Time for a dose of unreality

It was time for my regular dose of unreality.

For that slap against the head with Washington speak, I headed to the transcripts of the March 26 hearings on the DTV transition. Reading a few dozen pages of bureaucratic drivel usually sufficiently dulls my senses.

Reading the words (hearing them is even worse) of bureaucrats often tests the bounds of one’s credulity. I’m not saying all bureaucrats lie. They don’t. However, bureaucrats when taken as a whole more resemble politicians than normal humans. Bureaucrats are quick to deny responsibility for any failure, but equally as quick to claim credit for anything positive that’s happened.

For my daily dose, I chose to review the testimony of acting FCC chairman Michael Copps and acting assistant secretary for communications and information for the NTIA, Anna Gomez. Both were speaking before the House Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet of the Committee on Energy and Commerce.

The bottom line was that Copps and Gomez were there to present their respective organization’s report on the DTV transition. What these individuals said was entirely predictable.

First, neither bureaucrat was responsible for any problems mentioned with the DTV conversion. Second, now that each of them is in charge of their organizations, everything will be fine.

Copps, with his usual "the sky is falling" mantra, was quick to remind the committee that he had warned them just one year ago that the DTV transition would be “a nine-car train wreck.”

Upon close examination, one finds that Copps is quick to post blame and just as fast to claim he’s the new solution. Copps used his second sentence of his testimony to remind the committee that now he is the “acting chairman of the FCC”. Merely two sentences later he shifted back into the "don’t blame me" mode, saying, “It has long been clear to me — and it became even clearer when I became acting chair and had a chance to look under the hood — that we were not ready for a nationwide transition on February 17. Most obviously, there was the coupon waiting list. But the problems went far deeper.”

Copps then listed seven or eight (depending on how you count them) areas in which he saw problems: inadequate coordination (three), disjointed efforts, inadequate consumer education and/support, not moving beyond general awareness, no specific hands-on assistance, and inadequate attention to certain "key issues."

From Copps’ viewpoint, the former FCC chairman really screwed up. But, you see, Copps wasn’t in charge. All those problems were caused by the previous administration. Then Copps listed the things the FCC would do differently under his administration.

As any good bureaucrat knows, you have to provide yourself cover before making any promises, so Copps warned, “There will be consumer disruption — count on it. But I also know that we can use this time to make a real difference.”

Bingo; Copps just hit an infield double. Build some cover for yourself, and then make a nebulous promise, “we can — we will — make a real difference for consumers.”

You have to admit, Copps is a professional CYA-er. He has a history of not taking responsibility for any problems occurring during the previous FCC administration. Instead, he relies on "I told you so" semantics.

“When I became acting chairman on January 22, I tried to bring a new level of coordination, collaboration and focus to the effort. We were still planning for a February 17 transition date at that time and I told staff that our three most important priorities in the coming weeks would be DTV, DTV and DTV.”

Such pontificating behavior is the currency of politics. I call it the three-step program.

First, never let yourself be blamed for anything bad that happens. Second, always praise those with higher titles. And third, tell ’em what they want to hear. From his testimony, we know Copps can count to three.

The hearings on March 26 also included testimony from Anna M. Gomez, acting assistant secretary for communications and information, NTIA. Like her partner in promissory oratory, she began by saying, “I made it a top priority to minimize the number of Americans who could lose over-the-air (OTA) television service as a result of the analog-shut-off — particularly our most vulnerable populations ...”

Much like Copps, Gomez used her introduction to thank president Obama and the 111th Congress for giving consumers another four months to prepare for the DTV transition. In her case, she at least waited until the sixth sentence to throw flowers at the members of the committee.

Gomez was quick to claim that delaying the analog shutoff “…was a necessary course of action because too many Americans were at risk of losing OTA television service.” The rest of her presentation was focused on how much the NTIA, under her leadership, had moved the nation so much closer to being 100 percent DTV-ready.

In her testimony she highlighted the money NTIA is giving local groups to serve the needy. The National Association of Area Agencies on Aging (n4a) received $2.7million, and the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Education Foundation (LCCREF) received $1.65 million “to help vulnerable populations make use of the coupon program.” She explains that the money went to “train” local leaders.

That’s all well and good, but telling the committee exactly how many DTV converters were installed by those “trained” people would have been more revealing. Just saying the money was spent on training might be a good way to disguise government waste.

Gomez also said the NTIA may transfer another $90 million to the FCC for “education and outreach.” Any money not used from those efforts will “be available to fund coupons.” She just got $650 million for more coupons, now she thinks it might take another $90 million? When will the politicians stop spending?

The bottom line from Gomez’s testimony is that for $650 million dollars, the NTIA is shoveling out 266,000 coupons a week. At that rate, and I give her all the credit for this, this nation should be quite close to being 100 percent ready for DTV.

Whether this entire process could have been done faster, better and cheaper will never be known. That’s how Washington often operates. Throw money at problems, and hope they go away. If they don’t go away, throw more money at them — but only if there are sufficient potential voters involved.

Viewers need help, so give them free DTV boxes. If the conversion isn’t moving fast enough, give away more free DTV boxes. Oh, and while you’re at it, force television stations to keep spending $10,000 per month to run that old analog transmitter. And because the politicians and bureaucrats know there aren’t enough broadcaster votes to matter, there’s no reason to help them shoulder the financial load.