FCC has chosen this path. Due to the FCC’s decision to hide its actions from the public and Congress, these nominations are now stalled in the Senate.

The question I would ask today is why? The FCC has already told me that it would likely provide these documents if certain members asked for them but not to any of the other 99.6 percent of Congress. To paraphrase a popular slogan these days, I guess this makes me part of the 99.6 percent.

My concern is not just specific to this document request. It is broader than that. In the future, any member of Congress may request documents from the FCC. As the courts have put it, every member has a voice and a vote in the process under our Constitution.

Each one of us has the authority to request and receive information from the Executive Branch in order to inform those votes. That authority is inherent in each member’s responsibility to participate in the legislative process.

The creation of the Committee system and the delegation of certain responsibilities to Committee Chairmen doesn’t change that. Individual members still have a right and responsibility to inform themselves by requesting information directly from agencies. For Congress to have a complete view of how an agency works, we need to have access to documents. Turning off that flow of information short-circuits transparency and hurts accountability.

In this case, the FCC’s actions have real world effects. The FCC’s decision to grant a waiver to LightSquared created uncertainty for GPS users. This includes the Federal government.

The Federal Aviation Administration claims that 800 people would die as a result of LightSquared’s initially proposed network. To the FAA, the FCC’s decision could have killed people. The Department of Defense wrote a letter to the FCC saying it was not consulted by the FCC. And press reports say that General Shelton, who heads up GPS for the armed forces, said that LightSquared interference would harm the military’s use of GPS. To the Department of Defense, the FCC’s actions would have harmed national security. These are only two agencies, but the Department of Transportation, NASA, and NOAA, among others, have also raised concerns about LightSquared’s plan.

The effects of the FCC’s decision aren’t just limited to the federal government. They also affect ordinary Americans. Here are just two examples: For Americans who hope that NextGen air traffic control will reduce air travel delays, the FCC’s actions would have continued to increase air traffic, wasting time, fuel and ultimately, money for the flying public. For Americans who use precision agriculture to save time and money, the FCC’s actions would harm the accuracy and reliability of their equipment. This again leads to wasted energy, lower crop yields and higher prices for products like wheat and corn.

At the end of the day, the FCC’s actions would cost the American consumer money. Does the FCC care? I don’t know. But the agency certainly has not provided any evidence that it took any of this information into consideration. What we see today is an agency that is completely unaccountable and unanswerable to 99.6 percent of Congress and by extension, the American public. This is simply wrong, and I will continue to hold the FCC’s nominees until this attitude changes.

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Jazz Shaw 5:01 PM on March 22, 2023