Last June, Federal Communications Commissioner Michael K. Powell and a top aide were wrestling with a dispute that the FCC had been unable to resolve for a decade. Under court order, the agency had to make a decision within a few weeks, yet it remained split. That's when Powell pulled some slides out of his desk drawer and showed them around. They were X-rays of his broken pelvis from a 1987 accident that had left his life hanging by a thread. "That was hard," he said. "This is not."
When Powell, son of General Colin L. Powell, joined the FCC as a Republican commissioner in November, 1997, many wrote off his appointment as merely a political expedient. After all, 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 mightily from the general's support.
But the younger Powell, 35, has surprised detractors, learning quickly how to navigate the high-decibel battles in the tumultuous telecom industry. In just one year at the FCC, he has emerged as an articulate voice for deregulation. And with strong backing from Capitol Hill, his collaborative style has gained influence with the three-Democrat majority. "He's a braking force on the more activist regulators," says W.J. "Billy" Tauzin (R-La.), chairman of the House telecommunications subcommittee.
The accident that Powell survived at age 24 did more than shape his approach at the FCC. "It was the best thing that has ever happened to me," he says of the jeep rolling over him during a military exercise when he was an Army officer in Germany. After 17 surgical procedures and a full year of hospitalization ended his military career, Powell turned to the law. He graduated from Georgetown Law School, snagged a clerkship on the District of Columbia Court of Appeals, and then landed a job as chief of staff for Justice Dept. trustbuster Joel I. Klein.
The accident also left Powell with a zest for life that makes him stand out in a city of policy wonks. He usually gets to work by 5:30 a.m. so he can make it home in time to spend a couple of hours with his two young sons. Occasionally, he sneaks away during lunch to watch The Young and the Restless with the secretaries at the court where he clerked. Powell's passions range from technology to theater and television. He's a fan of the Palm Pilot, Rent, and the Cartoon Network.
Powell tends to be a team player, too. At the FCC, he is more apt to work with the Democratic majority than to butt heads. "What you owe the public first and foremost is getting something done," says Powell. "I am fundamentally not an ideologue but a pragmatist." With the telecom industry changing rapidly, Powell prefers to get rules out quickly to give companies guideposts for critical decisions. But he would rather the market decide outcomes, not regulators.
"A CONDUIT." As one of two Republicans on the five-member commission, Powell certainly can't set the agenda. But by holding out a possible fourth vote, he is making his mark. FCC Chairman William E. Kennard wants solid majorities to fortify agency decisions against court challenges.
Still, Powell's influence may derive more from his heavyweight backers on Capitol Hill--vociferous FCC critics McCain and Tauzin--than from his own powers of persuasion. Certainly, the Democrats are well aware that Powell could help shield the FCC from fierce attacks on Capitol Hill as it comes up for reauthorization this year. McCain and Tauzin want to downsize the agency to prevent what they think is overreaching regulation. At the least, factoring in Powell's views helps the FCC head off political firestorms. Increasingly, he is "a conduit to McCain," says a congressional Democratic staffer.
For example, Powell has worked to ease one of the GOP lawmakers' biggest beefs--the FCC's refusal to let the Baby Bells into the long-distance business. He championed a friendlier way: helping the Bells take steps to open up their local phone monopolies to competition. Once they do that, the FCC can allow them into long distance. Bell Atlantic Corp. is poised to be the first.
While Kennard and Powell, for now, see eye to eye on most issues, they could part ways soon. FCC Democrats are likely to set a high hurdle for the approval of pending mergers between SBC Communications and Ameritech and between Bell Atlantic and GTE. They fear such giants would make it even harder for new entrants to break into local phone markets. So they'll probably demand that the companies open the door to more competition. Powell, though, believes mergers should get a green light as long as they threaten no competitive harm. "I just don't trust my regulatory crystal ball as much as some others trust theirs," he says.
WHAT'S NEXT? Powell's hands-off response to a complaint by America Online against the pending merger between AT&T Corp. and Tele-Communications Inc. (TCI) also puts him at odds with Kennard. TCI now sells high-speed Internet access bundled with its own Internet service, @Home. Customers who want AOL must pay extra. AOL wants AT&T-TCI to give equal access to all Internet services. Powell argues that cable operators that have spent billions to upgrade lines should be able to favor their own ISPs over competitors'. He fears that an equal-access rule might dry up investment. Kennard, on the other hand, worries that cable companies could unfairly squeeze out other ISPs. The issue remains to be decided.
While Powell has established himself as a credible player at the FCC, some critics ask whether he has really made a difference. "Besides the eloquent speeches he's given, where has he fought the hard fight?" one former FCC official asks. Kennard himself once told a joke at a meeting about going out to dinner with all the commissioners. Powell was the one who pontificated on the five principles of the menu before ordering. Indeed, some Republicans are frustrated that he doesn't take a harder line. "He's not there to cut deals with Kennard," complains one GOP congressional aide.
Even as Powell grows into his FCC job, though, Washington insiders are speculating where he'll land next. If the GOP wins the White House, Republicans say he could be a contender for Attorney General. What post would Powell get if McCain were President? "Just about anything his father didn't want," says the Senator. Powell says he has no plans today to run for office. His Dad is characteristically coy. Says the general: "He will be heard from again, but I will not speculate on the political ambition of anybody with the last name of Powell."