Democracy & Technology Blog Roosevelt Tried To Abolish the FCC

No doubt you are aware that the Communications Act of 1934 eastablished the Federal Communications Commission, which has profoundly affected the broadcast, cable, telecommunications and satellite industries. You will recall that the legislation was signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. What you may not realize is that President Roosevelt made two subsequent attempts to abolish the Federal Communications Commission.

On Jan. 23, 1939, Roosevelt wrote similar letters to Senator Burton K. Wheeler and Congressman Clarence F. Lea urging dramatic FCC reform.

I am thoroughly dissatisfied with the present legal framework and administrative machinery of the [Federal Communications] Commission. I have come to the definite conclusion that new legislation is necessary to effectuate a satisfactory reorganization of the Commission. New legislation is also needed to lay down clear Congressional policies on the substantive side – so clear that the new administrative body will have no difficulty in interpreting or administering them. I very much hope that your committee will consider the advisability of such new legislation.

Although proposals for FCC reorginization were introduced at the time, Congress did not act. Then World War II intervened. It wasn’t until 1996 that Congress “comprehensively” updated the 1934 Act. But the 104th Congress left the “present legal framework and administrative machinery of the Commission” intact, and it failed to to “lay down clear Congressional policies on the substantive side.”
Roosevelt wanted to transfer the functions of all independent agencies like the FCC to cabinet departments. A 1937 initiative for this purpose failed. Two years later, Roosevelt took aim at the FCC directly.

Roosevelt’s specific issues with the FCC of the 1930s are a subject for a subsequent essay (they were primarily on the radio side, although also relevant to the telephone side). In any event, his 1939 letter reinforces a libertarian critique of the 1934 act. The law was overly broad and created too much room for the FCC to establish its own policy preferences instead of serving to enforce the policies of elected congressional representatives and the president.

Althouth well-intentioned, the FCC (even to its most famous creator) was a disapointment and a mistake. The 113th Congress should carefully consider the 32nd president’s advice.

Hance Haney

Director and Senior Fellow of the Technology & Democracy Project
Hance Haney served as Director and Senior Fellow of the Technology & Democracy Project at the Discovery Institute, in Washington, D.C. Haney spent ten years as an aide to former Senator Bob Packwood (OR), and advised him in his capacity as chairman of the Senate Communications Subcommittee during the deliberations leading to the Telecommunications Act of 1996. He subsequently held various positions with the United States Telecom Association and Qwest Communications. He earned a B.A. in history from Willamette University and a J.D. from Lewis and Clark Law School in Portland, Oregon.