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Government: FCC Commissioner Baker exits via the revolving door

May 11, 2011 |  6:10 pm

BakerGood-government advocates often complain about the way top Washington policymakers cash in on their public service by becoming lobbyists for the companies they oversaw. This so-called revolving door spins a full 360 degrees, of course;  lobbyists often go to work in government. Either way, the moves raise uncomfortable questions about how legislators and regulators make their decisions. Are they acting in their constituents' best interests, or are they burnishing their prospects for a high-paying job on K Street after they leave government?

The latest example: Meredith Attwell Baker, one of two Republicans on the five-member Federal Communications Commission, said Wednesday that she plans to leave the FCC next month. She didn't mention why she was leaving, but Comcast, the nation's largest cable operator, provided a pretty good clue: it announced that Baker would become the top lobbyist for its NBCUniversal division. The move quickly drew fire from some advocacy groups and (implicitly, at least) from journalists, who noted that Baker had voted a mere four months ago to approve Comcast's acquisition of NBCUniversal.

I've met Baker and understand why Comcast hired her. She's sharp, charismatic and extremely well versed in the policy issues that matter to the company. I also understand why she took the job a mere two years after joining the FCC. Her term was expiring in June, and even if she was renominated and confirmed, she faced the prospect of at least two more years in the minority on a commission whose impulses were far more regulatory than her own.

I also think it's silly to intimate that her position on the Comcast-NBCUniversal merger or on mergers in general was an attempt to curry favor with her future employer, as the left-leaning advocacy group Free Press did. She regularly argues for a narrow view of the commission's authority, and her stance on the Comcast merger was consistent with that -- and with the views of seemingly every Republican in Washington.

Nevertheless, Baker and Comcast misplayed this one. If she was ready to leave government, she should have done so before entertaining job offers closely related to her post at the FCC. It's hard to imagine a position closer than the one she's taking at Comcast. She'll be barred from lobbying the FCC for two years, but not from lobbying Congress about Comcast's interests in matters overseen by the FCC, such as spectrum availability, indecency rules and Net neutrality.

In addition to minding their own integrity, public servants have to protect the integrity of the institutions they serve. Baker didn't burnish the commission's image by accepting a job with Comcast while still serving on the FCC, and doing it so soon after supporting the merger. Instead, she gave more fuel to the cynics who question the motives of everything that government officials do.


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Photo: Meredith Attwell Baker   Credit: Federal Communications Commission

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